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New Biomass Conversion Technique Achieved with Electricity

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In an effort to replace fossil fuels, a team of researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and Gwangiu Institute of Science and Technology has discovered a way to reverse the process of splitting fuel compounds to release electrons and protons which then generate electricity.

Using an entirely different technique, the team obtained fuel molecules by using fuel-cell running on electricity.

The chemical industry relies heavily on isopropanol, an important feedstock for downstream molecules. Isopropanol is also used as a gasoline additive, and the pharmaceutical industry uses it extensively in antiseptics, astringents, liniments, and disinfectants.

The research team has shown they can use a proton-exchange-membrane fuel-cell to convert biomass-derived compound acetone into isopropanol. Researchers are also hoping to use this process to convert glucose into hexane.

Different from other methods, this technology uses electricity for biomass conversion rather than the standard hydrogen.

On the anode side of the fuel-cell, researchers add water and run an electric current through the water to create protons and electrons. Then, two things happen. The electrons travel through a circuit and the protons pass through the proton-exchange membrane.

Once on the cathode side, they generate hydrogen. This reacts with the biomass molecule and converts it into fuel. The oxygen generated leaves the system. Thanks to the continuous flow mode, this method yields 50% more liquid fuel over an ethanol fermentation process.

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