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Mobile Solar-Powered Biofuel Processors Will Roam the U.S. in Search of Fuel

purdue researchers develop new high efficiency, mobile biofuel refining process that could run on solar powerResearchers at Purdue University have developed a concept for a new biofuel process that could enable the biofuel industry to expand by leaps and bounds.  Until now, one big obstacle has been the cost of transporting large quantities of heavy plant matter to centralized refineries.  The new process would be compact enough to pick up and go to where the biomass is, and convert it to a more efficiently transportable liquid fuel.  On top of that, Purdue’s biofuel concept is designed to work across a spectrum of non-food, woody plant matter, including wood chips, switchgrass and corn stalks.


But wait, there’s more.  The new process works by adding hydrogen to the biomass, and the current plan calls for producing hydrogen from natural gas or from the biomass.  Eventually, though, solar power could be used to split water molecules to produce hydrogen, making the process more sustainable as well as more efficient.  Bit by bit, sustainable fuels are loosening the increasingly hazardous grip that fossil fuels have on the U.S. economy.

The Ever-Expanding World of Biofuels

Compared to the petroleum industry, which bets the ranch on a single feedstock that is accessible in increasingly remote, high risk locations, the biofuel industry is developing into a low risk endeavor that embraces the wide variety of biomass produced across the U.S.  The mobile concept calls for converting biomass to a liquid fuel on site.  The raw fuel could then be transported, at far less cost and with a lower carbon footprint, to a refinery for further processing.

Hydrogen and Biofuel Production

The Purdue researchers estimate that the hydrogen-based process would yield up to twice as much biofuel as current technologies.  The concept was developed through modeling, and the next step – experiments to validate the concept – is under way.  If the concept shows potential, it could join a growing list of new high efficiency biofuel production technologies, including exposure to gaseous ozone and the use of tobacco-derived enzymes to unlock carbohydrates from woody plant matter.

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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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