U researchers develop alternative energy sources

Mike Enright

Imagine pulling up to a gas station and filling the tank up with fuel made from sugar.

This possibility might be closer to a reality because of a new technology developed by University researchers, whose findings were published Friday in the journal “Science.”

Lanny Schmidt, Regents professor of chemical engineering and materials science, along with graduate students James Salge, Brady Dreyer and Paul Dauenhauer, discovered a way to turn soybean oil and sugar into hydrogen and carbon monoxide gas.

The discovery is a breakthrough in creating a better way to convert biomass into energy.

The new process creates a product known as synthesis gas, or syngas, which can be used to make artificial gasoline or be put into fuel cells to generate electricity.

“It’s called synthesis gas because it’s a gas used to synthesize useful liquids,” Schmidt said.

Dreyer, a fourth-year graduate student, said the system – called a catalytic fuel reformer – works by first heating a disk made of catalyst material to 1,000 degrees Celsius. Then soybean oil is sprayed directly onto the disk, and, as droplets hit the glowing catalyst, they blow apart. As the fragments pass through, they react with oxygen, creating syngas.

Although researchers used soybean oil and sugar to test their system, Schmidt said, the process will work for any kind of biomass. Potential sources of biomass include trees, plants such as switchgrass or even manure.

“Everybody’s looking for ways to convert cheap biomass into something useful,” he said. “This process has the potential of just spraying any kind of gunk onto this glowing catalyst and making synthesis gas out of it.”

Schmidt said because the invention is renewable technology developed in Minnesota it will bring money to the state. If it becomes commercially viable, it might also reduce our need for imported oil, benefiting national security, he said.

“This process uses no fossil fuels at all,” Schmidt said.

The invention is also fast, small and efficient.

“It’s about 10 to 100 times faster than conventional technology,” he said. “And when it’s 10 to 100 faster, it can also be 10 to 100 times smaller.”

Schmidt said the reformer is five inches long and one inch in diameter.

Dreyer said the small size makes the system easily portable, which could save on transportation costs.

“You can take a reformer to a site where there is biomass, instead of taking biomass to one site,” he said.

Dauenhauer, whose term paper partly inspired the research, said the reformer can also be made bigger or smaller by simply manipulating the size of the catalyst disk.

“A disk the size of a dinner plate would Ö make enough synthesis gas to produce a gallon of synthetic gasoline an hour,” he said.

Todd Reubold, assistant director of the University’s Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment, said the discovery is a major step in developing biofuel technology.

“I think actual commercialization is still a few years off yet, but this is a critical step to getting us closer to using trees and other plant materials to produce biofuels,” he said.

Tim Mulcahy, University vice president for research, said it is too early to know whether Schmidt’s discovery will earn any money for the University until additional research is pursued.

“It’s certainly the kind of transformational discovery that has that potential,” Mulcahy said. “But we just need to explore what the implications might be.”

The University collaborates with outside partners to create commercial applications for discoveries, he said.

– Bryce Haugen contributed to this report.