AMHERST, MA – A research team from the UMass Amherst Chemical Engineering department reports in the November 26 issue of Science that it has developed a way to produce high-volume chemical feedstocks, including benzene, toluene, xylenes and olefins, from pyrolytic bio-oils, the cheapest liquid fuels available today derived from biomass. As George Huber, the Armstrong Associate Professor in the Chemical Engineering Department at UMass Amherst, explained, “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.”
The new process could reduce or eliminate industry’s reliance on fossil fuels to make industrial chemicals worth an estimated $400 billion annually. Instead of buying petroleum by the barrel, chemical manufacturers will now be able to use relatively cheaper, widely available pyrolysis oils made from waste wood, agricultural waste and non-food energy crops to produce the same high-value materials for making everything from solvents and detergents to plastics and fibers.
In the paper, Huber and doctoral students Tushar Vispute, Aimaro Sanno and Huiyan Zhang show how to make olefins such as ethylene and propylene, the building blocks of many plastics and resins, plus aromatics such as benzene, toluene and xylenes found in dyes, plastics and polyurethane, from biomass-based pyrolysis oils.
A pilot plant on the UMass Amherst campus is now producing these chemicals on a liter-quantity scale using this new method. The technology has been licensed to Anellotech Corp., co-founded by Huber and David Sudolsky of New York City. Anellotech is also developing UMass Amherst technology invented by the Huber research team to convert solid biomass directly into chemicals. Thus, pyrolysis oil represents a second renewable feedstock for Anellotech.
Sudolsky, 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 useable. 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.”