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Making industrial chemicals renewable

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Chemical engineers from UMass Amherst take the “petro” out of valuable petrochemicals via biofuels.

Producing plastics, dyes, detergents, fibers and other products often involve industrial chemicals derived from fossil fuels. But chemical engineers have found a new way to take the "petro" out of many petrochemicals—benzene, toluene, xylene, propylene and ethylene.

These substances are many of the building blocks of a $400-billion industry. But scientists from University of Massachusetts-Amherst they describe making these chemicals from pyrolytic bio-oils, made from woodchips, cornstalks and other agricultural leftovers that have been heated to high temperatures in the absence of oxygen.

In a statement, study co-author George Huber says:

We are making the same molecules from biomass that are currently being produced from petroleum, with no infrastructure changes required [...]

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.

Making industrial chemicals via pyrolysis is not new, but it typically isn’t as efficient, with only 20 percent of the oils becoming useful fuels, Science reports. The researchers, however, have tweaked the process to include another step, which includes adding hydrogen over a ruthenium and platinum catalyst. This strips the oils of oxygen that makes the oils corrosive. They then use a specific zeolite catalyst to break the substances down into shorter hydrocarbon chains that are commercially valuable. Further manipulating the process through temperature changes and hydrogen amounts, they say, can produce different products to coincide with demand.

Huber expects a pilot project for the method on the UMass campus will start producing the chemicals by the liter and tells Biofuel Digest that it is very near commercial viability once they scale it up. Anellotech, a start-up co-founded by Huber, has licensed the technology.

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Image: UMass

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Melissa Mahony

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Melissa Mahony has written for Scientific American Mind, Audubon Magazine, Plenty Magazine and LiveScience. Formerly, she was an editor at Wildlife Conservation magazine. She holds degrees from Boston College and New York University's Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure