Research by George Huber and his research team from the Chemical Engineering Department, which has developed an economical process for producing chemical feedstocks from waste biomass, is attracting international attention from the chemical industry after the team’s article appeared in the November 26 issue of Science. His most high-profile coverage was in the January 6 issues of the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg Businessweek. The story has also been picked up by Biofuels Digest, Chemistry World, Science News, Sify, DailyTech.com, Bionity, the Springfield Republican, the Hampshire Gazette, the Albany Times Union, the Journal of Technology & Science, The Engineer, Plasticsnews.com, Energy & Ecology, Green Chemistry, Green Car Congress, Chemie.de, Physorg.com, Lab Manager, Reliableplant.com, Smartplanet.com, Clickgreen.org, The Hindu Business Line, Science Now, and FavStocks.
In its Science article, the team reported that it has developed a way to produce high-volume chemical feedstocks, including benzene, toluene, xylenes, and olefins, from pyrolytic bio-oils, the cheapest liquid fuels available today derived from biomass. As Huber, the Armstrong Associate Professor in the Chemical Engineering Department, explains, "Thanks to this breakthrough, we can meet the need to make commodity chemical feedstocks entirely through processing pyrolysis oils. We are making the same molecules from biomass that are currently being produced from petroleum, with no infrastructure changes required."
The new process could reduce or eliminate industry’s reliance on fossil fuels to make industrial chemicals worth an estimated $400 billion annually. Manufacturers can soon use cheaper, widely available bio-oils made from waste wood, agricultural waste, and non-food energy crops to produce the same high-value basic materials for making solvents, plastics, fibers, and more. A pilot plant on campus is now producing these chemicals on a liter-quantity scale. The technology has been licensed to Anellotech Corp., co-founded by Huber. (January 2011)