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Butanol produced from wood is an alternative to corn-based ethanol. Photo: SUNY-ESF
Butanol produced from wood is an alternative to corn-based ethanol. Photo: SUNY-ESF

Wood-based biofuel coming to a car near you

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As summer driving season gets underway, researchers at SUNY's College of Environmental Science and Forestry continue work on a greener alternative to power your car. Emma Jacobs took a bio-fueled test drive for the Innovation Trail.

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Researcher Shijie Liu is pouring a beaker of next generation fuel right into the gas tank of one of the college’s hybrid cars.

Senior research associate Timothy Volk takes the car for a spin— around the parking lot. He says butanol, which is being cooked up in the labs from wood chips provides more power per gallon than ethanol. He says it’s also easier for cars to digest than ethanol, which is mostly made from corn.

“There are limitations for ethanol. It’s a little harder to get it into the gasoline system. So people are looking for alternative biofuels that would be a little easier to integrate into our existing infrastructure.”

Volk says the collapse of the paper mill industry in the northeast means wood is growing a lot faster than it’s being harvested. That means there’s still plenty of wood around that could be used to make butanol.

Right now, the researchers are still refining their process so they can get more fuel from less wood.

Graduate student Karin Arens says the enzymes that are used for fuel were actually discovered digesting pulp in a Georgia paper mill plant, “It’s a very exciting process and we really are very excited to be able to work on it.”

Hammering out production will be a process. Researcher Timothy Volk says butanol is still five to ten years out from a gas pump near you.

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