Putting the 'fuel' in biofuels

May 27, 2011 By Jared Sagoff
Putting the 'fuel' in biofuels
This molecular schematic of “nanobowls” illustrates an example of a new catalytic paradigm that may help in the development of new biofuels.

(PhysOrg.com) -- Recent discussions of methods by which biomass -- grasses, trees, and other vegetation -- could be turned into fuel makes a lot of sense in theory. Plant matter is composed of energy-intensive carbohydrates, but even now scientists still don't have the perfect solution for converting plant sugars into combustible fuels.

"There's a real challenge in the and conversion process that we face, which is that nature and evolution have already fashioned far better catalysts than we could create on our own—namely enzymes," said materials scientist Christopher Marshall, who leads the Institute for Atom-Efficient Chemical Transformations (IACT) at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory. "In order to aid the transition away from a petroleum-based economy, we have to take our cues from the catalysts that have existed for millions of years."

Using actual biological enzymes would not be a workable solution, since enzymes work too slowly to be effective. For the purposes of converting biomass to biofuels, researchers need to synthesize biologically-inspired inorganic catalysts that balance the need for molecular specificity and high reaction rates.

"When it comes to discovery, everything's based around a particular set of trade-offs," Marshall said.

Potential catalysts for biofuel production have traditionally come from the precious metals and their elemental cousins. According to Marshall, scientists have found an increasing spectrum of applications first for platinum, and then for a platinum-molybdenum hybrid. "Slightly different chemistries can produce dramatically different results both in terms of efficiencies and specificities," he said. "We're really just trying to fashion the best molecular jigsaw pieces we can to fit this larger puzzle."

IACT was founded in 2009 as part of the DOE's effort to establish a set of several dozen Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRCs) around the country that would contain five-year interdisciplinary programs focused around discrete scientific challenges. As part of the overall effort to transform the energy economy, Argonne also leads research into improved lithium-ion battery technology and new photovoltaic devices that can better capture solar energy.

Converting biomass to biofuels requires the use of a great deal of hydrogen, an element that Marshall said can be hard to manufacture. "The current methods of getting the hydrogen we need to do the conversion require the input of just as much energy as we'd get out of the fuels we'd be trying to create," he said. "In order to really get biofuels to take off, we first have to tackle the problem of where we're going to get all the hydrogen we need."

Because hydrogen is contained within the backbone of , ideally scientists hope to find a self-sustaining process in which the hydrogen needed for the conversion of biomass to biofuels can be extracted from the biomass itself. To do so requires the development of robust inorganic materials based on nanotechnology that can improve the multistep process of going from woodchipper to gas tank.

Researchers who collaborate in the IACT come from a variety of different technical backgrounds, including materials design, synthesis and characterization, theoretical chemistry and computational studies. "By combining all of these approaches, we hope to gain an understanding of how these key reactions work and how we can optimize the effectiveness of these catalysts both in terms of their selectivity and their rate of reaction. We want to use these catalysts as scalpels, not chainsaws," Marshall said.

Explore further: Argonne to study fuel cell catalysts

Related Stories

Argonne to study fuel cell catalysts

May 26, 2005

Argonne National Laboratory will receive $3 million over three years for basic science studies that may lead to improved catalysts for hydrogen fuel cells.

Better chemistry through living models

June 6, 2007

Scientists at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory will receive $1.98 million from the U.S. Department of Energy over the next three years to emulate nature’s use of enzymes to convert chemicals to energy, PNNL announced ...

A chance discovery may revolutionize hydrogen production

April 14, 2011

Producing hydrogen in a sustainable way is a challenge and production cost is too high. A team led by EPFL Professor Xile Hu has discovered that a molybdenum based catalyst is produced at room temperature, inexpensive and ...

Recommended for you

A new form of real gold, almost as light as air

November 25, 2015

Researchers at ETH Zurich have created a new type of foam made of real gold. It is the lightest form ever produced of the precious metal: a thousand times lighter than its conventional form and yet it is nearly impossible ...

Getting under the skin of a medieval mystery

November 23, 2015

A simple PVC eraser has helped an international team of scientists led by bioarchaeologists at the University of York to resolve the mystery surrounding the tissue-thin parchment used by medieval scribes to produce the first ...

Moonlighting molecules: Finding new uses for old enzymes

November 27, 2015

A collaboration between the University of Cambridge and MedImmune, the global biologics research and development arm of AstraZeneca, has led researchers to identify a potentially significant new application for a well-known ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet May 28, 2011
There are a smattering of technologies we have now that could put a really big dent into transportation energy (fuel), if the public had the will to demand politicians and business to deploy them:

Direct consumption of electrons and CO2 as food for microbes:

Also, GMO switch grass:

And then, direct production of superior isobutanol:

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.