Energy Fuels. 2022 Oct 20;36(20):12628-12640. doi: 10.1021/acs.energyfuels.2c02044. Epub 2022 Oct 11.
The thermochemical decomposition of woody biomass has been widely identified as a promising route to produce renewable biofuels. More recently, the use of molten salts in combination with pyrolysis has gathered increased interest. The molten salts may act as a solvent, a heat transfer medium, and possibly also a catalyst. In this study, we report experimental studies on a process to convert woody biomass to a liquid hydrocarbon product with a very low oxygen content using molten salt pyrolysis (350-450 °C and atmospheric pressure) followed by subsequent catalytic conversions of the liquids obtained by pyrolysis. Pyrolysis of woody biomass in molten salt (ZnCl2/NaCl/KCl with a molar composition of 60:20:20) resulted in a liquid yield of 46 wt % at a temperature of 450 °C and a molten salt/biomass ratio of 10:1 (mass). The liquids are highly enriched in furfural (13 wt %) and acetic acid (14 wt %). To reduce complexity and experimental issues related to the production of sufficient amounts of pyrolysis oils for further catalytic upgrading, model studies were performed to convert both compounds to hydrocarbons using a three-step catalytic approach, viz., (i) ketonization of acetic acid to acetone, (ii) cross-aldol condensation between acetone and furfural to C8-C13 products, followed by (iii) a two-stage catalytic hydrotreatment of the latter to liquid hydrocarbons. Ketonization of acetic acid to acetone was studied in a continuous setup over a ceria-zirconia-based catalyst at 250 °C. The catalyst showed no signs of deactivation over a period of 230 h while also achieving high selectivity toward acetone. Furfural was shown to have a negative effect on the catalyst performance, and as such, a separation step is required after pyrolysis to obtain an acetic-acid-enriched fraction. The cross-aldol condensation reaction between acetone and furfural was studied in a batch using a commercial Mg/Al hydrotalcite as the catalyst. Furfural was quantitatively converted with over 90% molar selectivity toward condensed products with a carbon number between C8 and C13. The two-stage hydrotreatment of the condensed product consisted of a stabilization step using a Ni-based Picula catalyst and a further deep hydrotreatment over a NiMo catalyst, in both batch setups. The final product with a residual 1.5 wt % O is rich in (cyclo)alkanes and aromatic hydrocarbons. The overall carbon yield for the four-step approach, from pinewood biomass to middle distillates, is 21%, assuming that separation of furfural and acetic acid after the pyrolysis step can be performed without losses.