Keith Hurley

I chose to take a postdoctoral position at the FBRI because it combined two of my professional passions; catalysis and environmentally oriented research. My doctoral work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was on the catalytic remediation of drinking water contaminants, specifically perchlorate. The sense of purpose I felt performing that research is the same I have now at the FBRI. The inevitable shift away from a petroleum based society demands that scientists and engineers develop new technologies for fuels and chemicals. The work we are doing here in Maine is at the forefront of the development of biomass based technologies. Not only do I get a chance to broaden my horizons by working in an engineering department, but the highly interdisciplinary nature of the FBRI as a whole allows me to see the big picture of biomass technology development and implementation in the real world.

My Research

My work with the FBRI is focused in the areas of catalyst screening and the catalyzed upgrading of pyrolysis oil. Our approach to catalyst screening is based on the utilization of arrays of devices called micro-hot plates, fabricated using traditional photolithographic techniques, to act as microscopic reactors or sensors. Following the deposition of a combination of potential catalysts onto the device array, the micro-hot plates can be used to locally heat the catalyst, while simultaneously sensing changes in temperature associated with heat produced by a catalyzed reaction. Complimentary spectroscopic techniques such as FTIR and Raman spectroscopy can be used in-situto monitor species on the catalyst surface while other techniques such as GC-MS can be used to monitor the product stream.

Pyrolysis oil produced from fast pyrolysis contains many oxygenated compounds which deleteriously affect the properties of the oil by increasing both the acidity and reactivity of the product, resulting in poor stability. In order for pyrolysis oil to be implemented into traditional crude oil processing streams, both of these problems must be addressed. Hydrodeoxygenation (HDO) of the pyrolysis oil eliminates the oxygen functionalities, resulting in a less acidic and more stable product. Our research uses both batch and flow-through reactors to study the kinetics of catalytic HDO of model compounds. Aside from catalyst activity and product selectivity, areas of study include reaction mechanism, process development, and catalyst characterization.

In Other Words

A catalyst is a compound which increases the rate of a given reaction without being consumed. In order to find a good catalyst it is sometimes necessary to look through dozens, if not hundreds, of compounds to find one with the right combination of properties such as cost, activity, selectivity, and physical properties.  We are working on ways to screen a large number of catalysts on a very small scale using small reactors called micro-hot plates. If a particular catalyst is active, the increased rate of reaction can be sensed as a change in temperature on the micro-hot plate. Spectroscopic techniques, which use different ranges of the electromagnetic spectrum, can be used to characterize species on the catalyst surface by measuring properties such as the vibrational frequency of chemical bonds.

The term hydrodeoxygenation refers, in simple terms, to the removal of oxygen (O) by combining it with hydrogen gas (H2) to produce water (H2O). Using this catalyzed reaction, pyrolysis oil can be stabilized, allowing it to be more easily shipped and stored. Because of the large numbers of chemicals present in pyrolysis oil, our work is currently focused on using model chemicals such as guaiacol or furfural to develop methods for catalyzed hydrodeoxygenation.

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Contact Information

5737 Jenness Hall, Room 224
University of Maine
Orono, ME 04469