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U.S. Department of Energy Announces Breakthrough in Biofuel Technology

In the quest for the perfect biofuel, various companies and government agencies are racing to uncover the “magic bullet” that will allow for the production of inexpensive and energy efficient biofuels. Algae, yeasts and bacteria have all been playing their part in transforming various feedstocks and even CO2 into usable biofuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel.
 U.S. Department of Energy Announces Breakthrough in Bio..  U.S. Department of Energy Announces Breakthrough in Bio..
 
 
In the quest for the perfect biofuel, various companies and government agencies are racing to uncover the “magic bullet” that will allow for the production of inexpensive and energy efficient biofuels. Algae, yeasts and bacteria have all been playing their part in transforming various feedstocks and even CO2 into usable biofuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel. However, both ethanol and biodiesel have their limitations because neither can be directly used in most standard gasoline engines. Ethanol can be mixed in with a blend of gasoline, such as with the E15 blend that has made headlines recently; and biodiesel requires specific diesel engines to function properly.

However, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy have announced a new breakthrough in biofuel technology, creating a biofuel that can run in most standard gasoline engines. The biofuel is called “isobutanol,” and is created using bacteria to convert plant matter into the substance. Isobutanol has a heat value higher than ethanol and more similar to gasoline, making it a contender as a possible option to run gasoline-powered vehicles in the future.

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"Unlike ethanol, isobutanol can be blended at any ratio with gasoline and should eliminate the need for dedicated infrastructure in tanks or vehicles," said James Liao, chancellor's professor and vice chair of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science and a partner in BESC. "Plus, it may be possible to use isobutanol directly in current engines without modification."

While this breakthrough in biofuel technology is certainly exciting, it does have its limitations. As with most biofuels that require a feedstock, the question of embodied energy comes to bear—that is, how much energy it takes to create the biofuel versus the amount of energy it actually produces. With feedstocks, the plant matter must be grown and transported, which currently require the use of fossil fuels.

Nonetheless, there is promise in using waste matter as feedstock for the biofuel generating bacteria. U.S. Department of Energy researchers recognize the limitations of using feedstock in biofuel production, even in the creation of isobutanol, and U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu remarks, "This is a perfect example of the promising opportunity we have to create a major new industry - one based on bio-material such as wheat and rice straw, corn stover, lumber wastes, and plants specifically developed for bio-fuel production that require far less fertilizer and other energy inputs. But we must continue with an aggressive research and development effort."
 
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