Approximately 15 million dry tons of food waste is produced annually in the United States (USA), and 92% of this waste is disposed of in landfills where it decomposes to produce greenhouse gases and water pollution. Hydrothermal liquefaction (HTL) is an attractive technology capable of converting a broad range of organic compounds, especially those with substantial water content, into energy products. The HTL process produces a bio-oil precursor that can be further upgraded to transportation fuels and an aqueous phase containing water-soluble organic impurities. Converting small oxygenated compounds that partition into the water phase into larger, hydrophobic compounds can reduce aqueous phase remediation costs and improve energy yields. HTL was investigated at 300 °C and a reaction time of 1 h for conversion of an institutional food waste to bio-oil, using either homogeneous Na2
or heterogeneous CeZrOx
to promote in situ conversion of water-soluble organic compounds into less oxygenated, oil-soluble products. Results with food waste indicate that CeZrOx
improves both bio-oil higher heating value (HHV) and energy recovery when compared both to non-catalytic and Na2
-catalyzed HTL. The aqueous phase obtained using CeZrOx
as an HTL catalyst contained approximately half the total organic carbon compared to that obtained using Na2
—suggesting reduced water treatment costs using the heterogeneous catalyst. Experiments with model compounds indicated that the primary mechanism of action was condensation of aldehydes, a reaction which simultaneously increases molecular weight and oxygen-to-carbon ratio—consistent with the improvements in bio-oil yield and HHV observed with institutional food waste. The catalyst was stable under hydrothermal conditions (≥16 h at 300 °C) and could be reused at least three times for conversion of model aldehydes to water insoluble products. Energy and economic analysis suggested favorable performance for the heterogeneous catalyst compared either to non-catalytic HTL or Na2
-catalyzed HTL, especially once catalyst lifetime differences were considered. The results of this study establish the potential of heterogeneous catalysts to improve HTL economics and energetics.
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