Streamlining the production of ultraclean fuel

Plant materials are one of the oldest renewable energy sources, and today scientists are working to produce ultra-clean fuels from them using refined chemical techniques, work made possible by Canadian Light Source techniques.

University of Kentucky Center for Applied Energy Research scientists Burtron Davis, Gary Jacobs, and Ramana Pendyala are experts in harnessing synchrotron research to refine the processes used to convert plants to gas to usable liquids.

Producing synthetic gas, or syngas, from plant biomass is a relatively straightforward process, but the process often leaves behind impurities, like ammonia and carbon monoxide, that make it harder to transform the gas into usable fuel.

From left to right: Dr. Venkat Ramana Rao Pendyala, Senior Research Scientist; Dr. Gary Jacobs, Principal Research Engineer; and Dr. Burtron H. Davis, Assistant Director, all from the Clean Fuels and Chemicals Group at CAER. Available on Flickr.

The CAER team uses synchrotron analysis to study the effects of specific impurities on the conversion process to try to identify at what threshold each chemical blocks efficient conversion to usable fuel.

“For many years now, for cleaning the syngas, the general rule of thumb was that you had to often get below parts-per-million or parts-per-billion levels of these impurities,” says Jacobs. The team has found, however, that for certain chemicals, like ammonia, much higher levels can be allowed before the syngas-to-fuel transformation slows down.

By pinpointing allowable levels of key impurities, the researchers hope to streamline the clean fuel production process. The CLS is one of only a few that can access the right energy ranges to study these chemicals and their effects on catalysts, making it an invaluable tool.

Right now, roughly one-third to one-half of the cost to produce syngas for fuel production comes from cleaning out impurities. In the long term, this work could help large companies produce inexpensive, clean, and renewable sources by significantly cutting that cost.

Cite: Ma, W.; Jacobs, G.; Sparks, D.E.; Pendyala, V.R.R.; Hopps, S.G.; Thomas, G.A.; Hamdeh, H.H.; Maclennan, A.; Hu, Y., Davis, B.H., “Fischer-Tropsch synthesis: effect of ammonia in syngas on the Fischer-Tropsch synthesis performance of a precipitated iron catalyst,” J. Catal. 326 (2015) 149-160.

About the CLS

The Canadian Light Source is Canada’s national centre for synchrotron research and a global centre of excellence in synchrotron science and its applications. Located on the University of Saskatchewan campus in Saskatoon, the CLS has hosted over 2,000 researchers from academic institutions, government, and industry from 10 provinces and 2 territories; delivered over 32,000 experimental shifts; received over 8,300 user visits; and provided a scientific service critical in over 1,000 scientific publications, since beginning operations in 2005. The CLS has over 200 full-time employees.

CLS operations are funded by Canada Foundation for Innovation, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, Western Economic Diversification Canada, National Research Council of Canada, Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Government of Saskatchewan and the University of Saskatchewan.

Synchrotrons work by accelerating electrons in a tube to nearly the speed of light using powerful magnets and radio frequency waves. By manipulating the electrons, scientists can select different forms of very bright light using a spectrum of X-ray, infrared, and ultraviolet light to conduct experiments.

Synchrotrons are used to probe the structure of matter and analyze a host of physical, chemical, geological and biological processes. Information obtained by scientists can be used to help design new drugs, examine the structure of surfaces in order to develop more effective motor oils, build more powerful computer chips, develop new materials for safer medical implants, and help clean up mining wastes, to name a few applications.

For more information visit the CLS website or contact: 
Victoria Martinez
Communications Coordinator 
1 (306) 657-3771

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