Replacing petrol and diesel with plant-based biofuels may be crucial in curbing climate change but the manufacture of such fuels could leave hazardous chemicals, new research says.
The study can predict the level of toxicity of biofuels on the basis of computer analysis, says chemist Solvejg Jorgensen from the University of Copenhagen, Denmark.
Jorgensen’s calculations also show that biofuels produced by the wrong synthesis path will decompose to compounds such as health hazardous smog, carcinogenic particles and toxic formaldehyde.
The research promises cheaper, faster and above all safer development of alternatives to fossil fuels, the Journal of Physical Chemistry A reports.
Previously an assessment of the environmental impact of a given method of production could not be carried out until the fuel had actually been made, according to a Copenhagen statement.
“There are an almost infinite number of different ways to get to these fuels. We can show the least hazardous avenues to follow and we can do that with a series of calculations that take only days,” explains Jorgensen.
Chemically biofuels are composed of extremely large molecules. As they degrade during combustion and later in the air, they peel of several different compounds.
But Jorgensen was astonished to learn there is a huge difference in toxicity depending on how the molecules assemble during production. She was also buoyed up by the fact that she could calculate speedily and precisely the degradation mechanisms for a biofuel molecule.