Project Report

The search for renewable energy sources receives great attention for many reasons, such as the on-going depletion of fossil fuels, the rapid growth of global energy demand, and new stringent environmental regulations. Fuels derived from biomass are among the most promising energy sources because of their abundant availability and reduction of net greenhouse gas emissions (for example, carbon dioxide is captured by growth of biomass crops). While biomass-derived oil (bio-oil) does not contain significant amounts of pollutants such as nitrogen and sulfur compared with traditional petroleum, it consists of up to 50% oxygen-containing compounds. The high oxygen content leads to many disadvantages such as corrosion in engines. Therefore, removal of oxygen is an essential step in processing bio-oil into commercial oil and gasoline. Hydrodeoxygenation is an oxygen removal process that utilizes hydrogen gas, similar to sulfur or nitrogen removal processes that are widely used in current petroleum treating facilities. Our research focuses on finding high-performance catalysts that assist in the removal of oxygen from bio-oil. Since there are many oxygen containing compounds in bio-oil, we started with two simple but common compounds: ethanol and 2-methyltetrahydrofuran. A thorough understanding of oxygen-removal reaction mechanisms for these compounds will lay a ground work for more complicated compounds. Our preliminary results on a range of catalysts suggested that nickel phosphide supported on silica (Ni2P/SiO2) gave the best performance. During my Ph.D. program, I came to know Dr. Ted S. Oyama, who is a professor at the University of Tokyo, Japan. He is among the leading researchers in the application of spectroscopic techniques for the study of catalysts - which is also an area I am interested in. The NSF EAPSI program brought about an exceptional opportunity for me to work in Dr. Oyama’s laboratory in Japan. During the three months in Japan, not only did we achieve promising results, I also gained much professional and cultural experience. We completed simulations of the reaction mechanism of the oxygen removal from ethanol molecules on the Ni2P/SiO2 catalyst surface. Our simulation results agreed well with the experimental data, indicating that the reaction mechanism was reasonable. The result allowed us to deduce a similar mechanism for the hydrodeoxygenation of a more complicated compound – 2-methyltetrahydrofuran. Spectroscopic technique was the focal point of my summer project. Spectroscopy is a method to observe a catalyst surface while a reaction is occurring; therefore, it allows identification of intermediate species and helps establish the reaction mechanism on the particular catalyst. Dr. Cho and Dr. Takagaki worked closely and patiently with me on the infrared spectrometer. We helped improve the research facility in Dr. Oyama’s laboratory by helping to upgrade the instrument to include a liquid nitrogen cooled detector that improved the output signal significantly. The reaction chamber was also modified to maintain signal quality at high temperature and high pressure. We obtained consistent spectroscopic results that supported our preliminary results of the catalysts. Our findings contribute toward the design of optimum catalysts for deoxygenation of bio-oils. Only the development of efficient catalysts will bring the costs of these green fuels on par with fossil fuels for mass market production. This joint project with the University of Tokyo expresses the commitment of both the United States and Japan to the quest for environmentally-friendly energy alternatives. To be a part of this incredible experience, I am wholeheartedly grateful to the American and Japanese public, my advisor Dr. Cox, my host researcher Dr. Oyama, the NSF, and the JSPS.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Office of International and Integrative Activities (IIA)
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Carter Kimsey
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Bui Phuong P
United States
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