The Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation (CCEI), a U.S. Department of Energy-Energy Frontier Research Center led by the University of Delaware, has announced a two-year program with ExxonMobil to research renewable chemicals from biomass.
The research will focus on converting lignocellulosic (non-food) biomass such as trees and grasses to polymers that are identical to existing petrochemical products.
Research strategies to replace fossil fuel feedstocks for polymers have initially focused on new chemicals derived from biomass that have the same function but new structure. However, functional-replacement chemicals for new polymers frequently have physical properties that can make processing challenging and can be expensive to develop into new products.
The CCEI’s research focuses on using high throughput and low cost thermochemical (non-biological) catalysts to yield direct-replacement chemicals. "You can mix our renewable chemicals with the petroleum-based material and the consumer will not be able to tell the difference," says Paul Dauenhauer, professor, of the CCEI and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Bio-derived direct-replacement chemicals can be directly blended at any ratio with existing petrochemical products.
Direct-replacement biomass-derived chemicals also provide increased economic and manufacturing flexibility. “Manufacturing of direct-replacement chemicals from biomass helps move towards renewable materials and a more diverse feedstock base for chemical producers,” says Dionisios Vlachos, director of the CCEI and Elizabeth Inez Kelley Professor of Chemical Engineering at UD.
This research program with ExxonMobil is a part of a larger effort by CCEI to create breakthrough technologies for the production of biofuels and chemicals from lignocellulosic biomass. The center is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy as part of the Energy Frontiers Research Center (EFRC) program which combines more than 20 faculty members with complementary research skills to collaborate on solving the world’s most pressing energy challenges.
Initiated in 2009, the CCEI has focused on renewable biofuels and chemicals by development of new catalytic technologies. In 2010, a CCEI research team introduced the first heterogeneous catalyst, Tin-Beta, to convert glucose into fructose. This is the first step in the production of a large number of targeted products including biofuels and biochemicals.
In 2012, another CCEI research team developed a new process to produce high yield (greater than 90 percent) p-xylene from biomass. In 2013, CCEI introduced the catalytic transfer hydrogenation technology to selectively convert furans into reduced ones and enable integration of processes from sugars to p-xylene.