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Thermochemical Conversion Capabilities

NREL researchers are developing gasification and pyrolysis processes for the cost-effective thermochemical conversion of biomass to biofuels. Gasification—heating biomass with about one-third of the oxygen necessary for complete combustion—produces a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, known as syngas. Pyrolysis—heating biomass in the absence of oxygen—produces a liquid bio-oil. Both syngas and bio-oil can be used directly or can be converted to clean fuels and other valuable chemicals.

Areas of emphasis in NREL's thermochemical conversion R&D are:

Gasification and Fuel Synthesis R&D

This video is a narrated animation that explains the gasification process.

NREL is improving the efficiency and reducing the cost of the gasification and fuel synthesis process. Parallel to laboratory R&D, NREL has developed a pilot-scale process and design model for the indirect and direct gasification of lignocellulosic biomass to ethanol.

  • Gas cleanup and conditioning. A major challenge in the development and commercialization of biomass gasification is the integration of the gasifier with downstream syngas processing. Tars and other contaminants formed during gasification must be removed prior to fuel synthesis. NREL researchers are working to understand the chemistry of tar formation and to develop processes that minimize tar formation and convert tars to additional syngas.

  • Fuel synthesis. At NREL, fuel synthesis researchers are investigating catalysts that have the potential to improve yield and selectivity to desired products. In addition, NREL has the capability to test potential catalysts in high pressure, high temperature reactors. Learn more about the Fuel Synthesis Catalysis Laboratory.

Pyrolysis R&D

This video is a narrated animation that explains the pyrolysis process.

NREL is researching the production of various intermediate and finished products from pyrolysis oil. Fundamental work is being conducted at NREL that provides a solid understanding of the chemistry of biomass pyrolysis, including stabilization and upgrading of bio-oil, the potential applications of pyrolysis liquids, and the requirements for engineering systems that can produce fuels and chemicals via biomass pyrolysis on a large scale.

  • Bio-oil production. NREL has the capabilities to carry out fast pyrolysis in either a fluidized bed or an entrained-flow reactor system.
  • Upgrading of bio-oil to fuels. NREL is investigating processes such as hydrotreating to refine the oil to a more stable, less acidic state for transport or use as fuel.

Thermochemical Process Integration

NREL has the capabilities and thermochemical facilities for evaluating a wide range of applications for converting biomass into power, fuels, or chemicals. The Thermochemical Process Development Unit, NREL's thermochemical pilot plant, is a unique facility available for testing feedstocks in a number of thermochemical conversion processes.

Learn about thermochemical conversion projects and our facilities.