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Plant-based fuel is cheap, easy, and ready to power your jet

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March 11, 2010

Engineers at University of Wisconsin-Madison have found a way to convert 95% of the energy...

Engineers at University of Wisconsin-Madison have found a way to convert 95% of the energy of cellulosic biomass into jet fuel

Engineers at University of Wisconsin-Madison have found a way to convert 95% of the energy of cellulosic biomass into jet fuel using stable, inexpensive catalysts, basic equipment and minimal processing. The end hydrocarbon product is so similar to jet fuel that it is ready for application by present internal engine designs.

The team's previous research had focused on processes that convert plant-based sugars into transportation fuels, however they found that sugar molecules commonly degrade to form levulinic acid and formic acid which don't readily transform into high-energy liquid fuels.

Adopting a new approach they decided instead to exploit this process and began with the two products levulinic acid and formic acid as their platform. They found that in the presence of metal catalysts the two acids react to form a product called gamma-valerolactone (GVL). Using laboratory-scale equipment and stable, inexpensive catalysts, Dumesic's group converted aqueous solutions of GVL into jet fuel.

While other ethanol or cellulosic-based fuels have low energy density and cannot fully replace petroleum-derived hydrocarbons due to present internal engine design, "the hydrocarbons produced from GVL in this new process are chemically equivalent to those used in the present infrastructure," says Alonso. "The product we make is ready for the jet fuel application and can be added to existing hydrocarbon blends, as needed, to meet specs."

Not only that but the simple process preserves about 95 percent of the energy from the original biomass, requires little hydrogen input, and captures carbon dioxide under high pressure for future beneficial use.

In fact the only limitation to production of the cellulosic biofuel is the availability of cost-effective GVL which is currently manufactured in small quantities as an herbal food and perfume additive. But the team are already working on that too, and aim to develop more efficient methods for making GVL from biomass sources such as wood, corn stover, switchgrass.

Barely a week goes by that scientists aren't lauding a new biofuel but commonly the drawbacks are expensive components, unsustainably polluting byproducts compared with minimal energy profit and the problem of growing the biomass crop on land that would be better used for food production.

Ethanol-based biofuels jostle with cellulosic biofuels,and bacteria-farmed biofuels to find the answer as scientists hope that replacing gasoline with biofuel derived from processed waste biomass could see global emissions cut by 80%. This fuel could be closer than any of them to striking the right balance.

James Dumesic, Steenbock Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at UW-Madison led the team consisting of Jesse Bond and David Martin Alonso, both postdoctoral researchers, and graduate students Dong Wang and Ryan West. Dumesic and team published details of the advance in the Feb. 26 edition of the journal Science.

10 Comments

what im curious about is, can this fuel run on fuelcells and is it more toxic then ethanol.

Because even though bio ethanol has lower energy density than this new fuel,

i think we should be thinking about transferring to fuel cell engines rather then internal combustion engines, for enviromental reasons.

What do you guys(gizmag readers) think?

Can this fuel be the ultimate fuel?

look foward to feedbacks on this one.

cheers.

bio-power jeff
12th March, 2010 @ 04:33 am PST

This sounds interesting but I doubt the eff of conversion as every step takes energy as does the waste CO2. But anything over 60% would be great and even 40% would be good but as FT process is about 50% eff it will need to beat that.

One thing about biomass is it is very limited and spread out so one needs to be within 10 miles of a 365/day/yr supply to make gathering, transporting it cost effective. So if they build the units, they should design them in 5-50 ton/day units, preferably mobile to go to the feedstock.

Fuel cells are not as eff as most believe as using the total energy cycle they are lucky to get 25% eff. In a car a battery EV would go 4-8x's as far as a fuel cell would on the same NG or electric feedstock. And in our coming energy costly future, which do you think will win?

Plus FC costs and life are not good at all. PEM's get poisoned and need platinum and SOFC's burn out.

One can use biomass straight if we would bring back low power steam or other heat engines in the 2-10hp range for home, business power and heat making them about 75% eff. While the sun shines it can be power by a trough style collector cutting fuel needs more. This is really what we need, not FC's to convert solar, biomass or waste heat, etc into power.

jerryd
12th March, 2010 @ 06:45 am PST

We'll eventually replace oil with other fuel feedstocks, as 'natural' oil gets harder to come by. The infrastructure investments alone will lead us to use similar fuels. However, we're talking decades or centuries to make that turnover, not years or months.

Ultimate Fuel? unlikely....it's not even at the pumps yet.

Fuel Cells? not any time soon, if ever. While the march of technology will continue, there are limits to how fast one can move. If the technology costs $5000 a car, but people ALREADY have trouble paying for the cars they need to go to work, it won't be produced in numbers enough to make any difference.

I'm not worried about 'environmental concerns' in regard to Automobiles. The skies are cleaner than they were, and continue to get cleaner - if anything we've got too many regulations that shackle Industry and reduce the number of available jobs.

...at least, here in the USA.

We should continue to pursue 'green' tech, but not the ones that cost more than they produce in terms of profits and actual results.

James Dugan
12th March, 2010 @ 08:33 am PST

Jeff, as the article is about jet fuel, you can't use fuel cells to power jet liners, so the bio fuel is still necessary.

When you weigh up all the factors, you would imagine it would be much cheaper to produce bio fuel, than the enormous cost of oil exploration, drilling, refining, and shipping the oil. I suppose once the oil is flowing, it is available in huge quantities. On the other hand, bio-mass should be easy to access, providing that it is waste from agricultural use, and not grown specifically. At present, there is not the infrastructure to produce to a sufficient quantity of bio fuel, but it should in theory be cheaper to produce.

windykites1
12th March, 2010 @ 08:50 am PST

bio-jeff ethanol is not toxic. millons of people drink it every day. it is just a chemical name for boooze. fuel-cells are not engines. they only convert chemical energy to electricity which can then power electric motors. fuel-cells may someday replace batteries in electric cars.

Lou Alcantar
12th March, 2010 @ 09:57 am PST

After reading the article a couple times, it seems apparent that they really don't have a method to make jet fuel from biomass. They have a method to convert particular byproducts into a useable jet fuel. The problem as the article states is there isn't any large quantity of the byproducts. So if you have access to tons of levulinic acid and formic acid you can make jet fuel. But the real issue is that the original biomass still needs a lot of work to convert it to those products. It may be an important part of the puzzle, but by itself, doesn't give us a cheap source of jet fuel.

Eletruk
12th March, 2010 @ 10:25 am PST

thanks for all the comments.

although this article is about jet fuel(thanks windykites1) i wanted to hear what you guys thought about on renewable/replaceable energy/transportable fuel. it just seemed to me that now it is a open race between various fuel and energy candidates and what matters now is publicity and attention for a single candidate, like gasoline and diesel(of course that candidate must be reasonable). and you can guess from my user name that i find bio fuel to be a highly likely candidate for replaceable fuel, especially algae based(?) ethanol. And i really look foward to see which one will win.

And also which one you guys think is the most likely candidate.

well, til then i will probably have to wait about 50 years or so

thanks again for the comments.

Cheers

bio-power jeff
12th March, 2010 @ 11:55 pm PST

What's needed is a standardized set of criteria for evaluating these alternative fuel technologies. While it's nice to read about it in paragraph form, I'd like to see a grid or a table that lets me compare this fuel tech to others with some form of graphical or numerical representation of each one's ability to satisfy each criteria. Otherwise, our humble efforts to judge these matters will never rise above the level of half-assed speculation.

jimbo92107
13th March, 2010 @ 10:44 am PST

I know that we are speculating, but we comment what we feel; We aren't cientists, but very curious and interested guys.

See the article http://www.gizmag.com/ad-astra-ion-engine-mars-39-days/12342/.

In the beginning, the propulsion for airplanes was by internal combustion and helices.

They tried rockets, but didn't work, at that time. So they developed jets.

As you can see on this article, the future is the eletromagnetic plasma rocket.

Well, what I'm trying to say is that the future do not depends on an specific fuel, but is dependent on propulsion systems.

This is my opinion to Jeff.

Cheers

Sergius
25th March, 2010 @ 03:52 pm PDT

Hitherto it was biofuel for transportation like ethanol and in the near future, energy of cellulosic biomass into jet fuel. At this rate there is future for plant-based fuels as supplement to conventional fuels.

Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore (AP), India

Dr.A.Jagadeesh
26th April, 2010 @ 12:19 am PDT
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