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Hydrothermal Biomass Upgrade into Carbon Materials and Levulinic Acid for Sustainable Catalysis

Final Report Summary - HYDROCAT (Hydrothermal Biomass Upgrade into Carbon Materials and Levulinic Acid for Sustainable Catalysis)

HYDROCAT objectives were to valorise biomass resources into valuable chemicals and materials. The carbon materials were used as catalysts for important chemical reactions such as the Oxygen Reduction Reaction as well as Heterogenous Catalysts to convert biomass into chemicals.

Hydrocat has enabled fast progress in the production of advanced carbon materials and biomass using hydrothermal processes. Its main outcomes are:

• Demonstrating efficient carbon electrocatalysts for the Oxygen Reduction Reaction to be used at cathodes in fuel cells and demonstrating their integration in Alkaline Fuel cell Devices
• Demonstrating that the hydrothermal processes for biomass conversion can be switched either towards carbon materials productions or the levulinic acid production
• Discovering the ability of hydrothermal carbons to work as negative electrodes in Na-ion batteries and demonstrating full Na-ion battery cells suitable for ststionary storage
• Converting levulinic acid into ethyl levulinates as biofuel alternatives

The impact of our work related to low carbon fuels. It is crucial that in the EU we will reduce our CO2 emissions with 50% by 2020. Being able to produce biodisel alternatives (ethyl levulinates) using our low cost process and lignocellulosic biomass precursors will have a positive effect on decarbonising our future economy. It has also impacted on the development of precious metal free catalysts for fuel cells and electrolysis needed to produce clean electricity with water as the only product.

The main scientific achievements of this project are:

• New and efficient carbon catalysts for ORR including the demonstration of their performance in a real fuel cell
• Clear quantification of chemicals in the liquid phase of hydrothermal carbonisation and optimisation of the conditions for a maximum yield for 5HMF and levulinic acid
• Carbon heterogenous catalysts for esterification and hydrogenation of biomass compounds.
• Metal free hydrogenation catalysts for biomass conversion.

In addition, we have produced sustainable electrocatalysts for the oxygen reduction reaction in fuel cells and demonstrate a similar performance with Pt while decreasing their cost by 60%. Our results have a great impact and economical importance:

• Biomass to biochemicals will serve for future biorefineries and for clean ways in which we can manufacture future chemicals and polymers.
• Developing Pt free catalysts for Oxygen Reduction Reaction in Fuel Cells is of crucial importance for CO2 free energy generation and transport.
• Finally, catalysts for the esterification of biomass derivatives are important in the production of biofuels for clean transportation.

This project has boosted the integration of Prof. Titirici within the European research community, leading to new collaborations and projects with UK and EU partners and beyond. HYDROCAT project has greatly contributed to the career development of the PI. Prof Titirici was made a full professor at QMUL in 2015 and she has also held management roles, including Head of the Materials Division within the School of Engineering and Materials Science and Director of the Materials Research Institute. She has since become research leader of the Sustainable Energy Materials group at Imperial College. She now runs a successful group of 12 PhD students and 4 PDRAs. She has attracted around £5M in funding from EPSRC, EU H2020 (several individual and ETN Marie Curie fellowships) as well as funds from the Royal Society to work with China and Colombia.

Prof Titirici has published around 50 papers from the duration of this grant and the funds have greatly facilitated her career development. She is also the recipient of important awards such as the Rosenheim Medal from the Institute of Materials and Mines in London in 2016, USERN award in 2017, an honorary PhD from University of Stockholm and the 2018 RSC Corday-Morgan Award for Materials Chemistry. Her h-index reached 62 only 12 years past her PhD.

She has also during the duration of the CIG transferred knowledge to colleagues and research groups both within QMUL. This has led to new collaborations and projects both with the wider research community in the UK and with EU partners.