New Enzyme Could Help Cellulosic Ethanol Production

Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory have created a new enzyme that has the potential to create plants that are easier to convert into cellulosic ethanol.

“Increasing the ‘digestibility’ of plant matter is one main approach to making plants a viable alternative energy source,” said Brookhaven biochemist Chang-Jun Liu. Plants with less lignin in their cell walls are easier to break down and convert to fuel products.

The next step will be to see if it works in plants. The scientists will engineer plants with the gene for the new enzyme to see if it reduces the amount of lignin in the plant cell walls.

“Since we know less lignin makes cell walls easier to digest, this may be an effective biochemical approach to engineering plants for more efficient biofuel production,” Liu said.

Read more here.

Clemson Gets $98 Mil for Wind Research

ClemsonURI2South Carolina’s Clemson University is getting $98 million in federal funds for wind energy research that is expected to create hundreds of wind energy jobs and make the area a center for wind research.

This press release says the school’s Restoration Institute and its partners have received a $45 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, as well as $53 million of matching funds, to build and operate a large-scale wind turbine drive train testing facility at a former Navy base:

The award is the largest single grant ever received in the university’s history and represents an enormous economic development opportunity for the region.

The testing facility will be … capable of full-scale highly accelerated testing of advanced drive train systems for wind turbines in the 5 megawatt to 15 megawatt range, with a 30 percent overload capacity.

Planning and construction of the facility will begin in the first quarter of 2010 with a targeted operational date in the third quarter of 2012.

John Kelly, executive director of the Clemson University Restoration Institute and vice president of public service and agriculture, said this award will further Clemson University’s strength in research and education and support the establishment of a wind energy manufacturing cluster in South Carolina.

The project is expected to create immediately 113 temporary and 21 full-time jobs. But for the long haul, the Department of Energy believes South Carolina could gain 10,000 to 20,000 new jobs in the wind power industry over the next 20 years.

Purdue to Test Biofuels for Aircraft

U.S. Air Force planes could soon be flying on biofuels, and that fuel will be tested at one of the Midwest’s premier universities.

This press release from Purdue University says the school’s National Test Facility for Fuels and Propulsion is getting a $1.35 million grant from the U.S. Air Force. The facility at will be located at the Niswonger Aviation Technology Building at the Purdue Airport:

davidstanley“The aerospace industry now has an unprecedented interest in developing green aircraft using biofuels,” said David L. Stanley, an associate professor of aeronautical engineering technology at Purdue and principal investigator of the facility. “Testing will be conducted while fuels are being researched for development. This means input will be provided during the development phase, not after the fuel has been developed, which helps to ensure the best results possible.”

The facility, expected to open in late 2010 or early 2011, will test aerospace hardware in engines and aircraft and provide data related to fuel-sustainability and emissions goals and for economic assessments.

“This is a multidisciplinary research approach that begins with growing crops, developing fuels from those crops in the laboratory and then testing those fuels in engines,” said Denver Lopp, a professor of aviation technology and one of two co-principal investigators.

The release goes on to say that while the focus will be jet engines, some of the testing will also be on piston engines.

New North Releases Cellulosic Feasibility Study

woodwasteNew North, Inc. has recently released Phase 2 of a study on the feasibility of cellulosic ethanol plant in Niagara, an area in Northeast Wisconsin. Phase 2 demonstrates the availability of feedstocks to the plant, primarily wood resources, should the plant be able to produce ethanol using a diversity of feedstocks. The news is positive as many local community members and companies have expressed interest in providing feedstocks to the plant.

Phase 1, which was released this past July, studied the surrounding biomass resources in order to determine if a cellulosic plant could be sited in the region. Both parts of the report were conducted by Resource Analytics. The study also notes the possibility of creating switchgrass supplier cooperatives in conjunction with the establishment of an ethanol plant over the coming years.

“As second generation biofuels emerge as a fuel source, the New North is well positioned to take advantage with the resources and infrastructure necessary to create them,” said Jerry Murphy, Executive Director of the New North, Inc. “This study has demonstrated that a cellulosic ethanol facility at the former Niagara paper mill site has a great deal of promise for potential investors.”

Wet Ethanol Process May Have Benefits

Soaking corn kernels instead of drying them could increase ethanol yields and create more co-products.

POET Emmetsburg BiorefineryResearchers at the University of Illinois have found that a wet ethanol production process results in more gallons of ethanol and more usable co-products.

“The conventional ethanol production method has fewer steps, but other than distillers dried grains with soluble, it doesn’t have any other co-products,” said University of Illinois Agricultural Engineer Esha Khullar. “Whereas in both wet and dry fractionation processes, the result is ethanol, distillers dried grains with soluble, as well as germ and fiber. Corn fiber oil for example can be extracted from the fiber and used as heart-healthy additives in buttery spreads that can lower cholesterol.”

In comparing the wet and dry fractionation methods, Khullar’s research team found that when using the wet fractionation method, the result is even higher ethanol concentrations coming out of the fermenter and better quality co-products than the dry method. Researchers say the process requires no new equipment. “It’s just a modification of things that are already being done in the corn processing industry and can be done pretty easily,” Khullar said.

Read more here.

Kansas Project Turning Algae into Biodiesel

JayHawkResearchers in the land of sunflowers are looking for a way to convert sunshine into algae… and then into biodiesel.

The Lawrence (KS) Journal-World & News reports
University of Kansas scientists are working on one of just a few in the world functioning, pilot-scale bioreactors connected to a municipal wastewater treatment plant, where they’re turning sewer waste into the green fuel:

“From the point of view of the EPA, this should be like heaven,” said Val Smith, a KU professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. “We’re harnessing a waste, making it do work for America, and purifying it all at the same time.

“It’s like a win-win-win-win-win.”

The KU effort is being financed by the university’s Transportation Research Institute, using money from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Bob Honea, the institute’s director, is confident that the work of KU researchers — collaborating on a “Feedstock to Tailpipe” program that includes a wide variety of biofuel efforts — is on the right track. Gasoline prices eventually will return to $4 a gallon or more, he said, and the world will continue to seek ways to lessen a reliance on petroleum.

Using algae to make biodiesel simply makes sense, Honea said, given the aquatic organisms’ built-in advantages compared with traditional crops: higher yields on less land.

KU officials believe they are the verge of a major breakthrough.

Termites Could Help Produce Cellulosic Ethanol

The ability of termites to digest wood may hold a key to advancing the production of cellulosic ethanol from woody biomass.

Researchers at the University of Florida have been working on genetic sequencing to harness the insects’ ability to churn wood into fuel. That ability involves a mixture of enzymes from symbiotic bacteria and other single-celled organisms living in termites’ guts, as well as enzymes from the termites themselves, which could ultimately improve the production of cellulosic ethanol.

“Termites are very unique creatures, and this research helps give the most complete picture of how their systems collaborate to, very efficiently, break down really tough biological compounds to release fermentable sugars,” said UF entomologist Mike Scharf, who leads the research.

The team has identified nearly 200 associated enzymes that help break down the problematic plant compound lignocellulose. This compound is the most costly barrier to wide-scale production of cellulosic ethanol because it must be broken down by intense heat or caustic chemicals. Termites, however, are able to almost completely break down lignocellulose through simple digestion.

Once the genetic sequence that produces the enzymes can be isolated, it could be transferred into genetically modified fungi or bacteria, or possibly into other insects, such as caterpillars, to produce the enzymes on an industrial scale.

DF Cast: Study Shows Biodiesel’s Energy Balance

df-logoLast week, we told you new research shows how green biodiesel is. I finally got a chance to catch up with National Biodiesel Board CEO Joe Jobe to talk a little bit about this important study… and what it will mean as the Environmental Protection Agency considers a new Renewable Fuels Standard, RFS-2.

joe-jobethumbnailIn this edition of the Domestic Fuel Cast, you’ll hear how Jobe believes the information that biodiesel now produces 4.5 units of energy for every unit of energy spent on it will prove to the EPA and skeptics that biodiesel is truly one of the greenest fuels out there. He says the information couldn’t come at a better time and was included with the NBB’s comments about the RFS-2.

JCGreenfestJobe adds that the NBB will be showing off biodiesel’s green, sustainable nature with a Greenfest in the board’s hometown of Jefferson, Missouri at Riverside/Ellis Porter Park this Thursday evening, October 22nd from 4-8. He says Jefferson City boasts several users of biodiesel, including the Missouri Department of Transportation, which uses a blend of 20 percent biodiesel (B20) in all of its diesel vehicles. Plus, the city itself burns B20 in its city buses. Fire trucks, ambulances, and hybrid and flex-fuel vehicles will also be on hand for the JC Greenfest, as well as demonstrations from Linn State Technical College and Lincoln University. They’ll even have live music from national recording artist Emily Richards

To hear more of my conversation with Jobe, listen to the latest DF Cast here:

You can also subscribe to the DomesticFuel Cast here.

FDC Enterprises Awarded DOE Feedstock Delivery Grant

FDC Enterprises LogoFDC Enterprises, based on Columbus, Ohio, announced today that it has won a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) grant to develop supply systems to handle and deliver feedstocks for cellulosic biofuels production. The $21 million grant is being shared by five winners.

The government is attempting to help speed up cellulosic biofuels production, or the production of fuel that uses waste products such as switchgrass, woodchips and agricultural residues, rather than food-based products such as corn. However, with new feedstocks come new challenges, one of which is delivery and storage.

According to DOE’s press release, the selected grant winners represented, “the best projects to stimulate the design and demonstration of a comprehensive system to handle the harvesting, collection, preprocessing, transport, and storage of sufficient volumes of sustainably produced feedstock.”

Companies like POET, have also been working with manufactures to develop technologies to pick up corn cobs and stover for the production of cellulosic ethanol.

Fred Circle, President of FDC said in a press statement, “We are excited to be selected and we believe this is a great opportunity for energy and agriculture to be teamed in a way that helps America. We have a great team with unique expertise and we are looking to leverage this grant into a large-scale commercial effort that serves this emerging industry.”

AntaresGroupLogoFDC Enterprises is a parntering with the ANTARES Group , a renewable energy consulting and project management company, located in Landover, Maryland. Kevin Comer, Associate Principal at ANTERES commented, “If cellulosic ethanol is to become a meaningful player in the fuels market, we must demonstrate the ability to sustainably grow and harvest dedicated crops for energy. Our approach is to combine the best of agriculture and energy in a way that doesn’t adversely impact food production or land use and still provides a win-win for biofuels producers, farmers, and landowners.”

Renewable Energy Grants Available in Colorado

The Colorado Department of Agriculture is now offering several Advancing Colorado’s Renewable Energy (ACRE) grants. Eligible projects include agricultural related renewable energy systems, feasibility studies and research projects. The ACRE program is a set of grants that provide funds to conduct feasibility studies, install renewable energy systems or do research into renewable energy projects.

microhydroGrant applications submitted must be for projects that will be completed withing two years of grant award. Examples of past projects that have been supported by the ACRE grant program include wind turbines, solar panels, micro-hydro systems, biomass systems, and biodiesel plants. Funds will be distributed in three categories.

1) Feasibility Studies –  must study the feasibility of an agricultural energy-related project. Feasibility studies may address the market for the product, engineering requirements, economic viability, environmental concerns, legal requirements, management, and other necessary study components. A maximum allocation for each study is $25,000.

2) Project Participation — for projects will completed feasibility studies, awards will be granted to assist with the project.. A maximum allocation of $100,000 has been established per project.

3) Research — applications for research of agricultural energy-related topics will be considered in an effort to bring new information to the marketplace. Research should be tied to a particular issue or problem in Colorado. A maximum allocation of $50,000 per project has been set.

Grant applications are being accepted through October 30th. Contact ROI for more information at 517-812-3285.

Biomass Feedstocks Research

USDA’s Agricultural Research Service is studying the use of plant residues for biofuels.

biofuel cropsAt the University of Minnesota-Morris Biomass Gasification Facility, for example, gasification researcher Jim Barbour and ARS soil scientist Jane Johnson (pictured) are evaluating potential biomass feedstocks, including pressed corn stover.

The Agricultural Research Service has scientists in 18 states involved in the Renewable Energy Assessment Project (REAP) which is trying to determine the balance between how much crop residue can be used to produce ethanol and other biofuels and how much should be left on the ground to protect soil from erosion, maintain soil organisms, and store carbon in the soil.

Because corn is currently the most widely used biofuel crop, the REAP team is especially interested in determining where, when, and how much corn stover can be harvested without harming soil productivity. The work involves not only looking at how much plant residue is needed to maintain soil carbon than to control soil erosion, but also using perennial groundcover roots and shoots as alternative sources of organic material to offset the carbon lost when stover is removed.

Read more about the project here.

Purdue Study Proves Biodiesel Burns Well in Furnaces

Yesterday, I told you how oilheat industry officials have set out a plan to make more use of biodiesel blended to burn in home furnaces. For those who might be worried about the performance of the green fuel in your home heater, a new study indicates it will do just fine.

This story from Purdue University
says researchers have been testing degummed soybean oil and No. 2 fuel oil as an alternative to heating fuel:

ileleji-soybeanKlein Ileleji, an assistant professor of agricultural and biological engineering, tested blends of 20 percent, 50 percent and 100 percent degummed soybean oil – an unrefined and cheaper product to produce than soy methyl esters, commonly known as biodiesel – and found that the 20 percent blend didn’t degrade a home furnace’s parts or heat output. The only issue found with the 20 percent blend was a slight early degradation of the furnace’s seals and gaskets, which manufacturers could fix by switching to a higher quality product. Ileleji’s findings were reported in the recent early online version of the journal Fuel.

“You are going to reduce the sulfur emissions with degummed soybean oil. The things you should be worried about with a biofuel, such as the pour point temperature and heating ability, were not affected,” Ileleji said. “You want to keep the properties of your No. 2 fuel oil, and at 20 percent degummed soybean oil, you would minimally affect those properties.”

Ileleji found that a 20 percent blend worked well in furnaces without any modification to the heater’s design.

The Indiana Soybean Alliance and the Indiana United Soybean Board funded the research.

Studying Sorghum for Ethanol in Maryland

Researchers at Salisbury University in Maryland are studying the potential for growing sweet sorghum for cellulosic ethanol in the state.

salisbury sorghumSince May, eight sweet sorghum varieties have been growing on a Wicomico County farm for evaluation as potential stock for ethanol production on the Delmarva peninsula. Dr. Samuel Geleta of Salisbury Univerisity’s Biological Sciences Department says about half of the varieties have already been harvested, with the rest to be finished by mid-October. Some of the plants grew to a height of 12 feet. He said sweet sorghum is attractive because it is drought resistant, fast-growing and has low nutrient and fertilization requirements. “Sweet sorghum can be grown on marginal land with less fertilizer and water as compared to corn,” Geleta said. “Since sweet sorghum juice contains simple sugar, producing ethanol from it simply requires extracting the juice and fermenting.”

Recently, Dr. Geleta (pictured on the right) showed his work to some of Maryland’s state legislators – (LtoR) Addie Eckardt, Jim Mathias and Rudy Cane. The study is being funded by the Maryland Grain Producers Utilization Board and spearheaded by the Delmarva Sweet Sorghum for Ethanol Group.

Pioneer Explores Alfalfa’s Role in Cellulosic Ethanol

alfalfaThe lowly alfalfa crop could play a role in the future of cellulosic ethanol.

Alfalfa is the nation’s most popular legume and actually our third most valuable crop, but it is often taken for granted and somewhat under valued. However, the many benefits of the crop could make it a potential frontrunner in the cellulosic ethanol race, especially if new varieties can be developed with reduced lignin content, which is the focus of a Pioneer Hi-Bred biotech research project.

pioneer David MillerPioneer Director of Alfalfa Research Dave Miller says they believe cellulosic ethanol will need multiple feedstocks and alfalfa is a good fit for a number of reasons. “It’s great for crop rotation, its environmental benefits in terms of lack of soil erosion because it’s deep rooted and a perennial are well known, and it fixes nitrogen.”

In addition, Miller says preliminary work shows alfalfa is competitive with other feedstocks for its ability to convert to cellulosic ethanol and that a corn/alfalfa rotation creates a very favorable carbon footprint for ethanol production.

Producing varieties with less lignin would be helpful in making alfalfa even more competitive as a cellulosic ethanol feedstock. In addition, the reduced lignin alfalfa also has benefits with its more traditional use as livestock feed. “When animals are fed lower lignin forage, they perform better,” said Miller. “Both systems are digestions, one is an enzyme-acid digestion to go into a fermentation vat, the other is a digestion to make milk or meat.”

Listen to or download an interview with Dave Miller here:

Studying New Feedstocks for Biofuels

The “World’s Largest Urban Farm and Research Test Facility” is studying a wide variety of new feedstocks that hold promise for future sources of both ethanol and biodiesel.

bioworksAgricenter International recently offered a closer look at the new crops being grown there by the Memphis Bioworks Foundation AgBioworks program and BioDimensions, Inc. Among the crops that were planted this season were sweet sorghum (pictured), switchgrass, castor, pearl millet and sunflowers.

“Our intent with hosting this new crops field day was to educate people on the opportunities for these crops in the region by inviting a range of speakers to talk about crops from the field to the factory and also showcase these crops in the field, “ says Hillary Spain, AgBioworks 25Farmer Network Coordinator.

Spain says about 50 farmers and other interested individuals from throughout the region attended the field day on August 15 to learn about each crop, ask questions and see the crop under actual growing conditions in the field.