On the road to grassoline

When he was just 19, George Huber went on a two-year mission to Guatemala for his church and was shocked by what he saw.

“I lived, ate, and slept with families who were mostly in poverty. I thought somebody was well off if they had a cement floor in their house instead of dirt,” Huber said. “When I came home from Guatemala, I thought my family was rich because we had carpet and two cars.”

Huber, now a Ph.D. and professor of chemical and biological engineering at University of Wisconsin-Madison, believes the experience helped to shape him as a scientist dedicated to bringing renewable energy to the United States and to Third World countries in desperate need of alternative fuels. “I still dream of being able to return to Guatemala and help improve the people’s lives,” he said.

Huber, 38, is one of the world’s leading experts in catalytic pyrolysis, a process to convert biomass (such as switchgrass, cornstalks, even sawdust) into fuel. Within the next five to 15 years, Huber and his group hope to replace a high percentage of petroleum with biofuel.

Huber is considered a rising star in the field of bioenergy. Scientific American magazine named a discovery he helped make among the top 50 technology breakthroughs of 2003. He has published 81 papers in peer-reviewed journals, including three in Science. He has spoken at two congressional hearings to discuss the role of chemical engineering in solving the nation’s energy challenges, and the College of Engineering at University of Massachusetts at Amherst gave him an outstanding young faculty award.

Despite his demanding teaching and research, Huber and his wife Leslie, 36, are active parents to their four children, Rachel, 12, Taylor, 10, Sarah Ann, 7, and Christian, 3. He confesses, with a rueful grin, that his wife, a writer, finds his research papers so boring that she refuses to help edit them. But she fully supports his goal, which is to do nothing short of revolutionize the way we get our fuel.

Of his colleagues at the Huber Research Group, he said, “We have four key goals: Cheap renewable gasoline, cheap renewable jet fuel, cheap renewable diesel fuel, and cheap renewable chemicals.

Everything that you can make from crude oil, we want to be able to make from biomass and renewable resources.”

Some researchers are doing fast pyrolysis – the process of rapidly heating plant material up to 600° C in the absence of air – to make bio oil, but Huber is doing it differently. He’s adding a catalyst into the process. “Our approach is that we add catalysts into the reactor, and rather than making a low-quality bio-oil, we make petrochemicals directly,” he said. The University of Massachusetts, where until recently Huber was an associate professor of chemical engineering, has licensed the technology to Anellotech, a startup Huber co-founded. The catalyst is Huber’s patented secret, but he has said that it is made up of silica and alumina – cheap and readily available resources.

In the laboratory, Huber has had great success. His pyrolysis process works by first feeding the plant material into a reactor, where it is heated. The decomposing plant material turns to vapor, which is then blended with his patented catalyst that turns the gaseous material into aromatics. Aromatics are hydrocarbons such as benzene, toluene, and mixed xylenes – compounds typically found in gasoline. The liquid Huber produces contains these aromatics and could in the future make up as much as a third of the gasoline we get at the pump.

 University of Wisconsin/Madison photo library)

The aromatics are already sold in a commercial market worth $110 billion a year, mainly to make plastics. “We’re going to enable beverage manufacturers like Pepsi to make soda bottles from renewable resources” rather than petroleum, he says. Huber points out that he isn’t creating a new type of plastic – he’s making plastics that are the equivalent to those being manufactured now.

“If you make a new plastic, you have to start a whole new industry, and it has to get approved by the vendors,” Huber said. “But if you make a molecule that fits into the existing infrastructure, it’s a lot easier to get to market.” If large-scale production of the biochemicals begins, his product could even be used to make seat cushions and car interiors that are now made from polyurethane.

Huber gets animated when he talks about catalysis or pyrolysis – even refineries. Truth be told, he loves refineries. “A lot of people think chemical plants are dirty and they pollute [but] they’re rather beautiful. Chemical plants are highly efficient with a minimal amount of pollutants.” He is passionate about cheap renewable energy, and he clearly loves his work. But if you told him when he was a kid that he would grow up to be an internationally renowned innovator, he might have laughed.

As a youngster in Santa Rosa, Calif., Huber was not an exceptional student. In fact, he failed his first chemistry test as an undergraduate at Brigham Young University. But one day, while still an undergrad, he passed by a professor’s lab and noticed a sign on the door seeking a research assistant. The professor told Huber that he was working on a project to make liquid fuel from natural gas. From then on, Huber was hooked. “That sounded like such a cool project, and I thought, ‘I really, really want to do that.’” Before long, he realized he had found his life’s work.

During college, Huber spent a year in Spain working under Dr. Avelino Corma, research professor for the Institute of Chemical Technology at the Polytechnic University of Valencia. Corma, known worldwide for his work on catalysis, has published more than 700 research papers and is the inventor on more than 100 patents. With more than 100 scientists developing new catalytic technologies, Corma’s lab is one of the largest in the world. While he was there, Huber spent four or five months working every day on a paper that is referred to now as the “bible of biofuels” (see References).

“Several companies have told me that this is the first article they give to people who work in the bioenergy field,” Huber noted. “I thought it would be a waste of time and nobody would read it.”

Dr. Calvin Bartholomew, who was Huber’s masters degree advisor in chemical engineering, describes his pupil as “a first-rate, productive, enthusiastic researcher.” Bartholomew said his young charge was less interested in his grade than he was in learning and would often read well beyond the scientific literature that Bartholomew suggested. Eventually the older man invited Huber to work in his research group and he quickly became an asset. “George has many fine qualities, including a good sense of humor, an affability and congeniality, that make him a joy to be with,” Bartholomew said. In addition to his other skills, Huber plays a mean piano, he said.

Huber was only following his heart when he went into catalysis research, but he also happened to be heading toward the right place at the right time. “When I started studying biofuels, nobody was studying them. I started in 2000 for my Ph.D. really studying biofuels. And people thought we were kind of crazy. I had one guy come up to me at conference and he says, ‘George, what we do is we work with industry, and industry tells us what problems to work on.’ And I remember people even telling me that if you want to get into an academic position, don’t do catalysis.”

In spite of these warnings, Huber persevered. Between 2000 and 2005 he and his lab developed numerous techniques for making biofuel. Shortly after, oil prices skyrocketed. In 2004 the price of oil was $20 a barrel; by 2007 oil prices shot up to $100 a barrel. “So you saw this four or five times increase in the price of oil. And now everybody is working on it. All the people in my field who criticized me for working on this, now they’re working on the same problem.”

For Huber, the work paid off. In 2008, Huber received a multi-million-dollar grant from the military for his research into biofuels. He welcomed the funding, but was surprised one day when two men in suits showed up at his office looking just like laboratory equipment salesmen. At first he was reluctant to talk to them, but he quickly changed his mind when they flashed their FBI badges. Apparently, all they wanted was to make sure that no one was spying on him.

For all his enthusiasm, Huber understands that getting his biofuel to market will be complicated and expensive. He estimates that the first plant built using his technique will cost from $300 million to $600 million. “Commodity markets are very, very challenging. Fuels are a commodity, renewable resources are a commodity, but it’s all about money,” he said.

The initial plant will be built in the U.S., he said, somewhere close to a source of cheap, local biomass to make it cost effective. “Most of these plants will need 2,000 to 5,000 tons of biomass a day. And you need to guarantee that you have a supply of biomass 365 days a year, 24 hours a day.”

One potential site would be wherever there is – or used to be – a paper mill. The pulp and paper industry is failing because it’s become cheaper to make pulp in Brazil and ship it to Maine than it is to actually make pulp in Maine, he said.

Why not revitalize paper mills in this country for the purpose of making biomass residue for fuel and at the same time put thousands of laid-off Americans back to work? Huber is zeroing in on other feedstock, too. Corn stover – the stalk and leaves left over after harvesting – is another option.

And Huber continues to ponder his dream to create renewable resources worldwide. Outside the United States, there are abundant choices for plants using biomass: South America and Africa, for example, where there is plenty of plant life that can be turned into low-cost biomass.

“I think (production of biofuel) will really improve Third World economies,” Huber said. “You could really see a huge infusion of cash there where you’re developing these plants, really creating a lot of great jobs.”

In the meantime, Huber’s career and the biomass revolution are flourishing. Huber alone has received more than $12 million from competitive research grants. He says he’s fortunate to have had great mentors and deep support from the scientific community. “In the academic community we all compete for funds,” he said, “but it’s actually very supportive of young researchers and young people as well – and new ideas.”

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