MSU announces production of zero-oxygen hydrocarbons from biomass

By Philip Steele

Sanjeev Gajjella and  Philip Steele
PhD. student Sanjeev Gajjella and SERC thrust leader Philip Steele
extract newly-created bio-oil with no oxygen

Mississippi State University (MSU) recently announced that a breakthrough in catalyst synthesis has allowed them to produce a 100% hydrocarbon mix with no detectable oxygen from bio-oil produced from biomass. Bio-oil is a product produced by thermal decomposition of biomass by rapid heating in the absence of air. This is the first announcement of a zero-oxygen liquid hydrocarbon produced from bio-oil. The technology produces the hydrocarbons by catalytic hydroprocessing of bio-oil. This breakthrough was made possible by the support of the Sustainable Energy Research Center (SERC) for the research performed by Department of Forest Products Ph.D. student Sanjeev Gajjela. Sanjeev works under the direction of Dr. Philip Steele, Professor and SERC Bio-Oil Research Group Thrust Leader.

Bio-oils fall into a class of chemical compounds known as oxygenates, meaning that they contain high levels of oxygenated chemicals. High levels of oxygenates result in low energy values and bio-oil provides less than one-half of the energy per unit weight as do petroleum hydrocarbons. Oxygen removal is important to upgrade bio-oil to a viable transportation fuel. In addition, refineries are not able to process crude products when oxygen is present as it inactivates the refinery catalysts that would otherwise last up to 2 years. Therefore, bio-oil cannot be refined in petroleum refineries until it is upgraded such that the oxygen content is significantly reduced. This deoxygenated bio-oil hydrocarbon mixture can be refined in current petroleum refineries without modification of the refinery infrastructure. MSU researchers also believe that simple distillation will allow fractionation of the hydrocarbon mix to diesel, gasoline and jet fuel products that can be blended with current petroleum fuels without refinery processing.

As a fuel, raw bio-oil has environmental advantages when compared to fossil fuels because combusted bio-oil produces lower to equal the NOX and negligible quantities SOX when compared to petroleum fuels. As a fuel derived from a renewable resource, bio-oil is considered to be CO2 neutral.

Dr. Steele observed of his joint effort with Sanjeev that, "We have been focused on this result for the last 2 years but are a bit surprised that we have apparently surpassed our colleagues in conversion of bio-oil to a transportation fuel with this leap forward. Sanjeev is to be congratulated for attaining a goal that many outstanding researchers have unsuccessfully pursued for nearly 2 decades."

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