From Sawdust to Biofuel – Modern Day Alchemy in a Korean Lab
The alchemists in ancient times tried to spin straw into gold. A scientist in Korea may have made a breakthrough that’s even more lucrative: turning sawdust and scrap wood into biofuel.
Burning fossil fuels like coal and petroleum for energy generates large amounts of greenhouse gases and other pollutants. This has been one of the primary environmental concerns for the past decade.
According to the U.S Environmental Protection Agency, the coal-fired plants that dominate U.S. energy production (48 percent in 2007) produce more emissions than any other energy source.
Finding a reliable energy source that is both cleaner than coal and cost competitive with it is a riddle that has kept scientists busy for years. Biofuel – a fuel that is similar to diesel but based on animal fats or vegetable oil – has shown promise. According to the EPA’s Renewable Fuel Standards Program Regulatory Impact Analysis, released in February 2010, biofuel made out of soy reduces greenhouse gases 57% compared to fossil diesel.
Photo Credit: the Tiki Bar
While it is exciting news to hear that coconuts, chicken fat and peanuts could fuel our cars and power plants, there’s one big drawback to biofuel: COST.
It wasn’t cheap enough to produce biofuel to make it commercially viable. Additionally, as often bio oil uses crops that can also be consumed by people, there’s been a lot of controversy as to whether or not we should use these potential sources of nutrition for fuel amid rising food prices.
However, Dr. Yeon-seok Choi, a Korean scientist at the Korea Institute of Machinery and Materials has found an indigenous technology to cheaply turn old wood scraps into oil.
Dr. Choi has developed a small-scale processing plant that can yield 9 kilograms of bio-crude from 15 kilograms of sawdust in about an hour. That’s an impressive 60 percent conversion rate.
This technology could make biofuel much more competitive because it takes a waste product and cheaply turns it into a valuable commodity. Hopefully this will be take us one step closer to large-scale viability of biofuel.
There are still challenges to overcome. Right now the quality of the fuel isn’t great so its applications are limited. However, Dr. Choi is working to refine the process in order to create higher-quality fuel that could one day find its way into your gas tank or have a role in powering your home.