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New Solvents May Lead to Better Biofuels

Reproduced from here. For personal use. No part of the article is mine.

Molten salts used as solvents may provide a stepping stone toward cheaper, more environmentally friendly biofuels, researchers said this month.

Image Dept of Energy

One of the biggest challenges biofuel producers face is breaking down energy-containing plant material into simple sugars that can be fermented into fuel. It’s particularly difficult to break down the tough cellulose in material like wood chips and switchgrass, which could otherwise produce more energy-efficient ethanol than corn.

A majority of ethanol producers use strong chemicals or heat to dissolve the plant material. But molten salts — also called ionic liquids — may provide a better alternative, researchers said at an Australian symposium on ionic liquids. The liquids are made up of highly charged atoms called ions, and the forces exerted by those ions make the liquid an ideal solvent.

“Ionic liquids are the enabling technology to ‘crack’ biomass efficiently and economically,” said Robin Rogers, a chemistry professor at the University of Alabama. “This is really the key to any biomass product.”

Scientists have known about the solvent properties of ionic liquids for decades. But only in the past few years have the liquids begun to move from the laboratory to factories and processing plants for use in processes such as textile and paper manufacturing.

Chemical company BASF owns a patent on an ionic liquid-based cellulose processing method developed by Rogers, and is trying to apply that method on a commercial scale. It’s already working with AlterVia Fuels, an early stage technology development company, on a smaller-scale version.

Mark Lenhart, COO of AlterVia Fuels said, “By using ionic liquids we have a lower energy input and can use the existing infrastructure [of ethanol refineries], and use fewer raw materials to produce biofuel.”

Current chemical solvents generate waste and can take 48 hours to separate the cellulose. Unlike ionic liquids, they cannot be reused, so refineries must continually repurchase them. They also result in ethanol containing water that must be removed, according to Matthias Maase, manager of business development at BASF. The new method works faster, doesn’t generate toxic waste and produces a purer ethanol with less water, he said.

“What we have observed about ionic liquids is that they grab the water and release the ethanol, which results in a purer ethanol, an estimated 20 percent gain in purity,” Maase said. He estimated that if a biofuel refinery produces 10,000 gallons of ethanol a day they could increase capacity to 12,500 gallons with this new technology.

But not everyone believes that ionic liquids will be the answer to most ethanol producers needs. At the moment, they are more expensive to purchase than the chemicals already used to dissolve cellulose, and they cannot replace other costly chemicals needed in the biofuel refining process.

Although ionic liquids are generally considered less toxic than traditional solvents, some researchers also question their environmental benefits. Imidazolium salts — the main ingredients in ionic liquids — do not evaporate, meaning they create no air pollutants, but there is still research being done on their toxicity in aqueous environments, said Ziding Zhang of China Agricultural University.

“In the area of cellulose for biofuel, the ionic liquids used are still within the traditional ionic liquid family, i.e. composed of mostly by imidazolium derivatives that have minor-to-moderate toxicities to the environment and human beings,” he said.

Peter Scammells, a chemistry professor at Monash University, has also questioned the green properties of ionic liquids. In a 2005 article, he pointed out that there are still problems with recycling ionic liquids, and maintaining their purity and effectiveness.

Meanwhile, laboratory research on the liquids continues. Scientists at the Joint Bioenergy Institute see ionic liquids as a next step in producing ethanol from wood and grasses — materials that are much more abundant and cheaper than corn.

“Every process in development goes through a few roadblocks. Corn may not be the best solution for biofuels. I’m very confident that we will be able to produce fuel from biomass with lower carbon emissions associated with production when compared to oil petroleum,” Blake Simmons says, a scientist and researcher at Joint Bioenergy Institute.

And the University of Alabama’s Rogers believes the technology could be useful in producing other biofuels, such as butanol. “Ionic liquids will allow the cracking of biomass in an economical manner for a number of new businesses. The focus on ethanol is shortsighted,” he said.


Written by Elgie Shepard

October 29, 2008 at 4:00 pm

Posted in Fuel, Personal Use

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Cow Power

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Genetic engineering makes production of fuel from corn one step closer to reality.

The enzyme that allows a cow to digest grasses and other plant fibers can be used to turn other plant fibers into simple sugars. These simple sugars can be used to produce ethanol to power cars and trucks.

MSU scientists have discovered a way to grow corn plants that contain this enzyme. They have inserted a gene from a bacterium that lives in a cow’s stomach into a corn plant. Now, the sugars locked up in the plant’s leaves and stalk can be converted into usable sugar without expensive synthetic chemicals.

So would that make it a holy cow?

Written by Elgie Shepard

October 3, 2008 at 1:41 pm

When Pigs Fly

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Or at least, pig excreta can fly.  Your next jet perhaps ?

After a close examination of crude oil made from pig manure, chemists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) are certain about a number of things. Most obviously, “This stuff smells worse than manure,” says NIST chemist Tom Bruno. []

Makes a lot of sense.  Not the smell of course, but the fact that you could get biofuel from animal excreta.  Wonder why pigs though? The only rationale I can come up with is that farms have a lot of pigs and old-McDonald is always in a quandary about what to do with the, um, by-products.

But I wonder if it is a new thing .  I believe in some parts of the world, excreta have been used as a source of energy.  Quoting Steve of Anaerobic Digestion News

In China, Kenya and Tanzania institutions mix human and animal excreta, giving off good grade methane, while some institutions in China make biogas from only human excreta.

Odour notwithstanding, this beats getting biofuel from plant sources, which directly leads to deforestation.  We are still way behind in producing biofuel from dedicated plants like switch grass, and even if we DO, we will only be using up land with probably agricultural potential to produce the grass.  Unless of course, algae biodiesel delivers the promise shown.

Wonder what the economic benefits of developing such technology are.  I suppose considering the impending doom of dwindling fossil fuel the wind (pun unintended) will only favour such developments.

One positive outcome of the biofuel development will be that every time we answer nature’s call, we can all proudly claim that we are fuelling our cars – “Excuse me.  I really need to fuel my car”.

Written by Elgie Shepard

September 29, 2008 at 5:27 pm

Posted in Fuel, Science

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