Scientists Develop Efficient Method For Creating Biofuels

A research team has developed a cost-effective way to extract biofuel from renewable sources that could lower their cost and make them a viable alternative to fossil fuels for haulage, shipping and aviation.

The Livingston Group at Imperial College London has developed a system which uses an ultra-thin membrane to extract biofuel from organic matter in a way that is far more efficient than currently used methods.

This efficiency will reduce the cost of the entire process of producing biofuels, which will as a consequence lower the cost of biofuels to make them affordable on an industrial level.

The Problem Of Cost

Three of the most polluting industries in the world are haulage, shipping and aviation, and the primary reason for this is that the cheapest fuels that are available are heavy oil fuels. These fuels are more polluting than biofuels or other energy sources.

Unlike with other industries, it has been difficult to create feasible alternatives that have less of an environmental cost. Whilst, for example, oxy-fuel cutters were replaced with more efficient plasma cutting services, the same process has not happened in transport.

Reducing the cost of producing less-polluting fuels makes them more viable for long-distance transport, which is where this new discovery comes in.

Transforming Plants Into Petrol

Biofuels are made from biomass (such as wood, corn and sugar cane) which is fermented through the use of enzymes and microorganisms. Fuel is then taken out of this fermented solution using an extractant liquid.

The problem is that the resulting biofuel and the extractant liquid is toxic to the microorganisms needed to make the process work, which makes biofuel production less efficient.

The solution found by the Livingston Group was to use a very thin membrane film which allows only the biofuel to travel through it and stops water and extractant getting through.

This method managed to protect the important microorganisms, which made this production method ten times more efficient compared to conventional techniques.

After some further tests using extractant solvents, they found that a membrane which used a 2-ethyl-1-hexanol extractant formula would make the whole process use less than a quarter of the energy of a conventional recovery system.

The next step after this is to create a large-scale study of the process and seek further refinements of biofuel continuous recovery.

The Complication Of Transport

There are other alternatives to biofuel being developed, such as more efficient and longer-lasting batteries and hydrogen fuel cells. However, long-distance transportation provides its own unique challenges that make electric long-distance vehicles less viable.

Biofuel offers a solution to this by not having the same issues with capacity and is also compatible with existing combustion engines, not requiring significant adaptation of existing transportation.

Once adopted at a wide scale, it remains to be seen if the cost reductions that could be found by making biofuel production more efficient will be enough to create a wide-scale shift, particularly in the wake of advances in hydrogen fuel production and capacity.