Social Innovation: New Biofuels Patented in Wisconsin

A social innovation process patented at Wisconsin Institute for Sustainable Technology (WIST) at the University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point could bring economic growth and jobs to the state of Wisconsin. WIST has completed seven years of work on a new biofuels patent and cleverly perfected a process that takes biomass and other products from plant material, separates its key components, n turning them into fuel, carbon fibre and rubber for tyres. The aim of this faculty is to create new approaches to meet current environmental and economic challenges. Eric Singsaas, associate professor of biology at UW-Stevens Point and co-inventor of the biofuels process says, “This gives us an economically viable way to use grass, trees or wood waste to make renewable fuels and chemicals. We’re not just making fuel. We’re making value-added products.”

Working collaboratively to create sustainable social innovation solutions for business and industry, WIST is working with the University’s WiSys Technology Foundation to license the intellectual property to private industry for development. The patent protects a method that uses an aqueous solvent to separate biomass into pure cellulose and lignin, the substance that gives woody biomass its rigidity. The lignin-solvent mixture can then be separated from the water to form a high-energy-density fuel that can be used independently or combined with biodiesel.

The pure cellulose can be used in paper making or be converted to fermentable sugars; and it’s the sugars that are exciting, as they can be used to make biofuels. These sugars can be used to make other renewable chemicals for industry, such as isoprene, which is currently derived largely from petroleum, which is used in the making of rubber, plastics and pharmaceuticals. There are other traditional processes that exist to separate lignin from cellulose. However, these methods result in cellulose that contains inhibitors, which make it difficult to convert it to sugars. Similarly, the lignin produced contains additional chemicals that are not easily or economically separated.

WIST’s lignin-solvent process is just one aspect of this biofuels project. The other is to develop a biorefinery that can be fitted to existing paper mills or give new life to idle mills. These mills would gain additional revenue sources, add jobs and help grow the regional economy.

The next step for WIST’s social innovation project is to take the process from the lab, which is small scale to demonstration level and for that it needs to seek partners to come on board. Technology and ideas developed by WIST and its partners will spur economic growth in Wisconsin and the region, helping to preserve a healthy environment for future generations.

Photo CreditWisconsin Institute for Sustainable Technology Website


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