The chemical engineer has developed a process for creating high-value chemicals out of little more than sawdust and cornstalks
In 2008 two men showed up at George W. Huber's office and flashed FBI badges. Huber, 36, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, had just received a multi-million-dollar grant from the military for his biofuel research. The federal agents at his doorstep wanted to make sure no one was spying on him. "I initially mistook them for salesmen," he says.
Huber doesn't think spies are following him, but oil companies, energy experts, and investors have started paying close attention to his work. Huber has developed a process for creating benzene, toluene, and xylene (known collectively as BTX). The latter two are high-value chemicals that can be blended with gasoline to fuel autos more cleanly and cheaply. All three are also essential in the manufacture of plastics, fabrics, detergents, and countless other products. While today's BTX supply is derived from petroleum, Huber uses inexpensive, nonfood biomass such as sawdust and cornstalks to create the chemicals.
In Huber's patented conversion process, the biomass is fed into a reactor, where it is heated to 600C in the absence of oxygen. The gases emitted by the decomposing plant materials are then blended with a catalyst that forms them into carbon compounds. That catalyst is Huber's secret sauce: He won't discuss it except to say that it's composed of silica and alumina, materials as cheap as sand. The process requires no fossil fuels, so it's a greener way to produce the chemicals, says Huber. It's cheaper, too: He estimates that it would cost $1 to $2 to produce a gallon of benzene using his process, compared with roughly $3.50 a gallon using petroleum.
Along with entrepreneur David Sudolsky, Huber formed Anellotech to build a pilot plant to scale up his process. The startup hopes to raise $18 million over the next year to supplement a $4 million government grant. Eventually, Anellotech plans to license the procedure to companies so they can build their own plants. Other companies including Ensyn and UOP (HON) are racing to perfect the conversion of biomass into fuels and chemicals. Anellotech says its method is superior because it requires only a single reactor and doesn't necessitate high pressure or costly processes such as hydrotreating.
Huber holds a PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He wasn't always a good student. He failed his first chemistry test as an undergrad at Brigham Young University. "That was the wake-up call I needed," says Huber. "I ended up getting an A-minus in the class." The same year, he started studying how refineries work and got hooked. "My family laughs at me because I just love petroleum refineries," says Huber. "Most people think of them as these dirty, awful places, but I think they are beautiful, complex, highly integrated systems."
Flunked his first chemistry test at Brigham Young University
A cheaper, greener way to make chemicals from biomass
A catalyst made of silica and alumina