ORONO, Maine — A new process developed at the University of Maine for creating biofuel from wood wastes won’t instantly solve the world’s energy crisis, according to a researcher behind the project.
But it’s one of many small steps that one day could help stem the United States’ dependency on foreign crude oil by acting as an efficient, environment-friendly additive to traditional petroleum products.
The product is a hydrocarbon fuel oil created using cellulose from fallen tree limbs, cardboard or even grass.
“This process is unique in its simplicity,” said Clayton Wheeler, a UMaine associate professor of chemical and biological engineering who developed the method along with students in his lab.
Researchers across the country have long been interested in converting waste products — everything from household trash to treetops and limbs that are normally left to decay on the forest floor after a logging operation — into biofuel. UMaine’s Forest Bioproducts Research Institute has focused heavily on developing the methods and technologies to produce these products.
The process, known as thermal deoxygenation, involves converting cellulose into organic acids, which are combined with calcium hydroxide to form a calcium salt. That salt is heated in a reactor, which creates a dark, amber-colored oil.
That oil contains almost none of the oxygen found in the original cellulose, which distinguishes this biofuel from others because less oxygen means less wasted energy in the fuel, according to Wheeler.
Wheeler and his students can turn out a few liters of the oil per month. Large-scale equipment and chemical catalysts often found in paper mills could make the process much more productive, he said.
As of now, the biofuel isn’t commercially viable, Wheeler said. Researchers need to figure out how to extract more oil from the biomass in order to create enough product to compete with the price and availability of other crude oil additives.
Once this step is taken, oil producers and refineries might look to thermal deoxygenation biofuel as an additive that would limit the use of overseas crude oil and other less-efficient additives.
UMaine’s bioproduct research was pushed forward by about $4 million in federal funding from the Department of Energy four years ago, according to Wheeler.
During that research, someone presented the idea of thermal deoxygenation, which might produce a more efficient biofuel in a simpler way. Just two years later, the researchers are having fuel tested by an outside laboratory to see how it stands up against the performance and properties of diesel, petroleum and jet fuel.
“The rate that this has been progressing is incredibly fast,” Wheeler said. “We’re running to keep up.”