Jason Barton

Professional Information and Energy News

Cellulosic Biofuels–Got gasoline?

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To hear Dr. Regalbuto describe it, you’d think these technologies were all but ready for deployment. They’re not. I can definitely appreciate his forward thinking, as well as him coming to speak to my class at the University of Illinois, but even he will admit that these fuels are a bit farther away than this article describes.

It will indeed be a great day when we can fuel our vehicles on renewable energy sources, but we will also need to accompany that development with vast decreases in the amount of fuel we use. Failing to do so will require HUGE swaths of land dedicated to growing the biomass that serves as feedstocks for these drop-in replacements for gasoline. If present practice holds, these swaths will likely be monoculture in order to maximize the yield per unit of land, and monocultures can be very harmful to the health of soil and water, and potentially to the people who live near these fields and depend on these systems.

It’s a fascinating time to be alive.

John R. Regalbuto

14 August, 2009

Most people think of ethanol as the only liquid biofuel, and that the major advances in biofuels will revolve around enzymatic conversion of cellulosic or woody biomass (including nonfood stems and stalks of corn stover or switch-grass, and wood chips) into simple fermentable sugars (1). However, in just a few years the commercial scale production of liquid hydrocarbons from biomass will be possible. Hydrocarbons can be made (see the figure) from the sugars of woody biomass through microbial fermentation or liquid-phase catalysis, or directly from woody biomass through pyrolysis or gasification (2). Finally, lipids from nonfood crops as well as algae (3) can be converted to hydrocarbons. The resulting hydrocarbon biofuels will be drop-in replacements for gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel; will give much higher gas mileage than ethanol; and will work in existing engines and distribution networks.

Read the entire article here.