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Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture ChEBE Newsletter – Winter 2014

Catalyst Helps Move Away From Fossil Fuels

Yong Wang and colleagues in the labA group of researchers in the Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering is hoping to commercialize a process for making environmentally friendly, bio-based replacements for plastics and other petrochemicals.

The key for the work is a catalyst, developed by Yong Wang, Voiland Distinguished Professor, to efficiently create a versatile and widely used chemical called isobutene. Wang is working with Archer Daniels Midland to address technical issues for developing the commercially viable catalysts.

Much of the chemical industry is interested in moving away from fossil fuels to bio-based products as a way to reduce environmental impacts, says Wang.

He and his colleagues developed the catalyst, which allows for the conversion to isobutene in one easy production step, reducing costs. The researchers discovered the reaction by accident when they were using a combination of zinc oxide and zirconium oxide as a potential catalyst for different applications. They surprisingly started producing a small amount of the very useful isobutene from bio-based ethanol; isobutene has traditionally been made by superheating crude oil until it breaks down.

Finding successful catalysts often does come down to art, says Wang, who became interested in catalysts as a WSU graduate student in Professor Bill Thomson’s group.

“I like to see the surprise,” he says. “It’s all about making things work and becoming more efficient.”

The researchers have developed the technology at the lab scale and are working with the company to further develop the technology for possible commercial application. They recently reported on the progress of their work in the journal Applied Catalysis A. Using a ratio of one part zinc oxide to eight parts zirconium oxide, they were able to convert as much as 79 percent of bioethanol into isobutene under industrially relevant conditions at 475 degrees Celsius.

“Isobutene is a very nice building block to make cheap and renewable chemicals and fuels,” said Wang. “Our technology allows for transitioning from a non-renewable to a renewable feedstock in a way that is cost competitive.