This is science at its best: When I was growing up, the only practical use for sawdust was to soak up vomit, but thanks to scientists at a Belgian university who developed a new chemical process, that same sawdust could soon be used in gasoline and other products normally derived from petroleum.
Researchers at KU Leuven university’s Centre for Surface Chemistry and Catalysis have been able to take the cellulose in sawdust and convert it into hydrocarbon chains. These can be used as an additive in gasoline or as building blocks to create plastics, rubber, nylon, insulation foams and other materials normally made from ethylene, propylene and benzene.
"This is a new type of bio-refining, and we currently have a patent pending for it," says Dr. Bert Lagrain, co-author of a paper on the team's findings. "We have also built a chemical reactor in our lab: we feed sawdust collected from a sawmill into the reactor and add a catalyst – a substance that sets off and speeds the chemical reaction. With the right temperature and pressure, it takes about half a day to convert the cellulose in the wood shavings into saturated hydrocarbon chains, or alkanes."
The resulting product does not come out as fully-distilled gasoline – this requires one final step – but the researchers say their biomass-based product can be used as a green additive that replaces a "portion of traditionally-refined gasoline."
The researchers are also excited about the potential of cellulose to replace other products currently derived from petroleum, and its general abundance and accessibility. "Cellulose is available everywhere; it is essentially plant waste, meaning it does not compete with food crops in the way that first generation energy crops – crops grown for bioethanol, for example – do," says KU Leuven's Prof. Bert Sels.
The team's paper was recently published in the journal Energy & Environmental Science.
Source: KU Leuven