Scientists find mild and inexpensive procedure for removing oxygen from biomass

June 17th, 2009 - 5:41 pm ICT by ANI  

Washington, June 17 (ANI): Researchers with Berkeley Lab and the University of California (UC) Berkeley have discovered a mild and relatively inexpensive procedure for removing oxygen from biomass.

This procedure, if it can be effectively industrialized, could allow many of today’s petrochemical products, including plastics, to instead be made from biomass.

“We’ve found and optimized a selective, one-pot deoxygenation technique based on a formic acid treatment,” said Robert Bergman, a co-principal investigator on this project who holds a joint appointment with Berkeley Lab’s Chemical Sciences Division and the UC Berkeley Chemistry Department.

According to Bergman, the formic acid converts glycerol, a major and unwanted by-product in the manufacturing of biodiesel, into allyl alcohol, which is used as a starting material in the manufacturing of polymers, drugs, organic compounds, herbicides, pesticides and other chemical products.

“Right now, about five percent of the world’s supply of petroleum is used to make feedstocks that are synthesized into commodity chemicals,” said Jonathan Ellman, a UC Berkeley chemistry professor and the other principal investigator in this research.

“If these feedstocks can instead be made from biomass, they become renewable and their production will no longer be a detriment to the environment,” he added.

Biomass has been drawing wide public attention for its potential to be converted into carbon-neutral biofuels, but there is also huge potential for it to be converted into chemical feedstocks.

Unlike petrochemical feedstocks, which are made by adding oxygen to petroleum, biomass feedstocks require the removal of oxygen from the raw material.

Bergman and Ellman, working with Elena Arceo, a Fulbright scholar from Spain, and Peter Marsden, a UC Berkely graduate student, used labeling experiments and a unique distillation system to take a new look at an old chemical reaction in which formic acid, the chemical found in bee venom, was used to remove oxygen from glycerol.

In its original conception, the reaction was low-yielding, primarily because of substantial charring, an unselective combustion that leads to an intractable mixture under high heat.

Bergman and Ellman found that simply protecting this reaction from air provided a much improved process for the deoxygenation of glycerol.

“Treating glycerol with formic acid while directing a stream of nitrogen through the reaction mixture completely eliminates charring. Besides protecting the product from atmospheric oxidation, the nitrogen also facilitates distillation of the alcohol,” said Bergman.

“The final product shows substantially improved yield (80-percent) and higher selectivity,” he added.

The technique could also prove useful in the process by which biomass is converted into liquid transportation fuels. (ANI)

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