Dow Chemical and the U.S. Department of Energy’s (NREL) are jointly developing and evaluating a cellulosic ethanol process that will convert biomass into ethanol and other useful chemicals. NREL is investigating whether a catalyst developed by Dow Chemical can increase cellulosic ethanol yields. The collaborative effort demonstrates both organizations’ commitment to deliver sustainable solutions to the nation’s current energy crisis by reducing dependence on foreign oil.

Molybdenum sulphate catalyst from Dow Chemical is seen as the key to unlocking the potential for ethanol production. The process will utilize biomass sources, such as leaves from corn plants or wood wastes. Biomass will be converted based on a gasification process to produce synthesis gas, which will be converted into a mixture of alcohols. The alcohols derived will include ethanol that can be used as transportation fuel or other useful chemicals. Based on theory, the catalytic process can produce up to 130 gallons of alcohol per ton of biomass, compared to current yields of 60-80 gallons per ton with conventional methods.

woodchip feedstock

Woodchip feedstock is one source of biomass used to produce cellulosic ethanol. Photo Courtesy of NREL

The ethanol production process that Dow and NREL are investigating is a thermochemical reaction that is significantly faster than a biochemical fermentation that takes place in typical operations. The joint evaluation program will focus on improving the mixed alcohol catalyst, as well as demonstrating pilot scale performance and the commercial relevance of an ethanol facility. By using ethanol derived from biomass as an alternative raw material or feedstock, Dow Chemical is exploring new ways to reduce the cost of producing ethanol by using biomass as an alternative raw material.

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