Scientist at KU Leueven university have discovered a way to convert cellulose – the main substance in plant matter – into hydrocarbon chains, which can then be used as a ‘green additive’ – a replacement for a portion of traditionally-refined gasoline.

The researchers suggested the method would be particularly useful in Europe where natural sources of oil and shale gas are limited.

“From an economic standpoint, cellulose has much potential,” said Professor Bert Sels. “Cellulose is available everywhere; it is essentially plant waste, meaning it does not compete with food crops.”

“It also produces chains of 5 to 6 hydrocarbon atoms. We are currently facing shortages in this because it is becoming quite difficult and more expensive to distil these specific hydrocarbon chains from crude oil or shale gas.

“In time, hydrocarbon derived from cellulose may provide an alternative.”

Converting cellulose to hydrocarbons can take as little as a half-day and the hydrocarbon product can reportedly also be used as a sustainable building block for plastic, rubber, insulation foam and nylon.

Realistic fuel source?

Richard Murphy, an expert in bio-based materials, and director of the Centre for Environmental said the findings were potentially very exciting.

“Assuming this process can be scaled up from these laboratory studies under similar conditions and with sustainably sourced feedstocks, there is every reason to believe that this innovative process can provide a reasonably low environmental impact route to renewable hydrocarbons,” he said.

The research was reported in the Energy & Environmental Science journal.

Brad Allen

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