Fueling the future

Photo: grain as biofuelDespite growing interest in replacing fossil resources with renewable alternatives, biomass refining industries, particularly those producing biofuels, have struggled to compete with the well-established machinery of petroleum refining. However, there are places where biomass could be competitive with oil as an industrial feedstock. Certain chemical intermediates, which might be used to produce solvents, plastics, polymers, and other high value products, are sometimes easier to synthesize from biomass than they are from crude oil. This gives renewable resources a potential competitive advantage and could make industries dedicated to the production of bio-based chemicals possible in the near future.

An example of this type of chemical intermediate is levulinic acid, which can be prepared from sugars found in abundance in biomass. Levulinic acid can be used to produce many products that are either identical to or functionally equivalent to current petrochemicals.

Assistant Professor Jesse Bond has received the National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award to further explore levulinic acid’s applications. His work will support development of catalysts and cost-effective technologies that facilitate oxidation of levulinic acid to deliver value-added chemical products.

“My immediate hope is that this research pushes a technology forward that has a positive net impact on sustainable resource management,” Bond said. “Beyond that, my ultimate goal is to teach our students about major problems facing society and the ways that chemical engineering and catalysis can address those problems. No matter where this research leads or how the biotechnology landscape unfolds, catalysis will always have a role in making useful products from available natural resources.”