Another breakthrough in bio-fuel conversion may leave the oil industry another customer short

While everyone knows that the main staple of fuel for automobiles of just about any kind is refined crude oil, another market for petroleum-based products looms expensively beneath.

Many industrial chemicals – olefins, xylenes, benzene and toluene, amongst others – are built from the same oil. It’s a $400 billion market annually. A $400 billion market which, thanks George Huber of the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s research team, may soon no longer depend on fossil fuels.

Pyrolytic oils, more commonly known as bio-oils, come from generally renewable stock resources. Non-food energy crops, agricultural waste, waste wood and many other sources can be turned into pyrolytic oils. And now, thanks to Huber’s group at Amherst, these oils can replace more expensive fossil oils for the making of industrial chemicals.

“Thanks to this breakthrough, we can meet the need to make commodity chemical feedstocks 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,” Huber explains.

The process consists of two separate stages. The first step is a hydrogenation stage, using a tunable, variable-reaction process. The second step uses a zeolite catalyst, which can convert the readied biomass-based molecules into refined hydrocarbons and olefins. The UMass refinement process can create three times as many of these chemicals from the bio oils as was previously possible.

Given that pyrolytic oils are much cheaper to make or purchase than petroleum products and that the chemicals being produced from them are worth far more than either, Huber’s new system may be a big win for the industrial chemical industry, the environment and the planet’s depletable resources. Perhaps not so much for the world’s petroleum industries.

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