biofuel

Current Research

Cellulosic Crops

Plant material is mainly made up of starches, hemicellulose, cellulose, and lignin. These carbohydrates are frameworks (polymers) of mainly sugars increasing in their level of structural complexity from one to the other. All these carbohydrates can be used to make alcohol (cellulosic ethanol). There are two main processes to accomplish this: 1) enzymatic conversion; and 2) thermo-chemical conversion. In enzymatic conversion, enzymes are used to break down starch, hemicellulose, and cellulose into single sugars. Currently, lignin cannot be broken down efficiently. These sugars can be fermented anaerobically by yeast into alcohol. Pure alcohol (ethanol) is obtained by distillation. In thermo-chemical conversion, plant material is burned under oxygen staved or oxygen free conditions (pyrolysis and gasification). Resulting from these processes is a gas (Synthesis gas) that mainly contains hydrogen and carbon monoxide. By using various chemical processes and catalysts alcohols (ethanol, butanol, etc.) or even oils and plastics can be synthesized.

There is general agreement that cellulosic biofuels derived from plant materials will be the major source of transportation fuels in the future. While any kind of plant materials can be used in the processes described above, investigations in the Texas A&M Soil and Crop Sciences Department focus mainly on production and utilization of biomass sorghums, crop residue, and switchgrass.

See Faculty conducting research in this area.

Grain Crops for Ethanol

Grain crops (corn, sorghum, wheat, rice, etc) store energy in the form of starch in the seed. Starch is a framework of sugars arranged in chain-like fashion with relatively little branching. Enzymes can break up this framework into single sugars. These sugars can be fermented anaerobically by yeast into alcohol. Pure alcohol (ethanol) is obtained by distillation. Virtually all the ethanol available as transportation fuel in the US up to now is derived from corn and sorghum grain.

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Oilseed Crops

Almost 100 years ago, Rudolph Diesel developed an engine that was able to run on vegetable oil (Diesel Engine). Recently, this fuel, Biodiesel, has experienced a revival. Vegetable oils derived from any oilseed crops such as cottonseed, soybeans, sunflowers, canola, etc. can be converted to Biodiesel. Added to the oil is alcohol and in the presence of a catalyst (lye) methylated seed oil (Biodiesel) and glycerin is obtained. The majority of Biodiesel in the US today is derived from soybean oil.

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Sweet Sorghum and Sugar Cane Crops

Some grasses such as sugar cane, sweet sorghum, etc. store energy in the form of sugars in the stalk. Sugar-containing juice is extracted from the stalks of these crops. The sugar-containing juice can be fermented anaerobically by yeast into alcohol. Pure alcohol (ethanol) is obtained by distillation. Virtually all the ethanol available as transportation fuel in Brazil up to now is derived from sugar cane.

See Faculty conducting research in this area.

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