Sunn Hemp Shows Promise as Biofuel Source

USDA researchers say the tropical legume sunn hemp (Crotalaria juncea) is a fast-growing annual that farmers in the Southeast could incorporate into their crop rotations and it could be used as a biofuel source.
A study, conducted by Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists in Florence, S.C., supports the USDA priority of finding new sources of bioenergy. Results from the study were published in 2010 in Biomass and Bioenergy.

ARS agricultural engineer Keri Cantrell, agronomist Philip Bauer, and environmental engineer Kyoung Ro all work at the ARS Coastal Plains Soil, Water, and Plant Research Center in Florence. They compared the energy content of sunn hemp with cowpea (Vigna unguiculata), another common regional summer cover crop, in 2004 and 2006.

Both crops were grown in experimental plots near Florence and were harvested on the same day three times in each study year. The last harvest for both years was conducted right after the first killing freeze of the season. The scientists measured potential energy production of both feedstocks via direct combustion. This provided the feedstocks’ higher heating value (HHV), which indicates how much energy is released via combustion.

In 2004, when there was ample rainfall, the resulting sunn hemp biomass yield totaled more than 4.5 tons per acre. This is equivalent to 82.4 gigajoules of energy per acre, close to the energy contained in 620 gallons of gasoline and well in the ballpark of other bioenergy crops, which have yields of anywhere from 30 to 150 gigajoules per acre.

The HHV for sunn hemp biomass exceeded the HHV for switchgrass, bermudagrass, reed canarygrass and alfalfa. Although reduced rainfall resulted in lower hemp biomass yields in 2006, sunn hemp’s HHV for both study years was 4 to 5 percent greater than the HHV of cowpeas.

Read more about this research in the January 2012 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

New Research Could Lead to Cheaper Fuel Cells

Fuel cells can create electricity that produces very little or even no pollution. In the future, fuel cells are expected to power electric vehicles and replace batteries, among other things. However, fuel cells are expensive.

Now researchers at Aalto University in Finland have developed a new and significantly cheaper method of manufacturing fuel cells. Using atomic layer deposition (ALD), the researchers are making cells that incorporate 60 percent less catalyst material than would normally be required. The study is published in the Journal of Physical Chemistry.

“This is a significant discovery, because researchers have not been able to achieve savings of this magnitude before with materials that are commercially available,” says Docent Tanja Kallio of Aalto University.

In a fuel cell, chemical processes must be sped up by using a catalyst. The high price of catalysts is one of the biggest hurdles to the wide adoption of fuel cells at the moment.

The most commonly used fuel cells cover anode with expensive noble metal powder which reacts well with the fuel. By using the Aalto University researchers’ ALD method, this cover can be much thinner and more even than before which lowers costs and increases quality.

With this study, researchers are developing better alcohol fuel cells using methanol or ethanol as their fuel. It is easier to handle and store alcohols than commonly used hydrogen. In alcohol fuel cells, it is also possible to use palladium as a catalyst. The most common catalyst for hydrogen fuel cells is platinum, which is twice as expensive as palladium. This means that alcohol fuel cells and palladium will bring a more economical product to the market.

These results are based on preliminary testing with fuel cell anodes using a palladium catalyst. Commercial production could start in five to ten years.

Biofuel and Chemicals Made from Wood Biomass

Researchers at Aalto University in Finland have developed a method using microbes from wood biomass to produce butanol suitable for biofuel and other industrial chemicals. Butanol is particularly suited as a transport fuel because it is not water soluble and has higher energy content than ethanol.
Until now, starch and cane sugar have been the most commonly used raw materials in butanol production. In contrast, the Aalto University study used only lignocellulose, otherwise known as wood biomass, which does not compete with food production.

Another new breakthrough in the study is the successful combination of modern pulp and biotechnology. Finland’s advanced forest industry provides particularly good opportunities to develop this type of bioprocesses.

Wood biomass is made up of three primary substances: cellulose, hemicelluloses and lignin. Of these three, cellulose and hemicellulose can be used as a source of nutrition for microbes in bioprocesses. Along with cellulose, the Kraft process that is currently used in pulping produces black liquor which already can be used as a source of energy. It is not, however, suitable for microbes. In the study, the pulping process was altered so that, in addition to cellulose, the other sugars remain unharmed and therefore can be used as raw material for microbes.

When wood biomass is boiled in a mixture of water, alcohol and sulphur dioxide, all parts of the wood – cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin – are separated into clean fractions. The cellulose can be used to make paper, nanocellulose or other products, while the hemicellulose is efficient microbe raw material for chemical production. The advantage of this new process is that no parts of the wood sugar are wasted.

In accordance with EU requirements, all fuel must contain 10 percent biofuel by 2020. A clear benefit of butanol is that a significantly large percentage – more than 20 percent of butanol – can be added to fuel without having to make any changes to existing combustion engines. The nitrogen and carbon emissions from a fuel mix including more than 20 percent butanol are significantly lower than with fossil fuels. For example, the incomplete combustion of ethanol in an engine produces volatile compounds that increase odor nuisances in the environment. Estimates indicate that combining a butanol and pulp plant into a modern biorefinery would provide significant synergy benefits in terms of energy use and biofuel production.

Researchers Find More Pollution from Sugarcane Ethanol

University researchers from California, Iowa and Chile have found that sugarcane ethanol production creates up to seven times more air pollutants than previously estimated, according to news from the University of Iowa.

The research team used agricultural survey data from Brazil to calculate emissions of air pollutants and greenhouse gases from the entire production, distribution, and lifecycle of sugarcane ethanol from 2000 to 2008.

The estimated pollutants were 1.5 to 7.3 times higher than those from satellite-based methods, according to lead author Elliott Campbell of the University of California, Merced.

Greg Carmichael, Karl Kammermeyer Professor of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering in the UI College of Engineering and co-director of the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research (CGRER), and UI assistant professor Scott Spak note that the findings reflect continued practices and trends that are a part of the production of sugarcane ethanol. These include the practice of burning sugarcane fields before harvest, as well as the fact that sugarcane production in Brazil continues to grow.

“We found that the vast majority of emissions come from burning the sugarcane fields prior to harvesting, a practice the Brazilian government has been moving to end,” says Spak. “However, the sugarcane industry has been expanding rapidly and moving into more remote areas, which makes it much more difficult to enforce new regulations over this growing source of air pollution and greenhouse gases.

“As people try to determine how to integrate biofuels into the global economy, Brazilian sugarcane ethanol has often been considered a more environmentally friendly fuel source than U.S. corn ethanol. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers sugarcane ethanol an ‘advanced biofuel’ with fewer greenhouse gas emissions than conventional biofuels like corn ethanol. These new findings help us refine those estimates and move closer to making more informed comparisons between different fuel sources, and ultimately make better decisions about how to grow and use biofuels,” Spak says.

The study, titled “Increased estimates of air-pollution emissions from Brazilian sugarcane ethanol,” is featured in the Nature Highlights section and published in the Dec. 11 Advance Online Publication of the journal Nature Climate Change.

OriginOil and Idaho National Lab Partner for Research

OriginOil has a new research agreement with the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory (INL) to collaborate on establishing industry standards for algal biomass.

Under the terms of the agreement, OriginOil will provide INL with its Single Step Extraction technology and contribute its knowledge of how to stimulate oil production and pre-treat for consistent extraction of the algae and its co-products. In return, OriginOil expects to benefit from INL’s scientific and engineering expertise and its large Process Demonstration Facility which boasts advanced biofuels processing capabilities and equipment. A primary effort will be to integrate algae with terrestrial biomass sources to achieve large-scale biofuels production.

Under this agreement INL will assist OriginOil by conducting evaluations of processes and technologies that may help find solutions to converting algae into energy feedstocks more efficiently by optimizing and standardizing various formats.

“The U.S. Navy alone plans to achieve 50 percent use of alternative fuels in just eight years, a goal of eight million barrels of biofuels per year that must be blended from non-food fuels like algae,” said Riggs Eckelberry, OriginOil’s CEO. “But to blend, we must standardize, using the latest breakthrough technologies.”

Dividing Corn Stover Could Help Cellulosic Ethanol Production

Purdue University researchers have found that dividing up corn stalks may be the way to conquer in the quest for cellulosic ethanol efficiency.

A research team discovered that when corn stover is processed to make ethanol, three distinct parts of it – the rind, pith and leaves – break down in different ways.

Cellulosic ethanol is created by using enzymes to extract sugars from cellulosic feedstocks, such as corn stover, grasses and woods, and then fermenting and distilling those sugars into fuels. Stover’s pith, the soft core that makes up more than half the weight of a corn stalk, is the easiest for enzymes to digest, according to the findings in two papers published in the journal Biotechnology and Bioengineering. Rind is the most difficult, while leaves fall in between. Significant amounts of lignin, the rigid compound in plant cell walls, make the cellulose resistant to hydrolosis, a process in which cellulose is broken down into sugars.

Read more here.

Next Generation Scientists for Biodiesel Hosts Fall Webinar

The National Biodiesel Board is offering students and others interested in the future of advanced biofuels the opportunity to take their renewable fuels education up a notch with the Next Generation Scientists for Biodiesel (NGSB) Fall Webinar on Oct. 18.

The webinar will feature the very latest on biodiesel research from two university students who will present their biodiesel research, and USDA’s Dr. Michael Haas, who will provide an overview of his work with low value feedstocks and in new process development.

Meredith Dorneker, a graduate student in geography at the University of Missouri – Columbia will present her research entitled “Federal Laws, Regulations, and Programs: application to biofuel production and the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels (RSB) Principles.” Chemical engineering undergrad at the University of Rhode Island Daniel Mallin will present his study on “The Glycerol Prewash and its Effectiveness for Removing Moisture and Free Fatty Acids from Waste Vegetable Oil for Biodiesel Production.”

The webinar will be held on October 18 at 4:00 pm central time and registration is free.

Southeast Partnership Formed for Biomass Development

Development of biomass for energy in the southeast was also included in the USDA grants announced this week in the Pacific Northwest.

Among the grants is $15 million for research to be led by the University of Tennessee to develop sustainable feedstock production systems using switchgrass and woody biomass that will “produce low-cost, easily converted sugars for biochemical conversion to butanol, lignin byproducts and forest and mill residues, and dedicated energy crop feedstocks to produce diesel, heat and power.” Created to implement the research project is the Southeast Partnership for Integrated Biomass Supply Systems (IBSS) and one of the core partners of that group is ArborGen, a South Carolina-based company that specializes in the development and commercialization of technologies that improve the productivity of trees for wood, fiber and energy.

According to ArborGen officials, the company’s expertise will be utilized to explore the performance and cost advantages of short-rotation woody crops such as Eucalyptus, Pine and Poplar, matching the economic and environmental performance of each feedstock with a preferred conversion platform.

ArborGen’s focus in the IBSS partnership will be on optimizing wood characteristics for optimal conversion to advanced “drop in” biofuels and on developing sustainable methods for harvesting, transporting and storing purpose grown trees. ArborGen will also work closely with IBSS on ensuring that technology developed at IBSS will benefit rural economies. A key component of the IBSS partnership will be to ensure that information is developed to help land owners, rural communities and the emerging biofuels industry make decisions that promote sustainable development.

USDA Studies Yeast and Enzymes for Ethanol Production

USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists are studying a new yeast that could help make cellulosic ethanol production less expensive and a commercial enzyme that could reduce overall costs linked with producing ethanol from grain.

Molecular biologist Zonglin Lewis Liu with ARS’ National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research in Peoria found a biorefinery yeast that successfully ferments plant sugars from cornstalks, wheat straw, and other rough, fibrous, harvest-time leftovers into cellulosic ethanol. According to Liu, the yeast overcomes some of the troublesome compounds in these materials that are created during dilute acid pre-treatment of the crop leftover. The compounds tend to damage yeast cell walls and membranes, disrupt yeast genetic material such as DNA and RNA, and interfere with yeast enzymes’ fermentation abilities, ultimately reducing potential cellulosic ethanol yields.

In research that began in 2003, Liu and his colleagues have worked with dozens of strains of S. cerevisiae, a yeast species already used to make ethanol from plant starch to speed up the microbe’s natural adaptation to the hostile environment created by the inhibitors.

Meanwhile, other research being done at the ARS Eastern Regional Research Center in Pennsylvania is looking at a commercial enzyme that helps extract water from an ethanol byproduct used to make dried distillers grains with solubles (DDGS). This could significantly reduce the amount of electricity, natural gas, energy and water needed for production of grain ethanol and its marketable byproducts.

The study was conducted at Center Ethanol Company in Sauget, Ill., a commercial facility that produces 54 million gallons of ethanol and 172,000 tons of DDGS every year from corn. In the study, the scientists added one pound of an experimental dewatering enzyme for each 1,000 pounds of corn. The enzyme was supplied by Genencor, a major developer and manufacturer of industrial enzymes that is now part of DuPont Industrial Biosciences. After the grain had been fermented into ethanol, the researchers transferred the leftover slurry of corn solids and water, called “stillage,” into a centrifuge, where much of the water was extracted. Continue reading

Grading Grasses for Ethanol Potential

U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers have developed an inexpensive way to grade the ethanol potential of perennial grasses at a biorefinery’s loading dock.

Geneticist Ken Vogel (pictured) was one of a team of USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists who developed the grading process that costs only about $5 a sample rather than the $300 to $2,000 per sample that conventional analytical methods cost.

The process uses near-infrared sensing (NIRS) to measure 20 components in switchgrass biomass that determine its potential value to biorefiners. These components include cell wall sugars, soluble sugars and lignin. With this information, 13 traits can be determined, including the efficiency of the conversion from sugars to ethanol. This is the first time NIRS has been used to predict maximum and actual ethanol yields of grasses from a basic conversion process.

ARS is now working with the Near Infrared Spectroscopy Consortium (NIRSC) to commercialize the process for use at biorefineries.

Read more from ARS here.

Elusieve Process Removes Fiber From Corn

A new way to remove fiber from corn has been discovered by a professor from Mississippi State University (MSU). He calls his process Elusieve and has filed for a patent. The process was invented by Dr. Radhakrishnan Srinivasan of the MSU Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering with some help from University of Illinois professor Dr. Vijay Singh who believe the process will improve both ethanol production efficiency as well as dried distillers grains (DDGS).

“Corn has mainly starch, fiber and protein. We are removing the fiber, so the starch is increased in concentration. Therefore, you can produce more ethanol,” Srinivasan said in an interview with Mississippi Business Journal.

Srinivasan explains that pigs and chickens cannot digest fiber well. By removing the fiber from its feed, which consists primarily of DDGS, ground corn flour and soybean meal, the energy content of the feed is improved and reduces the need for expensive ingredients such as fat and enzymes. He believes the Elusieve process will be adopted by feed mills to separate fiber downstream of the bins where the feed is stored.

Today, there is one pilot plant using the Elusieve technology at MSU and its using a combination of sieving and air classification, called elutriation, to separate out the fiber. From there, the feed is sieved into four sizes and air is blown through the three biggest to carry away the fiber. Ultimately this process increases protein of feeds like DDGS and also increases starch content.

Other researchers are working on technologies to remove fiber from corn but Srinivasan said his is less expensive and less complicated. His has already received the patent for DDGS via Elusieve.

Private Investments for Alt Energy At Four-Year Low

According to new research from Lux Research, investments in the alternative fuels sector have reached a four-year low of $930 million for alternative fuel start-ups in 2010. However, 2010 was also a record-breaking year for investments to companies with flexible technologies that can use a variety of feedstocks to produce a variety of products at $698 million. Lux says that if this trend continues, then start-ups with less flexible technologies will be forced out of the industry.

Hedging Bets with Flexibility in Alternative Fuels,” has shown that since 2004 more than $6.4 billion in investments have been made in the alternative energy industry but in recent years, investors are giving more to less. The winners follow one simple principle: flexibility in feedstock or end product. Lux Research analyzed 333 investments in 170 unique start‐ups since 2004, breaking down investments by technology, fuel, geography, and investment stage.

“The recent successful IPOs of Amyris, Solazyme, and Gevo all reflect the larger industry trend of investing in more flexible end‐product technologies,” said Andrew Soare, a Lux Analyst and lead author of the report. “A handful of fuels‐focused start‐ups continue to draw investors, including waste‐to‐fuels companies Enerkem and LanzaTech, and cellulosic ethanol companies Qteros and Mascoma. But flexibility is part of their DNA as well, in that they derive fuels from multiple feedstocks.”

Several key conclusions include:

• Synthetic biology’s inherent flexibility is a wise investment, but not the only one. Synthetic biology has attracted the most funding since 2004: $1.84 billion or 28.4% of the total. But investors shouldn’t ignore other flexible technologies.

• Investments will favor fewer companies in later stage funding. Most alternative fuel technologies today are past the point of initial seed funding, and are seeking capital to scale up manufacturing. Those closest to scale will continue to raise large Series C and Series D rounds, while less advanced companies will struggle to land moderate earlier rounds, resulting in more failed start‐ups over the next few years.

• Expect new corporate investors to enter the space. Expect forward‐looking corporations to bring additional industries into the fray, such as pulp and paper, food and beverage, and non‐obvious downstream brand owners such as UPS.

Speeding Up Butanol Production

Last week, several researchers from Rice University unveiled a new method for converting simple glucose (sugar) into biofuels and petrochemicals 10 times faster than any method previously reported. The research was published in Nature online and details how the team reversed one of the most efficient of all metabolic pathway, the beta oxidation cycle, to engineer bacteria that quickly produce biofuels.

“That’s really not even a fair comparison because the other organisms used an expensive, enriched feedstock, and we used the cheapest thing you can imagine, just glucose and mineral salts,” said Ramon Gonzalez, associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Rice and lead co-author of the Nature study.

The bacteria actually create butanol, a fuel that many believe has greater hope than ethanol because of its higher energy content, ability to be transported with current infrastructure and butanol can be used in current vehicles with no modifications.

“We call these ‘drop-in’ fuels and chemicals, because their structure and properties are very similar, sometimes identical, to petroleum-based products,” Gonzalez continued. “That means they can be ‘dropped in,’ or substituted, for products that are produced today by the petrochemical industry.” Continue reading

DOE Updates Billion Ton Study

The Department of Energy (DOE) has concluded its Billion Ton Study that was first conducted in 2005. This new version of the report confirms that America has ample biomass resources including grasses, ag wastes, and wood wastes among others to meet America’s national renewable fuel goals. One goal of the study was to assess the amount of biomass available that would not impact U.S. farms and forest products such as food, feed and fiber crops.

“Developing the next generation of American biofuels and bioenergy will help diversify our energy portfolio, reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and produce new clean energy jobs,” said U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu. “This study identifies resources here at home that can help grow America’s bioenergy industry and support new economic opportunities for rural America.”

The study confirms that there are ample volumes of biomass feedstocks available for conversion into ethanol and other biofuels that would meet the requirements as set forth in the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). The RFS sets out a goal of producing 21 billion gallons of fuel by 2022 from advanced or cellulosic biofuels – in other words, biofuels produced from non-starch crops. The DOE study states, “This potential resource is more than sufficient to provide feedstock to produce the required 20 billion gallons of cellulosic biofuels. The high-yield scenario demonstrates potential at the $60 price that far exceeds the RFS mandate.”

Brooke Coleman, executive director of the Advanced Ethanol Council said of the study, “America has both the resources and the know-how to break our addiction to foreign oil. What is lacking is the political will to stand up to oil special interests and level the playing field for all biofuels, including next generation ethanol, to compete. Scores of promising technologies are ready for commercial deployment, but are being held up by an unstable and unpredictable policy climate.”

He concluded, “In order to deploy these technologies to harness the potential of America’s vast biomass resources, and to compete in the global race to produce next generation fuels, consistent and stable policy relating to biofuels is essential. That means continuing investment in new technologies, expanding refueling opportunities for domestically produced, non-petroleum fuels like ethanol, and protecting the integrity and the intent of the RFS.”

“Creating a Path for Cellulose” Paper Released

A new white paper outlining the future of cellulosic ethanol, “Creating a Path for Cellulose,” has been released by Ethanol Across America. The paper was authored by Wes Bolsen, chief marketing officer and vice president of government affairs for Cosaka, Inc. The goal of the paper is to educate the industry and the public on second-generation ethanol and to correct misconceptions about the fuel.

“Often times what is missing from the conversation about ethanol, particularly non-grain based cellulosic ethanol, are the facts; our white paper sets the record straight,” said Doug Durante, Executive Director of the Clean Fuels Foundation and Director of the Ethanol Across America Campaign. “This paper in particular lays out the reasons why the U.S. must stay the course and reap the benefits of producing homegrown biofuels.”

The white paper outlines the benefits and role the fuel could play, especially when meeting the requirements of the Renewable Fuel Standard. In addition, the paper discusses the importance of building upon grain based ethanol and how the advances made by first generation ethanol plants have built the blocks for future fuels. Finally, it presents a scientific perspective behind ethanol on a molecular level and outlines the benefits the fuel can bring to the country.

“Cellulosic ethanol technology is ready today and is being deployed at commercial scale,” said Bolsen. “Throughout the paper, we detail why ethanol is scientifically the best fuel coming from biomass, the importance it holds for the future of the United States’ energy mix, and the predictable and enduring government support needed to commercialize.”

You can download a free copy of Creating a Path for Cellulose here.