Pyrolysis oils produce high-value feedstocks

A team of University of Massachusetts (UMass) Amherst chemical engineers say they have developed a way to produce high-volume chemical feedstocks including benzene, toluene, xylenes and olefins from pyrolysis oils − liquid fuels derived from biomass.

The new process could reduce or eliminate industry’s reliance on fossil fuels to make industrial chemicals worth an estimated $400bn (£260bn) annually.

Prof George Huber, the chemical engineer that led the development team, said that commodity chemical feedstocks could now be made entirely through processing pyrolysis oils. ’We are making the same molecules from biomass that are currently being produced from petroleum, with no infrastructure changes required,’ he said.

In the past, these compounds were made in a low-yield process, but the new process is claimed to produce yields that are three times greater than achieved before.

To make olefins such as ethylene and propylene − the building blocks of many plastics and resins − Huber’s process takes a two-step approach starting with a hydrogenation stage followed by a second, zeolite catalytic step. The zeolite catalyst has the pore structure and active sites to enable it to convert the biomass-based molecules into aromatic hydrocarbons and olefins.

A pilot plant on the UMass Amherst campus is now producing the chemicals on a litre-quantity scale using the new process and the technology has also been licensed to Anellotech, a company founded by Huber.