New process makes fuel from simple sugar

The soaring prices of oil and natural gas have sparked a race to make transportation fuels from plant matter instead of petroleum. Both biodiesel and gasoline containing ethanol are starting to make an impact on the market.

New process makes fuel from simple sugar

New process makes fuel from simple sugar

University of Wisconsin-Madison

June 29, 2006

The soaring prices of oil and natural gas have sparked a race to make transportation fuels from plant matter instead of petroleum. Both biodiesel and gasoline containing ethanol are starting to make an impact on the market.

But the oil price hike has also fueled a race to find new sources for chemical intermediates – compounds that are the raw material for many modern plastics, drugs and fuels. Behind the scenes, American industry uses millions of tons of chemical intermediates, which are largely sourced from petroleum or natural gas.

James Dumesic, a University of Wisconsin-Madison chemical and biological engineering professor, reports in the June 30 issue of the journal Science on a better way to make a chemical intermediate called HMF (hydroxymethylfurfural) from fructose – fruit sugar. HMF can be converted into plastics, diesel-fuel additive, or even diesel fuel itself, but is seldom used because it is costly to make.

The new process goes beyond making fuel from plants to make industrial chemicals from plants. “Trying to understand how to use catalytic processes to make chemicals and fuel from biomass is a growing area,” says Dumesic, who directed the HMF research. “Instead of using the ancient solar energy locked up in fossil fuels, we are trying to take advantage of the carbon dioxide and modern solar energy that crop plants pick up.”


High oil prices fuel bioenergy push High oil prices and growing concerns over climate change are driving investment and innovation in the biofuels sector as countries and industry increasingly look towards renewable bioenergy to replace fossil fuels. Bill Gates, the world’s richest man, has recently invested $84 million in an American ethanol company, while global energy gluttons ranging from the United States to China are setting long-term targets for the switch to such fuels potentially offering a secure domestic source of renewable energy and fewer environmental headaches.

Why is oil palm replacing tropical rainforests? Recently much has been made about the conversion of Asia’s biodiverse rainforests for oil-palm cultivation. Environmental organizations have warned that by eating foods that use palm oil as an ingredient, Western consumers are directly fueling the destruction of orangutan habitat and sensitive ecosystems. So, why is it that oil-palm plantations now cover millions of hectares across Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand? Why has oil palm become the world’s number one fruit crop, trouncing its nearest competitor, the humble banana?

Biofuels can replace about 30 percent of fuel needs With world oil demand growing, supplies dwindling and the potential for weather- and conflict-related supply interruptions, other types of fuels and technologies are needed to help pick up the slack. A group of experts in science, engineering and public policy from the Georgia Institute of Technology, the Imperial College London and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory recommend a comprehensive research and policy plan aimed at increasing the practicality of using biofuels and biomaterials as a supplement to petroleum. The review article, called “The Path Forward for Biofuels and Biomaterials,” appears in the Jan. 27 issue of Science.

Carbon savings from biofuels quantified A British fuels company has quantified carbon dioxide emission savings made through the sale of biofuels. Greenergy Fuels Ltd, which supplies biofuels retailed through supermarket forecourts, said it supplied 17.1 million liters of bioethanol and biodiesel, saving more than 40,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions during the first quarter of 2006. The firm compared this savings to taking more than 50,000 average family cars off the road for three months.

The new, patent-pending method for making HMF is a balancing act of chemistry, pressure, temperature and reactor design. After a catalyst converts fructose into HMF, the HMF moves to a solvent that carries it to a separate location, where the HMF is extracted. Although other researchers had previously converted fructose into HMF, Dumesic’s research group made a series of improvements that raised the HMF output, and also made the HMF easier to extract.

Once made, HMF is fairly easy to convert into plastics or diesel fuel. Although the biodiesel that has made headlines lately is made from a fat (even used cooking oil), not a sugar, both processes have similar environmental and economic benefits, Dumesic says. Instead of buying petroleum from abroad, the raw material would come from domestic agriculture. Expanding the source of raw material should also depress the price of petroleum.

Using biomass-waste products of agriculture and forestry-can also cut global warming caused by carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, says graduate student Yuriy Roman-Leshkov, first author on the Science paper. “The nice thing about using biomass as a replacement for all these petroleum products is that it is greenhouse-neutral,” he says. While burning and otherwise using fossil fuels moves an enormous amount of carbon from the Earth into the atmosphere, the carbon released when a biofuel burns is eventually taken up by growing plants. “This process is really important,” Roman-Leshkov says, “because it does not introduce additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.”

Juben N. Chheda, a second graduate student working on the HMF project, sees the work as part of an explosion of interest in finding alternative sources for petroleum-based chemicals. “We need to develop new process technologies, and HMF is a building block that can replace products like PET, a plastic used for soda bottles,” he notes. “This is a first step for a range of chemical products that can be obtained from biomass resources, replacing those that come from petroleum sources.”

Dumesic is also exploring methods to convert other sugars and even more complex carbohydrates into HMF and other chemical intermediates. “Solar energy and biology created the stored hydrocarbons in the fossil fuels we have used for so long. Our interest in biomass is driven by the belief that if we learn to use solar energy and biology in a different way, we can address problems related to price, supply, and the environmental impact of industrial activity.”

This is a modified news release from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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