That’s right, gasoline from cellulose.  Researchers at the University of California, Davis have developed a novel synthesis of cellulosic biomass to make “drop-in” gasoline.  The new process suggests gasoline-like fuels can be made from cellulosic materials such as farm and forestry waste.  The process could open up new markets for plant-based fuels, beyond existing plant oil based biodiesel substitutes.

Biodiesel, refined from plant-based oils, is already commercially available to run at low percentages in diesel engines. A plant-based gasoline replacement would open up a much bigger market for renewable fuels.

Mark Mascal, professor of chemistry at UC Davis said, “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.”

Common diesel fuel is made up of long, straight chains of carbon atoms, while the molecules that make up gasoline are shorter and branched. The shape and size of the molecules of gasoline and diesel result in evaporation at different temperatures and pressures, which is reflected in the different design of diesel and gasoline engines.

Mascal is lead author of the paper published in the journal Angewandte Chemie.

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, Mascal said.

Then the process is to dehydrate the biomass derived levulinic acid under solid acid catalysis.  That results in angelica lactone for treatment with catalytic K2CO3 producing the angelica lactone dimer at an excellent yield.

The dimer serves as a novel feedstock for hydrodeoxygenation done under relatively mild conditions with a combination of oxophilic metal and noble metal catalysts to yield branched C7–C10 hydrocarbons in the gasoline volatility range.

Considering that levulinic acid is available in greater than 80% conversion from raw biomass, a field-to-tank yield of drop-in cellulosic gasoline of greater than 60% is possible.

The process offers an efficient synthesis of branched, gasoline-range hydrocarbons from cellulosic biomass using inexpensive biomass feedstocks for a high “field-to-tank” yield.

The process operates under mild conditions at short reaction times with robust, heterogeneous catalysts producing a “drop-in” fuel rather than an additive.

Here’s the most interesting breakthrough.  Because the process does not rely on fermentation, the cellulose does not have to be converted to sugars first.  “Essentially it could be any cellulosic material,” Mascal said.

Coauthors of the paper are postdoctoral researchers Saikat Dutta and Inaki Gandarias.  UC Davis has filed provisional patents on the process.

If a ton (2000 lbs) of plant waste is worth $100 and yields over 1200 lbs of fuel/6.2 lbs for 194 gallons at $2.50 would gross $485.00.  There’s quite a bit of money for processing and transport in the back of the napkin calculation.

Congratulations are in order. Lets hope these folks stay with it.  The main outstanding question is just what those noble metal catalysts might be.


5 Comments so far

  1. Paul Northfield on February 4, 2014 8:15 AM

    I am under the impression that Coolplanet Biofuels are already doing this and building an industrial plant in Louisiana

  2. John on February 6, 2014 7:03 AM

    Very interesting idea. New form of clean energy is badly needed nowadays.

  3. Streamlight Stinger LED flashlight on July 24, 2015 11:48 AM

    Thanks for awesome article.

  4. ToolsGuardian on August 10, 2018 2:56 PM

    This is really a great interesting idea!

  5. Top Guardians on November 25, 2018 7:20 AM

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