A new process for the creation of gasoline-like fuels from cellulosic plant waste materials has been developed by researchers from the University of California, Davis.
The process — essentially the first of its kind — means that the commercial production of plant-based biofuels may soon extend beyond biodiesel, and also encompass other important types of fuel.
The great advantage of processes such as this — and in contrast to other forms of biofuel production — is that the materials used for the creation of these fuels are waste material. There is no necessity to displace agriculture with methods like the new one — cellulosic plant waste materials are simply not in short supply.
“What’s exciting is that there are lots of processes to make linear hydrocarbons, but until now nobody has been able to make branched hydrocarbons with volatility in the gasoline range,” explained Mark Mascal, a professor of chemistry at UC Davis and lead author on the research paper.
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Traditional diesel fuel is made up of long, straight chains of carbon atoms, while the molecules that make up gasoline are shorter and branched. That means gasoline and diesel evaporate at different temperatures and pressures, reflected in the different design of diesel and gasoline engines.
Biodiesel, refined from plant-based oils, is already commercially available to run modified diesel engines. A plant-based gasoline replacement would open up a much bigger market for renewable fuels. The feedstock for the new process is levulinic acid, which can be produced by chemical processing of materials such as straw, corn stalks or even municipal green waste. It’s a cheap and practical starting point that can be produced from raw biomass with high yield.
“Essentially it could be any cellulosic material,” Mascal noted. “Because the process does not rely on fermentation, the cellulose does not have to be converted to sugars first.”
Provisional patents for the process have already been filed.
The new research was published on January 29th in the journal Angewandte Chemie.