Return of the Pyromaniax

January 26, 2012 |

Those researchers developing pyrolysis as a solution to the world’s fossil fuels woes – they are just irrepressible.

Now, one team from UMass-Amherst has come up with a “platform discovery” that can make catalytic fast pyrolysis “economically competitive with crude oil production”.


You just can’t turn your back for very long, around the Pyromaniax – the researchers around the world working on pyrolysis. Now, pyro comes in several flavors – fast pyrolysis, flash pyrolysis, catalytic fast pyrolysis – there’s low-pressure, low-temp, and high-temp. Whatever the flavor, the R&D progress is fast – demonstrated by companies such as KiOR which went public with a billion-dollar valuation.

The stumbling blocks – generally, too much oxygen in the pyro oils – so it needs upgrading to make a true do-oxygenated hydrocarbon fuel. Not always enough stability in the oils. Never enough aromatics.

Well, some of that changed just the other day, with what has been hailed as a platform discovery coming from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where George Huber and his team have been long identified among the leading Pyromaniax.

What’s the discovery?

The team, using a catalytic fast pyrolysis process that transforms renewable non-food biomass into petrochemicals, have developed a new catalyst that boosts the yield for five key “building blocks of the chemical industry” by 40 percent compared to previous methods.

The process has been tested and proven in a laboratory reactor, using wood as the feedstock, the research team says, adding that wood, grasses or other renewable biomass can be used now to create benzene, toluene, and xylene (all aromatics), and ethylene and propylene (both olefins).

Together, these represent five of the six petrochemicals that serve as the building blocks for the chemical industry. In addition, some of them can be blended into gasoline, diesel or jet fuel.

The new process was outlined in a paper published in the Dec. 23, 2011 edition of the German Chemical Society’s journal Angewandte Chemie. It was written by Huber, Wei Fan, assistant professor of chemical engineering, and graduate students Yu-Ting Cheng, Jungho Jae and Jian Shi.

What’s the key takeaway?

“The whole name of the game is yield,” says research team leader George Huber, an associate professor of chemical engineering at UMass Amherst and one of the country’s leading experts on catalytic pyrolysis. “The question is what amount of aromatics and olefins can be made from a given amount of biomass.

For example,” Huber added, “with this new gallium-zeolite catalyst we can increase the aromatics yield from 15 to 23 percent – a 40 percent gain. We think that today we can be economically competitive with crude oil production, that is, to make aromatics cheaper than aromatics from petroleum, in a large commercial biorefinery.”

The most important step in the past two years?

“This is a profound discovery by George and his team,” commented Dion Vlachos, Professor of Chemical Engineering, and Director of the Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation at the University of Delaware, a DOE funded EFR CEnter, which funded the work.

“It’s the most important step in this field in the past two years,” added Vlachos. “Fast pyrolysis is a most promising technique for biofuels, and catalytic fast pyro is the most promising route in the field. There are two steps, the breakdown of biomass and the eventual upgrade into products – the problem has been too much coke and not enough aromatics. This discovery will minimize the cost of downstream processing. It’s a platform breakthrough that is creating a lot of excitement, and will stimulate further research. For example, it opens up new chemicals opportunities, opportunities for making plastics.”

What exactly is pyrolysis, again?

In this single-step catalytic fast pyrolysis process, either wood, agricultural wastes, fast growing energy crops or other non-food biomass is fed into a fluidized-bed reactor, where this feedstock pyrolysizes, or decomposes due to heating, to form vapors.

These biomass vapors then enter the team’s new gallium-zeolite (Ga-ZSM-5) catalyst, inside the same reactor, which converts vapors into the aromatics and olefins.

What are the technical advantages of this process?

The economic advantages of the new process are that the reaction chemistry occurs in one single reactor, the process uses an inexpensive catalyst and that aromatics and olefins are produced that can be used easily in the existing petrochemical infrastructure.

Who has the license to the technology?

The team’s catalytic fast pyrolysis technology has been licensed to New York City’s Anellotech, Inc., co-founded by Huber, which is scaling up the process to industrial size for introduction into the petrochemical industry.

Aromatics – the most profoundly important set of molecules, ever?

Well, most people would point to DNA as the most significant molecule to ever come down the pikeway. Or RNA, its precursor. But where did RNA come from? According to a growing number of scientists, from Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons that formed in in stellar nebulae, which are a candidate molecule for the origin of life on earth. Wikipedia has a pretty good introduction to the theory, here.

More about the Pyromaniax: 10 Hot Projects

In a special update on the Pyromaniax, we provide this round-up of 10 of the hottest projects around the world using pyrolysis. Canada, Australia, South East Asia, the US and Europe – companies like KiOR, Dynamotive, Agilyx, and Envergent, plus some hot research projects from Iowa State, the University of York, GTI and elsewhere around the world. All, here, in our special update today at

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