Reducing our reliance on fossil fuels means turning to plant-derived biofuels and chemicals. But producing them cost-effectively from plants and other organic matter – collectively referred to as biomass – is a major engineering challenge.
Most biomass comes in the form of non-edible plants like trees, grass, and algae, which contain sugars that can be fermented to produce fuel. But biomass also contains lignin, a bulky, complex organic polymer that fills wood, bark, and generally gives plants rigidity. Because it is difficult to process, lignin is usually discarded during biofuel processing. EPFL scientists have now turned lignin from a nuisance to an important source of biofuel by simply adding a common chemical, converting up to 80% of it into valuable molecules for biofuel and plastics. The patent-pending method, which can be scaled up to industrial levels, is published in Science.
Complex, but energy-dense
Lignin is an enormously complex biopolymer, filling the hard wall that surrounds each plant cell. In fact, lignin makes up almost a third of plant biomass, and its molecular structure gives it an energy density 30% greater than that of the sugars that are traditionally processed into biofuel. The problem is that lignin is difficult to extract and transform. Due to its instability, lignin usually rapidly gets destroyed during its extraction and most researchers have failed to efficiently break it apart for upgrade into fuels or chemicals.
Now, an international team of researchers led by Jeremy Luterbacher at EPFL, has shown that they can easily break lignin apart simply by adding the chemical formaldehyde to the process. Formaldehyde is one of the most widely used chemicals in industry, and it is simple and cheap to produce. The researchers found that formaldehyde stabilizes lignin and prevents it from degrading, leading to high yields of building blocks that can be used to make substitutes for petrochemicals. These yields were 3-7 times higher than those obtained from lignin without formaldehyde.
“Depending on the wood used we get between 50 and 80%,” says Jeremy Luterbacher, who became known in 2014 for developing a method for extracting sugars from plants safely and cheaply (also published in Science). “The chemistry is relatively straightforward; the real challenge is actually finding investors for a pilot facility to demonstrate this.” The market, he says, is difficult for sustainable energy largely because of inconsistent political support and widely varying energy prices. Investors for such innovative platforms are hard to come by in an uncertain market, especially considering the competition of well-established fossil fuels.
“The technology looks really good,” says Luterbacher. “If the global political establishment sent a consistent message about moving away from fossil fuels, then investors would take notice. But I think Switzerland is a great place to get started. The Swiss have been unwavering supporters of clean energy and could help demonstrate new technologies, and so I’m quite optimistic about the future.”
The Latest on: Biofuel waste
via Google News
The Latest on: Biofuel waste
- Long-term policy backing needed for bioethanol: Brazilian sugar baronon January 24, 2020 at 12:47 am
“For ethanol, or any biofuel, to stay in the market, we need to have public policies in place ... According to de Sousa, Brazil too has been working on 2G ethanol (producing ethanol from agricultural ...
- DOE offers $96 million for bioenergy R&D projectson January 23, 2020 at 2:18 pm
The U.S. Department of Energy on Jan. 23 announced it will award up to $96 million for bioenergy research and development to reduce the price of drop-in biofuels, lower the cost of biopower, and ...
- Grants help WPI professor hone bio-oil process from mixed wasteon January 23, 2020 at 12:35 pm
Chemical engineers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts are broadening attempts to convert waste into environmentally friendly biofuels, lowering reliance on fossil fuels, cutting the ...
- WPI profs get grants to work on converting waste to fuelon January 22, 2020 at 8:43 am
WORCESTER — Chemical engineering professors at Worcester Polytechnic Institute will use more than $2.2 million in grants to expand an effort to convert waste into environmentally-friendly biofuels, ...
- Aviation Biofuels Market: Maintaining a Strong Outlook - Here's Whyon January 21, 2020 at 9:41 am
Latest 2020 version of Global Aviation Biofuels Market study of 111+ data Tables, Pie Chat, Graphs & Figures spread through Pages and easy to understand in depth analysis. "Aviation Biofuels Market by ...
- New low-cost method to turn plant waste into biofuelson January 15, 2020 at 1:14 pm
Scientists develop a novel method that could make it much cheaper to produce biofuels such as ethanol from plant waste and help reduce the dependence on fossil fuels ...
- Process increases viability of biofuels from plant wasteon January 15, 2020 at 9:13 am
A new process developed on the US could make it more economical to produce biofuels from plant waste, an advance that could eventually reduce reliance on fossil fuels. Image by Andrew Martin from ...
- Microorganisms fed with toxic gas to produce biofuelon January 14, 2020 at 6:38 am
which in turn can be used for the production of biofuels and other valuable substances. It also allows for a reduction in the amount of waste put into landfills or combusted, something that otherwise ...
- Major breakthrough can turn plant waste into cheap biofuelson January 14, 2020 at 4:45 am
A new discovery could help lessen our reliance on fossil fuels by turning plant waste into biofuels, such as ethanol, in a much cheaper way than before. Among the many ways suggested to reduce ...
via Bing News