Researchers develop more powerful biofuel alternative to ubiquitous Ethanol

DOE-based research cold offer cheaper alternative to Ethanol

Researchers say they have developed a method of using bacteria to convert decaying grass directly into a compound known as  isobutanol, which can be burned in regular car engines with a heat value higher than ethanol but similar to gasoline.

The research could mean great savings in processing costs and time, plus isobutanol is a higher grade of alcohol than ethanol, according to the Department of Energy's BioEnergy Science Center (BESC) and its Oak Ridge National Laboratory where the research is being done.  Using a bio break-down method known as consolidated bioprocessing, a research team led by James Liao of the University of California at Los Angeles for the first time produced isobutanol directly from cellulose, the DOE said in a release.

More on energy:  10 hot energy projects that could electrify the world  

"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. "Plus, it may be possible to use isobutanol directly in current engines without modification."

Compared to ethanol, higher alcohols such as isobutanol are better candidates for gasoline replacement because they have an energy density, octane value and Reid vapor pressure - a measurement of volatility - that is much closer to gasoline, Liao said in a statement.

You can read the paper, "Metabolic Engineering of Clostridium Cellulolyticum for Isobutanol Production from Cellulose," here.

The DOE late last year offered up $30 million for research projects that would develop advanced biofuels that could replace gasoline or diesel without requiring special upgrades or changes to the vehicle or fueling infrastructure.  The $30 million would be spent over the next four years to support as many as five "traditionally high-risk biofuels projects," such as converting biomass into biofuels and bioproducts to be eventually used for hydrocarbon fuels and chemicals.

From the DOE: " The projects will focus on optimizing and integrating process steps that convert biomass into biofuels and bioproducts that will eventually be used to support hydrocarbon fuels and chemicals.  These process improvements could include pretreatment methods that alter the biomass to improve the yield of sugars in subsequent process steps, less costly and more efficient enzymes that produce sugars, and fermentation organisms and catalysts that convert the sugars into fuel and chemical intermediates."

According to the DOE, government investment in developing Ethanol-based fuel alternatives has been critical to developing those fuels. What the DOE hopes to do now is expand beyond Ethanol development.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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