In the face of an international movement away from traditional fossil fuels and toward a greener future, many researchers around the world are rushing to find the next big breakthrough in the production of renewable resources, particularly via more and more efficient means of converting biomass. The latest headline to come from efforts of scientists around the globe is a new discovery by a team of scientists based in the west Indian city of Pune at the National Chemical Laboratory (NCL), which offers a quicker, eco-friendly technique for converting industrial biomass into biodiesel.
The key to the scientists’ discovery is a new version of a zeolite catalyst – HPW/Meso-HZ-5 - which can be used to make the process of converting industrial biomass into an organic biofuel compound called furfural far more efficient. The current standard process of making furfural starts with biomass sourced from agricultural waste such as bagasse, cotton seed hulls, sawdust, oat hulls, rice hulls, wheat husk and bran, among others. After making the furfural, the current conventional first step toward making it into a viable biofuel is to chemically change it into furfuryl alcohol, which is then further processed to create alkyl levulinates. This process however, is a lengthy and complicated one with many steps. This is where the NCL team’s catalyst comes into play by considerably speeding up the process of conversion.
The zeolite catalyst has shown good results in tests with 100 percent furfuryl alcohol conversion along with 97 percent ethyl levulinate biodiesel yield (a type of alkyl levulinate) and 3 percent ethoxy methyl (a food additive) furan yield. Importantly, the new HPW/Meso-HZ-5 catalyst produced better results than its parent catalysts H-ZSM-5 and Meso-HZ-5 when used separately.
As explained by the research team, “due to higher number of active sites and larger pore size the travel distance is reduced, thereby improving accessibility of active sites. Low molar ratio of reactants would do away with the separation cost associated with unreacted ethanol, operational cost and reactor size, making the process economically viable and industrially safe.” Related: Why 2019 Could Start With An Oil Rally
The research team that discovered the enzyme is based in India, a country that is the second largest producer of sugarcane in the world and is also among the top producers globally of rice, pulses, and wheat, crops that all create a massive quantity of the agricultural waste necessary to create biofuel by converting into furfural then to biodiesel. If NCL’s discovery makes this method viable for production on a mass scale, it could mean major economic opportunity and additional income for farmers in India, as well as potentially creating jobs in poverty-stricken parts of the subcontinent.
This advancement in biofuels research is just one part of a massive campaign on the part of the Indian government to become a global leader in green energy. So far, the initiative has been more than successful, as India has already become the world’s single largest renewable energy auctions market and the second biggest attracter of clean energy investments according to numbers from the Climatescope 2018 report by Bloomberg NEF.
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Last year India’s investing in its renewable energy sector surpassed spending in traditional fossil fuel-based power production for the first time in history according to the International Energy Agency (IEA)’s World Energy Investment 2018 report. At nearly $20 billion, investment in Indian renewables in 2017 represented more than a third of investments in the power sector, mostly due to investments in solar and wind projects nearly doubling.
India’s achievements in the green energy sector are particularly impressive when compared to energy sector spending worldwide, which has been in considerable decline for three consecutive years, landing at just $1.8 trillion in global energy investments in 2017. The IEA projects that the decline with continue over the next few years.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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