Almost any kind of raw biomass can be turned into biofuel, but it's not always cheap—transporting raw biomass to a processing facility is significantly more expensive than transporting liquid fuel derived from that biomass. So while it sounds great in theory to turn wood chips from some remote Midwestern farm into biofuel, it doesn't make much sense if the farm is far away from a processing plant. Enter Purdue University's mobile biofuel processing technology, which can turn nearly any available biomass (wood chips, switch grass, corn stover, rice husks, wheat straw, etc.) into biofuel on the spot.
Purdue's processor uses a technique called fast-hydropyrolysis-hydrodeoxygenation that works by feeding biomass and hydrogen into a high-pressure reactor that heats up to 900 degrees Fahrenheit in a single second. The hydrogen can be derived from natural gas, biomass, or even on-site solar power—making the process completely sustainable. According to Purdue researchers, the technique generates twice as much biofuel as current technologies when the hydrogen comes from natural gas, and creates 1.5 times the amount of liquid fuel when hydrogen is derived from biomass.
In many cases, Purdue's process could make biofuel production economical where it otherwise might not be. Professor Rakesh Agrawal explains:
It is also less capital intensive than conventional processes and can be built on a smaller scale, which is one of the prerequisites for the conversion of the low-energy density biomass to liquid fuel. So [the process] offers a solution for the interim time period, when crude oil prices might be higher but natural gas and biomass to supply hydrogen....might be economically competitive.
This doesn't mean that the electric vehicle industry should start worrying. Purdue's process has yet to be tested in a real-life setting. But if it works, it could quickly silence any arguments about the cost of transforming non-food based biomass into quality biofuel.