6/29/2017 Peter Durantine

Building the Biofuel of the Future

In a small office in the Hackman Physical Sciences Building at Franklin & Marshall College, student researcher Connor Protter and Visiting Assistant Professor of Chemistry Alex Davis toil away on computations that could one day bring a more efficient and accessible biofuel to market.

“One of the key concerns about switching to any new biofuel is, ‘If you put it in the car, what are you going to get out of the tailpipe?’ You want to know that before you start using it,” Davis said.

A Hackman Summer Scholar, Protter, a chemistry major from Princeton, N.J., is studying an unnamed biofuel using computational modeling to determine, at the molecular level, the biofuel’s reaction during combustion.

“We’re trying to learn what is most likely to occur,” Protter said. “Before you put the fuel in your car, you want to get an idea of what it’s going to do and how it’s going to perform, so you’re not putting in things that are going to be carcinogenic or deadly in the atmosphere.”

  • Protter and Professor Davis discuss their work, which they do in F&M's Hackman building. Protter and Professor Davis discuss their work, which they do in F&M's Hackman building. Image Credit: Deb Grove

Engine performance is critical. Using quantum mechanics, Davis and Protter are making computations that will provide automobile manufacturers a better understanding of how the biofuel’s combustion works, which would help the carmakers build more efficient engines.

“We try to work out the mechanisms that are going on in the chemical part of the engine to allow engineers to build computer models so they can design better engines,” Davis said.

The researchers chose this particular biofuel, one of hundreds available, because scientists know little about how the molecular structure is likely to react in combustion, Protter said.

Ethanol may reign among biofuels, but Davis said ethanol “is not really a good fuel” because it’s water soluble. He adds that the purpose of his research is to devise biofuels with molecular structures that behave like gasoline, which is insoluble.  

“You don’t want water in your engine,” Davis said. “That gums up the engine and the fuel won’t burn. What we would want is fuels that behave more like gasoline.”

Molecularly, the biofuel has longer-chain hydrocarbons that are less likely to interact with water, critical to combustion efficiency. More cost-effective synthetic procedures to build these longer-chain hydrocarbons were developed in recent years.

“Now that they’ve come up with a way to make these longer chains, it’s up to the rest of us to figure out what these longer chains are going to do,” Davis said. “That’s what we’re working on.”

Davis and Protter are collaborating with scientists at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia, who conduct experiments based on the F&M researcher’s biofuel data. With a biofuel that performs like gasoline, cars would not have to dramatically change.

“We wouldn’t have to get rid of our old cars,” Davis said. “Making the switch from traditional fuels to these new fuels [would be] almost seamless. Ideally, we would just switch over to the new fuel and we’re done.”

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