Biodiesel: A New Way of Turning Plants into Fuel  

Posted by Big Gav

MIT Technology review has an article on biodiesel out that discusses a new, more energy efficient, process for creating biodiesel. It is a little odd that this article focuses on biodiesel while Wired's effort a few days ago just talked about ethanol, when they seem to be dealing with the same innovation and companies commercialising it.

Eco-dreamers have long hoped for a way to drive around without contributing to global warming, but the slow pace of progress in alternative fuel technologies has kept that vision from materializing. Now, a promising new process, designed by researchers at the University of Wisconsin and outlined in a paper that appeared in the journal Science on June 2, could be a significant step toward turning that dream into a reality.

The paper details a new way to produce biodiesel fuel, which is made out of plant matter. Traditional biodiesel refining uses only the fatty acids of a plant, which typically make up less than 10 percent of the mass of dried plants. Rather than converting only the fat, this new method promises to turn all of the dried plant material, including roots, stems, leaves, and fruit, into biodiesel or heat energy.

Ethanol, the most popular and commercial biofuel, has long been refined out of plant matter, but it requires the costly, energy-intensive step of distilling every molecule of water out of the solution. In contrast, the new biodiesel process is based on aqueous phase reactions, which don't need to go through the expensive distillation phase.

"The biggest advance we have to offer is the lack of that distillation process," says George Huber, one of the paper's authors and a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin who will soon be teaching at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. "That means that our process is exothermic." In other words, it doesn't need a lot of extra energy. And that's important, because the largest cost in the current biofuel refining process is energy.

The note in the sidebar is also quite interesting:
The process described in the Science paper isn't the only way to make biodiesel. Vegetable-oil-based biodiesel has long been a favorite of do-it-yourselfers. Now it's starting to become a bigger business. The most notable entrant into the market is country musician Willie Nelson, who formed a company to market Willie's Biodiesel.

Much of the biomass conversion research is being done in U.S. labs. At the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, for instance, researchers put together a report detailing how much biomass could be made available for energy production. A massive project at the National Renewable Energy Laboratories in Golden, CO is aimed at reducing the costs of enzymes to convert cellulose, which makes up more than half of all plant matter, into a stream of usable sugar. One of their most promising projects is based on a cluster of genes taken from the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park more than thirty years ago.

Putting such technologies to work also requires a political plan of action. One such proposed plan was put forth by this writer in Washington Monthly magazine last year. So far, the plan hasn't been implemented.

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