Biomass to fuel conversion is the future of sustainable clean energy. However, the most common biomass to fuel conversion processes, such as fast pyrolysis, require high temperature or expensive catalyst material or both, which makes the cost of biofuel production prohibitive. They are also often inefficient and produce fuel product of inferior quality.
Dr. Cheng Zhang, an organic chemistry professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, South Dakota State University, has made a breakthrough discovery in biomass valorization. His invention uses a novel reductive catalytic system that converts biomass into gasoline-type o0f liquid transportation fuels in one step under relatively low temperature (200-260 degree C). The material used in the catalytic system is not only cheaper than commonly used catalysts but also recyclable. The catalytic system has been applied to different feedstocks such as corn stover, switchgrass, pine sawdust and alkaline lignin to breakdown/liquefy all components of biomass into small molecules and reduce them into largely saturated hydrocarbon molecules. The end product contains high content of branched hydrocarbons which are good for use as jet fuels and gasoline as well. Preliminary cost analysis estimates the cost of biofuel production by this procedure at 15%-50% of alternative technology.
This novel system works under relatively low temperature and removes most of the oxygen (up to 95%) in one step. It does not use expensive materials for catalyst and recycles every chemical used in the process. It’s free of common problems like catalyst deactivation over time and excessive char and gas formation. Dr. Zhang is actively working on the possibility of the system working without adding ethanol solvent and operating under normal pressure, which, once realized, would further reduce the cost greatly and improve the safety of the facility.