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Transforum Vol. 10, No. 2
Argonne’s Integrated Approach to Developing Biofuels and Engines

Laible in the lab
Argonne biophysicist Philip Laible oversees the growth of new variants of photosynthetic bacteria designed to produce target biofuel molecules. In this culture mode, it is easy to extract cells during all phases of growth for analysis, and add chemicals (shown here) to speed growth or induce the production of target fuels.

A diverse group of Argonne scientists and engineers are involved in a highly collaborative effort to make biofuels and engines work together more efficiently.

Biophysicists, theoretical chemists and mechanical engineers are among the researchers working together toward an integrated approach that combines the production of new biofuels with the design of internal combustion engines.

“Not only could this effort lead to cleaner, more efficient vehicles, it could also result in groundbreaking, new paradigms for the transportation industry,” said Doug Longman, a mechanical engineer in Argonne’s Transportation Technology R&D Center.

The multidisciplinary team combines basic and applied science, shares its findings and brainstorms solutions that will lead it to the ultimate goal of new higher-performance, lower-emissions combustion strategies and engine designs.

Argonne is uniquely qualified to pioneer this integrated approach. The Lab has programs in theoretical and experimental combustion chemistry and a renowned transportation program with strengths in engine characterization and testing, environmental impact analysis and fuel development. Bringing these programs together enables a design-test-feedback cycle that covers the critical aspects of fuel design and use.

Building on a National Plan

Biofuels have emerged as a key part of the national plan to reduce dependence on imported energy and decrease greenhouse gas emissions.

Argonne’s work aims to design biofuels and engines that meet these goals, while also remaining affordable to consumers. The team is currently focused on developing infrastructurecompatible “drop-in” fuels that can be deployed in the existing petroleum pipeline, refinery and service station system. This compatibility will facilitate the transition from petroleum to biofuels without requiring billions of dollars of investment.

The group is joining forces for in-depth research on fuel production, combustion analysis, engine evaluation, and life cycle analysis and process economics. The success of the project relies on constant communication and collaboration across each of the scientific disciplines involved.

Fuel Production

Biophysicists and biochemical engineers are creating new bacteria to produce next-generation biofuels and feedstocks. Their work includes:

  • Developing plant and algal-type feedstocks that efficiently use sunlight, carbon dioxide, nutrients and water to produce biofuels,
  • Separating and converting biofuels from engineered bacteria to improve the energy efficiency of the fuel production process,
  • Tailoring feedstock composition and processing techniques to produce and enhance fuel properties while controlling fuel costs, and
  • Scaling up production of promising biofuels for combustion simulation and performance testing.

Combustion Analysis

Theoretical chemists are developing complex chemical models that describe the combustion of a variety of biofuels; these models will ultimately help predict and optimize the performance of current and future engines. This work includes:

  • Performing theoretical calculations to provide kinetics data for important chemical reactions,
  • Incorporating the data into a full chemical-kinetics model that provides ignition delay data and predictions on emissions formation during the combustion event,
  • Using global sensitivity analysis to identify key data needs for an improved mechanism, and
  • Performing new experiments and calculations to determine the data identified by this analysis, and then continuing to improve the model.

Engine Evaluation

Mechanical engineers are running state-of-the-art, electronically controlled engines fueled with new biofuels to measure performance, emissions and efficiency. Their work includes:

  • Conducting engine dynamometer tests to validate the model predictions of combustion characteristics, and measure gaseous emissions and fuel conversion efficiency,
  • Applying computational fluid dynamics models with detailed chemical kinetics to simulate complex combustion and emissions processes, and
  • Using visualization tools to conduct in situ analysis of combustion characteristics.

Life Cycle Analysis and Process Economics

Environmental system analysts are tracing the environmental impact of various fuel and engine combinations using Argonne’s GREET (Greenhouse gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy use in Transportation) modeling software. This work includes:

  • Calculating the total energy consumption of new fuel/ engine scenarios,
  • Determining greenhouse gas emissions and other criteria pollutants,
  • Comparing the environmental impacts of fuels and engines on a full life cycle basis,
  • Considering the implications on water use, water quality, land use and co-product production, and
  • Developing models for the cost of commercial-scale fuel production.

Funding for these projects was provided by the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Biomass and Vehicle Technologies Programs, and the Office of Science, Basic Energy Sciences Program.

July 2010


Doug Longman

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