The University of Massachusetts Amherst
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Biofuel Turns UMass into “BioUMass”

The groundbreaking research of two young faculty members from the Chemical Engineering Department is turning the campus into a national hub for the conversion of biomass into clean, green biofuel. Their research is quickly changing the campus into “BioUMass.” The work of George Huber, the John and Elizabeth Armstrong Professional Development Professor, and Assistant Professor Paul Dauenhauer has recently been covered extensively in an array of respected scientific publications and websites. Their research promises to have a huge impact on the fuel and chemical industries, as well as on our country’s quest for a sustainable energy economy.

MIT’s Technology Review recently covered Huber’s one-year-old company, Anellotech, which owns the exclusive global rights to the university’s catalytic fast pyrolysis technology, developed by Huber for producing “grassoline.” His patent-pending technique offers a low-cost, single-step process for turning sawdust, woody stalks, and other waste biomass into gasoline, diesel fuel, heating oil, and valuable chemical commodities such as benzene, toluene, and xylenes.

“Huber’s new technique has been the most sought-after technology the campus has licensed to date,” said Nick DeCristofaro, director of the university’s Office of Commercial Ventures, Intellectual Property, and Technology Transfer. “We’ve noted unprecedented interest from a number of quarters.”

Huber’s cover story in the July 2009 Scientific American predicted that if the United States maintains its commitment to biofuels over the next 15 years, the number of vehicles powered by grassoline could “fundamentally change the world.” The article was entitled, “Grassoline at the Pump.”

As for Dauenhauer, such important scientific publications as Technology Review and Biomass Magazine have called attention to his special method of “gasification” for converting biofuel feedstock into sustainable fuel. The process would not only greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but double the amount of fuel that can be made from an acre of biomass feedstock.

"In the chemical industry, even a few percent improvement makes a big impact,” said Dionisios Vlachos, the director of the Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation at the University of Delaware, in the Technology Review article. “The increase from 50 percent to 100 percent is profound."

 “The article in the Technology Review shows that, if you utilize our new technique for gasification during the catalytic process for converting biomass,” said Dauenhauer, “you can actually use 100 percent of the carbon in that biomass for making biofuels.” That percentage doubles the proportion of fuel-producing carbon created in any previous gasification process done in one reactor while converting biomass to biofuels.

Biomass Magazine Associate Editor Lisa Gibson also speculated about the promise of Dauenhauer’s process: “The biofuels industry might be a different arena if there were a gasification technology with the capacity to convert 100 percent of the carbon from biomass into carbon monoxide, increasing twofold the amount of biofuel that can be produced from a single acre of feedstock. Now, imagine a system that does it without producing char [a pollutant].”

Dauenhauer came to UMass Amherst last year from the University of Minnesota, where he began developing his gasification process. In recent weeks, Dauenhauer’s process, which could be ready for industrial production in as little as two years, has also been covered on scientific websites such as Environmental Protection, Plant Reliability, and Lab Manager.

Outside of his laboratory, Huber has been a busy and articulate advocate for biofuels, campaigning in print, in the electronic media, and in Congress for renewable fuels as the foundation for a new energy economy. 

 “By now it ought to be clear that the U.S. must get off oil,” Huber explained in his Scientific American article. “We can no longer afford the dangers that our dependence on petroleum poses for our national security, our economic security, or our environmental security. Yet civilization is not about to stop moving, and so we must invent a new way to power the world’s transportation fleet. Cellulosic biofuels—liquid fuels made from inedible parts of plants—offer the most environmentally attractive and technologically feasible near-term alternative to oil.”

Huber also did a Congressional briefing last summer about “the road to the new energy economy.” In addition, he produced a 2008 publication that served as a 187-page roadmap for making hydrocarbon biofuel into a viable and sustainable alternative to fossil fuel in this country. The publication combined the expertise of some 70 top scientists and engineers in the field of biofuels and was entitled, “Breaking the Chemical and Engineering Barriers to Lignocellulosic Biofuels: Next Generation Hydrocarbon Biorefineries.”

Dauenhauer said the ultimate goal of the research at UMass Amherst is to answer the scientific questions that will lead to a wide array of new biomass processes and reactions. “In terms of the university, we’re focused on generating the intellectual property that American companies and start-up companies can use to get these new types of processes and reactors into the field as quickly as possible.” (June 2010)