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International Study Explores Combustion Chemistry of Biofuels

A team of researchers from Germany, the US and China has examined the combustion chemistry of the compounds constituting typical current biofuels, including alcohols, ethers and esters. A paper on the work is on the cover of the 10 May edition of the journal Angewandte Chemie International Edition.

Participating research institutions included Bielefeld University (Germany); Cornell University (US); Sandia National Laboratories (US); University of Science and Technology of China (China); Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (US) and North Carolina State University (US).

This review highlights some characteristic aspects of the chemical pathways in the combustion of prototypical representatives of potential biofuels. The discussion focuses on the decomposition and oxidation mechanisms and the formation of undesired, harmful, or toxic emissions, with an emphasis on transportation fuels. New insights into the vastly diverse and complex chemical reaction networks of biofuel combustion—a consequence of the inherent chemical functions of the fuels—are enabled by recent experimental investigations and complementary combustion modeling.

—Kohse-Höinghaus et al.

The data and new computer models pave the way for development of new biofuels and technologies to maximize energy efficiency while minimizing environmental and human health risks.

Biofuels are a sensible choice as a renewable energy source, but of course there are complications. All of the biofuels have pros and cons, and you can't manage or plan for use and risks unless you understand them enough.

By studying individual chemicals that make up biofuels, we were able to explain what emissions result from burning real biofuels. We can measure the individual intermediates and chemical reactions, helping us craft models that reveal what chemicals are emitted, and in what amounts, by various biofuels. These models can be used to design new engines, new fuels and new policies that foster environmentally sustainable and efficient energy solutions.

This is important for regulation, where policy makers are weighing the environmental and health costs versus the energy benefits of different biofuels, but it is also essential to decision makers in the business community. Industry does not want to invest in developing biofuels and related technologies that can’t pass policy muster, and this research will help them make educated investment decisions.

—Dr. Phillip Westmoreland, co-author, NC State

Researchers used a unique combination of laser spectroscopy, mass spectrometry and flame chemistry modeling to explore the decomposition and oxidation mechanisms of certain biofuels and the formation of harmful or toxic emissions.


  • Katharina Kohse-Höinghaus, Patrick Oßwald, Terrill A. Cool, Tina Kasper, Nils Hansen, Fei Qi, Charles K. Westbrook, Phillip R. Westmoreland (2010) Biofuel Combustion Chemistry: From Ethanol to Biodiesel. Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. doi: 10.1002/anie.201001648


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