Wood in your tank?
The first attempts to replace the horse as the primary mode of transportation involved burning wood to create steam to drive a steam engine. If the new crop of biotechnology and renewable energy companies realize their dreams we will once again be fueling our transportation and even using chemicals created from wood cellulose and other plants. Genetic engineering which has been the catalyst in the revolution of drug and food development is now being used to tackle our need for renewable fuels. I had experience, while still a student in the late 1970s, on the potential of enzymes to breakdown cellulose into sugar the basic building block for chemicals. I even had dreams of creating a cellulose driven economy but with oil costing only $20/bbl, I soon realized it would be difficult to compete. The catalyst driving the current group of bio energy hopefuls is the need to find renewable fuels which are better for the environment. Three conversion technologies are actively being funded.
Algae is the perfect solution because the sun’s energy is used to directly convert carbon dioxide into oil for fuel. The algae are genetically modified to produce the “right” kind of oil. Algae are grown in large volumes of water and the vessels are typically constructed out of plastic. Key Instrument produces plastic flow meters that are used in this research to control the flow of water and gas in the process.
Starch based bio-fuels have gotten bad press because food, which can be used to fuel people, is being diverted to transportation fuels. Alternative carbon sources are being considered for bio-fuels and cellulose in the form of wood or farmed plants is the leading contender. Many companies are developing genetically modified organisms which will convert the cellulose into higher alcohols or oils to be used as fuel. Fermentation process technology is used in this research and Brooks Instrument has experience supplying industrial gas mass flow control technology along with Coriolis liquid mass flow control technology to companies developing these new fuels.
Traditional chemical process technologies are also being used to create fuel from trees. Gasification is used to burn the cellulose to produce a syn gas of comprised mainly of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. This syn gas flows through a catalyst where it is converted to liquid fuels. Brooks Instrument thermal and variable area gas mass flow meters and controllers are routinely used in this type of chemical research.
My college dream might be realized in the future when I pull up to a fuel pump and use wood to power my car.