A chemical engineer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst has been awarded a one-year, $80,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to conduct basic research on the chemical process pyrolysis - breaking down woody biomass by heating it.

The research, to be done by Paul J. Dauenhauer, an assistant professor, seeks to unlock the complex chemistry that takes place when wood is heated. He says heating woody biomass to high temperatures actually creates a brief liquid state before it turns to gas and that liquid state is of particular interest to scientists trying to produce the basic chemicals needed for biofuels. Dauenhauer says this liquification stage has been observed, but scientists don’t understand all of the chemical reactions they are seeing.

"It’s a very complex process and we’d like to have a much better understanding of what is taking place," Dauenhauer says. He is particularly focused on that transition from a solid to a liquid state. "This is basic research on a process we don’t fully understand."

The grant award from the NSF says this research will help scientists better understand the pyrolysis process and find new ways to employ this technology on an industrial scale. It also notes that the work "has significant potential for helping the U.S. move toward sustainable energy independence." The grant-funded work began in mid-January.

Dauenhauer’s research has uncovered other aspects of how pyrolysis can be used to create biofuels. Last year it was reported that he helped develop a new method of converting biomass feedstock into sustainable fuel with colleagues at the University of Minnesota that has a potential profound effect on the chemical industry. The "gasification" process developed by this team not only greatly reduces greenhouse gas emissions, but doubles the amount of fuel that can be made from an acre of biomass feedstock, says Dauenhauer.

He says using this method scientists gasify biomass in the presence of precisely controlled amounts of carbon dioxide and methane in a special catalytic reactor they have developed. The result is that all the carbon in both the biomass and the methane is converted to carbon monoxide.

He says applying this new technique allows the researchers to use 100 percent of the carbon in that biomass for making biofuels. That doubles the proportion of fuel-producing carbon produced by a conventional gasification process done in one reactor while converting biomass to biofuels.

The new method, when perfected in as few as two years, would be a major step forward in the quest for a production-ready process to convert biomass to biofuel, Dauenhauer says. His colleagues at Minnesota are Professor Aditya Bhan and Regents Professor Lanny Schmidt.