Plant waste, consisting of wood-like biomass, such as branches, plant stalks, and pruning waste, is converted at high temperature into synthesis gas. Next, a one-step process flows the gas over the catalyst and produces lower olefins, which are building blocks that can be used to make plastics and other substances such as biopaints and biopharmaceuticals. "The products are exactly the same, only they are made of pruning waste instead of petroleum," said research team leader Utrecht University professor Krijn de Jong in a press release. Because they are chemically identical with petroleum-based products, the building blocks will not be biodegradable.
A new catalyst consisting of iron nanospheres (dark areas) converts gas generated from plant waste into biofuel and bioplastic building blocks in a single step. (Source: Hirsa M. Torres Galvis, Utrecht University.)
Other technologies for fabricating products of the same quality primarily from plant waste have existed for some time. But the process involved so many steps that these technologies were not efficient or economical enough to be used on a large scale, said de Jong. Utrecht University team members also include professor Harry Bitter and doctoral candidate Hirsa M. Torres Galvis in the university's inorganic chemistry and catalysis department.
Another catalyst used larger iron particles, typically 500 nanometers in diameter, which were clustered together. This process was not very efficient and produced large amounts of methane as a byproduct. The research team's success came in part from reducing the size of the iron nanoparticles to 20 nanometers in diameter and spacing them evenly.
@William K.: To say that the existence of fossil fuels justifies using them -- at rates which astronomically outpace their rates of natural replenishment -- without regard for the environmental consequences is kind of like saying that the existence of beer justifies being an alcoholic.
Nature has also blessed the Earth with an abundance of arsenic, lead, cadmium, and other toxic metals. I don't think that means that we ought to feed them to our kids.
I'd also say that being able to do in a matter of hours or minutes what nature takes millions of years to do (namely, converting biomass into hydrocarbons) is a pretty significant accomplishment.
Converting biomass into syngas, and converting syngas into hydrocarbons via a Fischer-Tropsch process, are not new things. What's new here is a more efficient catalyst, which might allow this to be done much more economically.
In a related development, the University of Minnesota has developed a new catalyst for the first step of the process (converting biomass into syngas). Bringing these two technologies together might make the production of hydrocarbons from biomass fairly simple and cheap -- eventually, maybe even cheaper than extracting them from geological sources.
@Dave Palmer, I find it difficult to take your comment seriously when your avatar is of an iron smelter. Transforming iron oxide into iron and steel using mixtures of toxic iron, aluminum, bismuth, boron, chromium, copper, lead, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, silicon, sulfur, titanium, tungsten, and vanadium and then shaping that steel into tanks, swords, missiles, and knives...
It's amazing how those evil scientists and engineers take what Nature has made and turn it into killing machines.
Dave, thanks for a good laugh--the beer and the alcoholic. Just because a substance exists on our planet--thereby making it not alien (we think--although that's a relative term over the really long haul, like the universe's age of 14 billion years)--anyway, just because a "local" substance is local, doesn't make it not poison in certain forms and for certain uses. And that's just considering the health issues, not the economic issues.
Thanks for the U of MN info. Writing this article made me wonder what anyone is doing to improve the first step, and there's an answer.
@williamlweaver: It's not anti-technology or anti-industry to support responsible use of natural resources. It's just common sense. I've seen what happens when companies don't consider their impact on the environment, and it's not pretty.
To extend the analogy, I don't see anything wrong with drinking few beers now and then, but somebody who get completely wasted every night has a problem, and somebody who gets wasted and then gets behind the wheel of a car is a danger to others.
If I thought there was anything wrong with taking the materials nature has provided us with and using them to improve our quality of life, I wouldn't be in the line of work I'm in. But we need to do so in a responsible way -- otherwise our quality of life will suffer in the end.
But, yeah, as a matter of fact, I do have moral qualms about doing certain military work. As a practicing Catholic, I take the fifth commandment and the Sermon on the Mount very seriously, so I don't agree with the enormous sums of money our society dedicates to warfare. (That's not to say I think we shouldn't have a military, just that our military spending is out of control). That's why I chose to work in civilian industry, while many of my former classmates are making much more money working for military contractors.
Good points, Dave. I particularly appreciate your moral comments regarding the military. I believe in a strong military, but its seems pretty clear ours has become much larger than it needs to be. Not so much in personnel, but in the number of bases and the contracts with military contractors. Eisenhower warned us about it, and he was right.
Rob, Eisenhower told us to beware the military-industrial complex. Perhaps he should have said the political-military-industrial complex. I'm used to writing about military apps and I happen to be a student of (ancient) military history. But I'm not at all thrilled with what our modern military does to its soldiers, or what it lets its contractors get away with. These days, though, I'm at least as unhappy with our politicians.
@Dave Palmer: I'm one of those military contractors turned educator. My view on technology and warfare is summarized nicely in Star Trek Episode #77 "The Savage Curtain". From Wikipedia - With the fight over, the Excalbian reappears and announces that while evil retreats when confronted with force, there is no great difference otherwise between the two philosophies [good and evil]. At which point Kirk states that the representatives of evil were motivated by a desire for power, while the good side was offered the lives of the Enterprise crew, implying that it is not the methods but the ends that distinguish good and evil.
What if more abundant oil lowers the price of gasoline, which frees up more money for basic research, which leads to the discovery of efficient solar power, safe cold fusion from hydrogen, and revolutions in genetic research that cures all genetic disease in children? Or we can continue to in-fight over the redistribution of limited resources as we continue to intentionally reduce the amount of resources we have to redistribute.
Show me how the Clean Air Act of 1970 has increased the amount of pollution from industry in the United States. Nobody wants to work at a factory that poisons the environment in which their family and children live. To say we do not have the innovation necessary to utilize natural resources responsibly is to suggest that we do not have the innovation necessary to go to the moon or build a self-driving automobile. Regulations that Define Problems are good. Regulations that Control How People Must Solve Problems are evil -- as we innovate new solutions, Regulations that Control can never keep up.
@williamlweaver: I don't think anyone is saying that the Clean Air Act increased the amount of pollution in the United States, and I'm not quite sure where you're coming from with that comment. I also don't think anyone is saying that we don't have the innovation necessary to use our natural resources responsibly -- in fact, this article shows that we do.
I also think that increased drilling for oil is far more likely to lead to increased profits for oil companies than to the discovery of cold fusion or an end to all disease. (And if it doesn't lead to increased profits for oil companies, you can be sure they won't do it).
By the way, I like Star Trek, too, although my views on warfare are closer to Episode 26, "Errand of Mercy." I suspect there are probably very few places other than engineering forums where people can express their views on important issues by reference to Star Trek episodes and expect to be understood.
By experimenting with the photovoltaic reaction in solar cells, researchers at MIT have made a breakthrough in energy efficiency that significantly pushes the boundaries of current commercial cells on the market.
In a world that's going green, industrial operations have a problem: Their processes involve materials that are potentially toxic, flammable, corrosive, or reactive. If improperly managed, this can precipitate dangerous health and environmental consequences.
A quick look into the merger of two powerhouse 3D printing OEMs and the new leader in rapid prototyping solutions, Stratasys. The industrial revolution is now led by 3D printing and engineers are given the opportunity to fully maximize their design capabilities, reduce their time-to-market and functionally test prototypes cheaper, faster and easier. Bruce Bradshaw, Director of Marketing in North America, will explore the large product offering and variety of materials that will help CAD designers articulate their product design with actual, physical prototypes. This broadcast will dive deep into technical information including application specific stories from real world customers and their experiences with 3D printing. 3D Printing is