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Renewable Fuels of today?

I am a rising senior and have been thinking about the field of chemical engineering. I know chemical engineers are involved in many fields ranging from the make and testing of medicines to the making of a renewable fuel. I was wondering if there have been any recent studies being done on renewable fuels? If so do you know if they have made it onto the market yet or not? #chemical-engineering #renewable-energy

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Lucky’s Answer

Howdy Isaac!

Great question. The renewable fuels sector is growing. Many of the companies that have pursued the efforts of biofuel synthesis have achieved it with a few different styles. The first major consideration is the feedstock used e.g. biomass and the second being the product e.g. ethanol or hydrocarbons. I have followed the industry from college performing research and worked with a company to turn various biomass resources into a suitable reagent for hydrocarbon production using a process called gasification. Once the material (wood or paperwaste) is gasified into reactants (primarily H2 and CO) those reactants are pressurized and react over a catalyst to make hydrocarbons (the process is Fischer-Tropsch Synthesis).

I have also had the opportunity to work for a startup called Joule Unlimited Technologies that pursued a large scale outdoor photobioreactor to produce ethanol from CO2 using sunlight and light harvesting bacteria called cyanobacteria. They are still in the startup phase and pursuing carbon neutral renewable fuels right now with a company called Red Rock Biofuels to make diesel gasoline and ethanol from forest residues.

Brazil has a huge renewable fuels market with ethanol and has a fleet of vehicles that can run on pure ethanol or gas-ethanol mixtures. This is largely due to the high amount of farmland in Brazil and sugarcane that companies produce for the fuel used in their country.

There are other processes out there that companies have developed. Ineos Bio built a plant in Florida to take charred woody biomass and convert it to ethanol using a gasifier and an enzyme bioreactor. There are also some biodiesel companies across the country that collect waste cooking oil and process it to diesel.

I hope this answered your question or gave you some better insight in the renewable fuels sector. There's a lot outside of the technology (e.g. policy, markets) that determines if it's useful or even profitable to produce. You can dive deeper into the subject on the net and follow those companies if you're interested in keeping up with the topic.

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Sandy’s Answer

Ethanol production (from corn) is one of the types of biofuels that has made its way into large scale commercial production. However, there are many other types of renewable fuels that are currently being investigated and developed on smaller scales. The US Dept of Energy produced an overview report last year that can be found at http://www.energy.gov/sites/prod/files/2014/08/f18/bioenergy_overview_july_2014.pdf
This report details other renewables, like renewable diesel, renewable jet fuel, and cellulosic ethanol.

The report also details the three key processing routes to convert biomass into a renewable fuel: 1) hydrolysis, 2) gasification, and 3) pyrolysis.

As you have noted, chemical engineers play a vital role in developing these technologies and in the design and operation of manufacturing facilities.

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Colleen’s Answer

Hi Isaac! In addition to the great info that others have supplied, I thought you may be interested in new research that is being conducted on catalytic upgrading of lignin to aromatics for biofuel, especially jet fuel. I am not personally working on this, however I attended several lectures on the subject. I find it interesting and I thought you may want to look into it. One of the studies was done at Washington State University and the paper is "The ZnCl2 Induced Catalytic Upgrading of Biomass-Derived Lignin to Aromatics". Gook luck in your future endeavors!

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Daniela’s Answer


This link can help you:


Since 1981, the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA) has been the authoritative voice of the U.S. ethanol industry. Our members are committed to helping our country become cleaner, safer, and more energy independent. In creating a forum for ethanol producers and industry stakeholders, RFA has achieved an unequaled record of results through action, advocacy and analysis.
With the most experienced staff in the industry, RFA is able to provide timely, comprehensive industry information to our members, Congress, federal and state government agencies, fuel marketers and retailers, strategic partners, the media and other opinion-leader audiences.
RFA has been the industry’s most forceful advocate for expanding the market for ethanol. Just as important, we’ve worked to beat back aggressive challenges to ethanol’s progress from special interests seeking to maintain fossil fuel status quo.

Good Luck!

Thanks for the feedback! I'll be looking farther into this soon. Isaac N.

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Alexa’s Answer

Hi Isaac!

Thanks for your great question. I am a chemical engineer, and I have experience with the biofuels that are currently on the market, including biodiesel and ethanol. Both of these biofuels are already on the market - you will find up to 10% ethanol blended into almost all of our gasoline in the US and up to 5% biodiesel in our diesel. Some states are even putting 20% biodiesel into the diesel! Most of the ethanol in the US comes from corn, and most of our biodiesel comes from soybean or animal fat. While most cars can only handle these percentages right now (10% ethanol in gasoline and 5% biodiesel in diesel), there are also flex-fuel cars on the road that can use E85, which is gasoline with 85% ethanol. All of these are biofuel blends that are on the market, and people can buy them at the gas stations today.

I recently returned home from Argentina, as I had a grant to study biodiesel there. They have one of the largest biodiesel markets in the world, and almost 90% of the biodiesel there comes from soybean. The government in Argentina actually has put forth a mandate to blend 10% biodiesel into all diesel in the country, so it is very much available on the market there! My project involved studying another feedstock for biodiesel production, so that they can have another option instead of only using soybean.

In short, biofuels are on the market already in the US, and there are still lots of opportunities to study renewable fuels as a chemical engineer :) Good luck!

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Gary’s Answer

Issac, Before I retired from the DuPont corporation I was working in the Industrial Bio-sciences organization on a number of renewable fuel projects. The answer to your first question on studies is that there have been many studies done over the years, some by government organizations, some by industrial companies and still more by trade groups. While I no longer have my files I can direct you to several keywords so you can search. First you need to decide if your direction is in food or non-food sources. Food sources include various grains like wheat, barley as well as corn. For Bio-diesel protein based materials like nuts are also used. Non food sources include cellulosic ethanol (made from corn stover) as well as algae and probably others I can't remember. I can remember that there were several papers under the heading of "well to wheel' studies to determine whether the carbon footprint of specific biofuels were better or worse that fossil fuels. There are many commercial examples of these technologies in play. I can tell you that DuPont in in the process of starting up a cellulosic ethanol plant in Nevada Iowa as we speak. Also there were a number of engineering firms involved in licensing their own technology to build grain/corn ethanol facilities.

I have done a bit of research, still need to do more. But I have gained a general knowledge from a documentary just recently that had renewable fuels as their focus. Personally I am intrigued by the non-food spectrum especially algae since it grows relatively easy compared to other crops. In the documentary they had a building made mostly of glass with clear tubes that had nutrient rich water cycling through them to produce algae. Thank you for your feedback I'll be keeping in touch. Isaac N.

Issac, I did not work on algae but had a friend who was studying it. My recollection was that one needed to figure out how to economically grow and harvest this material since its energy density was low. There are several commercial demonstrations under way for algae conversion but the economics have not yet been solidified. Key to use of the renewables is economics compared to existing energy sources. Issue is the same with cellulosic from corn stover since harvest is only at the end of the growing seasons while feedstock needs are year round. Storage of stover cost money and if not done properly results in degradation of the material. While you are researching this topic also look into the use of sugarcane in Brazil and how they use both the carbohydrate as well as the 'begasse' Gary Holob

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Holly’s Answer

Oh Isaac, you have stumbled onto a topic that has become more politically than technological these days. First off "renewable energy" has a pretty broad definition. Growing trees, cutting them down and burning them can be considered renewable energy because you can plant more, the ash is considered fertile, and the CO2 that is given off is great food for the tree you planted. So the folks cutting down rain forests for a living may be killing our ecosystem, but they are making use of a renewable resource. Some even consider coal renewable because eventually coal will form from from dead organic matter (although it may take 400 million years).

Ethanol from corn is probably the most popularized energy that is considered renewable. However, because the amount of energy that is needed to convert corn into ethanol is about the same amount of yielded energy, many people believe it is essentially useless. See http://www2.buildinggreen.com/blogs/producing-ethanol-corn-bad-idea and many other research articles on the subject. But the folks receiving government subsidies to make ethanol from corn for gasoline will argue this is not the case...It has increasingly become very political see http://www.bloomberg.com/bw/articles/2014-01-06/u-dot-s-dot-ethanol-mandate-would-be-eliminated-if-bipartisan-legislation-passes and related articles. Anyway, there are a lot of people that will argue vehemently that corn ethanol is advantageous. Farmers, processors, researchers, and now even some energy companies have invested in the process and it has driven up (or held up) corn prices to the detriment of consumers who have to pay more for not only corn based products, but other crops (essentially, many farmers abandoned other crops and started planting corn because the govt quota for ethanol in gas created a demand). And now with oil prices being so low, the requirement to have 10% ethanol in gas is actually causing you to pay more to drive home and see your parents for holidays. Anyway, I am sure as a ChemE student, you have already aced Econ 101 and dont need the supply and demand discussion...

Good luck on your research, and maybe someday you can start from scratch and look holistically at renewable energy and potentially find an energy resource that can stand on its own merit as being not only renewable, but cost effective and efficient.

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Anthony’s Answer

Hello Isaac,

I don't know if you still need any input to your question (I am now saying 'answer' as I don't think anyone has an answer), but I can share a few things with you or the reader.

It depends, as timing is everything in this profession and especially in the field that you are considering. If you read the book, one that I am giving away for the asking @ https://www.linkedin.com/in/tonyluk, "The Next Millionaires" you might have a better understanding of the rapidly changing world.

I graduated in 1974 chemical engineering and proceeded to get my masters, both at Northwestern University and got a job in the alternative energy field during the "Energy Crisis" of the 1970's. Perfect timing, you say?

In 1981, I actually got on the engineering team to finalize the designs of the plant that was later built, http://www.dakotagas.com/. It is still operating but no one talks about this extraordinary success story, technology-wise.

So, go figure. I ended up having to go back to school in 1985 to study Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence.

I got in at the right time when the demand well exceed the available resources as not many people were trained in it.

I believe I am at the right opportunity at the right time and am willing to share with you; just ask if interested.

Best regards,

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Mohit’s Answer


Interesting time these days. With oil prices being so low, renewables have been choked of resources. There are numerous studies, no doubt. But the job of chemical engineer is to take it with a grain of salt, roll up the sleeves and make it work in the field. And when the rubber hits the road is you find out what the reality is! For example, I was involved in scaling up one such project on Cellulosic ethanol. Now as per research by the scientists, it was supposed to be a slam dunk. At pilot plant scale, the technology worked. But when we started the work at demonstration scale, 1000X , it did not work out for many reasons. And the proposed fixes made it uneconomical. Unfortunately, the project was shelved and assets sold off.
There is indeed a slip between the cup and the lip. As you can see, chemical engineers play a key role. Without them, mistakes would have been super duper expensive.
Hope this helps you with some insight,