A Better Way to Make Biofuel

In the not too distant future, we may see biofuel production being primarily driven by local clusters of small reactors aggregated near sources of biomass. At least that's the hope of Lanny Schmidt, a professor of chemical engineering and materials science at the University of Minnesota, who — alongside a team of researchers — has developed a rapid and efficient to convert solid biomass directly into a mixture of gases. This mix — also known as syngas — can then be burned to produce electricity or made into liquid fuels such as diesel.

The process itself isn't too complicated: millimeter-sized particles of waste biomass come into contact with a 700 - 800°C porous surface and immediately form a mix of gases. These then interact with a catalyst made out of rhodium that expedites the partial oxidation reactions necessary to keep the system hot and convert the gases into hydrogen and carbon monoxide — which are either burned to generate electricity or turned into liquid fuels. The system only takes 70 milliseconds to break down the biomass — a rate ten times faster than other techniques used to produce syngas.The idea then would be to build a reactor that could either make ten times the amount of syngas or build a reactor one-tenth the size of conventional reactors. Having smaller reactors would help solve one of biofuel's most vexing problems: the challenge of transporting oft bulky materials such as wood waste long distances to large facilities that consume a lot of energy. Another advantage would be the cost factor: this alone could make the reactors valuable in developing economies where money and transportation are often pressing issues.

While it may prove difficult to scale up operations to make the system a viable one for larger populations — the prototype Schmidt is currently using has a catalyst bed about the size of a person's thumb — the researchers are hopeful it will form the basis of future clean technologies and help revolutionize the science of producing fuels from biomass.

Via ::Technology Review: Smaller, Cheaper Biofuel Reactors (news website)

See also: ::New Ultra-Low Emissions Combustion Technology Developed, ::Zapping Trash With Plasma Produces Clean Energy and Fuel
Image courtesy of the University of Minnesota

Tags: Biomass