January 27, 2012

Have you ever dreamed of seeing renewable sources become the world’s primary source of energy? One LSU student is researching ethanol as an alternative energy source to help the environment and the United State’s rising need.

Nitin Kumar, LSU chemical engineering graduate student, conducts research related to the production of ethanol from Syngas, a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, which can be obtained from various sources such as coal, biomass and natural gas. With oil prices rising, fossil fuels resources gradually being depleted and cleaner fuel demands increasing, ethanol offers a cleaner energy source that takes advantage of fuel and vehicle infrastructures already in place.

“I want to see a future where we can have renewable sources of energy and less dependence on oil and fossil fuels,” Kumar said. He is looking for direct catalytic conversion of syngas to ethanol and has studied several catalysts for this purpose. Kumar has produced new catalytic particles that measure in at less than 2 nanometers, much smaller than even the smallest known bacteria and viruses and that reproducibly convert Syngas to ethanol at efficiencies competitive with the best catalysts on the market.

If Syngas can efficiently be converted to ethanol, for example through the use of more effective catalysts, then ethanol can increasingly be used as an alternative energy source, with cleaner burning properties and the potential for localized production in agricultural areas helping both the environment and our increasing energy needs.

As an alternative fuel additive, E85, an ethanol fuel blend of up to 85 percent ethanol by volume, can currently be used in Flex Fuel Vehicles, such as the 2012 Ford Escape FFV, without the need for any infrastructure changes.

The challenge is that currently, most ethanol is produced from corn and sugar cane. Governmental restrictions limit non-food utilization of these agriculture products, Kumar explained. Thus, there is a need to produce ethanol from other sources like biomass, natural gas, or coal. Such production is not as easy as it sounds, considering that current Syngas-to-ethanol conversion techniques are largely inefficient.

The importance of Kumar’s research, with advisor Dr. James Spivey, McLaurin Shivers Professor of Chemical Engineering, funded by Chevron, involves testing di-metal catalysts that can efficiently convert Syngas into ethanol. 

“This is not an easy task,” Kumar said, speaking of developing a catalyst that selectively produces ethanol from a flexible feedstock of biomass, coal, natural gas or refinery residue starting materials. The task requires making the carbon monoxide from syngas ‘stick’ to the catalyst surface. “This is a significant challenge, specifically forming the first carbon-carbon bond from CO, which is basically trying to make CO do something it doesn’t want to do,” Dr. Spivey said.

But Kumar has already successfully fabricated catalysts with greater than 15 percent selectivity in catalyzing ethanol synthesis from syngas, and he is optimistic that his catalysts’ performance will only improve when scaled up for industrial processes.

“Then we can achieve efficiencies that are competitive or better than those currently achievable,” Kumar said. He is optimistic that researchers can help save our environment, one clean energy catalyst at a time.


Article written by Paige Brown, communications graduate student worker. For more information, contact Cassie Arceneaux, College of Engineering, carcen6@lsu.edu or (225) 578-0092. 

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