Cars powered by sawdust might sound a bit bizarre, but researchers across the country are looking into ways to turn all kinds of cellulosic biomass into fuels. Over at The University of Minnesota, scientists have developed a new process that efficiently converts waste biomass into a mixture of gases that can then be turned into biofuel or used to power turbines that generate electricity, according to The MIT Technology Review.
There are a couple methods of turning cellulosic biomass — plant waste and non-food crops — into fuels. The best-known method is fermenting sugars into ethanol. After years in development that method is starting to make some progress.
Another method, which the University of Minnesota researchers are working on, converts waste biomass into a mixture of synthetic gases (syngen) that can be turned into fuel. Such “thermochemical” methods are more expensive than those that use enzymes and organisms to turn sugars into fuel, the MIT Review article points out, but can more easily use various source materials — hence the possibility of sawdust-powered cars.
The University of Minnesota researcher’s system can create “small, fast reactors” to turn the biomass into gas closer to where the biomass material is found, which cuts down on transportation costs. They also say the biomass can be broken down in just 70 milliseconds, which they say is ten times faster than other methods for making syngas.
But the process has some issues. It requires the use of the precious metal rhodium, which can cost more than $6,000 an ounce. Yikes! Researchers also still have to figure out if it’s possible to make a bigger conversion device.