Anellotech licenses p-xylene technology from UMass Amherst

By Anellotech Inc. | November 29, 2012

Anellotech Inc. a technology-based company focusing on low cost green petrochemicals and renewable fuels, has announced the signing of an exclusive license agreement amendment with University of Massachusetts-Amherst. The agreement adds a new technology capability to Anellotech’s core catalytic fast pyrolysis process that triples the amount of p-xylene produced from non-food biomass.

P-xylene is a critical feedstock for making PET (polyethylene terephthalate) which is used to make plastic bottles, clothing, carpeting, automotive and other products.  Currently, some 54 million tons of PET is manufactured globally, nearly 100 percent coming from petroleum-based products. Today, about one third of PET is used to produce recyclable plastic bottles, which are identified by the number “1” inside the triangular recycling insignia on labels. There is no commercial production of renewable p-xylene on the market today.

Anellotech’s core technology, catalytic fast pyrolysis (CFP), was invented in Professor George W. Huber’s laboratory at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.   Anellotech is developing the process to produce benzene, toluene, xylenes and olefins from non-food biomass.   The additional breakthrough technology was first reported in an article published in the prestigious journal Angewandte Chemie in October 2012, where Huber, Wei Fan, an assistant professor in Chemical Engineering, and collaborators describe how to modify the catalyst used in this process to triple the yield of p-xylene within the benzene, toluene and xylenes product stream.  The new invention allows the more economical production of renewable p-xylene from non-food biomass, thus enabling the production of lower-cost renewable PET.  This research was funded by the U.S. DOE Energy Frontiers Research Centers as part of the Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation which is led by the University of Delaware. Anellotech is currently working on scaling up the new CFP technology and bringing it to the market place. 

“There is increasing demand for p-xylene, particularly for making consumer products” said David Sudolsky, president and CEO of Anellotech Inc. “This new technology we will be developing under license from the University of Massachusetts will enable beverage manufacturers to obtain 100 percent renewable PET bottles made from green ethylene glycol (already on the market by others) together with Anellotech’s green p-xylene.

“We see significant potential demand from sustainability-focused products companies, among others, as consumers continue to focus on environmentally-friendly products,” he continued. “ The new technology enables Anellotech to produce more p-xylene (and less o- and m-xylenes) while maintaining attractive yields of the green benzene and toluene that are themselves used to make nylon, polyurethane, polystyrene and a host of other important plastics used in a broad array of product applications.”  

Anellotech’s CFP enables low-cost production because 1) all reactions occur in one single reactor, 2) the feedstock is non-food biomass (not sugar), 3) the complete process uses a cost-effective catalyst, and 4) it is based on established chemical engineering processes.  In this single-step process, lignocellulosic biomass is fed into a special type of reactor called a fluidized-bed reactor that contains a mixture of catalyst, biomass and gases.  Inside the reactor the biomass thermally decomposes to form pyrolysis vapors.  These vapors then enter the catalyst pores, and are converted into desired aromatics and olefins along with CO, CO2, H2O, and undesired coke.  The benzene, toluene, p-xylene, olefins and other products are themselves fungible commodities, identical to their petroleum-derived counterparts, that fit easily into the existing petrochemical infrastructure. 

CFP uses a special type of catalyst called zeolites, commonly used in the petroleum industry for the production of gasoline and chemicals from crude oil.  A large fraction of the reaction chemistry involved in CFP occurs inside the zeolite pores.  Huber and Fan have demonstrated that slightly decreasing the pore mouth opening of the catalysts causes a 300 percent increase in the p-xylene selectivity in this process.  This discovery was made possible by understanding the basic reaction chemistry that was involved in the CFP process.

“This technology demonstrates how basic science, chemistry and engineering can reduce our dependence on petroleum, moving us towards a sustainable economy,” Huber said. “Right now the plastics industry purchases all its feedstock from the petroleum industry.  Our CFP technology will enable plastics manufacturers to purchase feedstocks from non-petroleum renewable resources.” 

“We view our efforts to license to Anellotech this important technology developed at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and our efforts to support the company as part of the University’s core economic development mission.  We have worked closely with Anellotech’s management from the outset in order in ensure this innovation will bring economic, environmental and social benefits for the Commonwealth and the country.  Startup companies like Anellotech demonstrate how basic university research can make important contributions to our economy resulting in technology leadership and job creation,” said William Rosenberg, executive director of commercial ventures and intellectual property for the University of Massachusetts system.