Helena L. Chum

Solar Energy Research Institute

Golden, Colorado


The activities of the Chemical Conversion Research Branch of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI) include the production of fuels, chemicals, and materials from renewable resources and wastes. This paper describes the collaboration of DOE/office of Industrial Technologies (OIT), Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI), and the Pyrolysis Materials Research Consortium (PMRC). This collaboration is based on the conversion of waste wood and bark into an inexpensive phenolic and neutrals (P/N) product through fast pyrolysis and fractionation. This product replaces a substantial fraction of phenol in phenol-formaldehyde thermosetting resins. The technology transfer mechanism is highlighted.


SERI is a U.S. Department of Energy laboratory, managed by Midwest Research Institute (MRI), a not-for-profit company. SERI has three research divisions, including the Solar Fuels Research Division, which includes the Chemical Conversion Research Branch. The branch has a staff of 21 professionals, 1 postdoctoral fellow, 3 administrative assistants, and 6 part-time chemistry and chemical engineering students. The branch's mission is to develop chemical processes which enhance energy security, resource conservation, and environmental preservation by selecting appropriate technologies for research and development. Specific objectives are:

  • to develop the science and technology base for the cost-effective chemical conversion of renewable resources and wastes into fuels, chemicals, and materials and for the environmentally sound destruction of hazardous chemical wastes; and

  • to transfer the developing (developed) technologies to industry in a timely manner, thus improving the economic competitiveness of the United States.

Branch researchers perform exploratory research and bench-scale engineering in these areas in laboratories at SERI and in concert with 64 collaborators (1989–1990) from academia, other research institutions, and industry. One program carried out by the branch and collaborators investigates the area of fast pyrolysis and fractionation to produce inexpensive, reactive replacements for phenol in phenol-formaldehyde (PF) thermosetting resins. An overview of this effort follows.

Approach — Coupling of Basic and Applied Research

The activities described rest on a synergistic interaction between basic and applied research, which allows basic research results to be translated into applied R&D within SERI and collaborating institutions.

The laboratory work at SERI includes process and product screening on a microscale using a unique SERI instrument—the molecular beam/mass spectrometer (MBMS)[1], coupled to a collision-induced dissociation (MS/MS) detector. This instrument can detect, in real time, the products of fractionation, after pyrolysis for effective screening of processes for a wide variety of feedstocks[2]. These studies permit a deep mechanistic understanding of processes and products. In addition, by coupling the data

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