George Huber poses with a vial of green gasoline compounds.

Photo courtesy of Ben Barnhart

Researchers have made an advance in the development of “green gasoline,” a liquid identical to standard gasoline that is created from biomass sources like switchgrass and poplar trees, according to the National Science Foundation (NSF, www.nsf.gov).

Reporting in the cover article of the April 7, 2008 issue of Chemistry & Sustainability, Energy & Materials (ChemSusChem), chemical engineer and National Science Foundation (NSF, www.nsf.gov) CAREER awardee George Huber of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst (UMass, www.umass.edu) and his graduate students Torren Carlson and Tushar Vispute announced the first direct conversion of plant cellulose into gasoline components.

In the same issue, James Dumesic and colleagues from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (www.wisc.edu) announce an integrated process for creating chemical components of jet fuel using a green gasoline approach. While Dumesic”s group had previously demonstrated the production of jet-fuel components using separate steps, their current work shows that the steps can be integrated and run sequentially, without complex separation and purification processes between reactors.

While it may be five to 10 years before green gasoline arrives at the pump or finds its way into a fighter jet, these breakthroughs have bypassed significant hurdles to bringing green gasoline biofuels to market, according to NSF.

For their new approach, the UMass researchers rapidly heated cellulose in the presence of solid catalysts, materials that speed up reactions without sacrificing themselves in the process. They then rapidly cooled the products to create a liquid that contains many of the compounds found in gasoline.

The entire process was completed in under two minutes using relatively moderate amounts of heat. The compounds that formed in that single step, like naphthalene and toluene, make up one fourth of the suite of chemicals found in gasoline. The liquid can be further treated to form the remaining fuel components or can be used “as is” for a high-octane gasoline blend.

To read the NSF’s full report on this story, click here.

To read a report sponsored by NSF, the Department of Energy, and the American Chemical Society entitled “Breaking the Chemical and Engineering Barriers to Lignocellulosic Biofuels: Next Generation Hydrocarbon Biorefineries,” visit www.ecs.umass.edu/biofuels/.