Fast Catalytic Pyrolysis Conversion of Wood to High Value Chemicals
Huber says his research team can take wood, grasses or other renewable biomass and create five of the six petrochemicals that serve as the building blocks for the chemical industry. They are benzene, toluene, and xylene, which are aromatics, and ethylene and propylene, which are olefins. Methanol is the only one of those six key petrochemicals not produced in that same single-step reaction. _NewswiseThe research engineers are developing more efficient and economical methods for entering the $400 billion petrochemicals market, using renewable biomass such as wood as feedstock. By targeting the high-value chemicals market, companies that convert biomass to chemicals can jump-start profits, while continuing to improve efficiencies and economies. The long-term goal is to devise competitive ways of producing hydrocarbon fuels from biomass, such as kerosene, diesel, and gasoline.
Chemical engineers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, using a catalytic fast pyrolysis process that transforms renewable non-food biomass into petrochemicals, have developed a new catalyst that boosts the yield for five key “building blocks of the chemical industry” by 40 percent compared to previous methods. This sustainable production process, which holds the promise of being competitive and compatible with the current petroleum refinery infrastructure, has been tested and proven in a laboratory reactor, using wood as the feedstock, the research team says.The thermochemical approaches to fuels and chemicals from biomass, are likely to achieve profitability more quickly than the microbial methods being attempted by Craig Venter and Jay Keasling. And yet, in the long run, the low temperature microbial approaches are likely to win out, due to the ability of microbes to reproduce themselves and to create their own catalysts.
“We think that today we can be economically competitive with crude oil production,” says research team leader George Huber, an associate professor of chemical engineering at UMass Amherst and one of the country’s leading experts on catalytic pyrolysis.
...The new process was outlined in a paper published in the Dec. 23, 2011 edition of the German Chemical Society’s journal Angewandte Chemie. It was written by Huber, Wei Fan, assistant professor of chemical engineering, and graduate students Yu-Ting Cheng, Jungho Jae and Jian Shi.
“The whole name of the game is yield,” says Huber. “The question is what amount of aromatics and olefins can be made from a given amount of biomass. Our paper demonstrates that with this new gallium-zeolite catalyst we can increase the yield of those products by 40 percent. This gets us much closer to the goal of catalytic fast pyrolysis being economically viable. And we can do it all in a renewable way.”
The new production process has the potential to reduce or eliminate industry’s reliance on fossil fuels to make industrial chemicals worth an estimated $400 billion annually, Huber says. _Newswise
Of course, once high quality process heat from gas cooled nuclear reactors comes along, all bets are off as to which approach will generate the higher profits in the long run.