Poplar trees like these may someday be made into "green gasoline".
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U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science/Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Money Doesn't Grow on Trees, But Gasoline Might
News story originally written on April 7, 2008

What if the gasoline that came out of the pump wasn't made from fossil fuels that formed over millions of years? What if it was made from trees or grasses that could be grown again and again?

The idea of using plants as fuel isn't new. For thousands of years wood has been burned to warm houses and cook food. The plants used to make energy are called biomass and the fuels made from them are called biofuels. Now scientists are taking another look at how biomass could be used to make “green gasoline” which would help us reduce the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere.

Researchers are trying to develop a "green gasoline," that’s made from biomass sources like switchgrass and poplar trees. Recently, their research has gotten us closer to a solution.

George Huber, a chemical engineer, and graduate students Torren Carlson and Tushar Vispute from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst have figured out how to directly convert plant cellulose into the components of gasoline. While it may be five to 10 years before green gasoline arrives at the pump, these researchers have made big steps towards being able to make green gasoline.

"It is likely that the future consumer will not even know that they are putting biofuels into their car," said George Huber. "Biofuels in the future will most likely be similar in chemical composition to gasoline and diesel fuel used today."

Cooking up the components of gasoline in their laboratory at University of Massachusetts, George Huber and his students heated plant cellulose with materials that speed up chemical reactions. Then, they cooled the products. The result - a liquid that contains many of the compounds found in gasoline.

One of the interesting things about this is that it does not take any extra energy to make the fuel. During the reaction that makes the gasoline ingredients, heat is released, which can be used to make electricity. So making this “green gasoline” may be carbon neutral.

"There will not be just a small carbon footprint for the process; by recovering heat and generating electricity, there won't be any footprint,” said John Regalbuto from the National Science Foundation.

Last modified May 7, 2008 by Lisa Gardiner.

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