, Volume 51-52, Issue 1, pp 569-584

Analysis of internal and external energy flows associated with projected process improvements in biomass ethanol production

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Abstract

Possible improvements in biomass ethanol production are decribed involving heat-pumped distillation, steam-cycle heat integration, elimination of seed fermenters, pretreatment heat integration, advanced pretreatment, thermophilic DMC, and incrased carbohydrate yield to 90% of theoretical. Although speculative, a futuristic process incorporating these improvements may be useful for anticipating some features of a technologically mature biomass ethanol process, as well as for comparing ethanol production to more technologically mature energy-conversion processes. Relative to the current state-of-the-art National Renewable Energy Laboratory process design, the futuristic process has 101% higher electricity revenue, 31% hgiher ethanol revenue, and 35–39% higher overall revenue depending on the assumed ethanol value. The overall first-law thermodynamic efficiency is 43% for the current NREL design and 59% for the futuristic process. A general consideration of the costs associated with the process improvements examined indicates that:

  1. Elimination of seed reactors, advanced pretreatment, and thermophilic DMC all have large potential cost reductions independent of their benefits with respect to increased surplus electricity;

  2. Steam cycle improvements and pretreatment heat integration are expected to have modest cost benefits that are dependent on increased electricity revenues; and

  3. The relative cost of heat-pumped distillation depends on scale, capital recovery, and electricity value, but is generally similar to the already low cost of conventional distillation provided that the fermentation broth has a reasonably high ethanol concentration.

A comparison of utilizing biomass for ethanol-electricity coproduction and utilizing biomass for dedicated electricity production indicates that these two alternatives have approximately equal economic benefits. At the electricity yields associated with the futuristic process, every 1% displacement of US transportation demand is accompanied by a 0.29% displacement of electricity demand, underscoring the potential significance of electricity coproduced with ethanol in meeting energy needs.