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Valeric Biofuels Move Forward

Shell researchers improve a reaction step in the conversion of levulinic acid to valerate esters

by Elizabeth K. Wilson
May 17, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 20

Researchers continue to gain momentum in the effort to make practical the conversion of woody plant material into biofuels via levulinic acid derivatives. Jean-Paul Lange of Shell Global Solutions, in Amsterdam, and colleagues report a novel approach based on converting lignocellulose into valeric esters, which might be more ideal for augmenting diesel and gasoline supplies than other proposed levulinic acid derivatives (Angew. Chem. Int. Ed., DOI: 10.1002/anie.201000655). Lignocellulose is considered an attractive renewable starting material for biofuels. But accessing and converting the sugars trapped in plants is complicated and expensive. Levulinic acid can be readily produced from lignocellulose via acid hydrolysis and then hydrogenated to γ-valerolactone, which has been considered a potential biofuel. Several research groups have been working to improve on γ-valerolactone, however. For Lange’s group, optimizing one subsequent step—the hydrogenation of γ-valerolactone to valeric acid—had been a synthetic bottleneck. The Shell researchers solved the problem with brute force, testing 150 catalysts before settling on a platinum-loaded zeolite that does the trick. The team then esterified valeric acid to a set of valeric esters and diesters. They put these valeric esters to a number of fuel tests, including a 155,000-mile road trip powered by a blend of 15% ethyl valerate in regular gasoline.


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