Washington, September 19 : Two separate research teams have claimed to have converted sugar from agricultural waste and non-food plants-into gasoline, diesel, jet fuel and a range of other valuable chemicals.
The two teams are Chemical engineer Randy Cortright and his colleagues at Virent Energy Systems of Madison, Wisconsin, and researchers led by NSF-supported chemical engineer James Dumesic of the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
The teams are going to announce this month that sugars and carbohydrates can be processed like petroleum into the full suite of products that drive the fuel, pharmaceutical and chemical industries.
According to John Regalbuto, director of the Catalysis and Biocatalysis Program at NSF (National Science Foundation) and chair of an interagency working group on biomass conversion, "Even when solar and wind, in addition to clean coal and nuclear, become highly developed, and cars become electric or plug-in hybrid, we will still need high energy-density gasoline, diesel and jet fuel for planes, trains, trucks, and boats."
"The processes that these teams developed are superb examples of pathways that will enable the sustainable production of these fuels," he added.
The process Virent discovered in early 2006, and announced at the Growing the Bioeconomy conference sponsored by Iowa State University on September 9, 2008, is the subject of patent applications.
That announcement was followed this month by the publication of a separate discovery of the same process in the Dumesic laboratory.
The key to the breakthrough is a process developed by both Dumesic and Cortright called aqueous phase reforming.
In passing a watery slurry of plant-derived sugar and carbohydrates over a series of catalysts-materials that speed up reactions without sacrificing themselves in the process, carbon-rich organic molecules split apart into component elements that recombine to form many of the chemicals that are extracted from non-renewable petroleum.
According to Dumesic, a key feature of the approach is that between the sugar or starch starter materials and the hydrocarbon end products, the chemicals go through an intermediate stage as an organic liquid composed of functional compounds.
"The intermediate compounds retain 95 percent of the energy of the biomass but only about 40 percent of the mass, and can be upgraded into different types of transportation fuels, such as gasoline, jet and diesel fuels," said Dumesic.
"Importantly, the formation of this functional intermediate oil does not require the need for an external source of hydrogen," he added, since hydrogen comes from the slurry itself.
While several years of further development will be needed to refine the process and scale it for production, the promise of gasoline and other petrochemicals from renewable plants has led to broad industrial interest.