Future Fuels

September 21, 2010

Illinois Institute of Technology
3300 South Federal Street, Chicago, IL, United States


By the year 2035, it is estimated that our world’s dependent relationship with liquid fossil fuels will reach a staggering 110 million barrels a day, with the largest increase in consumption coming from the current developing world. Increased concern over global climate change and rising competition for dwindling fossil fuel resources will require scientifically advanced and environmentally friendly solutions to solve our worsening energy supply problems.

To answer this call for innovation, the U.S. Department of Energy is currently funding two major initiatives at Argonne National Laboratory. One, an Energy Frontier Research Center (EFRC), addresses our fundamental understanding of alternative liquid fuels. The other seeks to create scientifically viable products for large-scale fossil fuel replacement that are both sustainable and have near zero negative environmental impact.

Join C2ST as Argonne National Laboratory’s Director Dr. Eric Isaacs and Doctors Seth Snyder & Christopher Marshall discuss Argonne’s current research and the scientific advances that are helping make Future Fuels a reality of today’s world.

In May 2010, the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) released a jaw dropping report.  By the year 2030, Non-OECD countries (primarily in the areas of Asia and the Middle East) will account for more than 80 percent of the increase in total liquids consumption (fossil fuels).  What does this mean?

It means that world demand for energy derived from fossil fuels (oil and natural gas) will increase from 85 million barrels/day to a staggering  110 million barrels; this, in a date and time where some think that we may have reached “peak oil.”

Fossil fuels are a non-renewable resource.  The energy from coal, oil, and natural gas that we depend on today to power our cars and heat our homes comes from the deposits of plants and animals that lived up to 300 million years ago.

The burning of these fuels releases pollutants into the atmosphere, like sulphur and nitrogen, that aid in the increase of greenhouse gas, acidification, air and water pollution, and other environmental hazards.

Future Fuels: Biomass and Biofuel, was an examination into the research of two Argonne National Laboratory scientists whose findings seek to turn the tide on our dependence on fossil fuels and to create sustainable liquid fuels.

Future Fuels moderator Dr. Eric Issacs, Director of Argonne National Laboratory, opened the program with an overview of how the U.S. is addressing this challenge.

Currently, every time you fill your vehicle with fuel, ~10% of that gasoline is cut with ethanol (mostly made from corn).   The government is now in talks that would result in increasing this number to 15%.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is a major funder to laboratories and research institutions that seek to address the challenges of a sustainable energy infrastructure.  The DOE does this by funding projects that address solutions to: biofuels and fuel switching, the science of transportation, energy storage research, new energy sources, and efficiency improvements of current sources.

The above areas are focused on finding energy challenge solutions through the following DOE programs:

  • Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRC)
  • Energy Innovation Hubs
  • Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA – e)

Argonne National Laboratory, run by the University of Chicago, is developing basic science solutions for energy challenges.  It houses two DOE EFRC’s; the Center for Electrical Energy Storage (CEES) and the Institute for Atom-Efficient Chemical Transformations (IACT).

Argonne scientists Seth Snyder and Christopher Marshall, are on the forefront of the science to understand the fundamentals of the liquid fuel energy production and the development of technologies that address those needs.

Dr. Seth Snyder is Section Leader for Process Technology Research, and Argonne’s Relationship Manager for the DOE Office of Biomass Program.  This area develops, demonstrates and models advanced technologies and processes for industrial applications with an emphasis on basic process industries and applied technology demonstration.

For the Dr. Snyder, the conversation is not necessarily just about the science of producing better fuels, but about the political and economic forces surrounding the effort.

Currently, 30% of U.S. corn supply is used to make ethanol.  The “blend wall,” or congressionally mandated amount of ethanol to gasoline mix, is ~10%.  On Capitol Hill now is the question of whether to increase this number to 12% or even 15%.

However, biofuels like ethanol, still face significant barriers in full adoption to the energy cycle.  These concerns include:


  • Water utilization differs per region
  • Land use changes


  • Biofuels must be compatible with existing infrastructure


  • Refineries don’t only produce fuels, but a host of other chemical/materials as well


  • A number of bills regulate and fund biofuel development
  • Corn ethanol currently receiving the majority of funding.  This hinders development of other forms of alternative liquid fuels

Biofuels production

  • Need better feedstock preparation (better cellulosic enzymes and acids)
  • Increased efficiency of biomass to biofuel process (i.e. turning sugar into carbonic acid)

Dr. Christopher Marshall is a research chemist with expertise in catalyst formulation and characterization, reactor testing of both homogenous and heterogeneous catalysts, catalysis fundamentals, and molecular modeling.

Dr. Marshall is also Director of the Institute for Atom-Efficient Chemical Transformation (IACT), Argonne National Laboratory, one of the DOE Energy Frontier Research Centers.

Dr. Marshall’s research focuses on successfully integrating of biofuels the existing oil and refinery infrastructure.  This is best be done by using catalysts as “molecular match-makers.”

Working with current catalysts and improving their activities and selectivity’s, IACT uses a combination of selective synthesis of active catalytic phases; improved understanding of the interrelationships between the active phases, supports and feeds; and the use of computational chemistry to develop first-principle understanding of both catalyst and hydrocarbon feed and products to meet research goals.

Specifically, Dr. Marshall and his team are working on addressing the following needs: better design and synthesis of catalysts, computational studies, better characterization, evaluation & mechanical chemistry.

But, like Dr. Snyder’s research, there exist very real barriers to the adoption of his research.  In short, there is a problem with biomass itself.

Oxygen contact

  • need methods of selectively removing oxygen

Volatility – there is need of liquid C6

  • Need liquid C6
  • C6 carbons=solids
  • C6 hydrocarbons=vapors,


  • higher hydrocarbons preferred to gasoline

Low H/C ratio

  • have low energy content, 70% of gasoline


  • H20 content of biomass requires initial local processing
  • cannot have massive refineries

Event Details

Tuesday, September 21, 2010
Illinois Institute of Technology
McCormick Tribune Campus Center
McCloska Auditorium
3201 South State Street

5 p.m. Reception & Registration
6 p.m. Presentation

$10 Advance Reg / $15 Door (day of) / $5 Students

Free for C²ST Members

Parking $5 – Lot A3 – Parking Map