NSF-funded research team to study biomass and hydrogen link

By Luke Geiver | November 27, 2012

The National Science Foundation is helping an interdisciplinary team of scientists at North Carolina A&T State University develop better syngas production methods, more efficient nanocatalysts and high-purity hydrogen production processes. Through a $5 million funding round, the Center of Research Excellence in Science and Technology (CREST) Bioenergy Center, located on the North Carolina school’s campus, will partake in a five-year project “to make the production of advanced biofuels more efficient and affordable,” according to the school.

“Biobased industries present tremendous opportunities for agriculture and energy independence,” said Abolghasem Shahbazi, CREST director. “We know petroleum is a finite resource. We know it’s going to run out, the only question is when,” Shahbazi added. “We know liquid fuels are necessary for transportation, because of the high energy density they contain. Nothing else comes close. So biofuels are the best alternative for replacing petroleum fuels.”

Researchers will devote their efforts to three areas. One of those areas will look at hydrogen produced during the formation of alcohols, alkanes or biodiesels. The team will develop a robust membrane reactor-separator technology for hydrogen separation during steam reforming. During biomass or coal gasification, hydrogen generated in the process contains trace amounts of CO and sulfur compounds, and according to CREST, those particles act as poisons to fuel cell electrocatalysts. The team will work to develop CO and H2S tolerant electrocatalysts and a solid electrolyte polymer membrane to be used during the hydrogen separation process.

Through another area of research, the team will develop silica-based encapsulated nanocatalysts that are synthesized using a hydrothermal process developed at the school’s lab. The catalyst can then be used for syngas conversion, according to the school, providing an enriched, increased surface area for nanoparticles to touch during the catalytic process.

And, through a third area of research, the team will dissect the reaction pathways present during biomass gasification. The team will employ experimental testing techniques including thermogravimetry and differential scanning calorimetry, along with mass and infrared spectrometry.

In addition to the school’s work on advanced biofuels development, a team will also perform an economic assessment and profitability test of all of the technologies and findings from the work.