3-cellulose to bio-oilFossil fuels, including petroleum, coal, natural gas, and others, are essentially organic materials that have decomposed. Under pressure, heat, and time, and in an anaerobic, oxygen-free, environment, both animal and plant materials eventually are converted into high-carbon compounds that, for human beings anyway, make great hydrocarbon [HC] fuels.

Carbon dioxide [CO2] was sequestered from the atmosphere in this way millions of years ago. Burning HC fuels today releases that CO2 back into the atmosphere, which is the leading cause of global warming.

Biofuel programs, using materials such as wood pulp and elephant grass, aim to speed up the process of HC formation, artificially inducing the anaerobic conditions that resulted in coal and petroleum, resulting in a carbon-neutral fuel.

Real-life chemical reactions, such as those involved in converting wood to bio-oils, are often difficult to observe in real time, and calculations on paper may not show the whole story of complex processes.

Using supercomputer-based programming, North Carolina State University [NC State] chemical and biomolecular engineer Dr. Philip Westmoreland and doctoral student Vikram Seshadri, have been working out exactly what happens, on a molecular scale, during the decomposition of wood into bio-oil.

The resulting calculations, according to Dr. Westmoreland, “show that although the decomposition products and rates differ in glucose and cellulose, the various elementary steps appear to be the same, but altered in their relative importance to each other.” Biofuel researchers will be able to take these new calculations and apply them to extract bio-oils, which can then be refined into biogas, more efficiently from wood decomposition.

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