Too Cool For (Fossil) Fuel: Producing Biofuels with a New Method, Shannon Hoffman, GS (2834703)
From Research Princeton Research Day on April 30th, 2021
As global temperatures rise, replacing fossil fuels with alternative energy sources has become a major initiative worldwide. Biofuels are a key source of renewable energy, which have already displaced about 10% of the gasoline that we use in our cars every day. The typical way to make these fuels, which uses corn as a feedstock, has been key towards establishing biofuels industrially, but raises concerns of competition with the food industry. A more attractive alternative is to produce these fuels from cellulose, which is a polymeric sugar abundant in all plants and even agricultural waste. While cellulosic biofuels are very promising, they have struggled economically as the cellulose must first be broken down into simple sugars, which is notoriously difficult due to its tightly packed structure. This difficulty ultimately leads to long process times, waste, and high costs.
My research focuses on developing a new way to treat cellulose which makes it easier to breakdown and convert into fuel. This new treatment, which involves emulsifying the cellulose, works by loosening the molecular structure of the cellulose chains, making them easier to degrade, (just as loosening a knot makes it easier to untie!). We found that this treatment increases the rate at which cellulose can be broken down by up to 40 times and leads to much faster process times when used to make biofuels. With this technology, my research is addressing the main challenges of cellulosic biofuels and setting a foundation for a more sustainable future away from fossil fuels.