The University of Massachusetts Amherst
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Anellotech Signs Licensing Agreement with UMass Amherst

Anellotech Inc., a technology-based company focusing on low-cost green petrochemicals and renewable fuels, has announced the signing of an exclusive license agreement amendment with the University of Massachusetts Amherst that adds a new technology, tripling the amount of p-xylene produced from non-food biomass using Anellotech’ s core, catalytic fast pyrolysis technology. P-xylene is a critical feedstock for making PET (polyethylene terephthalate), which is used to produce plastic bottles, clothing, carpeting, automotive, and other products. UMass faculty member Wei Fan of the Chemical Engineering Department is a key member of the research team that developed the new technology.

Currently, some 54 million tons of PET are manufactured globally, nearly 100 percent coming from petroleum-based products. Today, about one-third of PET is used to produce recyclable plastic bottles, which are identified by the number “1” inside the triangular recycling insignia on labels. There is no commercial production of renewable p-xylene on the market today.

Anellotech’s core technology, catalytic fast pyrolysis (CFP), was invented in Professor George W. Huber’s laboratory at UMass Amherst. Anellotech is developing the process to produce benzene, toluene, xylenes, and olefins from non-food biomass. The additional breakthrough technology was first reported in an article published in the prestigious journal Angewandte Chemie in October 2012, in which Professor Fan, Professor Huber, and collaborators describe how to modify the catalyst used in this process to triple the yield of p-xylene within the benzene, toluene, and xylenes product stream.

The new invention allows the more economical production of renewable p-xylene from non-food biomass, thus enabling the production of lower-cost renewable PET.

This research was funded by the Department of Energy Energy Frontiers Research Centers as part of the Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation, which is lead by the University of Delaware. Anellotech is currently working on scaling up the new CFP technology and bringing it to the market place.   

“There is increasing demand for p-xylene, particularly for making consumer products,” said David Sudolsky, president and chief executive officer of Anellotech Inc. “This new technology we will be developing under license from the University of Massachusetts will enable beverage manufacturers to obtain 100-percent renewable PET bottles made using Anellotech’s green p-xylene and green ethylene glycol (already on the market), both produced from renewable biomass resources.”

Sudolsky added that “We see significant potential demand from sustainability-focused products companies, among others, as consumers continue to focus on environmentally-friendly products. The new technology enables Anellotech to produce more p-xylene (and less o- and m-xylenes) while maintaining attractive yields of the green benzene and toluene that are themselves used to make nylon, polyurethane, polystyrene, and a host of other important plastics used in a broad array of product applications.”   

Anellotech’s Catalytic Fast Pyrolysis (CFP) enables low-cost production because: 1) all reactions occur in one single reactor; 2) the feedstock is non-food biomass (not sugar); 3) the complete process uses a cost-effective catalyst made from silica and alumina; and 4) it is based on established chemical engineering processes. 

In this single-step process, lignocellulosic biomass is fed into a special type of reactor called a fluidized-bed reactor that contains a mixture of catalyst, biomass, and gases. Inside the reactor the biomass thermally decomposes to form pyrolysis vapors. These vapors then enter the catalyst pores, and are converted into desired aromatics and olefins along with CO, CO2, H2O, and undesired coke. The benzene, toluene, p-xylene, olefins, and other products are themselves fungible commodities, identical to their petroleum-derived counterparts, which fit easily into the existing petrochemical infrastructure. 

CFP uses a special type of catalyst called zeolites, commonly used in the petroleum industry for the production of gasoline and chemicals from crude oil. A large fraction of the reaction chemistry involved in CFP occurs inside the zeolite pores. Professors Huber and Fan have demonstrated that slightly decreasing the pore mouth opening of the catalysts causes a 300 percent increase in the p-xylene selectivity in this process. This discovery was made possible by understanding the basic reaction chemistry that was involved in the CFP process.

 “This technology demonstrates how basic science, chemistry, and engineering can reduce our dependence on petroleum, moving us towards a sustainable economy,” said Professor Huber. “Right now the plastics industry purchases all its feedstock from the petroleum industry. Our CFP technology will enable plastics manufacturers to purchase feedstocks from non-petroleum renewable resources.” 

“We are happy to see that Anellotech has licensed this technology developed at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and creating new jobs,” said Dr. Fred Reinhart, the director of the commercial ventures and intellectual property office at UMass Amherst. “This technology has tremendous potential economic benefits to the university and Commonwealth. Startup companies like Anellotech demonstrates how basic university research can benefit our economy.” (December 2012)