March 8, 2011

Progress toward biofuels

Thje U.S. is "on the precipice of a revolution in biofuels," says Energy Secretary Steven Chu, as he congratulated the Department's BioEnergy Science Center researchers who have achieved another advance in using bacteria to convert plant matter directly into isobutanol (IB), which can be burned in regular car engines with a heat value higher than ethanol and similar to gasoline. Isobutanol is much less prone to absorb water from the atmosphere too, so it's less corrosive toward engine parts. That's welcome news from boaters who have learned the hard way that ethanol in their outboard tanks "gums up the works."

A new industry from bio-material such as wheat and rice straw, corn stover (what's left after the corn harvest), lumber wastes, and plants specifically developed for bio-fuel production sounds like a win-win for both the economy and the environment. And a welcome change to the continuing production of ethanol from corn fields--especially at a time when more Americans are going to bed hungry. Not to mention the loud call from many for hydrofracking for natural gas. However, the question of scale remains. How much and how soon?

Producing isobutanol (get used to that term) directly from cellulose soundfs like less fertilizer use too.

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