One of the challenges facing those hoping to produce a biofuel such as ethanol? The amount of waste involved in the process.
“A big problem with building that ethanol plan is that you only get 30 percent of the carbon (from the biomass),” said Bin Yang, an associate professor of biological systems engineering at Washington State University Tri-Cities.
Yang and a team working with him have developed a means to convert lignin, one of the previously wasted components of biomass, into something that could replace petroleum-based energy sources, including jet fuel.
The group’s research, supported by several federal agencies including the U.S. departments of Defense and Energy and the National Science Foundation, was the cover story in the most recent issue of Green Chemistry, a scientific journal of the Royal Society of Chemistry.
Yang also holds a patent for the process and the equipment needed to complete it.
Lignin is the molecule that makes plants woody and rigid. By one count, roughly 40 to 50 million tons of lignin are wasted every year as part of various processes, including the conversion of plant biomass to biofuels.
Yang said the ability to process lignin into something useful as a biofuel could solve a lot of challenges, namely the need for a clean, domestic source of energy.
That includes the development of new bio-based jet fuels. Jet fuel is markedly different from gasoline and diesel, partly in that it doesn’t convert to a gel at cold temperatures typically seen at high altitudes. Some biofuels are a component of jet fuel, but require some petroleum-based components to meet requirements.
Now Yang is working with Boeing Co. to develop and test a biofuel that could meet all the needs of an airliner.
“It may be possible to develop a more complete suite of molecules required for turbine engine systems using only biomass feedstocks, making the process more economically feasible and efficient,” said Ralph Cavalieri, director of WSU’s Office of Alternative Energy.
Yang said it will take time for his process to convert lignin to be integrated into current biofuel production facilities, especially depending on what fuel they are producing.
But companies are already approaching him about his work and how they can adapt their plants to more fully use the biomass they are taking in.
And he’s not stopping there when it comes to the former woody afterthought of biomass operations: Yang is using two grants from DOE and headed by Texas A&M University to lead an effort to produce bioplastics from lignin.
He’s also working with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado to convert lignin into products such as supercapacitors.