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Nanotechnology provides key to turning waste into ethanol

The production of syngas, a mixture of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen, from coal or other carbon source is an established industrial technology. A new nanotech catalyst now enables the efficient conversion of syngas to ethanol. From an Ames Laboratory news release (via ScienceDaily) “Turning Waste Material into Ethanol

Say the word “biofuels” and most people think of grain ethanol and biodiesel. But there’s another, older technology called gasification that’s getting a new look from researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory and Iowa State University. By combining gasification with high-tech nanoscale porous catalysts, they hope to create ethanol from a wide range of biomass, including distiller’s grain left over from ethanol production, corn stover from the field, grass, wood pulp, animal waste, and garbage.

Gasification is a process that turns carbon-based feedstocks under high temperature and pressure in an oxygen-controlled atmosphere into synthesis gas, or syngas. Syngas is made up primarily of carbon monoxide and hydrogen (more than 85 percent by volume) and smaller quantities of carbon dioxide and methane.

It’s basically the same technique that was used to extract the gas from coal that fueled gas light fixtures prior to the advent of the electric light bulb. …

“There was some interest in converting syngas into ethanol during the first oil crisis back in the 70s,” said Ames Lab chemist and Chemical and Biological Science Program Director Victor Lin. “The problem was that catalysis technology at that time didn’t allow selectivity in the byproducts. They could produce ethanol, but you’d also get methane, aldehydes and a number of other undesirable products.”

…In studying the chemical reactions in syngas conversion, Lin found that the carbon monoxide molecules that yielded ethanol could be “activated” in the presence of a catalyst with a unique structural feature.

…Lin’s group looked at using a metal alloy as the catalyst. To increase the surface area, they used nano-scale catalyst particles dispersed widely within the structure of mesoporous nanospheres, tiny sponge-like balls with thousands of channels running through them. The total surface area of these dispersed catalyst nanoparticles is roughly 100 times greater than the surface area you’d get with the same quantity of catalyst material in larger, macro-scale particles.

—Jim

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