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A sustainable process to obtain furfuryl alcohol from biorefinery products

The CSIC has developed a process to obtain furfuryl alcohol based on the continuous gas-phase hydrogenation of furfural with formic acid as a source of hydrogen. It uses catalysts based on metal nanoparticles that avoid metals harmful to health and the environment. Companies in the chemical or pharmaceutical sector interested in further developing the process are sought.

This process uses as raw materials furfural, which is obtained from biomass, and formic acid, a by-product of biorefineries, which is renewable, low-cost, and safer than the fossil-derived hydrogen used in the conventional process.Furfuryl alcohol is a common product in industry. It is used for manufacturing foundry resins, to obtain low-cost corrosion-resistant resins, as well as grinding wheels and adhesives. It can also be used to produce tetrahydrofurfuryl alcohol (THFA), a common solvent in the pharmaceutical industry.

Conventional furfuryl alcohol is obtained by hydrogenation of furfural, an organic compound derived from various agricultural by-products. The process can be carried out in both liquid and vapour phase.

Currently, the most common process to produce furfuryl alcohol is in the liquid phase, by subjecting the furfural to high temperature and pressure processes and using copper and chromium catalysts (such as copper chromite). The disadvantage of this method is that chromium is harmful to human health and environment, and thus the waste of the process.

To avoid this, alternative methods based on noble metals have been proposed, but these methods are not very viable as noble metals are scarce and costly. Among noble metals, catalysts based on palladium and platinum have been proposed, but they do not achieve high selectivity to furfuryl alcohol, so they require the addition of other elements, which is another disadvantage from the industrial point of view.

Non-noble metals have also been tested, which are cheaper, but they require very specific operating conditions that do not make them interesting for industry.

A CSIC team has developed a process that uses catalysts based on copper and nickel nanoparticles supported on nanostructured carbon materials, which allow high yields to be obtained and work under operating conditions of temperature and pressure that are useful at an industrial level.

This process avoids the use of metals which are scarce or harmful to human health and environment. It allows working with small quantities of metal, and uses as a raw material by-products that are easy to obtain from sustainable sources: furfural and formic acid.

Furfural is a compound obtained from biomass, and is therefore considered a renewable source material as lignocellulosic biomass is very abundant. Formic acid is a by-product of biorefineries. It is renewable and low cost, and safer than hydrogen derived from fossil sources and used in the conventional process. The use of formic acid as a source of hydrogen is particularly interesting, as the hydrogen currently used comes from fossil sources.

The process developed allows continuous operation and eliminates the problems arising from the use of solvents, as it favours the separation of reagents and products. The research team is currently looking for industrial partners to further develop the process through a patent licence.


Xavier Gregori
Vicepresidencia Adjunta de
Transferencia del Conocimiento - CSIC
Tel.: +34 93 887 60 04
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