Of Kernels and Cobs

Researchers ditch the ethanol in favor of biofuels derived from junk crops and trash, like cornhusks

The key to cellulosic biofuels

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We all thought biofuels we're going to be our eco-savior (what could be greener than running our cars on renewable corn, soy, or sugarcane?) That is, until it turned out eco-fuels contribute to rising food prices, put conservation land back into agricultural production, and turn into an all-around bust because fermentation of the starches and sugars put lots of CO2 into the atmosphere. But biofuels may yet make their mark on mother earth.

The quest to find the key to cellulosic biofuels—fuels derived from junk crops like corn husks and cobs, switch grass, and other non-food grade plant matter—has taken a big leap thanks to researchers Mark Mascal and Edward Nikitin at the University of California, Davis. The duo has developed an easy, economic process for creating "furanic" fuels from cellulose. Introducing microcystalline cellulose into a mixture lithium chloride and hydrochloric acid and stirring it for 18 hours, Mascal and Nikitin were able to produce 71 percent CMF, the organic compound 5-chloromethylfurfural which can be mixed with ethanol to create automotive fuel or could be used as the starting point for the synthesis of more complex biofuels.

"Our method appears to be the most efficient conversion of cellulose into simple, hydrophobic, organic compounds described to date," reports Mascal. With luck, it will be the most eco-friendly as well.