Principal Solar Launches Solar Library

The solar industry has a new resource for information about the solar industry. Principal Solar has launched the “Definitive Solar Library,” an online resource center dedicated exclusively to solar energy. The company believes this is the first of its kind worldwide.

“Efforts to capture the power of the sun at a reasonable cost continue to evolve, positioning solar energy as one of the hottest topics around the world and creating the need for straightforward information and perspectives that improve upon the renewable energy exchange of ideas,” said Michael Gorton, CEO and president of Principal Solar, Inc. “By defining the issues, collecting and distributing information, the Definitive Solar Library will serve as a valuable educational outpost for leaders of government, business and academia. It will also be accessible to consumers who want to join the dialogue.”

To demonstrate the value of the Library, Principal Solar also released two white papers. The first, “Under the Sun: Putting Environmental and Regulatory Issues to Work,” was co-authored by Michael Gorton, CEO and chairman of Principal Solar and Scott D. Deatherage, partner Patton Boggs. This paper guides investors through the technical, legal and environmental issues required for making solar projects work successfully.

The second white papers, “Interfacing with the Electrical Grid,” was co-authored by Ken Allen, chief operating officer of Principal Solar and Ron Seidel, PE, board of directors, Principal Solar. This paper outlines the interconnection of power sources with renewable generation and the roles of federal, regional and state regulatory agencies in the processes.

Gorton added, “Because more entities have become aware of solar energy and its many attributes, timing for this launch is ideal. We expect the Library to improve upon existing practices and deliver additional solutions that advance significant social and economic value to communities, governments and individuals worldwide.”

Illinois Biomass Working Group Formed

The state of Illinois has formed the Illinois Biomass Working Group (IBWG) to study near-term uses for biomass in Illinois. The team is comprised of academics, government, industry and the private sector. Ted Funk, an Extension specialist in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering at the University of Illinois is one of the founding members and saw the need for the group because “everyone is talking about liquid biofuels.”

“Can we grow biomass on the farm and put it in your car tank? Yes, we know it’s possible, and we’re getting closer to that day, but we’re still sometime away from it,” said Funk. “My fear is that we’ll have a bio-refinery system built, based on what we’re learning about turning cellulosic materials into liquid product, but we won’t know how to get huge quantities of biomass to those refineries.

Funk said he felt there was a need to pull people together to discuss opportunities, what markets are available today that could accept large quantities of biomass and how to put together supply chains.

To answer those questions, Funk and others, including Hans Blaschek and Natalie Bosecker from the Center for Advanced BioEnergy Research at Illinois, and Fred Iutzi from the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University, organized a conference to analyze three markets they felt were currently open to the use of biomass for heat and power. One market is pellets to replace liquid propane, a second market is biomass to replace some of the coal used in industrial boilers and the third market is gasification.

“The IBWG has been an excellent way to get the right people in the room and start talking about possibilities,” added Funk. “We feel that the main function of the IBWG is to identify supply chains and put things together,” he concluded, “so that when the bio-refinery system is here, the supply chains will be here as well.”

New Catalyst For Biomass Production

A new catalyst for biomass production has been developed by researchers from the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) and Washington State University (WSU). These catalysts could turn ethanol into other products by converting it into a chemical called isobutene. This feat can be accomplished in one step, and the process can use water-diluted ethanol rather than purifying it first, saving time and money. The results of the research were published in the July 21, 2011 issue of the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

“Isobutene is a versatile chemical that could expand the applications for sustainably produced bio-ethanol,” said chemical engineer Yong Wang, who leads research at both PNNL in Richland, Washington and at WSU in Pullman.

The catalyst plays an important role to unlocking renewables to replace fossil fuel in products. For example, the catalytic converter in a car speeds up chemical reactions that break down polluting gases, cleaning up a vehicle’s exhaust. In the process of trying to improve on current catalysts, the team was actually trying to make hydrogen but discovered a significant amount of isobutene, which is better.

Isobutene can be used to make rubber or in cleaning products. In addition, it can be easily converted into jet fuel or octane boosting additives.

The researchers said no one had ever seen a catalyst create isobutene from ethanol in a one-step chemical reaction before, and realized such a catalyst could be important in reducing the cost of biofuels and renewable chemicals. When using a 1:10 ratio of zinc and zirconium, the mixed oxide catalyst could turn more than 83 percent of the ethanol into isobutene.

The research is just beginning and future study will look into optimization to further improve the yield and catalyst life. Wang and his colleagues are also curious to know if they can combine the isobutene catalyst with others to produce different chemicals in one-pot reactions.

Regulatory Hurdles Hurting Success of Advanced Biofuels

Biobutanol may be the fuel to help achieve the mandates set out in the Renewable Fuel Standard. This according to new research from the University of Illinois. The report, “Making Regulatory Innovation Keep Pace with Technological Innovation,” says that regulatory hurdles “abound” for the successful commercialization of advanced biofuels and argues regulatory innovations are needed to keep pace with technological innovation. The research was conducted through the BP-funded Energy Biosciences Institute and will be published in the upcoming issue of Wisconsin Law Review.

The research was conducted by University of Illinois law professor Jay P. Kesan along with regulatory associate Timothy A. Slating with the University of Illinois Energy Biosciences Institute. Kesan said, “Getting regulatory approval for new biofuels is currently a time-consuming and costly process. By removing some of the uncertainty and some of the expense without compromising on the regulatory concerns, you are also removing some of the disincentives to entering the biofuel market, where we need more competition.”

The paper promotes biobutanol as a good driver for advanced biofuels. The reasons are threefold: it is compatible with existing vehicles engines, it is compatible with existing fuel distribution infrastructure and has a higher energy content than ethanol. A car fueled with biobutanol could drive roughly 30 percent farther than if fueled with the same amount of ethanol.

“Biobutanol is a really promising biofuel, and has the potential to further the policy decisions that have already been made by Congress,” Kesan continued. This is not a hypothetical situation. We have companies currently building the capacity to produce biobutanol.” The three leading companies in this area are Butamax, Cobalt and Gevo, who are all in some phase of moving from demonstration phases to commercialization.

The research reviewed two major policies: the Renewable Fuel Standard and the Clean Air Act. The Clean Air Act is actually the regulatory framework for moving new fuels and fuel additives to approval. Continue reading

SDSU Studies Production of Biochar, Bio-Oil from Biomass

South Dakota State University (SDSU) is researching the future, one is which rural landscapes would no longer be dotted with grain elevators but rather with pyrolysis plants that would convert energy crops to fuel or “bio-oil”. This bio-oil would be passed along to other refiniries to produce products such as drop-in fuels or biochemicals while the plants would recycle the syngas produced during the process into an emerging product – biochar. Biochar can be integrated into the soil to help rebuild soil nutrition and sequester carbon.

The USDA has given SDSU a $1 million grant, $200,000 for the next five years, to help scientists design a feedstock production system for optimum energy production of bio-oil while also exploring the possible benefits of biochar.

“We’re looking at this from a whole system approach, and we’re looking at various components in this whole system,” said SDSU professor Tom Schumacher, the project director “Historically, the distributive nature of crop production gave rise to a network of grain elevators to separate and coordinate the flow of grain to the processing industry. A network of rail lines added new infrastructure to improve efficiency. For lignocellulosic feedstocks, a corollary to the grain elevator would be a collection point that would be within 10 to 30 miles of production fields.”

The purpose of the collection points is to receive, sort, pre-process or process feedstocks using pyrolysis. Pyrolysis uses high temperatures in the absence of oxygen to break down organic materials. This technology produces both a bio-oil as well as syngas that can be used to fuel the plant, and biochar. The biochar would be tested in fields around the plant to see how it performs in repairing soil health and as a carbon capture technology.

More specifically, the SDSU study will use a technique called microwave pyrolysis that heats the feedstock by exciting the individual molecules, making it very accurate and easy to control. They will then study how the biochar performs when varying the pyrolysis processing parameters. The feedstocks that will be tested include corn stover, switchgrass and wood biomass.

“There’s a lot that’s unknown about specific types of biochar,” said Schumacher. “There is no single characteristic that can be used to evaluate the effectiveness of biochars. Biochar’s pH and other characteristics can vary widely depending on what feedstock and process was used to produce it. That could make biochar beneficial to the environment, neutral, or possibly even harmful, depending on its characteristics.”

Advanced Biofuel Action Plan Released

A new advanced biofuels action plan for the automotive/light duty truck sector has been released by Advanced Biofuels USA. “The Pathway to a Sustainable “Total Biomass” Advanced Ethanol Industry,” identifies six steps the cellulosic and advanced ethanol producers should take in order to build a long-term higher blend ethanol market (E30, 30 percent advanced biofuel, 70 percent petroleum). Advanced Biofuels USA believes that if ethanol can become the primary fuel for cars and light duty trucks, investors would have the confidence they need to invest in the development of the industry.

The organization has laid out six key points in a plan that if initiated, would create a steady, sustainable growth path that would lead to a long-term ethanol market, one that exceeds the requirements set out in the Renewable Fuels Standard. The plan entails a dual approach: optimized ethanol vehicles and installation of blender pumps. The key points of this action plan include:

  1. 1. The advanced ethanol community must adopt a long term plan to greatly increase the number of North American cars and light duty trucks that can run on E30 and higher ethanol mixtures while achieving parity mileage with current gasoline.
  2. 2.  The advanced ethanol community must have the patience to stick with this long term plane even if the results are, at first, slow.
  3. 3.  To build a long term high (30% and higher) blend ethanol market, the ethanol community should make clear the benefits of ethanol as a very good primary fuel, not just as an additive.
  4. 4. Ethanol producers must work closely with motor vehicle manufacturers and governments, both state and federal, as “First Adopters” to bring “Optimized Flex-Fuel Vehicles” to market.
  5. 5. In conjunction with government fleets buying optimized E30 vehicles, those fleets (and nearby fuel stations) should also begin replacing aging pumps with blender pumps to fuel all vehicles with blends ranging from E10 to E85.
  6. 6. As the number of these optimized FFVs and new tech E30+ vehicles increase, the advanced ethanol community should identify where concentrations of those vehicle are located and work with stations and governments in those areas to get more blender pumps installed.

The Real Impact of U.S. Biofuels on ILUC

A new study has looked at the “real” impacts of U.S. biofuels production both domestically and internationally and has concluded it is “negligible or nonexistent.” The research was coauthored by Dr. Seungdo Kim and Dr. Bruce E. Dale and was published in the July issue of Biomass and Bioenergy Journal under the title, “Indirect land use change for biofuels: Testing predictions and improving analytical methodologies.”

“It is the first evidence-based evaluation of ILUC utilizing actual historic data, employing a ‘bottom-up’, data-driven, statistical approach based on individual world regions’ land use patterns and commodity grain imports,” stated Dr. Roger Conway, senior partner at Rosslyn Advisors LLC and former director of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Office of Energy Policy and New Uses.

The authors say that very few previous studies have attempted to find empirical evidence for or against indirect land use change from historical data, rather most studies rely on global economic simulations.

Dale said, “Unlike most other ILUC work this study relied on very few assumptions and did not attempt to quantify nor to predict ILUC effects. We searched for direct historical evidence for ILUC in relevant world areas rather than attempting to project or predict what course ILUC might take. Projecting forward can force scientists to make untestable assumptions.”

This study was unique in that is used data from 1990, when the U.S. biofuels industry was very small, as its baseline. It then measured crop changes against that as U.S. ethanol production has significantly grown during the past decade. Continue reading

Clean Energy Policies Could Boost Midwest Economies

According to a new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), clean energy policies would boost Midwestern economies. Last week, the Brookings Institution released a study that found the private-sector “green” economy in the Midwest already employs nearly 40,000 people. However, “A Bright Future for the Heartland: Powering the Midwest Economy with Clean Energy,” estimates that this number is already higher and will continue to grow.

In particular, the report found that the Midwest has great potential to produce electricity from renewable resources including wind, biomass and solar. Iowa is already the leading state for wind and biofuels and other Midwestern states like Minnesota are following close behind. The UCS report says that renewable energy has the ability to cut home and business energy bills, drive billions of dollars in new business investment and create thousands of jobs. All of this can happen, says the report, while reducing the use of energy created by coal.

“Adopting stronger clean energy standards can help transform the region’s economy,” said Steven Frenkel, director of UCS’s Midwest office. “Generating more renewable energy will put people back to work manufacturing the components needed to power the clean energy economy, such as wind turbines and solar panels. At the same time, reducing energy use can help keep Midwest businesses competitive by cutting their energy costs.”

The study analyzes the possible impact of a clean energy strategy that would help the economy. The duo approach includes policy combined with the adoption of energy efficient technologies. More specifically, the “proposed” policy would require 30 percent of each state’s electricity to come from renewable sources by 2030 coupled with the goal of a 2 percent reduction in annual power consumption by 2015 with an additional 2 percent reduction each following year. The study also found that while individual state policies can have an impact, the greatest achievement would happen if all states acted together.

Claudio Martinez, UCS energy analyst and report author added, “Few places in the world have the combination of a great renewable energy potential, a strong manufacturing base and the skilled workforce needed to realize that potential. And the Midwest is one of those places.”

Scouting for Biofuels Crops in Indian Creek Watershed

The Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory is looking for the best biofuels crops to grow in the northeast Illinois Indian Creek Watershed.

CTIC TourDuring a recent field tour of the watershed sponsored by the Conservation Technology Information Center, Argonne agronomist Cristina Negri said they are looking at alternative crops that can efficiently use nitrogen to grow on marginal land in the area. According to Negri, the purpose of the Biomass Production and Nitrogen Recovery project is to “find a way to bring biofuels into the big conservation equation.”

Negri participated in the CTIC tour to learn more about the production practices being used by farmers in the watershed and also gave a presentation on the Argonne project: Cristina Negri Presentation

CTIC Indian Creek Watershed Project Field Tour Photos

Texas Looks to Algae As Next Cash Crop

According to Texas AgriLife Research scientists in Corpus Christi, microalgae may be the next cash crop. There are an estimated 200,000 to 800,000 species of microscopic freshwater and marine microalgae, yet only 35,000 species have been described. Researchers around the globe are trying to discover the best algae species for producing biofuels.

“It’s a huge, untapped source of fuel, food, feed, pharmaceuticals and even pollution-busters,” said Dr. Carlos Fernandez, a crop physiologist at the Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Corpus Christi. He is studying the physiological responses of microalgae to the environment.

Fernandez said researchers are only beginning to scratch the surface of discovering algae’s secrets. Yet he believes farmers will one day soon be growing microalgae on marginal land that won’t compete with fertile farmland or for fresh water. One of the secret’s that needs to be unlocked is how to most effectively grow algae. Therefore, Fernandez constructed a microalgae physiology laboratory to study how algae is affected by temperature, salinity, nutrients, light levels, and carbon dioxide.

“We have four bioreactors in which we grow microalgae to determine the basic physiological responses that affect its growth,” explained Fernandez. “We will then integrate these responses into a simulator model, a tool we can use in the management of larger, outdoor systems.”

The study is also looking to find algae that can produce large amounts of lipids or fats, that are converted to biofuels such as biodiesel or biojet fuel. In addition, the research team, that includes members from Texas AgriLife Mariculture labs in Flour Bluff, are looking at a residue that remains after the lipids are extracted as a source of animal feed. Finally, they will also evaluate algae as a source of fertilizer for soil.

Fermandez said Corpus Christi is the perfect place to conduct the research for several reasons including access to seawater to grow the microalgae, large acres of marginal land and lower evaporation rates than in arid areas so water requirements are reduced. In addition, he noted that local power plants and oil refineries are good CO2 sources and there is a good network of higher education institutions in the region.

Grasses Better Option Than Corn for Biofuels

According to a new study from Colorado State University (CSU) in collaboration with the University of Illinois, using grasses to produce biofuels is a more economical and environmental better option than using corn. Led by CSU research scientist William Parton, his research team found using grass species, such as switchgrass, in the same land area as used to grow corn (the Midwest Corn Belt) could result in an increase in ethanol production, a decrease in nitrogen leaching (Dead Zone) and a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Furthermore, the research concluded that replacing corn with perennial grasses could increase the productivity of food and fuel within the region without causing additional indirect land use changes. The study was published in the online version of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

“Raising perennial biofuel crops on previously cultivated land in the United States will result in massive reductions in greenhouse gas fluxes from agricultural systems,” said Parton. “Growing perennial biofuel crops on low-production agricultural land can result in large environmental benefits such as improved air and water quality as well as increased ethanol production and sustained production of corn and soybeans.”

Parton said the research supports additional efforts in studying methods of producing ethanol from biomass crops, and despite the fact that biomass to ethanol is not currently economical, biomass crops have the potential to benefit the Corn Belt in ways corn cannot.

“We have found that perennial biofuel crop growth has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas fluxes and nitrogen leaching from agricultural systems while maintaining current food production for human consumption,” continued Parton. “Production of corn-based ethanol simply cannot compare to the 15 percent to 30 percent reduction in nitrogen leaching into the Gulf of Mexico when perennial crops are grown for ethanol production.”

Researchers Study Alage in Roman Baths for Biofuels

Here is an interesting place to find feedstock for biodiesel – the Roman Baths. University of Bath researchers in the Department of Biology & Biochemistry are studying the algae growing in the Roman Baths as a source to produce biodiesel. The algae, growing in high temperature waters of the bath, may be a key to meeting growing biofuel needs.

Holly Smith-Baedorf, a PhD student, has made this project her own. “Algae are usually happiest growing at temperatures around 25 degrees celsius and that can limit the places in which it can be cultivated on a large scale,” said Smith-Baedorf. “Areas where these ideal conditions are available also usually make good arable areas and are therefore needed for food production. In an ideal world we would like to grow algae in desert areas where there are huge expanses of land that don’t have other uses, but the temperatures in these zones are too high for algae to flourish.”

Where the conditions seem to be ideal are the Roman Baths. Smith-Baedorf explains that algae cells are quite versatile and can change any of their characteristics in response to their environment. Therefore, the protected environment provided by the baths make it an ideal environment for adaptation and thus research and the team has identified seven different types of algae in the baths.

Another area she is studying is the ability to remove the oil from the algae – an important element to producing cost-effective algal biofuels. Therefore, the research team is also looking for a species of algae with a weaker cell wall, high oil content and the possibility to use cheap filtration techniques, keeping production costs low.

The research team is led by Professor Matt Davidson and also includes collaborators from the University of the West of England. The team is growing seven types of algae harvested from the Roman Baths over a range of temperatures and comparing them to ‘control’ algae known for being good for producing biodiesel at normal temperatures.

Professor Rod Scott added, “The results of this study will help us identify whether there is a particular algae species among the seven identified in the Roman Baths that is well adapted to growing at higher temperatures and also suitable for producing sufficient amounts of biodiesel to make wide-scale production viable.”

Biomass Demand in Europe to Reach 44% by 2020

According to a new report released today in the European Biomass Review, and conducted by RISI, lignocellulosic biomass demand will reach 44% between 2010 and 2020. This increase in biomass need will be spurred by renewable energy policy. The majority of the biomass will be used in the energy sector, but will also be used in industrial and residential sectors.

The report highlights the potential of biomass production and aims to identify where the biomass may come from including forest and agricultural residues and energy crops. However, despite availability, one key to success, says the report, is the ability to mobilize, or harvest, transport and store the biomass. The report lays out three scenarios for mobilization of new biomass sources by 2020, based on various regions. In addition, a cost-curve analysis for each region and each scenario illustrates the implications for biomass pricing and imports.

According to RISI, lignocellulosic biomass is currently the largest renewable energy source (RES) although wind, solar and geothermal are rapidly developing. Therefore, the study also analyzes the economics of biomass versus other RES’s using macro demand drivers and the National Renewable Energy Action Plans (NREAPs) to forecast biomass demand by sector through 2020.

“The NREAPs offer insights into how governments plan to meet the renewable energy targets by 2020,” said Glen O’Kelly, author of the study. “But forecast biomass demand is based on announced investments, carbon costs and the relative economics of biomass, as well as an analysis of macro drivers: forecast GDP, population, household energy use, forest industry production – all considered in this study.”

The European Biomass Review covers EU27 countries as well as Norway and Switzerland with six regional designations including North, West, East & South Europe, UK, and Ireland.

Salt Loving Microbe May Aid Biofuel Production

Researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Joint Genome Institute (JGI) and the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) at DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory are trying to discover salt-loving organisms that may be more efficient in treating biomass and improve sugar yield for biofuel production. The class of solvents known as ionic liquids, are liquid forms of salt that will inactivate enzymes by interfering with the folding of polypeptides—the building-blocks of proteins. These solvents are useful for breaking down biomass; however, they can also hinder the ability of cellulases used to produce sugars after pretreatment.

To break this code, the researchers are turning to those found in the complete genome sequences of halophilic (salt-tolerant) organisms. As a test of this bioenergy-related application of DNA sequencing and enzyme discovery, researchers led by the Director of the DOE JGI, Eddy Rubin, and the Vice-President of the JBEI Deconstruction Division, Blake Simmons, employed a cellulose-degrading enzyme from a salt-tolerant microbe that was isolated from the Great Salt Lake.

The microbe in question, Halorhabdus utahensis, is from the branch of the tree of life known as Archaea. It was isolated from the natural environment at the Great Salt Lake and sequenced as part of the Genomic Encyclopedia of Bacteria and Archaea (GEBA) project. The researchers believe that salt -tolerant enzymes may offer significant advantages over conventional enzymes. They can tolerate high temperatures and are resistant to ionic liquids.

“This is one of the only reports of salt-tolerant cellulases, and the only one that represents a true ‘genome-to-function’ relevant to ionic liquids from a halophilic environment,” said Simmons. “This strategy enhances the possibility of identifying true obligatory halophilic enzymes. This project has established a very important link between genomic science and the realization of enzymes that can handle very demanding chemical environments, such as those present in a biorefinery,” said Simmons.

Results of the study were published June 30, 2011 in Green Chemistry. The next step is for the research team to expand this research to develop a full complement of enzymes that are tailored for the ionic liquid process technology. Their ultimate goal is to demonstrate a complete biomass-to-sugar process, one they hope can enable the commercial viability of advanced biofuels.

Kelp Studied as Possible Biofuels Feedstock

Researchers at Aberystwyth University are looking at seaweed, more specifically kelp (Laminaria digitata), as a potential feedstock for biofuels. Lead Researcher, Dr. Jessica Adams, says that seaweed may be a viable feedstock, especially if harvested in the summer as suitability of its chemical composition varies by season. The research found that July is the best time to harvest kelp as its carbohydrate levels are at their highest ensuring optimal sugar release for biofuel production. Metal content is also at its lowest.

“The storage carbohydrate and soluble sugars get converted into ethanol in the fermentation process, so we need as much as possible,” said Adams. “Metals can inhibit the yeast too so we also want these to be as low as possible.”

Welsh coast researchers collected monthly samples of kelp and then used chemical analysis to assess the seasonal variability. The results of the study were presented during the Experimental Biology Annual Conference in Glasgow on July 4th.

The research team noted that kelp can be converted to biofuel in various ways including fermentation or anaerobic digestion that produces ethanol or through methane or pyrolysis that produces bio-oil. The chemical composition of the seaweed is important in both of these processes. Researchers believe that marine ecosystems are an untapped resource and are capable of producing more biomass per square metre than fast growing terrestrial plants such as sugarcane.

“Seaweed biofuel could be very important in future energy production,” said Adams. “What biofuels provide that other renewables such as wind power cannot is a storable energy source that we can use when the wind drops.”

The next focus of the research will be to work to improve the viability of the process by identifying and extracting high value substances, such as pigments and phenols, before the rest of the seaweed is used to produce biofuel.