Researchers have developed a way to enhance the energy produced by biofuels, potentially expanding their usefulness in jet planes and industrial vehicles.
Biofuels, which are derived from the sugars in plant matter, have become a mainstay in the stump speeches of political candidates and the energy policy of the Obama administration, providing a potential alternative or supplement for commonly used fossil fuels.
But one problem with most biofuels so far has been that they aren’t potent enough to replace jet or diesel fuel because they have too few carbon atoms in each molecule. That reduces their potential as an alternative energy source.
The new technique, detailed in a report published Wednesday in the journal Nature, overcomes this problem via a two-part process. First, sugars are broken down, or fermented, by the bacterium Clostridium acetobutylicum into acetone and ethanol, a standard procedure long used to expedite the production of the explosive cordite and, more recently, biofuel. It’s quite similar to the fermentation process that produces beer, except that in this case the Clostridium bacterium replaces brewer’s yeast.
Then, to increase the energy in the fuel, the researchers took the product of that fermentation and put it through a process called chemical catalysis. That process increased the number of carbons present in each molecule from two — the amount in a normal ethanol molecule — to approximately 10, as in existing industrial fuels. The result was an energy source on par with diesel and jet fuel from the same amount of raw plant matter used in the current method of producing biofuels. The work was done at UC Berkeley.
The next hurdle for the researchers will be to develop a way to scale up their process to industrial dimensions, a crucial step in making the fuel a viable product in the energy marketplace.
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