New ethanol provides more energy, less harm to engines as gasoline alternative

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Ethanol
Ecuadorean scientist Xavier Carvajal displays biofuel in a test tube in the Neotropical Centre for Biomass Research at the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador in Quito November 30, 2009. Reuters/Guillermo Granja

A new form of ethanol has been developed as better, less volatile alternative to gasoline, generating more energy without causing damage to engines. Researchers have discovered a new conversion process that could be used to develop renewable fuels.

Ethanol is produced from corn and is commonly used as an additive in engine fuel to reduce emissions. Ethanol, as an oxygenated fuel, delivers lower energy and increases damage to engines through corrosion.

According to a new research published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, the new method has produced butanol, a product from ethanol that has no detrimental effects to engines. The conversion process allows researchers to increase the amount of ethanol converted to butanol by nearly 25 percent, higher than what existing methods can produce.

"Butanol is much better than ethanol as an alternative to gasoline," said lead researcher William Jones, a professor at the University of Rochester, in a press release. "It yields more energy, is less volatile, and doesn't cause damage to engines."

Researchers created a larger chemical molecule to produce butanol, which has more carbon and hydrogen atoms. The high carbon-to-oxygen ratio in butanol promoted higher energy content, while the larger size made it less volatile.

Another way to convert ethanol to butanol is the three-step Guerbet reaction. However, the reaction involves an intermediate product, called acetaldehyde, which reacts with both itself and butanol to produce unwanted molecules.

Jones enhanced the Guerbet reaction using iridium and nickel or copper hydroxide instead of potassium hydroxide. The reaction produced butanol in over 99 percent selectivity, compared with 80 percent selectivity from the previous conditions of the Guerbet reaction.

In addition, no undesirable side products were produced. However, Jones noted that further research is needed to improve their method.

"We'd like to have a catalyst that's less expensive than iridium,” he said. “Also, we want to make the conversion process last longer, which means figuring out what currently makes it stop."

Jones and his colleagues are aiming to find ways to apply the conversion process in making renewable fuels.

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