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Plant Sugars Provide Petrol

Sun, 21st Sep 2008

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We all know that the days of fossil fuels are limited, so researchers are trying to find alternative fuels.  Biofuels have risen in popularity in recent years – fermenting plant material to make ethanol is already being used to produce fuel in several countries around the world.  But ethanol is a long way, chemically speaking, from the petrol (or gasoline for our US listeners) and diesel that are currently used in car engines.

E fuel 100The problem is that plant sugars have lots of oxygen atoms in them, which aren’t found in fuels like gasoline.  Now scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have developed a biofuel that is identical, at the molecular level, to gasoline.  

Writing in the journal Science, the researchers have found a technique for turning complex plant sugars, called lignocellulose, into molecules that can be “upgraded” to make petrol, diesel and airplane fuel.  They do this by turning the plant sugars into molecules with fewer oxygen atoms, which can then be converted into high octane gasoline.

To create the new fuels, the scientists add a solid catalyst to a solution of the plant sugars. After a reaction, an oil-like substance is produced, that can be skimmed off the top of the solution. In this oil are acids, alcohols, ketones and other molecules, which are the precursors to gasoline. They can then be used in further reactions to make gasoline.

This is a much more efficient way of using lignocellulose for biofuels than previous techniques – the oil created by the team retains around 90% of the energy content found in the original sugars. Although this technique is still at an experimental stage, it might be the key to solving the oil crisis in the future.



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