New production process could lower cost and capital risk of HMF production

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In Wisconsin, researchers have produced high yields of platform molecule 5-hydroxymethylfurfural in an economically viable process. The team, comprised of scientists from the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, published their work in a recent issue of Energy and Environmental Science.

“We integrated into a current process to reduce the initial risk quite a bit and decrease the initial capital required to put things on the ground to prove the technology,” says Ali Hussain Motagamwala, a graduate student in chemical and biological engineering.

HMF can be converted into a range of chemicals, plastics and fuels. One application is fully biobased polyethylene terephthalate, a target pursued by Coca-Cola, Danone, and BASF. To date, however, the cost of production has been too high to make it viable.

“We have known for many years that HMF is a platform molecule with tremendous potential, but it has been an ongoing challenge to produce HMF in a cost-effective manner from sustainable carbohydrate resources,” says UW–Madison chemical and biological engineering Professor James A. Dumesic. “Our early work focused on the use of special solvent systems to produce HMF from fructose with high yields.”

The cost of solvents has been a limiting factor in the rollout of HMF, but Motagamwala says the team has discovered an inexpensive option that is easily removed once the process is complete. The method is also compatible with existing equipment used by the high fructose corn syrup industry.

“One of the best things about the new process is that all the unit operations used are simple and are currently employed in the industry,” Motagamwala says. This lowers the capital investment risk, he adds.