Images of climate innovation

Category: Sustainable world

A greener future for transport

What's this about?

This could be the future for transport, powering our lorries and buses with clean, renewable biofuels instead of fossil fuels. Plant-based liquid fuels are currently made using distillation to separate the useful chemicals from a broth containing mostly water. This takes lots of energy and results in high carbon emissions. Hull's new membrane technology performs the separation at room temperature, for a much greener, low carbon fuel replacement.

A scientist holds up a vial of red liquid and a vial of clear liquid

More detail about the research

Bill Gates Five Grand Challenges identified transportation as the source of 14 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and a key area to be tackled to help reduce climate change. One way of reducing these emissions is to replace oil-based fossil fuels like petrol or diesel with plant-based liquid biofuels. Biofuels are currently made by fermenting waste materials from plants called biomass.

Although the plants used are easily renewable, making them a good low carbon replacement, current biofuel production methods rely on distillation to separate fuels from the watery fermentation broth, which takes lots of energy and can therefore generate greenhouse gas emissions.

The high energy production methods also mean biofuels have a relatively high cost to the consumer. Dr. Xuebin Ke of the University of Hull is leading Research England funded THYME research with the Biorenewables Development Centre and industry partners to create a new low-energy method of making biofuels. Instead of distilling a boiling fermentation broth, Dr. Ke's innovative new approach can extract and purify the useful biofuels at room temperature.

Separation happens using pervaporation a type of filtration that separates liquids by passing them through a series of specially designed membranes. As society moves towards a zero-carbon future and tries to make energy production sustainable, biofuels are recognised as a means of replacing fossil fuels. Hull's innovation has the potential to half the energy requirements and carbon footprint of biofuel production. Opening the door to biofuels becoming a low-cost and low-carbon option to power transport.

Entrant: Xuebin Ke , University of Hull

Copyright: Neil Holmes

Funding: Research England Connecting Capabilities Fund via the THYME Project

Collaborators: Dr Mark Gronnow (Biorenewables Development Centre - BDC); Nanjing Industrial Technology Research Institute of Membrane (NIM)