8 fast flyers chosen for Top Cat: the big attack on biomass catalysis begins


Somewhere in the files of the Department of Energy it is called the Chemical Catalysis for Bioenergy Consortium. Inside the halls of National Labs, they call it ChemCatBio.

But it’s Top Cat — the gunslingers and mavericks of biomass catalysis.

They’re on a mission to bring forward commercial bioenergy applications two times faster and at half the cost  If it sounds like Top Gun, it oughta. The stakes are high, only the best need apply, washouts are the norm and ‘mission accomplished’ the only two words anyone wants to hear. It’s best on best, and there are no excuses in the Danger Zone.

Specifically, current research encompasses the following five themes:

  • Upgrading of synthesis gas and synthesis gas-derived intermediates
  • Catalytic fast pyrolysis
  • Hydroprocessing of fast pyrolysis and catalytic fast pyrolysis bio-oils
  • Upgrading biogenic carbon in aqueous waste streams
  • Upgrading of lignin, carbohydrates, and other biologically derived intermediates

Now at Top Cat they’ve chosen their eight elite industry partners via an announce this past week of $4.3 million in funding for nine projects that will help accelerate the development of catalysts and related technologies for the commercialization of biomass-derived fuels and chemicals.

As they say in DOE circles, “the selected projects will leverage the unique facilities and expertise at the U.S. Department of Energy national laboratories to address critical technical challenges in catalyst development and evaluation for biofuel and bioproduct applications.”

Or, as they said in Top Gun, “you can be my wingman any time.”

The Top Cat 8

Maverick, Ice and Goose step aside. Eight diffferent industry partenrs are leading 8 projects with TopCat labs to overcome catalysis challenges— the industry-led projects slated to begin in 2018 are:

  • Gevo will partner with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), Argonne National Laboratory (ANL), and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) to leverage their extensive catalyst characterization capabilities, with the goal of extending catalyst lifetime for the oxygenate-to-olefin process.
  • Visolis will partner with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) to develop low-pressure hydrogenolysis catalysts for bioproduct upgrading.
  • Vertimass will partner with ORNL, ANL, and NREL to evaluate catalyst scale-up for ethanol upgrading.
  • LanzaTech will partner with PNNL to synthesize terephthalic acid from ethanol.
  • Gevo will partner with Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) to develop tactical aviation fuels through a photocatalytic approach.
  • ALD NanoSolutions and Johnson Matthey will partner with NREL to improve catalyst sulfur tolerance.
  • LanzaTech will partner with PNNL to enhance the quality of gasoline and fuel oil coproducts from the alcohol-to-jet process.
  • Opus 12 will partner with NREL to develop improved electrocatalysts for electrochemical carbon dioxide reduction.
  • Sironix Renewables will partner with LANL to intensify catalytic processes for producing bio-renewable surfactants.

All the projects are summarized in our Digest Multi-Slide Guide, here.

Top Cat: The Capabilities at the Labs

Here’s the detail on what each of the lab partners work on. Unfortunately, we don’t have a single TopCatTown to parallell Fightertown, as Miramar used to be known.

A national map gives it to you at-a-glance, as part of the Multi-Slide Guide. Here’s the hard data.

Controlled Surface Coatings for Catalytic Materials

Reducing catalyst deactivation and optimizing performance by the controlled deposition of thin films with desired thickness and chemical composition

Atomic layer deposition systems at Argonne National Laboratory and National Renewable Energy Laboratory provide the ability to deposit thin films with desired thickness and chemical composition onto 2- and 3-dimensional catalytic materials, including powder samples. These systems can deposit metal oxides, sulfides, selenides, and pure platinum group metals and have in situ diagnostics including quartz crystal microbalances, IR spectroscopy, and mass spectrometry. Integrated glove boxes allow for air-free handling and solid, liquid, and gas precursors are supported. Catalytic materials synthesized or modified by atomic layer deposition have shown better resistance to sintering under high temperature conditions and have shown enhanced performance by tailoring the active site for the reaction of interest.

National Laboratories: Argonne National Laboratory, National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Catalytic Membrane Synthesis

Reducing cost by combining separation and reaction into tubular catalytic membrane systems

Catalytic membrane systems developed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory are based on flexible, commercially viable inorganic membrane technology (metallic and/or ceramic) with deposited catalytic nanoparticles or surface coatings. These catalytic materials include zeolites, perovskites, metal carbides and nitrides, and metals/alloys. This scalable platform is capable of operating under high temperature, high pressure, and corrosive conditions and can be fabricated in tubular architectures, making it an ideal membrane reactor system for both thermochemical and biochemical biomass conversion applications.

National Laboratory: Oak Ridge National Laboratory

High-Throughput Synthesis and Evaluation of Catalytic Materials

Reducing the time required to develop advanced catalyst materials by reducing scale and employing robotic systems

High-throughput laboratories at Argonne National Laboratory and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory leverage integrated systems and robotics to rapidly prepare, test, and analyze catalytic materials on a small scale with tests performed in parallel to obtain replicates and improve data confidence. Compared to conventional systems, these high-throughput labs can reduce the time for catalyst synthesis and evaluation by up to 75%. The capabilities of these labs include:

  • Synthesis systems for preparing catalysts covering a wide range of composition space that allow for solid and liquid handling, viscous liquid and slurry pipetting, sample filtration and washing, pH monitoring, sample heating with stirring, and sample vial capping and uncapping.
  • Screening systems utilizing customizable batch and fixed-bed flow reactors for both gas phase and liquid phase reactions with automated sampling and sample analysis using gas chromatography and mass spectrometry. These systems are able to obtain reaction kinetics and can be operated over a wide range of process conditions relevant to biomass conversion, including pyrolysis bio-oil stabilization, hydrothermal processing, and synthesis gas upgrading.

National Laboratories: Argonne National Laboratory, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Advanced Catalytic Materials Scale-Up

Reducing the risk associated with the commercialization of new materials by linking the discovery of advanced catalysts with market evaluation and high-volume manufacturing

The primary objective of the Materials Engineering Research Facility at Argonne National Laboratory is to enable rapid validation, to shorten the development cycle for advanced materials, and to provide production-ready processes for the manufacture of advanced materials. This includes providing a systematic engineering research approach for the:

  • Development and specification of process conditions (at staged scale-up) for the production of bulk quantities of materials, which will enable scale-up and confirmation of accurate process costs and models
  • Production of large volume quantities of materials for performance validation and market evaluation of those materials
  • Identification, qualification, and specification of residual contamination limits on material purity and evaluation of their influence on performance
  • Evaluation and validation of emerging manufacturing technologies for the production of the proposed materials.

National Laboratory: Argonne National Laboratory

Advanced Catalytic Materials Synthesis

Accelerating catalyst development by establishing synthetic strategies to access targeted catalyst structures, providing control over composition, crystal phase, size, morphology, and active site characteristics

Advanced catalyst synthesis, paired with detailed characterization and testing, is a key component to catalyst research and development. Our diverse team of inorganic synthetic chemists, materials scientists and engineers, and chemical engineers offers expertise in the development of novel catalytic materials and engineered catalysts and supports. Our core capabilities range from tailoring the active site on the sub-Angstrom scale to controlling catalyst morphology at the nanometer scale to fabricating engineered catalyst particles at the micrometer-to-millimeter scale to designing hybrid enzyme-mimetic materials, and span a wide-range of materials and synthetic techniques:

  • Metal oxide nanoparticles through combustion techniques
  • Engineered metal oxide particles through gelation methods and structured mesoporous metal oxides through templating methods
  • Metal carbide and nitride catalysts through solid-gas reactions, including synthesis of supported nano-carbides and nano-nitrides
  • Zeolite synthesis with subsequent metal ion-exchange
  • Thermally and chemically robust Metal-Organic Frameworks (MOF) with tunable pore sizes and catalytically active centers comprised of earth abundant elements. These materials can be infiltrated with nanoparticles and dopants to tailor reactivity.
  • Solution-phase nanoparticle syntheses of metals, metal alloys, and metal phosphides
  • Functionalization of oxide materials and ligand exchange for metal and semiconductor nanomaterials
  • Soft chemical routes for the production of nanostructured hybrid materials made up of porous silicates, zeolites, perovskites, and other layered oxides that achieve enzyme-like reactivity while retaining the durability of conventional heterogeneous catalysts.

National Laboratories: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Los Alamos National Laboratory, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories

The Bottom Line

Cool projects, and for the participants it’s up or out. As the movie put it:

Maverick: I feel the need…
Goose: …the need for speed!