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.”

New Yeast Strain Could Help Cellulosic Ethanol Production

A collaborative effort has produced a yeast strain that speeds up the process of making ethanol from cellulosic materials.

Researchers at the University of Illinois, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the University of California at Berkeley, Seoul National University and the oil company BP worked together to develop the newly engineered yeast strain that can simultaneously consume two types of sugar from plants to produce ethanol.

The sugars are glucose, a six-carbon sugar that is relatively easy to ferment; and xylose, a five-carbon sugar that has been much more difficult to utilize in ethanol production. The new strain, made by combining, optimizing and adding to earlier advances, reduces or eliminates several major inefficiencies associated with current biofuel production methods.

“Xylose is a wood sugar, a five-carbon sugar that is very abundant in lignocellulosic biomass but not in our food,” said Yong-Su Jin, a professor of food science and human nutrition at Illinois and a principal investigator on the study. “Most yeast cannot ferment xylose.” A big part of the problem with yeasts altered to take up xylose is that they will suck up all the glucose in a mixture before they will touch the xylose, Jin said. A glucose transporter on the surface of the yeast prefers to bind to glucose. “It’s like giving meat and broccoli to my kids,” he said. “They usually eat the meat first and the broccoli later.”

The research objective was to develop a way for the yeast to quickly and efficiently consume both types of sugar at once, a process called co-fermentation. According to the researchers, the new yeast strain simultaneously converts cellobiose (a precursor of glucose) and xylose to ethanol just as quickly as it can ferment either sugar alone. They say it is at least 20 percent more efficient at converting xylose to ethanol than other strains, making it “the best xylose-fermenting strain” reported in any study.

Read more from the University of Illinois here.

Research to Study Impact of Ethanol on Older Vehicles

Kettering University in Flint, Michigan is one of several that have been tapped by the Department of Energy (DOE) to study the impact of higher ethanol blends on older vehicles.

The use of up to 15 percent ethanol in gasoline for 2007 model year vehicles or newer has been approved by the federal government, while the use of E15 in model year 2001-2006 vehicles is still being evaluated. The research at Kettering will look at vehicles older than 2000 model year, for which the use of higher ethanol blends has been denied by the EPA.

The $125,000 grant marks the second time Kettering mechanical engineering professors have studied the impact of ethanol on older vehicle engines. Kettering professors Craig Hoff andGregory Davis did a study last year that looked at how ten percent ethanol blends may impact classic cars from as far back as the 1940s. In that study, which included 1,500 hours of testing, the researchers concluded that “it’s safe to assume that you can continue to drive your collector vehicle using E10; it may just cost you more in the long run” because of additional costs associated with sealing fuel tanks and cleaning and rebuilding fuel systems more frequently.

Offshore Wind Could Boost Ontario’s Economy

In a new study released by The Conference Board of Canada and financed by the wind company Vestas Offshore, the development of offshore wind farms could boost Ontario’s economy by $4.8 billion to $5.5 billion a year between 2013-2026. During the same time frame, development could lead to a total of $10 billion in capital investment and operations spending and support around 4,000 jobs during the construction phase.

“Employment and Economic Impacts of Ontario’s Future Offshore Wind Power Industry,” was based on the economics if seven new offshore wind energy projects were developed totaling 2,000 megawatts (MW) by 2026. The Conference Board felt that this number was “conservative compared with market potential.” While there are no offshore wind farms currently operational in North America, there are two in development near Kingston, Ontario.

“An offshore wind industry in Ontario – one that develops enough projects to be sustainable in the longer term – would create both short-term construction employment and permanent green jobs in the operations phase,” said Len Coad, Director, Environment, Energy and Technology Policy, The Conference Board of Canada. “Should development progress as anticipated, it is likely that new industries will develop in the province to service the needs of the growing sector.”

According to IESO, there is 2,600 MW of wind energy capacity expected to be online in Ontario by the end of 2011 with the number growing significantly over the next five years. The organization said that wind energy is well positioned for growth with the implementation of the Green Energy and Green Economy Act of 2009 as well as the Ontario Power Authority’s Feed-in-Tarriff (FIT) program that promotes renewable energy.

Investments in G-20 Clean Power Projects Could Top $2.3 Trillion

Private funds have been difficult to secure in the U.S. for clean energy programs for the past year; however, on a global scale, private investments in G-20 clean power projects could total more than $2.3 trillion by the end of this decade alone. This figure was released as part of a new report from the Pew Charitable Trusts this month: Global Clean Power: A $2.3 Trillion Opportunity. The majority of investments will be made in Asia, led by China and India, as driven by massive energy demand and strong clean energy policies. However, the report continues, by countries adopting such policies, every G-20 member has an opportunity to attract more private funds in clean power projects and compete more effectively for business.

The report examined projected private investment in wind, solar, biomass/energy from waste, small hydro, geothermal and marine energy projects. To predict the levels of private investments into projects, the report modeled three policy scenarios to determine future growth through 2020:

  • * Business-as-usual – no change from current policies: total investment projected to be $1.7 trillion by 2020
  • * Copenhagen – policies to implement the pledges made at the 2009 international climate negotiations in Copenhagen: total investment projected to be $1.8 trillion
  • * Enhanced clean energy – maximized policies designed to stimulate increased investment and capacity additions – total investment projected to be $2.3 trillion

“The message of this report is clear: countries that want to maximize private investments, spur job creation, invigorate manufacturing and seize export opportunities should strengthen their clean energy policies,” said Phyllis Cuttino, director of the Pew Climate and Energy program.

The report found that the clean energy sector continues to be an immense economic opportunity and Asia became the top regional destination for clean power finance in 2010. Within the region, China and India are leading the way (in all energy demand, not just clean energy demand) and by 2020, the report anticipates that 40 percent of global clean power project investments will be made in China, India, Japan, and South Korea.

Michael Liebreich, CEO of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, the company that compiled the underlying data for the report said, “Strong and consistent policies in Asia have helped double private investment over the past two years. Asia is now the leading region for clean energy investment, and its lead is set to extend in the near future unless Europe and the US make a step change in their support for the sector.”

While the U.S. is currently lagging far behind in private investments in clean energy, the report found that they are among those with the most to gain from passing strong clean energy policies. The report cites an example that says the U.S. has the potential to attract $342 billion in clean power project investments over the next 10 years under the Enhanced clean energy scenario.

You can download a copy of Global Clean Power: A $2.3 Trillion Opportunity here.

An Unusual Competitor To Biofuels?

According to an interesting article published in Zootaxaca, a taxonomy journal, scientists have unveiled an unusual competitor with humans for switchgrass, an energy crop with great potential for biofuels, the Blastobasis repartella moth. South Dakota State University entomologist Paul Johnson and agronomist Arvid Boe, along with other researchers, are studing the moth whose larvae are born into the stems of switchgrass stalks.

Johnson, who was interviewed by the ArgusLeader, said that if switchgrass, and other similar native grasses are to be farmed commercially, it is important that both science and industry know more about their natural ecologies. This includes how the moth would be affected by growing and harvesting switchgrass for biofuels.

Johnson said that while he and his team knew “the common stuff” they were surprised to learn that the moths in the Blastobasis genus fed on plant matter – they were thought to be scavengers. This could make farming switchgrass tricky, he says because growing one crop limits biodiversity and allows parasites or predators to take hold more easily. He also noted that since the moth is a “burrowing insect” it makes it more difficult and expensive for farmers to rid the plant of the insect.

According to the article, issues such as those posed by the moth are accounted for in a provision included in the 208 Farm Bill which subsidizes much of the cost of establishing a perennial biomass crop such as switchgrass.

In the meantime, there is a long way to go before energy crops, or biomass crops become commercially viable for biofuels. During this time, Johnson cautions that more research is needed among all biomass crops to learn more about the moth as well as other potential pests and his team will continue to “look more closely at how the moth fits into the plant’s ecology, studying its varieties, its predators and its infestation rates.”

“Now we can take that (basic) information and start generating data to answer some of these questions,” he said.

Is Natural Gas A Viable Partner In the Low-Carbon Future?

Is, and should, natural gas be a viable partner in the movement to a low-carbon future? This was the question asked and answered in a new report published by the Worldwatch Institute and authored by Worldwatch Sustainable Energy Fellow Saya Kitasei. “Powering the Low-Carbon Economy: The Once and Future Roles of Renewable Energy and Natural Gas,” concludes that natural gas and renewable energy such as wind and solar, could form a powerful partnership to move the world toward low carbon energies.

The report notes that “natural gas offers a cleaner alternative to coal” and sets up the stage for natural gas to play a starring role in the future of energy for its “flexibility, scalability, and cost-competitiveness to complement the variable distributed nature of wind and solar power generation.”

“If the world is to truly move away from coal as its primary means of electricity production, then natural gas must realize its full potential as a partner to the renewable energy industry,” said Kitasei. “Natural gas is undergoing a renaissance. Our research indicates that the environmental community should pay attention to the opportunities that this resource brings. When deployed as part of an integrated approach, renewable energy and natural gas can reduce coal dependence, deliver emissions reductions, and catalyze the transition to a low-carbon economy.”

According to the report, there are four key mechanisms that can enable the combination of renewable energy and natural gas to displace coal and provide needed reductions in power-sector emissions:

  • • First, air pollutants such as nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, and mercury must be tightly regulated.
  • • Second, a cost must be attached to emitting carbon dioxide.
  • • Third, electricity system operators should allow wind and solar plants to balance their own output with on-site resources.
  • • Fourth, the markets on which system operators purchase electricity must be highly responsive, allowing them to react to fluctuations in electricity supply and demand as rapidly as possible.

The report is part of a larger look that the Worldwatch Institute is taking into the role of natural gas in the future global economy.

Gene Find Could Boost Cellulosic Ethanol Production

The discovery of a new gene could help in the production of cellulosic ethanol.

purduePurdue University scientists have found the last undiscovered gene responsible for the production of the amino acid phenylalanine, a discovery that could lead to processes to control the amino acid to boost plants’ nutritional values and produce better biofuel feedstocks.

The researchers have determined that the gene is one of ten responsible for phenylalanine production in plants, which is important for plant protein synthesis and for the production of flower scent, anti-oxidants and lignin, a principal plant cell wall component that helps plants stand upright and acts as a barrier in the production of cellulosic ethanol. It is one of the few essential amino acids that humans and animals cannot synthesize, so it must come from plants.

Decreasing phenylalanine could lead to a reduction in lignin, which would improve digestibility of cellulosic materials for ethanol production. Increasing phenylalanine could boost the nutritional value of some foods.

Source: Purdue University press release

Duke Discovers Breakthough Gene for Grasses to Biofuels

Duke Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy (IGSP) believes that it has altered a gene in perennial grasses to help them develop more robust roots speeding up the timeline for creating biofuels. According to Philip Benfey, the director of the IGSP Center for Systems Biology, says that perennial grasses for biofuels are advantageous because they can be harvested repeatedly. However, before this can happen, the roots need to be established and this can take up to two or three years. Therefore, he and his team began developing a method to improve root growth.

According to a university release, the research team took a directed genomic approach aimed at identifying genes that become active when cells stop dividing and start taking on the characteristics of the mature, adult cell they are to become.

“We systematically looked for those genes that come ‘on’ precisely when cells transition from proliferation to differentiation and then turn ‘off’ again just as quickly,” Benfey said.

The result of the research that focused on the plant Arabidopsis, and subsequent screening of mutant lines, turned up a single gene, which the researchers call UPBEAT1 (UPB1) that ultimately controls how fast the roots develop.

“It’s possible that by manipulating a single gene, you could get a plant with rapid growth,” Benfey said. He also noted that the prospect of enhancing growth by taking away a gene, rather than adding a gene, is appealing and added that their research suggests the plants are not growing at their full potential.

Along with this finding, the research also alluded to new ways they may be able to produce bigger and stronger plants that can sequester more carbon than other plants.