James Dumesic, the Steenbock Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with postdoctoral researchers Jesse Bond and David Martin Alonso, and graduate students Dong Wang and Ryan West have published details of a highly efficient, environmentally friendly process that selectively converts gamma-valerolactone, a biomass derivative, into the chemical equivalent of gasoline to jet fuel.  The paper has been published in the Feb. 26 edition of the journal Science. Professor Dumesic just continues to amaze at identifying new pathways.

The new and simple process preserves about 95 percent of the energy from the original biomass, requires little hydrogen input, and captures carbon dioxide under high pressure for future use.

The team’s new method exploits sugar’s tendency to degrade.  Sugar molecules frequently degrade to form levulinic acid and formic acid – two products previous methods couldn’t readily transform into high-energy liquid fuels and something carbohydrate processors deal with in many industries.  Dumesic says, “Instead of trying to fight the degradation, we started with levulinic acid and formic acid and tried to see what we could do using that as a platform.”  Everyone is trying to avoid the acids forming, just imagine what would happen if there was a high value market instead.

In the presence of metal catalysts, the two acids react to form gamma-valerolactone, or GVL, which now is manufactured in small quantities as an herbal food and perfume additive. Using laboratory-scale equipment and stable, inexpensive and commercial catalysts, Dumesic’s group converts aqueous solutions of GVL into jet fuel. “It really is very simple,” says Jesse Bond, of the two-step catalytic process. “We can pull off these two catalytic stages, as well as the requisite separation steps, in series, with basic equipment. With very minimal processing, we can produce a pure stream of jet-fuel-range alkenes and a fairly pure stream of carbon dioxide.”  This truly bodes well for scaling up.  The temperatures are low, too, running under 710 ºF at highest testing range.

The light alcohols methanol and ethanol work well, are becoming more popular as blending agents in automobile fuels and have potential for fuel cell applications.  But they have limitations for use in flight such as jet fuel because of their low energy density.  Given the present internal combustion engine designs on the market, the light alcohols cannot fully replace petroleum-derived hydrocarbons.  The team’s results produce products of condensable alkenes with molecular weights higher than the light alcohols that can be targeted for gasoline and/or jet fuel applications.  The new process is more complex than the evolved ethanol production of today, but now biomatter could fill a huge range of the fuel market.

Research team member David Martin Alonso says, “The hydrocarbons produced from GVL in this new process are chemically equivalent to those used in the present infrastructure.  The product we make is ready for the jet fuel applications and can be added to existing hydrocarbon blends, as needed, to meet specs.”

Dumesic, who has prior work in proceedings going on to commercial use, has learned to look for the commercial hurdles.  He observes the biggest barrier to implementing the renewable fuel is the cost of GVL. Until now there has not been an incentive to mass-produce the compound. Thus  “The bottleneck in having the fuel ready for prime time is the availability of cost-effective GVL,” he says.

With a process in hand to get from GVL to fuels, Dumesic and his students are developing more efficient methods for making GVL from biomass sources such as wood, corn stover, switchgrass and others. “Once the GVL is made effectively, I think this is an excellent way to convert it to jet fuel,” he says.

The press release says, “The simple process preserves about 95 percent of the energy from the original biomass, requires little hydrogen input, and captures carbon dioxide under high pressure for future beneficial use.”  The paper’s abstract says, “ . . . (the) integrated catalytic system that does not require an external source of hydrogen.”  So there is a bit of confusion up in Madison.  There are also some questions about the residuals and waste, what might be returned to the soil and a range of other questions.

But this has to seize the attention of a huge range of biomatter processors.  Should the paths from biomatter to the levulinic acid and formic acid be developed at low capital and operational cost, fuel production could become a small business with substantial rewards.

Quite a fellow, this Professor Dumesic.  Quite an idea as well, that seems to work quite well too.


9 Comments so far

  1. MattMusson on March 1, 2010 7:11 AM

    The jet fuel would just be a byproduct that makes use of the Lev acid that is produced in current processes.

    I would rather see a Thorium reactor producing power to create jet fuel from sea water using the Fischer Tropsch process. And, Nuclear carriers could use their reactors to create fuel as they go!

  2. donb on March 2, 2010 3:22 PM

    The posting stated:
    Given the present internal combustion engine designs on the market, the light alcohols cannot fully replace petroleum-derived hydrocarbons.

    This is only because present engines are optimized to run on gasoline. In reality, engines run just fine on (say) ethanol. In fact, ethanol is in some ways better than gasoline. The engine’s compression ratio can be raised to get better efficiecy — ethanol’s octane rating is higher, and it requires more heat to vaporize, which helps reducing pinging, especially with direct injection.

    The only real problem is that ethanol-fueled engines are hard to start since ethanol does not vaporize as easily as gasoline. Seems to me this can be fixed with something already used to help some diesel engine start: electric air heaters in the intake manifold.

    The lower energy content in ethanol isn’t much of a problem for automobiles. On an energy basis, it takes 1.5 gallons of ethanol to equal 1 gallon of gasoline. Part of the difference can be recovered with an engine optimized for ethanol. The rest is not that big of a deal.

    Aviation is a bigger problem, since fuel is a much bigger part of the total weight of the vehicle.

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