Analytical and Laboratory

Don’t Drink This: Beer Becomes Fuel

06 December 2017
The researchers are brewing technology to convert abundant ethanol into butanol. Source: University of Bristol

It’s bock to the future in the continuing search for alternative automotive fuels.

Widely used as a fuel additive in the U.S., ethanol is not an ideal replacement for gasoline due to its lower energy density and corrosive nature. Butanol is a better option but it is difficult to source from sustainable feedstocks.

University of Bristol researchers are brewing technology to convert abundant ethanol into butanol. The A ruthenium chloride catalyst was found to be effective in converting beer, or rather, the ethanol in beer, into butanol. Source: University of BristolA ruthenium chloride catalyst was found to be effective in converting beer, or rather, the ethanol in beer, into butanol. Source: University of Bristolprocess has been demonstrated in the laboratory with pure, dry ethanol but it must work with real ethanol fermentation broths in order to feasibly scale up. These broths contain water and various impurities, requiring a technology tolerant of these constituents.

“The alcohol in alcoholic drinks is actually ethanol—exactly the same molecule that we want to convert into butanol as a petrol replacement."

"So alcoholic drinks are an ideal model for industrial ethanol fermentation broths — ethanol for fuel is essentially made using a brewing process."

"If our technology works with alcoholic drinks (especially beer which is the best model) then it shows it has the potential to be scaled up to make butanol as a petrol replacement on an industrial scale," says Professor Duncan Wass.

A ruthenium chloride catalyst was found to be effective in converting beer, or more accurately the ethanol in beer, into butanol. Selection of the appropriate catalyst is key to scaling this technology up to industrial application.

Professor Wass added, "We wouldn’t actually want to use beer on an industrial scale and compete with potential food crops.

"But there are ways to obtain ethanol for fuel from fermentation that produce something that chemically is very much like beer — so beer is an excellent readily available model to test our technology."

The researchers hope to realize a lager-scale, or rather a larger-scale, process within about five years.

Professor Wass said,"Turning beer into petrol was a bit of fun, and something to do with the leftovers of the lab Christmas party, but it has a serious point.

"Beer is actually an excellent model for the mixture of chemicals we would need to use in a real industrial process, so it shows this technology is one step closer to reality."

To contact the author of this article, email sue.himmelstein@ieeeglobalspec.com


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Discussion – 3 comments

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Re: Don’t Drink This: Beer Becomes Fuel
#1
2017-Dec-06 4:26 PM

This is finally beginning to show some common sense. Butanol could have been chosen much earlier as a previous byproduct of the ABE fermentation, then optimized...

The ABE process: The ABE process (was used to make cordite)

The former process was low yield of butanol, and was mainly for the production of acetone to make cordite for ammunition production in WWI.

The new pathway using only ethanol and methanol seems attractive, but we need better biochemical synthesis of methanol as feed-stock, rather than from methane.

Butanol has much more acceptable environmental fate than methanol or ethanol if a large spill occurs. It separates well from water above a given percentage level... really does not require distillation during production if the yield is high enough.

Win-win-win.

Re: Don’t Drink This: Beer Becomes Fuel
#2
In reply to #1
2017-Dec-06 6:57 PM

However, the Ru catalyst has got to be pretty pricey. A lot would depend on how reusable the catalyst is.

Re: Don’t Drink This: Beer Becomes Fuel
#3
In reply to #2
2017-Dec-07 8:50 AM

Tiny secret: I suspect by surface modifications (nanoscopic), iron may eventually supplant the ruthenium in this, as I understand it, only a small amount is needed for activity at any rate.

Another key point, the ruthenium could or should be removed by decanting the product butanol from the reactor. I suspect the ruthenium loss would be measured in ppm relative to the charge of catalyst.

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