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Long-lost method may turn sugar into diesel

UC BERKELEY (US) — A long-abandoned fermentation process once used to turn starch into explosives can be used to produce renewable diesel fuel, say scientists.

Chemists and chemical engineers teamed up to produce diesel fuel from the products of a bacterial fermentation discovered nearly 100 years ago by the first president of Israel, chemist Chaim Weizmann.

The retooled process produces a mix of products that contain more energy per gallon than the ethanol that is used today in transportation fuels and could be commercialized within 5-10 years.

While the fuel’s cost is still higher than diesel or gasoline made from fossil fuels, the scientists say the process would drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, one of the major contributors to global climate change.

“What I am really excited about is that this is a fundamentally different way of taking feedstocks—sugar or starch—and making all sorts of renewable things, from fuels to commodity chemicals like plastics,” says Dean Toste, professor of chemistry at University of California, Berkeley, and co-author of a report on the new development published today in Nature.

The late Weizmann’s process employs the bacterium Clostridium acetobutylicum to ferment sugars into acetone, butanol, and ethanol.

Coauthors Harvey Blanch and Douglas Clark, professors of chemical and biomolecular engineering, developed a way of extracting the acetone and butanol from the fermentation mixture while leaving most of the ethanol behind, while Toste developed a catalyst that converted this ideally-proportioned brew into a mix of long-chain hydrocarbons that resembles the combination of hydrocarbons in diesel fuel.

Tests showed that it burned about as well as normal petroleum-based diesel fuel.

“It looks very compatible with diesel, and can be blended like diesel to suit summer or winter driving conditions in different states,” says Blanch.

The process is versatile enough to use a broad range of renewable starting materials, from corn sugar (glucose) and cane sugar (sucrose) to starch, and would work with non-food feedstocks such as grass, trees, or field waste in cellulosic processes.

“You can tune the size of your hydrocarbons based on the reaction conditions to produce the lighter hydrocarbons typical of gasoline, or the longer-chain hydrocarbons in diesel, or the branched chain hydrocarbons in jet fuel,” Toste says.

From World War I to now

The fermentation process, dubbed ABE for the three chemicals produced, was discovered by Weizmann around the start of World War I in 1914, and allowed Britain to produce acetone, which was needed to manufacture cordite, used at that time as a military propellant to replace gunpowder.

The increased availability and decreased cost of petroleum soon made the process economically uncompetitive, though it was used again as a starting material for synthetic rubber during World War II. The last US factory using the process to produce acetone and butanol closed in 1965.

Nevertheless, Blanch says, the process by which the Clostridium bacteria convert sugar or starch to these three chemicals is very efficient. This led him and his laboratory to investigate ways of separating the fermentation products that would use less energy than the common method of distillation.

They discovered that several organic solvents, in particular glyceryl tributyrate (tributyrin), could extract the acetone and butanol from the fermentation broth while not extracting much ethanol. Tributyrin is not toxic to the bacterium and, like oil and water, doesn’t mix with the broth.

Blanch and Clark found that Toste had discovered a catalytic process that preferred exactly that proportion of acetone, butanol, and ethanol to produce a range of hydrocarbons, primarily ketones, which burn similarly to the alkanes found in diesel.

“The extractive fermentation process uses less than 10 percent of the energy of a conventional distillation to get the butanol and acetone out—that is the big energy savings,” says Blanch. “And the products go straight into the chemistry in the right ratios, it turns out.”

The current catalytic process uses palladium and potassium phosphate, but further research is turning up other catalysts that are as effective, but cheaper and longer-lasting, Toste says. The catalysts work by binding ethanol and butanol and converting them to aldehydes, which react with acetone to add more carbon atoms, producing longer hydrocarbons.

Clark notes that diesel produced via this process could initially supply niche markets, such as the military, but that renewable fuel standards in states such as California will eventually make biologically produced diesel financially viable, especially for trucks, trains, and other vehicles that need more power than battery alternatives can provide.

“Diesel could put Clostridium back in business, helping us to reduce global warming,” Clark says. “That is one of the main drivers behind this research.”

Coauthors of the study contributed from UC Berkeley and the energy firm BP, which funds the Energy Biosciences Institute, a collaboration among UC Berkeley, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.

Source: UC Berkeley

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4 Comments

  1. nerf herder

    If this can truly use waste material (corn stalks, sawdust, etc.) then this would be great. The fuel input would be very cheap.
    But if it requires dedicated corn or sugar cane fields, then you need to be careful about claims of CO2 savings. What a lot of people don’t realize is that a sizable part of our CO2 emissions come from farming, about as much as from transportation. According to the World Resources Institute, 22% of greenhouse gas emissions come from heating and electricity, 18% from land use change and forestry, 14% from agriculture, and just 13% from transportation.

  2. nerf herder

    Update: those numbers are for global GHG emissions.

    For the USA, it’s about 37% electricy/heating, 24% transportation, 10% “agriculture and waste”, 12% manufacturing & industry, rest is “other”.

  3. Pyrolysis System For Waste Plastic

    It is amazing to hear that technologies are now using the technique of converting sugars into fuel that can be useful for us. Because all we know that sugar is only used as sweetening agent. By these projects it can promote the new use of sugar and turning it to be a more useful one..

  4. Matt Katterman

    The idea of peforming carbon-carbon coupling reactions such as certain condensations on a group of compounds like acetone, butanol and ethanol is a novel idea and would be great for renewable fuel development in general. I am curious as to how large of an array of hydrocarbons are formed from such as process.

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