By Tina Hilding, Voiland College of Engineering & Architecture
Washington State University professor Xiao Zhang has received a prestigious National Science Foundation award to junior faculty for his work in converting tough plant material to liquid fuels.
He is developing an innovative chemical pathway to convert lignin to open chain hydrocarbons similar to those that make up jet fuel. The results will lead to new processes for producing sustainable fuel and improving economic and environmental sustainability of biorefinery operations.
“This is a potentially transformative technology, which can lead to large scale utilization of lignin,” said Zhang, assistant professor in the Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering at WSU Tri-Cities.
Washington State University has been selected to participate in an innovative program to build entrepreneurship into undergraduate engineering education.
WSU is one of 25 U.S. institutions and one of only two schools in the Northwest selected by the NSF-funded National Center for Engineering Pathways to Innovation (Epicenter) to join the Pathways to Innovation Program. The program helps institutions incorporate innovation and entrepreneurship into undergraduate engineering education.
A group of WSU chemical engineering students traveled to Atlanta, Georgia, earlier this month to participate in a national student conference and chemical car competition.
The students from WSU’s student chapter of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) secured a spot in the national student conference and chemical car competition on Nov. 14-17 after taking second place in last spring’s Pacific Northwest regional competition. The competition, which included 35 teams from around the U.S., requires that a chemically-powered car travel 25 meters while carrying a sizeable cargo and then stop as close as possible to the finish line. A group of WSU students originally developed the idea for the national AIChE competition more than a decade ago.
Emily Davenport, a WSU graduate student in chemical engineering, recently won two awards in the Inland Northwest Micrograph Contest for her micrographs for the research on electrochemically active biofilms. A biofilm is a group of microorganisms that have colonized a surface. These photos, taken through a scanning electron microscope, illustrate how biofilm structure and formation can facilitate the transfer of electrons and produce electricity. Davenport’s research focuses on the protective functions of a biofilm’s extracellular polymeric substance (EPS), a matrix of biomolecules produced by the biofilm. Davenport is especially interested in how EPS interacts with antibiotics used to treat infections. The Inland Northwest Micrograph Contest is an annual competition put on by the Materials Research Society of WSU.
“Conversion of Microalgae to Jet Fuel: Process Design and Simulation” by Hui-Yuan Wang, David Bluck, and Bernard J. Van Wie was recently selected as the cover story for the June 2014 edition of Bioresource Technology.
Accompanied by over-population and further industrialization, energy shortages are becoming the biggest challenge that our hydrocarbon-driven society will face in the near future. The non-renewability of fossil fuels will be the main impediment for energy sustainability in human society. At the same time, use of fossil fuels leads to a net production of CO2, a greenhouse gas believed to be directly related to global warming. In contrast, biomass is a renewable resource and carbon neutral in principle. The utilization of biomass as an energy feedstock is one of the most promising ways to reduce the energy dependence on non-renewable fossil resources and at the same time reduce the overall carbon footprint.
In the paper, the researchers show the utility of PRO/II software for simulating biomass related processes and use a PRO/II simulation to demonstrate the feasibility of jet fuel production from microalgae. They also use a PRO/II case study to show optimal hydrotreating conditions for making Jet B fuel and show that recovering hydrogen from the byproduct reforming adds up to 15 percent of the product’s value.
This work was partially supported by Schneider Electric S.A. (formerly Invensys Ltd.), the makers of Pro/II, through a project entitled “Pro II Simulation Comparison with Pilot Plant or Plant Data for Biomass Conversion to Biofuels” and partially by the Washington State University Agricultural Research Center though Hatch Project #WPN00807 entitled “Fundamental and Applied Chemical and Biological Catalysts to Minimize Climate Change, Create a Sustainable Energy Future, and Provide a Safer Food Supply” through the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institutes for Food and Agriculture program.
PULLMAN, WA – Ethanol from garbage and other sources could replace fossil fuels in the manufacturing of plastics, rubber, and other chemicals if scientists can gain the needed knowledge of catalysis.
WSU Professors Yong Wang and Junming Sun are conducting research and have developed a one-step process for upgrading ethanol to isobutene, an important first step in turning bio-ethanol into other useful, petroleum-based products.
In an article which recently appeared in the journal ACS Catalysis, the researchers provided an overview of work to convert ethanol to valuable chemicals and identified future research directions, including one-step ethanol conversions. Wang is the Voiland Distinguished Professor in the Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering as well as associate director at the Institute for Integrated Catalysis at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Sun is a research professor at WSU.
Renewable fuel requirements are increasing the availability and decreasing the cost of ethanol, with the production in the United States expected to reach more than 30 billion gallons in 2017.
With only 15 to 16 billion gallons needed for fuel blending, the additional alcohol could be used to produce plastic water bottles, carpet backing, and thousands of other products. Wang and Sun’s study provided a detailed summary of the research, giving scientists a needed overview.
“We need to de-bottleneck the process, from lignocellulose to the end products,” said Wang.
In the article, the team reviewed the progress made on deconstructing ethanol to provide hydrogen for use in proton exchange membrane fuel cells. Ethanol is of interest because of its easy-to-use form, nontoxicity, and high hydrogen content. Highly stable and selective catalysts, based on cobalt and other earth-abundant metals, appear promising for hydrogen production. Yet, efficiency and deactivation issues remain.
The team also discussed the production of light olefins, which can be used for building alkenes, alkanes, and aromatics, which are longer chained or ring-structured hydrocarbons. For example, producing the light olefin using gamma aluminum oxide is a commercial success. However, the reaction requires high temperatures when water is present. Questions remain, including the formatting of key intermediates, which inhibit the effective conversion of ethanol.
“Olefins are exciting because they are a nice platform molecule that can be further converted to other chemicals,” said Wang. “Essentially, the potential is great, but if you look at the current status, a significant amount of research is needed before commercialization.”
The researchers are continuing to better understand the catalysts and the reaction mechanisms involved, including the influence of impurities introduced with the bioethanol. They are also looking at the coupling thermochemical conversions to biological processes that produce the ethanol.