Team led by Indian-American from UIllinois identify potentially cheaper, greener catalyst for producing biofuels

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Prairie Research Institute, University of Illinois, researcher B.K. Sharma, above, and co-authors from the University of Birmingham have collaborated to develop a greener biofuels processing catalyst using waste metals and bacteria. Photo: L. Brian Stauffer, courtesy University of Illinois)

Bio-fuels produced from plants and other renewable sources may become greener and more affordable, thanks to research by an Indian-American scientist at the University of Illinois’ Prairie Research Institute and co-researchers in U.K.

Professor B.K. Sharma, a researcher at Illinois Sustainability Technology Center, and his co-authors, have identified and tested a new processing method, according to an Aug. 25 press release from University of Illinois. Their research avoided going through an expensive processing of bio-oil, the precursor product, before any biofuel is sent to a refinery for being transformed into liquid fuel.

In their study, Sharma et al common bacteria, and the metal palladium which can be recovered from waste sources like discarded electronics, catalytic converters, and even street sweeper dust and processed sewage, the press release says.

“Bio-oil forms from the same chemical reaction that forms petroleum,” Sharma explains in the  press release. “But what takes millions of years naturally in the ground takes only minutes in the lab using a process that is very similar to pressure cooking.” According to Sharma, the bio-oil produced in the lab from algae contains impurities like nitrogen and oxygen, but treating it with palladium as a catalyst during processing helps remove those impurities to meet clean-air requirements.

He noted that the carbon porous particles currently used for flowing the bio-oil through the palladium, is expensive. “Instead of using commercially produced carbon particles, we can use bacteria cell masses as a sort of biologic scaffolding for the palladium to hold on to,” Sharma said. “The oil can flow through the palladium-decorated bacteria masses as it does through the carbon particles.”

After Sharma and his co-authors conducted a variety of chemical and physical analyses to find out if the biofuel produced through their new method was comparable in quality to previous more expensive methods, “We found our product to be as good or even slightly better,” Sharma said. “We were able to remove the oxygen and nitrogen impurities at a comparable rate, and yielded the same volume of product using our cheaper, greener catalyst as is observed using the more expensive commercial catalyst.”

However there is an added cost in the new method. Unlike the costly commercial catalyst which  can be used over and over without extensive processing, the Sharma group’s palladium-on-bacteria catalyst will need to undergo processing to be reused. But that “is a minor caveat,” Sharma contended. “The fact that we have shown the potential of making refinery-ready crude oil from algae bio-oil using a catalyst that can be prepared from low-grade recycled metals and green and economical bacterial biomass proves that this is a very promising advancement. In addition, this bio-catalyst would work equally well in petrochemical processing.”

The work was conducted in collaboration with professors Joe Wood and Lynne Macaskie from the University of Birmingham, and co-funded by the Birmingham-Illinois Partnership for Discovery, Engagement and Education program as well as the U.K Natural Environment Research Council.

 

 

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