Researchers at Massachusetts University at Amherst have created a viable portable processor that can turn biomass fuel into chemicals widely used in industry and manufacturing processes.
The researchers announced the results of their work Friday, the same day a report on their efforts was published in Science, said a press release issued by the University. The portable processor, as seen in the accompanying photograph, is capable of converting fuel made from biomass into what is called "feedstock chemicals." The chemicals, such as benzene, toluene, xylenes and olefins, can be refined out of fuel made from biomass, and the researchers say "The new process could reduce or eliminate industry’s reliance on fossil fuels to make industrial chemicals worth an estimated $400 billion annually."
The processor provides a cheaper alternative to chemical manufacturers, using waste products such as wood, agricultural waste and crops grown to produce biofuel. Not only is the processor capable of producing a "high volume" of the chemicals, the quality of the chemicals is just as good as those produced now from petroleum. George Huber, one of the researchers, is a chemical engineer and the Armstrong Associate Professor at University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Huber explained the significance of the new capabilities, saying "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 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."
The research team of three found their process can make the chemicals three times faster than the chemicals can be made now in the conventional processing from petroleum. Not only is this new process viable, it has already been put to work at the Amherst campus, with a pilot plant now producing the chemicals. Huber has teamed up with an American entrepreneur David Sudolsky to create Anellotech Corp., which holds the licence for the pilot project. The project is not only turning biofuel into chemicals, it is also producing the biofuel used for creating the chemicals. That biofuel is call "pyrolysis oil."
Sudolsky, who is Anellotech’s CEO, said "There are several companies developing technology to produce pyrolysis oil from biomass. The problem has been that pyrolysis oils must be upgraded to be usable. 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."
In 2008, writing for Juice: Alternative Fuels World, Dan Sweeney said "Pyrolysis oil may be fairly said to be the poor relation of biofuels. There is no well established market for it, and, until recently, there has been little advocacy on its behalf. That may be about to change.
Pyrolysis oil has traditionally been produced by heating biomass to temperatures of several hundred degrees Celsius in the absence of oxygen, a process which vaporizes the biomass and produces a complex chemical soup with a heating value approximately equal to that of bunker oil, the bottom of the barrel residue gotten from oil refineries.
More recently the flash pyrolysis production process has come to predominate. Here the biomass is heated to a considerably higher temperature for a very brief duration which results in higher production efficiencies and better yields."
While pyrolysis oil, or bio-oil as it is sometimes called, has not been capitalized upon, there are several commercial plants currently produce pyrolysis oil, according European Biofuels. Called 'green energy,' bio-oil has not been able to be used for much more than heating purposes until now.
Energy expert Robert Rapier gives an excellent analysis and overview of pyrolysis oil on his blog, R-squared. He characterizes bio-oil as a "next-generation contender," because it is "A technology that is capable of supplying 20% of our present liquid fossil fuel consumption on a net energy basis."