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Research Interests

Jack Ferrell works in the Thermochemical Catalysis Research and Development (R&D) group and manages tasks on analytical standardization for pyrolysis oil and on kinetic and hydrodynamic modeling of biomass-to-biofuels processes. Research interests include:

  • Standardization of analytical techniques for the analysis of bio-oils

  • Electrochemical upgrading of biomass-derived intermediates

  • Computational modeling for the production of fuels and chemicals from gasified biomass

Standardization of analytical techniques for analysis of bio-oils

To economically produce renewable fuels and chemicals from biomass, the biomass must first be deconstructed and then processed further (upgraded) to produce either a finished product or an intermediate stream that can be sent to a refinery. Pyrolysis is a promising thermochemical route to deconstruct the biomass feedstock. Pyrolysis, typically run at approximately 500°C, produces pyrolysis vapors that are often condensed to form pyrolysis oil, or bio-oil. Bio-oil is an extremely complex mixture containing several hundred compounds and a large variety of chemical functionalities.

On the left is a photo of a woman holding a plastic vial containing a liquid bio-oil, which is brown in color. An arrow points to the right photo that shows a liquid chromatography mass spectrometer instrument, including a computer and computer monitor.

To inform both the pyrolysis and upgrading processes, reliable analytics are needed for bio-oil. A collaborative project with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory began in 2014 to standardize analytical techniques for the analysis of bio-oils, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory joined the project in 2015. The development of standard quantitative methods and subsequent method validations via round robin are ongoing. As of August 2015, the following standard methods for bio-oil analysis have been developed:

  • Gas chromatography/mass spectrometry for the analysis of volatile components

  • Titration for carboxylic acid content (also known as CAN/TAN analysis)

  • Titration for carbonyl content

  • 31phosphorous nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) for hydroxyl group quantification

  • High-pressure liquid chromatography (HPLC) for carboxylic acids

  • HPLC for carbonyl compounds

  • 13carbon NMR for carbon functional groups

Methods that prove reliable (via round robin) will be published as laboratory analytical procedures (LAPs). For updates, check the Bio-Oil Analysis Laboratory Procedures webpage or contact me directly.

Electrochemical upgrading of biomass-derived intermediates

Compared to petroleum-based fuels, biomass-derived intermediates (e.g., pyrolysis vapors) are hydrogen deficient and oxygen rich and require upgrading (hydrogenation and deoxygenation) to produce fuels and chemicals. Current upgrading methods have been adapted from the petroleum industry, and they have significant limitations for processing biomass intermediates (e.g., catalyst deactivation and the use of large excesses of hydrogen).

I am interested in developing new processes for biomass upgrading, and I feel that electrochemical technologies are very promising for this application. Electrochemical upgrading offers several advantages:

  • The driving force for reaction (applied voltage) is easily controlled, and it can be used to control reaction rates and selectivities.

  • Electrochemical upgrading offers efficient hydrogen utilization.

  • Work to date has shown that electrochemical upgrading produces a drastically different product slate than existing thermochemical methods.

  • Excess renewable electricity (from wind or solar) can be used to produce storable fuels and chemicals.

  • Electrochemical systems are modular and easily scalable.

Illustration showing that water (depicted with a photo of a waterfall), renewable electricity (depicted with a photo of a solar panel array and a wind turbine), and oxygenated bio-oil (depicted with a photo of a woman holding a plastic vial containing liquid bio-oil) can be processed together in an electrochemical device to produce fuels and chemicals.

I am interested in partnering with companies or institutions to develop electrochemical technology to processing biomass intermediates. I have interests and experience with both low-temperature (polymer-membrane) and intermediate-temperature (ceramic-membrane) systems. Please contact me with further questions.

Computational modeling for the production of fuels and chemicals from gasified biomass

To ensure commercially viable and relevant research, understanding the techno-economics upon scale-up is essential. For the production of fuels and chemicals from biomass through a gasification pathway, catalysis for fuels synthesis is a critical step in the process. Accurate information about product yield and selectivity is required to assess the techno-economics of the scaled-up catalytic process. However, catalytic data is typically collected at the bench scale, and scale-up to pilot- or industrial-scale introduces complications (e.g., mass-transfer limitations) that often do not exist at the bench scale. If not addressed, these complications can lead to inaccurate techno-economic projections. To address these issues, this project develops kinetic models for the catalytic fuels synthesis processes. When possible, microkinetic models are employed. Lumped-parameter kinetic models are used when microkinetic analysis is not possible. These kinetic models are then made compatible with process simulation tools such as Aspen Plus, allowing for more accurate techno-economic projections.

Affiliated Research Programs

  • Biomass Characterization (PI)

  • Heterogeneous Catalysis for Thermochemical Conversion (contributor)

  • Process Design, Modeling, and Economics (PI)

  • Thermochemical Process Integration, Scale-up, and Piloting (collaborator)

  • Feedstocks (collaborator)

Areas of Expertise

  • Analytical chemistry

    • Gas chromatography

    • Liquid chromatography

    • Mass spectrometry

    • Titrations

    • Nuclear magnetic resonance

    • Thermal gravimetric analysis

  • Electrochemical technologies

    • Low temperature: solid polymer electrolytes, both proton-conducting and alkaline-exchange membranes

    • Intermediate and high temperature: both proton-conducting and oxygen-anion-conducting ceramic membranes

  • Heterogeneous catalysis

    • Gas to liquids

    • Kinetics and reaction mechanisms

    • Physical and chemical characterization

    • Metal sulfides

    • Polyoxometallates

  • Computational modeling

    • Kinetic modeling, including both microkinetic and lumped-parameter approaches

    • Hydrodynamic modeling

    • Techno-economic (TEA) modeling

      • Inclusion of kinetic/hydrodynamic models into process models for enhanced TEA projections

  • Reactor scale-up and validation


  • Ph.D., Chemical Engineering, Colorado School of Mines, 2004–2009

  • B.S., Chemical Engineering, University of Virginia, 20002004

Professional Experience

  • Staff Engineer, Thermochemical Catalysis R&D, National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), National Bioenergy Center (NBC), 2012present

  • Temporary Engineer, Thermochemical Catalysis R&D, NREL, NBC, 20112012

  • Postdoctoral Associate, National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), Energy Systems Dynamics and Separations & Fuels Processing Divisions, 20102011


  • American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE)


  1. "Immobilized heteropoly acids and the use of the same for electrode stabilization and enhancement," U.S. Patent No. 8,753,997 (2014)

Featured Publications

  1. "Characterization of Upgraded Fast Pyrolysis Oak Oil Distillate Fractions from Sulfided and Non-Sulfided Catalytic Hydrotreating," Fuel (2017)

  2. "Quantitative 13C NMR Characterization of Fast Pyrolysis Oils," RSC Advances (2016)

  3. "Standardization of Chemical Analytical Techniques for Pyrolysis Bio-oil: History, Challenges, and Current Status of Methods," Bioproducts & Biorefining (2016)

  4. "In-Depth Investigation on Quantitative Characterization of Pyrolysis Oil by 31P NMR," RSC Advances (2016)

  5. "Determination of Carbonyl Groups in Pyrolysis Bio-oils Using Potentiometric Titration: Review and Comparison of Methods," Energy & Fuels (2016)

  6. "Recent Advances in Heterogeneous Catalysts for Bio-Oil Upgrading via 'Ex-Situ Catalytic Fast Pyrolysis': Catalyst Development through the Study of Model Compounds," Green Chemistry (2014)

View all NREL Publications for Jack Ferrell.

Please contact me with any research questions or ideas for collaborations. Please do NOT contact me directly for jobs—see instead information on NREL's Director's Postdoctoral Fellowship program or on NREL Careers in general.