Bioproducts that Pay

Researchers at UW-Madison are changing the way we look at bioproducts.

“We’re trying to make very high-value commodity chemicals from biomass that can be used to make different kinds of plastics and plasticizers,” says George W. Huber, the Harvey D. Spangler Professor in chemical and biological engineering. “So many people have been focusing on fuels, which are a pretty low-value product—$600 or $700 per ton—but we’re going to be making products that are worth more than $5,000 per ton.”

In a three-year project funded by the Department of Energy, Huber and colleagues will elaborate the basic scientific principles involved in converting biomass into useful chemicals that are otherwise petroleum-derived. They’ll then develop efficient processes that can be scaled up in order to make bio-based production more competitive with petroleum refining.

“This is about developing new process technology,” Huber says. “We have some ideas about how to make these products, and really it’s to move the technology-readiness level. It’s about prototyping and demonstrating our ideas on a larger scale and getting this exciting technology a step closer to being commercially practical.”

Bioenergy researchers at UW-Madison have a history of breakthroughs both in basic science and in the business side of bioproducts, from performing economically minded analyses to starting their own spinoff companies in the field.

“This shows the value of supporting basic research at universities and how basic research can translate to high-tech, high-paying jobs,” Huber says. “It’s important that Wisconsin doesn’t lose its expertise in terms of developing novel technology. I really think the University of Wisconsin is the international leading university in biomass-conversion to fuels and chemicals.”