Ecomaterials Lab: Gas from grass? Next-generation biofuels

PopTech's weekly Ecomaterials Labs series is part of our ongoing, focused look at next-generation sustainable materials innovation.

Switchgrass
Switchgrass

Instability in oil-producing countries like Libya has precipitated a sharp rise in oil prices. This means primarily two things: more pennies at the pump for gasoline, and an increase in cost on everything from bottled water to a loaf of bread.

Finding a way to make fuel out of anything other than petroleum has been a singular fascination for many scientists. Recently, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's BioEnergy Science Center (BESC) have succeeded in producing isobutanol (a higher grade of alcohol than ethanol that can be burned in regular car engines) directly from cellulosic plant matter, such as corn stover and switchgrass, using bacteria. The breakthrough means that the formerly multi-stage process of converting biomass to fuel has been simplified to a single step; and that a cheap, eco-friendly alternative to corn ethanol is now within reach.

"Unlike ethanol, isobutanol can be blended at any ratio with gasoline and should eliminate the need for dedicated infrastructure in tanks or vehicles," said James Liao, chancellor's professor and vice chair of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science and leader of the research team. "Plus, it may be possible to use isobutanol directly in current engines without modification." (via Gizmag)

Bringing this to scale will, of course, be no easy task. Fighting an entrenched petroleum economy and the heavily subsidized corn ethanol industry is more than daunting. However, such new technologies might be the best, and most environmentally sound, chance we have to combat runaway fuel costs.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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