U of York opens Green Chemical Technology Facility

By Lisa Gibson
Posted May 17, 2010, at 2:55 p.m. CST

The Green Chemistry Group at the U.K.'s University of York will use its recently-opened Green Chemical Technology Facility to advance research into clean synthesis, catalysis, novel materials and the application of renewable resources. The facility is an expansion of the Chemistry Department's existing Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence.

The suite of laboratories in the new facility will house a biorefinery microwave demonstrator for evaluation of the effects microwaves have on compounds for the conversion of biomass, such as wood chips, into chemicals, materials and fuels, according to the university. It is analogous to an oil refinery, simply using biomass as the starting material to refine the crude mixture using microwave energy as opposed to thermal. "The ultimate goal of the (microwave) facility is to develop a biorefinery demonstrator of a commercially viable scale for use in the real world," said Mark Gronnow, technical manager of the microwave project group.

In addition, the center will facilitate research into the use of biomaterials, such as starches and straws, in general-purpose boards, switchable adhesives and bioderived catalysts; development of greener routes to molecules including the use of new reusable catalysts and safer solvents enabling the conversion of new biofeedstocks into green products; and the use of liquid and supercritical carbon dioxide as an alternative to conventional organic solvents for applications such as extraction and fractionation of botanical materials and reactions with conventional or biocatalysts. "The [Green Chemical Technology Facility] is designed to enable the Green Chemistry Group to continue world-leading research into various areas of green chemistry including the valorization of biomass whilst being flexible to cope with the next green chemistry problems which come our way including scale up of current technology," Gronnow said.

The microwave project group is conducting studies with common types of biomass, assessing their chemical properties under pyrolysis conditions. "This follows a desk-top study of available biomass assessing their suitability with respect to availability, usability and impact on other industries, particularly food." Gronnow's group has patented a low-temperature method for pyrolyzation of biomass and the new facility will allow it to build on the methodology, scale up equipment for carrying out the reactions at a commercial scale and allow testing of new biomass varieties, he said.

The majority of the work in the new facility will be undertaken by the 70 staff members and students at the Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence, but the organization's track record of successful collaborations in the industry could mean partners will use the facility to test their ideas on the new equipment, according to Gronnow. Construction of the new facility will cost around £200,000 ($289,000), Gronnow said, but projects within it total more than £1.75 million.

"These technologies will allow us to further our research and help us to accelerate the next chemical revolution," said James Clark, director of the Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence. "We are working toward the aim of switching to a biobased economy through the development of new carbon efficient sources of energy and green and sustainable supply chains for chemicals based on platform molecules and clean synthesis."