Ethanol to diesel: a sustainable alternative for the heavy-duty transportation sector

Juan Manuel Restrepo-Flórez, Paolo Cuello-Penaloza, Emmanuel Canales, Dustin Witkowski, David A. Rothamer, George W. Huber, Christos T. Maravelias

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


The combustion of middle distillates (diesel and jet fuel) is responsible for the emission of more than 2 GTon of CO2 per year worldwide. While sustainable alternatives exist for gasoline and jet fuel, we still lack sustainable alternatives for diesel. This fact is especially relevant if we consider that electrification of sectors where diesel is used is challenging. One sustainable approach for diesel production is the catalytic upgrading of ethanol. While most work in this field has focused on the dehydration/oligomerization of ethanol, this approach is limited to producing fuels that have a high degree of branching and low cetane number. Another approach is the sequential use of ethanol Guerbet coupling, leading to higher alcohols, followed by etherification, leading to large ethers which, importantly, result in a product with high cetane number. In this work, we explore the catalytic upgrading of ethanol into diesel following an approach based on the initial Guerbet coupling of ethanol followed by etherification. The results presented are a collaborative and synergic effort among process and systems engineers, experimentalist in the area of catalysis, and fuel property modelers. We demonstrate experimentally the feasibility of upgrading ethanol into a diesel fuel with properties that surpass its fossil counterpart. The diesel produced has a predicted cetane number of ∼70 and outstanding cold flow properties, while maintaining other properties (viscosity, density, and flash point) within expected ranges. A technoeconomic analysis performed based on a detailed biorefinery model shows that the MFSP is ∼5.89$ per Gal in 2021 dollars when lignocellulosic ethanol is used, with the most relevant economic driver the cost of the ethanol feedstock. The upgrading process can be performed with a net energy gain (EROI = 1.49 > 1). An LCA analysis of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reveals that the use of lignocellulosic ethanol may lead to more than 50% reduction in GHG emissions compared to fossil diesel. Depending on the CO2 emissions associated with the production of ethanol we show that in some instances the production of carbon neutral diesel fuel is possible.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)693-707
Number of pages15
JournalSustainable Energy and Fuels
Issue number3
StatePublished - Dec 7 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • Fuel Technology
  • Energy Engineering and Power Technology


Dive into the research topics of 'Ethanol to diesel: a sustainable alternative for the heavy-duty transportation sector'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this