Image: Rishabh Mishra/CC
This is your mission, should you choose to accept it: you are a biofuels researcher, diligently seeking a solution that can take mankind into the post-industrial revolution, an era of alternative fuels that are both sustainable and practical. You will probably spend a year developing a scalable synthetic pathway for your new biodiesel. Then you will put it to the test: what comes out of the tailpipe when combusting the novel biofuel?
Will your hopes be dashed by learning that your biofuel breaks down into toxic, environmentally harmful bits? Or will you be the hero that finds a clean-burning miracle fuel? But wait! There is news out of Copenhagen that could save you years of trial and error, putting you on the right path from day one.
An article published in the The Journal of Physical Chemistry A, under the weighty title "Atmospheric Chemistry of Two Biodiesel Model Compounds: Methyl Propionate and Ethyl Acetate" announces a serendipitous result. A team of scientists working at the Copenhagen Center for Atmospheric Research (CCAR), at the University
of Copenhagen, set out to study the breakdown of large molecules in the atmosphere.
The group took, as its starting point, data some colleagues at the University of Copenhagen had generated on two biofuels. That is where serendipity stepped in, another demonstration of the beauty of the scientific method, which often finds the most interesting results from mistakes. As team correspondant Solvejg Jorgensen puts it:
I accidentally based my calculations on the wrong molecule, so I had to start over with the right one. This meant I had two different calculations to compare. These should have been almost identical but they were worlds apart. That's when I knew I was on to something important.
What the group discovered was a method for calculating the chemical pathways a molecule will choose as it breaks down into smaller parts. It is breaking into smaller parts that releases the stored energy in the fuel, so this is an important aspect of the life cycle of a fuel; additionally, the smaller molecules released at the tailpipe break down in the atmosphere.
Now, scientists will be able to calculate in a couple of days how a specific molecule will behave. Before the time-consuming questions of synthesis, scale-up, and economic viability enter the picture, the optimal biofuel solutions can be determined. This research can only help in finding the right solution -- before it is too late.
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