Dow, NREL to produce chemical building blocks

By Erin Voegele
Dow Chemical Co. and the U.S. DOE's National Renewable Energy Laboratory announced an agreement July 16 to jointly develop and evaluate a process to convert biomass into ethanol and other chemical building blocks. The project, which will be conducted at NREL's Thermochemical Users Facility in Golden, Colo., will likely begin this fall.

The project will use Dow Chemical's mixed alcohol catalyst to produce cellulosic biofuels. Biomass materials, such as corn stover and wood waste, will be converted into synthesis gas through a gasification process. Dow Chemical's technology converts the syngas into a mixture of alcohols, including ethanol, which can be used as transportation fuel or chemical building blocks. The program will focus on improving the mixed alcohol catalyst, demonstrating pilot-scale performance and showing the commercial relevance of an integrated facility.

According to Dow Chemical Scientist Mark Jones, the research of his company's mixed alcohol catalyst has been ongoing for more than 20 years. However, the process, which was first developed to produce liquid fuels from coal, is now being tested using biomass-derived syngas. "The recent uptick in interest in the conversion of biomass to syngas to chemicals is what caused us to forge an alliance with NREL," Jones said.

In addition to ethanol, Dow's mixed alcohol catalyst produces propanol, butanol and pentanol from syngas. Ethanol and propanol can then be converted to ethylene and propylene, which are the building blocks of the modern chemical industry. Ethylene is used to build polyethylene, the largest of the commodity plastics.

NREL spokesman George Douglas said the Dow Chemical/NREL partnership is an example of how others in the United States can reduce their dependence on petroleum, not just as a fuel, but as a chemical feedstock. "The NREL goals and Department of Energy goals are to reduce our dependence on petroleum, and this is another path toward doing that, and a promising one," he said.