Neste Oil, the world’s leading supplier of renewable diesel, is a refining and marketing company located in Finland and focuses on low-emission, high–quality traffic fuels. They have announced that they’ll be doing a trial of Neste Green 100 diesel produced from 100% renewable raw materials. The test drivers will fill up at certain Neste oil gas stations and will continue from mid-May till Midsummer. Previously they have shown that the fuel’s GHG over its life cycle is 40-80% lower than conventional diesel fuels. Currently, Neste Oil provides a blend of minimum of 10% renewable diesel with regular diesel all over Finland, but hope to make it 100% renewable diesel in the future.
Chemical engineers, Savage with his team, at University of Michigan are doing research to produce bio-petroleum from microalgae. They are applying heat and pressure, the method Nature uses to make petroleum naturally, to make oil from microalgae faster and to also use all the by-products as feedstock for more biofuel. Algal biofuel looks very promising because it could be efficient (one company promise to produce 1billion gallons of algal fuel annually by 2025), it’s carbon neutral, and compatible with existing infrastructure. But one concern is the quality of this fuel and their performance in cold temperatures. Microscopically, the high temperature and pressure allow the algae to break down in the water, yielding crude oil. This is exactly the same process petroleum goes under over millennia under ground, except it’s much faster.
(Wired.com, Making Oil in Minutes, Not Millennia, April 30, 2010)
North Carolina State University has won a grant of $2.7 for three years from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency to do research on extremophiles for biofuel production. Dr. Robert Kelly, the principal investigator, will be working with Dr. Michael Adams of University of Georgia to genetically engineer these extremophiles,specifically Metallosphaera sedula and Pyrococcus furiosus. Extremophiles are microbial organisms that live in high-temperature environments (75-100C) in freshwater and saltwater. They take CO2 from the environment and produce acetyl-coA, building blocks for biofuels. The researchers are interested in combining the two microbes’ abilities together to produce butanol. These microbes are also good candidates because their extremophile nature allow them to withstand the high temperatures of distillation process and the fact that they don’t require light allow facilities to be set up anywhere.
Another local energy initiative is also happening in Kentucky. The Kentucky Agrilcultural Development Board is allowing funds from Agricultural Development and American Recovery and Reinvestment Acts to assist energy-related projects by making $100,000 available. (Portsmouth Daily Times: Agricultural energy initiative announced, April 4, 2010)
Characterization of Canadian Biomass for Alternative Renewable Biofuel
Global interest in alternative renewable energy sources have sparked many countries to do their own research to characterize their own biomass for biofuel production. For massive biofuel production, it is extremely important to characterize all the available biomass beforehand in order to make complete use out of it. The world biomass offers 220 billion oven-dry ton, or equivalent of 4500 x 10^8 J per year.
In this study, the researchers studied biomass available in Canada for production of alternative renewable biofuels. They sampled biomass such as wheat straw, barley straw, flax straw, timothy grass and pinewood from Saskatoon, Canada and characterized them, both physically and chemically, through various measurements such as static bomb calorimeter, XRD, TGA, ICP-MS, CHNSO, FT-IR, and FT-NIR.
The samples were first extracted in a three step process( through hexane, alcohol, and water) and then later acid hydrolyzed. The acid soluble fractions were analyzed by HPLC and the insoluble fraction was characterized by FT-IR for lignin content.
The results showed pinewood to have the lowest lignin content. This is because the most of the hexane was soluble due to terpene hydrocarbons. On the other hand, barley straw was shown to have the highest lignin, ash, and wax content. Overall, wheat, pinewood, and flax was shown to have the greatest calorific value and also as great potentials for biofuel production.
Furfural is a compounded made up of organic byproducts such as sawdust oats and corn cobs. The talk that I attended was about using a bio-engineered e-coli strain to ferment furfural into ethanol. The specific strains that were used were labeled LY180, EmFR17 and EmFR9. LY180 is the wild type strand and the others are the mutants, they have more tolerance to furfural than the original stain. The presenter ran a test called a microray analysis and found that the genes that made a difference are yqhC and yqhD genes. This is significant because both of these genes play roles in blocking/slowing down tolerance of the e-coli strain on furfural. Deletion of yqhC stops or limits the reaction of the yqhD promoter.
Industrial uses of Saccharomyces cerevisiae for ethanol production
Saccharomyces cerevisiae also known as industrial strains that ferment to produce glucose, but here the focus is on the production of ethanol. The presenter of this topic has been able to construct a strain of yeast that is able to ferment cellulose into ethanol. The new strain has three key features that allow it to ferment very nicely are: high tolerance to alcohol, large range of fermentation temps and grows quickly. He also tested out other cellulose producing strains from different organisms. It is unsure though, whether or not these strains produce ethanol.
A novel, cost-effective method for producing ethanol from carbon dioxide in hybrid algae
The presenter of this lecture focused on these certain hybrid algae that known as cyanobacteria enhanced by the addition of pyruvate decarboxylase and alcohol. These hybrids when undergoing photosynthesis use up a lot of carbon to produce ethanol in its cells and the ethanol that is made is diffused through the cell walls into the culture medium then evaporates. Along with water the ethanol evaporates and goes up into the headspace of the apparatus. The ethanol water vapor then condenses and with the help of gravity drips down into a beaker and distilled into fuel grade ethanol. The company called Algenol that is represented in this lecture has algae that produce ethanol at a rate of 1.5 moles per square meter of algae every week. The company seems to be making great strides and is efficiently producing ethanol in a consistent manner.
Strategies for improving the photon usage efficiency and productivity of microalgal culture
In this talk the utilization of light on micro algae and the two different strategies that are relevant: 1) increase photosynthetically active radiation (PAR) 2) Elimination of photosynthetically active radiation (PAR). The presenter demonstrated three different algae are based on size of antenna’s that were tested. Her tests concluded that the intermediate size algae were the best because it did well in both shallow and deep depths of the pond. The smaller antenna, because of its antenna complex did better in the deep and the longest did the best in the shallow parts of the pond. The longest did the best in the shallow because of its unique absorption rates. However she did note that increase in chlorophyll a to b ratio could impact growth at different light intensities under the water.
One is to increase photosynthetically active radiation (PAR)
The science of creating food fuel and fiber from plants is known as agronomy. The lecture talked about the impact of higher usage of biofuels especially it’s feedstock on agronomic systems. The demand for feedstock has risen exponentially over the years with the increase concentration on becoming more fuel efficient. The presenter made three references to the effects of biofuel feedstock usage: extensification, substitution and intensification. Extensification is bringing new land into production. Substitution is simply switching lands from one use to another. Intensification is increasing the inputs onto the land. After looking at these three factors he concluded that a switch to switch grass would cause the least amount of erosion.
C.Ford Runge, a McKnight University Professor of Applied Economics and Law at the University of Minnesota, wrote an article called “The Case Against Biofuels: Probing the Hidden Costs of Ethanol (March 11, 2010)” discussing the hidden costs of ethanol on Yale’s Environment 360 blog.
Runge points out the that the cons of ethanol are weighing more than the pros and that growing food crops for ethanol is anything but green. Eventhough now people are becoming aware of this fact, he warns that Obama administration has already made plans to ensure that half of U.S. corn crops will be used for biofuel production. In 2010,a third of the 335 million metric tons of the corn harvest will be used to make ethanol due to Obama’s push and agreement to mandates to triple biofuel production to 36 billion gallons by 2022 (17billion gallons of ethanol and 3billion gallons of biodiesel produced in 2008).
But a closer look reveals more harm than good, as Runge points out. It brings up issues on food security, especially to the world’s poor, high food prices, harmful environment impacts including eutrophication and toxication of waters from fertilizaers, water shortage due to large volumes of water used to grow these crops, land-use change, biodiversity, and green house gas emissions. An interesting study by Paul Crutzen, a Nobel prize chemist, emphasized how bad it was for the environment to use large amounts of nitrogen to grow these crops. In fact, the nitrous oxide released to the atmosphere is 296 times more damaging a GHG than CO2!
Runge then concludes by saying that the only way to prevent this from become worse is to freeze further mandates, reduce tax credits, and cut tariff protection, while we look for other forms of more qualified sustainable renewable energy like wind powered, solar powered, or algal biofuel energies.
The 32nd Symposium on Biotechnology for Fuels and Chemicals was underway with an alarming statistic estimating that by 2020, 80% of petroleum reserves will reside in the Middle East and North Africa. The following speaker subsequently discussed that agricultural ability is far more balanced, explaining the need for biofuels and thus our presence at the conference. The United States Department of Energy has three different technology investment pathways for renewable fuels: basic science driven (understanding structural biology and enzyme engineering), technology driven (end-product attenuation and pretreatment reactors), and industry driven. Biomass Recalcitrance, the inherent tendency of a plant cell wall structure to hinder its breakdown into sugars, is perhaps the greatest issue facing the use of lignocellulosic biomass for biofuels. He described that the three main issues associated with this are physical access, chemical access due to thermodynamic barriers, and the plants intrinsic resistance to depolymerization. The end portion of his discussion dealt with the effect of particle size on enzyme digestibility. His research showed that particle size decreases w/ increases severity, and enzyme digestibility increases w/ decreasing particle size; this was shown by using wet sieving to separate PCS into size fractions. An interesting fact that he also found in his study was that delamination was an unintended results of pretreatment; delamination is a form of failure for composite materials. Essentially, treated cell wall is more accessible but new structures form and new aggregations of microfibrils appear. Also increased ordering in macrofibril w also indicated by Raman spectropscopy; this technique analyzes vibrational, rotational, and other low-frequency modes in a system. He concluded by articulated that new solutions to biomasss recalcitrance are more science and better tools and technological approaches.
Another speaker also spoke on a similar issue saying that, “to understand how to take something apart, we must understand how to put it together.” His lecture focused around five levels of structure that must be considered to fully understand the bioconversion of lignocellulose from trees of various types (compression wood, tension wood, and early wood). He explained that lignocellulosic biomass is quite heterogenous and this affects the pretreatment choice. For example, hardwoods require steam and dilute acid while softwoods utilize other pretreatment mechanisms. He believes the ideal pretreatment provides recovery of hemicellulose and lignin in a high value form and also maximizes the accessibility of cellulose to enzymes. Furthermore, he established that efficient cellulose hydrolysis requires high surface area. Althought new to me, he spoke extensively on a process called hornification, a technical term often used to describe changes in fibers affected by drying or recycling. His research found that Hornification decreases hydrolysis yields and has significant effects on cellulose accessibility upon re-wetting. He concluded his talk with a take home message articulating that the world needs cheaper pretreatments that can effectively overcome heterogeneity.
Today’s speaker initiated their lecture with a simple, yet direct, quote. He said, “we need to use less to produce more from less.” According to him, we have currently used 33% of Earth’s surface for fuel, but this is 55% of the habitable land if take out places like Antarctica. He also explained the shift of who is growing crops—sovereign nations are going into developing countries and renting land, countries like South Korea, China, and UAE are leaders here. Furthermore, there is also a global water scarcity where water is available; the most extreme is in northern Africa and Australia, but this scarcity is often seasonal. Remembering that by 2050 there will be 9 billion people, freshwater implications of land use include maintaining stream flows, freshwater quality, and downstream habitat impacts. Various policies have been implemented for end use such as Renewable Fuel Standards by the EPA, renewable energy directive, and low carbon fuel standards. Policies and laws for resource use are quote numerous—Brazil has sugarcane and land-zoning laws, South Africa has a stream flow reduction tax, Australia has a freshwater risk abatement, and Tanzania has limits on biofuel production.
One woman of Italian descent spoke about the Inter-American Development Bank’s (IDB) efforts in promoting sustainable biofuels. She began by explaining how the IDB contribution to solving energy issues entails a biofuels sustainability scorecard, biofuels action plans and technical cooperation, and implementation of biofuels standards and certification schemes. One man asked why they used a scorecard and she replied that there was a high demand for IDB support in biofuels development so they needed a way to pre-screen the best projects. Creation of this scorecard was done by partnership with the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels. They also had internal and external feedback from academics, NGO’s, investors, and financial institutions in the US, EU, and in LAC. The scorecard was laughed in 2008 and quite interestingly, is an instrument to the bank but is still readily available to the public (www.iadb.org/biofuelsscorecard). To this end, d the Biofuels Sustainability Scorecard includes key sustainability criteria to incentive more sustainable practices in biofuels projects. Essentially, this tool has equipped the IDB and its clients with cutting-edge applied knowledge designed to strengthen the development effectiveness of interventions in the region.
One talk titled Fundamental knowledge for sustainable cellulosic biofuels was an informative talk that discussed the core information needed to understand cellulosic biofuels. Clearly, the aim with this type of research is to improve plants for use as cellulosic biofuels feedstocks, improve knowledge to improve pretreatments and enzymes in order to generate low-cost cellulosic sugar streams, and also to improve conversion of cellulosic sugar streams into ethanol and next generation biofuels and improve sustainability of biofuel cropping systems. He spent the majority of his session explaining a few issues and his approaches to them. First, he described how it is hard to generate fuel from cell wall sugars (due to recalcitrance) so one must modify hemicellulose. To understand how to do this they dissected xylan polymer synthesis by transcript profiling of xylose or mannose rich seedlings. They then sequenced RNA EST libraries to identify the candidate genes and then test/confirm function by inactivating candidate genes. A second issue that he mentioned was the notion that sugar release requires pretreatment. For example, he explains that untreated corn stover can be transformed to HMF or sugars in a one step release; this is fermentable by ecoli in yeast. He subsequently explained how improving microbes for fuel production is done by anaerobic growth. They produce sugar transporters and enzymes to make building blocks and fuels; his laboratory did this in various E.coli strains. By doing this, they can improve refinery microbes by combining the positive traits that they find. He concludes by articulating that improving sustainable biofuel production is done by tracking energy inputs, measuring soil, carbon, water and GHG effects, quantifying pests and diseases in ecosystems, and establishing life cycle models testing various biophysical land use and marketplace responses.