Does Gasoline Grow On Trees?

Chicago (IL) - There is an incredible amount of enthusiasm in the field of alternative energy sources these days. We are seeing new "breakthrough" announcements almost every day, but a great part of this research is decades away from being a viable technology for everyday use. But we also have news about more realistic approaches: For example, a scientist from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst (UMass) claims to have reached a critical milestone in the creation of biofuels with traditional gasoline characteristics. And: The conversion apparently can happen with "almost" no carbon footprint.

Biofuels such as bioethanol or soy biodiesel aren't exactly new, but especially what we can buy today isn't exactly efficient (E-85 fuels typically decrease the gas mileage by about 30%), brings economic concerns (as e-85 production cuts into the availability of products such as corn) and we recently also heard about environmental problems as the production bioethanol requires lots of external energy and represents a substantial carbon footprint.

George Huber from UMass now says that he was able to create a liquid that "contains many of the compounds found in gasoline" by heating cellulose with solid catalysts (materials that help speed up chemical reactions) and rapidly cooling it thereafter. According to Huber, using "moderate heat", the process was completed in less than two minutes, resulting in compounds that make up about one fourth of the chemicals found in traditional gasoline (including naphthalene and toluene). The scientist claims that the liquid "can be further treated to form the remaining fuel components or can be used 'as is' for a high octane gasoline blend".

The approach apparently delivers a few advantages: First, it can be used to be mixed with regular gas and offer the same efficiency in cars or jets as traditional gasoline. Second, Huber says, the production process has a minimal or even no carbon footprint. "From the extra heat that will be released [during the conversion process], you can generate electricity in addition to the biofuel," the scientist said. "There will not be just a small carbon footprint for the process; by recovering heat and generating electricity, there won't be any footprint."

The researcher said that mass market availability of the technology or "green gasoline" in general may be still "five to ten years" away. Regardless of time, there will always be the question of plant resources. And the trend appears to be that we are moving away from corn and soy.

Instead, scientist are looking at switchgrass or even fast growing trees. Last year, researcher Tom Adams from the University of Georgia told us that switchgrass currently available in the U.S. grows about 6 tons of biomass per year. In combination with biofuels-suited trees as well as a more efficient harvesting process, there could be enough biofuel to cover about 30% of the fuel needs of Americans, we were told.