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New Process Developed for Bio-Plastic Feedstocks

George Huber (Anellotech)

George Huber (Anellotech)

Chemical engineers at University of Massachusetts in Amherst have developed a way to produce high-volume chemical feedstocks from biomass, such as waste wood, agricultural waste and non-food energy crops. This method, that the authors say is economically competitive to current processes using fossil fuels, can produce industrial materials such as benzene, toluene, xylenes, and olefins, a market with an estimated annual value of $400 billion.

In a paper published in this week’s Science magazine (paid subscription required), chemical engineering professor George Huber (pictured left) and a team of graduate students described how they produced the same prylosis oils — derived from organic materials at high temperatures without oxygen — currently used to make plastics, although from biomass rather than petroleum. The team used a two-step, integrated catalytic process starting with a variable-reaction hydrogenation stage followed by a second, zeolite catalytic step. The zeolite catalyst, says Huber, has the proper pore structure and active sites to convert biomass-based molecules into aromatic hydrocarbons and olefins.

A pilot plant on campus now produces these chemicals in liter quantities using the new method. The new process allows refiners to vary the hydrogenation and zeolite conversion steps to produce feedstocks needed by customers.  Huber will have a chance to test that idea for real: the technology was licensed to Anellotech Corp., a company he co-founded to convert solid biomass into chemicals.

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