Nov 22 – ChE Seminar – “Hybrid biological and catalytic processes to produce chemicals and materials from biomass” by Gregg Beckham, National Renewable Energy Laboratory

November 22 @ 3:30 pm4:30 pm
CPE 2.218

Host: Lydia Contreras


Biomass conversion to fuels, chemicals, and materials has the potential to Gregg Beckhamoffset significant amounts of petroleum and represent a more sustainable approach to manufacture everyday products. To that end, our group focuses on developing integrated processes from sugars and lignin in biomass to products through the combination of biological and chemo-catalytic processes. This talk will review two recent developments focused on the production of PAN-based carbon fibers from sugar-derived building blocks and the conversion of lignin to value-added products.

Carbon fibers are key materials in light-weighting vehicles for improved fuel efficiency,and are produced through heat treatment of polyacrylonitrile. The acrylonitrile monomeris made primarily via propylene ammoxidation with ammonia. However, price fluctuations in propylene have resulted in low-volume and niche adoption of carbon fibers, motivating the drive towards renewable carbon fibers. The first part of the talk willdescribe a process to produce acrylonitrile via biological production of 3-hydroxypropionic acid followed by separation and catalytic conversion to acrylonitrile this process represents a novel scheme that has significant advantages over propyleneammoxidation.

The second part of the talk will focus on lignin, which a heterogeneous aromatic polymer found in plants for pathogen defense, structure, and water transport. Lignin is typically not converted to valuable molecules, but is rather slated for process heat. The primary reason for this technical barrier stems from the ability to deal with the intrinsicheterogeneity and recalcitrance of lignin. Our group has recently proposed a combined biological funneling and chemical catalysis approach that enables the ability to overcome these intrinsic problems with lignin, which may eventually offer a viable approach for cost effective upgrading of lignin to fuels and chemicals.


Gregg Beckham received his PhD and MSCEP in Chemical Engineering at MIT in2007 and a BS in Chemical Engineering from Oklahoma State University in 2002. He worked as a Senior Lecturer and Station Director for the David H.Koch School of Chemical Engineering Practice at MIT in 2004-2005 and 2007.In 2008, he began doing research in the National Bioenergy Center at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. He currently leads an interdisciplinary research team of biologists, chemists, and engineers on conversion of biomass to fuels, chemicals, and materials including in the areas of metabolicengineering, fermentation, separations, chemical catalysis, biopolymer production, cellulase enzymeimprovements, renewable carbon fiber production, and lignin valorization.

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