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Biomass Utilization: A Renewable, Versatile Pathway to Fuels and Chemicals

April 28, 2015 @ 7:00 pm

Biomass Utilization: A Renewable, Versatile Pathway to Fuels and Chemicals

Charles G. Coe, PhD

Department of Chemical Engineering, Villanova University

Biomass is the only renewable source of organic carbon that can be used directly for fuel or converted to other carbon-based chemicals and fuels by downstream processing.  In the never ending search for sustainable chemicals and fuels, biomass offers some attractive properties along with a plethora of challenges for utilization as a chemical feedstock in a broad range of applications.  Biomass, in the broadest sense covers a wide variety of compositions ranging from A to Z (algae to zoo manure).  Lignocellulosic biomass is considered one of the most promising biomass resources since it does not compete directly with food and is largely availability on a world-wide basis.  Since land use in many regions is insufficient for growing energy crops, the cultivation of plants and algae in our seas is also being explored.  This talk will provide an overview of multiple conversion pathways that are being explored to convert biomass to chemicals and fuels.

After setting the proper context for the utilization of biomass and some relevant energy science, the conversion of biomass by chemical, thermochemical, biochemical, and combined hybrid processes will be introduced.  Three generations of bio-derived alcohols will be reviewed along with advances in the utilization of algae for the production of biodiesel and alcohols.  The importance of interdisciplinary research and biochemical routes to enhance selective production of alcohols will be shown.  Selected examples of biofuels and bio-based chemicals will be presented throughout to put the transformation towards a sustainable supply chain in perspective.

Besides the production of traditional biofuels, biomass feedstocks can also be pyrolyzed and upgraded to produce fuel blendstocks for centralized refineries where they are converted to “green gasoline”.  Fast pyrolysis of biomass is a promising way to densify the carbon content; however, the liquid produced is corrosive, highly reactive, and not suitable for transport to a central processing facility.  Fast pyrolysis is the rapid thermal decomposition in the absence of oxygen to produce light gases, carbon char and about 60% yield of an organic liquid.  Catalytic upgrading of these liquids is necessary prior to transporting them to a refinery.  Villanova is participating in a large Biomass Research and Development Initiative (BRDI) to allow the conversion of waste farm residues to transportable liquid bio-oils which have an order of magnitude increase in carbon density compared to the agricultural waste.  Improvements achieved by using catalysts to upgrade the pyrolysis vapor before condensation will be briefly described.

Finally, the challenges associated with considering the entire supply chain, for example, from the field to the pump, will be outlined.  It will become obvious that a concerted approach must be taken to achieve the triple bottom line required and expand the impact of bio-based chemicals and fuels as we strive to achieve a resilient bio economy.

We hope you can join us for Dr. Chuck Coe’s talk on Tuesday, April 28 at 7:00 in Breinigsville, PA (between Kutztown and Allentown) at TEKPark. For detailed directions, please visit https://themarea.org. Meetings are free and open to the public. After the meeting, please plan to stick around and chat with friends old and new. We’re also interested in your ideas for MAREA speakers, activities and services. Light snacks will be served. Hope to see you there

Dr. Charles Coe, Research Associate Professor in Chemical Engineering, comes to Villanova with more than 30 years of experience in the development of catalysts and adsorbents.  At Villanova, he is sharing his knowledge with the next generation of engineers and scientists. He is actively involved in developing and teaching alternative energy courses at both the undergraduate and graduate level.  His research at Villanova, in collaboration with Drs. Satrio and Smith, is focused on the thermal chemical conversion of biomass using catalytic pathways to enhance carbon yield and product selectivity. He also is involved in Corporate sponsored research on the separation and purification of gases over molecular sieves.  During his industrial career at Air Products he developed an extensive expertise in molecular sieve science and catalysis.  For many years he teamed with project leaders across business units to enable the development of improved adsorbents and catalysts based on creating structure-property relationships targeted at specific applications.

For questions, contact Vera Cole, <a>[masked]</a> or [masked].

Free DVD with MAREA membership  While supplies last, all new and renewing MAREA members will receive a free copy of “Saving Sunshine, Keeping the Lights on with Batteries and Solar Power,” the 30-minute DVD produced by MAREA this year with funding from the Berks Community Foundation and distributed by Bullfrog Films. It’s terrific film, offering an interesting and easily understood explanation of the electricity grid and distribution generation, especially the role of batteries with solar. MAREA is a 501(c)3 non-profit. Donations and memberships are how we keep the lights on. You can join at the meeting or anytime online. Thanks for your help. 


TEK Park
9999 Hamilton Blvd.
Breinigsville, PA 18031 us


Mid-Atlantic Renewable Energy Association (eastern PA)