The research will focus on converting natural products, such as vegetable oil, wood and grasses, to liquid fuels.
The grant will support the Microwave Enhanced Catalytic Production of Biofuels project, which will study two key improvements in the process of making sustainable fuels. The first is microwave heating, which can potentially save approximately 80% of what it now costs to produce biofuels.
'Production of biofuels must be a highly efficient process to be economically competitive with fossil fuels,' William Conner, a professor of chemical engineering and the principal investigator on the grant, explains. 'Therefore, it is critical that conversion processes be developed that consume minimal amounts of energy. We expect some of the production processes we're studying to be at least twice as efficient as current methods.'
Microwave heating has been shown to be advantageous by decreasing the energy requirements for a number of reactions in the production of biofuels, and decreasing the time involved in the process.
The team will also study the use of a heterogeneous, or solid, catalyst, which can potentially save about 50% of the current costs. 'The idea is to make the process more efficient by using a heterogeneous catalyst, meaning you don't have to neutralise the fuel to make it less corrosive, as you would normally have to do if you used a homogeneous catalyst,' Conner adds.
Conner is also involved in acquiring a biodiesel pilot plant for UMass Amherst that would produce 600,000 gallons of biodiesel fuel a year from used vegetable oil recycled from institutional kitchens.
Since vegetable oil is one of the feedstocks the research team will be studying, the pilot plant would become an integral part of the research. The pilot plant would also help to establish UMass Amherst as a centre for studying renewable fuels.