The large scale production of commodity chemicals from lignin, the largest source of natural renewable aromatic chemicals, has been a goal of the biomass processing industry for decades. Catalytic materials can be used to reach this goal. Prof. Jeremy Luterbacher of the EPFL Laboratory of Sustainable and Catalytic Processing (LPDC) has been awarded an ERC Starting Grant to develop new methods to produce catalyst that are adapted to the specific conditions of biomass transformation. The 60 month project started in December 2017.
Need for biomass industry specific catalysts
The chemical structures of biomass and of petroleum derived feed stocks are very different. In particular, biomass derived feedstocks are typically highly oxygenated, aromatic or cyclic, high molecular weight polymers associated with water. In contrast, petroleum derived feed stocks typically do not contain oxygen, contain many short-chain alkanes, have a lower degree of polymerization and do not contain water. Due to these structural differences, the highly effective set of catalysts and methods developed by the petrochemical industry during the past 100 years are not adapted to the specific requirements of the emerging biomass processing industry.
Strategy to develop appropriate catalysts
Recent progress using atomic layer deposition (ALD) has made it possible to produce stable metal catalysts that resist sintering and leaching under the aqueous conditions typical of biomass conversion reactions. However, due to the requirement for high vacuum conditions, ALD is an expensive process that is not adapted to the large-scale production of cheap catalysts for the biomass processing industry. The CATACOAT project will develop alternative, solution-based over coating methods to produce highly active, selective, stable, low cost supported metal nanoparticle catalysts. The project features work packages that will define the synthesis parameters that lead to the appropriate surface area, shape, pore size, metal oxide loading, stability, molecular selectivity, and reaction rates of the catalytic material to be used in biomass transformations, especially the low temperature production of jet fuel from lignin monomers. Molecular imprinting, shape selectivity and protected single atom and single site catalyst production strategies will be developed.
Industrial and economic impact
The results of the CATACOAT project will have a broad impact on the production of catalytic materials with unprecedented control of the active site architecture. The catalytic materials and the methods developed during the project are expected to find immediate uptake in the bio based aromatic chemicals, especially jet fuel, production sectors.
During a previous project, the EPFL Laboratory of Sustainable and Catalytic Processing discovered a novel approach to extract an isolated and soluble form of lignin. Biomass is efficiently separated into polysaccharide and stabilized lignin fractions. The breakthrough method preserves close to 100% of the ether bonds in lignin thereby making it possible, for the first time, to valorize lignin to its full potential. The start-up BloomBiorenewables (https://www.bloombiorenewables.com/) was created to industrialize the process. The stabilized lignin monomers obtained by BloomBiorenewables offer an unprecedented opportunity to develop valuable new products using the CATACOAT project results. The EPFL and the LPDC accompany BloomBiorenewables in the process knowledge and technology transfer.
About the LPDC laboratory
In the Laboratory of Sustainable and Catalytic Processing 20 team members, including 8 PhD students, are working to make biomass conversion processes and the chemicals they produce greener and more sustainable. The areas of interest include biomass conversion, heterogeneous catalysis, lignin chemistry, biocatalysis and green solvents. The lab is well equipped with analytical instruments and reactors for use in biomass conversion and catalyst characterization.
Prof. Jeremy Luterbacher, Head of the Laboratory of Sustainable and Catalytic Processing (LPDC).
Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne, Institut des sciences et ingénierie chimiques, CH-1015 Lausanne
Telephone: +41 (0)21 693 31 14
Web site: https://lpdc.epfl.ch/home
Text: LPDC/Bloombiorenewables/Mark McCormick