NREL: NREL Bioengineering Process Prepares To Make a Splash

When Americans turn on a faucet, they rely on public treatment systems to ensure the water is safe to drink. Public water systems pump more than 27 million filtered gallons each minute to U.S. homes and businesses. Chemicals called flocculants play an important role in removing sediments from the water.

Until now, most flocculants have been petroleum-based. New patented technology from the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) makes it possible to produce flocculants from biomass, providing an environmentally sustainable and cost-competitive alternative. Recently, Mars Materials was granted an option for an exclusive license to use NREL’s renewable acrylonitrile (ACN) technology in producing polyacrylamide flocculants for commercial use.

“Industry picking up our inventions and running with them, that’s what makes this research worthwhile,” NREL Chemical Engineer and ACN Project Lead Eric Karp said. “Giving Mars the tools to introduce renewable ACN to the marketplace means that this clean, sustainable technology can benefit a large number of businesses, communities—and the planet.”

Mars, a startup that produces low-cost, carbon-negative chemicals and materials, will use NREL’s ACN technology to produce acrylamide from captured carbon dioxide (CO2) and corn-based biomass. In addition to benefiting the environment through the use of renewable feedstocks, the renewable nitrilation process also delivers higher yields and is safer and more energy efficient than methods used to produce petrochemical-based acrylamide.

“More than 7 billion kilograms of ACN are produced globally each year—almost entirely from fossil fuel feedstocks. Nitrilation improves production efficiencies and reduces the cost of this important material,” Mars Materials CEO Aaron Fitzgerald said. “The benefits to industry are enormous. NREL’s R&D 100 Award-winning technology produces ACN at near-100% yields, at least 20% better than any other known method—that’s the very definition of a game changer.”

At the same time, NREL ACN technology finally makes bio-based acrylonitrile cost-competitive through the use of less-expensive catalysts and simple reactor configurations. Domestically sourced biofeedstocks provide price stability that is virtually impossible to find in the volatile international petrochemical market.

The NREL technology improves the safety of ACN production, as well. The NREL innovation, a hybrid process combining biological and chemical conversion, completely eliminates the dangerous high temperatures and toxic byproducts involved in traditional methods of petroleum-based ACN production.

Mars has also secured a nonexclusive option to explore the use of NREL ACN technology in the production of carbon fiber. The material’s strength, weight, temperature tolerance, and chemical resistance make it an ideal replacement for the metal typically used in today’s vehicles and airplanes. Making cars with carbon fiber instead of steel and aluminum can increase fuel economy by nearly 50% and decrease greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 40%, thanks to lightweighting.

In addition to carbon fiber and flocculants, ACN is used to make plastics, acrylic fibers for clothes and carpets, and rubber. Licenses remain available to commercialize the NREL nitrilation technology for use in these and other applications.

NREL’s renewable nitrilation technology has also been recognized with a Federal Laboratory Consortium (FLC) Mid-Continent Region Notable Technology Development Award and Colorado CO-Labs Governor’s Award.

The new ACN technology was funded by DOE’s Bioenergy Technologies Office and developed in conjunction with the NREL-led Renewable Carbon Fiber Consortium. The laboratory continues to collaborate on innovations in this area with other consortium partners including Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Idaho National Laboratory, Biochemtex, Cargill, DowAksa, Ford Motor Company, Johnson Matthey, MATRIC, University of Colorado Boulder, Colorado School of Mines, and Michigan State University.

DOE’s Energy I-Corps supported NREL inventors in their market research, customer discovery, and business model development efforts for the renewable ACN technology. The techno-economic research and analysis led to NREL’s licensing the technology to Mars Materials.

“It’s thought that eventually there could be a $7 billion market for this technology,” Karp said. “It’s exciting to think of the impact clean technology like this can have on the environment at such an enormous scale.”

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