Furfural May Be the Future of Easy and Cheap Biofuels

Researchers at the University of California, Davis have developed an easy, efficient and inexpensive method for transforming raw plant material directly into a fuel called furfural without any fermentation. Furfural can be substituted for diesel.

The current, most widely adopted process for making second generation cellulosic fuel — “celluline” — involves the use of acids, enzymes and fermenting microbes to get from the harvested plant material to a fuel that is usable in your car’s engine.

This process is lengthy, expensive and uses a significant amount of energy (interactive graphic, click on “energy balance” tab at top right). Critics of celluline claim that the amount of energy used in making it creates a negative energy gain — that it uses more energy to make it than it puts out.

This claim is very much debatable. Actual energy gain is completely based on what plant is used, how it’s grown and what variation of the conversion process is used.

In the end it’s true that a significant amount of the potential energy in celluline is used up in the process of making it — not enough to make it a negative energy source, but enough that if the excess energy use could be reduced it would reduce both the amount of land needed to grow the fuel crops and the cost of the final product.

And that’s what’s so exciting about Mark Mascal and Edward Nitkin’s research. They’ve taken all those middle steps out and developed a method to convert the plant material — the cellulose — directly into a liquid fuel that can be used in a car’s engine.

Avantium, a Shell spin-off, has already been researching the capabilities of furfural fuels and has developed its own trade name: Furanics. Their findings indicate that furfural fuels can be directly substituted for diesel without modification of existing engines.

This appears to be a pretty major step in defuzzing what the future of biofuel looks like. Fufural might be to celluline what celluline is to corn ethanol.

Anyway, all this talk about furfural and the fuzzy future of biofuels got my (un)creative juices flowing, so I’ll leave you with a limmerick:

Furry Worry was a bear.

Furry Worry had no hair.

Furry Worry wasn’t furry, were he?

Well, in this case, no. No actual fur whatsoever. And as it turns out, he has no reason to be worried either — except about my horrible poetry skills.

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Nick Chambers

Not your traditional car guy.