LSU researcher finds new petroleum production method

provided by Louisiana State University

Louisiana State University researcher has found an alternative method of producing petroleum that eliminates environmental impacts from mining and using fossil petroleum reserves.

    Dr. James Catallo, environmental chemist and associate professor of environmental toxicology at the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine, said his approach may well provide truly “green,” or environmentally friendly, sources for petroleum hydrocarbons.

    Catallo recently received a patent for his discovery, which uses biological material, or biomass, to produce hydrocarbon mixtures similar to crude petroleum. The process involves a brief treatment of biomass in hot water under pressure to yield complex hydrocarbon mixtures. The patent, “Transforming Biomass to Hydrocarbon Mixtures in Near-Critical and Supercritical Water,” was granted to LSU in January 2001. Catallo's approach minimizes problems associated with oil exploration and production because it utilizes contemporary biological material that can be farmed or acquired from various food and agricultural wastes.

    Traditional means of acquiring petroleum, including exploring, drilling and transporting crude oil, have an impact on the environment. Further, combustion of natural petroleum products, such as gasoline, releases “new” carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which is a major factor in the global greenhouse effect.

    “The approach documented in this patent builds a concept of renewable petroleum sources that have a reduced environmental impact,” Catallo said.

    Many experts estimate known and projected global petroleum deposits will be depleted within 100 years, given current use rates. Although new sources of energy will be developed, there always will be a major need for petroleum hydrocarbons, including high-energy fuels and petrochemicals such as plastics, coatings and solvents.

    “My approach is an environmentally friendly alternative to petroleum production,” Catallo said. “No toxic chemicals are used in the process, no ecosystems are compromised by exploration and drilling activities, and no net increase of atmospheric greenhouse gases is involved in the process,” he said.

    Dr. Thomas Klei, associate dean of research and advanced studies in the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine, said, “We are very excited about the potential of Dr. Catallo's discovery. These types of research efforts are an integral part of the school's growing program in environmental health sciences.” The next step is getting support from investors and external sources to construct a pilot operation. Current infrastructure at local refineries and petrochemical plants could be utilized.

    “It frequently is hard to specify how new knowledge will be used and how initial plans, when modified over years or decades, will turn out,” Catallo said. “But this work has documented an exciting area of organic chemistry that has a wide range of basic and applied implications for environmental scientists, paleobiologists and chemists alike.”