Promoting plant power

In the future the fuels and chemicals currently manufactured from fossil fuels could be made from plants, according to a paper published today.


In the future the fuels and chemicals currently manufactured from fossil fuels could be made from plants, according to a paper published in the journal Science today.


The authors of the report are group of scientists from Imperial College London, Georgia Tech and Oak Ridge National Laboratory who have formed a strategic partnership, the AtlantIC Alliance. In the paper they describe the challenges of creating a facility to process renewable plant materials, known as biomass, into a range of fuels, foods, chemicals, animal feeds, materials, heat and power in proportions that would give maximum value with minimum waste.


The group says that efficient refining of biomass will be vital for producing renewable products with reduced carbon emissions. Biofuels and biomaterials are derived from plants which take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they grow. Their net contribution to greenhouse gases can be very small if minimal non-renewable energy is used when processing them into useful material or energy products.


Dr Charlotte Williams from Imperial’s Department of Chemistry, one of the authors of the paper, describes the challenges facing a shift to Biomass resources, saying, “Biomass has a completely different molecular structure compared with hydrocarbons from oil. That means we’ll need to develop new techniques so that we can transform plant material into everything from specialty, high value products such as perfumes and plastics to higher volume products such as fuels.”


The partnership aims to amalgamate the differing expertise from each institution to address the shift from fossil-based resources to renewable biomass. The project has awarded a UK Office of Science and Technology grant to develop the alliance, backed up by internal funding from each of the partners.