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Renewable chemical ready for biofuels scale-up


Producing sugars from plants is really a key
obstacle on the road to producing fuels and chemicals. Most of the time the way people
have done it in the past is that they’ve used expensive chemicals or bio-chemicals such
as concentrated acids, enzymes, or ionic liquids to get those sugars out of the plants. What
we’ve discovered is that by using gamma valeralactone, or we like to call it “GVL,” which is a molecule
that you can easily produce from plants themselves, we can promote the deconstruction of these
plants into sugars even while using very low acid concentrations. So, it provides us with
a really cheap and green process to produce sugars in a mixture of GVL and water. That’s
great so far, but what we really want to do is to produce sugars in water by itself and
be able to recycle and reuse the GVL, otherwise it just gets too expensive. So what we typically
get out of our reactor is something like this which is a mixture of the sugars in GVL and
water. What’s really impressive about this system is by just using fairly simple additives
we can transform the system so that the water will spontaneously separate from the GVL and
take all of the sugar with it. So, now what we’ve got is a process that allows us to produce
a concentrated phase of sugars in water, and once we’re at this stage where you have the
sugars from biomass you really have a lot of possibilities. You’re at the first fork
on the conversion road between plants and fuels or chemicals. You can go down the biological
road and ferment those sugars to things like ethanol, butanol, or even much more complex
commodity chemicals or fuels. But, we can also go down the chemical route and further
chemically process those sugars to things like maybe Hydrogen, or liquid alkanes, things
that look a lot like gasoline. This is really a process where we’ve demonstrated a new chemical
route to produce sugars, this very versatile intermediate, using a solvent that can easily
be produced from biomass itself and requires very little of anything else, just a little
bit of acid. We think this is a potentially cheap and much more efficient way of producing
sugars and could enable biomass conversion to fuels and chemicals.

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