Breakthrough research sponsored by the National Science Foundation into the development of green gasoline, green diesel and green jet fuel based on the conversion of biomass from feedstock such as switchgrass, fast-growing poplar trees, corn stalks, wood waste and residues and other non-food plant sources is bearing fruit.
The latest breakthroughs are detailed in, “Breaking the Chemical and Engineering Barriers to Lignocellulosic Biofuels: Next Generation Hydrocarbon Biorefineries,” a report sponsored by the NSF, the Dept. of Energy and the American Chemical Society, suggesting that they may brought into widespread use in five to ten years.
Massachusetts-Amherst chemical engineer and National Science Foundation CAREER award recipient George Huber and two graduate students, Toren Carlson and Tushar Vispute, have for the first time converted plant cellulose into key components of gasoline, the NSF announced in an April 1 media release.
Meanwhile, James Dumesic and colleagues from the University of Wisconsin-Madison published a report on their successful efforts to develop “an integrated process for creating chemical components of jet fuel using a green gasoline approach.”
NSF’s Green Fuel Drive
Dumesic’s group had previously demonstrated the production of jet-fuel components using separate steps. Their most recent published work “shows that the steps can be integrated and run sequentially, without complex separation and purification processes between reactors,” according to the media release.
The results of Huber and his UMass team’s research address one of the critical weaknesses, and source of criticism, regarding second generation biomass biofuels: the fact that they generate 30% less energy than gasoline and other fossil fuel counterparts.
“Green gasoline is an attractive alternative to bioethanol since it can be used in existing engines and does not incur the 30 percent gas mileage penalty of ethanol-based flex fuel,” said John Regalbuto, director of the NSF’s Catalysis and Biocatalysis Program, which supported the research.
Large scale, agro-industrial production of biofuels is coming under increasing criticism, even from mainstream agronomists. Environmentalists and clean energy proponents decry its environmental ramifications and its potential to efficiently produce sufficient quantities of fuel and power, its high costs and the subsidies required draws criticism from economists and reactionary fossil fuel proponents as well.
Biofuels and Mounting Resistance
The clearing of land and supplanting of indigenous, existing plant species and large-scale cultivation of biomass crops, even on “marginal” or “unusable” land, would only threaten rapidly shrinking biodiversity further and add to environmental degradation, critics claim.
The energy and materials required to construct and operate them would likewise further damage environmental health and quality and require significant fossil fuel products – fuel and fertilizers – to be used in large quantities, adding greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere and further degrading soil and water. Moreover, agro-industry would further threaten, marginalize and overrun the basic human rights of indigenous peoples and the poor.
Huber’s new process apparently addresses some of these issues – cost and carbon footprint among them. “In theory it requires much less energy to make than ethanol, giving it a smaller carbon footprint and making it cheaper to produce,” Regalbuto said. “Making it from cellulose sources such as switchgrass or poplar trees grown as energy crops, or forest or agricultural residues such as wood chips or corn stover, solves the lifecycle greenhouse gas problem that has recently surfaced with corn ethanol and soy biodiesel.”
Even more significantly, in addition to being a compact way of treating large quantities of biomass in a short time, Regalbuto pointed out that the process, in theory, does not require any external energy. “In fact, from the extra heat that will be released, you can generate electricity in addition to the biofuel. There will not be just a small carbon footprint for the process; by recovering heat and generating electricity, there won’t be any footprint,” he said.