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Glycols Made of Wood?

Bio-Based Ethylene and Propylene Glycols from Lignocellulosic Feedstocks

In the realm of sustainable technology, an incessant wave of progress surges forward, with bio-based products taking a leading role in steering us toward a greener future. One of the most promising developments in this domain is the production of ethylene and propylene glycols from non-traditional, cost-effective sources like lignocellulose. A significant portion of plant residues consists of lignocellulose, a material resulting from photosynthesis primarily composed of cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin, forming the main constituents of plant cell walls.

This revolutionary approach not only enhances the eco-friendly nature of heat transfer fluids and antifreezes but also offers a more sustainable solution for industries worldwide. Traditionally, ethylene and propylene glycols were derived from fossil fuels, a process significantly contributing to environmental pollution and climate change.

However, scientists and researchers are diligently working to harness the power of lignocellulosic biomass to produce these glycols. Lignocellulosic materials could be derived from various sources, including agricultural residues (such as corn stover and wheat straw), forestry residues (such as wood chips and sawdust), and dedicated energy crops (such as switchgrass and miscanthus. This innovation not only reduces our dependence on finite fossil resources but also mitigates the associated carbon footprint.

During the production process, transforming lignocellulosic-derived biomass into glycols involves biomass pretreatment, followed by the hydrolysis process to convert cellulose and hemicellulose into sugars. Through fermentation, microorganisms driven by bacterial activity, such as genetically modified E. coli bacteria, process these sugars. These bacteria metabolize the sugars produced during hydrolysis and convert them into glycolic acid, a key intermediate product in glycol production, such as ethylene glycol and propylene glycol. Through purification and refining steps, high-purity glycols are produced, ready for various industrial applications.

Figure 1: The lignocellulose-based glycol production process at UPM

(Source: UPM Biochemicals)

The general characteristics of plant-derived glycols:

1. Performance: Bio-based ethylene and propylene glycols exhibit the same properties compared to traditional counterparts. They offer excellent thermal stability, corrosion resistance, and heat transfer capabilities, ensuring optimal performance in heat transfer fluids and antifreezes.

2. Environmentally Friendly Production: Utilizing lignocellulosic feedstocks substantially reduces greenhouse gas emissions, making the production process environmentally friendly. This aligns perfectly with global efforts in the fight against climate change and promoting a greener planet.

3. Cost-Effectiveness: Lignocellulosic biomass is abundant and often considered waste. Transforming these materials into valuable glycols not only reduces production costs but also provides economic incentives to agricultural communities and industries dealing with biomass waste.

4. Reducing Dependency on Fossil Fuels: By transitioning to bio-based versions of ethylene and propylene glycols, industries can decrease their reliance on finite fossil fuels. This ensures a more stable supply chain and contributes to long-term energy security.

Lignocellulosic-Based Production vs. Sugar-Based Feedstocks:

While bio-based glycols can be produced from various sources, including high-quality sugar-based feedstocks, lignocellulosic-based production excels in efficiency and sustainability. Lignocellulosic biomass doesn't compete with food production, ensuring that valuable agricultural land and resources are used for food security while non-food plant materials are utilized for glycol production. Opting for lignocellulosic feedstocks allows industries to contribute to easing the pressure on food supplies, creating a more balanced agricultural ecosystem.

Chart 1: Comparison of greenhouse gas emissions

(Source: UPM – Ecoinvent data base)

Moreover, we are glad to announce that our company, VETTÓ Kft, is expected to be of the distributors for products, under Bio-Etilen and Bio-Propilen brands, manufactured by UPM, a leading Finnish corporation involved in a diverse range of fields from forestry and paper industry to energy and chemicals. UPM stands at the forefront of sustainable forest management and the development of bio-based products. Particularly, their UPM Biochemicals division is dedicated to creating bio-based products, including lignocellulosic-based glycols. For the latest updates on their innovative developments, please visit the UPM website and official communications.

Figure 2: Construction of the UPM biorefinery - Leuna, Germany

(Source: UPM Biochemicals)

Additionally, UPM is investing 750 million euros in establishing the world's first industrial-scale biorefinery in Leuna, Germany. At this facility, UPM will produce next-generation biochemicals from sustainably sourced, certified hardwood, facilitating the transition from fossil-based materials to renewable ones across various industries. The biorefinery aims to produce a total of 220,000 tons annually and is expected to commence operations by the end of 2023.


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