Connect with us

Hi, what are you looking for?



BP Funds A New Biofuel Process That Turns Old Swords Into Plowshares

Scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have discovered that an old technique for making explosives can be redeployed to produce biofuel.

The process involves an odd little bacterium called Clostridium acetobutylicum, which once upon a time was used to manufacture cordite, an explosive propellant for artillery shells and bullets. Aside from its century-old roots, the new biofuel production method is also noteworthy for the financial backing of oil company BP (yes, that BP). The company funds a major research collaborative that supported the Berkeley team, called the Energy Biosciences Institute.

cordite provides key to low cost biofuels

The Cordite Connection

Cordite was invented in the 1880’s as a smokeless improvement on gunpowder. It was used extensively in World War I and World War II, most famously in the “Little Boy” atomic bomb that destroyed the Japanese city of Hiroshima.

The solvent acetone is essential for the manufacture of cordite, and typically it was obtained from the mineral calcium acetate. When World War I was in swing, Germany held the market on calcium acetate, so for obvious reasons the British government had to look elsewhere.

It didn’t have to look far, as a British chemist (the Russian-born Chaim Weizmann) had already begun exploiting Clostridium acetobutylicum for creating synthetic rubber through fermentation.

When Weizmann turned his attention to producing acetone through fermentation, he almost immediately ran into a roadblock that will be familiar to biofuel fans today: the corn upon which he relied was unavailable due to wartime food rationing.

Of even greater interest is the fact that wartime shortages in England sparked the construction of at least two acetone fermentation facilities in the corn-rich Midwestern U.S., though apparently both were in operation only for a year or so. By the 1950’s, a low-cost petrochemical process had been discovered for acetone production, and the rest is history.

Bacteria + Chemistry = Biofuel

Fast-forward about 100 years and you find the U.S. rapidly transitioning from food-based biofuel production to the use of non-food biofuel sources, including grasses, weeds, agricultural waste, and even fast-growing trees such as poplar and willow. That’s where Clostridium acetobutylicum re-enters the stage.

The basic problem with woody biomass is lignin, the substance that toughens cell walls and creates a barrier between us and the juicy sugars within. Until recently, breaking down lignin required extra steps and extra expense, making commercial-scale production a pipe dream.

Fermentation is a natural process that provides a low-cost way to get around that obstacle. The Berkeley lab team found that Clostridium acetobutylicum fits the bill as a highly efficient way to render woody biomass sugars into acetone as well as butanol and ethanol, aka the “ABE” products.

After that it was a matter of finding an efficient catalyst that could stretch the short ABE carbon chains into longer ones. The team settled on palladium, a silvery-white metal in the platinum group. They found that depending on the amount of time exposed to palladium, ABE products could be transformed into precursors for producing drop-in substitutes for gasoline, diesel, or jet fuel.

Hopefully, No Slip Between Biofuel Cup and Lip

The sticky wicket, of course, is scaling up the process to a commercially viable level, and to that end the team has already begun identifying even more efficient catalysts than palladium. History also appears to be on the Berkeley team’s side. According to corresponding research author F. Dean Toste:

“The ABE fermentation process was established and scaled nearly a century ago… and while the chemistry portion is less proven on scale, it relies on heterogeneous catalysis, a mainstay of industrial chemistry today.”

Image: Courtesy of Berkeley National Laboratory

Follow me on Twitter: @TinaMCasey

Sign up for daily news updates from CleanTechnica on email. Or follow us on Google News!

Have a tip for CleanTechnica, want to advertise, or want to suggest a guest for our CleanTech Talk podcast? Contact us here.

Former Tesla Battery Expert Leading Lyten Into New Lithium-Sulfur Battery Era — Podcast:

I don't like paywalls. You don't like paywalls. Who likes paywalls? Here at CleanTechnica, we implemented a limited paywall for a while, but it always felt wrong — and it was always tough to decide what we should put behind there. In theory, your most exclusive and best content goes behind a paywall. But then fewer people read it! We just don't like paywalls, and so we've decided to ditch ours. Unfortunately, the media business is still a tough, cut-throat business with tiny margins. It's a never-ending Olympic challenge to stay above water or even perhaps — gasp — grow. So ...
If you like what we do and want to support us, please chip in a bit monthly via PayPal or Patreon to help our team do what we do! Thank you!
Written By

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 Spoutible.


You May Also Like

Fossil Fuels

Spot the contradiction: oil majors with record profits while lower income households struggle to pay their bills. Can Europe act to level the playing...

Clean Power

Berkeley Lab Leading Investigation to Better Understand the Salton Sea’s Geothermal Lithium Resources The Salton Sea geothermal field in California potentially holds enough lithium...

Clean Power

Like it or not, policymakers in some US states are unable to stem the solar power tide as Lightsource bp joins forces with leading...

Clean Power

Deploying solar energy to mimic photosynthesis is harder than it looks, but a team from Berkeley Lab has cracked part of the "artificial leaf"...

Copyright © 2023 CleanTechnica. The content produced by this site is for entertainment purposes only. Opinions and comments published on this site may not be sanctioned by and do not necessarily represent the views of CleanTechnica, its owners, sponsors, affiliates, or subsidiaries.