Biomass: Crude Oil for the 21st Century

By Jen A. Miller

When the U.S. Department of Agriculture and National Institute of Food and Agriculture started looking into an alternative biomass from which to produce fuel, they looked to switchgrass, which is a weed nobody wanted.


When they needed someone to figure out what to do with the byproduct of their refining process, they turned to NATHAN M. WEST, PhD. Dr. West, an assistant professor of chemistry at USciences, is working with lignin, which is the material that makes up plant cell walls.

After the switchgrass is turned into what Dr. West calls "a very crude bio-oil" by a process known as "fast pyrolysis," lignin is still left behind, "largely unreacted." His work is part of a larger, three-year funding initiative dubbed FarmBio3 (Distributed On- Farm Bioenergy, Biofuels and Biochemicals). USciences is one of several universities, such as University of Delaware, Drexel University, Villanova University, and Swarthmore College, forming a larger consortium with industry partners that have a part of the project.

Dr. West uses transition metal elements, like nickel, manganese, and vanadium, to convert the lignin into something usable under mild conditions. He's specifically seeking a replacement for aromatic chemicals that are typically produced from crude oil and are used to make commodity chemicals, plastics, and octane boosters.

The goal of his work is twofold: first, figure out how to turn a naturally growing and abundant source that is not part of our food system into usable chemicals and, second, to do so efficiently.

"Lignin is 25 to 35 percent of the material," he said of switchgrass sludge. "If you throw it all away, then biomass is not economically feasible as a petroleum replacement."

He hopes that this process will not only create a reliable chemical source from a renewable plant product but also replace corn ethanol as a bio-based fuel source. Producing ethanol from corn drives up food prices. Switchgrass, on the other hand, is a six- to eight-foot tall weed that can grow on lands not suitable for food crops. "It's a true waste product," Dr. West said.

Dr. West’s work has focused on studying the chemistry of transition metals. He came to USciences three years ago after earning both his undergraduate and PhD degrees at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and conducting post-doctoral research at the California Institute of Technology.

Dr. West started working on the USDA project in October. Right now, lignin is shipped to USciences from the USDA’s Eastern Regional Research Center, but the goal is that a biomass reactor could be created in the trailer of an 18-wheeler truck and moved from farm to farm as a rolling, energy-efficient production line. "It would be a farm-based conversion of plant material," said Dr. West. "It's a pretty cool project."

Research at USciences— Moving Life Forward

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