Cheap biomass alternative for industrial chemicals
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Last Updated: Sunday, November 28, 2010, 15:52
  
Washington: American scientists have devised a new way to convert bio-fuel made from biomass into feedstock chemicals, an inventions which they say could reduce reliance of industries on fossil fuels to make industrial chemicals.

Researchers at the Massachusetts University at Amherst reported in journal Science that they have developed a new processor to produce key chemical intermediates from pyrolytic bio-oils -- the cheapest liquid fuel derived from biomass.

The new process, they said, could "reduce or eliminate industry's reliance on fossil fuels to make industrial chemicals worth an estimated USD 400 billion annually".

The intermediates, including benzene, toluene, xylenes, ethylene and propylene are used in the manufacturing of solvents, detergents, plastics and fibers.

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 fibres, they said.

"Thanks to this breakthrough, we can meet the need to make commodity chemical feedstocks entirely through processing pyrolysis oils, said George Huber, an associate professor at UMass Amherst and the lead author of the study.

He said: "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."

According to Huber, the major difference between their 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."

In the past, the chemical engineer said, these compounds were made in a low-yield process.

"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."

A pilot plant on the UMass Amherst campus is now producing these chemicals on a litre-quantity scale using this new method. The technology has been licensed to Anellotech Corp, co-founded by Huber.

PTI


First Published: Sunday, November 28, 2010, 15:52


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