A new catalyst ethanol made from biomass

A new catalyst for ethanol made from biomass

4:05 PM, 3rd August 2011
A new catalyst for ethanol made from biomass
The right balance of zinc and zirconium oxides in this catalyst (purple block) converts ethanol to isobutene with low amounts of unwanted byproducts such as acetone and ethylene.

RICHLAND, US: Researchers in the Pacific Northwest have developed a new catalyst material that could replace chemicals currently derived from petroleum and be the basis for more environmentally friendly products including octane-boosting gas and fuel additives, bio-based rubber for tires and a safer solvent for the chemicals industry.

To make sustainable biofuels, producers want to ferment ethanol from non food plant matter such as cornstalks and weeds. Currently, so-called bio-ethanol’s main values are as a non-polluting replacement for octane-boosting fuel additives to prevent engine knocking and as a renewable replacement for a certain percentage of gasoline. To turn bio-ethanol into other useful products, researchers at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and at Washington State University have developed a new catalyst material that will convert it into a chemical called isobutene.

Reported by researchers in the Institute for Integrated Catalysis at PNNL and in the Gene and Linda Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering at WSU, the findings appeared July 21 in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

“Isobutene is a versatile chemical that could expand the applications for sustainably produced bio-ethanol,” said Chemical Engineer, Yong Wang, who has a joint appointment at PNNL in Richland and at WSU in Pullman, and leads research efforts at both institutions.

An important key to unlocking renewables to replace fossil fuel products is the catalyst. The PNNL and WSU researchers were trying to make hydrogen fuel from ethanol. To improve on a conventional catalyst, they had taken zinc oxide and zirconium oxide and combined both into a new material called a mixed oxide. Testing the mixed oxide out, PNNL, Postdoctoral Researcher, Junming Sun saw not only hydrogen, but – unexpectedly - quite a bit of isobutene.

Chemists can make tire rubber from it or a safer solvent that can replace toxic ones for cleaning or industrial uses. Isobutene can also be readily turned into jet fuel and gasoline additives.

Since isobutene could be produced in one step, it could be important in reducing the cost of biofuels and renewable chemicals. Investigating the catalyst in greater depth, the researchers examined what happened when they used different amounts of zinc and zirconium. The catalyst could turn more than 83 per cent of the ethanol into isobutene, when using 1:10 ratio of zinc to zirconium. Also the team realized that the two metals had to be close to each other to quickly flip the acetone into isobutene.

Future work of the researchers will look into optimizations to further improve the yield and catalyst life. Wang and colleagues would also like to see if they can combine this isobutene catalyst with other catalysts to produce different chemicals in one-pot reactions.

This work was supported by the US Department of Energy Offices of Science and of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

(C) Pacific Northwest National Laboratory News




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