By Michelle Fredrickson, Voiland College of Engineering & Architecture

McEwenPULLMAN, Wash. – A researcher at Washington State University has received a three-year $450,000 federal grant to develop computer models for using iron to more efficiently refine bio-oils and make better biofuels.

Jean-Sabin McEwen, assistant professor in the Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering, will collaborate on the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Basic Energy Sciences grant with colleagues at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the Université Libre de Bruxelles.

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Jean-Sabin McEwen with a catalyst grain model at WSU.

Biofuels are more sustainable and environmentally friendly than fossil fuels, but their use is limited due to the high oxygen content of bio-oils, which are produced directly from plant matter. The oxygen easily reacts with nearby molecules, causing engine corrosion and reduced fuel efficiency.

In short, if you were to use unrefined bio-oil, McEwen said, “Your car wouldn’t run very well.”

By using chemical reactions, bio-oils can be refined into usable biofuels by removing oxygen; however, the refinement process is inefficient and expensive. Refining bio-oils often uses costly precious metals as catalysts, which makes the final biofuel very expensive.

Is iron the answer?

As part of the three-year grant, McEwen and his colleagues will develop and test computer models to accurately predict catalysts’ behavior under real-life conditions. They hope the work will improve understanding of every aspect of the catalytic reactions and help researchers make better use of less expensive catalysts like iron.

In particular, the researchers will use their models to test their idea of combining abundant and cheap iron with miniscule amounts of precious metals to make an affordable and efficient catalyst for biofuel production.

“Iron alone would be fine for a short time,” McEwen said. “But it doesn’t have a long life. Combining precious metals with iron creates a long-living catalyst.”