To make better biofuels, researchers add hydrogen

Research on nuclear energy and hydrogen has yielded what backers say is a technology that could replace U.S. oil imports with biofuels made from agricultural by-products.

Scientists at Idaho National Laboratory have been working for the past year and a half on a process to convert biomass, such straw or crop residue, into liquid fuels at a far higher efficiency than existing cellulosic ethanol technologies.

A scarce resource for fuel?

(Credit: Idaho National Laboratory)

Rather than one single development, the technology–named bio-syntrolysis–ties together multiple processes, but it has electrolysis, or splitting water to make hydrogen, at is starting point. When combined with a carbon-free electricity source, the approach could deliver a carbon-neutral biofuel, according to models done at INL which has done research for decades in nuclear energy.

Bio-syntrolysis is one of a dizzying number of technologies being developed with the hopes of replacing gasoline, although none have successfully been done at scale. Researchers at INL recognize there remain technical barriers, but its recent computer models show that the technique has better potential than today’s biofuel processes.

The key advantage is that bio-syntrolysis would extract far more energy from available biomass than existing methods, said research engineer Grant Hawkes. Using traditional ethanol-making techniques, about 35 percent of the carbon from wood chips or agricultural residue ends up in the liquid fuel. By contrast, the bio-syntrolysis method would convert more than 90 percent of that carbon into a fuel, he said.

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