WSU researchers creating catalyst to improve biojet production

By Maegan Murray, Washington State University Tri-Cities | July 06, 2018

Efforts to create an environmentally friendly catalyst that will lower the cost and increase the efficiency in producing bio-based jet fuels has netted Washington State University researchers a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

WSU Tri-Cities associate professor Hanwu Lei and his research team aim to develop the catalyst—a substance that increases the rate of chemical reactions and lowers the energy needed to perform the reaction — from forestry and agricultural waste products.

This is the second major research grant that Lei, an associate professor of biological systems engineering with the Bioproducts, Sciences and Engineering Laboratory, has received from the USDA and National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

The first grant for $494,000 was awarded in August 2015 to develop a different type of biomass-derived catalysts. Once developed, these catalysts will be used to increase the energy output and performance of biofuels. These catalysts will produce aromatic hydrocarbons, which are high-energy organic compounds that largely are responsible for the octane number, or performance rating, of a fuel.

Under the new grant, Lei and his team will use enzymes to produce nanocrystalline cellulose. These ‘green catalysts’ will be created from wastes such as corn stover, a remnant of corn harvest, or sawdust from Douglas fir trees. With funding from the second grant, the new nano carbon catalyst will further convert the aromatic hydrocarbons researched with the first grant to cycloalkane naphtha, a major component in jet fuels.

“To reduce energy and hydrogen demands, and improve the catalytic performance of bio-jet fuel production, we proposed a new catalyst design that we could leverage from environmentally friendly, nature-based molecules,” Lei said. “These rod-like nanocrystals can be sourced from any agroforestry waste.”

Lei said their project is transformative for the biofuels industry in two ways:

- It’s a new and innovative idea that can be used to produce bio-jet fuel using less energy and hydrogen compared to current production processes

- By using cutting-edge processes, the team is applying new knowledge and approaches to solve challenges in state-of-the-art nanocrystalline cellulose extraction

“The new process provides another novel pathway for conversion of biomass into advanced biofuels and jet fuels,” he said.