The right balance of zinc and zirconium oxides in this catalyst (purple block) converts ethanol to isobutene with low amounts of unwanted byproducts such as acetone and ethylene.

Researchers in the Pacific Northwest have developed a catalyst material that could replace chemicals currently derived from petroleum. The catalyst could be the basis for more environmentally friendly products, including octane-boosting gas and fuel additives, bio-based rubber for tires and a safer solvent for the chemicals industry.

To make sustainable biofuels, producers want to ferment ethanol from nonfood plant matter such as cornstalks and weeds. Currently, so-called bio-ethanol's main values are as a non-polluting replacement for octane-boosting fuel additives to prevent engine knocking and as a renewable replacement for a certain percentage of gasoline.

To turn bio-ethanol into other useful products, researchers at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and at Washington State University have developed a catalyst material that will convert it into a chemical called isobutene - and it converts it in one production step, which can reduce costs. In addition, the catalyst requires the presence of water, allowing producers to use dilute and cheaper bio-ethanol rather than having to purify it first, potentially keeping costs lower and production times faster.

Reported by researchers in the Institute for Integrated Catalysis at PNNL and in the Gene and Linda Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering at WSU, the findings appeared in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. This work was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy Offices of Science and of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.