Scientists To Turn Plants into Fuel with New, Cheaper Method

The process relies on an electrode built from inexpensive nickel and copper.
Loukia Papadopoulos

Biofuels are not only a great renewable energy source, they are also a promising way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Their production, however, does not come without hurdles.


Cheaper and more efficient

For years, researchers have been looking into a cheaper more efficient way of producing biofuels and bioproducts with little success. This may soon change. Scientists from Ohio State University have conceived of a cheaper, more efficient way to conduct a chemical reaction that leads to biofuels.

“The process of converting sugar to alcohol has to be very efficient if you want to have the end product be competitive with fossil fuels,” said Venkat Gopalan, a senior author on the paper and professor of chemistry and biochemistry at The Ohio State University.

“The process of how to do that is well-established, but the cost makes it not competitive, even with significant government subsidies. This new development is likely to help lower the cost.”

Biofuels rely on so-called “helper molecules” that allow carbon in cells to be turned into energy. These molecules, called NADH and NADPH (nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD) + hydrogen (H) and phosphate (PH) respectively), are expensive making the process of producing biofuels pricey.

Cutting production costs in half

“If you can cut the production cost in half, that would make biofuels a very attractive additive to make flex fuels with gasoline,” said Vish Subramaniam, a senior author on the paper.

“Butanol is often not used as an additive because it’s not cheap. But if you could make it cheaply, suddenly the calculus would change. You could cut the cost of butanol in half, because the cost is tied up in the use of this cofactor.”

The researchers used nickel and copper, inexpensive elements, to build an electrode that can produce NADH and NADPH. The end result is an electrode that turns biomass into biofuel cheaply and efficiently.

The discovery may also have implications in other fields of science such as slowing down the spread of cancer by controlling the flow of electrons in some cancer cells. The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

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