New breakthrough in pyrolysis sector promises to speed commercialization

November 26, 2010 |

In Massachusetts, a team of researchers from University of Massachusetts Amherst reported in Science that they have developed a new process to produce key chemical intermediates from pyrolytic bio-oils. According to the researchers, “the new process could reduce or eliminate industry’s reliance on fossil fuels to make industrial chemicals worth an estimated $400 billion annually.”

The intermediates, including benzene, toluene, xylenes, ethylene and propylene are used in the manufacturing of solvents, detergents, plastics and fibers.

3X yields of existing process

Principal investigator George Huber reports: “Here we show how to achieve three times higher yields of chemicals from pyrolysis oil than ever achieved before. We’ve essentially provided a roadmap for converting low-value pyrolysis oils into products with a higher value than transportation fuels. We are making the same molecules from biomass that are currently being produced from petroleum, with no infrastructure changes required.”

He adds, “We think this technology will provide a big boost to the economy because pyrolysis oils are commercially available now. The major difference between our approach and the current method is the feedstock; our process uses a renewable feedstock, that is, plant biomass. Rather than purchasing petroleum to make these chemicals, we use pyrolysis oils made from non-food agricultural crops and woody biomass grown domestically. This will also provide United States farmers and landowners a large additional revenue stream.”

The Anellotech connection

Huber told the Digest: ” The process discussed in the Science paper is a process to convert pyrolysis oils using Anellotech’s technology.  It is more of a proof of concept, but not that far away from commercial viability.” Regarding Anellotech’s progress, Huber reports: “Anellotech’s technology is definitely near commercial viability (after we scale it up).  Next month we will start making liter quantities of products to deliver to different customers.”

The technology has been licensed to Anellotech Corp., co-founded by Huber and David Sudolsky of New York City. Anellotech is also developing UMass Amherst technology invented by the Huber research team to convert solid biomass directly into chemicals. Thus, pyrolysis oil represents a second renewable feedstock for Anellotech.

Sudolsky, Anellotech’s CEO, says, “There are several companies developing technology to produce pyrolysis oil from biomass. The problem has been that pyrolysis oils must be upgraded to be useable. But with the new UMass Amherst process, Anellotech can now convert these pyrolysis oils into valuable chemicals at higher efficiency and with very attractive economics. This is very exciting.”

The catalytic process

In the Science paper, the team used a two-step, integrated catalytic approach to create olefins (ethylene, proylene) used as intermediates for plastics and resins, as well as and aromatics such as benzene, toluene and xylenes found in dyes, plastics and polyurethane. Starting with biomass-based pyrolysis oils, the team used a “tunable,” variable-reaction hydrogenation stage followed by a second, zeolite catalytic step. The zeolite catalyst has the proper pore structure and active sites to convert biomass-based molecules into aromatic hydrocarbons and olefins.

The team reports that “the olefin-to-aromatic ratio and the types of olefins and aromatics produced can be adjusted according to market demand.”  A pilot plant on the UMass Amherst campus is now producing these chemicals on a liter-quantity scale using this new method.

The Digest’s Take

The impact? Potentially huge. As Cobalt’s Rick Wilson has said, “Why make a 2 fuel when you can make a $5 chemical?” The answer, of course, lies in the opportunities for scale in the fuel markets, but in the nearer term, numerous companies have discovered the virtues of working on niche markets in renewable chemicals that allow for smaller-scale, higher-margin opportunities that bring technologies to viability much faster as they travel down the cost curve. That de-risks projects, makes them far easier to finance, and generally shortens the Valley of Death. It’s a big step forward for Anellotech, and for the entire pyrolysis community, which has had a lot of success making bio-oil, but has struggled with the second-step of making commercially viable products.

At the same time, we note that the team is downshifting from talk of “grassoline”, and is describing its outputs in terms of benzene, toluene and other aromatics and olefins, which are components of gasoline along with the better-known alkenes.

More on Anellotech

Anellotech launched as a company in August 2009, when it acquired global rights to the UMAss-Amherst’s catalytic fast pyrolysis technology developed by George Huber for producing clean, green “grassoline.”

At the time, Anellotech said it would offer a low-cost, single-step process for turning forest residues and waste biomass into gasoline, diesel fuel, heating oil and renewable chemicals including benzene, toluene and xylenes. Anellotech said that its technology would produce commercial amounts of biofuel at price parity with gasoline by 2019. The company is developing a 2 ton per day pilot project and raising Series A venture capital.   The first plant is scheduled to complete construction by 2014, according to the company’s website.

Nick DeCristofaro, director of the UMass Amherst Intellectual Property and Technology Transfer, said at the time: “Huber’s new technique has been the most sought-after technology the campus has licensed to date. We’ve noted unprecedented interest from a number of quarters.”

The Pyromanaiax

Anellotech was one of 19 projects profiled earlier this year in “Pyromaniax: Mississippi State’s SERC group, among 18 others, developing advanced biofuels from pyrolysis.” In that article, we looked at Anellotech, The Consortium for Research on Renewable Industrial Materials, Desert Sweet Biofuels, Dynamotive, Envergent, InfoSpi, two research teams at Iowa State, a project from KIT and Lurgi, QinetiQ, REII, Remediation Earth, RTI Biomass Energy, Sunset Ridge, Sustainable Power, Tolero Energy, TSTO, the UK Carbon Trust’s pyrolysis project, and a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement between Siemens and the USDA’s  ARS Eastern Regional Research Center.

Another hot pyrolysis technolgies of note: KiOR

One of the hottest companies that has come along subsequent to this profile has been KiOR, a JV of Khosla Ventures and Dutch biofuels pioneer BIOeCON. In August, the Mississippi  state legislature approved Governor Haley Barbour’s special session request for a $75 million loan to KiOR for a proposed development of five biofuel plants in the state. Overall, KiOR committed to invest a total of $500 million of its own funds towards its first three projects.

The company combines a proprietary catalyst system with a biomass-to-renewable crude oil conversion technology based on Fluid Catalytic Cracking (FCC), a proven process technology which has been used in the oil refining industry for decades. KiOR is testing the commercial viability of its process at its demonstration-scale facility located near Houston, Texas.  The facility is a 400 time scale-up from KiOR’s Pilot Plant and is producing up to 15 barrels of renewable crude per day from woodchips. In July, KiOR announced that it has raised $110 million in its latest round.

More on the story.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Tags: , , , , ,

Category: News Analysis, Top Stories

Thank you for visting the Digest.