Scientists Seek New Ways to Produce Biofuel

Fermenting corn can make ethanol and vegetable oil can become biodiesel — but what other roads lead to biofuel? Researchers discuss investigations into innovative ways to harvest energy from plant materials, including gasoline-like chemicals and hydrogen production.

George Huber, of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, reports that using the right combination of catalysts makes it possible to heat biological materials and produce many of the same hydrocarbons found in gasoline. Those molecules could then either be blended into ethanol, or burned directly in a high-octane fuel.

Other researchers are looking at ways to improve ethanol production. Speaking at the American Chemical Society meeting in New Orleans, Miriam Sticklen of Michigan State University described her work on engineering corn stalks to contain an enzyme normally found in the stomach of cattle. Adding the enzyme to corn stalks, the researchers say, could allow easier conversion of the woody waste parts of the corn plant into ethanol.

Percival Zhang at Virginia Tech is looking at ways to produce hydrogen gas from biomass. If the right blend of enzymes is added to a solution of starch and water, he says, "the enzymes use the energy in the starch to break up water into only carbon dioxide and hydrogen."

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