Andrea Corona on his stay at National Renewable Energy Laboratories

dsc00471Author: Andrea Corona, Quantitative Sust. Assessment, DTU Management Engineering, Technical University of Denmark

As a part of my Ph.D. I decided to apply for an external stay period of 6 months. The reasons for an external stay as part of a Ph.D. are to enhance the research scope of my Ph.D., experience a different research environment, learn ways for working science and discuss central Ph.D. topics with globally acknowledged experts. Issues on which I hope to get input from during my external stay are mainly the big biorefining questions such as the future of biorefineries and opportunities in the biobased economy, with a focus on the environmental problems that such sector could face.

From the initial planning of external it was my priority to choose a high-level research center, and thanks to the BioValue network I managed to organize a six months research stay at the National Renewable Energy Laboratories (NREL) in Golden CO, USA.

During my six months at NREL, I will work with the biochemistry team lead by Gregg Beckham and TEA/LCA group, working on sustainability assessment of different chemical building blocks made from lignin, applying the LCA methodology and trying to provide a broader set of environmental indicators than what was done previously at NREL.
Lignin utilization is (as most readers of the newsletter already know) a hot topic in the biorefinery world. Biofuel production from lignocellulosic feedstocks will yield a vast amount of lignin which currently is under-/unutilized. However, in the perspective of improving the profitability and sustainability of second generation biorefineries, it is important to find alternative pathways for the utilization of such waste streams thereby maximizing the biomass utilization producing a wider spectrum of products, not only biofuels.

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Taken from: Beckham, G.T., Johnson, C.W., Karp, E.M., Salvachua, D., Vardon, D.R., 2016. Opportunities and challenges in biological lignin valorization. Curr. Opin. Biotechnol. 42, 40–53. doi:10.1016/j.copbio.2016.02.030

The NREL team has developed a technology to biologically funnel depolymerized lignin to a single intermediate, muconic acid. From the muconic acid intermediate, relying on a simple catalytic reaction, it is possible to produce different chemical building blocks such as adipic acid, terephthalic acid, and ester resins. Such products have a huge market which guarantees the marketability of these production pathways, especially in the long term perspective where a high quantity of lignin from biorefineries will be available.
Providing the technical and economic feasibility of this lignin conversion pathway, NREL has the interest on looking at the potential environmental impacts to broaden the set of indicators for the decision makers to provide high-value decision support.

This interest in integrating sustainability assessment and decision-making processes demonstrate a desire for a paradigm change, more controlled by environmental policies and more awareness about the environmental challenges we are facing nowadays.

In this perspective, EU and Danish companies, as well as research institutes, are ahead since sustainability assessments have been performed for many years in Denmark by now. However, it is important to disseminate this type of analysis to strengthen the application of such tool on a global level, especially on providing relevant and useful indicators for decision makers and policy developers.

My stay with NREL will provide valuable input to my Ph.D. and give me a broader perspective on the biobased world, which will be beneficial not only me but also for the BioValue project.

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Taken from: Linger, J.G., Vardon, D.R., Guarnieri, M.T., Karp, E.M., Hunsinger, G.B., Franden, M. a., Johnson, C.W., Chupka, G., Strathmann, T.J., Pienkos, P.T., Beckham, G.T., 2014. Lignin Valorization through integrated biological funneling and chemical catalysis. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 111, 12013–12018. doi:10.1073/pnas.1410657111