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.
@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.
@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.
Alex, I keep having the same experience, finding and writing about these new discoveries and/or possible technologies. That's especially true since I've been a sci-fi fan since age 11. The future is here.
becksint, thanks for the feedback from another part of the world. It's certainly an alternative to biodegrading without managed composting, which is what would happen eventually to waste plant material that gets dumped. JIm, the point of using renewable resources like plant material for manufacturing plastics or fuels is to replace the ones we're either running out of and/or that are toxic, such as coal and petroleum. Of course, if we decided we didn't need so much fuel, or could somehow make it out of solar and wind sources, then we could just leave all that plant material to biodegrade. I do wonder what happens if we start diverting huge amounts of plant material from ecosystems that depend on them to produce things like food and water.
Thanks, Ann. Those two wow's make sense. I would imagine the wood, branches, etc. would be waste, thus this technology would recycle them. I would also guess this waste would be less expensive simply because it's waste and doesn't cost $108 a barrel before processing.
Rob, this is a discovery with two major "wow"s: 1) basically a "it's not made from food crops and doesn't compete with them for agricultural land" alternative, which we've already seen in some bioplastics. But at least as important, it's also different because instead of multiple steps to go from plants to oil, there's only 1 (or 2, depending on how you count). So it's more efficient, therefore less expensive and faster.
Overall, seems like a step into a science fiction movie.If I follow the chemistry correctly, the big deal is the creation of engineered resins from a renewable natural resource.But on the down side, it seems like science has morphed an entity that was once biodegradable, and stabilized it such that it will never decompose. I guess like everything, it's a knife that cuts both ways.
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.
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