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.)
@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.
More often than not, with the purchase of a sports car comes the sacrifice of any sort of utility. In other words, you can forget about a large trunk, extra seats for the kids, and more importantly driving in snowy (or inclement) weather. But what if there was a vehicle that offered the best of both worlds; great handling and practicality?
Science fiction author Isaac Asimov may have the best rules for effective brainstorming and creativity. His never-before-published essay, "On Creativity," recently made it to the Web pages of MIT Technology Review.
Much has been made over the potentially dangerous flammability of lithium-ion batteries after major companies like Boeing, Sony, and Tesla have grappled with well-publicized battery fires. Researchers at Stanford University may have come up with a solution to this problem with a smart sensor for lithium-ion batteries that provides a warning if the battery is about to overheat or catch fire.
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