8 Nov 2012
Prof Mark Mascal of the University of California, Davis delivered the All Ireland Group Autumn Lecture on the Conversion of Plant Carbohydrates into a New Generation of Biofuels and Substitutes for Petroleum Products. The lecture took place on 4 October 2012 at Trinity College Dublin.
With fossil fuels depleting, there is an urgent need to find replacements to ensure a sustainable future. Organic chemists can play a key role in that future, as well as high tech solutions such as solar panels and nuclear technology. But direct oil substitutes are also needed - our transport systems are intimately tied up in our current fuelling infrastructure, and new energy technologies often do not fit easily into this model. You cannot fly an aeroplane using solar panels!
Prof Mascal outlined his group’s dramatic efforts in this area. They have developed a process for turning carbohydrates into 5-(chlormethyl)furfural (CMF), using a synthetically simple and easily scalable process that does not require high value or rare starting materials. The CMF (pictured) is a key intermediate that can be further transformed into a number of different biofuels or diesel oxygenates. Worth noting is that the carbohydrate starting materials mentioned in the talk title do not have to be of the isolated, purified varieties - crude waste biomass can also be used and gives near-perfect carbohydrate exploitation.
A sign of how well the talk was received was the large number and diverse nature of comments and questions from the audience - evidence of both the quality of the science and the general interest in the topic. Clearly this area is one to watch for chemists with a green conscience.