Thursday, April 10, 2008

New Biofuel Breakthrough

ScienceDaily has a note regarding a couple of exciting new breakthrough in the production of biofuels. University of Massachussets-Amherst engineer George Huber announced the first ever direct conversion of plant cellulose to gasoline components, while University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher James Dumesic announced an integrated process for creating chemical components of jet fuel using a green gasoline approach. The Dumesic group had done previous work on jet fuel but their new work showed that their entire process can be integrated and run sequentially without any intervening separation or purification processes neeeded.

"It is likely that the future consumer will not even know that they are putting biofuels into their car," said Huber. "Biofuels in the future will most likely be similar in chemical composition to gasoline and diesel fuel used today. The challenge for chemical engineers is to efficiently produce liquid fuels from biomass while fitting into the existing infrastructure today."

For their new approach, the UMass researchers rapidly heated cellulose in the presence of solid catalysts, materials that speed up reactions without sacrificing themselves in the process. They then rapidly cooled the products to create a liquid that contains many of the compounds found in gasoline.

The entire process was completed in under two minutes using relatively moderate amounts of heat. The compounds that formed in that single step, like naphthalene and toluene, make up one fourth of the suite of chemicals found in gasoline. The liquid can be further treated to form the remaining fuel components or can be used "as is" for a high octane gasoline blend."

We may be around 5 to 10 years away from widespread commercial applications of such fuel sources, which have the advantages of being used in conventional engines and not suffering the 30% energy/mileage penalty suffered by conventional ethanol. Additionally, cellulosic sources of energy such as switchgrass or wood chips would not require the high direct energy inputs required by other alternatives. These breakthroughs are the first in a series of steps in which we may eventually grow a significant percentage of our energy resources. Outstanding.

No comments: