A biorefinery is a facility that integrates biomass conversion processes and equipment to produce fuels, power, and value-added chemicals from biomass. A biorefinery is analogous to a petroleum refinery, which produces multiple fuels and products from petroleum. By producing several products, a biorefinery takes advantage of the various components in biomass and their intermediates, therefore maximizing the value derived from the biomass feedstock.
A biorefinery could, for example, produce one or several low-volume, but high-value, chemical products and a low-value, but high-volume liquid transportation biofuels such as biodiesel or bioethanol. At the same time, it can generate electricity and process heat, through CHP technology, for its own use and perhaps enough for sale of electricity to the local utility. The high value products increase profitability, the high-volume fuel helps meet energy needs, and the power production helps to lower energy costs and reduce GHG emissions from traditional power plant facilities.
There are several platforms which can be employed in biorefineries with the major ones being the sugar platform and the thermochemical platform (also known as syngas platform). Sugar platform biorefineries breaks down biomass into different types of component sugars for fermentation or other biological processing into various fuels and chemicals. On the other hand, thermochemical biorefineries transform biomass into synthesis gas (hydrogen and carbon monoxide) or pyrolysis oil.
The thermochemical biomass conversion process is complex, and uses components, configurations, and operating conditions that are more typical of petroleum refining. Biomass is converted into syngas, and syngas is converted into an ethanol-rich mixture. However, syngas created from biomass contains contaminants such as tar and sulphur that interfere with the conversion of syngas into products. These contaminants can be removed by tar-reforming catalysts and catalytic reforming processes. This not only cleans the syngas, it also creates more of it, improving process economics and ultimately cutting the cost of the resulting ethanol.
Future biorefineries may play a major role in producing chemicals and materials that are traditionally produced from petroleum. Biorefineries based on total biomass exploitation constitute a future economic sector with very strong long term development potential, generating new consumers for crops and other biomass and new outlets for bioproducts, and enabling us to consider the emergence of a knowledge-based bioeconomy in the field of life sciences and technologies. Although some facilities exist that can be called bio-refineries, the bio-refinery has yet to be fully realized.
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