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Biobased Chemicals and Fuels from Poplar Trees

Honored Contributor
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Contributed by Orion Lekos PhD, WSU Extension Biofuel Specialist

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Advanced Hardwood Biofuels Northwest (AHB) is a consortium of university and industry partners exploring innovative technology using biological and chemical processes to convert poplar into bio-based fuels and chemicals. During the conversion process from poplar wood chips to renewable transportation fuels, intermediate chemicals are produced, including acetic acid, ethyl acetate, ethanol, and ethylene. These bio-based chemicals can substitute conventional petroleum versions to make products that we use in our everyday lives such as paints, plastics, textiles, solvents, and packaging.  Including a portfolio of high-value chemicals is an important piece of a profitable biorefinery. As the price of oil rapidly changes, biofuels are not always cost effective to manufacture.  A biorefinery that can also produce commodity chemicals is more versatile and able to weather the volatile oil markets. The ability to make chemicals at the large scale of a biorefinery also takes advantage of lower operational costs compared to a chemical plant alone. In general, the chemicals made are also more valuable than the fuel and have higher yields, but fuels sell in larger quantities than chemicals and create a stable income for the refinery.

From one dry ton of poplar chips we get…

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1270 lbs of Sugars

Poplar chips are converted to sugars through hydrolysis where the cellulose and hemicellulose are broken down into glucose and xylose. The sugar can be sold to ethanol producers or it is fermented in AHB’s process to make acetic acid.

133 Gallons of Acetic Acid

Acetic acid is in high demand globally for the manufacture of paints, ice melting salts, adhesives, polymers, and solvents. From this point the acetic acid can be sold or further processed on to make...

115 Gallons of Ethyl Acetate

Ethyl acetate a less toxic solvent than acetone used in nail polish remover, cosmetics, perfumes, and to decaffeinate coffee and tea.  Industrially it is made by an esterification reaction of ethanol with acetic acid.  Depending on market demand, the Ethyl Acetate can be sold or further processed on to make...

135 Gallons of Ethanol

The AHB process is nearly 100 % carbon efficient compared to 67% efficiency for traditional yeast fermentation. The ethanol can be sold or further processed on to make...

288 Gallons of Ethylene

Ethylene gas is normally made from petroleum and is a versatile chemical that is the backbone of the plastics we use every. The ethylene can be converted into jet fuel through polymerization.

80 Gallons of Jet Fuel

Two carbon ethylene gas molecules are combined together catalytically to form hydrocarbon fuel chains. This creates a jet fuel made from poplar trees that can be used in existing airplane engines.

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