Biofuel crops (photo: Texas A&M University biofuels research alliance)Enlarge Photo
Plant-based diesel has been available for many years now but making a true gasoline-like hydrocarbon from plant oils has proven a lot more difficult.
Chemists at the University of California, Davis think they've cracked it, though, using a new technique to make "biogasoline" from plant waste.
Biodiesel will be familiar to many readers, increasingly touted as an alternative to fossil fuel-based diesel fuels.
It's proven much easier until now to form a diesel-like fuel, with long, straight hydrocarbon chains, from plant-based oils. The fuel is chemically very similar to that of regular diesel.
Doing similar with gasoline's shorter, branched chains of carbon atoms has proven difficult, but UC Davis has figured out a method that doesn't rely on the typical fermentation process used to make plant-based ethanol fuels.
Because the new fuel is as volatile as regular fossil gasoline, it burns in the same way--yet has all the usual advantages of biofuels, such as a lower carbon footprint and the option to make the fuel from waste products.
The fuel could be made from farm and forestry waste, using a feedstock known as levulinic acid--produced by chemical processing of materials like straw, corn stalks or municipal green waste.
Mark Mascal, professor of chemistry at UC Davis and lead author on the research paper, suggests that any cellulosic material could be used, due to the new processing method.
"It's a cheap and practical starting point that can be produced from raw biomass with high yield," he adds.
UC Davis has already filed provisional patents on the new process.
As ever, such processes may be some years from being commercialized. But if the new process proves successful on larger scales, it could provide us with yet another means of replacing fossil fuels where required--so it's certainly one to keep an eye on.