Research in the Biomass Resources & Conversion Technologies laboratory is focused on experimental, theoretical and numerical studies of systems for utilizing biorenewable materials to produce energy, liquid fuels and chemical products.
Improvement of Biomass Qualities as Biorefinery Feedstock
Examples of biomass feedstock found in Villanova’s Biomass Resources and Conversion Technologies lab.
Most biomass materials in general are not homogeneous (properties are not uniform) and “dirty” with undesired impurities. In addition, biomass materials are bulky with high moisture content, which make them difficult to handle and transport. These undesirable traits make biomass materials not ideal to be used directly as feedstock for processing. Pretreatment technologies, such as torrefaction and hydrolysis (hot water, chemicals, and biochemical), are being explored to improve the quality of various potential biomass materials to make them better feedstock for biomass conversion processes. Materials currently being studied in BCRT laboratory include biomass from:
- Agriculture (wheat straws, switchgrass, and mushroom substrates)
- Forestry (woods)
- Manufacturing (paper mill wastes)
Dr. Justinus Satrio produces bio-crude oil from biomass liquefaction processes.
Energy densification of biomass by methods of liquefaction has been touted as the most promising approach for utilizing biomass. Various thermochemical processes, such as fast pyrolysis, solvolysis, and direct hydrothermal liquefaction, convert biomass into liquid mixtures, known as biocrude oil (BCO), which, like petroleum crude oil, can be processed further to produce various carbon-based products. Research in biomass liquefaction is focused on further developing understanding on how the key chemical compounds in BCO are generated and determine which key parameters of the process that affect its physicochemical properties. In turn, the information will be used for further explorations on how to control the fast pyrolysis reaction to generate BCOs with desired chemical and physical properties depending on their intended process applications and/or final utilizations.
Utilizing/Upgrading Liquefied Biomass (BCO)
In general, bio-crude oil (BCO) from biomass liquefaction processes is not readily applicable for final applications other than combustion. Our work is focused on improving BCO properties, to make it more thermally stable, when it is used as feedstock for thermochemical reactions, such as catalytic/steam gasification reactions to produce hydrogen/syngas and catalytic cracking or hydrogenation reaction to produce liquid hydrocarbons. Current biomass liquefaction technologies produce BCO consisting of a multitude of chemical compounds from various chemical groups with different physicochemical properties, which make it difficult to conventionally process BCO in typical petroleum refineries. More specifically, the objectives of research in this area are the following:
- Identify components in BCO responsible for coking and understand their behavior when undergoing steam reforming/gasification, hydrogenation, and catalytic cracking reactions
- Explore ways to make BCO components more stable by chemical transformation and/or separations.
- Understand the roles of catalysts in upgrading bio-oil
- Understand effects of the levels of catalyst functionalities (metals and acids)
- Synthesize hydrogenation/thermal cracking catalysts specifically designed to handle multiple functionalities in bio-crude oil (combination of metal and acid functionalities)
Sustainability and Techno-economic Assessments of Biomass Utilization Systems
Biomass utilization systems on large commercial scales require thorough analysis on their economic feasibilities and sustainability. Work in this area is done in collaboration with William Lorenz, director of Villanova’s Sustainable Engineering program and includes:
- Techno-economic analysis of biomass utilization systems, which help bridge the gap between small (laboratory/demonstration) scale systems and large scale (commercial) systems by identifying if the systems are technically and economically viable for commercialization. The objective is to determine the costs of processing biomass into end products, particularly biofuels and the costs of building the process plants. The technical aspects of the biomass utilization systems are simulated at large scale using computer modeling software (ASPENPlus) and the results allow for the evaluation of economic aspects such as biorefinery plant costs and biofuel production costs.
- Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) of biomass utilization systems can help avoid a narrow outlook on environmental, social and economic concerns by:
- Studying the systems material/energy inputs and outputs of both products and processes
- Assessing the potential impacts associated with identified inputs and releases
- Interpreting the major contributions, sensitivity analysis and uncertainty analysis
LCA studies on biomass utilization systems are focused on the systems currently studied in the BCRT laboratory, which primarily involve biomass liquefaction route via fast pyrolysis. LCA modeling is performed by using SimaPro LCA software.