Lower-cost alternative fuels on the horizon

Alternative fuels may be one step closer to popular use, due to the combination of two new technologies.

Biofine, a small Massachusetts company, has developed an economical method of turning paper mill waste into levulinic acid, a multipurpose chemical. With the new process, virtually any biomass waste products can be used to create the acid for as little as one-tenth the cost of current manufacturing processes.

Those cost savings are key to using a second process that creates, from levulinic acid, an important component for use in alternative fuels. DOE's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Richland, Wash., has developed the first multi-step catalytic process to convert levulinic acid to useful products, including an alternative fuel component called methyltetrahydrofuran (MTHF). MTHF can be used with ethanol and natural gas liquids to create a cleaner burning fuel for cars and trucks that produces less air pollution than petroleum-based gasoline.

"Our system incorporates multiple chemical reaction steps into one process and creates higher yields than previously available," said Doug Elliott of Pacific Northwest's chemical process development group. The catalytic process produces about 110 gallons of alternative fuel component for every 100 gallons of levulinic acid.

The process is conducted at elevated temperatures and pressures inside a continuous flow reactor. The levulinic acid is mixed with hydrogen. Next, both compounds are pumped through a reactor filled with a catalyst where a series of chemical reactions occur at 464° F and 100 atmospheres of pressure to create MTHF.

"In the near future, the technology will be expanded to produce levulinic acid from other organic wastes, such as straw, as well as producing a variety of other chemical products, such as solvents, herbicides and plastics," said Dennis Stiles, manager of agriculture and food processing technology programs at Pacific Northwest.

For more information, call 1-888-375-PNNL or e-mail inquiry@pnl.gov.

This article originally appeared in the November, 1999 issue of Environmental Protection magazine, Vol. 10, Number 11, p. 8.

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/1999 issue of Environmental Protection.

About the Author

Gerald F. Connell, ChE is a consultant, retired after 30 years with Capital Controls Group, Severn Trent Service Inc., Colmar, Pa. Mr. Connell is author of "The Chlorination/Chloramination Handbook," published by the American Water Works, and a forthcoming "Chlorination/Dechlorination Handbook" to be published by WEF.

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