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A simple, low-energy, and very fast way to transform crops into useful fuels and chemicals could help ease the United States’ dependence on foreign oil. Now researchers at the University of Minnesota, reporting their work in the November 3 issue of Science, say they’ve done just this. They have developed a system that uses catalysts to transform soy oil and sugar water (which can be captured from corn) into syngas, a combination of hydrogen and carbon monoxide that can be burned as a fuel or transformed into synthetic gasoline. By adjusting the amount of oxygen fed to the catalyst, the researchers can increase the amount of hydrogen made or produce chemical precursors for plastics.

Although the method uses high temperatures, the process is self-heating and actually consumes low amounts of energy, the researchers say.

And because the method is simple and fast–100 times faster than current methods–the processing plants could be smaller. This would potentially allow farmers to process fuel for their vehicles on their farms, cutting down on the energy required to transport bulky biomass to processing plants.

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