New tech could be "Mr. Fusion" for biofuel

Nov 20, 2013 by Else Tennessen
Special bacteria can turn biological waste into fuel by converting pigments in their cells into a type of biofuel called phytol—which separates out into the colorless top layer on the left.

A new technology from Argonne may remind viewers of Mr. Fusion of Back to the Future fame, only with a biofuel twist: put in your waste and out comes diesel fuel.

The Endurance Bioenergy Reactor is a simple, easy-to-use portable system that puts bacteria to work on a variety of biological to produce that can go directly into and generators.

A team of Argonne scientists led by biophysicist Phil Laible have developed bioengineered photosynthetic bacteria capable of producing an alcohol called phytol from a variety of sources, including wood pulp, leftover corn stalks, food waste, and latrine waste. Once separated from the fermentation broth, phytol serves as a surrogate for that can be used alone or in blends to power generators or vehicles.

With chemical and physical properties similar to diesel fuel, phytol is considered a "drop-in ready" biofuel, meaning it is ready to go directly into diesel engines and generators without any further refinement.

With insight from Air Force Fellow Major Matthew Michaud, Argonne researchers incorporated this groundbreaking discovery into the design of the Endurance Bioenergy Reactor. The process begins in a large fermentation vessel tank; once it's filled, the engineered organism begins converting waste to energy. The bacteria are freeze-dried and shipped along with the reactor hardware, so the operator can simply open the package of bacteria and drop them into the main tank. The reactor can use a variety of carbon and energy sources to make fuel.

A single reactor takes between two and four days to convert waste into fuel, but the system can be modified to generate fuel continually. The system can produce 25 to 50 gallons of biofuel a day.

This promising technology provides a viable alternative for military and civilians who need reliable power sources when they are not near a power grid. For military applications, the prolongs operations, reduces costs, and improves safety by decreasing reliance on supply chains and eliminating dangerous convoy missions to deliver more fuel. According to an Army study, one in eight U.S. military casualties in Iraq happened during fuel convoys.

The system's mobility and simplicity also make it a logical choice for energy in remote and disaster areas. The Endurance Bioenergy Reactor is a rapidly deployable tool for humanitarian activities around the world, providing energy when and where it's needed.

"If the idea of converting on-site waste into a drop-in ready fuel with a small mobile unit seems outrageous, then why does moving refined fuel through a weak infrastructure make sense?" said Laible and Michaud. "Plentiful components to make convenient fuel are already at hand. The day has come for something as sensible as the Endurance Bioenergy Reactor."

Explore further: Ask a scientist: Ethanol & car performance

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User comments : 9

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bearly
not rated yet Nov 20, 2013
I want one.
Sean_W
1.8 / 5 (10) Nov 20, 2013
From Wikipedia:

Phytol is used in the fragrance industry and used in cosmetics, shampoos, toilet soaps, household cleaners, and detergents. Its worldwide use has been estimated to be approximately 0.1–1.0 metric tons per year.
Sean_W
1.4 / 5 (9) Nov 20, 2013
If phytol can be made less expensive than its current production method maybe it will find more uses and eliminate some of the transportation energy used.
Shakescene21
1 / 5 (6) Nov 20, 2013
Another use for Phytol is to replace the home heating oil used in about 15% of American homes. It's interchangeable with diesel fuel and costs about the same. I just paid $1055 for 300 gallons which hopefully will last the winter. If only I could convert all my autumn leaves into phytol...
RealScience
5 / 5 (1) Nov 21, 2013
How the phytol is supposed to separate from mixture?


It floats.

Skim off any foam, and then skim the phytol off the top of the vat.
markheim
1.6 / 5 (7) Nov 21, 2013
Is someone just having a bad day downvoting all the comments on every article on this website? Seriously? Sean W is right, wikipedia does say that. http://en.wikiped...i/Phytol (under commercial applications)
NikFromNYC
1 / 5 (1) Nov 24, 2013
markheim, those are the Global Warming ratings bots. One, NOM, even seems to have an administrator account here, with an untraceable account history. They rest can be seen in account profile Activity tabs. You just got hit by them yourself. Not an honest bunch, doomsayers, I'm afraid.
NikFromNYC
1 / 5 (1) Nov 24, 2013
Feed it blood, to lose weight, instead of just sewage?
Waine
not rated yet Nov 24, 2013
I'm not sure, if this technology will be economically feasible anyway. How they do propose to separate the phytol from the algae mixture? Its boiling point is pretty high.