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From Gasoline to Biomass Fuel Using Non-food Crops

Years ago, a gasoline company advertised that their fuel would “put a tiger in your tank.” Drivers then were excited about harnessing that image of strength and stamina for speed and driving efficiency. Today’s drivers are equally as concerned about power and efficiency, but they also worry that fossil fuels are a finite supply and carry an environmental cost that could affect future generations. These are the same reasons that researchers at Notre Dame believe it’s time to harness the power of renewable energy sources to fuel vehicles — power that can be found in biomass (dried woody plant matter). For example, the heterogeneous catalysis research that Jason Hicks, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, is conducting could lead to swapping that tiger for a “tree in the tank.” Trees are just one possible source for biomass that could be used to create a fuel that offers sustainability benefits with no loss in performance.

According to Hicks, having a sustainable, renewable source of fuel is essential to industry, transportation, and the American way of life. It also impacts national security by reducing dependence on foreign fuel sources. Typical choices for renewable energy — wind, solar power, and hydroelectric power — all have a role to play in the national energy portfolio, but they cannot be used to fuel a vehicle without first redesigning the engine. Biomass, on the other hand, can be made into a fuel that can propel a conventional car or truck — no redesign needed. 

There is, however, work to be done to efficiently convert plant matter to fuel. Hicks says the effective conversion of plant matter to fuel depends upon being able to cleave the C-O bonds in biomass. This crucial step is a focus of his group. Hicks and his team are developing catalysts that are not only capable of selectively cleaving these bonds but are also “tunable” in that they can be designed to target other important biomass conversion reactions, garnering more out of each gallon of “fuel” created.

While corn based crops have been used in the past, Hicks and his group are concentrating on non-food related crops, fast-growing plants, such as grasses or trees, that could be cultivated on fallow lands unsuitable for food crops. Processing facilities would also need to be constructed in rural areas, close to where the plants are being grown; this construction could add jobs — in technical areas as well as in distribution and logistics — in addition to any new jobs in the agricultural sector. It is a small step toward the production of cleaner, sustainable energy but one that uses readily available materials and engine designs, so it could likely be a quicker, more accessible switch … from gasoline to biomass fuel … in order to power vehicles for this and future generations.