The Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory is looking for the best biofuels crops to grow in the northeast Illinois Indian Creek Watershed.
During 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
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Researchers from the University of California Berkeley and the University of Maryland School of Medicine have discovered a microbe in a Nevada hot spring that enjoys eating cellulose (aka plant material) at temperatures above the boiling point of water, 109 degrees Celsius or 228 degrees Fahrenheit. This microbe could hold a key in developing technologies to improve the breakdown of cellulose, an important step in turning biomass to biofuels. The research is being published today in the online journal, Nature Communications.
The hyperthermophilic microbe was discovered in a geothermal pool and is only the second member of the ancient group Archaea known to grow by digesting cellulose above 80℃. In addition, the microbe is the most heat tolerant enzyme found an any cellulose-digesting microbe including bacteria.
“These are the most thermophilic Archaea discovered that will grow on cellulose and the most thermophilic cellulase in any organism,” said coauthor Douglas S. Clark, UC Berkeley professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering. “We were surprised to find this bug in our first sample.”
Robb and his colleagues collected sediment and water samples from the 95℃ (203℉) Great Boiling Springs near the town of Gerlach in northern Nevada and grew microbes on pulverized Miscanthus gigas, a common biofuel feedstock, to isolate those that could grow with plant fiber as their only source of carbon.
The discovery is part of research being led by Clark and his team at UC Berkeley along with a team led by Frank T. Robb U-MD School of Medicine in Baltimore. Their goal was to analyze microbes from hot springs and other extreme environments in search of enzymes that could be used in industrial processes including biofuels.
Today, many of the enzymes used are not optimized for extreme temperatures. For example, according to Clark, a fungal enzyme is used to break down difficult plant cellulose into its constituent sugars to enable them to be fermented by yeast into alcohol. However, the preferred temperature is around 50℃ (122℉), and the enzyme is not stable at higher temperatures desirable to prevent other microbes from contaminating the reaction.
“Our hope is that this example and examples from other organisms found in extreme environments – such as high-temperature, highly alkaline or acidic, or high salt environments – can provide cellulases that will show improved function under conditions typically found in industrial applications, including the production of biofuels,” said Clark who noted that this discovery was interesting because it indicates that there are a lot of potentially useful microbes in places that haven’t yet been looked at.
“This small equipment allows them to test small adjustments and see how they work without the expense or risk associated with testing adjustments in a large ethanol plant,” said Van Kelley, Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering department head. “If adjustments aren’t made correctly at a plant processing 100,000 bushels of corn per day – it ends up being an extremely expensive mistake.”
Kelly and his department recently hosted a two-day seminar for some 20 POET plant engineers and managers who got to try out the new equipment. During the hands-on training, POET engineers and process managers used the processing equipment to test many different operating parameters – moisture content, temperature and time. A new, near-infrared spectroscopy system was used to measure the moisture, fiber, protein and fat in the samples.
“This training is designed to go beyond “here’s how you operate the equipment,” and introduce the science behind the milling,'” said said Operations Engineering Manager Beau Schmaltz. The workshop was tested by POET, but designed for the entire ethanol industry.
In this photo provided by SDSU: Shane Roby, operations engineer for POET is pouring a corn sample into the roller mill that has already undergone one pass through the rollers and aspiration separation. Casey Baumiller, left, associate process engineer and Josh Karaus, quality manager are looking on. Byron Thomas, process automation engineer, seated in the background is inspecting another test sample.
Carolyn Hoagland was recently awarded the Volkswagen Distinguished Scholar for her work in learning about how farmers choose to grow bioenergy crops. Hoagland, an adult student, is an environmental science major at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC). She conducted her research while working as an intern at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Hoagland found that many aspects of farmers’ choices as well as U.S. farm policy are complex. However, she determined that high quality farm ground is unlikely to be converted to cellulosic energy crops if farmers are concerned about making a profit.
“Most ethanol produced in the U.S. is currently made from corn grain, and the government would like to limit that process and encourage ethanol to be produced instead from non-food crops like switchgrass or hybrid poplar,” said Hoagland. “These poor quality acres can sometimes be profitably converted to switchgrass or other energy crops, but only if a biorefinery is nearby to buy the biomass energy crop.”
The USDA has programs in place to encourage farmers to grow bioenergy crops including the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP). However, this program is in jeopardy when at the beginning of June, the Senate voted to discontinue any funding for the program in 2012. The bill still needs to go to the House for vote but the industry is confident that it will look much different than the Senate version.
Hoagland presented her research during the Annual Meeting and International Research Conference of Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society in Raleigh, North Carolina. She has been studying energy for more than a decade.
“Getting the internship changed my life. In class, it helped me see the big picture. When you’re taking a 300 or 400-level class, it’s hard to put the information into context, but if you’ve completed an internship, when the information is presented, you can understand it UTC had been very welcoming place for adult students,” Hoagland concluded.
There are several proposed amendments to current ethanol tax policy including the VEETC and tariff. Many believe that these incentives will disappear at the end of the year, but what would happen if they were extended? Today, the blender’s credit (VEETC) is 45 cents and the ethanol tariff is 54 cents. According to research conducted by University of Missouri economists, this action would boost corn-based ethanol production as well as corn prices.
Seth Meyer, economist with the MU Food and Agricultural Food and and Policy Research Institute (FAPRI) ran a “what-if” scenario on FAPRI computers. With incentives in place, the results showed fuel production from corn would increase by 1.2 gallons over current production levels and corn prices would increase by 18 cents per bushel. In addition, the model predicts that corn acreage would increase by 1.7 million acres.
Earlier this year, the team ran the scenario without tax credits and tariffs. However, this time the scenario was run on the assumption that they would continue but did not factor in any changes to current biofuel mandates.
“This analysis looks at an alternative scenario that keeps ethanol tax credit and tariff at current levels,” said Pat Westhoff, director of MU FAPRI. “There is debate about federal support of the ethanol industry. At a Paris meeting last week, G-20-nation trading partners raised concerns about U.S. support of biofuels. The revised baseline gives FAPRI a tool to study proposed policy changes.”
Westhoff notes that U.S. ethanol policy is complex with a broad set of assumptions. It is assumed that the blender of record who receives the tax credit would keep part of the benefit and then share part of the benefit with station owners. From there, it is assumed station owners would pass along the savings to consumers at the pump. In addition, the tax credit is also designed to allow blenders the ability to pay more for ethanol and ethanol producers the ability to pay farmers more for corn. However, this is not always the case.
Westhoff concluded, “Our work suggests that how benefits of the blender’s tax credit are shared among fuel consumers, ethanol plants and corn farmers is very sensitive to market conditions.”
According to a new study released today by Vestas Wind Systems, 90 percent of consumers worldwide want more renewable energy, 65 percent prefer to purchase brands produced using wind energy and 53 percent in China and 7 percent of respondents in the U.S. view climate change as the greatest challenge. The Global Consumer Wind Study 2011 as well as the Corporate Renewable Energy Index (CREX) 2011, show the relationship between consumer demand for renewable energy in the products and services they purchase. In addition, the studies highlight what corporations are or are not doing to meet consumer demands for greater use of renewable energy.
Ditlev Engel, President and CEO of Vestas said, “Consumers around the world see climate change as the greatest single challenge, and 90 percent of consumers want more renewable energy. This shows a real global desire to reduce carbon emissions. It gives corporate decision makers something to think about and act upon.”
The Global Consumer Wind Study 2011 is the largest undertaken of its kind with 31,000 respondents participating in 26 countries. The goal of the survey was to learn more about consumer demand for products made with renewable energy. Consumers were asked how energy decisions made by companies affect their purchasing decisions. In addition, consumers were asked about their perceptions of climate change. The annual study was commission by Vestas and conducted by TNS Gallup.
“The Global Consumer Wind Study provides insight into the role of renewable energy, in particular wind, in relation to the products and services consumers buy,” added Engel.” This in turn should drive the adoption of renewable energy sources by the corporations that sell these products and services.”
The Corporate Renewable Energy Index, with 176 respondents, was based on data from CREX, commissioned by Vestas and conducted by Bloomberg New Energy Finance. The companies using the most renewable energy are News Corp., Plum Creek Timber, Kohl’s Corporation, and Whole Foods Market, who uses 100 percent wind energy and has been named Global Wind Energy Champion.
Christianson & Associates, a CPA and consulting firm for the ethanol, biodiesel and renewable energy industry, today released its 2nd Annual Biofuels Benchmarking Report. The report found several key findings: profitably increased for the industry on average 8 cents; equity to asset ratio increased more than 10 percent; and working capital improvements enabled plants to decrease long-term debt by an average of 20 cents per gallon. The report also found that despite higher corn prices in 2010, margin volatility has decreased.
In an interview with John Christianson, Partner, Christianson & Associates, he said that the past two years have been recovery years for the ethanol industry and plant management has focused on strengthening their balance sheets to prepare for future volatility. Christianson also noted that despite higher commodity prices, margin volatility has improved.
“There have been a lot of unique things happening in the industry and one of them is that we’ve seen a general rise in commodity prices,” said Christianson. “But even though there has been a sharp rise in commodity prices, so has the fuels. Oil price has risen which has brought up ethanol prices as well. So even though commodity prices have risen, we’ve actually had an improved margin ratio and so the margin volatility has been less.”
Other factors that have helped to improve margins include co-products such as distillers grains, corn oil and carbon dioxide.
This in-depth report analyzes the operational and financial performance of more than 60 ethanol plants in five major “benchmark” areas: overall ethanol industry analysis, regional ethanol plant analysis, production capacity analysis, plant production efficiency analysis, and balance sheet analysis. This year’s financial outlook is much improved and one reason is due to plants improving their risk management while they continue to improve their production efficiencies and energy costs. These two areas will be a focus on Christianson & Associates upcoming 7th Annual Biofuels Financial Conference next week.
As a veteran of the industry I asked John considering the results of the biofuels benchmarking study, what word of advice does he have for the industry to manage risk. “Looking at the operations of an ethanol plant today, one is you have to operate your business within the parameters that you can fundamentally handle the risk, recommended Christianson.
The report is available for free to all benchmarking participants and for a nominal fee for others. You can purchase the report here.
According to a new study released today by the National Biodiesel Board (NBB), the U.S. biodiesel industry will grow to support more than 74,000 jobs throughout the economy by 2015. These jobs will create nearly $4 billion in household income and generate almost $1.6 billion in local, state and federal tax revenues. The study was conducted by Cardno ENTRIX and released in timing with NBB’s annual membership meeting being held in Washington, D.C.
“This shows without question that a healthy and thriving biodiesel industry is good for America,” said Joe Jobe, CEO of NBB. “Biodiesel isn’t just improving our environment and shoring up our energy security, it’s creating good-paying jobs in virtually every state in the country.”
The study also looked at how the industry responded after losing its key tax incentive in 2010, which was retroactively brought back at the end of the year. It discovered the expiration of the tax credit and the resulting 42 percent drop in production caused the loss of nearly 8,900 jobs. Household income also decreased by $485 million and a reduction in real GDP or $879 million.
Fortunately for the industry, this year marks a major turnaround as the Renewable Fuels Standard ramps up with biodiesel considered an advanced biofuel. In January alone, production jumped 69 percent and is continuing to climb.
“Since the EPA designated us as an advanced biofuel last year and Congress reinstated our tax incentive in December, the market has responded with incredible quickness, ” said Jobe. “Plants across the country are reopening and ramping up production. This means new jobs in all sorts of sectors – manufacturing, transportation, agriculture, sales. It means plants are hiring, buying supplies and machinery, and circulating money throughout the economy.”
Jobe continued, “The numbers also show what happens when those incentives weren’t there in 2010. They demonstrate what we’ve been saying, that biodiesel is still a young industry. We’re trying to gain a foothold in a business that is and always has been dominated by fossil fuels, and breaking into that business is extraordinarily difficult.”
Can fecal sludge be used for biofuels? Maybe believes Kartik Chandran an associated professor of Earth and Environmental Engineering at Columbia Engineering. He has recently been awarded a $1.5 million grant from the Gates Foundation to continue his research into a new model for water, sanitation and energy. And this is where fecal sludge, aka poop comes in.
This is not the first time poop has been studied to make fuel. Companies have tried to use the waste from large scale cattle farms and from zoo animals. But this project is a bit different. Chandran is working with Ashley Murray, founder and director of Waste Enterprisers, and Moses Mensah, a Chemical Engineering professor at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, to develop an innovative technology to transform fecal sludge into biodiesel and create the “Next-Generation Urban Sanitation Facility” in Accra, Ghana.
“We are delighted to be awarded this project,” Chandran says. “And we are especially pleased that the Gates Foundation has recognized the critical importance of sustainable sanitation by investing in our pioneering project. Thus far, sanitation approaches have been extremely resource- and energy-intensive and therefore out of reach for some of the world’s poorest but also most at-need populations. This project will allow us to move forward and develop practical technologies that will be of great value around the world.”
Chandran has been working in Ghana for two years as the faculty advisor for the Columbia University Engineers without Borders Ghana team. He and his team have a goal of developing a bioprocess technology to convert the organic compounds present in fecal sludge to biodiesel and methane. In essence, this would convert the waste-processing facility into a state-of-the art biorefinery.
Not only would this biorefinery produce economical fuel but would also minimize the discharge of fecal sludge into the water system contributing to better human health and sanitation. Chandran hopes that once the project is proven successful, it could be integrated into a social enterprise business model that would improve economics and health in areas around the world.
Chandran concluded, “This project also affords a new path in engineering education, both in the United States and Ghana. By training tomorrow’s engineers in sustainable approaches to ‘resource and energy recovery’ rather than ‘wastewater treatment,’ a sea-change can be achieved in the way we perceive of and manage human waste. In fact, the term ‘wastewater’ is already archaic. Wastewater is, after all, just water with a different chemical and biological composition.”