The Pursuit of Greener Methanol

A Lehigh University Research team is working to create a new method of producing renewable fuel. Supported by a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation, using only carbon dioxide, sunlight and water, the team is attempting to perfect a low-cost, mcintosh13steveenvironmentally friendly process that could enable the production of methanol—which can be used as fuel for cars, heating appliances, electricity generation and more—at commercial scale. The research is a continuation of chemical and bioengineering professors Steve McIntosh and Bryan Berger work to produce low-cost quantum dots, or QDs, from bacteria.

QDs are small semiconductor particles that were discovered three decades ago. Researchers see their potential in transistors, solar cells, LEDs, lasers, medical imaging and even quantum computing. QDs are also very expensive to make, as they require the use of toxic solvents and costly chemicals at elevated temperatures. Berger’s novel idea to produce QDs from bacteria makes this technology green and affordable.

Through a Lehigh CORE award, McIntosh and Berger worked with Chris Kiely, professor of berger13bryanmaterials science and engineering and director of Lehigh’s electron microscopy labs, to develop a method of producing QDs at very low cost in bacteria. In their successful EFRI grant, one of only a few awarded nationally last year, they added the expertise of Robert Skibbens, professor of biological sciences, and Ivan Korendovych, assistant professor of chemistry at Syracuse University. Together, the researchers hope that QDs produced through their revolutionary new method can serve as the light-harvesting component of a photocatalyst to efficiently produce methanol fuel.

In their EFRI project, the researchers will couple the QDs with a series of yeast-synthesized enzymes. The QDs will capture the energy in sunlight to generate an energetic electron and electron hole pair. These excited species catalyze the removal of hydrogen from water and carbon from CO2, and produce methanol, a renewable liquid fuel, in a continuous flow process.

The group’s biosynthetic process to produce QDs, said McIntosh, enables control of the dots’ particle size and, with that, the wavelength and energy of light captured. It is not only a dramatically less expensive method than using precious metal catalysts, but it also makes large-scale production of liquid fuels far more feasible.

“The biosynthetic QDs not only enable us to design processes to produce liquid fuel at dramatically reduced cost, but also enable the development of an environmentally-friendly, bio-inspired process unlike current approaches that rely on high temperatures, pressures, toxic solvents and precious metal catalysts,” explained Berger. “Thus, we are able to develop a unique, ‘green’ approach to liquid fuel synthesis that substantially reduces both cost and environmental impact.”

“In the process of trying to achieve our goals on this project, we also will learn valuable lessons that will advance science in other ways,” added McIntosh. “Making QDs more cheaply and efficiently has many applications, such as efficient lighting, biomedical imaging and displays.

Methanol Institute Releases Biodiesel Primer

A Biodiesel PrimerThe Methanol Institute released a report on the worldwide use of production of biodiesel during the 10th Annual Biodiesel Conference & Expo held in Las Vegas. Methanol is one of the products used to make biodiesel. “A Biodiesel Primer: Market & Policy Development, Quality, Standards and Handling,” provides the latest information on the role of methanol in biodiesel production an global policy issues and was prepared by the Global Biofuels Center.

“The methanol and biodiesel industries are partners in a critical effort to bring safe, reliable and affordable alternative fuels to the world’s transportation market,” said Gregory Dolan, acting CEO of the Methanol Institute.

Today there are 124 biodiesel production facilities in the U.S. and another 28 that are in the development stages.

New Research Could Lead to Cheaper Fuel Cells

Fuel cells can create electricity that produces very little or even no pollution. In the future, fuel cells are expected to power electric vehicles and replace batteries, among other things. However, fuel cells are expensive.

Now researchers at Aalto University in Finland have developed a new and significantly cheaper method of manufacturing fuel cells. Using atomic layer deposition (ALD), the researchers are making cells that incorporate 60 percent less catalyst material than would normally be required. The study is published in the Journal of Physical Chemistry.

“This is a significant discovery, because researchers have not been able to achieve savings of this magnitude before with materials that are commercially available,” says Docent Tanja Kallio of Aalto University.

In a fuel cell, chemical processes must be sped up by using a catalyst. The high price of catalysts is one of the biggest hurdles to the wide adoption of fuel cells at the moment.

The most commonly used fuel cells cover anode with expensive noble metal powder which reacts well with the fuel. By using the Aalto University researchers’ ALD method, this cover can be much thinner and more even than before which lowers costs and increases quality.

With this study, researchers are developing better alcohol fuel cells using methanol or ethanol as their fuel. It is easier to handle and store alcohols than commonly used hydrogen. In alcohol fuel cells, it is also possible to use palladium as a catalyst. The most common catalyst for hydrogen fuel cells is platinum, which is twice as expensive as palladium. This means that alcohol fuel cells and palladium will bring a more economical product to the market.

These results are based on preliminary testing with fuel cell anodes using a palladium catalyst. Commercial production could start in five to ten years.

Congressmen Promote Open Fuel Standard

Members of the Open Fuel Standard Coalition joined with Representatives Eliot Engel (D-NY) and John Shimkus (R-IL) to call for consumer choice at the pump during an Energy Security Roundtable and media event in Washington DC on Tuesday

The two congressmen, pictured here with former National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane, outlined their Open Fuel Standard Act (HR 1687) which would set a deadline of 2017 for automakers to stop making cars that run on only gasoline. After than point, all American made cars must be either flex fuel (capable of burning gasoline, ethanol or methanol or any combination of these), or powered by natural gas, hydrogen, biodiesel, plug-in electric, or fuel cell.

“By employing the Open Fuel Standard, we can create competition for petroleum on the open market with other types of fuel. We don’t have to wait for the perfect technology,” said Rep. Engel (center).

“Consumers should have a choice when they pull up to a refueling station,” Rep. Shimkus (right) added. “At a minimal cost, vehicles could be able to accept multiple fuels with consumers choosing based on price or even feedstock for the fuel.”At a minimal cost, vehicles could be able to accept multiple fuels with consumers choosing based on price or even feedstock for the fuel.”

Also at the event were NASCAR driver Kenny Wallace and representatives from the Renewable Fuels Association, the Methanol Institute and ACT! For America.

Event to Promote Open Fuel Standard Act

Ethanol and other alternative fuel industry leaders will be on Capitol Hill Tuesday to urge Congress to an Open Fuel Standard (OFS).

Representatives John Shimkus (R-IL) and Elliot Engel (D-NY) introduced the Open Fuel Standard Act in June with the support of the Open Fuel Standard Coalition. Tuesday’s event in the nation’s capitol will include an Energy Security Roundtable and press conference.

“Americans need a choice at the pump and the Open Fuel Standard would allow them to pick an ethanol blend that meets their needs,” said Renewable Fuels Association President and CEO Bob Dinneen who will be a panelist at the roundtable. “The OFS would also create market space for other alternative fuels that are critical to our nation’s energy future.”

Dinneen will be joined by former National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane, NASCAR driver Kenny Wallace, and others who will discuss alternative fuels and the dangers of our addiction to imported oil for the event hosted by Reps. Shimkus and Engel, in 2218 Rayburn HOB from 2:00 – 3:00 p.m. Other participants will include Methanol Institute executive director Greg Dolan, and President and CEO of ACT! for America Brigitte Gabriel.