Jonathan Peters, a researcher at RTI International (an ARPA-E awardee), characterizes the water content of a bio-oil sample. | Courtesy of RTI International.

Catalytic biomass pyrolysis: there’s three words you don’t hear every day. But thanks to funding from the Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy (or ARPA-E, for short), this new way to make biofuels could transform how we fuel our cars, trucks, and even jet engines.

Research engineers at RTI International are developing a process that has the potential to change the way we produce cellulosic biofuels here in the U.S. This innovative technology converts second-generation biomass (such as agricultural waste like corn leaves, husks and stalks, or wood residues from the forestry industry) into a liquid bio-oil that’s turned into fuel, thereby lessening the impact of biomass production on food supplies while creating a more efficient, cost-effective alternative to traditional production methods.
In order to turn biomass into usable fuel, the material must be heated and transformed into a bio-oil product that can then be upgraded into fuel. The traditional way this is done is through a process known as “flash pyrolysis” -- where biomass is heated for less than two seconds to produce liquid bio-oil that retains only 60 percent of the carbon in the biomass (which is also known as the product’s carbon efficiency). This bio-oil can be upgraded to fuel; but, according to RTI, the challenge of this product is its high oxygen content -- meaning it has a tendency to be corrosive and unstable. The product also contains metals and nitrogen that can harm refinery catalysts, and the upgrading process requires large amounts of hydrogen, driving up costs. 
The ARPA-E project is taking a different approach. Dr. David Dayton, director of Chemistry and Biofuels at RTI’s Center for Energy Technology, tells us that their novel approach to pyrolysis would produce a dramatically improved bio-oil. By using a “catalytic biomass pyrolysis system” to remove the oxygen and other contaminants in the substance, he says they expect to produce a bio-oil that is highly carbon efficient, requires less hydrogen to upgrade, and can be integrated into existing petroleum refineries.
The project, which was awarded $3.1 million from ARPA-E’s first round of funding in 2009, has allowed RTI to focus their research and development efforts on commercializing the technology now that its been proven in the lab, says Dr. Dayton. The research nonprofit has joined with industry partners Archer Daniels Midland Company to gain insight on how to efficiently collect, store, and transport the kind of large-scale quantities of biomass needed to produce fuel on an industrial level, and chemical processing experts at ConocoPhillips to help convert the bio-oil into fuel.
Since then, the organization was awarded a follow-on project  from the Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy to integrate the catalytic biomass pyrolysis technology with Haldor Topsøe’s hydroprocessing technology – moving the technology further toward commercialization and usable transportation fuel.
To learn more about RTI’s novel technology and other innovative companies that are changing the way we produce and use energy, join us at the 2012 ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit  held February 27-29 at Washington DC’s National Harbor.