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The conversion of biomass into fuel ethanol

Author : Amy Hollamby

05 February 2010

TMO renewables has created a new process of converting biomass into fuel ethanol, which has won the national Carbon Trust Innovation Award in the ‘Transport’ category. CEO Hamish Curran collected the award on 26th November. HazardEx interviewed Hamish about the details of this new process.

TMO Renewables demonstration unit
TMO Renewables demonstration unit

Q. TMO Renewables has successfully trialled a new process for converting biomass into fuel ethanol at its process demonstration unit (PDU). Can you tell us how this technology works?

"The TMO process harnesses the power of a thermophilic bacterium, Geobacillus, from the common garden compost heap. This bacterium in the wild has an innate ability to feed off a huge range of carbohydrate substrates, and actually favours the more complex sugars, allowing it to digest woody, non-food biomass materials including domestic waste and even leftovers from agriculture and industry. 

"Conventional ethanol production is essentially based on the traditional beer-brewing process, which is energy-intensive, expensive, and time-consuming as the material being ‘brewed’ for ethanol requires significant cooling, from the high temperature of feedstock pre-treatment, to the low temperature of the yeast fermentation, only to be re-heated for the subsequent distillation process.

"TMO’s bacteria’s ‘heat-loving’ properties mean that ethanol fermentation can now be carried out at higher temperatures, thereby eliminating the need for cooling and re-heating, and resulting in reduced energy consumption and hence lower costs.

"Our ethanol production process will significantly improve the economics and the environmental benefits of existing ethanol production plants."

Q. Does this process have any advantages in industry, in comparison to the use of food-based crops as biofuels, as well as other renewable energies?

"Biofuels have enormous potential to address a number of important global issues including global warming, energy security and the economic burden of oil imports. In particular, the technology that TMO has developed will help displace significant quantities of gasoline consumed globally each year. The technology is sustainable and green because it can use the waste from agricultural or industrial processes avoiding the use of crops currently used for food or feed.

"The production of ‘first generation’ ethanol from food crops has fuelled the ‘food vs fuel’ dilemma.  The ethanol production process itself, based on the traditional beer-brewing process, is energy-intensive, expensive and time-consuming as the material being ‘brewed’ for ethanol requires significant cooling, from the high temperature of feedstock pre-treatment, to the low temperature of the yeast fermentation, only to be re-heated for subsequent distillation. Due to the broad appetite of TMO’s bacteria, the TMO process can take in any biomass feedstock, including agricultural and municipal wastes.  This means that the process can be replicated globally, whether it is to produce ethanol from wheat straw in the UK, corn stover in the US, or rice husk in China."

Q. Are there any specific firms you can mention that have shown an interest in this process?

"We have discussed this with many large chemical companies, oil companies and existing ethanol producers.  Each of these engagements is conducted under strict non-disclosure terms and so we are unable to reveal any specific names.  We have tested over twenty five different feedstocks for clients."

Q. This is the UK's first cellulosic ethanol plant. How big is the biofuel market in the UK at present, and how do you expect this to change?

"The plant is a demonstration plant designed to show that our process technology works at an industrial scale – it is not a production plant per se and produces no fuel grade ethanol as it does not possess a distillation system. 

The UK market is tiny and it doesn’t look like changing in the near future because of the reversal of policy by the UK Government following the Gallagher Review into Indirect Land Use Change.  This review was flawed in its constitution and in its conclusions and the resulting "go-slow" in UK biofuels adoption has all but killed off the sector in the UK  The major markets are the US and Brazil and increasingly China."

Q. Over the year trial period, has the plant had any opposition?


Q. Are there any safety issues relating to the use of ethanol?

"Ethanol is flammable so the issues are the same as for any flammable solvent."

Q. As ethanol is explosive, have staff had any training to deal with this?

"All staff are experienced and well trained process plant operators and are able to operate the facility to the highest of safety standards."

Q. Does the equipment used at TMO renewables comply with any industrial standards e.g. ATEX?

"Where applicable all standards and codes are followed, for example the solids handling eqipment is rated ATEX for combustible dusts and where appropriate in the ethanol system there is ATEX zone 1 equipment."

Q. Are workers required to wear any specific personal protective equipment?

"Yes, where the engineering and operating procedures are not adequate it is necessary for operators to wear PPE. This includes hard hats, safety specs, overalls, protective gloves, face shields.  All are trained in handling corrosive chemicals and hot liquids."

Q. If an accident should occur, what type of systems do you have in place to detect/manage this?

"The plant safety management system includes pressure relief systems, a fully automated SCADA system, fire detection systems.  All staff are involved in a continuous improvement system in order to capture best practice."


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