As reserves of fossil fuels
dwindle and the need to cut carbon dioxide emissions becomes
paramount the search is on for renewable energy alternatives, which
are also carbon neutral.
The hunt for viable forms of “bioenergy” is well
advanced at Aston University, in the West Midlands of the UK, where
a research team are leading the field in the development of
“fast pyrolysis”, which can convert biomass into a
biofuel through a carbon neutral process.
All organic matter is basically biomass: crops, forest and
agricultural waste. When treated through a fast pyrolysis process
biomass produces clean energy sources, in a sustainable way, in a
closed carbon cycle.
An analogy for the fast pyrolysis process might be the
traditional way of making charcoal, only far faster, and through a
complex machine. By heating biomass sources to a carefully
controlled temperature around 500 degrees and then cooling the
products down at speed, a bio-oil is produced that can be used for
energy for power, heat, transport fuels and
Two key considerations this process shares with other
alternative fuel sources, however, are cost and crop yield:
Production costs are relatively high but with rising oil prices and
progressive R&D this could soon change and the biomass should
be produced at as high a yield as possible.
Using a biomass resource with a high yield, like willow or
miscanthus, known as elephant grass, the fast pyrolysis process
could generate up to 3 times the amount of renewable liquid fuel
from the same land area used to produce bioethanol from straw, corn
or sugar or biodiesel from rape seed for example.
At the moment fast pyrolysis cannot produce fuel at a
competitive cost to fossil fuels, but with rising oil prices and
greater political commitment it could make a major contribution to
a cleaner and more sustainable planet in the future.
As they continue to research ways to improve on the fast
pyrolysis process, the Aston team’s future vision is of
biorefineries producing sustainable energy products to the order of
millions of tons a year.
- Planes over
- Traffic, and car exhausts
- Petrol station
- Lab shots
- Samples of biomass
- Straw, agriculture
- Fast Pyrolysis rigs
- Professor Tony Bridgwater, Chemical Engineering and Applied
Chemistry, Aston University
- Mr. Mark Coulson, Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry