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.
According 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.”
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.
Rutgers 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.
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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.
A research team in New Mexico is studying the possibility of putting biofuel into a fuel cell.
According 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.
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 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.
A Seattle-based biotechnology company is working on developing a crop that is somewhat of a cross between corn and sugar cane.
According 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.
Researchers have released a draft of the soybean genome, and the information is expected to have a big impact on biodiesel development.
This press release from the U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute (DOE JGI) says this is expected to help the research community come up with new breeding strategies to get the most out of one biodiesel’s most popular feedstocks:
DOE JGI’s interest in sequencing the soybean centers on its use for biodiesel, a renewable, alternative fuel with the highest energy content of any alternative fuel. According to 2007 U.S. Census data, soybean is estimated to be responsible for more than 80 percent of biodiesel production.
“The genome sequence is the direct result of a memorandum of understanding between DOE and USDA to increase interagency collaboration in plant genomics,” said DOE Under Secretary for Science Dr. Raymond L. Orbach. “We are proud to support this major scientific breakthrough that will not only advance our knowledge of a key agricultural commodity but also lead to new insights into biodiesel production.”
You can see more about the soybean genome sequence at www.phytozome.net/soybean.
Ethanol production can yield some non-fuel uses that have yet to be realized.
The National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) has been researching efforts that produce ethyl lactate from reactive distillation. Ethyl lactate is a general all-purpose solvent as well as a common ingredient in pharmaceutical preparations, food additives and fragrances, and it is typically derived from petrochemicals. The reactive distillation process provides a cost-effective way to produce it from ethanol.
NCGA Vice President for Research and Business Development Richard Glass says they have worked with a team from Michigan State University, including chemical engineering professors Carl Lira and Dennis Miller.
Among the benefits is that reactive distillation can cut the cost of ethyl lactate production in half and provide a significant non-fuel revenue stream for ethanol plants. “If all you produce from a biorefinery is ethanol, that is fine for a nascent industry but, in essence, all you have is a one-trick pony,” Glass said. “My dream is the integrated biorefinery where the only limits are your imagination and the ability to make the system utilize all components of the production output.”
Glass said that at a typical ethanol plant producing 25 million gallons a year, diverting one million gallons to make chemicals like ethyl lactate each year could bring in the same amount of revenue as the remaining 24 million gallons of ethanol produced for fuel. NCGA is currently seeking companies interested in purchasing a license for this ethyl lactate technology, which can be retrofitted into a dry-grind ethanol plant.
A Texas company is moving forward with technology that converts non-food biomass into chemicals that can be processed into ethanol and other renewable fuels.
Terrabon has developed and is currently licensing its MixAlco™ biomass conversion technology to commercial customers. The company will dedicate its research facility on November 7 in Bryan, Texas to test the scaled-up commercial feasibility of the MixAlco technology.
Terrabon CEO Gary Luce addressed the National Renewable Resource Laboratory’s (NREL) 21st Growth Forum meeting this week in Denver. “Terrabon’s MixAlco technology is a cost effective, sustainable solution to the urgent need to produce biofuels and bio-chemicals that satisfy the world’s appetite for renewable energy resources and reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil,” Luce said. “MixAlco, which was inspired by the digestive processes of the ordinary cow, is an advanced bio-refining process that employs carboxylic acid fermentation followed by downstream chemistry to convert biomass products such as municipal solid waste, sewage sludge, forest product residues and non-edible energy crops, into industrial chemicals and renewable gasoline.”
When completed, the new semi-works facility in Bryan will have the loading capacity of 400 dry tons of biomass, equal to a loading rate of five dry tons per day. The Company will use sorghum as the primary feedstock with the objective of producing organic salts and converting them to ketones, which can be converted to renewable gasoline. The MixAlco technology has already been successfully tested for the past three years at Terrabon’s pilot plant in College Station, Texas.
The Illinois Corn Growers Association today unveiled two landmark studies on ethanol that conclude production of the biofuel leaves a smaller carbon footprint than gasoline and has substantial room for growth without affecting corn supply to the food and feed sectors.
Dr. Steffen Mueller, principal research economist at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Energy Resources Center, studied the carbon footprint of the Illinois River Energy facility near Rochelle, Illinois which produces 55 million gallons of ethanol annually.
“We looked at the global warming and land use impact of corn ethanol produced at the Illinois River Energy ethanol plant — which is a modern, natural gas fueled facility — on a full life-cycle basis,” said Mueller. “We found conclusively that the global warming impact of the modern ethanol plant is 40 percent lower than gasoline. This is a sizable reduction from numbers currently being used by public agencies and in the public debate. The study also documents the significant net energy benefits of ethanol when compared to gasoline. And, additional opportunities exist to expand that margin even more through technological improvements and on farm changes in corn production that reduce green house gas emissions. Furthermore, corn supply for the ethanol plant was primarily met through yield increases in the surrounding area and, as documented with satellite imagery, without conversion of non agricultural land to corn.”
The study by Ross Korves, economic policy analyst at ProExporter Network, analyzed the consequences of a technology-driven revolution that is occurring throughout America agriculture which would see average corn production increase from 155 bushels an acre today to 289 bushels over the next two decades. The study suggests that sufficient amounts of corn will be available to increase ethanol production from the current level of 7.1 billion gallons last year to 33 billion gallons by 2030 with current technology. The study also factors in increased future demand for corn from both export and livestock (feed) sectors. Korves also looked at the environmental impact of ethanol production, predicting that the global warming impact (GWI) of the average ethanol plant would decline dramatically through increased efficiencies in coming years.
“The GWI of the average ethanol plant is expected to decline 27 percent by 2030,” said Korves. “By that year, the GWI of corn ethanol processed in a plant using a biomass combined heat and power system will be less than one-third of the GWI of gasoline.”
The Illinois Corn Growers Association also announced that the state has become a technological and commercial leader in corn-based ethanol.
The U.S. Department of Energy has awarded a $1.2 million grant to Clemson University in South Carolina to assess the potential of switchgrass and sweet sorghum as feedstocks to produce ethanol in the southeast. The grant also will fund development of a small-scale biofuel processing plant at Clemson University’s Restoration Institute in North Charleston.
The South Carolina Bioenergy Research Collaborative has been formed to demonstrate the economic feasibility of using plants, such as switchgrass, trees and sorghum, to make ethanol. The collaborative includes scientists at Clemson, the Savannah River National Laboratory, South Carolina State University and industry incubator SC Bio, as well as industrial partners who are committed to building a pilot plant in the state.
At the same time, a group of Clemson and USDA-Agriculture Research Service scientists is investigating switchgrass production systems in South Carolina, including soil and crop management, new variety development and measuring environmental impacts.
Leftovers from fields, orchards, and vineyards could be combined with other household garbage to make ethanol and other kinds of bioenergy.
USDA Agricultural Research Service scientists are investigating the possibilities at the agency’s Western Regional Research Center in Albany, Calif.
Agricultural wastes like rice straw, almond hulls, and the oversize outer leaves of iceberg lettuce – as well as municipal solid waste – would have to be pretreated before being used as a bioenergy resource. The pretreated agricultural waste could then be transferred to a biofermenter where yeasts and enzymes would be added to make ethanol.
Engineering technician David Bozzi and microbiologist Diana Franqui, (both pictured) along with research chemist Kevin Holtman are working on determining the best ways to use just water and heat to pretreat the farm wastes to keep the biorefining process as environmentally friendly as possible.
Read more from USDA ARS.
A team of researchers from Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering and Mascoma Corporation say they have found a way to produce genetically engineered bacteria that ferment cellulose to produce ethanol more efficiently.
The group reported last week that, tor the first time, they have been able to genetically engineer a thermophilic bacterium, capable of growing at high temperatures, and this new microorganism makes ethanol as the only product of its fermentation.
“Our discovery is one potential avenue for research to facilitate turning inedible cellulosic biomass, including wood, grass, and various waste materials, into ethanol,” said Dartmouth engineering professor Lee Lynd. “In the near term, the thermophilic bacterium we have developed is advantageous, because costly cellulase enzymes typically used for ethanol production can be augmented with the less expensive, genetically engineered new organism.”
Lynd explains that this discovery is only the first step for future development of ethanol-producing microbes that can make ethanol from cellulosic biomass without adding enzymes. Lynd is the corresponding author on the study and the chief scientific officer and co-founder of Mascoma Corporation, a company working to develop processes to make cellulosic ethanol.
Wal-Mart Foundation recently donated $369,000 to the Arkansas Biosciences Institute at Arkansas State University to help fund biomass to ethanol research.
According to a university news release, the donation will be used to meet the cost share requirement for a U.S. Department of Energy grant awarded to the university. The Arkansas Biosciences Institute is researching the commercialization of biobased product development built upon the state’s agriculture and forestry resources. The Wal-Mart grant will support research focused on making ethanol from plant stalks and leaves, agricultural residues and forestry residues.
A process used in breweries and wastewater treatment facilities could make corn ethanol more energy efficient.
Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis are exploring the use of oxygen-less vats of microorganisms that naturally feed on organic waste produced from the ethanol fermentation process.
According to a university release, a WUSTL team has tested anaerobic digestion on waste from ethanol plants and found that the process could cut down an ethanol facility’s use of natural gas by 50 percent. They published the results in the recent issue of the journal Environmental Science and Technology.
A complete story on the research is available at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Technology Review.