To George Huber, a petroleum refinery is a beautiful thing.
“They look like dirty pieces of equipment to everyone else,” he says, “but to the chemical engineer, they are really beautiful. They are very efficient, highly integrated systems designed to minimize how much energy is used, maximize profitability and reduce environmental impact. They take cheaper products and make them more valuable and that’s what this country needs.”
Huber is an associate professor of chemical engineering at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. In 2005, he earned his PhD at UW-Madison under Steenbock Professor and Michel Boudart Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering James Dumesic. Working with Dumesic and others, Huber specialized in making fuel and chemicals from biomass rather than crude oil. He continues that work at UMass.
“My lab is dedicated to making sustainable liquid fuel and chemicals. Our whole economy is based on crude oil and when the price goes up, that causes challenges. An economy based on crude raises national security concerns and of course there are environmental concerns,” he says. “My goal is to develop the technology that will allow us to make renewable fuels and chemicals from biomass.”
Working with Dumesic and others, Huber helped develop technology to make a diesel-like fuel, hydrogen and components of gasoline from plant sugars. At Amherst, he and his students created a fast pyrolysis technology to create benzene, toluene and xylene (known as BTX) from agricultural waste. BTX is the key ingredient in myriad products. It’s blended with gasoline to make high-octane premium fuel. It’s a critical component of insulation, detergent and plastics such as soda bottles. Right now, it costs about $3 per gallon to make BTX from oil, but once production is scaled up, Huber’s process could produce it for about $1 to $2 per gallon.
The patented process is at the heart of Anellotech, Inc., formed by Huber and entrepreneur David Sudolsky, The company will scale up the system and ultimately license it to other companies seeking to built plants.
“The economics only make sense at large scale, so we need to be processing 2,000 to 3,000 metric tons of dried biomass per day in the biorefinery,” Huber says. “You would build the biorefinery in rural locations close to the source. I live in New England. In Maine, we have a lot of paper mills that have been shut down. So we can go to locations like that, that are economically depressed, and build these biorefineries to give a boost to these rural economies.”
Improving rural economies, addressing national security issues, building a more sustainable environment; not many can claim to make such an impact through their work. But Huber suggests it is much more common than people appreciate. It is the role of the engineer to provide solutions, he says. It is up to policy makers and the public to decide which solutions to implement.
“When I was working on my PhD with Jim Dumesic, he said his goal in coming to the lab each day was that, if we had a good result, it would make a difference. I learned how to do all of this at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the chemical engineering department. That’s the mentality there, of what research should be all about.”