University of Oklahoma engineers have discovered a novel approach for the water-assisted upgrading of the renewable chemical, furfural, doubling or tripling the rate of conversion.

Reaction scheme for the hydrogenation of furfural over a metal surface in water. Image Credit: University of Oklahoma. Click image for the largest view.

Daniel Resasco, professor in the School of Chemical, Biological and Materials Engineering, Gallogly College of Engineering explains, “Energy and water are interconnected in the production of renewable fuels. On the one hand, energy is needed to extract, purify and distribute water. On the other hand, water is useful in producing energy. It is known that water plays an important role as an environmentally-friendly solvent, replacing organic solvents. The novelty is that it can accelerate the rate of hydrogenation.”

In the chemical production of energy in conventional refining, the presence of water in the reactors is undesirable. Normally, when water is present in a reacting system where a catalytic reaction is taking place, it typically absorbs where the reaction should occur, which inhibits the rate of conversion.

Bin Wang, assistant professor in the School of Chemical, Biological and Materials Engineering, Gallogly College of Engineering said, “A group of chemical engineering graduate and undergraduate students participated in the discovery of water as a participant in the catalytic conversion of furfural without inhibiting the reaction and leading to a great rate enhancement in the process.”

Furfural is a biomass-derived compound that is considered a valuable platform for production of fuels and chemicals. An important strategy is to hydrogenate the molecule so it can be used in the chemical industry later. The group has shown that when the molecule contains an oxygenated group, hydrogenation occurs from the liquid phase instead of the catalyst surface.

In the absence of water, all steps in the reaction occur on the catalyst surface. In the presence of water as a solvent, the hydrogen can be ‘shuttled’ through the water molecule in a higher rate for the reaction. This latter path requires a lower energy barrier to take place and is faster. An article describing this unique mechanism has been published in Nature Catalysis.

Furfural is very useful material. It looks like this new process discovery could well drive down the production costs and get more biofuels to more competitive price levels. Found smack in the middle oil and gas country, there is a path developing to keep the industry in the fuel business beyond the fossil sourced era. Never count the American oil and gas industry out.


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