Human Waste for Biofuels?

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.”

Study Underway to Make Plastics From Soy Oil

University of Minnesota researchers are developing degradable plastics from soybean oil. These bioplastics could become a replacement for those made with petroleum and natural gas. Marc Hillmyer, Distinguished McKnight University Professor of chemistry and Director of the Center for Sustainable Polymers, believes that to wean the country from all things fossil fuels, including chemicals and plastics, alternatives based on renewable resources must be developed.

One of the greatest challenges that must be overcome is the fact that while polylactides (PLA) are degradable polymers that can be used in a variety of products, they tend to soften at higher temperatures. This rules them out for extensive use in food and beverage packing applications. Enter Hillmyer. He and his team have developed new types of polyactide-based materials that could overcome this challenge.

Hillmyer believes this discovery could be used in a wide variety of applications that require high temperature stability and toughness. These include plastic bottles, microwave trays, cell phones and more. Hillmyer believes sustainable polymers are the “materials of tomorrow.”

The plasticizers developed by Hillmyer and his team including Dr. Dharma Kodali, are derived from soy oil. Kodali explained that the new plasticizers are synthesized in their lab and could be a viable replacement for petroleum-derived plasticizers. They are comparable in price and performance but are safer, says Kodali, because they are made from renewable resources and degrade readily if leaked into environment. Continue reading

New Oxfam Report: Growing a Better Future

A new report, “Growing a Better Future,” has the ethanol industry up in arms over its accusation that U.S. biofuel policy is leading to world hunger. The report kicked off a new worldwide GROW campaign spearheaded by the organization. The report covers the symptoms of today’s broken food system: growing hunger, flat-lining yields, a scramble for fertile land and water, and rising food prices while the GROW campaign attempts to overcome these issues.

The report predicts that the price of food, already at a record high, will more than double in the next 20 years. In addition, by 2050, demand for food will rise 70 percent, yet the report says the world’s capacity to increase food production is declining. A contributor to these issues: global climate change and pro biofuel policies throughout the world.

“Our world is capable of feeding all of humanity yet one in seven of us are hungry today,” said Jeremy Hobbs, Executive Director of Oxfam. “In this new age of crisis, as climate change impacts become increasingly severe and fertile land and fresh water supplies become increasingly scarce, feeding the world will get harder still. Millions more men, women and children will go hungry unless we transform our broken food system.”

Both Growth Energy and the Renewable Fuels Association acknowledge that Oxfam is partially correct in their identifying the role that high oil prices and international trade have on the price of corn. However, they diverge with the report on biofuels being a cause of starving “millions of people” as the report purports.

“Oxfam is wrong to propose ending the Renewable Fuel Standard or the biofuels tax credit, as these are the most effective policies we have to displace oil – a primary driver of rising grocery prices,” said Jim Nussle, Growth Energy President. “It is unfair and erroneous to single out ethanol for high food prices, especially because the U.S. ethanol industry uses just three percent of the global grain supply on a net basis.”

RFA President Bob Dinneen highlighted the significant improvements in agriculture over the past few decades and called for more widespread adoption of improved agricultural practices worldwide. “The same opportunities at varying scales are available to farm communities in developing nations. Together with improved farming technologies, local biofuel production can provide developing rural economies with the kind of economic prosperity needed to become more food secure,” concluded Dinneen.

Pathway to Develop Sustainable Aviation Biofuels Industry

In 2010, the Sustainable Aviation Fuels Northwest (SAFN) was formed to determine how the Pacific Northwest could create a viable and robust biofuels industry with the goal of creating fuels for the aviation industry. Yesterday, a 10 month study conducted by Climate Solutions has determined that the Pacific Northwest has the diverse feedstock, fuel-delivery infrastructure and political will needed to achieve their goals. However, the report stressed that creating an aviation biofuels industry will depend upon securing early government policy support to prioritize the aviation industry in U.S. biofuels development.

Partners in the program include Boeing, Alaska Airlines, Portland International Airport, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Spokane International Airport and Washington State University.

“It is critical to the future of aviation that we develop a sustainable supply of aviation biofuels,” said Boeing Commercial Airplanes President and CEO Jim Albaugh during a press announcement. “Airlines are particularly vulnerable to oil price volatility, and the aviation community must address this issue to maintain economic growth and further mitigate the environmental impacts of our industry.”

Dr. John Gardner, vice president for advancement and external affairs at Washington State University noted that there were three goals of the report. The study aimed to verify what the sources of biomass would be; what the supply chain would be and the steps needed to make it happen; and what policies might be barriers.

To create a market for aviation biofuels, the study outlines an integrated approach recommending the use of diverse feedstock and technology pathways, including oilseeds, forest residues, solid waste and algae. In addition, the study outlines the long-term importance of securing aviation biofuels as a top government priority and using the aviation industry to drive growth in domestic production.

Bill Ayer, Alaska Air Group Chairman, noted that consumers care about the issue of high fuel costs and sustainable future fuels and the airlines are taking the issue seriously. Continue reading

California Fuels Report Released

A new report, “Projected Outlook for Next Generation and Alternative Transportation Fuels in California 2010-2030,” has been released. The report concludes that with current investments and advances in alternative fuels over the past several years should lead to a significant displacement of petroleum-based fuels like diesel and gasoline. The report was released by Fueling California and Orange County Business Council and was authored by research experts at University of California, Irvine, the Automotive Club of Southern California and Tiax, LLC.

“Historically, California has been a trend-setter for the rest of the world in the transportation and fuel sectors,” said Mr. Sturtz. “California represents one of the largest fuel markets in the world and also houses some of the most technically innovative people, research institutions, and businesses to create an environment that incubates innovative and next-generation technologies. “These market factors coupled with a unique set of state government regulations that are creating a push for alternative fuels points to a large market that could potentially provide commercial benefits to all components of the fuel supply chain.”

While the report suggests a reduction of fossil-fuel based transportation fuels, because it takes between 10-15 years to change a fleet, by 2030 at least 75 percent of the fuels used will still remain petroleum-based. The report discusses three principal drivers for development of alternative fuels worldwide: reducing greenhouse gases, energy security, and urban air pollution. The report also discusses state policies, socio-economic factors, market forces, and business environment in California. Continue reading

Survey Says Consumers Consider Ethanol A Green Product

In a study released by Genencor during the BIO World Congress in Toronto, when U.S. consumers were asked to name a product they considered green, 39 percent of them named ethanol first and 31 percent of Canadian respondents also named ethanol as a green product. This is just one of results discovered in the Genencor Household Sustainability Index that researched the market potential for “green” household products with environmental benefits.

In addition, the study found that four in 10 American consumers and about a third of Canadian consumers have already heard the term “biobased” to describe various products including fuels such as ethanol and biodiesel, as well as cleaning and personal care products and clothing.

“I think very clearly that they know what a green product is, but haven’t yet made the link on how we’re going to make those products green and how important biobased products are going to be,” said Tjerk de Ruiter, CEO of Genencor.

“It was very interesting to see that ethanol was at the top of the list. Now of course we were very pleased with that because ethanol is such an important product and such an important marketplace for us,” said de Ruiter. “But it also shows that the consumer really starts to buy in to the concept of the importance of home produced fuels and really the contribution that ethanol is delivering to the economy.”

Listen to my interview with Tjerk de Ruiter here: Genencor Household Sustainability Index

I asked de Ruiter how biobased enzymes, such as their product, differed from what we’ve seen in the past. “When you work with a biobased organism, you can continuously improve. If we look at the enzyme systems we have today, they are a lot more efficient allowing you to extract a lot more alcohol, or ethanol, out of the product itself, and quite often at lower temperatures and in the process reducing energy use,” said de Ruiter.

Other products consumers found to be green were detergents, cosmetics and some clothing. The survey will be used to create a baseline to determine if “biobased” products become better understood, accepted and adopted by consumers. Click here to learn more.

Click here to see photos from the 2011 BIO World Congress.

FAO Studies Pros & Cons of Bioenergy

FAO has released a new report that contains methodology designed to aid policymakers assess the pros and cons of investing in the bioenergy industry. The “Bioenergy and Food Security (BEFS) Analytical Framework” was written to help governments evaluate the potential of bioenergy as well as assess its possible food security impacts. The framework was developed over a three-year time frame and cites development and field tests that took place in Peru, Tanzania and Thailand.

The report is comprised of a series of step-by-step evaluations that seek to answer critical questions regarding the feasibility of bioenergy development and the impacts on food availability and household food security. In addition, social and environmental dimensions are also considered. The paper also serves as a platform for bringing key ministries and institutions together so they can work on the same page.

“Our goal is to help policy-makers take informed decisions regarding whether bioenergy development is a viable option and, if so, identify policies that will maximize benefits and minimize risks,” explains Heiner Thofern, who heads FAO’s Bioenergy and Food Security (BEFS) project.

The drive to biofuels have been driven by both worries over greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels as well as high oil prices and energy security concerns. FAO believes that one important benefit of investments into the bioenergy sector is that it could spark much-needed investment in agricultural and transport infrastructure in rural areas. This would create jobs and boost household income. These benefits could lesson both poverty and food security concerns. FAO has also conducted separate studies that show small-scale bioenergy projects not designed for export markets can improve food security and help boost rural economies.

“FAO has been saying for years that under-investment in agriculture is a problem that seriously handicaps food production in the developing world, and that this, coupled with rural poverty, is a key driver of world hunger,” says Thofern. “Done properly and when appropriate, bioenergy development offers a chance to drive investment and jobs into areas that are literally starving for them.”

Yet while there are major potential benefits to bioenergy production, FAO warns there are also potential negatives. They write that large-scale biofuel production could come at the expense of food production, leading to less food available, and higher food prices. In addition, deforestation is also a concern. Therefore, potential risks and benefits need to be weighed.

50% of India’s Fuel Needs Could Be Met By Biofuels

One million jobs could be created in India over the next decade through the transformation of agricultural waste into biofuel. Should this occur, biofuels could meet 59 percent of the demand for liquid transportation fuels by 2020. This according to the Bloomberg New Energy Finance study, “Next-generation Ethanol: What’s in it for India,” commissioned by Novozymes. Already, the Indian government has announced its Indian Biofuels Policy that calls for 20 percent of its transportation fuel to be biofuels by 2017.

The study was released at an event organized under the aegis of the Danish Embassy in India in cooperation with the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy. Consuming 17.3 billion litres per year of gasoline, India is the world’s 6th largest consumer of energy. Through 2020, demand is expected to grow 8.5 percent every year. Based in a barrel of crude oil at $100 USD, India would spend $19.4 billion USD on imported gasoline by 2020.

“By converting agricultural residues into fuel ethanol, India has the potential to reduce its dependence on imported petroleum,” said Thomas Nagy, Executive Vice President for Novozymes. “What’s more interesting is that this can be achieved without changing today’s agricultural land-use patterns or cultivating new energy crops. In addition, we already have the technology ready for deployment.”

According to the report, biofuels from agricultural residues could become a critical alternative to liquid transportation fuels. However, for this to happen, the report says issues such as policy implementation, the absence of incentives for the collection of the ag residue (only 25 percent of the waste is currently recovered by the fields) and infrastructure need to be addressed in order for biofuels to play a critical role in India’s energy needs.

Expanding on the policy requirements, the report lays out the need for India-wide mandates, coherent and innovative polices at the centre and state levels and cohesive policy incentives. Only these measures, says the report, will encourage stakeholders to make necessary changes and investments.

New Study Assesses Wood For Biofuels

Wood waste has been one of the feedstocks most studied for viability as a biofuel. Today a new study evaluates the promise of wood waste biofuels by reviewing 12 technologies and 36 projects that convert wood to fuels including ethanol, butanol, diesel, gasoline, and jet fuel. This particular area of research has garnered strong public and private investment and drop-in fuels projects even more so. Yet according to Forisk Consulting and the Schiamberg Group, the authors of the “Transportation Fuels from Wood: Investment and Market Implications of Current Projects and Technologies,” biofuels derived from wood waste will fail to substantively contribute to the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS2) either this year or through 2022.

According to co-author Dr. Bruce Schiamberg of the Schiamberg Group, major technical hurdles will disrupt commercialization for the majority of the technologies. The study finds an on average 11 year gap between estimated commercialization and actual full-scale production. However, the report says a promising approach of note is gasification technology under development from companies such as Rentech and ClearFuels whose goal is to produce drop-in diesel or jet fuel. In addition, the report highlights technologies from INEOS New Planet, Rappaport Energy and Coskata, and Kior who are pursuing producing biofuels with a combination of gasification and microbes, and catalytic fast pyrolysis.

The report also looked at the impact of biofuel development on US timber markets and found that they would be minimal with the highest potential for wood waste coming from Alabama, California, Michigan, Mississippi, and Tennessee.

“If all projects succeed, the total impact on wood raw material markets peaks at 8.8 million dry tons per year by 2030,” said co-author Ms. Amanda Lang, Managing Editor of Wood Bioenergy US. This represents just over 3 percent incremental wood use relative to the existing forest products industry.

Co-author Dr. Brooks Mendell added, “Ultimately, investors must think hard about allocating capital to projects that require 10+ years of technological development and rely on EPA renewable fuel mandates, which are essentially moving targets.”

New Study Breaks Link Between Land Use, Biofuels

In a new study released today by Michigan State University (MSU), biofuel production in the United States through 2007, “probably has not induced any indirect land use change.” The report was conducted by Seungdo Kim and Bruce Dale, both MSU scientists, and the results will be published in the next issue of the Journal of Biomass and Bioenergy. ILUC is the theory that any acre used in the production of feedstocks for biofuels in the U.S. results in a new acre coming into food or feed production somewhere else in the world.

Dale and Kim empirically tested whether indirect land use change (ILUC) occurred through 2007 as a result of the expansion of the U.S. biofuels industry, spurred in part by the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS2) that calls for 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel to be blended in fuel supplies by 2022. The researcher’s derived their conclusion after studying historical data on U.S. croplands, commodity grain exports to specific regions and land use trends in these geographical regions.

The authors write, “Biofuel production in the United States up through the end of 2007 in all probability has not induced indirect land use change. There are two feasible dependent conclusions that might be drawn from this interpretation: 1) crop intensification may have absorbed the effects of expanding US biofuel production or 2) the effects of US biofuel production expansion may be simply negligible, and not resolvable within the accuracy of the data.”

In response to the study, Renewable Fuels President and CEO Bob Dinneen stated, “Solving America’s energy crisis must rely on the best available science. Since its inception, the notion indirect land use change has been deeply flawed and repeatedly disputed. It is refreshing to see academia using real-world data and actual market behaviors to challenge the hypothetical results and ‘what if’ scenarios that have so far dominated the ILUC discussion.”

“Biofuels like ethanol offered unparalleled environmental benefits as a renewable alternative to gasoline. Hiding behind the faux science of ILUC, some have attempted to stall and thwart the sustainable growth of biofuels across the globe and especially in the U.S. This work from MSU, coming on the heels of other recent scientific analyses, has demonstrated that ILUC as a matter of science and fact is wrong,” continued Dinneen.

This report comes on the heels of report from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory that concluded ILUC resulting from corn ethanol expansion over the past decade has likely been “minimal to zero.”

Kim and Dale noted in the report that “prior ILUC studies have failed to compare their predictions to past global historical data.” Both the Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board have used highly controversial ILUC modeling tools. The report concludes, “No arable land increases from the 1990s are observed in the United States. Furthermore, no declines in natural ecosystem lands in the United States have been observed since 1998.” In addition, the analysis suggests cropland expansion in foreign countries is not well correlated to U.S. biofuels demand for certain feedstocks.

Turning Plants Into Products

A new report from the Milken Institute, “Turning Plants Into Products: Delivering on the Potential of Industrial Biotechnology,” examines the challenges facing the industrial biotechnology sector and identifies market and policy based responses. In particular, the report found that biotech could play a significant role in the reduction of fossil fuel use, but struggles due to petroleum’s price advantage. The report is a accumulation of the Institute’s Financial Innovations Lab’s results derived from discussions with experts and stakeholders on how the US could facilitate a better flow of private capital into companies focused on the production of bio-based products.

“There is much appeal for policymakers to invest in expanding the biotech-derived chemical industry. In the long term, it has environmental advantages and offers an alternative to foreign oil,” said Joel Kurtzman, executive director of the Milken Institute Center for a Sustainable Energy Future. “In the short term, it offers the immediate benefit of rural employment opportunity.”

Industrial biotechnology uses living materials such as plants, algae, marine life, fungi and micro-organisms and biosolids to produce a wide range of products from chemicals to plastics to cosmetics. But unlike the petrochemicals industry, the industrial biotech industry is not well established and doesn’t have the advantages of economies of scale and established operating efficiencies. So to encourage further development the industry will need an organized cooperation of local, state and federal governments along with support from the investment community, trade organizations and academia.

Turning Plants in Products suggests several courses of action to mitigate current challenges and increase the chances of success: establish concrete, long-term government policies; create prize forums; utilize established resources; and create innovative securitization.

Kurtzman added, “The industry needs to find the momentum to get companies past the funding gaps and on to commercial-scale production. This will require continued investment in R&D, supported by the government and public-private partnerships, to make the investment less risky and to increase the efficacy of the technology. We believe the results will be greatly worth the effort.”

The Financial Innovations Lab that led to the development of the Institute report was funded in part by the Office of Energy Policy and New Uses at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Study – Ethanol Saves Consumers 25 Cents at Pump

cardAccording to a new study released today by Iowa State University and the University of Wisconsin, in 2010, on average the use of ethanol reduced wholesale gasoline prices by an average of .89 cents per gallon. The research was conducted by a number of economists and released by the Center for Agricultural and Rural Development (CARD) and is an update to a 2009 Energy Policy paper authored by professors Dermot Hayes and Xiaodong Du. The paper, sponsored by the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA), also found that the growth in ethanol production reduced gasoline prices by an average of $0.25, or 16 percent while it was even more significant in the Midwest with an average price per gallon reduction of .39 cents.

“This study confirms that ethanol is playing a tremendously important role in holding down volatile gasoline prices, which are currently inching closer to all-time record highs,” said RFA President Bob Dinneen. “As rising oil prices are contributing to higher retail costs for everything from gas to food to clothing, ethanol is clearly providing some real relief for American families.”

The CARD study also showed that the impact of ethanol on gasoline prices in 2010 was even more significant than the average over the past decade. “In 2010 alone, ethanol reduced the average American household’s gasoline bill by more than $800,” said Dinneen. The number was derived from using data published by the Federal Highway Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, and Department of Energy. The organizations show that the average household consumed 900 gallons of gasoline at an average price of $2.74 per gallon in 2010. That means the average family’s annual gasoline bill was $2,470, but it would have been closer to $3,270 without ethanol.

Also examined was the impact of removing ethanol from the fuel supply. Today ethanol represents approximately 10 percent of the supply and the authors found that “Under a very wide range of parameters, the estimated gasoline price increase would be of historic proportions, ranging from 41% to 92%.” At today’s prices, that means gasoline prices would increase from roughly $4 per gallon to $5.60-$7.70 per gallon.

The authors point out that this dramatic price increase would stem from the fact that “…the ethanol industry now provides approximately 10% of the gasoline used in automobiles, an amount that exceeds the spare capacity of US oil refineries.” If ethanol suddenly disappeared, they say “[the] ‘missing’ fuel would have to be imported in the short run, and the required volume would be large relative to available import supplies. The only way to solve this short-term supply problem would be to use high gasoline prices to ration demand.”

Dinneen concluded this finding alone should serve as a wake-up call to those who are seeking to reduce or eliminate the role of ethanol in the U.S. energy market at a time when oil markets are increasingly volatile.

Study: Algae Could Replace 17% of Oil Imports by 2022

In a new study released by the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (NPPL), algal fuels could replace 17 percent of the United States’ imported oil by 2020. The paper was published in the journal of Water Resources Research but warned that biofuels production, including algal fuels, can require a lot of water so the study cautioned that being smart about where the algae is grown can reduce the water needed. Researchers concluded that water use could be drastically reduced if the algae is grown in the sunniest and most humid climates including the Gulf Coast, the Southeastern Seaboard and the Great Lakes.

“Algae has been a hot topic of biofuel discussions recently, but no one has taken such a detailed look at how much America could make – and how much water and land it would require — until now,” said Mark Wigmosta, lead author and a PNNL hydrologist. “This research provides the groundwork and initial estimates needed to better inform renewable energy decisions.”

The research team’s goal was to provide the first in-depth assessment of algal biofuels potential based on the amount of available land and water. The study also factored in how much water would need to be replaced due to evaporation over 30 years. The research analyzed previously published data to determine how much algae could be grown in outdoor, fresh water ponds when using current technologies. The study did not factor in algae grown in salt water and covered ponds.

When taking into account various factors, the research team determined that 21 billion gallons of algal oil, the amount equal to the advanced biofuels category of the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS2), could be produced by algae by 2022.

The researchers found that 21 billion gallons of algal oil, equal to the 2022 advanced biofuels goal set out by the Energy Independence and Security Act, can be produced from American-grown algae. This amount equates to 17 percent of the oil that the U.S. imported in 2008 for transportation fuels. To achieve this amount, the researchers estimate that the amount of land needed to produce this number would be approximately the size of the state of South Carolina. They also found that it would take 350 gallons of water per gallon of oil — or a quarter of what the country currently uses for irrigated agriculture — to produce 21 billion gallons of algal biofuel.

The study also concluded that up to 48 percent of the current transportation oil imports could be replaced with algae, but this higher production level would require significantly more water and land. Therefore the authors focused their research on the U.S. regions that would use less water to grow algae. Continue reading

Poplar Trees Possible Candidate for Biofuels

Researchers at the Department of Energy’s BioEnergy Science Center may have discovered some clues that could lead to poplar trees as the next candidate for biofuels. The research is being led by Charles Wyman of the Bourns College of Engineering’s Center for Environmental Research and Technology at the University of California Riverside who is joined by teams from Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. They published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “Lignin content in natural Populus variants affects sugar release.”

Basically, the team is looking for traits in poplar trees that will lead to better sugar release. The lignin found in the plant’s cells have been a major challenge to overcome in biofuel production because it must be converted to sugar for production; yet, its strong sugar bonds interfere with access to the carbohydrates, and thus access to the sugar.

Wyman explained, “The real driver for bioenergy is how to get sugar as cheaply as possible from these recalcitrant materials. We’re looking for clues as to which traits in these poplar materials will lead to better sugar release.”

The BESC researchers were able to quickly analyze volumes of poplar core samples through the use of a high-throughput screening method. The goal was to better understand the chemical factors that drive sugar yields. The work resulted in finding a correlation between one plant trait, the syringyl/guaiacyl (S/G) ratio, which are the building blocks of lignin, and increased yields.

“The conventional wisdom is that high lignin contents are bad for sugar release,” said lead author Michael Studer. “We unexpectedly found that this statement is only valid for low S/G ratios, while at high S/G ratios lignin does not negatively influence yields. However, replacement of carbohydrates with lignin reduces the maximum possible sugar release. Another interesting result was that the samples with the highest sugar release belonged to the group with average S/G ratios and lignin contents. This finding points to a need for deeper understanding of cell wall structure before plants can be rationally engineered for efficient biofuels production.”

During the project, the research team was able able to pinpoint certain popular samples that produced remarkably high sugar yields without pretreatment – a typical prerequisite in biomass to biofuel production. This could help to reduce the costs of production. The team believes that their research may lead the way for poplar cultivars to be grown for commercial testing and propagation and ultimately for biofuel production.

UConn Researchers Find Better Way to Brew Biodiesel

Researchers from the University of Connecticut have come up with a better way to brew up biodiesel.

This article from says Professor Richard Parnas, who you might remember from my story last October also is finding a way to use hemp as a biodiesel feedstock, has developed a patented biodiesel reactor that uses gravity, heat, and natural chemical reactions to make the biodiesel and separate the glycerol in one step:

As the chemical reactions take place inside the giant tube, temperatures reach more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The glycerol starts to coagulate in opaque swirls inside the tube. Because the glycerol droplets are heavier than the biodiesel fuel, they gradually sink to the bottom, where they are siphoned off. At the same time, the biodiesel fuel floats to the top of the tube and is pumped into a holding tank, where it undergoes refinement before being mixed with petroleum-based diesel fuel and used in the University’s bus fleet.

“What is unique about our reactor and why we have a patent on it, is that it gives a much better performance for the separation of the glycerol, and we don’t need a special separate step as is used in most other processes,” says Parnas, who also serves as chairman of UConn’s biodiesel consortium research group.

“That motion and those swirls you are seeing when you look at the reactor are the result of both a chemical reaction and phase separation in real time,” Parnas says. “Phase separation is like what happens when you have an oil and vinegar salad dressing … In other biodiesel processes out there, the reactants are very highly mixed and come out of the reactor together.”

While Parnas’ refinery is producing only about 2,000 gallons of biodiesel a year right now, he hopes a $1.8 million grant from the Department of Energy will help them move that production up to commercial quantities soon.