The burning of petroleum (and other fossil fuels) is a primary contributor to the increase of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere. Burning of plant material, on the other hand, does not increase the concentration of CO2, because the carbon in the plant came from the atmosphere in the first place, through the process of photosynthesis. If we could use plants to fuel our cars and factories, we would greatly reduce the amount of CO2 that we produce. This has been the impetus for using biodiesel and corn- or soy-derived ethanol as fuels.
Ethanol production hasn’t proven to be as environmentally-friendly as proponents had hoped, and researchers are looking for other plant-derived gasoline alternatives.
From the National Science Foundation:
Researchers make breakthrough in creating gasoline from plant matter, with almost no carbon footprint
Researchers have made a breakthrough in the development of “green gasoline,” a liquid identical to standard gasoline yet created from sustainable biomass sources like switchgrass and poplar trees.
While it may be five to 10 years before green gasoline arrives at the pump or finds its way into a fighter jet, these breakthroughs have bypassed significant hurdles to bringing green gasoline biofuels to market.
“It is likely that the future consumer will not even know that they are putting biofuels into their car,” said Huber. “Biofuels in the future will most likely be similar in chemical composition to gasoline and diesel fuel used today. The challenge for chemical engineers is to efficiently produce liquid fuels from biomass while fitting into the existing infrastructure today.”
“Green gasoline is an attractive alternative to bioethanol since it can be used in existing engines and does not incur the 30 percent gas mileage penalty of ethanol-based flex fuel,” said John Regalbuto, who directs the Catalysis and Biocatalysis Program at NSF and supported this research.
“In theory it requires much less energy to make than ethanol, giving it a smaller carbon footprint and making it cheaper to produce,” Regalbuto said. “Making it from cellulose sources such as switchgrass or poplar trees grown as energy crops, or forest or agricultural residues such as wood chips or corn stover, solves the lifecycle greenhouse gas problem that has recently surfaced with corn ethanol and soy biodiesel.”
Beyond academic laboratories, both small businesses and Fortune 500 petroleum refiners are pursuing green gasoline. Companies are designing ways to hybridize their existing refineries to enable petroleum products including fuels, textiles, and plastics to be made from either crude oil or biomass and the military community has shown strong interest in making jet fuel and diesel from the same sources.
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