Paul Dauenhauer of the Chemical Engineering Department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst has received a highly selective 3M Nontenured Faculty Award for $15,000 a year in unrestricted funds, renewable for up to three years. Dr. Dauenhauer will use the 3M funding to study the “Hybrid Production of Biorenewable Aromatic Chemicals.” “Hybrid production” means a combination of both biological and thermochemical steps in the catalytic process for producing chemicals and fuels from renewable biomass. This hybrid approach will result in a production process that is more economical and productive than is possible now.

As Dauenhauer explains, “From a reaction standpoint, I believe that an important technical barrier to developing an economically viable basic chemical feedstock process from biomass will be understanding the optimum combination of biological and thermochemical reaction steps.”

Dauenhauer adds that “My long-term goal is to contribute to the development of hybrid catalytic processes for basic chemical production within the biorefinery using our experience with computational chemical reaction methods, catalyst development and characterization, and industrial chemical process development.”

According to Dauenhauer, biomass represents a significant challenge for the refinery industry because its complex mixture of oxygen-rich polymers prevents direct utilization of existing chemical technology. In the past, the research emphasis for processing biomass has focused on identifying the optimal biological catalysts and/or microorganisms for production of fuels and chemicals. However, the resulting biologically-driven reactors are typically very expensive due to the long reaction time and large size of the reactors. In contrast, the reaction time for thermochemical catalysts, including noble metals and metal oxides, is much faster than it is for biological catalysts, but thermochemical processes don’t produce chemicals and fuels that are pure enough or functional enough for industrial use. Therefore, a hybrid of these two technologies is necessary to sustain the biorefinery concept.

“My objective is to understand the chemical reactivity of a specific hybrid catalytic process to convert glucose to a tunable array of aromatic compounds, including benzene, phenol, and catechol,” explains Dr. Dauenhauer.

Dauenhauer has been studying biomass-derived sugars in search of a “bridge molecule,” which can be passed between reaction types and will convert the sugar to a form capable of catalytic conversion by heterogeneous supported metal catalysts. This approach has the significant benefit of minimizing expensive biological steps while taking advantage of more cost-effective thermochemical methods. Simultaneously, this approach permits the use of catalytic reaction steps that meet the strict purity requirements of the chemical industry.

Dauenhauer’s 3M studies are a spinoff from his much publicized research into a new method of “gasification” for converting biofuel feedstock into sustainable fuel, which, according to the highly respected Technology Review, could have a “profound” effect on the chemical industry. His gasification 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.

“Our ability to provide fuels and chemicals in a sustainable manner for future generations presents the largest global challenge for reaction engineering in the 21st century,” says Dauenhauer. (March 2011)