Biofuels may be a low-cost and environment-friendly alternative to costly jet fuel, according to scientists who have developed a new technology to transform lignocellulosic biomass into an aviation fuel surrogate.
A key challenge in the biofuels landscape is to get more advanced biofuels – fuels other than corn ethanol and vegetable oil-based biodiesel – into the transportation pool, researchers said.
A multi-university team lead by George Huber, Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has now developed a technology designed to transform lignocellulosic biomass into a jet fuel surrogate via catalytic chemistry.
This promising approach highlights the versatility of lignocellulose as a feedstock, researchers said.
Lignocellulosic biomass is an abundant natural resource that includes inedible portions of food crops as well as grasses, trees, and other “woody” biomass.
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Lignocellulose can be processed to yield various transportation fuels and commodity chemicals; however, current strategies are not generally cost-competitive with petroleum.
Huber’s team has now presented a comprehensive approach towards streamlining biomass processing for the production of aviation fuels.
The proposed technology hinges on efficient production of furfural and levulinic acid from sugars that are commonly present in lignocellulosic biomass.
These two compounds are then transformed into a mixture of chemicals that are indistinguishable from the primary components of petroleum – derived aviation fuels.
“Economic analysis suggests that, based on the current state of the technology, jet fuel-range hydrocarbons could be produced at a minimum selling price of USD 4.75 per gallon,” researchers said.
The work also identifies primary cost drivers and suggests that increasing efficiency in wastewater treatment and decreasing catalyst costs could reduce that amount to USD 2.88 per gallon.
The study was published in the journal Energy & Environmental Science.