A team of researchers at the University of California, Riverside’s Bourns College of Engineering has developed a relatively nontoxic and efficient way to convert raw agricultural and forestry residues and other plant matter — known as lignocellulosic biomass — into biofuels and chemicals.

The patent-pending method — called co-solvent enhanced lignocellulosic fractionation (CELF) — brings researchers closer to solving the long elusive goal of producing fuels and chemicals from biomass at high enough yields and low enough costs to become a viable alternative or replacement for petroleum-based fuels and chemicals, say the research team, which was led by Professor Charles E. Wyman.

“Real estate is about location, location, location,” said Wyman, the Ford Motor Company Chair in Environmental Engineering at UC Riverside’s Center for Environmental Research and Technology (CE-CERT). “Successful commercialization of biofuels technology is about yield, yield, yield, and we obtained great yields with this novel technology.”

The key to the UC Riverside technology is using tetrahydrofuran (THF) as a co-solvent to aid in the breakdown of raw biomass feedstocks to produce valuable primary and secondary fuel precursors at high yields at moderate temperatures. Those fuel precursors then can be converted into ethanol, chemicals or drop-in fuels. Drop-in fuels have similar properties to conventional gasoline, jet and diesel fuels and can be used without significant changes to vehicles or current transportation infrastructure.

Compared to other available biomass solvents, says  Charles M. Cai, a doctorate student working with Wyman, THF is suited for this application because it mixes homogenously with water, has a low boiling point (151°F [66°C]) to allow for easy recovery, and can be regenerated as an end product of the process.

CELF can consolidate multiple processing steps such as pretreatment, sugar hydrolysis and sugar catalysis into one step —a unique feature, says the researchers. This reduces the water content of the reaction to maximize the amount of actual solids that can be loaded while also conserving heat and energy. Also, the process is tunable so that different end products can be made by changing the configurations.

The research was published in in the journal Green Chemistry at http://bit.ly/THFresearch.