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Investigadores de la UD y de China desarrollan una nueva forma de utilizar la biomasa

UD and Chinese researchers develop new way to use biomass

Photo / Donna Coveney

3:58 p.m., Oct. 14, 2008----Jingguang Chen, Claire D. LeClaire Professor of Chemical Engineering at UD, and colleagues at the Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics in China have discovered a novel way to directly convert cellulose to industrially useful chemical compounds using tungsten carbide as a catalyst.


The breakthrough was recently announced in a press release by Angewandte Chemie, where the work will be published as the cover story in November. Angewandte Chemie is the leading journal in the world on applied chemistry.

Chen is quick to credit his collaborator in China, Prof. Tao Zhang, who directs the Dalian Institute, for his contributions to the advance. The premier catalytic center in China and one of the best in Asia, the institute is home to many state-of-the-art facilities, including a high-pressure autoclave system not available at UD.

“There is a wonderful synergy between our two research groups,” Chen says. “My team does very fundamental work, including mechanistic studies and theoretical modeling, while Prof. Zhang provides the catalytic testing and evaluation capabilities.”

Zhang has sent members of his research staff to work with the UD team for six-month periods, and Chen visits Dalian a couple of times a year to discuss the collaborative work. Coauthors on the paper include two doctoral students co-advised by the faculty team.

Chen and his research group at UD have been investigating the use of tungsten carbide as an alternative to more expensive platinum-based catalysts for more than a decade, and they have demonstrated the utility of these materials for fuel cell applications. More recently, the researchers started to explore their use for the conversion of oxygenate and biomass molecules.

Cellulose, the main component of plant cell walls, is the most abundant source of biomass on Earth, and, unlike other sources, such as corn and grain, it is not edible by humans so there is no competition for its use as a food source.

“Typically, the catalytic conversion of cellulose is through a process that first splits cellulose into its individual sugar components, which can then be re-formed to produce fuels and chemicals,” Chen says. “We were successful in making the conversion directly to ethylene glycol, which has a variety of uses in the chemical industry. Direct conversion significantly reduces costs and time.”

Applications of ethylene glycol include use in the plastics industry to produce polyester fibers and resins and in the automobile industry as an antifreeze.

“Its direct production from cellulose will create a new method for reducing dependence on petroleum,” Chen says. “This is a very timely finding, given the recent inauguration of the new University of Delaware Energy Institute, which focuses on creating and integrating new solutions to challenges in energy sufficiency and sustainability.”

While the researchers are pleasantly surprised at discovering the “how” of the reaction, they are continuing their work in an effort to determine the “why.”

“We have some rough ideas that we're exploring now,” Chen says.

Several companies have already expressed interest in collaborating with the team and in licensing the technology. “If the chemistry can be commercialized,” Chen says, “it should lead to a novel and more efficient process for biomass utilization.”

Article by Diane Kukich

Credits: University of Delaware

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