Green Gasoline

  by  |  September 19th, 2008  |  Published in All, Environment


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In just a few years, “Drill, baby, drill” could be replaced by “Grow, baby, grow.” Scientists have shown they can make green gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel from plant sugars — far different from today’s biofuels.

[If you cannot see the flash video below, you can click here for a high quality mp4 video.]

Interviewees: Jim Dumesic, Univ. Wisconsin-Madison College of Engineering
Produced by Joyce Gramza — Edited by James Eagan
Copyright © ScienCentral, Inc.
Additional footage courtesy Kansas State University, University of Maine, Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison, American Petroleum Institute, & Ethanol Promotion & Info. Council

The Real Thing

The prospect of growing our own gasoline, diesel and even jet fuel is getting some real lift from engineers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They’ve shown they can make all of these transportation fuels from the same inedible plant sugars proposed for making ethanol.

“The fuel we make is identical to that of gasoline, jet and diesel fuel, there’s no difference chemically,” says Professor Jim Dumesic of the university’s College of Engineering. “The difference, however, is that we make these molecules not from petroleum, which is nonrenewable, but we make them from renewable biomass, so that when the biomass grows, it uses up CO2.”

Dumesic and his team say the discovery will help create plant-based fuels that don’t take away from our food supply.

“For example, agricultural residues, like corn stover. Could be energy crops like switchgrass. It could be waste material. These are all things that contain cellulose and cellulose is something now that really we cannot eat,” he says.

“The current idea is to take those sugars and, by fermentation, make ethanol,” Dumesic explains. “We would take those same sugars now, and instead of going the ethanol route, we would propose to pass them over these catalysts and convert them directly into liquid hydrocarbons for gasoline, jet, and diesel fuel.”

They wrote in the journal Science that they use a recyclable catalyst to turn sugar water into a layer of oily chemicals that separate from the water. Then they use another catalyst to upgrade the oil into the same fuels we now make from petroleum, which contain much more energy than ethanol.

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“Ethanol itself– although it burns very well, it has very high octane — it has a very low energy content so the energy per liter or per gallon of your fuel is about 30 or 40 percent lower with ethanol than it is with gasoline.”

The process doesn’t convert all of the sugars into transportation fuels, but Dumesic says all of the end products are valuable replacements for petroleum products.

“We’re making about 40 percent of the theoretical maximum [of gasoline] now. Clearly, with more research, we would like to understand how to get more of that carbon into the gasoline pool,” he says. “But on the positive side, even at the current time, the carbon that’s not going into gasoline is going into things like propane, butane, and those are valuable hydrocarbons for energy in the home sectors.”

Fueling Research

The researchers say several years of basic research, notably funded by the National Science Foundation, are bearing fruit.

Indeed, University of Massachusetts-Amherst researcher George Huber, a former student of Dumesic’s, recently published a process for making gasoline from wood cellulose.

According to Huber, “It will still likely be several years before these processes become commercially available. However, funding basic sciences allows us to quickly develop these new processes and develop alternative sources of domestically produced liquid transportation fuels.”

Huber also uses catalysts, and produces the aromatic carbon compounds found in gasoline. Dumesic’s process operates at lower temperatures, and makes an oil that can be converted to aromatics as well as the hydrocarbons found in diesel and jet fuels, Dumesic says. And he says that a company he helped found in 2002 is also pursuing a similar process and working with major oil companies to develop it.

More research is also needed, and happening, into understanding carbon balances and managing our land, agricultural, and forest resources for the future biofuels economy.

Dumesic says ethanol will still likely be a part of the mix. “I don’t think it will be either-or,” he says. “Many people are really talking about biorefineries and these would be sites at which you bring in biomass in a distributed fashion and make all sorts of fuels and chemicals for different applications. So I would like to believe that the processes we’re talking about are just one part of what you would imagine at an integrated biorefinery, and making ethanol might be part of that refinery as well.”

He says the land for growing such fuel crops is a limiting factor, but they estimate we could replace 50 percent our current petroleum use with these renewable fuels. That means conservation, efficiency and other energy alternatives are still very important for using these valuable resources.

This research was published in the September 19. 2008 issue of Science www.sciencemag.org , and was funded by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy.

Elsewhere on the Web:

NSF Catalysis and Biocatalysis News

National Renewable Energy Laboratory biofuels page

Biorefineries page


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Responses

  1. Mike says:

    September 24th, 2008 at 3:12 am (#)

    So how much forest will need to cleared to grow this green fuel? How much water will it take? How many gallons of green fuel will one acre produce? Renewable? How long is the growing season? Is this a year round crop? What happens when a drought occurs? Will this crop be grown in the US or will we import it from a country wiling to clear forest to make green fuel? Is this a viable solution to our energy needs? The US alone uses 375 million gallons of gasoline a day. At the most there may be 1 billion square acres of usable land to grow this green fuel, At that rate we would have fuel for three days…then what? I know, I know. other forms green energy will need to be in place. But we need to think these thing through. We can't rush out and proclaim a fuel miracle only to find out later is won't work.

  2. Tom_Fishman says:

    September 24th, 2008 at 9:14 am (#)

    Good points Mike. I'm going to try to get some answers.

  3. Tom_Fishman says:

    September 24th, 2008 at 9:15 am (#)

    Good points Mike. I'm going to try to get some answers.

  4. Joyce_Gramza says:

    September 24th, 2008 at 12:03 pm (#)

    Thanks for the questions Mike! I asked Jim Dumesic & here's his reply complete with a link:
    “The Department of Energy has estimated that the U.S. can produce on a
    sustainable basis 1 billion tons of biomass per year, without affecting the
    ability of the U.S. to continue to produce food for people and animals.
    This vision is presented in the document at the following web-site:
    http://www.ecs.umass.edu/biofuels/roadmap.htm

    This amount of biomass is not sufficient to replace all of the petroleum
    that we currently use. For example, it might be possible to supply about 50%
    of the fuel that we use in the transportation sector. Importantly, we will
    definitely have to combine the production of biofuels with improvements in
    fuel economy, for example by employing more fuel efficient hybrid vehicles.
    In this respect, each liter of liquid fuel that we produce must be utilized
    in the most efficient manner.”

  5. Corn Ethanol Worse Than Gasoline, but Biomass OK | ScienCentral | Science Videos | Science News says:

    February 6th, 2009 at 4:50 pm (#)

    [...] researchers calculated and compared these costs for gasoline, ethanol from corn, and cellulosic ethanol from biomass like switchgrass over their entire life cycles, from oil extraction or crop [...]

  6. James Haan says:

    August 23rd, 2010 at 9:33 am (#)

    Each year in the fall most cities in the northern states have the problem of disposing of mtons and tons of leaves. When farmers harvest corn and other grain crops the stalks are just droped back on the ground. The state highway depts regularly mow the rights of way. These materials are also just left where they fall.
    Is their any reason that these materials could not be used for this purpose.

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