When conventional methods are used to convert biomass or coal to liquid fuels, 60 percent to 70 percent of the carbon atoms in the starting materials are lost in the process as carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, whereas no carbon atoms would be lost using H2CAR, Agrawal said.
"This waste is due to the fact that you are using energy contained in the biomass to drive the entire process," he said. "I'm saying, treat biomass predominantly as a supplier of carbon atoms, not as an energy source."
Power for the electrolysis would be provided by carbon-free energy sources, such as solar, wind or nuclear power. And, unlike conventional methods of producing liquid fuels from plant matter and coal, H2CAR would not emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
"The goal is to accomplish the complete transformation of every carbon atom in the feedstock to liquid fuel by supplementing the conversion process with hydrogen from a carbon-free energy source," Agrawal said.
Other researchers have estimated that the United States has a sustainable supply of about 1.4 billion tons of biomass each year that could be used specifically for the production of liquid fuels. With conventional methods, that quantity of biomass would provide 30 percent of the fuel required for the nation's annual transportation needs. But the same quantity of biomass would provide enough fuel to meet all transportation needs using the new H2CAR method, Agrawal said.
"This is possible without using any additional land," he said.
A federal study indicates that 1 billion tons of biomass is potentially available every year from agricultural sources such as crop wastes, animal manure, grains and other crops. The remaining biomass could come from sources including fuel wood from fores