Biomass Conversion and Biorefinery
The term biomass describes all substances of organic and thus carbon-based origin. This includes all plants and animals living in nature (primary biomass) and the resulting residues (secondary biomass). In a broader sense, the products of a technical conversion or material use of biomass (e.g. paper, slaughterhouse waste, organic household waste fraction) also count as biomass.
A form of "rotting", also known as the carbonization, turns biomass into fossil fuel. This is how peat is first produced, which in time turns into lignite and then stone coal. This naturally occurring process of coal formation, however, is too slow in the human sense of time. Huge amounts of coal, which formed naturally over millions of years, have been burned during the last 200 years. The same applies to petroleum, which, in addition to being used as an energy source, is also the precursor for the production of a large variety of base chemicals.
Various processes and technologies have been developed to replace fossil and thus finite raw materials with renewable raw materials. We differentiate:
- Biomass Conversion Processes for the production of biochar or peat substitute.
- Biorefinery Processes for the production of precursors and base chemicals.
There are various methods for upgrading native biomass and converting it into higher-quality, storable products with an increased energy density (see figure).
The products differ depending on the respective process environment (presence/absence of water or oxygen) and the temperature range. While the entire organic matter is oxidized in classic combustion, the nature of the remaining organic material changes in the other processes. Almost all processes in the figure, which are arranged to the left of the complete combustion, produce solid (sometimes muddy but easily dewatered) products that have coal-like characteristics and are called biochar or hydrochar.
The following processes are of particular interest:
The so-called biorefinery is used to manufacture precursors and base chemicals. High-quality natural building blocks, so-called precursors, are being isolated from the biomass in a technical way.
This harnesses the biological processes that have synthesized these building blocks. This means that there is no need for complex syntheses or even components that cannot be produced artificially can be obtained. The precursors are then used to produce so-called base or platform chemicals, which serve as building blocks for the chemical industry for a variety of higher quality compounds.
Both biomass conversion processes and biorefineries are technologies that are gaining importance against the background of the socio-political discussion about sustainability and climate change.
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