Science: Progress in the Development of Biofuels

The Story:

The term “biofuels” refers generally to the use of vegetable matter in internal-combustion engines. In the US and in Brazil, ethanol (alcohol) is commonly blended with gasoline. The program is sold politically on the ground that it frees our vehicles from reliance on the derivatives of crude oil, and that it may help limit the emissions of greenhouse gases. It also has admirers among the farmers in the cornbelt in the center of the United States, whence come the vegetable matter most often employed. Still, there are difficulties inherent in the program, and there are scientists and engineers working to improve it.


One of the problems with the program is that ethanol is commonly derived precisely from materials (such as corn) that could otherwise be somebody’s food. In a world where people are starving, the idea that other people should be burning food in their cars excites opposition.

Many teams have been working on the use of cellulosic ethanol: the creation of ethanol through vegetable matter that is not generally available as food. This ethanol can come from everything from weeds to tree bark. Unfortunately, making these non-food substances into fuel involves aggressive and expensive pre-processing.

Strange New Worlds:

Scientists at MIT reported this week that they have discovered a way to short circuit the pre-processing. If their work can be scaled and commercially employed it could, in the words of the leader of the team (Felix Lam), “open cellulose feedstocks … and take advantage of the sheer abundance that cellulose offers.”



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