New and better catalysts could be the key to unlocking the potential biofuel locked up in biomass. This article from the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory says scientists at the lab’s Institute for Atom-Efficient Chemical Transformations (IACT) for the past four years have been looking at how to improve the efficiency and selectivity of catalysts:
IACT was originally founded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) in 2009 as a special Energy Frontier Research Center (EFRC), in which scientists from both academic institutions and government labs were asked to team up to discover better ways of converting biomass – plant sugars from corn or sugarcane – into combustible diesel fuel, jet fuel or gasoline.
“While catalysts are used in a countless number of manufacturing and industrial processes, we wanted to focus on biofuels because they provide a challenging platform on which to work,” [Argonne chemist Chris] Marshall said. “The point of the EFRCs is to focus on some of the most important scientific problems we face today.”
In order to successfully convert biomass into fuel, Marshall and his colleagues have developed a roadmap of chemical reactions. Each of these reactions requires either a different catalytic material or a different set of reaction conditions to work effectively.
“The problem with biomass is that it’s loaded with oxygen, while the fuels we’re trying to create are much more oxygen-poor and hydrogen-rich,” Marshall said. “Hydrogen is an expensive commodity; if we’re going to use it, we need to use it judiciously.”
The most daunting task for the scientists is to improve the catalysts’ selectivity, while increasing the lifespan of these workhorses of biomass conversion. One discovery that is helping is a technique called “overcoating,” in which a dome-like sheath of protective material is added on top of the metal catalyst. Using a method known as atomic layer deposition (ALD), researchers are able to deposit extremely thin and uniform sheets of material on different surfaces, just a few atoms thick. They hope eventually to expand the process into biological molecules.