A pair of Texas Tech University researchers will use a near $640,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to seek out more cost and energy efficient ways for biofuels to power the world.
Ronald Hedden and Rajesh Khare, associate professors of chemical engineering, have embarked on a collaborative effort to enable the recovery of biofuels through a process called pervaporation.
Early routes to biofuels relied on food crops such as corn, which created controversy. Recent advancements have focused on the use of cellulosic biomass, such as grasses, agricultural waste and wood, mainly produced by a microbial fermentation process that produces a small amount of fuel dissolved in a large quantity of water.
Pervaporation combines aspects of filtration and evaporation through a membrane to separate the biofuel from other components in the mixture, Hedden and Khare said.
From the practical point of view, biofuel produced from different plant sources (e.g. desert plants from southwest vs. coniferous trees from the north) will have different composition. Pervaporation membranes will need to be tuned rapidly to meet the separation requirements of regionally variable feed sources.
Hedden and Khare will apply combinatorial synthesis and theoretical modeling to enable rapid prototyping of new polymeric membrane materials for improved pervaporation processes. Their approach involves combinatorial, high-throughput screening methods, which permit rapid, matrix-based testing of large numbers of polymer compositions to find an optimal membrane material quickly. Computational modeling will help target the molecular factors underlying the good performance of the most promising membrane materials.
Hedden and Khare envision developing methodology that can realistically be implemented on-site at biorefineries to prepare designer membranes in a short amount of time, offering clear benefits to the biofuels industry.