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Biofuel Down, Not Out: The Rise Of The Zeolites

A new energy efficient catalyst gives new hope to the prospect of a new sparkling green future fueled by low cost, sustainable biofuel.

The biofuel field has failed to grab the spotlight again this year, what with all the big news about wind and solar energy. Nevertheless, biofuel researchers are soldiering on. The latest bit of good news for biofuel fans comes from the University of Manchester with a nice assist from the US.

biofuel renewable energy

“Illustration of the optimized zeolite catalyst (NbAlS-1), which enables a highly efficient chemical reaction to create butene, a renewable source of energy, without expending high amounts of energy for the conversion.” Credit: ORNL/Jill Hemman

A New Biofuel Breakthrough, Light Olefin Edition

Press materials for the new breakthrough are not available on the University of Manchester website yet. If you can find them, drop us a note in the comment thread.

In the meantime, you can get all the juicy details from the new study published in the journal Nature on December 16 under the somewhat excruciatingly detailed title, “Quantitative production of butenes from biomass-derived γ-valerolactone catalysed by hetero-atomic MFI zeolite.

If you can’t read Scilish, no worries. The first and last sentences of the abstract sum up the point of the study in plain English:

“The efficient production of light olefins from renewable biomass is a vital and challenging target to achieve future sustainable chemical processes…This study offers a prospect for the sustainable production of butene as a platform chemical for the manufacture of renewable materials.”

Butane is commonly used as an outdoor cooking fuel, and it can also be used in large appliances and vehicles in a blend with propane. It can also be used to make ethylene, which is good for making plastics.


Biofuel & Zeolites

The US Department of Energy has many more details on the new biofuel breakthrough in plain English, because the agency’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee played a key role in a successful conclusion to the study.

Whoever wrote ORNL’s press release sure knows their way around a lede. Here’s the teaser…

“Researchers led by the University of Manchester have designed a catalyst that converts biomass into fuel sources with remarkably high efficiency and offers new possibilities for manufacturing advanced renewable materials.”

…and here’s the explainer:

“Neutron scattering experiments at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory played a key role in determining the chemical and behavioral dynamics of a zeolite catalyst—zeolite is a common porous material used in commercial catalysis—to provide information for maximizing its performance.”

Got all that? More specifically, the research team used the VISION spectrometer at ORNL’s Spallation Neutron Source to crack the zeolite code in greater detail than possible with other equipment.

Guess what, it vibrates.

For those of you new to the topic of catalysts, the basic idea is that the elements carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen are tightly bound together in the form of, say, wood. That’s why it hurts when you get hit over the head with a log.

To break those bonds, you need an extremely hard skull. Or, you can simply spark a chemical reaction, by using a catalyst.

Biofuel & Energy Efficiency

Here’s where things get interesting. To keep the reaction going, you also need copious amounts of energy, typically in the form of heat. As described by ORNL, some bonds require a temperature of 1,800°F or more before they break.

So, anything you can do to make the catalyst more efficient will have a direct impact on the energy needed for the process.

Zeolite is a mineral of volcanic origins with a foam-like structure. It is highly porous, and it is commonly used in water purification systems and related operations. Zeolite is also emerging as a new material in carbon capture systems, so there’s that.

The challenge is that there are dozens of different commercially available zeolites, with scores more sitting on the shelf waiting for someone to discover them.

So, the VISION equipment was essential to pinpointing the efficiency of the zeolite tapped by Manchester.

According to the lab, the new zeolite catalyst has a yield topping 99%, while requiring much less energy than conventional catalysts.

The secret sauce was a combination of niobium and aluminum atoms, which the Manchester team sneaked into the zeolite while sneaking out the silicon atoms.

How would you like it if somebody waltzed in and played around with your atoms? That would probably make you dizzy, and that’s what happened to the zeolite. It became unbalanced. In that state it was more effective at breaking the elemental bonds, significantly reducing the need for energy to keep the process going.

Saying Good-Bye To Petroleum

As for that thing about light olefins, global oil and gas giants have been leaning toward the petrochemical business as a hedge against declining demand in the transportation and energy sectors (looking at you, ExxonMobil).

However, the new study throws cold water on the long term prospects of a rescue from the petrochemical quarter, despite some major new investments in that field (looking at you, Saudi Aramco).

ORNL cites lead author Longfei Lin at the University of Manchester.

“Previous catalysts that produced butene from purified oxygenated compounds required lots of energy, or extremely high temperatures,” he explained. “This new catalyst directly converts raw oxygenated compounds using much milder conditions and with significantly less energy and is more environmentally friendly.”

Anyways, aside from the biofuel industry this is also good news for the green chemistry movement, which has been replacing fossil-derived chemical building blocks with renewable, bio-based materials as fast as it can go.

The emerging market for renewable hydrogen is another indicator that the global fossil industry is heading, slowly but surely, to sidebar status in the long history of humans making (and burning) things.

CleanTechnica is reaching out to ORNL for more VISION-based news about renewable energy, so stay tuned for more on that.

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Image: “Illustration of the optimized zeolite catalyst (NbAlS-1), which enables a highly efficient chemical reaction to create butene, a renewable source of energy, without expending high amounts of energy for the conversion.” Credit: ORNL/Jill Hemman

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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 Google+.


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