Advancing the efficiency and economics of biofuels

Author: Jan Mathew
Much like the reactions they accelerate, catalysts are increasing the rate of progress within the biofuels area — a focus that links computational chemist Kendall Thomson’s research with Purdue’s new Energy Frontier Research Center (EFRC).

Kendall ThomsonWhen we are successful, we’ll have greatly reduced the cost of biofuels as an alternative.

—Kendall Thomson

“When I came to Purdue in 2000, the University’s chemical engineering department was one of very few in the country investing in catalysis research,” Thomson recalls. “This was fortuitous because, in the last five years, this area has seen a resurgence in light of its need and role in alternative fuels.”

Thomson’s research falls under “computational chemistry,” which uses computers to simulate chemical and physical processes — or, for catalysis research, simulates catalytic reactions at sophisticated levels of theory. Computational chemistry uses a combination of quantum theory, statistical mechanics, and computer science to simulate phenomena at the atomistic level, keeping a strict accounting of all atoms and electrons as molecules undergo chemical transformations.

“By doing this, we can predict how atomistic or structural changes in the catalyst’s molecular makeup can impact its overall performance,” Thomson says. “Ultimately, we can design better catalysts, or even completely new catalysts, right in the computer.”

Notable successes include developing more economically beneficial and environmentally friendly catalysts for olefin epoxidation; and in predicting and designing better catalysts for olefin polymerization reactions. Epoxides are precursors for making propylene glycol and polyurethanes, which lead to other commercially important products such as adhesives, paints, foam insulation, moisturizers in soap and cosmetics, and anti-freeze.

“The biggest challenge for us is finding ways to advance the computational technology to enable us to tackle larger systems,” says Thomson.

For example, the emerging areas of biofuels processing and biomedical applications require computational work on molecules that are huge compared to present studies. “We’re still having an impact in these areas,” he says, “and once computer technology catches up with our modeling capabilities, the potential for impact is tremendous.”

Thomson also is a co-investigator and part of a large, multidisciplinary research team at a hub where “potential” and “breakthrough” are buzzwords — The Center for Direct Catalytic Conversion of Biomass to Biofuels (C3Bio) EFRC. Funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, the center’s $20 million effort is focused on advancing work in biofuels.

“Biofuels, and alternative fuels in general, such as fuel cell technology, solar energy, and wind and hydro-based energy sources, are on the cusp of breaking out,” Thomson says.

Thomson’s contribution focuses on using state-of-the-art catalytic and biochemical technology to help improve conversion of biomass into fuels.

“When we are successful, we’ll have greatly increased the efficiency of biomass conversion and have reduced the cost of biofuels as an alternative,” he says. “This will help everyone, since we’re all players in the current energy crisis. But it will impact Indiana specifically by generating increased demand for agricultural feedstocks.

“Within 10 years, my field will be dramatically different, due to computer technology. And my best hope is that, from an energy standpoint, our country will be fully self-sufficient.”