WSU Tri-Cities researchers receive $50K NSF grant to test market potential for lignin pathway for biojet
Researchers at Washington State University Tri-Cities have been awarded a $50,000 National Science Foundation I-Corps grant to explore the commercialization potential of their new pathway for biojet from biomass waste. The WSU process, described in a 2015 paper in the RSC journal Green Chemistry, uses hydrodeoxygenation (HDO) of dilute alkali extracted corn stover lignin catalyzed by a noble metal catalyst (Ru/Al2O3) and acidic zeolite (H+-Y) to produce lignin-substructure-based hydrocarbons (C7-C18), primarily C12-C18 cyclic structure hydrocarbons in the jet fuel range. (Earlier post.)
Current biorefineries undervalue lignin’s potential, largely because selective conversion of lignin has proven to be challenging. Processes that have been successful at breaking the lignin bonds have typically resulted in shorter chain monomers as opposed to the longer chain hydrocarbons needed for fuel. In contrast, the output of the WSU processis a mix of hydrocarbons that are long-chain and can be made into nearly the right mix for jet fuel.
Scaling this process and putting it into production alongside current biorefinery production facilities would significantly improve biomass conversion and improve the economics of biofuels and chemicals production.
Bin Yang, associate professor of biological systems engineering and principal investigator for the grant, and his team have spent several years developing the process for transforming lignin, a polymer that makes plants woody and rigid, and currently a waste product in the biofuels production process, into hydrocarbon molecules that can be certified as jet fuel.
Yang said by leveraging research results from projects funded by the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, the Department of Transportation, the Joint Center for Aerospace Technology Innovation and The Boeing Company, he and his team have successfully demonstrated a new, water-based process for deconstructing and recovering lignin from biomass and converting it into jet fuel-range hydrocarbons that may be certified as jet fuel in the near future. Yang currently holds a patent on the process.
Our ultimate goal is to demonstrate a flexible catalytic process that selectively converts all the carbon in the lignin into jet fuel-range hydrocarbons at minimal cost.—Bin Yang
Libing Zhang, a WSU Tri-Cities postdoctoral research associate and the entrepreneurial lead of the project, said the NSF I-Corps program helps leading researchers develop a business platform for their research and technology that could one-day change the world, while not trying to “reinvent the wheel” by recreating processes and strategies that are already working well within the industry.
For the NSF I-Corps grant, Yang and his team are working under the mentorship of Terri L. Butler from the University of Washington for the business aspects of the project.
Hongliang Wang, Hao Ruan, Haisheng Pei, Huamin Wang, Xiaowen Chen, Melvin P. Tucker, John R. Cort and Bin Yang (2015) “Biomass-derived lignin to jet fuel range hydrocarbons via aqueous phase hydrodeoxygenation” Green Chem. 17, 5131-5135 doi: 10.1039/C5GC01534K