Messel Travel Bursary recipient, Joseph Socci, reports from his research visit to the Biorenewables Research Laboratory located at Iowa State University, USA.

12 January 2018

12 Jan 2018

Joseph Socci was awarded the Messel Travel Bursary to attend a research visit to the Biorenewables Research Laboratory. Here, he tells us why visiting the laboratory was an excellent experience to carry out part of his research.

‘I am currently in my third year of PhD studies, supervised by Prof. Tony Bridgwater at the European Bioenergy Research Institute (EBRI), Aston University. Here, I am investigating the integration of catalysis in biomass pyrolysis and pyrolysis oil upgrading in order to develop an alternative to fossil-fuel derived fuels and chemicals.

'The main challenge of biofuel production is the vast differences between biomass feedstock and current petrochemical products. There have been several biomass conversion technologies developed to date such as, gasification and Fischer-Tropsch synthesis, fermentation and pyrolysis oil upgrading. Relatively recent techno-economic analysis of the conversion platforms comparing capital and operating costs for near-term biomass to liquid fuels technology scenarios found that fast pyrolysis had the lowest cost with highest conversion. Some of the other advantages of biomass fast pyrolysis are high thermal efficiency, low capital investment and high feedstock variability. However, due to the comparably high oxygen content, the bio-oil product suffers from low energy density and chemical stability. There are numerous catalytic upgrading approaches of the bio-oil, each with their on advantages and disadvantages, however, they all suffer from CO, CO2, H2O and coke as by-product formation, lowering the carbon efficiency of the process.

'My previous research has been focused on novel catalyst synthesis and bench-scale (100 g hr-1) catalytic fast pyrolysis of woody biomass, to try and address some of the challenges faced currently impeding large scale commercialisation. Bio-oil and the organic liquid product from biomass catalytic fast pyrolysis are both very complex mixtures of a range of different compounds. Thus, it is very challenging to understand the reaction mechanism and to distinguish the effect of subtle differences in process conditions. Therefore, it is necessary for me to investigate this on a much smaller scale (< 1 mg) using highly sensitive analytic pyrolysis equipment in order to probe what’s actually happening at the molecular level in order to increase the understanding of the whole process.

'Earlier this year I was very kindly awarded a Messel travel bursary enabling me to travel for a month-long research visit to the Biorenewables Research Laboratory located at Iowa State University, USA. The Biorenewables Research Laboratory was completed in 2014 and is part of the larger Biorenewables Complex (BRC) which hosts labs and offices and promotes interdisciplinary, systems-levels research and collaboration. Here, with the help of Prof Brent Shanks, a distinguished Professor of Engineering and the director of the NSF Engineering Research Center for Biorenewable Chemicals (CBiRC), and Ali Saraeian, a PhD student working in a similar field, I was able to carry out research using a specialist micro-pyrolysis unit. The micro-pyrolysis unit was connected to a gas chromatography (GC) instrument equipped with three types of detectors, mass spectroscopy (MS), a flame ionisation detector (FID) and thermal conductivity detector (TCD). Such a wide-array of detection techniques is really helpful, as it allows the simultaneous detection of gas and liquid products with high precision, facilitating the ability of accurate quantification.

'Over the course of the month I tested a variety of catalysts, many of them commercially available and currently employed in Fluid Catalytic Cracker (FCC) units, for their ability to upgrade the products of wood pyrolysis into more useful products. Due to the fast reaction and analysis times I was able to test a variety of different catalysts at different process conditions, which has provided me with a wealth of data and will certainly help me in my PhD studies. The Biorenewables Research Laboratory was an excellent institute to carry out part of my research, as there were a large number of researchers from all over the world and the whole institute had a very collaborative atmosphere. This was the first time I have visited the USA and it was a great experience to be in Iowa, the heart of rural America during the fall for a month. It was also a great opportunity to see how like-minded individuals were tackling similar problems I am facing in my own research and the whole trip has been highly beneficial in providing me with not only new knowledge in my area, but also the chance to experience different cultures and ways of thinking.

'The results gained from this visit look very promising and I am hoping, coupled with my previous research, to publish the results in the near-future, which I hope will help inspire new developments in this field. As I approach the end of my PhD, I am looking forward to seeking new opportunities to apply the wide-range of skills and experiences I have gained and developed further during my time as a PhD student.

'I would like to take this opportunity to thank Prof. Brent Shanks, Ali Saraeian and Prof. Tony Bridgwater for facilitating my research visit to the Biorenewables Research Laboratory and to all the researchers and staff there who made me feel so welcome. I am also extremely grateful to SCI for providing funding for me to take part in this research visit, and would highly recommend other researchers to apply for this funding to take part in research visits such as mine.’

Joseph Socci
PhD Student
Aston University

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