Farming For Algae

Steve Mayfield, the Director of the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology, believes that we need new sources and new revenue streams for agriculture. The most important element of the crop, says Mayfield, is that it can’t complete with existing agriculture. His answer? Algae.

Algae, says Mayfield, is going to be the next big agricultural crop. The only difference is algae grows on water, whereas traditional ag crops grow on land.

Today, researchers across the country are studying algae to produce fuel and feed and maybe even some day fiber, and Mayfield told me during an interview as part of a San Diego Algae Tour, that what we’re looking for in algae is exactly what they worry about in ag.

There are four things that Mayfield and his team are focusing on in their algae research: growth rate, the product being made, crop protection and harvestability. For example, when his team is growing algae, they need it to grow fast, produce a high amount of lipids, be free of disease, and be harvested as cheaply as possible.

I asked Mayfield when we would see full-scale deployment of algae fuel and he noted, “In this country, it took 100 years to reach the scale of ag we’re at right now. It’s not going to take 100 years to get to that scale in algae because the need is much great now.” You would typically build up your technology as the population increases, continued Mayfield, but the population increase is here now and we’re running out of fuel.

Mayfield estimates that we’re ten years away, and approximately $10 billion from commercial production but he is confident we’ll get there.

You can view pictures from my algae trip in my San Diego Algae Tour Photo Album.

Shell & MIT Partner to Pursue Energy Technology

In a $25 million research opportunity, Shell has partnered with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to support the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) that will focus on research and development of sustainable technologies designed to drive innovation in energy delivery. Beginning this year, MIT will receive $5 million per year for five years from Shell. The projects that the MITEI will engage in will focus on advanced modeling, earth science, biofuels, nanotechnology, and carbon management. MITEI was founded in 2006.

“Both Shell and MIT are globally recognized innovation leaders. This collaboration accents Shell’s commitment to develop new technologies and drive innovative solutions to address the global energy challenge,” said Gerald Schotman, chief technology officer, Royal Dutch Shell. “Our collaboration with MIT will form another important building block in strengthening Shell’s global technology leadership.”

One of the longer term goals of the collaboration is to develop future and emerging technologies that demonstrate game-changing potential for the energy industry. The collaboration will focus on a broad array of existing and new oil and gas technologies including but not limited to next-generation applications in nanotechnology, biochemistry, electronics, and computer modeling (Let’s also hope they develop technology to help prevent and/or clean up oil spills).

“The lack of access to affordable energy poses a significant barrier to economic advancement around the globe. Together with the rapidly accelerating demand for energy, the need to develop environmentally sensitive and sustainable energy resources becomes increasingly acute. Our collaboration with Shell will drive energy innovations with the potential for significant, real-world impact,” said Susan Hockfield, president, MIT.

Other ares of focus are research into water treatment improvements, greater fuel efficiency, new solar energy applications and enhanced catalytic technology for advanced fuel cells, and smart grids.

Professor Ernest J. Moniz, director of MIT Energy Initiative concluded, “Shell has earned a reputation for advancing a broad portfolio of important energy technologies and for a long-term view of how the global energy system will and should evolve. We are excited about this opportunity to significantly expand our research and education collaboration.”

Brown Researchers Green WVO-to-Biodiesel Conversion

Researchers at Brown University have found a more streamlined and greener way to turn waste vegetable oil into biodiesel.

This school press release says Brown University chemist Jason Sello and postdoctoral researcher Aaron Socha have eliminated the corrosive chemicals usuallu used in the reactions… a process that is six times faster than previous methods, using less energy:

“We wanted to develop an environmentally benign and technically simple way to convert waste vegetable oil into biodiesel,” said Sello, assistant professor of chemistry. “The production of energy at the expense of the environment is untenable and should be avoided at all costs.”

Waste vegetable oil is made up of triacylglycerols, free fatty acids, and water. The conventional way to convert waste vegetable oil into biodiesel requires two separate reactions. The first reaction turns the free fatty acids into biodiesel, but that conversion requires sulfuric acid. The second reaction converts the triacylglycerols into biodiesel, but that conversion requires sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide. Sodium hydroxide/potassium hydroxide and sulfuric acid are not compatible with each other, so the reactions must be carried out in separate vessels. That makes the process less efficient.

To find a better way, Sello and Socha went looking for catalysts that would be cheap, chemically stable and of limited toxicity. They settled on the metals bismuth triflate and scandium triflate, commonly used as catalysts in preparative organic chemistry. In addition, they performed the reactions using a microwave reactor instead of a conventional thermal heater. What they found was the new catalysts converted waste vegetable oil into biodiesel in about 20 minutes in the microwave reactor, whereas current reactions without catalysts using a conventional heater take two hours. While their microwave method needs a higher temperature to pull off the biodiesel conversion — 150 degrees Celsius versus 60 degrees Celsius under current methods — it uses less energy overall because the reaction time is much shorter.

The chemists also were able to perform the conversion in one reaction vessel, since the catalysts can promote both the reaction that converts free fatty acids into biodiesel and the reaction in which triacylgycerols are converted to biodiesel.

The catalysts in the conversion can be reused up to five times. Now the challenge is to do the process on an industrial scale.

Hemp Shows Promise as Biodiesel Feedstock

Industrial hemp could be a good feedstock for biodiesel.

Researchers at the University of Connecticut
have found that Cannabis sativa’s ability to grow in poor soils makes it a sustainable source for the green fuel:

“For sustainable fuels, often it comes down to a question of food versus fuel,” says [Richard Parnas, a professor of chemical, materials, and biomolecular engineering who led the study], noting that major current biodiesel plants include food crops such as soybeans, olives, peanuts, and rapeseed. “It’s equally important to make fuel from plants that are not food, but also won’t need the high-quality land.”

Today, there are still parts of the world that rely on Cannabis stalks as a primary fiber, mainly because of its ability to grow “like a weed,” without requiring lots of water, fertilizers, or high-grade inputs to flourish. But the seeds, which house the plant’s natural oils, are often discarded. Parnas points out that this apparent waste product could be put to good use by turning it into fuel.

“If someone is already growing hemp,” he says, “they might be able to produce enough fuel to power their whole farm with the oil from the seeds they produce.” The fact that a hemp industry already exists, he continues, means that a hemp biodiesel industry would need little additional investment.

While the hemp oil does a nice job of converting into biodiesel … 97 percent of the oil makes the transition … there is one major drawback: it’s illegal to grow in the U.S. Maybe that will change if lawmakers ever realize that this form of cannabis with less than 1 percent psychoactive chemicals in its flowers … about 1/20th of that of some of its potent cousins … won’t get you high.

Study: Biodiesel Safer for Workers than Diesel

A new study shows that workers around the exhaust from biodiesel have reduced exposures to health risks than those exposed to petroleum diesel exhaust.

New Hampshire’s Keene State College did the study entitled, “Biodiesel versus Diesel: A Pilot Study Comparing Exhaust Exposures for Employees at a Rural Municipal Facility,” and Biodiesel Magazine reports that a B20 blend “dramatically reduces work area respirable particle and formaldehyde levels compared with petroleum diesel.”

The team of researchers that completed the study used the same facility equipment and alternated between diesel fuel and a B20 blend, measuring the equipment cabin and the perimeter of the work area for known toxins such as benzene, 1,3-butadiene and formaldehyde. During the process, the researchers noted two areas of difficulty in the testing approach, “limited measurements of existing human exposure and difficulty developing techniques to identify a unique signature that distinguishes diesel exhaust from background air pollution.” The techniques used to measure for pollutants involved a high-sensitivity real time light scattering monitor called a Haz-Dust EPAM-5000 along with various filters. For sampling days, “researchers and students performed equipment calibrations before and after sampling, positioned the equipment in the same locations, and regularly performed operational checks on all of the equipment.”

Four pieces of equipment were in the study, a large front-end loader, a small front-end loader, a skid steer and a propane-powered forklift, and the same employees operated the equipment for the duration. The facility consisted of a single, large building with one large bay door and no mechanical ventilation. “Although biodiesel may hold promise for reducing exposure to PM and carbonyls, more comprehensive biodiesel data are needed to determine if these reductions are replicable and statistically significant,” the study notes. However, while the study states that diesel effects are still somewhat unknown, “Biodiesel may offer immediate, nationwide risk reduction opportunities, even as the debate regarding the level of health risk posed by diesel continues.”

You can read the entire report here.

New Regs Needed for Cellulosic Fuels to See Fruition

According to a new study published today in the October issue of BioScience, “Far-reaching Deleterious Impacts of Regulations on Research and Environmental Studies of Recombinant DNA-modified Perennial Biofuel Crops in the United States,” researchers argue that the current regulatory system will need a monumental overhaul in order for cellulosic bioenergy to reach its true potential. The authors write that cellulosic biofuels are hampered by a “deep and thorny regulatory thicket” that has made it near impossible to use advanced gene modification methods to advance cellulosic biofuels production.

“It’s extraordinary that gene modification technology, which has been adapted more rapidly than any other technology in the history of agriculture, and had some profound environmental and economic benefits, has been regulated virtually out of existence for perennial cellulosic biofuels crops,” said Steve Strauss, a distinguished professor of forest biotechnology at Oregon State University, and lead author of the paper.

In the paper, the authors note that exotic plant species pose a serious risk of spread and ecosystem impacts, yet face significantly less stringent regulation or obstacles than genetically engineered crops, which are carefully designed to solve problems, not cause them. As a result, the authors write, many research projects have had to stay away from gene modification methods and this has slowed down the entry of cellulosic biofuels to market. In addition, researchers who pursue gene trait modification are open to regulation nightmares and legal albatrosses.

The authors cite several traits that could be improved with gene modification including enhanced stress tolerance, reduced costs of conversion to liquid fuels, reduced use of water and fertilizer in cultivation, avoiding dispersal into the environment, and synthesis of new, renewable products such as industrial enzymes.

The authors conclude that the end result of a gene modification project should be regulated based on whether it is safe and beneficial, not the process used to produce it.

“It is essential that we create an intelligent regulatory system that does not indiscriminately penalize the gene modification process and obstruct essential field research,” Strauss said. “The one-size-fits-all style system of today treats the process of genetic modification as inherently dangerous, although many high-level science panels have concluded that the process is at least as safe as conventional breeding methods.”

Ultimately, the scientists concluded that solving these problems will require new ways of thinking, strong scientific and political leadership, and regulatory system that awards safe and beneficial new plants that could help solve the globe’s energy and environmental issues.

Electric Cars More Impactful Than RES

Which is better for our country in terms of oil dependence? Enacting a Renewable Energy Standard (RES) or moving forward with developing and deploying electric vehicles and electric vehicle infrastructure? According to a new report released by Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, electric cars hold greater promise for reducing emissions and lowering U.S. oil imports than a national RES.

This is just one conclusion of several made in the new study, “Energy Market Consequences of an Emerging U.S. Carbon Management Policy,” that will be released during the Baker Institute Energy Forum taking place today and tomorrow. The study folds together several academic working papers on a variety of topics, such as carbon pricing, the wind industry, global U.S. carbon and energy strategies, and renewable energy R&D.

“As the country moves forward to deliberate on energy and climate policy,” the executive summary states, “consideration must be given to what policies would best accomplish the stated goals for U.S. policy — a reduction in the need for imported oil and in greenhouse gas emissions.” The papers released at the conference seek to “clarify and debunk common myths that currently plague the U.S. energy- and climate-policy debate.”

For example, the study discovered that “the single most effective way to reduce U.S. oil demand and foreign imports would be an aggressive campaign to launch electric vehicles into the automotive fleet.” It goes on to outline that if policy were enacted that would mandate 30 percent of all vehicles must be electric by 2050, it would reduce U.S. oil use by 2.5 million barrels a day beyond the 3 million barrels-per-day savings already anticipated from the stricter fuel efficiency standards. In addition, emissions would be cut by 7 percent, 3 percent more than would would be eliminated under an RES.

In addition to the conclusions surrounding electric vehicles, the study also forecasts that natural gas will play an important role in the  future of the country’s energy mix.

Clean Energy Policy Under Fire by Big Oil & Friends

The Center for American Progress Action Fund (CAPAF) has released a new analysis that concludes that Big Oil and other special interests have spent millions of dollars in lobbying and campaign contributions to defeat clean energy legislation. The study, “Dirty Money” found that the top 35 spending companies and trade associations, including oil, mining and electric utility,  invested more than $500 million in lobbying and campaign contributions from January 2009-June 2010 to crush clean energy and clean tech legislation. Besides the federal level, one of the states Big Oil has been most active in is California. When analyzed the groups spent $1,800 in lobby expenditures a day for every senator and representative during the time of the study.

According to CAPAF this high dollar spending and political pressure has convinced enough legislators to oppose clean energy measures that would have created jobs, reduced oil use and cut pollution caused by global warming. To date, no comprehensive environmental policy has been passed, the renewable electricity industry is struggling for a federal renewable energy mandate, the biodiesel industry has lost its tax credits, and rumors coming out of DC this week are that the ethanol tax credit will not be extended either.

“This year had many extreme weather disasters and fossil fuel catastrophes. Yet too many senators ignored these events and instead heeded the extreme views of big oil, dirty coal, and their allies rather than those of the American people,” said Daniel J. Weiss, Senior Fellow and Director of Climate Strategy for the Center for American Progress Action Fund. “America suffered from its hottest temperatures and worst offshore oil blowout, yet enough senators opposed clean energy reforms that made change impossible so far.”

Six of the seven companies with the largest lobbying expenditures are Big Oil companies*ExxonMobil (1), ConocoPhillips (2), Chevron (3), BP (5), Koch Industries (6), and Shell (7). According to “Dirty Money,” their 18-month lobbying expenditures total $143 million. In addition, the study reports that the American Petroleum Institute, a Big Oil front group, spent $11 million to lobby Congress to defeat pollution reductions and maintain their tax loopholes, along with another $126 million on television ads just this year alone.

“While big oil, dirty coal, and other special interests profit from inaction, everyday Americans will pay the price of doing nothing. Clean energy investments and pollution reductions would create jobs, protect public health, and reduce our oil dependence,” noted Weiss. But because enough senators caved to special interests, China will get our clean energy jobs while we are stuck with the dirty energy pollution.”

Ironically, this past July, China became the world’s largest user of energy, surpassing America and according to analysts polled by Bloomberg, China will become the largest importer of oil within the next 1o years.

Hart Releases Global Biofuels Outlook Report

Despite the growing number of people who are calling for a global halt or scale back of biofuels development, global biofuel demand is still expected to grow. Biofuel use is projected to grow by 133 percent by 2020, primarily driven by government policies and renewable fuel mandates. However, despite the growing demand, the market is expected to be short by more than 8 billion gallons during this same time frame. This according to the newly released Hart report Global Biofuels Outlook, 2010-2020: Projecting Market Demand by Country, Region and Globally. The report looks at biofuel supply and demand in four key global regions and 35 countries.

“Many countries are projected to find themselves with a supply deficit for ethanol and biodiesel by 2020,” said Tammy Klein, Assistant Vice President, Hart Energy Consulting, and global study leader. “This deficit is worse for ethanol than for biodiesel,” she said.

Hart projects that the global supply may be short 5 billion gallons for ethanol, and 3.4 billion gallons for biodiesel by 2020. Meantime, demand for biofuels is expected to grow through 2020 driven by public policies requiring biofuels blending. “We actually see the biofuels supply deficit begin to appear around the 2015 time frame,” said Klein.

It should come as no surprise that Brazil is leading the way for biofuel expansion and development followed by the U.S. Next in line is China, Japan, the UK, and Germany.

Frederick L. Potter, Executive Vice President, Hart Energy Publishing notes why Brazil has the lead. “With its favorable GHG profile, these countries will primarily look to Brazilian advanced sugarcane bio-ethanol for supply, especially given the global context of tightening GHG limits — and limited commercial volumes of cellulosic ethanol. Obligated parties in the U.S. will find themselves competing for these volumes as never before. We expect this to lead to continued price appreciation for sugarcane ethanol over the 2011- 2020 period.”

Klein noted that not only will Brazil retain its position as the world’s top exporter of ethanol through 2020 (Brazil is estimating that its ethanol production will double in the next 10 years) Continue reading

Researchers: Develop Biofuels and Advanced Engines

The next generation of biofuels must be developed in conjunction with advanced combustion engines, if there is to be long-term success of those biofuels. That word comes from researchers at the Sandia National Laboratories.

The recommendations were made following a Sandia-hosted workshop held in November, Next Generation Biofuels and Advanced Engines for Tomorrow’s Transportation Needs. Participants included researchers at the Department of Energy’s Combustion Research Facility (CRF) and Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI), as well as representatives from oil companies, biofuel developers, engine manufacturers, suppliers and experts from the university, regulatory, finance and national laboratory communities.

The full report is now available online at

The workshop, said Ron Stoltz, manager of Sandia’s Advanced Energy Initiatives, was designed to identify opportunities for co-development of biofuels and engines, an often-overlooked issue.

“The oil companies and the automobile and truck engine companies have engaged in a dialogue and collaboration on fuel and engine issues for almost 100 years,” Stoltz said. “But the same cannot be said for the majority of biofuel start-up companies, especially those that are thinking ‘beyond ethanol’. The report highlights how fragmented the biofuels industry is today and how, by putting serious thought behind some key issues like fuel chemistry linked to engine performance, great strides can be made.”

The workshop was designed to help get a dialog going between researchers and experts from industry, academia and government, with the goal to figure out how to accelerate the transition to biofuels. Those participating did agree that the next generation of biofuels needed to be clean (at or below EPA-designated pollutants criteria); sustainable (with a smaller carbon footprint than the petroleum-based fuels being displaced); and compatible with current and future engine designs, and with current and future distribution infrastructure.

The group also recommended modernizing the testing, specification, and certification of all fuels; plan and integrate the research and development of next-generation biofuels in conjunction with the development of advanced engines; develop specific guidelines, roadmaps, and objectives for co-development of next-generation biofuels and advanced engines; and convene an International Fuels and Engines Summit, sponsored by industry with government and university participation.

Chemists’ Podcast Features Biodiesel from Sewage

A U. S. Environmental Protection Agency researcher says that biodiesel can be made from municipal sewage sludge that would cost about the same as diesel made from non-renewable petroleum.

In the latest episode of the American Chemical Society’s (ACS) podcast series, “Global Challenges/Chemistry Solutions,”
the EPA’s David M. Kargbo says sewage treatment plants could use microorganisms that produce higher amounts of oil … up to 10 billion gallons of biodiesel, more than three times the nation’s current biodiesel production capacity:

Kargbo points out in the podcast that demand for biodiesel has led to the search for cost-effective biodiesel feedstocks, or raw materials. Soybeans, sunflower seeds and other food crops have been used as raw materials but are expensive. Sewage sludge is an attractive alternative feedstock — the United States alone produces about seven million tons of it each year. Sludge is a good source of raw materials for biodiesel.

Kargbo’s results appear in ACS’ Energy & Fuels, a bi-monthly journal: “Biodiesel Production from Municipal Sewage Sludges.”

The free podcast is available at iTunes and from ACS at

The Pros & Cons of Miscanthus

Miscanthus has been much talked about in the past year as a strong contender as a feedstock for advanced ethanol. Yet scientists from the University of Illinois are cautioning that not enough is known about the feesdstock’s pros and cons to call it a viable option for ethanol.

The potential of miscanthus and switchgrass has been studied extensively by researchers Greg McIsaac, Mark B. David and Corey A. Mitchell and their latest findings will be published in the upcoming paper, “Miscanthus and Switchgrass Production in Central Illinois: Impacts on Hydrology and Inorganic Nitrogen,” that will appear in the September-October edition of the Journal of Environmental Quality.

The study focused on two important environmental concerns surrounding biomass: water quantity and nitrogen “leeching”. When compared to corn, soybeans and switchgrass, researchers found that miscanthus used substantially more water but leeched less nitrogen.

“We found that Miscanthus tends to dry out the soil much more than corn, soybeans, or switchgrass later in the growing season,” said Greg McIsaac, environmental scientist in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. “This would likely reduce runoff, stream flow and surface water supplies later in the summer and in early fall, when streams are typically at their lowest. It could reduce the amount of water available to those who are downstream in late summer and early fall.”

The study also looked at nitrogen loss, or how it “leaches” into the ground water and travels. Opponents to corn ethanol have been very vocal claiming that the nitrogen from agricultural production is a major contributing factor to the “Dead Zone” in the Gulf of Mexico as well as in other areas of the ocean. (Other research has shown this is not the case.) Continue reading

Clemson Mobile Facility Spreads Word of Biodiesel

Researchers at Clemson University have a new mobile biofuels processing plant that will help do new research on new biomass feedstocks, like algae and fungio, while spreading the word of what biodiesel can do.

This press release from the school
says its $125,000 piece of equipment from Piedmont Biofuels in North Carolina will provide the research platform and take the demonstration to the public:

“We had our initial successful run last week using waste algal and sunflower oils from Martek Biosciences in Kingstree and then used the biofuel to cycle back to a generator to achieve net-zero production,” [biosystems engineer Terry Walker said].

The plant is being developed to convert waste oils to high-grade biodiesel that can be used in many vehicles. The biodiesel is expected to cost less than regular diesel fuel, has a lower “carbon footprint” or environmental impact and can form the basis for a new industry in the state.

Walker said support for the purchase came from many sources, including Clemson Public Service Activities; the College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences and others at Clemson; Piedmont Biofuels in Pittsboro, N.C.; and SunStor Inc. in Greer.

The school will be showing off the new mobile facility at the annual biomass meeting this fall at the Pee Dee Research and Education Center on October 7th.

Gators Study Termites for Cellulosic Ethanol

The University of Florida is continuing its research into the use of termite enzymes to help make cellulosic ethanol commercially viable.

As we reported last year, researchers at UF have been working on genetic sequencing to harness the insects’ ability to churn wood into fuel. Now they report that they have isolated two enzymes that termites use to break up lignin, which is the tough nut to crack when it comes to producing ethanol from cellulosic material such as woody biomass. The material is normally exposed to heat and steam or caustic acids and bases to break down the lignin barrier around the sugar molecules, which adds to the cost of the process. However, the enzymes found in termite salivary tissues may be able to accomplish the same task, and at room temperature.

“Once we figure out the best way to integrate this sort of enzyme into the process, it could drop the cost of producing cellulosic ethanol significantly,” said UF entomologist Mike Scharf, who led the research.

The research was a collaboration between UF/IFAS and the biotechnology company Chesapeake-PERL Inc. of Savage, Maryland. The work was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and The Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research Inc.

Seaweed Could be Another Ethanol Feedstock

The pursuit of new feedstocks for next generation ethanol has gone underwater.

Seaweed has been getting quite a bit of attention for its potential in ethanol production, especially in Asia. Most recently, scientists from Tohoku University and Tohoku Electric Power announced they have developed a technology to efficiently generate ethanol from seaweed such as sea tangle and sea grape, according to reports from Japan over the weekend. The technology reportedly uses a natural yeast and a new fermentation process that mixes finely cut seaweed with enzymes and blends it into a pulp. The scientists say they succeeded in producing 200 milliliters of ethanol from 1 kg of seaweed.

The idea of using seaweed for ethanol is also being researched in Korea and the Philippines, as well as in Chile. One of the benefits to using seaweed as an ethanol feedstock are that it grows quickly and allows for as much as six harvests per year. Also, since seaweeds do not have lignin, pretreatment is not necessary before converting them to fuels, making it potentially less expensive than other cellulosic sources.