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Catalytic Pyrolysis and Research Needed To Accelerate Its Commercialization

ChemCatBio 2023 Technology Brief

This work underscores the role of catalytic pyrolysis in the circular carbon economy and charts a path toward its commercial-scale application by identifying key short- and long-term technological barriers.

Catalytic pyrolysis to convert biomass and waste plastic into low-carbon-intensity fuels and chemicals has attracted significant academic and commercial attention. However, technological barriers must be addressed before it can become fully commercialized. As these barriers are overcome, the catalytic pyrolysis technology platform will transition from small-scale units to integrated commercial processes within refineries and chemical facilities. Here, we map out remaining challenges for each stage of the catalytic pyrolysis technology’s development.

Key Findings

Roadmap of Catalytic Pyrolysis From Current State to Commercial-Scale Applications

Risks and Challenges

Related ChemCatBio Capabilities

Supporting Resources and Publications

“Catalytic pyrolysis is a robust, scalable, emerging technology platform with the versatility to decarbonize the production of fuels and plastics using biomass and waste plastic as feedstocks.”

Key Findings

Catalytic Pyrolysis Has Attracted Significant Attention

Since 1988, biomass and plastic catalytic pyrolysis have appeared in over 20,000 journal articles and patents, with the annual publication rate steadily increasing. These trends underscore how seriously researchers and industries are considering catalytic pyrolysis as a commercial technology for producing low-carbon-intensity fuels and chemicals.

The number of patents and publications, based on patent and literature searches.

Development of Catalytic Pyrolysis Units Has Accelerated in Recent Years

In recent years, a variety of companies have constructed pilot-, demonstration-, and commercial-scale catalytic pyrolysis facilities. As the technology has matured, larger units have been built, and facilities have expanded their choice of feedstocks to include waste plastics.

Timeline of selected catalytic pyrolysis pilot-, demonstration-, and commercial-scale activities by universities, research laboratories, and industry.

The Magnitude of Catalytic Pyrolysis Production Can Be Relevant to the Demand for Fuels and Chemicals by 2040

The output of existing circular carbon technologies is projected to fall well short of the global fuel and plastic demand in 2040. While deploying the catalytic technology platform will be constrained by a variety of factors, it still has the potential to make a significant contribution to filling the demand for circular fuels and plastics.

Total catalytic pyrolysis production projected for 2040 (constrained by several parameters) compared to expected fuel and plastic demand, as well as projected output of existing circular carbon technologies.
Breakdown of fuel and plastic demand projected for 2040.
Projected scale of first-generation biofuels (starch-based ethanol and biodiesel), second generation biofuels (HEFA and cellulosic ethanol), and mechanical recycling of PE and PET projected to 2040.
Assumes all available biomass and recovered waste plastic is converted at rates from the literature. Also assumes that waste plastic is recovered at the same rate as it is today (18%).
Assumes that 10% of current fluidized catalytic cracker capacity is available in 2040 due to decreases in gasoline demand. Also assumes that that capacity is used to upgrade biomass catalytic pyrolysis (CP) products to fuels while waste plastic CP products require no upgrading.
Projected catalytic pyrolysis (CP) productivity in 2040 assuming that CP facilities can be built at the maximum rate achieved by first generation ethanol facilities.

Risks and Challenges

Contaminated, heterogeneous feedstocks—Biomass and waste plastics are nonuniform solid feedstocks containing heteroatom and metal contaminants, which can cause corrosion and catalyst deactivation during operation.

Process selectivity—Carbon utilization and selectivity to desired products are critical to the economics of catalytic pyrolysis.

Products within specifications of downstream processing—Catalytic pyrolysis will be more economically attractive if its products can be upgraded using existing infrastructure. However, these products must meet existing material specifications to leverage existing facilities.

Research Needs

To accelerate the commercialization of catalytic pyrolysis, three areas of further research are needed:

Design new catalysts—To increase the value of catalytic pyrolysis products, researchers must develop a new fleet of catalysts tuned to upgrade highly oxygenated, contaminated biomass pyrolysis streams that may contain a lot of water.

Operate integrated pilot facilities—Industry must construct and operate fully integrated catalytic pyrolysis units to provide valuable information about operating conditions, scaling relations, startup protocols, and reactor designs needed for commercial-scale units.

Identify uses for coproducts—Coproducts produced by the catalytic pyrolysis of biomass or waste plastic must be isolated and used in a way that will benefit the economics of the overall process.