The NREL bioengineering process is preparing to make a splash

When Americans turn on a tap, they rely on public treatment systems to make sure the water is safe to drink. Public water systems pump more than 27 million filtered gallons every minute to homes and businesses across the United States. Chemicals called flocculants play an important role in removing sediment from water.

Until now, most flocculants have been petroleum-based. A new patented technology from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) of the United States Department of Energy (DOE) makes it possible to produce flocculants from biomass, offering an environmentally sustainable and economical alternative. Recently, Mars Materials obtained an option for an exclusive license to use NREL’s renewable acrylonitrile (ACN) technology in the production of polyacrylamide flocculants for commercial use.

“The fact that industry is picking up on our inventions and working with them is what makes this research interesting,” said Eric Karp, chemical engineer at NREL and ACN project manager. “Giving Mars the tools to bring Renewable ACN to market means this clean, sustainable technology can benefit countless businesses, communities – and the planet.”

Mars, a startup that produces low-cost, carbon-negative chemicals and materials, will use NREL’s ACN technology to produce acrylamide from captured carbon dioxide (CO2) and corn-based biomass. In addition to benefiting the environment through the use of renewable raw materials, the renewable nitrilation process also offers higher yields and is safer and more energy efficient than methods used to produce acrylamide based on petrochemical.

“More than 7 billion kilograms of ACN are produced globally each year – almost entirely from fossil fuel feedstocks. Nitrilation improves production efficiency and lowers the cost of this important material,” said Aaron Fitzgerald, CEO of Mars Materials “The benefits to industry are enormous. NREL’s R&D 100 award-winning technology produces ACN in near 100% yields, at least 20% better than any other known method – this is the very definition of a game changer.”

At the same time, NREL ACN technology finally makes bio-based acrylonitrile competitive through the use of less expensive catalysts and simple reactor configurations. Domestically sourced organic feedstocks offer price stability virtually unobtainable in the volatile international petrochemical market.

NREL technology also improves the security of ACN’s production. NREL’s innovation, a hybrid process combining biological and chemical conversion, completely eliminates the dangerous high temperatures and toxic by-products involved in traditional petroleum-based ACN production methods.

Mars has also been granted a non-exclusive option to explore the use of NREL ACN technology in carbon fiber production. The material’s strength, weight, temperature tolerance and chemical resistance make it an ideal replacement for the metal typically used in today’s vehicles and aircraft. Making cars with carbon fiber instead of steel and aluminum can increase fuel economy by nearly 50% and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 40%, thanks to the relief.

In addition to carbon fiber and flocculants, ACN is used to make plastics, acrylic fibers for clothing and carpets, and rubber. Licenses remain available to commercialize NREL nitrilation technology for use in these and other applications.

NREL’s renewable nitrilation technology has also been recognized with a Notable Technology Development Award from the Federal Laboratory Consortium (FLC) Midcontinent Region and the CO-Labs Governor’s Award from Colorado.

The new ACN technology was funded by the DOE’s Office of Bioenergy Technologies and developed in conjunction with the NREL-led Renewable Carbon Fiber Consortium. The lab continues to collaborate on innovations in this area with other consortium partners, including Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Idaho National Laboratory, Biochemtex, Cargill, DowAksa, Ford Motor Company, Johnson Matthey, MATRIC, University of Colorado Boulder, Colorado School of Mines and University of Michigan.

DOE’s Energy I-Corps supported NREL’s inventors in their efforts to research markets, find customers, and develop business models for ACN’s renewable technology. Techno-economic research and analysis led to NREL licensing the technology to Mars Materials.

“We think there could possibly be a $7 billion market for this technology,” Karp said. “It’s exciting to think about the impact clean technologies like this can have on the environment on such a large scale.”

Interested in licensing NREL’s nitrilation technology? Contact Eric Payne.

Learn more about NRELs ACN Technology, bioenergy research and DOE Energy I-Corps.

Article courtesy of National Renewable Energy Laboratory. By Anya Breitenbach


 

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