'Green' gasoline on the horizon?

Jan 13, 2009

University of Oklahoma researchers believe newer, more environmentally friendly fuels produced from biomass could create alternative energy solutions and alleviate dependence on foreign oil without requiring changes to current fuel infrastructure systems. According to Lance Lobban, director of the School of Chemical, Biological and Materials Engineering, the development of "green" fuels is an important part of the world's, and Oklahoma's, energy future.

Professor Lobban and his research group are interested in how best to use catalysts (solids that accelerate certain chemical reactions) and chemical reactors to convert biomass into new fuels. "The best fuels are the ones that closely duplicate gasoline, diesel and jet fuel so automakers aren't forced to adapt to new fuels," says Lobban. "That would add expense and slow adoption of new fuels. We have to design processes to convert biomass so the product works with the current system."

OU's chemical engineers use principles of molecular engineering to identify the best fuel molecules that might be produced from biomass, and then they develop the catalysts to produce those molecules. "An initial step we're investigating is pryolsis, which converts the solid biomass to liquids through a high-temperature, non-combustion process that breaks large, solid molecules into smaller liquid ones without breaking them up too far," says Lobban.

This "bio oil" looks like crude oil, but its chemical composition is very different. The same catalysts used in traditional petroleum refineries cannot be used to convert bio oil to fuels, but the same ideas apply. "The idea is to use a series of catalytic and separation steps to create the desired fuel molecules," says Lobban. "That's really the core of our research."

Most biomass-based fuels can't compete economically with $50 per barrel oil. But as oil becomes more expensive, and as it becomes more important to limit greenhouse gas emissions ("green" gasoline would be essentially carbon-neutral since its source is plants, which remove CO2 from the atmosphere), alternate fuels such as these will become increasingly desirable. In addition, dependence on foreign oil forces the United States into unwanted, and dangerous, situations. According to Lobban, "Basing new fuels on energy crops would greatly benefit rural America, where the crops would grow."

Incentives are needed to spur investments in new processes and fuels, and Lobban believes that Oklahoma is an ideal place for these investments. "The Oklahoma Bioenergy Center represents one of the few U.S. research programs that is developing the entire value chain of energy crops—plant development, agriculture, conversion and even fuel combustion. The OBC has world-class expertise in all these areas, looking not just at production of green gasoline, but also ethanol and other fuels." For Lobban and other researchers in Oklahoma, this is the new energy horizon.

Source: University of Oklahoma

Explore further: Video: How did life on Earth begin?

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

New technique makes 'biogasoline' from plant waste

Feb 03, 2014

Gasoline-like fuels can be made from cellulosic materials such as farm and forestry waste using a new process invented by chemists at the University of California, Davis. The process could open up new markets ...

Prairies vanish in the US push for green energy

Nov 13, 2013

Robert Malsam nearly went broke in the 1980s when corn was cheap. So now that prices are high and he can finally make a profit, he's not about to apologize for ripping up prairieland to plant corn.

Next generation of biofuels is still years away

Nov 13, 2013

The first trickle of fuels made from agricultural waste is finally winding its way into the nation's energy supply, after years of broken promises and hype promoting a next-generation fuel source cleaner ...

Recommended for you

Chemical biologists find new halogenation enzyme

Sep 15, 2014

Molecules containing carbon-halogen bonds are produced naturally across all kingdoms of life and constitute a large family of natural products with a broad range of biological activities. The presence of halogen substituents ...

Protein secrets of Ebola virus

Sep 15, 2014

The current Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa, which has claimed more than 2000 lives, has highlighted the need for a deeper understanding of the molecular biology of the virus that could be critical in ...

Protein courtship revealed through chemist's lens

Sep 15, 2014

Staying clear of diseases requires that the proteins in our cells cooperate with one another. But, it has been a well-guarded secret how tens of thousands of different proteins find the correct dancing partners ...

User comments : 0