The Wisconsin Energy Institute held a panel to discuss the viability of biofuels and bioproducts as replacements to other, more harmful types of energy this Tuesday. 

Proposed biofuels would replace less sustainable forms of energy, like petroleum. But, as of yet, a superior biofuel has not yet been discovered, resulting in a mix of diverse biochemicals performing diverse tasks. 

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According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, biofuels such as ethanol and biodiesel are made from biomass materials and are cleaner-burning fuels than pure gasoline and other natural gases. Panel moderator Troy Runge, Chair of Biological Systems Engineering, started off the discussion explaining why petroleum is not the most economically or environmentally sustainable type of fuel. 

“The processes to make the chemicals are very energy-intensive,” Runge said. “So obviously very large dents can be made by making bioproducts versus petroleum-based products.” 

One key advance in the development of bioproducts came from a key chemical, 1.5-pentanediol, which is corn-based rather than oil-based. The chemical can provide the same properties as oil does for products like paint coatings — sometimes even at a lower cost, according to Runge.

Kevin Barnett co-founded the start-up Pyran LLC, a company that was the first to use this biochemical for paint.  

“It’s also a green process and not only is it a renewable chemical, but we have water as a solvent and there are no toxic byproducts,” Barnett said. 

Vatsan Raman, a University of Wisconsin Assistant Professor of Biochemistry, talked about the value of certain biochemicals over others. 

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Raman said that while non-bioproducts like petroleum create a lot of waste, bioproducts are able to be recycled. He called this cycle of using bioproducts a “closed-loop system” which can recycle the unused product for more energy rather than wasting it.

“If you just take a step back and ask what is the economic value of petroleum-based chemicals … only about 15% is used for making viable products. Which means that the margins of making bioproducts can be quite substantial,” Raman said.  

Because the waste of bioproducts can be recycled into many other uses compared to petroleum-based products, they can potentially be more sustainable while also providing more economic value. 

There are many ways scientists and engineers can make use of plants to create unique biofuels but not every biofuel is marketable. Raman explained that there are six essential attributes that a bioproduct should have in order to be valuable.

“First is high volume …  second is the value of the molecule … third is a diverse [chemical] that can make many products …  fourth is feedstock flexibility … fifth is avoiding competition with natural gas … last is a price point,” Raman said.