Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, have identified that sugarcane biomass could be used as aviation fuel. In an environmental impact analysis, it is suggested that it would lead to a reduction of up to 80 percent in greenhouse gas emissions. With sugarcane being able to grow on marginal, low-yield land, there is no need to replace existing food crops. The paper was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
To reduce global dependence on petroleum and mitigate the harmful effects of climate change, numerous research groups have developed methods for producing bio-based car and truck fuels, and various types of chemicals. Stringent specifications for aviation fuels, however, have limited researchers’ success in producing those products from biological sources, wrote C&EN.
“We’ve identified a new route of chemistry with its source from sugars in sugarcane, plus some of the so-called waste material called bagasse,” co-author Alexis Bell told the BBC. “We show in this paper how we can put these components together to make jet diesel and lubricants.”
Aviation fuels have to be free of oxygen, be stable in extremely low temperatures (-40°F range), have the right boiling point, and have a degree of lubrication. The other problem with using plant matter as a fuel source is converting crop land for the use of fuel, and this is why the team chose sugarcane.
“Our sponsors, BP, have encouraged us to apply for a patent, which we have, on this technology,” Bell revealed. “Where they see the likely commercial interest for themselves and others is that the lubricants would be first as the profit margins are largest, next would be aviation fuel because of the growing US and European regulations requiring a ‘green’ component of aviation fuel.”
According to Science Alert, the first commercial flight partly powered by biofuel was back in February 2008, but interest in greener fuel has waned over concerns that the production of the necessary crops would increase strain on worldwide food production.
The sugarcane fuel developed by Bell and his colleagues avoids that problem.
“If, for example, we were to use sugar beet instead of sugarcane, then there would be a potential conflict over fuel versus food,” Bell explains. “By using sugarcane, particularly in Brazil, on land that is not used for agriculture, we escape that conundrum.”
The process involves separating out the sucrose in sugarcane, which is then used to derive methyl ketones that serve as building blocks for the fuel that is eventually produced. The same method, the researchers report, can also be used to create lubricants for use in automobiles and diesel fuel, wrote PHYS ORG.
Xinhe Bao, a catalysis research group leader at China’s Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics, said the study provides “a viable strategy for sustainable production of jet fuels and lubricant oils in a sugarcane refinery.”
At the University of Wisconsin, James A. Dumesic, a biomass conversion specialist, said not only is the process efficient, but it’s also industrially scalable. He adds: “This work offers important guidelines to scientists for future research, as well as insight to policymakers.”
It’s a win-win all around.