Thursday, May 28, 2009

Catalyst for Research

Replacing oil with a renewable source of fuel is a good idea, regardless of your point of view on almost anything, as long as the renewable fuel process doesn't take more energy than the fuel it produces. Ethanol production from corn, though, never seemed like a great alternative to me. For one thing, it doesn't net a lot of energy. Now increased demand for corn to make fuel has increased prices for corn-based foods. That, in turn, has made it economically sensible to cut down forests and plant corn — essentially displacing corn production for food in a way that nets more CO2.

The idea of converting cellulose to fuel, though, that's another story. This conversion is difficult today, but it has the advantage of leaving the food supply chain intact and making fuel from plants that are easy to grow and have little value otherwise. In 2007, scientists from University of Wisconsin Madison reported research findings on simplifying fuel production from cellulose. They describe a catalytic process to convert cellulose to hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF), then conversion of HMF into 2,5-dimethylfuran (DMF), a liquid transportation fuel with 40 percent greater energy density than ethanol. You can see a little slide show of James Dumesic's lab here.

In the past month, scientists at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory reported on a relatively low temperature (80–120 °C) single-step catalytic process to convert celluose to HMF.

I'm not opposed to hybrid, electric, and other energy technology per se, but cellulose-derived fuel has a significant advantage for transportation applications if it can leverage the existing fuel infrastructure. No new electrical grid (for electric cars) or liquid distribution (for hydrogen cars), no significant changes to current motor technology, no significant changes to consumer behavior.

This is exactly the kind of research that the government should invest in. If there were 100 research projects with this potential, chances are good that we would have renewable energy products in the market in the next decade.

Update: An insighful interview with Vinod Khosla on investing in alternative fuels.

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