Converting Sugar Into Fuel Research Proposal

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Converting Sugar Into Fuel

Man's body is a machine and an extremely efficient one. This machine also requires fuel to keep it going just like other man-made machines. Plants take up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and convert it into carbohydrate or sugar in the presence of sunshine and water molecules. Variations of this basic process serve as the source of fuel for all life forms on this planet. Therefore, if sugar, one of the key ingredients of Mountain Dew, can provide energy to our body machine for its workings, it should be able to do the same for man-made machines as well. (Process to Turn Biomass Derived Sugar into Fuel) Scientists have been investigating this possibility for years so as to provide a cheaper, environmental friendly and non-polluting alternative to fossil fuels which are not just non-renewable but also pollute the earth's atmosphere. The shortage of petrol along with a surplus of sugar production since 1979 has also fuelled interest in the possibility of converting sugar into petrol. (Toussaint-Samat; Bell, 561); (Highfield, 5)

Discussion

Requirement of an alternative fuel source

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One of the major challenges in reducing global warming is the hunt for an alternative fuel source that would not harm the environment. It is estimated that approximately 25% of the greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere as a result of human activities in the U.S. can be traced to transportation. President Obama has also emphasized that the country's $400 billion transportation fuel market must adopt a low-carbon standard. (Roosevelt, 5)

Brazil's success story with ethanol

Research Proposal on Converting Sugar Into Fuel Assignment

The theoretical possibility of using bio-fuels like the ones generated by fermenting sugar, in the transportation industry is tremendous. It has been suggested that the energy captured by plants per year is around 36 times the energy consumed by many European countries in the transport sector. Even if a fraction of that energy can be harnessed for human consumption, man will have solved a lot of his energy needs. Experts have suggested that by the year 2020, ethanol produced from sugarcane will be able to contribute 6 exajoules of "low cost energy" which is roughly equivalent to 1 billion crude oil barrels. Thus, the fermentation of sugar present in sugarcane and sugar beet, and the starch present in corn and wheat to produce ethanol or some other biofuel is an exciting prospect. (European Conference of Ministers of Transport, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 81)

Brazil has been using ethanol derived from fermenting sugar as a fuel mixed with gasoline as early as the seventies when the oil crisis made the search for an alternative fuel essential. Ethanol is basically produced from sugars, cellulose or starch by fermentation. In order to extract the sugar, the biomass crop is crushed and mixed with water and yeast. This mixture is then kept warm in big tanks called "fermenters." The sugar is broken down by the yeast and gets converted to ethanol. Water and other impurities are removed from this intermediate alcohol product by a distillation process. The Brazil government made it a national policy to mix ethanol into all gasoline. When oil prices came down and sugar prices went up, the national ethanol program was in jeopardy but the Brazilian government helped the farmers to reduce production costs of sugarcane and increase yields, made it compulsory for government transportation to use ethanol, promoted the sale of "flexible-fuel" vehicles, and made it necessary for all regular gasoline sales to contain around 20% - 25% ethanol. Brazil has not only utilized ethanol for domestic use but has also become the largest global exporter of ethanol fuel. Brazil's venture has not only saved $50 billion USD in terms of imported oil but has also created one million rural jobs which has positively affected their economy. (Worldwatch Institute, 11); (Enger; Smith, 216) A problem with sugar-derived ethanol fuel is that it can work as a substitute only for petrol but not for diesel. And in most countries, heavy transportation like Lorries which constitute the chief source of commercial transportation, use diesel and not petrol as fuel. (Dinham; Hines, 88)

Research in the field of converting sugar into fuel

Now, ethanol has several drawbacks in that it becomes easily contaminated by absorbing water from the atmosphere, evaporates easily, requires a high energy consuming distillation process and has a low energy density. In 2006, a team of scientists led by Prof. James Dumesic at the University of Wisconsin-Madison reported the development of a new method of converting the sugar present in fruits or fructose into fuel. This process converts fructose into DMF or 2, 5- dimethylfuran. This liquid fuel possesses almost as much energy as petrol and 40% more energy than ethanol. This is a two-stage process wherein fructose is first converted to hydroxymethylfurfural -- HMF in water in the presence of a solvent with low-boiling-point with the aid of an acid catalyst. The HMF is extracted from water with the help of the solvent and by the addition of certain catalysts like copper-ruthenium catalyst which limits formation of impurities. The HMF is then converted to DMF and in the process removing from the compound two oxygen atoms thus lowering the boiling point. This makes it appropriate for its role as a fuel used for transportation. However, it will still be some years before such a product can be made commercially viable. As for efficiency, this liquid fuel will be as efficient as gasoline and more efficient than ethanol but the environmental impact is not likely to be less than gasoline. (Process to Turn Biomass Derived Sugar into Fuel); (Highfield, 6)

Another team of scientists led by Y.H. Percival Zhang, a biological systems engineering Assistant Professor at Virginia Tech., and assisted by other researchers at the University of Georgia and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, are working on the conversion of polysaccharides or sugary carbohydrates obtained from biomass to low-cost hydrogen which can be used to drive "hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles." Zhang and his coworkers are using synthetic biology techniques wherein a mixture of 13 synthetic enzymes, not found in nature are used to transform polysaccharides and water into hydrogen as and when required. As per laboratory tests conducted so far, it has been seen that these reactions take place at low temperatures and atmospheric pressure. It is estimated that the approximate energy output produced by one kg of polysaccharide containing starch will be equivalent to 0.38 gallons or 1.12 kg of gasoline. Therefore, a vehicle having a 12-gallon tank will be able to store 27 kg of starch and would give a range of over 300 miles. This fuel would not only be energy efficient but would also be clean, safe and environmentally friendly. It would not require any special infrastructure and the starch could also be sold through grocery stores in the future. A sugar-hydrogen fuel cell system's energy conversion efficiency is estimated to be 3 times higher than the efficiency provided by a sugar-ethanol-internal combustion engine. (Novel sugar-to-hydrogen technology promises transportation fuel independence)

Another success in the path of fulfilling the U.S. Department of Energy's vision of implementing a hydrogen-based economy has been achieved by Prof. Thomas Wood at the chemical engineering department in Texas A&M University in 2008. Thomas Wood has been working with E. coli, bacteria that usually cause food poisoning. He has succeeded in genetically modifying a particular strain of these bacteria so that it releases around 140 times the amount of hydrogen than it would have normally produced in a natural process. Wood's method consists of selectively knocking out six specific genes from the DNA of E. coli so that it is virtually transformed into a minute hydrogen-releasing factory fueled by sugar. This process can build up on current advances in extracting sugar or sugar-like molecule from various plant sources like corn. This process is less energy-intensive as it does not require any electricity or heating. One problem that exists with this kind of fuel is its transportation as building new pipelines would not just be cumbersome but it would be dangerous to transport large amounts of hydrogen. (Novel sugar-to-hydrogen technology promises transportation fuel independence); (E.coli a future source of energy?)

However, just like the earlier invention, Wood also believes in producing "hydrogen on-site" instead of transporting it since spilling sugar during transportation would not be as catastrophic as leaking of hydrogen could be. This sugar-converted fuel is also years away from commercial exploitation but nonetheless, is an important stepping stone towards production of alternate renewable energy source. (Novel sugar-to-hydrogen technology promises transportation fuel independence); (E.coli a future source of energy?) Research work is also going on to develop other kinds of microorganisms that can convert sugar more efficiently, like being able to digest the C5 sugars apart from easily digestible C6 sugars and transforming them into synthesis gas containing carbon monoxide and hydrogen, H2, or into several intermediate chemical products like propane diol, succinic acid, or lactic acid. (Centi; Santen, 48)

Some researchers have even developed fuel cell batteries that are powered by any… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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