George Huber, the Armstrong Associate Professor at University of Massachusetts at Amherst, likely the most prolific chemical engineering researcher today has published a paper in Science outlining a new pyrolysis oil process that yields chemical feedstock and fuel type products. The Huber team members are Tushar Vispute, Aimaro Sanno, Huiyan Zhang at UMass and Rui Xiao at Southeast University, Nanjing, China.
The report outlines a way to produce high-volume chemical feedstocks including benzene, toluene, xylenes and olefins from pyrolysis produced bio-oils, the cheapest liquid fuels available today derived from biomass. Huber’s new process could reduce or eliminate industry’s reliance on fossil fuels to make industrial chemicals worth an estimated $400 billion annually, reducing the crude oil demand further.
Now widely available, although in small quantities, pyrolysis oil made from waste wood, agricultural waste and non-food energy crops could produce the same high-value materials for making everything from solvents and detergents to plastics and fibers. Getting the pyrolysis oil volume up lacks only the willingness not to throw things away to landfills or dispose of feedstocks by allowing them to waste away.
Huber comments with, “Thanks to this breakthrough, we can meet the need to make commodity chemical feedstocks entirely through processing pyrolysis oils. We are making the same molecules from biomass that are currently being produced from petroleum, with no infrastructure changes required. We think this technology will provide a big boost to the economy because pyrolysis oils are commercially available now. The major difference between our approach and the current (chemical production) method is the feedstock; our process uses a renewable feedstock, that is, plant biomass. Rather than purchasing petroleum to make these chemicals, we use pyrolysis oils made from non-food agricultural crops and woody biomass grown domestically. This will also provide United States farmers and landowners a large additional revenue stream.”
Current pyrolysis oil treatments yield at low rates. Huber adds, “But here we show how to achieve three times higher yields of chemicals from pyrolysis oil than ever achieved before. We’ve essentially provided a roadmap for converting low-value pyrolysis oils into products with a higher value than transportation fuels.”
The paper shows how to make olefins such as ethylene and propylene, the building blocks of many plastics and resins, plus aromatics such as benzene, toluene and xylenes found in dyes, plastics and polyurethane, from biomass-based pyrolysis oils. The team uses a two-step, integrated catalytic approach starting with a “tunable,” variable-reaction hydrogenation stage followed by a second, zeolite catalytic step. The zeolite catalyst has the proper pore structure and active sites to convert biomass-based molecules into aromatic hydrocarbons and olefins.
The exciting part is the ability to “tune” the output to meet markets opportunities. The team discusses how to choose among three options including low and high-temperature hydrogenation steps as well as the zeolite conversion for optimal results. Their findings indicate, “the olefin-to-aromatic ratio and the types of olefins and aromatics produced can be adjusted according to market demand.” That is, using the new techniques, chemical producers can manage the carbon content from biomass they need, as well as hydrogen amounts. This news is of massive significance. Trash is far more valuable now than anyone has been expecting.
Huber’s team goes so far as to provide economic calculations for determining the optimal mix of hydrogen and pyrolytic oils, depending on market prices, to yield the highest-grade product at the lowest cost. This idea has legs.
A pilot plant using the new method is now producing these chemicals on a liter-quantity scale on the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus.
The technology has been licensed to Anellotech Corp., co-founded by Dr. Huber and David Sudolsky of New York City. Anellotech is also developing a Huber research team technology to convert solid biomass directly into chemicals, making pyrolysis oil a second renewable feedstock for Anellotech.
Sudolsky, Anellotech’s CEO, says, “There are several companies developing technology to produce pyrolysis oil from biomass. The problem has been that pyrolysis oils must be upgraded to be useable. But with the new UMass Amherst process, Anellotech can now convert these pyrolysis oils into valuable chemicals at higher efficiency and with very attractive economics. This is very exciting.”
So it is. Humanity buries, piles up, and spreads around an enormous amount of useful biomatter every year. It’s getting so that all that “waste” has value, and the value is more than expected with Huber’s new process. A three-fold increase with tunable output is a huge shift in the cost and profitability of waste management.
Huber has taken us one giant leap closer to a full carbon cycle in biomatter.