Fuel from Cellulose

Aug 07, 2008

Independence from fossil fuel exporting nations, a reduction in the release of greenhouse gases, conservation of dwindling resources: there are any number of reasons to stop the use of fossil fuels.

Hydrogen technology and solar energy will very probably provide the solution to our global energy problem—in the long term. For an initial quick remedy we may look to bioenergy. Biomass can be used to generate alternative carbon-based liquid fuels, allowing the continued use of current automotive combustion engine technology and existing infrastructure. At the same time, the chemical industry would continue to be supplied with the carbon compounds it requires as raw materials for plastics, textiles, etc.

Mark Mascal and Edward B. Nikitin at the University of California, Davis (USA) have now developed an interesting new method for the direct conversion of cellulose into furan-based biofuels. As they report in the journal Angewandte Chemie, their simple, inexpensive process delivers furanic compounds in yields never achieved before.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide is viewed as the ultimate carbon source of the future. It is most efficiently “harvested” by plants via photosynthesis. Currently, biofuel producers primarily use starch, which is broken down to form sugars that are then fermented to give ethanol. Cellulose is however the most common form of photosynthetically fixed carbon. The problem is that the degradation of cellulose into its individual sugar components, which could then be fermented, is a slow and expensive process. “Another problem is that the carbon economy of glucose fermentation is poor,” explains Mascal, “for every 10 g of ethanol produced, you also release 9.6 g CO2.”

Could we avoid the breakdown of cellulose and fermentation? Mascal and Nikitin demonstrate that we can indeed. They have developed a simple process for the conversion of cellulose directly into “furanics”, which are furan-based organic liquids. Furans are molecules whose basic unit is an aromatic ring made of one oxygen and four carbon atoms. The main product the researchers obtain under the conditions they have been developing is 5-chloromethylfurfural (CMF).

CMF and ethanol can be combined to give ethoxymethylfufural (EMF), and CMF reacts with hydrogen to give 5-methylfurfural. Both of these compounds are suitable as fuels. EMF has previously been investigated and found to be of interest in mixtures with diesel by Avantium Technologies, a spin-off of Shell.

“Our method appears to be the most efficient conversion of cellulose into simple, hydrophobic, organic compounds described to date,” says Mascal. “It also surpasses the carbon yields of glucose and sucrose fermentation. Furanics could be established as both the automotive energy source and chemical starting material of the future.”

Citation: Mark Mascal, Direct, High-Yield Conversion of Cellulose into Biofuel, Angewandte Chemie International Edition, doi: 10.1002/anie.200801594

Provided by Angewandte Chemie

Explore further: New process can convert human-generated waste into fuel in space

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Bear cub found dead in Spanish Pyrenees

1 hour ago

A brown bear cub that was part of an effort to reintroduce the species to the Pyrenees mountains has been found dead on the Spanish side of the mountain range, local officials said Monday.

Boy moms more social in chimpanzees

1 hour ago

Nearly four decades of observations of Tanzanian chimpanzees has revealed that the mothers of sons are about 25 percent more social than the mothers of daughters. Boy moms were found to spend about two hours ...

Recommended for you

Heat-conducting plastic developed

16 hours ago

The spaghetti-like internal structure of most plastics makes it hard for them to cast away heat, but a University of Michigan research team has made a plastic blend that does so 10 times better than its conventional ...

Electronic switches on the molecular scale

21 hours ago

A molecular electronic switch is a junction created from individual molecules that can alternate between two or more stable states, making the switch act as a conductor or an insulator. These switches show ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

SongDog
not rated yet Aug 07, 2008
See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydroxymethylfurfural for more. Who would have believed we'd ever be talking about Green Furans?

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.