Your car may soon run on sawdust! Researchers have successfully converted sawdust into building blocks for petrol. Scientists at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (KU Leuven) in Belgium used a new chemical process to convert the cellulose in sawdust into hydrocarbon chains. These hydrocarbons can be used as an additive in gasoline, or as a component in plastics, researchers said.
Cellulose is the main substance in plant matter and is present in all non-edible plant parts of wood, straw, grass, cotton and old paper. "At the molecular level, cellulose contains strong carbon chains. We sought to conserve these chains, but drop the oxygen bonded to them, which is undesirable in high-grade gasoline," said Professor Bert Sels.
The new method to derive these hydrocarbon chains from cellulose was developed by researcher Beau Op de Beeck.
"This is a new type of bio-refining, and we currently have a patent pending for it. We have also built a chemical reactor in our lab: we feed sawdust collected from a sawmill into the reactor and add a catalyst - a substance that sets off and speeds the chemical reaction," said Dr Bert Lagrain.
"With the right temperature and pressure, it takes about half a day to convert the cellulose in the wood shavings into saturated hydrocarbon chains, or alkanes," Lagrain said. "Essentially, the method allows us to make a 'petrochemical' product using biomass - thus bridging the worlds of bio-economics and petro chemistry," he added.
The result is an intermediary product that requires one last simple step to become fully-distilled gasoline, said Sels. "Our product offers an intermediate solution for as long as our automobiles run on liquid gasoline. It can be used as a green additive ? a replacement for a portion of traditionally-refined gasoline," Sels said.
"The green hydrocarbon can also be used in the production of ethylene, propylene and benzene - the building blocks for plastic, rubber, insulation foam, nylon, coatings and so forth," Sels added.
The research is published in the journal Energy & Environmental Science.