Water speeds up furfural production

When I think of water and energy, waterfalls and waterwheels, so I was intrigued to see engineers finding a new way to use water to produce renewable fuels and was surprised at what they found.

A recent article on The University of Oklahoma’s (OU) website titled “OI engineers discover novel role of water in production of renewable fuels” by Jana Smith, details how a group of engineers found a way to speed up the rate of the chemical reaction that forms the renewable chemical furfural. The research was recently published in Nature Catalysis.

“Energy and water are interconnected in the production of renewable fuels. On the one hand, energy is needed to extract, purify and distribute water. On the other hand, water is useful in producing energy,” Daniel Resasco, professor in the School of Chemical, Biological and Materials Engineering, Gallogly College of Engineering, said in the article. “It is known that water plays an important role as an environmentally friendly solvent, replacing organic solvents. The novelty is that it can accelerate the rate of hydrogenation.”

Working with The University of Tulsa, OU engineers found that they could double or triple the rate of conversion in the production of furfural with the use of water as a solvent.

When producing furfural, a compound needed for the production of other fuels and chemicals, hydrogenating the molecule is important, as it allows the chemical to be used in other processes later, Smith explains in the article.

“The group has shown that when the molecule contains an oxygenated group, hydrogenation occurs from the liquid phase instead of the catalyst surface,” Smith reports.

Although the reaction will occur at the catalyst surface without water, the solvent allows the hydrogen to move through the water molecule at a higher rate for the reaction. It also requires a lower energy barrier and speeds up the process, Smith explains.

The group will continue its research of water’s role in improving the production of renewable fuels in the chemical production of energy with a $650,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.