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Feature

Lanny Schmidt and glowing catalyst

Lanny Schmidt and his research team have found a way to extract hydrogen from sugar and vegetable oil.

Sugar in your gas tank?

A new process extracts energy from sugar and vegetable oil

By Deane Morrison

From M, winter 2007

He's done it again. In 2004 chemical engineering wizard Lanny Schmidt made waves with an invention to extract hydrogen from ethanol. Now, he and his research team have found a way to do the same with vegetable oil and sugar, a first step toward creating usable fuels from plant wastes like sawdust or cornstalks. While the Schmidt team worked with fresh soybean oil and glucose, those were just practice materials. In particular, glucose was a stand-in for related starchy compounds like cellulose, a major building block of plant cell walls. The real targets are underutilized plant oils and fibers. "It's a way to take cheap, worthless biomass and turn it into useful fuels and chemicals," says Schmidt a Regents Professor of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science. "Potentially, the biomass could be used cooking oil or even products from cow manure, yard clippings, cornstalks or trees. It's better than bringing oil from Saudi Arabia." Schmidt and graduate students James Salge, Brady Dreyer, and Paul Dauenhauer described their work in the Nov. 3, 2006, issue of Science. The process yields hydrogen, an energy source for fuel cells and a potential substitute for fossil-based gasoline. It also produces carbon monoxide. The mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide is called synthesis gas--up until now largely made with petroleum-derived elements--which is used to make synthetic diesel fuel and ammonia for fertilizer. If scaled up, their process could slash the cost of producing renewable fuels and chemicals from biomass and eliminate the fossil fuel input now needed for turning vegetable oil into usable "biofuel." The new process works 10 to 100 times faster than current technologies and could be done in facilities about 10 times smaller. "We need radically new technologies on the road to renewable fuels. This is a possibility," says Schmidt. "We need a lot of research like this to make renewable technologies work."