September 23, 2008
Lower Cost Catalyst Converts Cellulose To Ethylene Glycol

For biomass energy technology I watch two areas: algae biodiesel and cellulosic technology. The latter is of interest because it makes trees and other non-food plant matter useful as an energy source. Some researchers in China and Delaware have developed a catalyst that converts cellulose into ethylene glycol.

Alternatives to fossil fuels and natural gas as carbon sources and fuel are in demand. Biomass could play a more significant part in the future. Researchers in the USA and China have now developed a new catalyst that directly converts cellulose, the most common form of biomass, into ethylene glycol, an important intermediate product for chemical industry. As reported in the journal Angewandte Chemie, the catalyst is made of tungsten carbide and nickel on a carbon support.

You might think that producing ethylene glycol doesn't help much to power an engine. True enough. But oil gets used for many chemical feedstock purposes. A method of replacing oil for the chemical industry will free up more oil for powering transportation. Plus, car radiators contain ethylene glycol.

A team led by Tao Zhang at the Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics (China) and Jingguang G. Chen at the University of Delaware (Newark, USA) has now developed just such a system. The catalyst is made of tungsten carbide deposited on a carbon support. Small amounts of nickel improve the efficiency and selectivity of the catalyst system: a synergetic effect between the nickel and tungsten carbide not only allows 100 % conversion of cellulose, but also increases the proportion of ethylene glycol in the resulting mixture of polyalcohols to an amazing 61 %. Ethylene glycol is an important intermediate in the chemical industry. For example, in the plastics industry it is needed for the production of polyester fibers and resins, and in the automobile industry it is used as antifreeze.

I'm still reserving my biggest biomass energy hope for advances in growing algae to produce liquid hydrocarbons burnable in vehicles. Will genetic engineering be required to make algae more useful?

Update: Technology Review reports that another research group claims a newer and cheaper process for converting biomass into useful chemical energy.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have developed a simple, two-step chemical process to convert plant sugars into hydrocarbon fuels. The compounds created during the process could also be used to make other industrial chemicals and plastics.


The Wisconsin researchers, led by chemical- and biological-engineering professor James Dumesic, employ chemical reactions instead of microbial fermentation. They use catalysts at high temperatures to convert glucose into hydrocarbon biofuels. The process works thousands of times faster than microbes do because of the higher temperatures, so it requires smaller, cheaper reactors, Dumesic says.

We are in a race between the approaching global decline in oil production and technological advances to provide us with substitutes. The longer we can go before the oil production decline starts the more technology we will have to help us adjust to it. It is still not clear to me how disruptive this decline will be.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 September 23 10:58 PM  Energy Biomass

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