Sustainable Production of Biofuels: Plant Optimization and Environmental Impact
Doctor of Philosophy
Many recent studies on the relative costs and benefits of biofuels have raised the need for a detailed and rigorous analysis of the operations of a biorefinery that is focused on optimization. The current thesis concentrates on the design and optimization of plants for producing biodiesel and ethanol from cellulosic biomass. We have performed numerical simulations combined with systematic parametric analyses to investigate the effect of various parameters on the overall material and energy balances of each biorefinery. The efficiency of the simulated processes was investigated by introducing and/or estimating various metrics in order to select the more beneficial directions for process improvements. Particular emphasis has been paid on heat integration and the design of highly efficient combined heat and power (CHP) units that generate the steam and electricity needed for the purification of biofuels and their co-products. The first part of the thesis is focused on biodiesel production via transesterification of soybean oil with methanol, under alkali-catalyzed conditions. We have analyzed the performance of several reactor configurations in order to improve the conversion of the reversible transesterification reactions. The effect of the oil to alcohol ratio has also been extensively explored. Furthermore, the energy requirements of the simulated process have been rigorously calculated. Since biodiesel facilities can be used either for small-scale, distributed applications or for large-scale production, we have explored whether it is more energy efficient to burn the glycerol-rich stream in a combined heat and power (CHP) plant, or purify the glycerol and use it a feedstock for producing higher-value chemicals with further biotechnological processes. The second part of the thesis focuses on the production of cellulosic ethanol. Having developed the process model, a detailed parametric analysis was carried out to determine how the energy balances and overall efficiency of the biorefinery were influenced by changes in (a) the composition of the biomass feedstock, and (b) the conversion levels of the hydrolysis and fermentation stages. Furthermore, the requirements of the utility section of the ethanol plant were calculated. The utility section included a combined heat and power unit where by-product streams of the production process were utilized for energy generation. The parametric analysis indicated that these streams were in most cases an insufficient fuel source for meeting the energy requirements of the plant and thus, additional fuel was required (biomass, coal, or natural gas). The calculations of this section indicated a significant trade-off between ethanol production and external energy inputs, thus casting some doubt on the ultimate effectiveness of efforts to develop genetically modified energy crops (with high carbohydrate content) in order to maximize fuel production.
Biodiesel; Cellulosic ethanol; Process design; Energy balance