Editorial Feature

Can We Make Fuel Out of Anything?

Accelerated fuel consumption is coinicding with its ever growing shortage and it is important as it has ever been to be researching and producing alternative methods to fuel without creating a negative impact to the environment.

Researchers are looking at any material that is capable of releasing energy when its chemical or physical structure is altered, releasing energy only when required and can be controlled and utilized. Fossil fuels are still most common which comprise of hydrocarbons, such as coal and petroleum.

In the last decade or so, scientists have been researching alternative means of fuel, as fossil fuels are depleting at an accelrating rate. Major economies want to become fuel-self-sufficient and be the first player to produce large-scale alternative fuel.

Fuel from Air

Air Fuel Synthesis, a small UK company, claims to have created fuel from air. The company was able to produce 5L of fuel by combining carbon dioxide, which is extracted from air, with hydrogen from water to form a basic hydrocarbon, thus forming the important ingredient of gasoline.

Field experts have monitored the progress of this innovation with enthusiasm and some state that it looks and smells like petrol. It is even a cleaner form of fuel than petrol derived from fossil oil.

The prototype system still requires tweaking in order to operate on a large scale.

Fuel from ‘Plants’

Nature has inspired some researchers from Glasgow University to create a special kind of 'leaf' that could be used to make liquid fuel. Leaves use energy from the sun, and convert it into food using photosynthesis. Similarly, researchers aim to make this leaf absorb solar energy (electricity also), and convert it into fuel.

It would consist of a tank filled with water containing genetically modified bacteria. The idea is to make the unit function in the same way as natural photosynthesis in plants.

The fuel from the special leaf is likely to produce carbon dioxide when burnt, but the quantity would be much lesser than that produced when fossil fuels are burnt. Thus if this project becomes a success, it would aid in reducing greenhouse gases and climate change.

The team is headed by Professor Richard Cogdell, and they plan to have this project completed in a few years.

Fuel from Sea Water

U.S. Naval Research Laboratory claims to be close to creating jet fuel from seawater. They have been conducting several tests, where carbon dioxide is extracted to produce hydrogen gas from seawater. The most important aspect of their research is turning carbon dioxide and hydrogen into hydrocarbons that can then be used to develop jet fuel stock.

The aim for developing this alternative fuel is to provide energy security and independence for the navy, as it can produce its own fuel from seawater and not have to rely on risky fuel transfers.

John Kanzius created a radio frequency generator (RFG), which could generate radio waves that could be focused into a concentrated area.

While conducting tests for another issue, he realized that the RFG could make water condense, which meant that it could be used to separate salt from seawater. This gave him an idea to use it to create a desalination unit. However, he discovered yet another phenomenon. When he aimed the RFG at a test tube filled with seawater, it sparked.

Penn State University chemists took over the RFG to prove Kanzius findings, and found it to be true. Their test results revealed that the RFG could ignite and burn salt water, and the flame could reach very high temperatures and burn till the RFG was aimed at it.

The key to the whole discovery was with hydrogen. Salt water has a stable composition of sodium chloride, hydrogen, and oxygen, which is disturbed by radio waves from Kanzius' RFG, thereby degrading the bonds that hold chemicals in salt water together, causing a release of volatile hydrogen molecules. The heat output from the RFG ignites the
molecules and burns them indefinitely.

Fuel from Waste

Fuel from waste is generally referred to as biogas. Biogas is gas produced by breaking down organic matter in the absence of oxygen. It has been proved that organic waste such as dead plant, animal material, kitchen waste, and even animal faeces, can be converted into a gaseous fuel.

UK's Institute of Food Research (IFR) has launched a Biorefinery Centre to conduct research to use waste plant material from food processing and agriculture to produce fuel.

A 'steam explosion pilot plant' is used to breakdown plant cell walls and extract useful natural products. It will help modify biomass using a thermal/hydrolysis process.

This will weaken and rupture the cell walls of the plant material. They will extract sugars locked into the cell walls of straw and woody plants by lignin. Then these sugars can be treated with enzymes and fermented with yeast to produce bio-alcohol. Once this stage is completed, the bio-alcohol can be tested and converted into transport fuel.

The Biorefinery Centre is linked up with Lotus, a global automotive engineering consultancy company, which conducts research into sustainable future fuels in its bi-fuel and tri-fuel engines.

Lotus will take over the second part of the project. Dr Richard Pearson, a senior technical specialist at Lotus believes that any type of alcohol can be converted into a fuel for a car if it is optimized and provided performance upgrade.

Summary

Although all these research studies are still confined to labs and require further research and years of development. Alternative fuels from practically anything is a definite possibility in the future and is also a plausible solution to the ever-increasing fuel needs.

Sources and Further Reading

Kris Walker

Written by

Kris Walker

Kris has a BA(hons) in Media & Performance from the University of Salford. Aside from overseeing the editorial and video teams, Kris can be found in far flung corners of the world capturing the story behind the science on behalf of our clients. Outside of work, Kris is finally seeing a return on 25 years of hurt supporting Manchester City.

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