New Catalytic Process Produces High Amounts of Clean Liquid Hydrocarbon Fuel

Chemical pre-treatments and separations are usually performed to break down raw biomass into liquid fuels. Now, for the first time, researchers have developed a new catalytic process that produces high quantities of clean liquid hydrocarbon fuel without using any separation or chemical pre-treatment methods. The study represents a major advancement towards renewable energy, and can go a long way in reducing our reliance on fossil fuel, which is a non-renewable energy.

As we shift away from our long-standing dependency on fossil fuels, it becomes increasingly crucial to producing sustainable fuels from raw biomass. Both generation and usage of plant material or biomass provides a sustainable energy option, which is virtually carbon neutral. This is because the carbon dioxide gas, thus generated, is recycled during plant photosynthesis.

The woody material in plants is used for generating fuel. This material includes three types of components, namely lignin, cellulose, and hemicellulose. However, among these, lignin poses a major issue in biofuel production, as it requires corrosive chemicals, high amounts of energy, and is also difficult to decompose and change into useful fuels. Hence, about 25% of the plant material is either burned down as low-value fuel or goes to waste.

The research team at East China University of Science and Technology and the University of Manchester used a catalyst that includes a combination of niobium phosphate, which is a type of metal complex, and small platinum particles that are dotted throughout the surface. Using raw wood sawdust, the researchers stewed this catalyst for a period of 20h at a pressure of 50atm and a temperature of 190oC. They later observed that the catalyst effectively decomposed and converted the lignin compound. This discovery paves the way for developing next-generation catalysts that could help convert biomass into a sustainable fuel. The results of the study have been reported in Nature Communications.

For the study, Dr. Yang, lead author of the study, utilized the ISIS Neutron and Muon source (super-microscope) at Science & Technology Facilities Council for molecular analysis of the catalyst and biomass. With the aid of a TOSCA instrument, Dr. Yang along with ISIS scientist Dr. Stewart Parker utilized neutrons to observe the way a lignocellulose model interacts with the catalyst surface to create a sustainable fuel.

“The conversion of biomass into fuels typically requires separations and pre-treatments to the raw biomass, thus suffering high energy penalties. This catalyst showed exceptionally high activity in splitting the carbon-oxygen bonds, the most challenging step in the conversion of lignocellulosic biomass. This new catalytic process can therefore directly convert raw biomass to liquid fuels without separations or chemical pre-treatments, leading to significant potential energy savings.” said Dr. Sihai Yang.

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