A new process can transform renewable non-food biomass into petrochemicals and boost the yield for five key “building blocks of the chemical industry” by 40 percent.
After testing in a laboratory reactor, this sustainable catalytic fast pyrolysis production process, which is compatible with the current petroleum refinery infrastructure, works using wood as the feedstock, said chemical engineers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
“We think that today we can be economically competitive with crude oil production,” said 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 said his 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,” said Huber who wrote a paper on the subject with his research team.
“The whole name of the game is yield,” Huber said. “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 said. New York City-based Anellotech, Inc., co-founded by Huber, licensed the catalytic fast pyrolysis technology and 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 the reaction chemistry occurs in one single reactor, the process uses an inexpensive catalyst and that aromatics and olefins are can easily see use in the existing petrochemical infrastructure.
Olefins and aromatics are the building blocks for a wide range of materials. Olefins are in plastics, resins, fibers, elastomers, lubricants, synthetic rubber, gels and other industrial chemicals. Aromatics help make dyes, polyurethanes, plastics, synthetic fibers and more.