Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Cellulose to Gasoline Conversion

Most biofuels startups today focus on creating ethanol from cellulose and waste biomass. Before long, it will be possible to make gasoline itself from cellulose, using clever catalysts with fast pyrolysis.
the team at PNNL, which Holladay is a part of, uses high-throughput screening to test multiple catalysts at a time and to increase the number of experiments they can do over a given period of time. This method for identifying new catalysts is carried out at PNNL’s Combinatorial Catalysis Lab. Initially, robotic equipment is used to form each catalyst to be tested. Solids handling robots weigh and add an appropriate amount of solid support to a small well on a microtiter plate. Each plate holds 96 wells, so up to 96 catalysts can be developed and tested together. Liquids handling robots then add a salt solution of metals, which fill the pore spaces of the support. The liquid is evaporated leaving the metals embedded in the support. Once the catalyst is treated to set the metals in the active state, the plate is moved to a reactor system where the biomass to be tested is applied to each well. The reaction is carried out in a second reactor and then another set of robotic systems draws samples from each well for analysis, Holladay explains.

...“We’ll take the ones that show activity and do further experimentation on them,” he says. It’s these experiments that provide a fundamental understanding of how the catalyst works. Using tools such as gas chromatography, high- pressure liquid chromatography and microscopy techniques that weren’t available 20 years ago, new catalysts can be discovered and the surface chemistry can be studied to understand and ultimately improve such things as the interactions between the metals and their supports. “It’s kind of a balance of both approaches,” Holladay explains. “We start with the discovery phase and then move into the fundamental stage with the overall goal being to develop this industry quickly.” _EthanolProducer
The race to develop efficient and hardy catalysts that can withstand continuous thermochemical reactions of cellulose to hydrocarbon , is on. Taking a page from high throughput biochemical and pharmacological research, these scientists are developing high throughput tools to find the best catalysts to produce high yield hydrocarbon fuel from cellulose. Skip ethanol altogether and go to the higher energy density fuels--the fuels that modern engines were built for.

Ethanol has always been a stop-gap fuel between petro-fuels and something better. The sooner we can get to the something better, the sooner we can jump over all the controversy over food to fuels, and other ethanol misinformation the media loves to dwell on.

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