Scientists at University of Massachusetts-Amherst have announced the creation of gasoline from plant matter, with almost no carbon footprint.
The "green gasoline", as the researchers describe it, is identical to standard gasoline yet created from sustainable biomass sources like switchgrass and poplar trees.
The man behind this breakthrough is George Huber, who worked with his graduate students Torren Carlson and Tushar Vispute,
Huber says that, though it may take five to 10 years for the green gasoline to arrive at the pump or find its way into a fighter jet, his team's work has bypassed significant hurdles to bringing green gasoline biofuels to market.
"It is likely that the future consumer will not even know that they are putting biofuels into their car. Biofuels in the future will most likely be similar in chemical composition to gasoline and diesel fuel used today. The challenge for chemical engineers is to efficiently produce liquid fuels from biomass while fitting into the existing infrastructure today," said Huber.
For their new approach, the researchers rapidly heated cellulose in the presence of solid catalysts, materials that speed up reactions without sacrificing themselves in the process, and then rapidly cooled the products to create a liquid that contains many of the compounds found in gasoline.
The entire process was completed in about two minutes using relatively moderate amounts of heat, said the researchers.
According to them, the compounds that formed in that single step, like naphthalene and toluene, make up one fourth of the suite of chemicals found in gasoline.
The liquid can be further treated to form the remaining fuel components or can be used "as is" for a high-octane gasoline blend, they add.
"Green gasoline is an attractive alternative to bioethanol since it can be used in existing engines and does not incur the 30 per cent gas mileage penalty of ethanol-based flex fuel," said John Regalbuto, who directs the Catalysis and Biocatalysis Program at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and supported this research.
"In theory it requires much less energy to make than ethanol, giving it a smaller carbon footprint and making it cheaper to produce. Making it from cellulose sources such as switchgrass or poplar trees grown as energy crops, or forest or agricultural residues such as wood chips or corn stover, solves the lifecycle greenhouse gas problem that has recently surfaced with corn ethanol and soy biodiesel," Regalbuto added.
He further said that Huber's new method was a compact way to treat a great deal of biomass in a short time, and that it did not require any external energy.
"In fact, from the extra heat that will be released, you can generate electricity in addition to the biofuel. There will not be just a small carbon footprint for the process; by recovering heat and generating electricity, there won't be any footprint," he said.
Huber is now working with a host of leaders from academia, industry and government to make green gasoline a practical solution for the impending fuel crisis.
"We are currently working on understanding the chemistry of this process and designing new catalysts and reactors for this single step technique. This fundamental chemical understanding will allow us to design more efficient processes that will accelerate the commercialisation of green gasoline," Huber said.