MADISON (WKOW)-- The future of energy could be drastically changed by some research going on at UW-Madison. A team of more than eight researchers has discovered a possible breakthrough in biomass fuel.
Scientific breakthroughs are nothing new at UW-Madison's Engineering Hall, but rarely do they bring such great potential.
"We start de-constructing the plant material to create sugars that have lots of possibilities," postdoctoral chemical and biological engineering researcher Jeremy Luterbacher says.
Luterbacher and fellow researchers have discovered a way to basically take apart inedible plants like corn stalks, wood chips and oat hulls, to name a few. They use a process that breaks each plant down until the sugars inside start to separate.
"We've known how to convert sugars biologically for thousands of years. The obvious example is alcohol and beer and things like that," Luterbacher says.
But when these sugars are fermented they don't form alcoholic beverages. Instead there are quite literally infinite possibilities from jet-fuel to plastic wrap. This type of research is being done by several researchers across the world, but they've never created a process quite like this.
"They typically use concentrated acids, ionic liquids or enzymes and all three of those tend to be fairly costly," Luterbacher says.
Not only are they costly, but they're also terrible for the environment. The researchers at UW-Madison have discovered a process that appears to be much better. They use a solvent known as GVL to separate the sugars more cost effectively and with less environmental impact. Plus with their process the solvent can be taken out and re-used over and over again.
"You have a solvent that allows you to get high yields of sugars and the bi-products that are not sugars actually make more solvent," UW Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering Jim Dumesic says. "The process kind of fits together in a unified way."
Holding up a test tube, Luterbacher explained how the solvent GVL separates from the rest of the solution.
"The components spontaneously separate just like oil and vinegar in salad dressing," Luterbacher says. "We can easily extract the GVL and use it over again because it separates from the water and sugars when we add another component like salt or carbon dioxide."
So far the team has only been able to use this process to convert plant sugars on a small scale. They can only create milliliters of potential fuel each day. They plan to expand and take their project to the next level by using newly acquired funding from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.
The research team is drawing interest from colleagues around the world after publishing their findings in this year's edition of "Science", an academic journal that promotes the latest scholarly research in the field.
Now that researchers have proven their process works they plan to use their funding to create a rig that will make one liter of fuel per day. If that works they'll continue to expand and grow.
They hope that their success continues once this scaling process starts. Sometimes chemical reactions that work on a small scale create unforeseen problems when they are magnified. Researchers say it could take several years before this project can be used for practical applications like creating fuel.
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