Development of Biofuels
Development of methods for biomass utilization and sustainable use requires a detailed characterization and quantification of both biofuels and biomass materials (e.g., lignin and triglycerides) using prevalently GC-MS. While there are many studies pursuing this aspect of chemical analysis, they often oversimply the data interpretation by normalizing all results to 100% - i.e., arbitrarily assuming that the specific methods applied in their studies can “see” all the products and thus not recognizing limitations of each method. In our laboratory, we have demonstrated that correct approaches to quantification are essential and we were able to obtain mass balance closure of >90% for intermediate biofuel products. An example of essential comprehensive characterization is our discovery of significant formation of acids (30 wt. %) within non-catalytic thermal processes of biofuel generation from triglycerides. Although numerous studies described this process, they failed to notice the acids using their methods. We have patented this work.
Our laboratory collaborates within SUNRISE initiative lead by Dr. Seames (Chemical Engineering Department) on the project involving generation of biofuels. With few exceptions, the current methods applied for characterization of biofuels are based on the ASTM methods for petroleum products. However, the properties and compositions of biofuels and petroleum products differ – thus, appropriate methods have to be developed. Such development first requires the understanding of what are the major species and thus characterization performed using gas chromatography (GC) with flame ionization (FID) and mass spectrometric (MS) detectors. The critical aspect of our work is proper quantification using the FID with appropriate standards. This protocol eliminates errors caused when methods originally developed for petroleum fuels are employed. Such methods, although correct for petroleum fuels, assume that all species are volatile enough to elute through GC. However, this cannot be said about the biofuel samples especially NOT intermediate products of the process. Complementary to the FID is the MS detection providing a great tool for the identification of individual species or classes of compounds. Using MS, even those chemicals which are negligible on FID signal can be found. Their identification and quantitation may dramatically affect the properties of the resulting biofuel (see the figure below). The overall aim of our work is to provide detailed methods comparable to ASTM methods in petroleum fuels. These projects are funded through U.S. Department of Energy, the North Dakota Agricultural Production Utilization Commission, the North Dakota State Board of Agricultural Research, the North Dakota Soybean Council, and the National Science Foundation.