Sweetcorn to fuel world’s first integrated bio-refinery

DuPont and the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory have announced a joint research agreement to develop the world’s first integrated ‘bio-refinery’.

DuPont and the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have announced a joint research agreement to develop the world’s first integrated ‘bio-refinery’, which will produce a host of fuels and value-added chemicals from sweetcorn.

The $7.7 million Co-operative Research and Development Agreement calls for DuPont and the NREL to collaboratively develop, build, and test a bio-refinery pilot process that will make fuels and chemicals from the sweetcorn plant, including the fibrous material in the stalks, husks, leaves and the starchy material in the kernels.

The agreement is part of the larger $38 million DuPont-led consortium known as the Integrated Corn-Based Bioproducts Refinery (ICBR) project.

The ICBR project, which includes DuPont, NREL, Diversa Corporation, Michigan State, and Deere & Co, was awarded $19 million in matching funds from the US Department of Energy in 2002 to design and demonstrate the feasibility and practicality of alternative energy and renewable resource technology.

Several bio-refineries currently produce a range of products mainly from starch-rich or protein-rich biomass, while other bio-refineries start with a variety of vegetable oils. Operating like a conventional refinery, the ICBR will make use of the entire sweetcorn plant. Purified sugars from the sweetcorn kernel will be the primary source of value-added chemicals, while the remainder of the sweetcorn plant, commonly called ‘the stover’, will be converted into fuel-grade ethanol and electrical power.

One of those value-added chemicals could be 1,3 propanediol (PDO), the key building block for DuPont Sorona, the company’s newest polymer platform that can be used in applications such as textile apparel, carpeting and packaging.

Through metabolic engineering, DuPont recently developed a fermentation-based process as the basis for the manufacturing of bio-PDO. This process earned the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Presidential Green Chemistry award earlier this year.

‘New technologies that produce fuels, chemicals, and energy from biomass will allow the US to reduce its reliance on foreign sources of fossil fuels, while creating new markets for domestic grains and crop residues – helping to stimulate the US agricultural economy,’ commented Michael Pacheco, director of the National Bioenergy Center at NREL.