Characterizing Photosynthesis to Help Biodiesel

algaefull1Researchers in California have found a faster way to figure out more of the secrets of photosynthesis, and that could lead to new strains of algae better for biodiesel. Officials with the Carnegie Institution for Science say they have developed a new technique that will accelerate genetic characterization of photosynthesis:

A type of single-cell green algae called Chlamydomonas reinhardtii is a leading subject for photosynthesis research. Despite its importance in the research world, few tools are available for characterizing the functions of its genes.

A team including Carnegie’s Martin Jonikas developed a highly sophisticated tool that will transform the work of plant geneticists by making large-scale genetic characterization of Chlamydomonas mutants possible for the first time. Their work is published by The Plant Cell.

Their tool is a major step forward in the goal of identifying the genes that are necessary for photosynthesis, as well as other cellular functions such as the production of oily fats that are crucial for biofuel development. The use of similar tools for non-photosynthetic, single-celled organisms has revolutionized the understanding of cellular processes in bacteria and yeast, as well as animals.

U.S. Clean Energy Struggling from Policy Uncertainty

According to research from The Pew Charitable Trusts, the U.S. clean energy sector continues to be buffeted by policy uncertainty with 2013 investment down 9 percent from 2012 to $36.7 billion. The annual report, “Who’s Winning the Clean Energy Race? 2013,” found that steep declines in the installation of wind overshadowed a record annual deployment of 4.4 gigawatts of solar.

THE PEW CHARITABLE TRUSTS“Lower technology prices have made the small-distributed solar market very competitive, and the United States has been a leader in developing innovative financing models that are spurring steadily increasing deployment,” said Phyllis Cuttino, director of Pew’s clean energy program. “We also remain a world leader in venture capital, biofuels, and energy-smart technologies, like smart meters and LED lighting. Wind, however, has been subject to the vagaries of U.S. energy policy. As Congress debates tax extenders, it should aim to level the playing field, accelerate clean energy deployment, and provide long-term certainty to investors.”

The report found in the U.S. marketplace, solar technology prices have declined 60 percent since 2011, and new financing models have spurred more than $17 billion in investment, a 7 percent increase from 2012. The U.S. continued to garner world-leading financing in the biofuels and energy efficient/low-carbon technology subsectors. It also remained the dominant recipient of public market and venture capital/private equity investment, attracting $6.8 billion and $2.2 billion, respectively.

Although wind investment was relatively stable at $14 billion, U.S. wind installations in 2013 were down more than 90 percent—from more than 13 GW in 2012 to less than 1 GW last year found the report. When the production tax credit was renewed in early 2013, slight changes in the law precipitated deferrals in deployment of new wind capacity into 2014, when a strong rebound in capacity additions was forecast. By comparison, China deployed 12.1 GW of solar and 14.1 GW of wind capacity.

The regional and global market remains dominated by China, attracting $54.2 billion, with the U.S. in second place. Japan was third with $28.6 billion. Globally, clean energy investment fell 11 percent, to $254 billion, and renewable power generating capacity additions declined by 1 percent in 2013. Overall, installed clean energy capacity reached 735 GW.

Stanford Scientists Convert Carbon Monoxide to Ethanol

Stanford University scientists have discovered a new way to produce liquid ethanol from carbon monoxide gas. The researchers believe the discovery could provide an “green” alternative to conventional ethanol production from corn and other crops. The results were published in the April issue of Nature.

“We have discovered the first metal catalyst that can produce appreciable amounts of ethanol from carbon monoxide at room temperature and pressure – a notoriously difficult electrochemical reaction,” said Matthew Kanan, an assistant professor of chemistry at Stanford and coauthor of the Nature study.

Stanford's Matthew Kanan, an assistant professor of chemistry, co-authored a study on producing liquid ethanol from carbon monoxide.

Stanford’s Matthew Kanan, an assistant professor of chemistry, co-authored a study on producing liquid ethanol from carbon monoxide.

According to Kanan, most ethanol today is produced at high-temperature fermentation facilities that chemically convert corn, sugarcane and other plants into liquid fuel. But growing crops for biofuel requires thousands of acres of land and vast quantities of fertilizer and water. He cites a study that found it takes more than 800 gallons of water to grow a bushel of corn, which in turn yields around 3 gallons of ethanol.

The new technique developed by Kanan and Stanford graduate student Christina Li requires no fermentation and, if scaled up, they team says could help address many of the land- and water-use issues surrounding ethanol production today.

“Our study demonstrates the feasibility of making ethanol by electrocatalysis,” Kanan said. “But we have a lot more work to do to make a device that is practical.”

Two years ago, Kanan and Li created a novel electrode made of a material they called oxide-derived copper. They used the term “oxide-derived” because the metallic electrode was produced from copper oxide.

“Conventional copper electrodes consist of individual nanoparticles that just sit on top of each other,” Kanan explained. “Oxide-derived copper, on the other hand, is made of copper nanocrystals that are all linked together in a continuous network with well-defined grain boundaries. The process of transforming copper oxide into metallic copper creates the network of nanocrystals.” Continue reading

ACORE Releases Renewable Energy in America Outlook

The American Council On Renewable Energy (ACORE) has released The Outlook for Renewable Energy in America: 2014, jointly authored by U.S. renewable energy trade associations from the power, thermal, and fuel sectors. The Outlook assesses the renewable energy marketplace and forecasts the future of each renewable energy technology sector, from the perspectives of each of the associations, and provides a list of policy recommendations by the respective associations that would encourage continued industry growth.

OutlookCover1“ACORE applauds the unity of the renewable industry community and this united front as reflected in The Outlook for Renewable Energy in America: 2014,” said ACORE President and CEO, Michael Brower. “The report demonstrates the many public and private sector opportunities that exist at the national, regional and local levels for continued industry advancement and investment; however, they are not one-size-fit-all solutions for every renewable technology.”

Bower noted that the articles in the report detail specific market drivers for the biofuel, biomass, geothermal, hydropower, solar, waste and energy sectors.

Jeffrey Holzschuh, Chairman of Institutional Securities at Morgan Stanley said that greater American consumer interest in renewable energy, along with more private sector investment, have caused the financial markets to respond. “Spurred by growing individual as well as business demand, private sector investment in the U.S. clean energy sector surpassed $100 billion in 2012-2013, stimulating significant economic development while supporting hundreds of thousands of jobs.”

The trade associations who participated in the Outlook are: Advanced Biofuels Association; American Wind Energy Association; Biomass Power Association; Biomass Thermal Energy Council; Energy Recovery Council; Geothermal Energy Association; Growth Energy; National Hydropower Association; Ocean Renewable Energy Coalition; and the Solar Energy Industries Association.

The Outlook for Renewable Energy in America: 2014 shows the potential of America’s renewable energy economy to extend beyond one fuel choice or pipeline, to provide the country with an unparalleled opportunity to reinvigorate the U.S. economy while protecting our environment.

Hemp-to-Biofuels Research Gets Green Light

vote-hempA crop that has had an undeserved stigma attached to it could now become a source for biodiesel and ethanol. The recently passed and signed Farm Bill contains a provision that would allow hemp to be grown for research purposes, including making it into the green fuels.

“Hemp is a great crop for biodiesel, and we’ve already started experimenting with [cellulosic ethanol made from hemp],” explained Ben Droz with Vote Hemp, a group trying revitalize industrial hemp production in the U.S., at last week’s National Agriculture Day in Washington, D.C. He pointed out that hemp goes back a long ways in this country’s history, including being grown by the Founding Fathers and the founder of our modern automobile industry. “Henry Ford was actually doing research on hemp fuels and hemp biocomposites. And now today we are looking back to see if we can grow hemp once again.”

Ben said the Farm Bill defined industrial hemp, not to be confused with marijuana despite its similar appearance, as having 3/10 of a percent or less of THC – the active ingredient in the drug. Even if you smoked a hemp joint the size of a telephone pole, Ben said you still wouldn’t get high. But it’s only legal to do the research at universities and state ag departments in the 10 states where hemp is already legal to grow. He’s hoping that positive results in those locations will allow the effort to go nationwide.

“Those results will then encourage lawmakers to change the law so farmers can grow this profitable crop. There’s literally thousands of uses for hemp.”

Listen to all of Cindy’s conversation with Ben here: Interview with Ben Droz, Vote Hemp

2014 Ag Day Photo Album

Synthetic Chromosome Could Help Biodiesel, Ethanol

boekeThe scientific world today is all a-buzz about the world’s first yeast synthetic chromosome, and the discovery could help the biodiesel and ethanol industries. This article from the Christian Science Monitor says researchers have put together man-made DNA into the synthetic version of a chromosome, a development expected to have implications for the green fuels.

“For me, one of most exciting aspects is the fact that we’ve so extensively edited the sequence of natural chromosome and then synthesized the entire thing from scratch,” said study leader Jef Boeke, a synthetic biologist at NYU Langone Medical Center, who was previously at Johns Hopkins University.

Using a technique known as “scrambling,” the scientists can shuffle the yeast genes like a deck of cards. The researchers could make millions and millions of different decks of genetic cards, which could give yeast totally new properties.

For example, researchers could make synthetic strains of yeast to produce rare medicines such as the malarial drug artemisinin, or vaccines like the hepatitis B vaccine. Synthetic yeast could also churn out more efficient biofuels, such as alcohol, butanol or biodiesel, which could enable humanity to transition off of a petroleum economy, Boeke said.

For now, the costs are prohibitive for the biofuels industry, or any industry for that matter, to use. But the scientists are hopeful they’ll be able to get the costs down as the technology improves.

Research Looks Into Water-Free Biodiesel Brewing

waste-vegetable-oil-for-biodieselEfforts to make biodiesel production even more sustainable might get a boost from research into a water-free method of making the green fuel. This story from Biofuels Journal says researchers at the University of Porto in Portugal are looking at a way to eliminate the water normally used water to remove impurities to meet stringent quality standards.

Instead of water, researchers used catalysts to pre-treat and target impurities such as calcium ‘soaps’ in the biodiesel.

The impurities were then removed by absorption into resins or passing through ceramic membranes.

The researchers were able to produce good quality biodiesel from both virgin vegetable oil and, importantly, waste oils used for frying.

The new process could provide significant economic and environmental benefits compared to other more energy intensive water-based production methods.

The researchers believe that finding more water-free or less-water-consuming methods of making biofuels becomes more and more important as more of the world turns to the alternative fuels.

Biodiesel Bites Back… with a Gator CHOMP!

gator-fuel-webWe’ve told you before about how researchers found a way to turn alligator fat into biodiesel. But this article in Biodiesel Magazine says new findings show a method using a supercritical methanol to make the scaly-sourced biodiesel even more efficiently.

Researchers reported on a novel method this week at the 247th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society, to produce biodiesel from crude animal fats, including waste fat from alligators, using supercritical methanol in a flow reactor. “Conversion of animal fat to biodiesel has been around for some time, but the traditional biodiesel process generates significant quantities of solid waste,” said Thomas Junk with the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. “Our new method creates hardly any such residues.” In an earlier study, Junk used alligator fat and a batch reactor, but for his new research, a flow reactor and supercritical methanol were used. “We set up a flow reactor, and the reaction converting alligator fat to biodiesel happened within a few minutes,” said Junk. “That’s important for commercial manufacturing, where you want to produce as much fuel as quickly as possible.”

The biggest advantage to using the supercritical method is that it doesn’t require a catalyst, which creates residue. In addition, the fat doesn’t have to be extracted and can be used in its raw form. That means while gator fat could be a viable feedstock, the researchers also see a bigger application for even more plentiful animals fats, such as chicken and beef, that might otherwise be dumped into a landfill.

Better Sites for Algae Helps Biofuels Production

ABOA new process for identifying and evaluating algae production facilities could help with biofuels production. The article, “Siting Algae Cultivation Facilities for Biofuel Production in the United States: Trade-Offs between Growth Rate, Site Constructability, Water Availability, and Infrastructure,” in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, talks about the new method developed by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Sapphire Energy and was welcomed by the Algae Biomass Organization (ABO), the trade association for the algae industry.

“Effectively siting algae cultivation facilities for commercial biofuel production is critical to the success of every commercial algae project,” said Margaret McCormick, chair of the Algae Biomass Organization and CEO of algae company Matrix Genetics. “The biology is so complex, existing ‘off-the-shelf’ measurement tools fall short. Because this analysis considers numerous variables along with real-world algae cultivation data, it offers project developers a much more complete and rigorous evaluation of sites.”

Site selection for large construction projects is a complex task, but a particularly challenging one in the case of algae cultivation in open ponds, where facilities could be thousands of acres in size. The factors that drive success include: a warm and sunny climate, available water, economically available land with soils good for construction, and proximity to transportation and utility infrastructure. In addition, special consideration must be given to local issues that are difficult for national-scale models to address, such as regulatory constraints, tax incentives, receptivity of local populations and ecological constraints.

The study found that there is good potential for cultivating green algae along the Gulf of Mexico, especially on the Florida peninsula. It also says that the type of algae to be grown is a big factor when choosing a site.

Veterans Move Into Solar Industry Jobs

According to a new report released jointly from Operation Free and The Solar Foundation, veterans are employed within the solar industry at higher than average rates. The report finds that for a group facing high unemployment, the solar industry is one of the best industries for jobs.

The report, Veterans in Solar: Securing America’s Energy Future, highlights the contributions of veterans to the solar industry, using data derived from The Solar Foundation’s annual National Solar Jobs Census 2013. The findings show that America’s Veterans in Solarsolar industry has grown by 500 percent since 2008, providing more than 13,000 veterans with job opportunities as of November 2013. Veterans represent nearly 10 percent of all solar workers at a time when more than 15 percent of veterans aged 18-24 are currently unemployed. The report also discovered that the growth in the industry is continuing with nearly 62 percent of solar companies that employ veterans plan to add more solar workers within the next 12 months.

Congressman Scott Peters (CA-52), said of the news, “Our servicemen and women have made great sacrifices for our country and it is our responsibility to ensure that when they return home there are high-skill and well-paying jobs available. The solar industry offers our veterans a unique opportunity to use the knowledge they learned serving our country in a rapidly growing sector that is vital to both our national security and economic future.”

According to Operation Free and The Solar Foundation, this is the first time that the significant contributions of veterans to the solar industry have been documented. The two groups intend to amplify these findings in an effort to help more veterans enter into careers in the solar industry.

“This report highlights the ways solar strengthens the US economy and our national security,” added Nat Kreamer, CEO of Clean Power Finance and a former Intelligence Officer, Special Forces, US Navy. “Veterans are over represented in the solar industry because we know first-hand that clean, affordable domestic power makes America and the world safer.”

In addition to examining employment numbers, the report also suggests next steps to expand opportunities for veterans, including the creation of a tool for employers to translate veterans’ skills into language reflecting solar companies’ hiring needs.

MSU Increases Odds of Algal-Biofuel Success

david-kramerA team of Michigan State University (MSU) scientists have invented a new technology that they believe increases the odds of helping algae-based biofuels bridge the gap to success. The environmental photobioreactor or ePBR system is the first standard algae growing platform and it stimulates dynamic natural environments. The system is featured in the current issue of Algal Research.

To better visualize the technology, ePBR is in essence a pond in a jar that helps identify, cultivate and test algal strains that have the potential to make the leap from lab to pond – or thrive and multiple in real-world, real-pond settings and produce vast amounts of oil.

As the quest for “better biofuels” continues, many researchers are looking to algae as a viable solution, but a barrier to commercial success has been that algal strains that perform well in labs don’t often perform well when moved to commercial scale applications.

“It’s like training elementary kids to be really good pingpong players,” explains Ben Lucker, MSU research associate.. “But then they take the kids and throw them into a football game against professional players; in those settings, they simply can’t compete at all.”

epbrThe ePBRs, which the team believes will help make algae biofuel research more desirable to investors, were the brainchild of David Kramer, Hannah Distinguished Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at MSU. His lab is unique. Although it’s housed among other plant biologists, it could be mistaken for an electronics factory. The benches are covered with wires, soldering irons and printed circuit boards. There are even few early prototypes that provide a history of ePBR’s progress.

The latest models glow green and whir quietly as they test various strains. By allowing scientists to duplicate natural settings in a lab, ePBRs eliminate many variables before scaling up. The bioreactors are about the size of coffee makers and can induce changes in light, temperature, carbon dioxide, oxygen, evaporation, nutrient availability and more.

The ePBR system also can duplicate and confirm results from experiments conducted anywhere in the world. It replaces home-built growing platforms made from flasks, tubing, aluminum foil and grow lights and gives researchers a tool that can consistently replicate conditions and reproduce results, Lucker said.

The potential of ePBRs has already inspired the launch of a company, Phenometrics, an MSU spinoff headquartered in Lansing, Michigan, and while only two years old, steady orders for the bioreactors have the company on the same track of success as algal biofuels.

Making Sugarcane into the Next Biodiesel Feedstock

Sugarcane could be a better feedstock for biodiesel than soybeans, but it only grows in warm weather areas. But researchers at the University of Illinois believe they have a way to grow what could be a rich, oil-producing variety of sugarcane in colder climates.

long1“Biodiesel is attractive because, for example, with soybean, once you’ve pressed the oil out it’s fairly easy to convert it to diesel,” said Stephen P. Long, a University of Illinois professor of plant biology and leader of the initiative. “You could do it in your kitchen.”

But soybean isn’t productive enough to meet the nation’s need for renewable diesel fuels, Long said.

“Sugarcane and sorghum are exceptionally productive plants, and if you could make them accumulate oil in their stems instead of sugar, this would give you much more oil per acre,” he said.

Working first with the laboratory-friendly plant Arabidopsis and later with sugarcane, the team introduced genes that boost natural oil production in the plant. They increased oil production in sugarcane stems to about 1.5 percent.

“That doesn’t sound like a lot, but at 1.5 percent, a sugarcane field in Florida would produce about 50 percent more oil per acre than a soybean field,” Long said. “There’s enough oil to make it worth harvesting.”

The multi-institutional team aims to increase the oil content of sugarcane stems to about 20 percent by using genetic engineering to increase photosynthetic efficiency in sugarcane and sorghum by 30 percent, and then cross sugarcane with Miscanthus to allow it to be grown in northern regions.

Biodiesel By-product Could Help with Better Soils

rothamstedThe quality of soils to grow the very feedstocks to make biodiesel could be helped by a by-product of that green fuel’s production. This article from Farmers Weekly says Rothamsted Research in the United Kingdom found that applying biodiesel co-product (BCP) increased soil micro-organism numbers and this effectively “locked up” the nitrates in the soil until spring.

Researchers looked at three treatments to try and cut leaching, which included incorporating straw, growing meadowgrass and applying BCP in simulated field conditions.

“We found that BCP was the most effective soil amendment, rapidly increasing the abundance of soil micro-organisms and preventing more than 99% of nitrate leaching,” says Rothamsted researcher Marc Redmile-Gordon.

He adds that cutting nitrate losses from farmland would help protect the environment, especially watercourses, and could lead to lower nitrogen fertiliser rates.

The “very encouraging” results came in field trials conducted in the 2012-13 season when heavy nitrate leaching would have been expected after a wet harvest followed by an equally wet autumn.

The BCP treatment helps stimulate soil microbe numbers by giving them an energy source and then they suck up nitrate nutrients from the soil to feed this growth, says Dr Redmile-Gordon.

The nitrates are unlocked in the spring as soil microbe levels are reduced by warmer drier weather. The process mimics the use of cover crops over winter in mopping up nitrates in the autumn and then slowly releasing them in the spring.

The researchers believe this method could cut nitrogen fertilizer usage by about 10 percent. They do point out that it might require changing application methods.

California Geothermal Potential Largely Untapped

geysers_unit_18The Geothermal Energy Association (GEA) has released a new report to coincide with the California Air Resources Board’s (CARB) development of a scoping plan for implementing their climate law AB 32. The report finds that California’s geothermal resources are remain largely untapped.

Geothermal power is “a viable, cost effective, and plentiful renewable energy option to meet California’s climate goals,” GEA told CARB. Utilizing the Golden State’s geothermal resources can help achieve “carbon reductions with the least total cost and highest power system reliability,” GEA reports.

In brief, the status report, Report on the State of Geothermal Energy in California, shows that:

  • Geothermal power generated 4.4% of total system power in California in 2012, but could have generated substantially more.
  • Geothermal power produces some of the lowest life-cycle emissions when compared to almost every other energy technology and even some renewables.
  • Depending on the resource characteristics and plant design, geothermal power plants can be engineered to provide firm and/or flexible power.
  • Even with high upfront capital costs, geothermal power is a competitive renewable energy source.
  • About half of California’s identified geothermal resources are still untapped, and significant resources may remain undiscovered.
  • Geothermal power is key to achieving an expanded renewable power portfolio at the lowest total cost.
  • New technology will reduce geothermal power risks and can expand the supply curve to make more resources commercially available.
  • The Salton Sea Known Geothermal Resource Area (SSKGRA) is considered by many to be the best opportunity for growth in California in the near term.
  • Distributed generation geothermal power and heating projects have potential in a number of areas, but are not eligible for the type of support provided other distributed generation projects.
  • Challenges to growth of utility scale plants include weak demand, inadequate transmission, permitting delays, and a lack of coordinated policies.

Student Talks Biodiesel By-Product at Conference

pickett1The cutting edge of innovation was certainly on display at the recent National Biodiesel Conference & Expo in San Diego. Among the many innovations was a University of Kansas graduate student, who, with a little financial assistance from the folks at the Kansas Soybean Commission (KSC), talked about a new use for the biodiesel by-product, glycerin.

Derek Pickett … was part of the Next Generation Scientists for Biodiesel (NGSB) program that aimed to educate and collaborate with young scientists.

Pickett presented his findings about using glycerin for power generation during a conference session specifically designed for student-scientists to share their cutting-edge research. Glycerin is a byproduct of biodiesel production, with each gallon of biodiesel producing about 1 pound of glycerin. His research found glycerin that is converted to a synthetic gas has the potential to be an inexpensive source of power.

“Kansas soybean farmers are excited to see young scientists so enthusiastic about research related to biodiesel, which can be made from our crop,” said Dennis Gruenbacher, Andale, who represents the commission’s south-central district. “Those students already are working hard to find even more opportunities for biodiesel to benefit America’s environment and energy security.”

This year, the National Biodiesel Board’s NGSB program brought 36 students from 18 universities to the conference, with 18 of them received scholarships from state soybean organizations and USB. Last month’s gathering also marked the new session that focused solely on university biodiesel research.