May 28, 2013 - One of the most prevalent issues with expanding the use of biofuels is the fact that the cost of its production is too high to realistically compete with traditional petrochemicals and fuels.
However, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)'s Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) developed a new way to pre-treat cellulosic biomass using liquid salts – known as ionic liquids. With these liquids, none of the expensive enzymes commonly used are required, and the process of recovering the sugars becomes more efficient and less intensive.
According to Blake Simmons, a chemical engineer who heads the DOE's JBEI Deconstruction Division, the research was motivated by the need to process multiple types of biomass at once. "Currently, most of the technologies available are limited in the range of biomass they can process, and this puts a limit on where biorefineries can be located and what they can convert into biofuels."
The pre-treatment process is relatively simple, he says. "Simply mix the ionic liquids and the biomass together, heat it up to around the boiling point of water for a couple of hours, and then recover the product."
With the new pre-treatment method resulting in no loss of performance or efficiency, as well using less water and the ability to utilize a wider range of biomass than more conventional methods, the prospective benefits are huge. "This opens the door to developing a conversion technology that can convert the full range of biomass types available in the local area on a year-round basis," added Simmons.
If done properly and cost-effectively, the production of these advanced biofuels, created from the sugars contained within cellulosic biomass, could be directly added to today's engines and infrastructure without impacting performance.
The next step in this research, says Simmons, is to further evaluate the various biomass blends in the U.S. and work with the Idaho National Laboratory to investigate using of municipal solid waste as a blending agent in mixed feedstocks.