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Pyrolysis based processing of biomass and shale gas resources to fuels and chemicals

posted on 19.07.2021, 16:38 by Abhijit D Talpade
Thermochemical processing using fast-pyrolysis technology has been used to upgrade feedstocks like biomass and natural gas and more recently studied for plastic recycling. This work aims to improve the selectivity to desired products from a pyrolysis process through better catalysts and reactor design.
Fast-pyrolysis of biomass to fuels is considered a promising technology due to the higher yields to liquid fuel products. However, the process suffers from low carbon efficiency to hydrocarbon products due to carbon losses to biochar, accounting for 25-40 wt.% of the product stream depending on the biomass type. Using a combination of inorganic free-model compounds, biomass pretreatments and mass spectrometric analyses coupled with lab-scale reactor experiments, the char contribution from the lignocellulosic components (cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin) and mineral content was investigated. The lignocellulosic components were found to follow the order: Lignin > Hemicellulose > Cellulose. Addition of inorganic salts (K, Na and Ca) to cellobiose, a model compound for cellulose, was found to catalyze additional dehydration reactions on primary pyrolysis products (e.g., levoglucosan) to yield secondary products (e.g., 5-HMF), and produce more char. This knowledge of char formation contributors can enable optimization of the bio-refining process sequencing using process system engineering tools and thus achieve higher carbon efficiency for biomass conversion.
While biomass has been viewed as a future energy source, there is a need for a transition fuel with the lowest possible greenhouse gas (GHG) footprint. Shale gas, consisting primarily of methane, is a potential candidate due to its large availability and high hydrogen to carbon ratio. Recently, single-atom catalysts have been studied as stable and non-coking catalysts for the non-oxidative coupling of methane (NOCM) to higher hydrocarbons (like ethylene). However, lack of post reaction catalyst characterization and rigorous kinetic testing have raised questions on the stability of these materials. This work combines homogenous (Chemkin simulations, gas phase kinetics) and heterogeneous reaction kinetic studies (reaction orders, steady state kinetics), coupled with microscopy (Scanning and Transmission Electron Microscopy (SEM, TEM)) and surface characterization tools (BET, TGA, Raman spectroscopy, CO-IR spectroscopy) to understand the role of the solid materials during NOCM. Post reaction catalyst characterization using transmission electron microscopy (TEM) analysis on the spent samples (CH4 treated at 975 deg C for 3 hours) reveals that the materials containing Pt single atoms (SA) and Pt nanoparticles (NP) are found to sinter to particles approximately 5-7 nm in size. Ethylene hydrogenation experiments, a kinetic probe for surface Pt, shows initial ethane formation rates that are four orders of magnitude lower on the isolated Pt+2 sites, found on Pt SAs, when compared to the rates obtained if all the surface Pt were assumed to be metallic. These results suggest that single atoms are not the active sites. However, under same reaction conditions (50 mL min-1 CH4 flow and 975 deg C), the ethylene formation rates (in mol h-1) on the solid materials are 2-7 times higher than the empty tube rates, indicating that the surface plays a role during NOCM. Addition of incremental amounts of the solid material increases methane conversion, extrapolating to the bare tube conversion at zero loading. This indicates that the solid materials improve the NOCM performance.
Experiments with pure methane feeds indicate that the solid materials are found to deactivate due to coking on the surface, evidenced by the coke buildup observed using thermogravimetric analysis (TGA) and the initial time-on-stream kinetic results showing rapid methane deactivation. Raman spectroscopy on the spent catalysts indicate at the development of a similar graphite-like surface intermediate under steady state conditions on all the materials. When compared under the same reaction conditions (975 deg C, 60 mL min-1 Pure CH4 with 10% UHP N2 feed, space velocity = 39.6 L h-1 gcat-1), these coked surfaces show a linear dependence for the ethylene formation rate (in mol h-1 gcat-1) with the spent surface area of the material (in m2 gcat-1). This observation is irrespective of the type of the material studied (alpha Al2O3, Davisil SiO2, 1 wt.% Pt/CeO2, Graphene, Graphite, etc.). In conclusion, these results prove that the spent surface area is critical for NOCM.
Similar experimental setup was used to study the dehydrogenation of methane, ethane, and propane mixture in the gas phase. Initial experiments at 1 bar pressure and reaction temperatures ranging from 650-850 deg C revealed that ethylene and hydrogen are the main gas phase products, with methane acting as a diluting agent under these reaction conditions. These results could enable direct processing of the shale gas without the use of a conventional ethane/propane separation step. These results were further studied by the system engineers using ANSYS ChemkinPro. For practical applications, these experiments were suggested to be performed at much higher operating pressures (~30 bar) and low residence time (~0.2 s), with a quick quenching step added after the reactor to prevent change in the exit stream compositions. A new reaction system was built to experimentally validate these recommendations.


Engineering Research Center for Innovative and Strategic Transformation of Alkane Resources - CISTAR

Directorate for Engineering

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Basic Energy Sciences

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Degree Type

Doctor of Philosophy


Chemical Engineering

Campus location

West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Fabio H. Ribeiro

Additional Committee Member 2

Rakesh Agrawal

Additional Committee Member 3

Hilkka I. Kenttamaa

Additional Committee Member 4

Rajamani Gounder

Additional Committee Member 5

Nathan S Mosier