Enzyme from Garden Soil Could Improve Ethanol Production

Here is an interesting story out of Lund University in Sweden. Nadia Skorupa Parachin has discovered an enzyme in garden soil that when used could increase ethanol production by 20 percent or more. Xylose is the second most common sugar found in nature, but today, is not commonly used, if at all, in the ethanol process.

When Parachin tested her enzymes, her results showed that her enzymes bind xylose more efficiently than those enzymes that have been tested previously. She has recently patented her newly discovered enzymes.

“In order for carbohydrates in forestry, plant and waste products to be used for ethanol production, enzymes are required in the yeast that ‘eat up’ the sugar and convert it into ethanol,” said Parachin. “If we just want to make use of the glucose then normal baker’s yeast is sufficient. However, if the xylose is also to be converted to ethanol, then genetic modifications have to be made to the yeast.”

Parachin began by extracting DNA from a soil sample. She chose soil because it is considered the most diverse habitat on earth. Then she cut the DNA into small pieces. From there, she built up a DNA library. Next, she identified the most appropriate genes by coupling enzyme activity growth on xylose.

She discovered that one gram of soil contain 10 billion bacteria. “Enzymes and other proteins are found in almost unlimited numbers and can have all sorts of unexplored properties. I collected the soil sample from a garden in Höör, but any soil can be used,” explained Parachin who notes that this process is not easy and that’s why she believes other researchers have not made this discovery.

Marie Gorwa-Grauslund, Parachin’s supervisor, was the first person to realize that this genetic technique, known as metagenomics and derived from the environmental studies discipline, could work in this specific context. The next step for the team is to apply their modified metagenomics technique in other areas, for example, to isolate enzymes that allow microorganisms to cope with difficult industrial conditions, such as high temperatures and high acid levels.

However, there is still more work to be done on the current research and the team hopes their method can make ethanol production more efficient and economically viable.

Researcher Makes Foam from Biodiesel By-Product

A researcher from The Ohio State University has found a way to make a polyurethane foam from a by-product of biodiesel.

Yebo Li, a biosystems engineer with the university’s Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC) in Wooster, has found a way to turn glycerin into a renewable, cheaper foam:

“Polyurethane foam made with our bio-polyol is renewable, biodegradable and its quality is comparable to petroleum-based foam,” said Jeff Schultheis, chief operating officer of Mansfield-based Poly-Green Technologies, LLC, a start-up formed to commercialize Li’s invention. “And while other bio-polyols now in the market use virgin oils, such as castor bean or soybean, we use a true waste-stream. This makes our product 5-10 percent cheaper than petroleum-based or natural oil-based foams. So we are competing not just on being ‘green,’ but also on overall quality and cost.”

In fact, the bio-polyol developed by OARDC — the research arm of Ohio State’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences — has many other advantages over its competitors that make it an attractive investment: it doesn’t take away crops from food production; it can be used at 100 percent to make products such as insulation boards (other bio-polyols need to be blended with petroleum-based polyols to bring up the quality); and there’s an abundant supply of low-cost crude glycerin in the domestic and international markets.

“For every 10 gallons of biodiesel produced, there’s one gallon of crude glycerin left over,” explained Schultheis, an Ohio State alumnus originally from Zanesville, in southeastern Ohio. “In 2011, the U.S. biodiesel industry alone will be producing about 70 million gallons of crude glycerin. So there’s a lot of growth potential for this product, and we feel we will be able to enter into the polyurethane market very easily.”

Poly-Green Technologies officials hope to enter the market between July and September, a market that is worth more than $13 billion in the U.S.

Researchers Develop Isobutanol From Cellulose

Using consolidated bioprocessing, researchers at the Department of Energy’s BioEnergy Science Center have discovered how to develop isobutanol directly from cellulose. The research was led by James Liao of the University of California at Los Angeles, and the results were published in the paper titled “Metabolic Engineering of Clostridium Cellulolyticum for Isobutanol Production from Cellulose,”online in Applied and Environmental Microbiology.

“Unlike ethanol, isobutanol can be blended at any ratio with gasoline and should eliminate the need for dedicated infrastructure in tanks or vehicles,” said Liao, chancellor’s professor and vice chair of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science. Plus, it may be possible to use isobutanol directly in current engines without modification.”

According to Liao, when compared to ethanol, isobutanol is a better candidate to replace gasoline because it has an energy density, octane value and Reid vapor pressure that is closer to gasoline.

Producing fuels from cellulose is much harder than corn or sugarcane and takes several steps. So Liao and postdoctoral researcher Wendy Higashide of UCLA and Yongchao Li and Yunfeng Yang of Oak Ridge National Laboratory developed a strain of Clostridium cellulolyticum, a native cellulose-degrading microbe, that could synthesize isobutanol directly from cellulose. The work was based on earlier work at UCLA where the team build a synthetic pathway for isobutanol production.

While some Clostridium species produce butanol, these organisms typically do not digest cellulose directly. Other Clostridium species digest cellulose but do not produce butanol. None produce isobutanol, an isomer of butanol – until now.

While there were many possible microbial candidates, the research team chose a genetically engineered strain of Clostridium cellulolyticum, which was originally isolated from decayed grass. The team’s strategy exploits the host’s natural cellulolytic activity and the amino acid biosynthetic pathway and diverts its intermediates to produce higher alcohol than ethanol. The team believes that this research sets the stage future studies that will likely involve genetic manipulation of other consolidated bioprocessing microorganisms.

Geothermal Capacity Could Double in 10 Years

According to a new report from Pike Research, “Geothermal Power,” geothermal capacity could double in 10 years. The report concludes that increasing investment in geothermal power could result in a 134 percent increase in total geothermal power between 2010-2020. In other words, an increase from 10.7 gigawatts (GW) to 25.1 GW worldwide when based on a high-growth scenario. Using a more moderate growth scenario closer to the current rate of growth, the report estimates capacity would increase 34 percent to 14.3 GW by 2020. Geothermal energy offers many benefits including the ability to provide almost 24 hour per day electricity production with little to no emissions.

“Worldwide potential for geothermal energy is immense but geothermal remains an underutilized resource and represents only a small fraction of the global renewable energy portfolio,” said senior analyst Peter Asmus. “Improved access to resource data, more efficient drilling processes, increased understanding about the industry’s potential, and improving access to financing are driving expanding interest in the sector.”

According to Asmus, the current geothermal capacity is spread across 26 countries with a combined output of nearly 67 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity. The U.S. is the global leader with 3.1 GW of installed capacity while seven countries represent 88 percent of the global geothermal capacity. Although traditional geothermal resources make up the majority of installed capacity, enhanced geothermal systems (EGS) and co-produced wells both offer opportunities for expansion.

The high-growth scenario used in the study assumes continued and persistent volatility in the price of oil, tightening carbon regulations, improved access to capital, standardization of geothermal exploration data, contribution from EGS-enabled and co-produced resources, technological breakthroughs in exploration and drilling equipment, improved access to drills and skilled labor, and sustained policies supporting renewable energy mandates, grants, and tax subsidies.

Asmus added, “Even if progress falls short in these areas the potential for geothermal market expansion remains strong, and even our conservative business-as-usual forecast is consistent with growth rates observed in the industry since 1990.”

New Study – More Ethanol Commitment Needed to Meet RFS2

In a new study from Air Improvement Resource, Inc. (AIR) commissioned by the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA), the requirements of the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS2) can be met with ethanol if more infrastructure is put into place. In addition, more flex-fuel vehicles (FFVs) are needed. The report concludes that if “blender pumps” are made available at nearly one-third of the approximately 162,000 gas stations in the U.S., and if automakers honor and expand their commitment to produce FFVs, the majority of RFS2 requirements can be met with ethanol alone.

“Achieving the goals of the RFS2 and giving Americans more control over their energy future can be done with smart policies and targeted investment that expand ethanol refueling infrastructure and use,” said RFA President and CEO Bob Dinneen. “In a climate of fiscal concerns, this report demonstrates that we can meaningfully expand the ethanol market, reduce our reliance on imported oil, and create jobs without breaking the bank. Addressing the infrastructure needs of America’s renewable fuels policy cannot be based on a wish list. It must be grounded in sound research and analysis that identifies policy needs and the needs of the marketplace. This report clearly highlights part of the path forward.”

The AIR study examines 27 future scenarios regarding available ethanol volumes, FFV availability, ethanol use in non-FFVs, and the availability and location of blender pumps and/or E85 pumps. Based on the results of the scenarios, certain conclusions were drawn about the role ethanol can play in meeting the RFS2, which requires the use of 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels by 2022.

However, there are concerns growing that RFS2 goals will not be met, in part due to several anti-ethanol amendments in the Continuing Resolution that were passed by the House several weeks ago designed to “balance the federal budget”. The amendments inhibit the EPA from rolling out E15 and also disallow government funds to be used to install blender pumps and ethanol infrastructure such as ethanol pipelines.

According to RFA, expanding the use of ethanol will take a multi-pronged approach. Recently the EPA approved the used of E15 for conventional cars and light duty trucks model year 2001 or newer could help to grow the market for ethanol to 20 billion gallons over the next several years. However, RFA notes that even if E15 is ultimately approved for use in all conventional vehicles, meeting long-term RFS2 requirements will require the use of mid-level blends of ethanol higher than E15 (so fuel blends that contain more than 15 percent ethanol, 85 percent gasoline). Continue reading

Chemists Engineer Bacteria for Biofuels

Several chemists at the University of California, Berkeley have engineered bacteria for biofuels. More specifically, they have created bacteria that will churn out a gasoline-like biofuel at about 10 times the rate of competing microbes. The researchers believe this breakthrough could soon provide “green” gas. The research was published in the journal Nature Chemical Biology and authored by Assistant Professor of Chemistry at UC Berkeley Michelle C.Y. Chang along with graduate student Brooks B. Bond-Watts and recent grad Robert J. Bellerose.

The research was based on the bacteria Clostridium, where some of the species produce n-butanol, a drop-in fuel many companies are currently pursuing as a replacement for gas and diesel. Many researchers have genetically altered the bacteria to boost its ability to produce n-butanol while others have taken other routes such as plucking enzymes from the bacteria and inserted them into other microbes including E. coli. The results have only provided limited n-butanol production.

Chang and her colleagues emulated the same enzyme pathway into E. coli, but replaced two of the five enzymes with look-alikes from other organisms. This avoided one of the problems other researchers have had: n-butanol being converted back into its chemical precursors by the same enzymes that produce it.

The result was a new genetically altered E. coli strain that produced nearly five grams of n-buranol per liter, about the same as the native Clostridium and one-third the production of the best genetically altered Clostridium, but about 10 times better than current industrial microbe systems.

“We are in a host that is easier to work with, and we have a chance to make it even better,” Chang said. “We are reaching yields where, if we could make two to three times more, we could probably start to think about designing an industrial process around it. We were excited to break through the multi-gram barrier, which was challenging.”

According to an article from UC Berkeley, Chang is optimistic that by improving enzyme activity at a few other bottlenecks in the n-butanol synthesis pathway, in addition to optimizing the host microbe for production of n-butanol, she can boost production two to three times, enough to justify considering scaling up to an industrial process.

Overfertilizing Corn Undermines Ethanol

In a new paper published online in American Chemical Society’s Journal Environmental Science and Technology when it comes to growing corn for ethanol and using fertilizer – less may be more. Postdoctoral researcher Morgan Gallagher led the research team as part of her dissertation at Rice and discovered that corn, and its stalks and leaves, responded differently to nitrogen fertilizer.

The team found that liberal use of nitrogen fertilizer to maximize grain yields from corn crops results in only marginally more usable cellulose from leaves and stems to be converted into cellulosic ethanol. They also found that when the corn is used for food and the cellulose is processed for biofuel, increasing the rate of nitrogen actually makes it more difficult to extract the cellulose, or lignin, which is converted to sugars and ultimately ethanol, from the corn stover and stalks. This is the case because surplus nitrogen fertilizer speeds up the biochemical pathway that produces lignin.

Carrie Masiello, an assistant professor of Earth science at Rice and Gallagher’s adviser believes that the findings of this research are an important next step in building a sustainable biofuel economy. While some nitrogen fertilizer is needed for plants to grow and function, she noted that for some crops, a little is enough.

We already know too much fertilizer is bad for the environment. Now we’ve shown that it’s bad for biofuel crop quality too,” Masiello said. While farmers have a clear incentive to maximize grain yields, the research shows a path to even greater benefits when corn residues are harvested for cellulosic ethanol production.”

The research showed that although increasing nitrogen improves the plant’s cellulose content, grain yield quickly hits a plateau. “The kilograms of grain you get per hectare goes up pretty fast and peaks,” Masiello said. At the same time, the researchers found only a modest increase in plant and stem cellulose, the basic component used to produce cellulosic ethanol.

The implicit assumption has always been that the response of plant cellulose to fertilizer is going to be the same as the grain response, but we’ve showed this assumption may not always hold, at least for corn,” Gallagher said.

These are just a few of the findings of the research and the team hopes that their methods can be transferred to other energy crops. Click here to read the full release.

Updated Algae 2020 Study Released

In a market research report released today, Algae 2020, Vol. 2, Emerging Markets Online highlights why some algae companies will be winners and some will be losers bringing their product from pilot to commercial scale from 2011-2020. The report concluded that of all the current algae production companies, R&D ventures and public-private partnerships currently in play, less than a dozen will graduate into pre-commercial, deployment-stage algae ventures using pond, photo-bioreactor and fermentation based production systems.

“For the Algae 2020 study, I did my research the old fashioned way, where you conduct an on site visit, you kick the tires, and you say I understand you’re producing algae and you have a pilot project. Show me,” said Thurmond. “While I was on site I conducted interviews with CEOs and various staff scientists, took pictures, analyzed the data, and determined three common strategies of companies that are attracting investment capital and scaling up.” Thurmond interviewed more than 200 algae related companies and visited 30 in person.

The study found three key strategies that determine which companies will attract capital and scale up their enterprises while others will be perpetually stuck in the laboratory or garage, many never even scaling up to small, test-pilot phase.

Strategy #1: Algae Long-Term Winners Focus on Drop-In Fuels and Biofuels. Thurmond notes there are about a dozen leading algae companies that have successfully progressed into pilot and demonstration scale projects. Why? In addition to being able to produce either ethanol or biodiesel, these organizations are also able to produce drop-in replacement fuels like biojet and renewable diesel that are in high demand today by various industries including oil and gas, aviation, petrochemical, and the U.S. military.

Strategy #2 Algae Short-Term Winners Target Diversified Markets. Algae 2020 discovered that most winning algae producers are diversifying their short-term focus on high-value products including: omega 3s, health products, cosmetic, pharmaceutical, and specialty chemical uses, and some mid-value markets like livestock and fish meal, renewable chemicals. This allows a company to bring in revenue to pay the bills and establish brand identity while scaling up their operations over time to commercial scale biofuel production.

Strategy # 3 Algae Winners Bring Together R&D Labs, Universities and Public-Private Partnerships. According to Thurmond, the third key finding from Algae 2020 study: among R&D and start-up related algae projects, the winners attracting government grants, funds, or private funds share the following in common. These winners bring together “collaborative clusters” of research labs, industry, government, academia, cleantech investors, and producers to share and collaborate on key technology challenges and market demand-based opportunities.

The report concludes that if algae companies and R&D ventures engage in the above strategies, as detailed in the Algae 2020 study, they are more likely to attract the needed investment dollars, and ultimately more likely to scale up from the R&D stage to demonstration and commercial scale, thus becoming an algae winner rather than an algae loser.

You can listen to my full interview with Will here: Interview with Will Thurmond, Author Algae 2020, Vol. 2

FAO Promotes Farming Food & Fuel

According to a new report, “Making Integrated Food-Energy Systems (IFES) Work for People and Climate – An Overview,” the simultaneous production of food and fuel by farmers can help to reduce poverty in countries such as Africa, Asia and Latin America. This according to FAO who published the report this week.

“Farming systems that combine food and energy crops present numerous benefits to poor rural communities,” said Alexander Müller, FAO Assistant Director-General for Natural Resources. “For example, poor farmers can use leftovers from rice crops to produce bioenergy, or in an agroforestry system can use debris of trees used to grow crops like fruits, coconuts or coffee beans for cooking.”

Müller noted that other types of food and energy systems use byproducts from livestock or biogas production and with this type of integrated systems, farmers can save money – they don’t have to buy expensive fossil fuel or chemical fertilizers. Rather, than can use the slurry from biogas production, a more sustainable, less costly alternative.

“They can then use the savings to buy necessary inputs to increase agricultural productivity, such as seeds adapted to changing climatic conditions — an important factor given that a significant increase in food production in the next decades will have to be carried out under conditions of climate change. All this increases their resilience, hence their capacity to adapt to climate change,” said Müller.

IFES are also beneficial to women as they can eliminate the need to leave their crops to go in search of firewood. In addition, the report concludes that IFES farming can help to mitigate climate change, especially emissions stemming from land use change, because there is less chance land will need to be converted.

In conclusion, Olivier Dubois, an FAO energy expert said, “Promoting the advantages of IFES and improving the policy and institutional environment for such systems should become a priority. FAO is well placed to coordinate these efforts by providing knowledge and technical support for IFES implementation.”

RAND Says Alt Fuels Out, Coal & Biomass In, for Military

RAND National Defense Research Institute has released a study today amidst a firestorm of criticism with many claiming that the report sounds like an advertisement for the coal industry. The study, commissioned by the Department of Defense, was to conduct an examination of alternative fuels for military applications. For the past several years, the military has been testing alternative fuels, including biodiesel and algal fuels, in aviation and marine applications and has set clear goals to use alternative fuels by 2016 and beyond.

The report concludes that in the short term, “considering economics, technical readiness, greenhouse gas emissions, and general environmental concerns, FT fuels derived from a mixture of coal and biomass represent the most promising approach to producing amounts of alternative fuels that can meet military, as well as appreciable levels of civilian, needs by 2030.”

The report continues by saying, “It is highly uncertain whether appreciable amounts of hydrotreated renewable oils (biodiesel) can be affordably and cleanly produced within the United States or abroad.” The report questions whether renewable fuels can ramp up to commercial scale, be economically competitive and it questions their ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. All of these issues rule biodiesel and algae out, where too much money and resources are being spent, according to the report, as being a viable candidate to meet the military need’s over the next decade.

If these findings weren’t enough to stir up the hornet’s nest, the report also called for Congress to reconsider the military’s budget for alternative fuel-projects. This is a sure-fire way to invoke debate in Washington, especially as a Republican Congress searches for ways to cut the federal budget.

In a New York Times article, the report elicited quick criticism. “Unfortunately, we were not engaged by the authors of this report,” said Thomas W. Hicks, deputy assistant secretary of energy for the Navy. “We don’t believe they adequately engaged the market,” he said, adding, “This is not up to RAND’s standards.” Continue reading

Researchers Develop Self-Healing Bio Polymers

Researchers at Iowa State University are developing polymers made from vegetable oils that repair themselves.

This press release from the school says Michael Kessler, an Iowa State University professor and an associate of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory, is working on the technology:

“If successful, the results of this research will provide biorenewable alternatives to petroleum-based resins,” says a summary of Kessler’s research project. Successfully developing the concept “should have a huge impact economically and environmentally.”

Kessler’s research project is supported by a five-year, $400,000 grant from the National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development Program…

The technology has evolved into a system that embeds catalysts and microcapsules containing a liquid healing agent within a composite. As cracks develop in the composite, they rupture the microcapsules and release the healing agent. The healing agent contacts the catalyst and reacts by forming 3-D polymer chains that fill the cracks. That increases material lifetimes and reduces maintenance.

Kessler has collaborated with fellow Iowa State and Ames Laboratory researcher Richard Larock, who has invented and patented a process for producing various bioplastics from inexpensive natural oils, which make up 40 percent to 80 percent of the plastics.

Ethanol Economic Impacts Issue Brief Released

The Ethanol Across America education campaign has released the Economic Impacts of Ethanol Production Issue Brief this week. The purpose of the report is to illustrate the significant benefits of ethanol production to the U.S. economy. The latest Brief in the series examines the impacts of several fuel ethanol facilities in the states including South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, and Indiana and shows how they are positively helping the economy.

“We have long been aware of the benefits of ethanol production at the local level, and the case studies we provide clearly quantify that. This brief also makes it clear that jobs resulting from the ethanol industry, both direct and indirect, fuel the economy at all levels,” said Douglas A. Durante, the director of the Ethanol Across America Campaign.

According to the Brief, and citing a third party study, the ethanol industry added $2.9 billion of gross output to the U.S. economy in just 2009. It also highlights the reduction in Federal outlays for farm programs as well as the substantial energy costs savings. The Brief states that increasing the motor fuel pool with ethanol lowers the cost of gasoline to consumers and the potential for reducing oil imports could lower the U.S. oil bill by more than $60 billion dollars per year.

The report also calculates that full implementation of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS2), which will largely be met with ethanol, could increase net farm receipts across the country by $13 billion per year. One case study illustrates that a 50 million gallon per year biomass ethanol plant in the Northeast would generate $170 – $200 million in income and create between 4,000 and 6,000 jobs during construction. Ethanol production from wood, agriculture residues, waste paper, and other cellulosic sources is being looked at in every state.

“Displacing imported oil, reducing health costs, creating jobs, reducing federal outlays– the list goes on,” said Durante. “With Congress and the Administration calling for a renewed commitment to producing domestic, clean energy, biofuels like ethanol make more sense than ever. With so many new members of Congress eager to look at these issues, we wanted to make this information available to them as they begin this new session.”

Genetic Mutation Creates Drought Tolerance in Plants

Researchers at Purdue University have discovered a genetic mutation that allows a plant to better endure drought conditions without losing biomass. This discovery could prove significant because it could lead to plants that need less water to survive and thrive despite adverse climatic conditions.

Mike Mickelbart, an assistant professor of horticulture; Mike Hasegawa, a professor of horticulture; and Chal Yul Yoo, a horticulture graduate student, found that a genetic mutation in the research plant Arabidopsis thaliana reduces the number of stomata. Stomata are important because they are pores that take in carbon dioxide and release water. During drought conditions, a plant might close its stomata to conserve water. However, by doing this, the plant also reduces the amount of CO2 it can take in which limits photosynthesis and growth. But in the stomata of the mutated plants, instead of limiting CO2 intake, the gene creates a beneficial equilibrium.

“The plant can only fix so much carbon dioxide. The fewer stomata still allow for the same amount of carbon dioxide intake as a wild type while conserving water,” said Mickelbart, whose results were published in the early online version of the journal The Plant Cell. “This shows there is potential to reduce transpiration without a yield penalty.”

According to a news release, Mickelbart and Yoo used an infrared gas analyzer to determine the amount of CO2 taken in and water lost in the Arabidopsis mutant. CO2 is pumped into a chamber with the plant and the analyzer measures the amount left after a plant has started to take up the gas. A similar process measures water lost through transpiration, in which water is released from a plant’s leaves.

Analysis showed that the plant, which has a mutant form of the gene GTL1, did not reduce CO2 intake but did have a 20 percent reduction in transpiration. The plant had the same biomass as a wild type of Arabidopsis when its shoot dry weight was measured.

“The decrease in transpiration leads to increased drought tolerance in the mutant plants,” Yoo said. “They will hold more water in their leaves during drought stress.”

Of the 20 genes known to control stomata, SDD1, which is a gene responsible for regulating the number of stomata on leaves, was highly expressed in the mutant. Whereas in the mutant, with GTL1 not functioning, SDD1 is highly expressed, which results in the development of fewer stomata.

Mickelbart said the finding is important because it opens the possibility that there is a natural way to improve crop drought tolerance without decreasing biomass or yield. The next step in the research is to determine the role of GTL1 in a crop plant such as corn.

Available Land Could Produce 1/2 World’s Fuel

According to a new paper published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology,Land Availability for Biofuel Production,” authored by researchers from the University of Illinois, using detailed land analysis, biofuel crops cultivated on available land could produce up to half of the world’s current fuel consumption. This could be done, the researchers say, without negatively affecting food crops or pastureland.

The study was led by civil and environmental engineering professor Ximing Cai who identified land around the globe available to produce grass crops for biofuels, with minimal impact on agriculture or the environment. Cai noted going into the study that prior research concentrated on biofuel crop viability focused on biomass yield or how productive a crop could be regionally; yet, there was little research on land availability, a key constraint of biofuel development. He also noted that there is major concern as to whether, on a global scale, biofuels can meet fuel demand without compromising food production.

“The questions we’re trying to address are, what kind of land could be used for biofuel crops? “If we have land, where is it, and what is the current land cover?” said Cai.

For this particular study, Cai’s team assessed land availability from a physical perspective – focusing on soil properties, soil quality, land slope, and regional climate. The researchers collected data on soil, topography, climate and current land use from some of the best data sources available, including remote sensing maps but the point of differentiation of this research was that the study only considered marking land for biofuel crops. By doing this, current crop land, pasture land and forests were ruled out as viable land options for biofuel production. In addition, the research team ruled out any land that must be irrigated, thus eliminating concerns over the need to divert water from agriculture crops. Continue reading

Ethanol Alone Can’t Meet Renewable Fuel Goals

The U.S. is at the “blending wall” saturation point for ethanol use according to a new Purdue University study. The cause is lack of infrastructure to meet the federal mandate for renewable fuel use with ethanol, but the country could still meet the standard with significant increases in next-generation biofuels and cellulosic fuels.

Wally Tyner, the James and Lois Ackerman Professor of Agricultural Economics, and co-authors Frank Dooley, a Purdue professor of agricultural economics, and Daniela Viteri, a former Purdue graduate student, used U.S. Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency data to determine that without new technology or a significant increase in infrastructure, the country will not be able to consume more ethanol than is being currently produced.

This is not new news to an ethanol industry that has been struggling to overcome the blend wall hurdles for years. In fact, the E15 waiver, allowing conventional vehicles and light duty trucks to use 15 percent ethanol, is just one step, of many, to push the country in the right direction of overcoming the blend wall. Last year RFS required approximately 13 billion gallons of renewable fuel, the amount that Tyner predicts is the threshold for U.S. infrastructure and consumption ability. The RFS number for this year is even higher at 13.95 billion for ethanol.

“You can’t get there with ethanol,” said Tyner, whose findings were published in the December issue of the American Journal of Agricultural Economics.

Some of the “blend wall problems” include lack of flex-fuel vehicles (FFVS) that can use higher blends of ethanol up to E85 as well as not enough stations offering these same higher blends of ethanol. Then once you get the stations, Tyner said there is no way to distribute it. “We would need to install about 2,000 pumps per year through 2022 to do it. “You’re not going to go from 100 per year to 2,000 per year overnight. It’s just not going to happen.”

And then there’s the price issue. Even if the fuel were readily available, E85 would have to be priced right because of the lower mileage. For example, if gasoline were $3 per gallon, E85 would have to be $2.34 per gallon to break even on mileage.

So one way to meet the standards with current limitations are advances in the production of thermo-chemical biofuels, which are created by using heat to chemically alter biomass and create fuels. These fuels are also known as “drop-in fuels” because there is no infrastructure changes needed to blend the fuel, such as is the case with ethanol.

Tyner concluded, “Producing the hydrocarbons directly doesn’t have the infrastructure problems of ethanol, and there is no blend wall because you’re producing gasoline. If that comes on and works, then we get there. There is significant potential to produce drop-in hydrocarbons from cellulosic feedstocks.”