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Thermochemical Processes

Photo of a researcher wearing a hardhat and examining a catalytic steam reformer.

Catalytic steam reforming increases the overall yield of fuel gas from biomass.

NREL's researchers have investigated the thermochemical conversion of renewable energy feedstocks since the lab's inception. Researchers are developing gasification and pyrolysis processes to convert biomass and its residues to hydrogen, fuels, chemicals, and power. Building on past successes, biomass is increasingly one of the best near-term options for renewable hydrogen production.

Thermochemical Process R&D

Research and development at NREL provides a fundamental understanding of the chemistry of biomass pyrolysis. This R&D includes stabilizing and upgrading bio-oil, the potential applications of pyrolysis liquids, and the requirements for engineering systems that can produce hydrogen via biomass pyrolysis on a large scale.

The core of the biomass-to-hydrogen process and the focus of NREL's biomass-to-hydrogen R&D is catalytic steam reforming. This process has been demonstrated successfully in the lab for biomass pyrolysis vapors, the carbohydrate fraction of biomass-derived liquids, trap grease (a waste product from restaurants), and gasifier product gas. Building on these successes, the program shifted its focus in recent years to integrating the catalytic steam reforming of biomass pyrolysis products with the production of high-value products. Techno-economic evaluation confirmed this strategy would be commercially viable if fractions of the pyrolysis oil could be marketed as value-added products or with low- or negative-cost feedstocks.

Transitioning from a combination of hydrogen and high-value byproducts, NREL now focuses on just one product—hydrogen—to use the whole bio-oil for production. Before this focus shift, a fraction of the bio-oil was used to produce hydrogen, and another fraction was used for adhesives or liquid hydrocarbon fuels. The current goal of the program is to develop the process for distributed hydrogen production from bio-oil.