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Fuelling the future

Guest post by Rhod Jenkins

What is the holy grail of renewable energy production? I work with a lot of chemists and engineers who research the area of chemical renewable energy, and this is one debate we tend to have more than any other. After a lot of raised voices, wagged fingers and offences taken, we tend to conclude that there is no one solution to the problem, but rather it’ll be a mixture of all of them. This is partially due to the massive scale of the energy problem, but it also comes down to the applicability of the technology. What might work for one application may be completely inappropriate for another.
2013 Nissan Leaf electric car at the 2012 Los Angeles Auto Show

2013 Nissan Leaf electric car at the 2012 Los Angeles Auto Show – Photo By Steve Lyon

Take transport, for instance. We all rely heavily on powered transport, and in the UK it accounts for over a third of our energy consumption. For this specific application the energy source needs to be carried on-vehicle (except in very rare electric trams), and at the moment this comes in the handy form of liquid fossil fuel. But what are our other options? Actually, there’s quite a few and they come generally under two categories. We can either replace the fuel itself, keeping the current engine technology and infrastructure, or we can develop new transport technology which would require new infrastructure.

There are a few different renewable liquid fuel technologies that can act as drop-in fuels, some of which are in use today. Most well-known are biofuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel, which are used in blends in both the EU and the US, but they are not without problems. Other than the fact they’re derived from food resources, they both contain oxygen which reduces the amount of energy you can get out of the same amount of material, known as the energy density (by around a third for ethanol and 10-12% for biodiesel).[1, 2] The presence of oxygen also increases their reactivity. Ethanol can be corrosive to the engine and solubilise water from the atmosphere, whilst biodiesel can oxidatively degrade, increasing its viscosity and ultimately producing corrosive compounds.


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