While biomass has potential to replace a large fraction of imported petroleum-based products, the main obstacle to its widespread use is the absence of low-cost processing technologies.
Now, a start-up company formed by chemical engineer Dr George Huber of the University of Massachusetts Amherst aims to change all that, using a catalytic fast pyrolysis technique that converts cellulosic biomass into benzene, toluene and xylenes.
The new company, Anellotech, claims that its one-step process is far simpler than competing multi-step biological, thermochemical or processes used to make biofuels.
It has already licensed the technique from UMass Amherst and within the next year hopes to build a pilot demonstration plant in Springfield, Massachusetts to highlight its capabilities.
Anellotech is currently negotiating with biomass suppliers for one tonne per day of feedstock for the pilot facility and expects to open a commercial biofuel production plant by 2014 in conjunction with commercial partners, as well as license the technology and supply proprietary catalysts to licensees.
At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Dr Huber’s work has focused on developing efficient, low-cost catalytic processes, catalytic materials and reactors for biomass conversion to fuels and chemicals using aqueous-phase processing.
Aqueous-phase technology is advantageous for biomass conversion because recyclable-heterogeneous catalysts can be used in the process, and biomass-derived molecules, which have a high degree of functionality and low thermal stability, can be processed.