New fuel

How a common industrial chemical becomesfuel

Published: Monday 30 November 1998

RESEARCHERS have developed a new catalytic process to turn a common industrial chemical into an essential ingredient used in energy efficient alternative fuels. The technique could be the first to make the process economically attractive to chemical companies. Scientists at the US department of energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory claim to have developed a multi-step catalytic process that converts levulinic acid, a compound commonly used in the production of solvents and pesticides, into a fuel additive called methyltetrahydrofuran, or MTHF. This, along with ethanol and natural gas pentanes, forms an integral constituent of the new P-series of alternative fuels that the department of energy hopes to introduce into government-owned vehicles. "Our system represents a new ability to use levulinic acid in creating environmentally friendly products," said Doug Elliot, lead investigator of Pacific Northwest's chemical process development group. Industry has failed to use levulinic acid to make MTHF in the past because the process has been too costly, said Elliot recently. The new technique involves pumping the acid into a tube, where it is warmed and mixed with hydrogen. Both compounds are then mixed with a catalyst in a reactor where a number of chemical reactions result in the production of MTHF. Lab tests indicate the theoretical yield of the process could reach 83 per cent.

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