The beauty of biofuels is that they don't pollute. After that things can get ugly.
First, biofuel, an oil made from plant tissues, doesn't generate as much energy as an equal amount of crude oil. And the oil is difficult to refine because it contains too much water and is acidic.
That's about to change. Researchers at the University of Twente in the Netherlands report that they've developed a way to improve the quality of the oil even before it reaches a refinery. As a result, they say, biofuels can pack even more punch than crude oil and rivals the energy found in diesel fuel.
The Twente researchers say they've developed a catalyst of sodium carbonate on a sheet of aluminum oxide crystals. They add this catalyst to the biomass oil that's been heated in nitrogen to 500 degrees Celsius (932 degrees Fahrenheit). This can nearly double the biofuel's energy content from 20 million joules to between 33 and 37 million joules per kilogram.
The fuel can be improved further with the addition of cesium, an alkaline metal element, and sodium carbonate. "By doing so, we can, for instance, also reduce the aromatics, which are harmful when inhaled," Seshan said.
The technology is so promising that it has been chosen from dozens of projects to be tested in CatchBio, the Dutch research program involved in meeting the EU's requirement that at least 20 percent of fuel used on the continent must come from renewable sources by 2020.
In fact, the technology -- developed by Twente University professors Leon Lefferts and Prof Kulathuiyer Seshan -- is being tested by KIOR, a Texas renewable fuels company to produce 4,500 barrels of biofuel a day.
And there's more good news. Some biofuels have been criticized for encroaching on the world's food supply. Corn, for example, once was an inexpensive food crop, but its cost has soared because it is used to make ethanol.
But the biofuels being studied by the Twente researchers don't compete with the Earth's supply of vegetation that can be used for the human diet or animal feed. Instead they're derived exclusively from waste vegetation.
Of course there remains some bad news. Transporting raw biomass to a facility that turn it into oil is cumbersome and therefore expensive. Add to that, making the oil can be difficult – and, again, expensive. But research is continuing into how to simplify these procedures, such as using bacteria to break down impurities in wood fibers.
The technology developed at the University of Twente is being studied at two other Dutch schools, the University of Groningen and Utrecht University, as well as the Energy Research Center of the Netherlands. The Netherlands government says it is determined to lead the way in achieving the EU's 2020 energy objective.