Thursday, August 19, 2010


Conversion of agricultural materials into ethanol for use as a fuel is a pursuit going on for some time now because of the compulsions of modern day energy dynamics. Progressive increase in the proportion of ethanol in gasoline blends used in automobiles calls for achieving quantum jump in the production of bio-ethanol in coming years. Though valuable food materials like Corn, Soybean, Sugarcane, Sugar Beets are all suitable input materials for conventional anaerobic yeast fermentation, there is a big dilemma regarding diversion of these valuable human foods for fuel production. Most promising alternative is to use agricultural, non-edible, wastes with high cellulose content for production of ethanol through viable technological applications. A major hurdle is the mobilization of these light weight materials and managing the logistics of delivering them to centralized large scale processing facilities which can be cumbersome and cost-prohibitive. If the recent claims of scientists are taken seriously, probably this problem can be overcome through mobile converters which can be moved to places where the raw materials are concentrated.

"Almost any kind of raw biomass can be turned into biofuel, but it's not always cheap--transporting raw biomass to a processing facility is significantly more expensive than transporting liquid fuel derived from that biomass. So while it sounds great in theory to turn wood chips from some remote Midwestern farm into biofuel, it doesn't make much sense if the farm is far away from a processing plant. Enter Purdue University's mobile biofuel processing technology, which can turn nearly any available biomass (wood chips, switch grass, corn stover, rice husks, wheat straw, etc.) into biofuel on the spot. Purdue's processor uses a technique called fast-hydropyrolysis-hydrodeoxygenation that works by feeding biomass and hydrogen into a high-pressure reactor that heats up to 900 degrees Fahrenheit in a single second. The hydrogen can be derived from natural gas, biomass, or even on-site solar power--making the process completely sustainable. According to Purdue researchers, the technique generates twice as much biofuel as current technologies when the hydrogen comes from natural gas, and creates 1.5 times the amount of liquid fuel when hydrogen is derived from biomass".

As is the usual case claims in the laboratory need to be critically evaluated for their practical application and economic viability and the new fast-hydropyrolysis technique also has to undergo these assessments before becoming a commercial reality. The fast reaction lends itself to high capacity and high volumes can be easily attained. The need for hydrogen as an input material is another uncertainty and the processes of hydrogen generation and hydropyrolysis need to be synchronized to make the process continuous. The engineering task will be formidable for designing a continuous process because of the need for maintaining high pressure. As the process has the right credentials for becoming a standard feature of future energy landscape, it is worth waiting for its success.


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