Levulinic acid (LA) has been ranked as one of the “Top 10” building blocks for future bio-refineries as proposed by the US Department of Energy. It is considered one of the most important platform molecules for the production of fine chemicals and fuels based on its compatibility with existing processes, market economics, and industrial ability to serve as a platform for the synthesis of important derivatives. Hydrogenation of LA to produce γ-valerolactone (GVL) is an active area of research due to the potential of GVL to be used as a biofuel in its own right and for its subsequent transformation into hydrocarbon fuels. This paper contains a new design for a simple, cost effective, and safe hydrogenation reactor for the transformation of levulinic acid to γ-valerolactone (GVL) by utilizing high boiling point organic fluid. The hydrogenation reactor is composed of a heating source—organic fluid (called “DOWTHERM A” or “thermex”) and the catalytic reactor. The advantages of high boiling temperature fluids, along with advances in hydrocracking and reforming technologies driven by the oil and gas industries, make the organic concept more suitable and safer (water coming in contact with liquid metal is well understood in the metallurgical industry to be a steam explosion hazard) for heating the hydrogenation reactor. COMSOL multi-physics software version 4.3b was applied in this work and simultaneously solves the continuity, Navier-Stokes (fluid flow), energy (heat transfer), and diffusion with chemical reaction kinetics equations. It was shown that the heat flux supplied by the DOWTHERM A organic fluid could provide the necessary heat flux required for maintaining the hydrogenation process. It was found that the mass fractions of hydrogen and levulinic acid decreased along the reactor axis. The GVL mass fraction increased along the reactor axis.
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