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From biomass to useful products

As scientists seek alternative sources of renewable energy, they are paying increased attention to plants, agricultural residue, household wastes and other forms of biomass.

Wind and solar energy may garner more headlines, but energy experts believe biomass can meet a significant portion of the growing global demand for sustainable materials and fuels.”

Critical to this effort are catalysts that can efficiently convert the cellulose in plants into chemical building blocks that in turn are converted into plastics, solvents, fuels and other products.

A group of catalysis experts led by researchers at Utrecht University in The Netherlands has verified the superior performance of a nanoscale alloy catalyst in achieving a key reaction in the processing of biomass into usable products. The group includes researchers from Lehigh and from the UK Catalysis Hub of the Research Complex at Harwell and University College London, both in the United Kingdom.

“We currently get a lot of building blocks from petroleum. But there’s a finite supply of oil. With biomass, we can regrow it every year. This process of ours takes biomass—wood, leaves and straw and other things that we don’t eat—and converts the cellulose from these into useful chemical building blocks.” — Christopher J. Kiely

Using a modified impregnation technique previously published by Christopher J. Kiely, professor of materials science and engineering at Lehigh, the Utrecht researchers fashioned a catalyst consisting of nanoparticles containing the rare metals palladium and ruthenium on a titanium dioxide support.

Using Lehigh’s world-class electron microscopy facilities, Qian He ’12 Ph.D., now with Oak Ridge National Laboratory, imaged and chemically analyzed the Pd-Ru nanoparticles. Read the full story.

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