Funded by the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the Institute for Atom-Efficient Chemical Transformations (IACT) is performing multifaceted research and development to advance use of biomass as a viable energy resource.

Biomass is an emerging chemical energy resource in the United States; it has the potential to sustainably replace nearly one-third of the nation’s current gasoline use. In order to harness the power of biomass, however, we need new technologies that can convert the material into widely useable fuels. That is precisely the work that IACT—centered at Argonne National Laboratory (ANL)—does; IACT specializes in research that addresses key catalytic conversions that could improve the efficiency of fuel and chemical production from biomass. The team at IACT is delving into this new technology area with gusto—they’re applying advanced chemical kinetics research to understand lignocellulosic biomass molecules; designing and synthesizing new catalysts for conversion processes; employing computational studies and modeling to interpret and optimize experimental results; and performing in-depth characterization of their materials to understand how atomic structure impacts material performance and informs new modifications.

Researchers working at IACT

James Dumesic (right), professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering from the University of Wisconson-Madison and co-leader of the catalytic experimentation task team, investigates a catalyst with graduate student Brandon O’Neill (left). (Photo courtesy of the University of Wisconsin-Madison)

The use of catalysts to convert biomass feedstocks into fuels is known as a biochemical conversion process, which involves many steps before a feedstock is ready for distribution as a biofuel or bioproduct. Feedstocks must be broken down into useable substances that are conditioned and converted into sugars; these sugars then undergo either chemical or biological processing, upgrading, and recovery. In chemical processing, catalysts are introduced to the sugar to create a desired bioproduct (as compared to enzymes used in biological processing). To learn more about the steps of the process, visit the Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO) Biochemical Conversion Processes Web page.

Partnering with Brookhaven National Laboratory, Northwestern University, Purdue University, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, IACT is designing and testing cutting-edge catalysts in conditions that mirror those actually employed in commercial biomass processes. Using high-temperature liquids to test their catalysts has taught the researchers some  valuable lessons about the difficulties facing the biomass industry; most notably, the challenge of creating a metal catalyst that can withstand long-term use in the harsh liquid conditions common in biomass processing without degrading and deactivating. To combat this, IACT is working on a technique called overcoating; this method uses atomic layer deposition to armor the metal catalyst in a protective shell of aluminum oxide. This armoring holds the metal particles in place by selectively reinforcing the weakest points so it can be used for longer periods of time. IACT has pursued this problem from every angle, employing advanced synthesis techniques, vast computational power to help explain complicated results, and detailed characterization and reaction studies to illuminate atomic scale behavior and inform further optimization of the new material.

Molecular diagram of the overcoating technology

IACT’s unique overcoating process selectively attaches a stable metal to the weakest spots of catalysts in order to prevent or diminish sintering, leaching, and erosion. (Diagram courtesy of the University of Wisconsin-Madison)

In the future, IACT plans to test its overcoated catalysts using true biomass products, such as pyrolysis oils, to see how they perform in real-world processing conditions. This critical step—which will be taken independently of the fundamental studies funding that IACT receives—will showcase IACT’s transition into applied research, which allows for further collaboration with BETO and other renewable energy programs. The applied studies can move IACT’s critical research into mainstream, commercialized applications in years to come.

IACT is 1 of 46 Office of Science-established Energy Frontier Research Centers in the nation; these centers include universities, national laboratories, nonprofit research firms, and for-profit technology firms. Together, they conduct fundamental research on a variety of renewable energy sources to eliminate barriers and accelerate full commercial deployment. Each center specializes within a certain area, capitalizing on numerous resources and available partners to develop a realm of unparalleled expertise.

IACT represents the critical importance of in-depth research on the conversion of biomass into biofuel and bioproducts. When BETO combines the work of its project partners with IACT’s revolutionary catalyst research and testing, the U.S. bioenergy industry takes one significant step forward in perfecting a process to create clean, affordable, renewable biofuels.