Dr. Paul Dauenhauer of the Chemical Engineering Department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst has been awarded a prized Early Career Award in Basic Energy Sciences from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). The award will provide $800,000 for five years to support his research on “Natural and Primary Catalysts for Molten Cellulose Pyrolysis to Targeted Biooils.” “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. His website is at www.ecs.umass.edu/~dauenhauer/.

“The conversion of wood, grasses, and agricultural byproducts to fuels and chemicals occurs through rapid heating methods including pyrolysis, gasification, and combustion,” as Dauenhauer describes his research for the DOE. “During the rapid heating of biomass, the long polymer chains which make up many types of plants thermally degrade to chemicals which can then be refined to fuels and products.”  

Within all plants are specific inorganic substances such as magnesium, calcium, and phosphorous, which act as catalysts to select the types of chemicals produced during thermal degradation. 

“This research aims to understand the molecular influence that these 'natural catalysts' exhibit within the high temperature degradation process,” explains Dauenhauer. 

The DOE Office of Science announced Dauenhauer’s award on May 6, along with 64 other recipients from across the nation, selected for five-year awards under the Office's Early Career Research Program. The awards are designed to bolster the nation's scientific workforce by providing support to exceptional researchers during the crucial early career years, when many scientists do their most formative work. The research awards also aim at providing incentives for scientists to focus on research areas that are a high priority for the DOE and the nation.

Dauenhauer’s latest achievement follows the news of his highly selective 3M Nontenured Faculty Award in March. Dauenhauer will use the 3M funding to study the “Hybrid Production of Biorenewable Aromatic Chemicals.” “Hybrid production,” in this case, 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.

Dauenhauer’s DOE and 3M studies are spinoffs 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. (May 2011)