An attractive approach to converting biomass into liquid or gaseous fuels is direct gasification, followed by conversion of the syngas to final fuel. Ethanol can be produced this way, but other fuels can be produced more easily and potentially at lower cost, though none of the approaches is currently inexpensive.
The choice of which process to use is influenced by the fact that lignin cannot easily be converted into a gas through biochemical conversion. Lignin can, however, be gasified through a heat process. The lignin components of plants can range from near 0% to 35%. For those plants at the lower end of this range, the chemical conversion approach is better suited. For plants that have more lignin, the heat-dominated approach is more effective.
Once the gasification of biomass is complete, the resulting syngas or synthetic gas can be used in a variety of ways to produce liquid fuels as mentioned below
Fischer-Tropsch (F-T) fuels
The Fischer-Tropsch process converts “syngas” (mainly carbon monoxide and hydrogen) into diesel fuel and naphtha (basic gasoline) by building polymer chains out of these basic building blocks. Typically a variety of co-products (various chemicals) are also produced.
The Fisher-Tropsch process is an established technology and has been proven on a large scale but adoption has been limited by high capital and O&M costs. According to Choren Industries, a German based developer of the technology, it takes 5 tons of biomass to produce 1 ton of biodiesel, and 1 hectare generates 4 tons of biodiesel.
Syngas can also be converted into methanol through dehydration or other techniques, and in fact methanol is an intermediate product of the F-T process (and is therefore cheaper to produce than F-T gasoline and diesel).
Methanol is somewhat out of favour as a transportation fuel due to its relatively low energy content and high toxicity, but might be a preferred fuel if fuel cell vehicles are developed with on-board reforming of hydrogen.
DME also can be produced from syngas, in a manner similar to methanol. It is a promising fuel for diesel engines, due to its good combustion and emissions properties. However, like LPG, it requires special fuel handling and storage equipment and some modifications of diesel engines, and is still at an experimental phase.
If diesel vehicles were designed and produced to run on DME, they would become inherently very low pollutant emitting vehicles; with DME produced from biomass, they would also become very low GHG vehicles.