UMass recieves DARPA funding to turn biomass into fuel

The Department of Defense has awarded $1.9 million in funding to a biofuel research team led by chemical engineer George Huber at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst so he and colleagues can turn wood and corn waste products into fuel precursors.

The DoD's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has granted Huber and colleagues funding to investigate new catalysts to enable low-cost pathways for the conversion of lignocellulosic biomass (derived from the cells and woody fibers of plants and trees) into a liquid composition that can be easily refined to a fuel such as JP-8. Huber and his team will exploit new chemistries to develop an end-to-end process that starts with biomass as the input and ends with JP-8 range alkanes and aromatics, which are both hydrocarbons and are the essential ingredients in military fuel.

"We've made these compounds from biomass before, but now we're trying to improve the yield of each of these steps with alternative pathways," Huber explains. By understanding the mechanisms of catalytic processes through theoretical modeling and new spectroscopic methods, his team hopes to improve efficiencies of this system to provide a cost effective alternative to petroleum-based liquid fuels.

Due to its low cost and high availability, lignocellulosic biomass has a tremendous potential to be used as a feedstock for liquid fuels. Lignocellulosic biomass refers to plant biomass that is composed of cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin. To date, research in lignocellulosic biomass conversion has primarily focused on ethanol, which is not a viable military fuel due to its low energy density and other limitations.

Key innovations of this program will come in the development of new catalysts with rational design for enhanced selectivity for use throughout the process of biomass-to-fuel conversion. "Aromatics and liquid alkanes are the two main ingredients we need to make from biomass," said Huber, who is the John and Elizabeth Armstrong Professional Development Professor. Others in the UMass Amherst research group are chemical engineers W. Curtis Conner and Geoff Tompsett. Researchers participating from other institutions are at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of California at Riverside and the University of Delaware.

"I don't think we can get a better team together to carry out this research," said Huber. "The research team for this project has over 100 years of combined experience, 470 scientific peer-reviewed papers, and 20 patents in the areas of catalysis, acid hydrolysis and biofuels."

Source: University of Massachusetts, Amherst