Using microscopic metal particles, scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison have found that plant-based sugar can be converted to gasoline to be used in current engines. The substance is cleaner-burning than petroleum-based gasoline and more stable than ethanol.
While a method to turn sugar to gas already exists, it requires extremely high temperatures which made the process less energy efficient. The new process converts the sugars to fuel in mere minutes by running a mixture of water and sugar over particles of the precious metals platinum and rhenium. The metal atoms break the chemical bonds in sugar and release oxygen, which leaves a mixture including carbon and hydrogen that can be used to make plastics or gasoline. Even the gas byproducts of the process can be used as a replacement for natural gas.
The scientists have only tested the process in laboratory setting, and before wide-scale use, the process faces the same problem as other biofuels: where to acquire the sugar. The process uses the simple sugar compound sorbitol, which is available but difficult to separate from biomass. “We would just intercept the sugar and go to gasoline,” said James Dumesic, the chemical engineer from the University of Wisconsin-Madison who led the study. “But there’s still a lot of work to do on how to go from cellulose to sugar.”
The metals used in the process are cost-prohibitive, but the researchers are unsure how much of the metal would be required for mass production. In the meantime they are studying how the metals react with the sugar in hopes to find cheaper metals that produce similar reactions.