Hanwu Lei, Washington State University Tri-Cities associate professor in biological systems engineering, was awarded a $494,000 grant this fall to research catalysts, which will be used to increase the energy output and performance of biofuels.
Lei said he will use the biomass-derived catalysts to produce aromatic hydrocarbons, which are high-energy organic compounds that are largely responsible for the octane number, or performance rating, of a fuel.
"Aromatics have numerous industrial applications including use in fuels or as chemical precursors for a variety of plastics and resins," Lei said. "Their high energy content can prevent engine knock, and, in jet fuel, can prevent fuel leaks during engine operation. They burn very efficiently."
Aromatics, Lei said, are a large reason why fossil fuels are so efficient. He said crude oil consists of 33-36 percent aromatics, and gasoline has up to 85 percent aromatics. Almost all alternative fuels, such as biodiesel and Fischer-Tropsch fuel products, however, have zero aromatic hydrocarbons, he said.
"Current aromatics are all from petroleum sources, exclusively," he said.
Lei said he hopes to succeed in identifying catalysts that will enable him to convert biomass into bio-oil, which can then be upgraded into aromatics using an integrated catalytic microwave pyrolysis process and packed-bed upgrading catalysis process.
Lei said the project will have a transformational impact on the rural community in the United States by leveraging a feedstock that is currently considered an agricultural waste.
"It will create a renewable crude oil alternative while producing advance hydrocarbons that have numerous industrial applications within a multibillion dollar market," he said.
Lei said the aromatics are currently produced on a large industrial scale with a demand exceeding 200 billion pounds per year, and a total market of close to $100 billion in 2012.
"As an important and most desired component of gasoline, bunker fuels and aviation fuels, aromatic hydrocarbon has the ability to burn without knocking the engine due to its high octane number and antiknock properties," he said. "The new project will also address and overcome the deleterious properties of the bio-oil from biomass pyrolysis, which is one of the promising methods that is currently being used to produce biofuels."