Argonne National Lab, Nalco ink technology license agreement

By Bryan Sims | March 25, 2011

The U.S. DOE's Argonne National Laboratory and industrial processing firm Nalco Co. struck a licensing agreement for a novel electrodeionization technology that can be integrated into biorefineries to convert biomass into fuels and chemicals.

According to Seth Snyder, Argonne biochemical engineer whose group led the development of the technology, the patented separation technique allows for the deionizing, or the continuous removal, of charged products like organic acids, such as succinic acid or lactic acid, from aqueous streams and eliminates the requirement to continuously add neutralizing agents like lime. This, Snyder said, is a dramatic improvement over conventional bioprocessing technologies that typically require significant capital expenditure on energy-intensive steps to recover bioproducts, while generating large volumes of waste streams.

“In a traditional process, you do a fermentation route and you do a neutralization step with, say, lime, so you get the salt with the acid and then after fermentation you have to hit it with sulfuric acid to recover the process,” Snyder said. “In our process, we’re actually separating the organic acid as it’s synthesized in the fermentation and it’s separated as the acid across the membranes.”

Snyder added, “You avoid gypsum, you avoid sulfuric acid and you avoid input of lime so you avoid two inputs and you avoid a waste stream.”

A common separation technique typically employed in the water purification industry and other applications of high purity, Snyder explained that Argonne’s electrodeionization is a membrane-based separation driven by electricity. Argonne’s resin wafer technology is fabricated by adding porosity agents and binding agents, and a mixture of ion exchange resins that Snyder said can be assembled in a stack. 

By controlling the dimensions, composition, porosity and conductivity, the resin wafer technology can be easily adapted to a target product. Additionally, Snyder said that he and his team integrated bioconversion capabilities into the electrodeionization platform that enabled isolation of products from dilute charged products in the process stream.

“What Argonne has done differently with the technology it has licensed to Nalco is that, rather than just cleaning up a water stream, we’ve used it to capture products,” Snyder said.

While the bulk of the research employed clean sugar streams as feedstock for electrodeionization, Snyder said the transition from bench to pilot-scale is underway involving ongoing work understanding how hydrolysate from pretreatment streams of cellulosic materials can perform via the resin wafer technology. “But more work needs to be done there,” Snyder said. “This is a process where we’ve been working with hydrolysate from pretreatment streams and separating out sequentially first the sulfuric acid, and then the acetic acid.”

Funding for the development of Argonne’s electrodeionization technology was provided by DOE’s offices of Fossil Energy, Biomass and Industrial Technologies.

This article first appeared in Biorefining Magazine.