Researchers develop cellulose conversion catalyst

By Erin Voegele
Web exclusive posted Sept. 26, 2008 at 10:07 a.m. CST

Researchers in the United States and China have developed a new catalyst that directly converts cellulose into ethylene glycol, an important intermediate product for the chemical industry. The research team was led by Tao Zhang at the Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics in China and Jingguang G. Chen at the University of Delaware in Newark.

The technology uses heat, pressure, and a catalyst made of tungsten carbide and nickel on a carbon support to produce a mixture of polyalcohols from cellulosic biomass. According to Jingguang, the catalyst most likely works through hydrolysis and hydrogenation reactions.

The team has found that the catalyst converts 100 percent of cellulose. Ethylene glycol consists of approximately 61 percent of the polyalcohols created from the conversion. Jingguang said most of the remaining substances are C6 sugars, which can be processed further to make hydrogen and chemicals.

One of the most important benefits of the catalyst is its affordability. While similar research has been done, the research has generally centered on precious-metal catalysts that would be too expensive to use in the conversion of large quantities of cellulose.

The team is performing more studies to better understand how the catalyst works. According to Jingguang, the next steps in the research process include improving the conditions of temperature and pressure and identifying other promising catalysts. He said several patents have been filed for the technology.