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Chemical building blocks made from wood residue

Jan. 11, 2012, Amherst, MA - Chemical engineers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst 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.


January 11, 2012
By University of Massachusetts Amherst

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Jan. 11, 2012, Amherst, MA – 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.

"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.

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.

"The ultimate significance of our research is that products of our green
process can be used to make virtually all the petrochemical materials
you can find. In addition, some of them can be blended into gasoline,
diesel or jet fuel," says Huber.

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. The team’s catalytic
fast pyrolysis technology has been licensed to New York City’s
Anellotech, Inc., co-founded by Huber, which is scaling up the process
to industrial size for introduction into the petrochemical industry.

In this single-step catalytic fast pyrolysis process, either wood,
agricultural wastes, fast growing energy crops or other non-food biomass
is fed into a fluidized-bed reactor, where this feedstock pyrolysizes,
or decomposes due to heating, to form vapors. These biomass vapors then
enter the team’s new gallium-zeolite (Ga-ZSM-5) catalyst, inside the
same reactor, which converts vapors into the aromatics and olefins. The
economic advantages of the new process are that the reaction chemistry
occurs in one single reactor, the process uses an inexpensive catalyst
and that aromatics and olefins are produced that can be used easily in
the existing petrochemical infrastructure.

Olefins and aromatics are the building blocks for a wide range of
materials. Olefins are used in plastics, resins, fibers, elastomers,
lubricants, synthetic rubber, gels and other industrial chemicals.
Aromatics are used for making dyes, polyurethanes, plastics, synthetic
fibers and more.

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