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Thermochemical Users Facility

The Thermochemical Users Facility (TCUF) at NREL has state-of-the-art equipment for thermochemical process development and testing, ranging from catalyst and feedstock characterizations to bench-scale reactors to pilot plants. We welcome partners who wish to collaborate on research and development efforts or to use our equipment to test their materials and processes.

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In addition to the following testing systems, we have several other lab-scale reactor systems and the ability to engineer and fabricate custom systems.

Pilot-Scale Systems

Schematic diagram of NRELs thermochemical process development unit pyrolysis configuration, starting with an illustration of a Feeder in the upper left with an arrow showing the biomass going from the Feeder to the Eductor and Nitrogen flowing into the Eductor from below. The next step is the Entrained Flow Reactor that generates pyrolysis vapors, illustrated by a series of tubes that then flows into the Cyclonic Separators, which are thimble-shaped and collect char and ash. The flow goes through the Cyclonic Separators to either become solids or go through the MBMS Sample Port and then on to two possible pathways: (1) the R3 VPU: Recirculating Regenerating Reactor that either goes into a Scrubber system and creates Pyrolysis Products or to the Thermal Oxidizer via the GC & NDIR Sample Port, or (2) through the addition of Nitrogen, Catalysts, Steam, and Air, the flow goes in a second MBMS Sample Port and Scrubber to create either Upgraded Pyrolysis Products or go to the Thermal Oxidizer via the GC & NDIR Sample Port.

Thermochemical Process Development Unit – Pyrolysis

The Thermochemical Process Development Unit (TCPDU) is used to test biomass pyrolysis technologies at the pilot scale. The TCPDU can be configured for fast pyrolysis and catalytic pyrolysis. An entrained flow reactor is used to generate the pyrolysis vapors, cyclones to collect char and ash, and a spray condensation train to collect the final products. A recirculating regenerating reactor can be used to catalytically upgrade the pyrolysis vapors. Online analytical capabilities include molecular beam mass spectrometry, gas chromatography, thermal conductivity detection, and nondispersive infrared. Partners can use the TCPDU to test catalysts or bring in their own unit operations to attach to the TCPDU to test their pyrolysis technologies.

Learn more about NREL's thermochemical process integration, scale-up, and piloting research.


Schematic diagram of NRELs thermochemical process development unit gasification configuration, starting with an illustration of a Feeder on the far left with an arrow showing the biomass going from the Feeder to the Fluidized Bed Reactor for initial volatilization of the biomass, which flows from the Boiler into the Fluidized Bed Reactor coming from below. The Boiler can also flow into the Full Stream Reformer. Then there are two possible pathways: (1) straight to the Thermal Oxidizer or (2) on to the Thermal Cracker to complete the gasification. From the Thermal Cracker series of tubes, the flow goes in to the Cyclonic Separators, which are thimble-shaped. The flow goes through the Cyclonic Separators that collect char and ash to either become solids or go through the Full Stream Reformer, then the R-Cubed: Recirculating Regenerating Reformer, and then to the Polishing Packed Bed Reformer. From here the flow either goes straight to the Thermal Oxidizer or first to the Scrubber and then either to the Phase Separator and to the Blower or out of the system as Water & Tars, or straight to the Blower. Then the flow goes either to Fuel Synthesis or to the Thermal Oxidizer. Some of the flow from the Full Stream Reformer, R-Cubed: Recirculating Regenerating Reformer, and Polishing Packed Bed, goes straight to the Thermal Oxidizer.

Thermochemical Process Development Unit – Gasification

The TCPDU is also used to test biomass gasification technologies at the pilot scale. In the gasification configuration, the TCPDU is comprised of a fluid bed reactor for initial volatilization of biomass, a thermal cracker to complete gasification, cyclones for char and ash collection, and a gas scrubbing system. Three different reforming reactors are available and can be used independently or in parallel: fluid bed, packed bed, and recirculating regenerating reactor. Online analytical capabilities include molecular beam mass spectrometry, gas chromatography, thermal conductivity detection, and nondispersive infrared. Partners can use the TCPDU to test catalysts or bring in their own skid to attach to the TCPDU to test syngas upgrading technologies.

Learn more about NREL's thermochemical process integration, scale-up, and piloting research.

Thermochemical Conversion Pilot Plant

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Photo of two engineers with their backs to the camera, standing in front of tall tables with laptops and computers that are sitting in front of the large Davison circulating riser, which is a two-level set of multi-colored, metal scaffolding, pipes, tubes, and hoses that connect to several control panels with dials and monitors.

Davison Circulating Riser

The Vapor Phase Upgrading Lab houses two reactor systems: a fluidized bed reactor for the fast pyrolysis (500°C, 20–45 psig, 1–2 seconds residence time) of biomass and a Davison circulating riser (DCR) for performing vapor phase upgrading reactions of pyrolysis vapors. The scale of operations on the pyrolyzer is nominally 2 kg/hour, with nitrogen employed for fluidization (0.5 biomass:N2). Pyrolysis vapor feed rates up to 1 kg/hour (including nitrogen) to the DCR are typically employed to provide short residence times (~1 second) in the DCR. The DCR (500°C–650°C, 20–45 psig, 1–10 seconds residence time) circulates a 2 kg charge of catalyst through a steam stripper and a regenerator (for coke removal) that allows up to 10 to 12 hours of continuous operation per day. Weight hourly space velocity between 10 (typical for pyrolysis vapors) and >100 (vacuum gas oil) enable a wide range of experimental conditions for catalyst evaluation. The lab also houses a Xytel attrition testing unit (to determine if novel catalysts are suitable for circulation in the DCR), fixed gas detection, and an overhead crane.

Learn more about NREL's thermochemical process integration, scale-up, and piloting research.

Vapor Phase Upgrading With the Davison Circulating Riser

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Laboratory-Scale Reactor Systems

Multi-color line drawing of a bench-scale fuel synthesis reactor showing a series of interconnected tubes, pipes, valves, and wires, all standing on a platform.

Fuel Synthesis Catalysis Laboratory

NRELs Fuel Synthesis Catalysis Laboratory (FSCL) is a purpose-built facility designed for testing heterogeneous catalysts in their role of converting biomass intermediates to chemicals and fuels. A variety of reactor systems, customized for the challenges of bio-intermediate upgrading, can be used to test various materials and process conditions. Alternately, reactor bays are equipped to handle new designs or customer-supplied equipment. In-house developed, partner-supplied, and purchased catalysts can be tested across operating conditions that span 0–2,000 psig (pressure), 150°F–1,800°F (temperature), permanent and condensable gases, liquids, and vaporizable solids. Full process automation allows for extended operation up to thousands of hours. Product analysis is achieved through online chromatography and mass spectrometry and a multitude of offline techniques, like nuclear magnetic resonance, high-performance liquid chromatography, scanning electron microscopy with X-ray microanalysis, transmission electron microscopy, X-ray diffraction, Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy, Raman, etc.

Learn more about NREL's heterogeneous catalysis for thermochemical conversion research.

Fuel Synthesis Catalysis Laboratory

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Schematic drawing of the research gasifier system, starting with an illustration of a Biomass Feeder on the left that then flows into the Gasifier where Fluidizing Gas (Steam or N2) comes in from the bottom and Air flows in from the left. The next phase is Char Removal in two steps: first at 800 degrees Celsius and 10 psig (labeled 1), then at 450 degrees Celsius and 9 psig (labeled 2) as it moves into the Reformer. The top of the Reformer is labeled "Wasson GC, THC? MBMS?" After the tar and hydrocarbon reforming, the feedstock moves through the Condenser (this area is labeled "4 Channel Micro GC") where it is cooled to about 40 degrees Celsius and is at 8 psig (labeled 3). In this liquid condensation process, some Rich Amines are moved to the Amine Scrubber and are released as CO2 (this area is labeled "CO2 Analyzer") and some become Lean Amines. The Lean Amines are heated to 60 degrees Celsius and are at 7 psig (labeled 4 and "NDIR/H2-TCD") as they move into the Process Gas Compression area, where the process ends with three arrows to three Accumulators.

Research Gasifier

The NREL Research Gasifier (NRG) is a compact, fully automated gasification system that consists of biomass feeding, gasification, solids removal, tar and hydrocarbon reforming, liquids condensation, CO2 removal, gas compression, and syngas storage for future use. The individual sub-systems of the NRG can be manipulated for individualized research.

Learn more about NREL's thermochemical process integration, scale-up, and piloting research.


Schematic drawing of a fluidized bed reactor system, starting with an illustration of a motor on the left with a feeder illustration above it. Moving to the right in a thin tunnel with diagonal parallel lines is a large rectangle labeled "Sand" showing squiggly lines departing from this area. Moving again to the right is a box labeled "Char Collection" that has two arrow-shaped funnels dumping into it. Above and to the right is a funnel labeled "Fresh Cat" that flows below to the right into boxes labeled "CAT" and "Spent Cat." To the right and parallel with the Fresh Cat funnel is an area labeled "Hot Filter" and below this is "Air-Cooled Condenser" that flows down to a box that is white at the top and brown at the bottom and then below is a box labeled "RGA." To the right of the Air-Cooled Condenser is an arrow shaped funnel with 5kV at the top and a box that is white at the top and brown at the bottom; parallel to this arrow-shaped funnel is a rounded funnel with a box below it that is white at the top and brown at the bottom. Both funnels sit above a box labeled "Liquid Collection" and the top far right has a box labeled "Vent"; a vertical rectangle is to the lower right. At the bottom of the diagram is an illustration of control panels with dials and numbers and to the far lower right is another box labeled "Vent" with a circle above it with numbers in a horizontal rectangle inside the circle.

Bench-Scale Biomass Conversion System

The two-inch fluidized bed reactor system is a valuable intermediate between micro-scale experiments and larger pilot-scale experiments. In its current configuration, it receives solid biomass powder (sawdust) at rates of several hundred grams per hour and converts it to tangible quantities of liquid-fuel precursors as well as solid and gaseous co-products. These products are then thoroughly analyzed chemically and physically, as well as further upgraded by hydroprocessing so as to evaluate and compare biomass feed materials, catalysts, thermal conditions, and reactor conditions to identify promising processes for the economic production of fuels and chemicals from biomass.


Photo of two engineers in safety glasses working on a reactor system comprised of metal tanks, tubing, pipes, and wires, which is used to investigate in situ and ex situ catalytic fast pyrolysis and can be used to generate bio-oil for compositional analysis.

Laminar Entrained Flow Reactor

The Laminar Entrained Flow Reactor (LEFR) is a modular, laboratory-scale, single-user reactor for studying catalytic fast pyrolysis (CFP). This system can be used to study a variety of reactor conditions for both in situ (in place) and ex situ (out of place) CFP.

NRELs custom-built LEFR system continuously produces char-free pyrolysis vapors and delivers them to a second, independently controlled, catalytic reactor. The secondary reactor can be configured as a four-channel fixed bed or drop tube reactor. Catalyst performance and deactivation can be studied at small scale with real biomass pyrolysis vapors. Used catalyst is removed from the vapor stream for further analysis or regeneration. Solid char, liquids, and the outlet gas yields are measured to provide a quantitative mass balance.

Laminar Entrained Flow Reactor

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Analytical and Characterization Laboratories

Cross-section illustration of a molecular beam mass spectrometer. Helium goes into the Tube Furnace from the left; there is a Sample area in the center of the tube and a Catalyst area marked by a red rectangle on the right side of the tube. To the right of the Tube Furnace is a cylinder with a Sampling Cone and a Skimmer Cone that are both surrounded by an o-ring shape. Below the cones is a 1st Stage Pump at 10 to the minus 3 Torr. Further to the right at the bottom of this cylinder is a 2nd Stage Pump at 10 to the minus 5 Torr. A tube that encases the quadrapole (a series of four, thin vertical tubes) comes up out of the cylinder. At the top of this tube is the Detector, shown as a vertical rectangle. Another smaller tube is attached perpendicular to this main tube and is labeled 3rd Stage Pump at 10 to the minus 7 Torr.

Molecular Beam Mass Spectrometry

Molecular beam mass spectrometry (MBMS) is used to characterize gases and vapors that evolve from biomass thermochemical conversion and catalytic upgrading processes. NREL has six MBMS systems: two stationary systems, two field-deployable systems (customized for use in industrial environments), and two high-throughput stationary systems with autosampler pyrolysis units. The advantages of this technique include real-time, continuous monitoring; direct sampling from harsh environments, including high-temperature, wet, particulate-laden or corrosive gas streams; nearly universal detection capabilities; and a large dynamic range (106–10-2 ppmv). Applications have included:

  • Analytical pyrolysis for material characterization, including early detection of chemical differences in genetically modified biomass crops
  • Mechanisms and kinetics of thermochemical processes, including identifying thermal degradation pathways and modeling the deactivation of steam reforming catalysts
  • Heterogeneous catalyst screening and product yield estimates
  • Reaction parameter screening for engineering scale-up
  • Monitoring and speciation of biomass-derived syngas and diesel engine exhaust.

Molecular Beam Mass Spectrometry

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Photo of a 400 MHz Agilent Unity Inova NMR Spectrometer, which is composed of a large metal tank on a three-legged metal stand; clear plastic tubes and wires stick out of the top and bottom of the tank.

Magnetic Resonance Facility

NREL's state-of-the-art Magnetic Resonance Facility provides both liquid and solid-state analysis for a variety of biomass, photovoltaic, and materials characterization applications on three nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometers. Our 600 MHz Bruker Avance III NMR spectrometer provides high-throughput, quantitative liquids analysis using a Bruker Sample Jet, cutting-edge analysis of semi-solid samples using a high-resolution magic angle spinning probe, a high sensitivity liquid-state Bruker CryoProbe, and solid-state analyses of biomass feedstocks, biomass-related materials, and polymers. The 400 MHz Bruker Avance III HD NanoBay NMR spectrometer allows NREL scientists to run their own liquid sample analysis using a Bruker SampleCase autosampler for routine 1H, 13C, 31P, and 19F experiments, temperatures studies from -40°C to 80°C, and has the capability of a Bruker Prodigy CryoProbe for increased sensitivity. The 200 MHz Bruker Avance III HD NMR Spectrometer is ideal for solid-state 13C NMR studies of various materials and also offers a 10 mm liquids probe for rapid 13C analysis.

Magnetic Resonance Facility

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Biomass Catalyst Characterization Laboratory

NRELs Biomass Catalyst Characterization Laboratory is a comprehensive materials characterization and performance testing laboratory. Material characterization capabilities span a range of physical and chemical techniques.

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