|Using a catalytic fast pyrolysis process that transforms renewable non-food biomass into petrochemicals, 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% compared to previous methods. 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
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. This process could be economically competitive with crude oil production. Team leader George 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 the research is that products of this 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. Their paper demonstrates that with this new gallium-zeolite catalyst we can increase the yield of those products by 40%, taking the team much closer to the goal of catalytic fast pyrolysis being economically viable 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 US$400 bln pa, Huber says. The team�s catalytic fast pyrolysis technology has been licensed to New York City�s Anellotech, Inc., which is scaling up the process to industrial size for introduction into the petrochemical industry.
Biomass is a renewable energy source as the energy comes from the sun, and because biomass can re-grow over a relatively short period of time. Through the process of photosynthesis, chlorophyll in plants captures the sun's energy by converting carbon dioxide from the air and water from the ground into carbohydrates-complex compounds composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. When these carbohydrates are burned, they turn back into carbon dioxide and water and release the energy they captured from the sun. In this way, biomass functions as a sort of natural battery for storing solar energy. The biomass is produced sustainably-meeting current needs without diminishing resources or the land�s capacity to re-grow biomass and recapture carbon-the battery will last indefinitely and provide sources of low-carbon energy, as per ucsusa.org. Among other resources, beneficial biomass includes
• energy crops that don�t compete with food crops for land
• portions of crop residues such as wheat straw or corn stover
• sustainably-harvested wood and forest residues
• clean municipal and industrial wastes