Streamlining the biofuel production process
Working with Latin American partners, such as the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), the EU-funded BABET-REAL5 project is proving the social and economic value of its compact biofuel production process.
© vrstudio #116393800, source: stock.adobe.com 2019
The production of biofuels like ethanol from non-food biomass is a lucrative prospect for the agricultural sector. However, due to the complexity and expense of the large-scale industrial process currently needed to produce such biofuels, they remain out of reach for many small-scale farmers.
To change this, the EU-funded BABET-REAL5 project is working to streamline the biofuel production process. Our main goal is to develop a compact system that can be easily installed in rural areas within a distance/radius of about 150 kilometres in diameter and which would be able to process approximately 30 000 tons of dry material annually, says Gérard Vilarem, BABET-REAL5 project coordinator and director of the Laboratory of Agro-Industrial Chemistry (INRA/INPT).
The key to the projects success will be its ability to combine the pre-treatment and the fermentation stages into a single reactor. Our objective is to have, in one single location, the sequence of all steps so we can ensure the process is continuous along the entire production chain, adds Vilarem.
An economically viable solution
Beyond the technological challenge, BABET-REAL5 also wants to prove its social and economic value. To do so, it is using four business cases to evaluate the performance of small industrial units in Latin America and Europe.
Since bioethanol production is a global concern, it is important to work with our Latin American colleagues, says Vilarem. This allows us to expand our process to a wider geographic zone and also study the development of bio-energies in regions with completely different economic contexts.
One of those colleagues is the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). Within the project, UNAM is responsible for providing experimental evidence for the use of blue agave bagasse (BAB), a potentially hazardous solid residue from the tequila industry that currently has no commercial value. Specifically, UNAM is trialling the use of the medium-sized installations developed in the BABET-REAL5 project to transform the approximately 100 000 tons of BAB produced annually into an economically viable bioethanol.
These installations are specifically designed to be located and used in the rural and semi-urban areas that define much of Mexico, says Eduardo Bárzana, a professor of chemistry at UNAM. If successful, this method for processing BAB into bioethanol could significantly benefit the small communities surrounding the production facility by creating new jobs and, in doing so, raising the standard of living.
In a pilot programme being conducted at UNAM and run by an academic group led by Bárzana and with the participation of graduate and undergraduate students, the project has applied the BABET-REAL5 concept and methodologies to successfully transform BAB. At our installation, not only have we produced good yields in terms of BAB raw material conversion and final bioethanol concentration, we have done so in a manner that uses very low amounts of chemicals and water, adds Bárzana.
Optimistic about the future
UNAM researchers are optimistic that the pilot will soon be scaled up and installed at nearby production facilities. Already, Mexicos Tequila Regulator Council (CRT) has expressed interest in the process. If the engineering and economic studies produce the expected results, we are confident that CRT and the tequila industry in general will emerge as potential partners for further research and testing, says Bárzana.
With successes like this, the BABET-REAL5 project is on course to validate a faster, more efficient, and economically sustainable bioethanol production process by 2020. Doing so will open new opportunities for farmers and rural regions around the world.