Engineers discover innovative role of water in renewable fuel production

University of Tulsa engineers, in collaboration with researchers at the University of Oklahoma, have discovered a new approach for water-assisted upgrading of the renewable chemical furfural. The presence of water can double and sometimes triple furfural conversion rates and to improve bio-oil production.

Renewable Energy TU Collaboration

TU Professor of Physics and Engineering Physics Sanwu Wang collaborated with OU researchers in the catalytic conversion of furfural. The discovery of water as a participant in the conversion preserved the reaction while enhancing the conversion rate. Wang worked closely with Assistant Professor Bin Wang, former OU graduate student Wenhua Xue and research associate Yaping Li in the OU School of Chemical, Biological and Materials Engineering.

“My group focused on large-scale quantum-mechanical calculations based on density functional theory for the atomic-scale mechanism of the hydrogenation of furfural. We paid particular attention to the role of liquid water. Large-scale quantum-mechanical calculations performed on supercomputers provide powerful solutions to chemical reactions, especially where the atomic scale mechanism and information about the electronic structure are concerned,” Sanwu Wang said.

Renewable fuel production requires energy to extract, purify and distribute water, and water is an environmentally-friendly solvent that can accelerate the rate of hydrogenation. In the chemical production of energy in conventional refining, the presence of water in the reactors is undesirable. Normally, when water is present in a reacting system where a catalytic reaction is taking place, it typically is absorbed where the reaction should occur, which inhibits the rate of conversion.

“This project is significant for two reasons,” Sanwu Wang said. “The first reason is that furfural is an oxygenated compound commonly found in bio-oil and it is also an important intermediate in various approaches for biofuel production. Studies of furfural conversion are helpful for improving bio-oil production and storage stability. Catalytic reactions involving biomass often occur in solvents including water, and our investigations of water in furfural hydrogenation could be generalized to other catalytic reactions.”

Working with teams across different universities brings about innovation in a field that impacts daily life. Read more about similar initiatives at The University of Tulsa here.