Posted in | Biofuels

Novel Chemical Process for Converting Cellulose from Plants into Gasoline

Bioscience engineers from KU Leuven already knew how to produce gasoline in the laboratory using plant waste like sawdust. Now they have created a roadmap for industrial cellulose gasoline.

(Image credit: KU Leuven, Joris Snaet)

At KU Leuven’s Center for Surface Chemistry and Catalysis, in 2014, scientists successfully transformed sawdust into building blocks for gasoline. A chemical process rendered it feasible to transform the cellulose, the principal component of plant fibers, in the sawdust into hydrocarbon chains. It would be possible to use these hydrocarbons as an additive in gasoline. The ensuing cellulose gasoline is a second-generation biofuel, explained Professor Bert Sels. “We start with plant waste and use a chemical process to make a product that is a perfect replica of its petrochemical counterpart. In the end product, you can only tell the difference between our product and fossil gasoline using carbon dating.”

To achieve this form of bio-refining, the scientists developed a chemical reactor in their lab, using which they can synthesize cellulose gasoline on a small scale.

But the question remained how the industry can integrate this and could produce it in large quantities. Our researcher, Aron Deneyer, has now investigated this. He examined in which section of the existing petroleum refining process the cellulose is best added to the petroleum to obtain a strongly bio-sourced gasoline. In other words, we now have a ready-to-use recipe for cellulose gasoline that the industry can apply directly: without loss of quality for the gasoline and making maximum use of existing installations.

Professor Bert Sels, KU Leuven

Professor Sels reiterated that cellulose gasoline should be considered as a transitional phase. “The cellulose is still mixed with petroleum: this gasoline will never be sourced 100 per cent from renewable raw materials. Current consumption is too high to produce all gasoline from plant waste. However, our product does already offer the possibility of using greener gasoline while a large proportion of the vehicles on our roads still run on liquid fuel. In the future, we will remain dependent on liquid fuels, albeit to a lesser extent, and then they may indeed be fully bio-based. We suspect that the industry will show interest in this process.”

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