University of Massachusetts Amherst

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NSF CAREER Award Supports Pioneering UMass Research to Optimize Biofuel Production

A $400,000 grant from the prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER Program will support the pioneering research of Paul Dauenhauer in the Chemical Engineering Department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Dauenhauer’s project will resolve the top challenge for converting sustainable biomass such as trees, grasses, and non-food plants into green gasoline and hundreds of key products in the chemical industry. The NSF funding will support Dauenhauer’s groundbreaking research into his novel experimental technique known as “Pulsed-Film Pyrolysis.”

“Pulsed-Film Pyrolysis is the last missing tool in our efforts to make sustainable biofuels economically competitive with unsustainable fossil fuels,” says Dauenhauer. “This component we will add to the biofuels reaction process is what I think has been missing for 30 years. That’s why I’m so excited about it!”

Pulsed-Film Pyrolysis will give biofuels researchers for the first time the ability to test the speeds in hundreds of chemical reactions that occur inside a fast-pyrolysis reactor, when converting biomass into the chemicals that make up green fuels and other products. Those speeds are the critical factor required for calculating the rate of formation for all the chemical products created by numerous reactions occurring in a fast-pyrolysis process.

Dauenhauer considers his technique for computing crucial data about speed and rates of formation in all these chemical pathways as the missing link for producing the highest possible grade of bio-oil and biochemicals.

Pulsed-Film Pyrolysis will reveal biomass reaction pathways and kinetics in the reaction process, which will in turn provide critical data required for constructing the kinetic models used to optimize pyrolysis reactors. The ultimate effect of  these improved biomass processes is that they  will broadly impact the country by producing higher quality biofuels with lower cost and all the resulting environmental benefits.

“Our research in this proposal demonstrates a specific strategy to understand the pyrolysis reaction mechanisms and the reaction kinetics of the major biopolymers of lignocellulose,” says Dauenhauer. “This technique will set the foundations for molecular-scale understanding of biomass pyrolysis, thereby leading to optimized reactors with improved economic potential and progress towards energy independence.”

Dauenhauer notes that this same kind of reaction-kinetics information has led to the successful development of the fossil-fuel refinery industry in the past century and is critically needed for biomass utilization.

Using Pulsed-Film Pyrolysis, Dauenhauer and his research team can rapidly heat cellulose such as wood or non-edible plants to 500 degrees Centigrade inside a pyrolysis reactor for a specifically controlled pulse of time, taking only a split-second, at which point the cellulose is very rapidly cooled. With his new technique, he can then measure the exact products produced by the many chemical reactions taking place during that timed pulse.

As Dauenhauer explains, “This technique will be used to measure the rates of formation of key products such as anhydrosugars, pyrans, furans, and light oxygenates and will allow for elucidation of the mechanisms of cellulose pyrolysis.”

His objective with Pulsed-Film Pyrolysis is to measure absolute kinetics of individual molecular-level reactions of cellulose, biomass, and eventually other solid feedstocks (e.g. shale, bitumen). At the current time, computational methods are just beginning to make predictions for the kinetics and thermochemistry of cellulose pyrolysis, but they lack molecular-level experimental data to prove their accuracy. This information has recently been identified by an article in Energy & Environmental Science (2012, 5, 7797) as the first of the “Top Ten Fundamental Challenges of Biomass Pyrolysis for Biofuels.”

A 2011 ‘roadmap’ report by the International Energy Agency proposed that the production of biofuels could increase from two percent of global transport today to 27 percent by the year 2050. But achieving these ambitious targets will require development of biofuels such as green gasoline produced from fast pyrolysis.

These technologies currently exist and are economically attractive, but novel reactor designs and optimization for economic viability will require a detailed understanding of the fundamental reaction chemistry and kinetics occurring within biomass particles. That understanding is exactly what Dauenhauer’s technique will make possible for the very first time. (December 2012)