A new research paper involving researchers from North Carolina State University (NC State) offers insights into how biofuel chemicals react when burned. The study, “Biofuel combustion chemistry: from ethanol to biodiesel,” was conducted as an effort to help pave the way for the development of new biofuels and technologies to maximize energy efficiency while minimizing environmental and human health risks. It was featured in the May 3, 2010 issue of “Angewandte Chemie,” and was co-authored by researchers from NC State, Bielefeld University in Germany, Cornell University, Sandia National Laboratories, the University of Science and Technology of China, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
“Biofuels are a sensible choice as a renewable energy source, but of course there are complications,” says Dr. Phillip Westmoreland, a co-author of the study, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and director of the Institute for Computational Science and Engineering at NC State. “All of the biofuels have pros and cons, and you can’t manage or plan for use and risks unless you understand them enough.”
The study was designed to help identify risks through the discovery of the network of chemical steps that take place when biofuels are burned. The basis of the paper was founded on landmark research conducted by Westermoreland and his co-authors from research institutions in the United States, Germany and China. The study incorporates information other researchers have collected about the chemicals produced when biofuels are burned, and builds upon the knowledge of how those chemicals change during the combustion process. These insights stem from the use of a novel experimental apparatus the researchers built at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a second system in Hefei, China, which provide unprecedented detail as to exactly what is happening at a molecular level when biofuels are burned.
“By studying individual chemicals that make up biofuels, we were able to explain what emissions result from burning real biofuels,” said Westermoreland. “We can measure the individual intermediates and chemical reactions, helping us craft models that reveal what chemicals are emitted, and in what amounts, by various biofuels. These models can be used to design new engines, new fuels and new policies that foster environmentally sustainable and efficient energy solutions.”
Westermoreland notes that understanding the environmental and health costs versus the energy benefits of various biofuels will help nations create better policy and regulation decisions. The research was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Army Research Office and Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, along with several other organizations.