A Bigger Bang for the Buck: Bioelectricty or Biofuels?

ScienceDaily.com broke a story today about an article that will published in the May 22, 2009 issue of Science. The article focuses on what is more efficient – converting biomass to fuel or converting biomass to electricity? The study authors wrote in the online edition of the journal that the best bet is to convert the biomass to electricity rather than ethanol.

Credit: Photo by Stephen Ausmus, USDA/Agricultural Research Service

Credit: Photo by Stephen Ausmus, USDA/Agricultural Research Service

They calculate that, “compared to ethanol used for internal combustion engines, bioelectricity used for battery-powered vehicles would deliver an average of 80% more miles of transportation per acre of crops, while also providing double the greenhouse gas offsets to mitigate climate change.” Producing biomass for electricity would also provide another option to replace coal, highly criticized for its contribution of  greenhouse gas emissions and other climate change gases.

Chris Field, co-author of the study and director of the Department of Global Ecology at Carnegie Institution, said nobody has asked nor answered the question which is relatively obvious. “The kinds of motivations that have driven people to think about developing ethanol as a vehicle fuel have been somewhat different from those that have been motivating people to think about battery electric vehicles, but the overlap is in the area of maximizing efficiency and minimizing adverse impacts on climate.”

Here is what they did: they performed a life-cycle analysis of both bioelectricity and ethanol technologies, taking into account not only the energy produced by each technology, but also the energy consumed in producing the vehicles and fuels.

Here is what they found: Bioelectricity wins in the transportation-miles-per-acre comparison, regardless of whether the energy was produced from corn or from switchgrass.

They also discovered: Bioelectricity and ethanol differ in their potential impact on climate change. Some approaches make the problem worse, some make the problem better.

Although the researchers acknowledge that bioelectricity is the winner, they caution that the issue facing society in choosing an energy strategy are complex. Bioelectricity may win in terms of transportation and climate but could lose in other categories like water consumption, air pollution and economic costs.

The study, “Greater Transportation Energy and GHG Offsets from Bioelectricity Than Ethanol,” is available on Science’s website.

“Super-Organism” Leads to Cellulosic Breakthrough

mascoma_logoThe golden dream may have become reality today as Mascoma Corporation announced a major technological breakthrough in the process strategy for production of biofuels from cellulosic biomass known as consolidated bioprocessing, or CBP. The major advantage of CBP is that is significantly reduces the cost to produce cellulosic ethanol by combining several steps into one through the use of a “super-organism”.  The high cost of cellulosic ethanol production has been a major concern facing the industry, and a barrier to entering the consumer market as a competitive fuel. This may now be a thing of the past.

CBP eliminates the need for the production of expensive enzymes that are typically needed to break down the lignen and covert it to sugar. Rather, Mascoma is using engineered microorganisms that produce cellulases and ethanol in one step. “This is a true breakthrough that takes us much, much closer to billions of gallons of low cost cellulosic biofuels,” said Dr. Bruce Dale, with Michigan State University. “Many had thought that CBP was years or even decades away, but the future just arrived. Mascoma has permanently changed the biofuels landscape from here on.”

Mascoma’s claims were proven during the 31st Symposium on Biotechnology for Fuels and Chemicals in San Francisco, during a demonstration given by Dr. Mike Ladisch, Chief Technology Officer. Additional advances with both bacteria that grow at high temperatures, coined thermophiles, and recombinant cellulolytic yeasts have been discovered.

These advances reduce the operating and capital costs required for cost-effective commercial production of cellulosic ethanol. This is great news and even more so in light of yesterday’s announcement of the creation of the Interagency Working Group which includes the funding of building and producing next generation biofuels.

Ethanol Nameplate to Run at 67% Through 2010

18bioindex_pages_200The ethanol industry received some negative news today compliments of the newly released Soyatech Biofuels Monitor, a publication from HighQuest Partners. The study projects that for First Quarter 2009 the U.S. ethanol industry will operate at 67 percent of nameplate capacity through 2010. The study authors, in part, based their predications on data from the USDA Planting Intentions report that was released on March 29, 2009 that estimates the corn crop in 2010 will remain stagnet around 12.15 billion bushels or approximately 85 million acres of corn.

According to an article from Biofuels Journal, “At that level, given current corn demand estimates for food, feed and exports, there would be only 3.4 billion bushels of corn available from the 2009 corn crop for the 2010 production of ethanol, or enough to produce approximately 9.6 billion gallons.”

Hunt Stookey, co-author of the study and managing director of HighQuest Partners was quoted in the article as saying, “This is against forecast industry nameplate capacity of 14.4 billion gallons by the beginning of 2010 and an RFS mandate of 12.0 billion gallons.”

Pundents have criticized the ethanol industry for taking a growing share of the corn market but according to Stookey, “The ethanol industry is benefiting from the current economic crisis which has reduced demand for livestock, dairy and poultry, thereby reducing competing demands for corn.” Typically, when there is a shortage of corn, the ethanol industry absorbs the loss.

When the industry will see a turn-around is unknown but the study predicts this should occur at some point during 2010.

Purdue Researches More Efficient Ethanol Production

perdue_picOfficials with Green Tech America Inc. have announced that they are producing a more efficient way to produce cellulosic ethanol with a new type of yeast. According to a Purdue Research Park press release, the feedstocks involved include: wood chips, grasses and agricultural wastes like corn stalks and wheat straw. The new yeast ferments both glucose and xylose, two major types of sugar recovered from cellulosic biomass. Conventional yeasts ferment only glucose.

The yeast was developed at Purdue University by Nancy Ho (pictured), a research professor in the School of Chemical Engineering, in the Laboratory of Renewable Resources Engineering and the Energy Center. She also is founder and president of Green Tech America.

Green Tech America, which is based in the Purdue Research Park, also received exclusive license for improvements to the new yeast to be developed by Green Tech. “We licensed the yeast so we can provide it as well as technical assistance to other companies so they can use it for their own cellulosic ethanol production,” Ho said. “We can produce the yeast more cost-effectively. It is similar to how few people will make their own bread at home because it is more convenient and less expensive to buy loaves in the supermarket.”

Ho’s research at Purdue has been funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, Department of Agriculture, the Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research Inc., Environmental Protection Agency and industry sources.

Ethanol, Corn Not Culprit in Rising Food Prices

The American Farm Bureau Federation, Growth Energy, National Farmers Union, and National Corn Growers Association joined together today to host a media call to applaud the recently released report from the Congressional Budget Office, “The Impact of Ethanol Use on Food Prices and Greenhouse-Gas Emissions.” The report concluded that from April 2007-April 2008 ethanol did have a slight impact on rising food prices but that other culprits, such as high energy prices, had the most impact on rising food costs. Of the 5.1 percent increase in food prices, expanded ethanol production contributed between 0.5 and 0.8 percent of the increase in food prices measured by the consumer price index.

cereal_isleBob Stallman, President of the American Farm Bureau Federation, began by saying, “The results come as no surprise to us. We have called for hearings to determine why food prices have increased. It’s disingenuous to only look at corn when determining why food prices are increasing. We think they owe us an apology.”

Tom Buis, CEO of Growth Energy expanded on the factors that did have the most impact on rising food prices including the weak dollar, increased exports, unregulated energy markets, and oil speculation.  Roger Johnson, President of the National Farmers Union noted that studies have shown that during the same time food prices and gas prices were on the rise, ethanol saved consumers an average of 34 cents per gallon. This equates to nearly $500 per year for the average family.

The ethanol industry has recently filed a “Green Jobs Waiver” or “E15 Waiver” with the EPA to increase the blend level from 10 percent to 15 percent. It has been argued by ethanol proponents that unless the blend wall is increased the industry won’t be able to achieve the goals set out in the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) calling for 36 billion gallons of biofuels blended per year by 2022. “We won’t get there unless we make the ethanol industry profitable again and get through the higher blend wall,” summed up Rick Tolman, CEO of the National Corn Growers Association. “We will provide what we need to get to the next generation of biofuels.”

New Study Rates Ethanol Water Usage by State

Water usage for ethanol production varies dramatically depending on the state, according to a new University of Minnesota study.

irrigated cornThe study, published in this week’s edition of the journal Environmental Science and Technology, is the first to compare water use in corn-ethanol production on a state-by-state basis. The authors used agricultural and geologic data from 2006-2008 to develop a ratio showing how much irrigated water was used to grow and harvest the corn and to process it at ethanol plants.

Among the major ethanol-producing states, Iowa uses the least water, with about six gallons of water used for each gallon of ethanol. On the other end of the spectrum, California – which produces only a tiny fraction of the nation’s ethanol but irrigates most of its corn – uses about 2,100 gallons of water per gallon of ethanol.

The study “highlights the need to strategically promote ethanol development in states with lower irrigation rates and less groundwater use,” the authors say. The study was funded in part by the U.S. Department of Energy and by the Legislative Citizens Commission on Minnesota Resources.

E20 Study Finds No Performance Problems

A new study has found no performance problems with doubling the amount of ethanol allowed in motor fuel.

MN Ag DeptAccording to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, research conducted by the Minnesota Center for Automotive Research at Minnesota State University found that increasing the amount of ethanol blended into gasoline from 10 percent to 20 percent “causes no significant change in performance of automotive fuel systems.”

The study looked at eight models of fuel pumps, running three identical versions of each model for 4,000 hours using one of three different fuels  gasoline, E10 and E20. Gasoline and E10 were used in the study as a reference to identify what effects two accepted fuels would have on the pumps and sending units. The 24 pumps were selected to represent a variety of manufacturers, model years, common vehicles and designs. In addition, the study examined the effect of E20 on nine different makes and models of sending units.

The study found that the pumps showed significantly less wear when tested with E20 than with gasoline. The study concluded that overall, E20 did not have any greater negative effects than gasoline or E10 on the fuel pumps tested. It also showed there were no substantial differences in the performance of the sending units tested in the three different fuels.

Read the study here.

North Carolina Funds Biofuels Projects

The Biofuels Center of North Carolina is giving the emerging biofuels sector in the state a $2.77 million jolt.

Biofuels North CarolinaThe Center has approved a total of 18 grants to accelerate the technologies and feedstocks needed to develop the state’s biofuels sector.

“The Midwest has corn and Brazil has sugarcane. North Carolina needs to develop conversion technologies for the types of crops and trees the state has in plenty so that we are able to turn this biomass into viable, advanced biofuels,” said Biofuels Center President Steven Burke. “This funding puts North Carolina on the path toward reducing its dependency on foreign oil and liquid fuel imports while putting money back into our state’s economy.”

North Carolina has a goal of growing and producing 10% of its own liquid fuels by 2017 – or about 600 million gallons.

Two Steps to Turn Biomass into Biofuel

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have reportedly developed a two-step method to convert the cellulose in raw biomass into biofuel.

The process, published in a recent Journal of the American Chemical Society issue, uses untreated, inedible biomass as the starting material.

According to a story from the University of Wisconsin, the first step in the process is the conversion of cellulose into the “platform” chemical 5-hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF), from which a variety of valuable commodity chemicals can be made. “Other groups have demonstrated some of the individual steps involved in converting biomass to HMF, starting with glucose or fructose,” says Ronald Raines, a professor with appointments in the Department of Biochemistry and the Department of Chemistry. “What we did was show how to do the whole process in one step, starting with biomass itself.”

In the second step, Raines says they converted HMF into the promising biofuel 2,5-dimethylfuran (DMF). Taken together, the overall yield for this two-step biomass-to-biofuel process was 9 percent, meaning that 9 percent of the cellulose in their corn stover samples was ultimately converted into biofuel. Raines says DMF has the same energy content as gasoline, doesn’t mix with water and is compatible with the existing liquid transportation fuel infrastructure, having already been used as a gasoline additive.

Catalyst Could Jump Start Ethanol Fuel Cells

Researchers have developed a new catalyst that could make ethanol-powered fuel cells feasible.

The research was done by a team of scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory, in collaboration with researchers from the University of Delaware and Yeshiva University, and was published online in the January 25 edition of Nature Materials.

ethanol catalystAccording to the researchers, the highly efficient catalyst performs two crucial, and previously unreachable steps needed to oxidize ethanol and produce clean energy in fuel cell reactions. Made of platinum and rhodium atoms on carbon-supported tin dioxide nanoparticles, the research team’s electrocatalyst is capable of breaking carbon bonds at room temperature and efficiently oxidizing ethanol into carbon dioxide as the main reaction product.

“Ethanol is one of the most ideal reactants for fuel cells,” said Brookhaven chemist Radoslav Adzic. “It’s easy to produce, renewable, nontoxic, relatively easy to transport, and it has a high energy density. In addition, with some alterations, we could reuse the infrastructure that’s currently in place to store and distribute gasoline.”

“The ability to split the carbon-carbon bond and generate CO2 at room temperature is a completely new feature of catalysis,” Adzic said. “There are no other catalysts that can achieve this at practical potentials.”

Unlocking Genome Unlocks Sorghum’s Ethanol Potential

Scientists have mapped the genome of sorghum, and the discovery could open the door for even greater use of the crop in biofuel, especially ethanol, production.

This story from the USDA’s Radio Newsline
says since sorghum grows in drier climates and is more resistant to disease than corn, researchers are looking at ways to transfer some of sorghum’s traits over to corn.

messingRutgers University molecular scientist Joachim Messing says the discovery could allow a more efficient use of corn. “And we wouldn’t have the competition between using corn for feed and food and biofuels.”

Messing says the use of cellulose from corn stalks to make ethanol has required an extra step to turn it into ethanol. But sorghum already has a sugar that can be fermented into ethanol, making a more effective biofuel feedstock.

Michigan State Patents Cellulosic Ethanol Process

Michigan State University (MSU) has patented a process to pretreat agricultural waste products that would dramatically reduce the cost of making biofuels from cellulose.

According to a university release, The AFEX (ammonia fiber expansion) pretreatment process, developed by MSU chemical engineering professor Bruce Dale, uses ammonia to make the breakdown of cellulose and hemicellulose in plants 75 percent more efficient than when conventional enzymes alone are used. Cellulose in plants must be broken down into fermentable sugars before they can be turned into biofuel.

Currently, pretreating cellulose with acid is a common way to break the material down into fermentable sugars. But after acid pretreatment, the resulting material must be washed and detoxified. That removes nutrients, leading to the mistaken idea that crop waste lacks the necessary nutrients, Dale said. Cellulosic material pretreated with the AFEX process doesn’t have to be washed or detoxified, allowing ethanol to be created from cellulose without added nutrients or other steps.

The next step for the patented process could be a pilot plant to commercialize technology. “There are several companies – including the Mascoma Corp., which plans to open one of the nation’s first cellulosic ethanol plants here in Michigan – that may be interested in using this technology,” Dale said. “We are working to make the AFEX technology fit these companies’ needs.”

Dale is associate director of the MSU Office of Biobased Technologies and has a leadership role in the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center. The center is a partnership between Michigan State and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, to conduct basic research aimed at solving some of the most complex problems in converting natural materials to energy. The research is published in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Ethanol Use for Hydrogen Research

A research team in New Mexico is studying the possibility of putting biofuel into a fuel cell.

UNMAccording to director of the University of New Mexico’s Center for Emerging Energy Technologies Plamen Atanassov, they hope to “link the world of biofuels with the world of fuel cells.”

A major grant from the Department of Energy’s EPSCoR program brought together research faculty from UNM, New Mexico State University, New Mexico Tech and Eastern New Mexico University as well as researchers from Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia National Labs to explore the possibility of making usable fuel cells from ethanol to produce electricity.

The research groups want to determine whether ethanol can be reformed to produce hydrogen. If possible, they will build on the results to explore how direct electrochemical oxidation of ethanol might work. The research is expected to result in a new family of materials.

Plant Shut Off Could Be Key to Cellulosic Ethanol

Keeping on a mechanism in plants that naturally shuts down cellulose production could play a key role in enhancing biomass production for plant-based biofuels.

Purdue cellulose researchPurdue University researcher Nicholas Carpita says they have discovered that small-interfering RNAs (siRNAs) play a normal role in plant development by shutting off genes involved in primary cell wall growth in order to begin development of thicker, secondary cell walls.

“If we can learn to interfere with the down-regulation of cellulose synthesis, then plants may be able to produce more cellulose, which is key to biofuels production,” Carpita said.

A Purdue team made the discovery in barley after introducing a virus as a way to “silence” specific genes and study their functions. The researchers noticed that the virus had more effect then anticipated.

Carpita said this let researchers see that the siRNAs – among other things – regulate and shut down primary cell wall development to begin secondary wall growth. “These secondary stages result in characteristics such as tough rinds of corn stalks, vascular elements to conduct water and fibers for strength,” he said.

The researchers said that delaying or preventing the shutdown of both primary and secondary cellulose production might enhance total plant biomass.

Carpita’s research team reported its findings in the December 15 early online issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Sweet New Crop for Ethanol

A Seattle-based biotechnology company is working on developing a crop that is somewhat of a cross between corn and sugar cane.

Targeted GrowthAccording to a story in the Kansas City Star, Targeted Growth has been testing “sugarcorn” in test plots in Illinois and Indiana.

Sugarcorn is a takeoff on a type of maize grown in the tropics, which grows traditional ears of corn.

Researchers found that when the tropical corn has a longer growing day, such as those in the Midwest, it delays its flowering and sends more energy into making sugar in the stalk instead of producing starch in the corn.

Targeted Growth is hoping to make sugarcorn commercially available in two years.