IIT-Jodhpur breakthrough in biofuel production
Biomass, or bio-energy, has been acknowledged as a renewable energy source that can replace fossil fuels, with the added bonus that the biomass can absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and reduce the greenhouse effect. Biofuels, obtained either from microbial fermentation or from the pyrolysis of biomass in an inert gas atmosphere, has a significant appeal for use in transportation fuels. However, converting biomass to fuel has not been economically feasible because it required very high temperatures and energy. Now, Indian Institute of Technology Jodhpur (IITJ), using a novel catalyst concept have managed to significantly reduce the temperature and energy requirements for a key step in the chemical process in biofuel production.
The team of Professor Rakesh K Sharma and his post-doctoral researcher Dr. Krishnapriya have developed a catalytic system that has nanometre size cramped galleries in Silica-Alumina sheets (a refined form of clay). These confined galleries work as nano-reactor for catalytic reaction and convert the biomass to transport fuel under mild conditions. The process is under patent. The findings of this research have been published in two journals
- RSC Journal Sustainable Energy & Fuels and
- Fuel from Elsevier
The department of biotechnology has supported this study under the National Bioenergy Mission.
The nanometre galleries in silica-alumina improve the reaction path by creating more contact between biomass molecules and hydrogen on the cobalt oxide surface. In this process, organic molecules such as sugars, bio-oil, algae, cellulose, and organic waste lose their oxygen to give hydrocarbon, a process called hydrodeoxygenation. The developed catalytic process makes the process suitable for converting bio-oil obtained from organic waste into transport fuel and opens doors of possibilities for bio-refineries.
As per Professor Sharma “Biofuels are an important part of the far-reaching strategy to replace petroleum-based petrol and diesel, and jet fuels. However, biofuels have so far not reached cost equality with conventional petroleum fuels. One strategy to make biofuels more competitive is to use waste and biomass as a feed that converts it in fuel, fertilizer, and value-added products at minimum energy consumption,”.
“While searching for suitable catalysts that accelerate the reaction, clay caught our eyes, which we have refined and modified to generate highly crystalline clay mineral with nanometer galleries, with atomically dispersed non-noble cobalt oxide. The reactions take place in these galleries under confined conditions comparable to those in enzyme pockets. These confined quarters increase the reactivity amazingly when we compared with normal clays or other silica or alumina based catalysts. The reaction is extremely fast and takes place just around 250 degree temperature to give petroleum grade fuel,” he added.
Considering these needs and inspired by nature, Prof. Sharma has developed many Rajasthani clay-based effective catalytic systems for difficult chemical processes under mild conditions. The ideas of developing new catalyst generated from the geogenic and biological systems where enzymes with small cavities in their surface accelerate chemical processes drastically.