UIC Researchers Convert Waste Carbon to Fuel

University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) scientists, under the lead of Amin Salehi-Khojin, UIC professor of mechanical and industrial engineering, have synthesized a catalyst that improves their system for converting waste carbon dioxide into syngas. The syngas is a percursor of gasoline and other energy-rich products and this recent achievement in the the research team’s process has brought the production of CO2 to energy closer to commercial viability. The study was published in the journal Nature Communications on July 30, 2014.

The research team developed a unique two-step catalytic process that uses molybdenum disulfide and an ionic liquid to “reduce,” or transfer electrons, to carbon dioxide in a chemical reaction. The new catalyst improves efficiency and lowers cost by replacing expensive metals like gold or silver in the reduction reaction.

UIC researcher Amin Salehi-KhojinMohammad Asadi, UIC graduate student and co-first author on the paper said the discovery is a big step toward industrialization. “With this catalyst, we can directly reduce carbon dioxide to syngas without the need for a secondary, expensive gasification process,” explained Asadi. In other chemical-reduction systems, he noted, the only reaction product is carbon monoxide. The new catalyst produces syngas, a mixture of carbon monoxide plus hydrogen.

Salehi-Khojin, principal investigator on the study continued the explanation by noting the high density of loosely bound, energetic d-electrons in molybdenum disulfide facilitates charge transfer, driving the reduction of the carbon dioxide. “This is a very generous material,” said Salehi-Khojin. “We are able to produce a very stable reaction that can go on for hours.”

The proportion of carbon monoxide to hydrogen in the syngas produced in the reaction can also be easily manipulated using the new catalyst, said Salehi-Khojin.

“Our whole purpose is to move from laboratory experiments to real-world applications,” he said. “This is a real breakthrough that can take a waste gas — carbon dioxide — and use inexpensive catalysts to produce another source of energy at large-scale, while making a healthier environment.”

MSU to Develop Hardier Switchgrass for Biofuels

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture have awarded $1 million to Michigan State University (MSU) to develop hardier switchgrass. The feedstock is a North American native plant that holds great potential as a biofuel source. The research team believes that if switchgrass would better survive northern winters, the plant could be an even better source for clean energy.

Robin Buell, MSU plant biologist, will work to identify the genetic factors that regulate cold hardiness in switchgrass. “This project will explore the genetic basis for cold tolerance that will permit the breeding of improved switchgrass cultivars that can yield higher biomass in northern climates,” said Buell, also an Robin Buell MSUMSU AgBioResearch scientist. “It’s part of an ongoing collaboration with scientists in the USDA Agricultural Research Service to explore diversity in native switchgrass as a way to improve its yield and quality as a biofuel feedstock.”

One of the proposed methods to increase the biomass of switchgrass is to grow lowland varieties in northern latitudes where they flower later in the season. Lowland switchgrass is not adapted to the colder conditions of a northern climate, however, and merely a small percentage of the plants survive. It is these hardy survivors that are the subject of Buell’s research.

“Dr. Buell’s investment in this collaborative project will identify important genetic elements in switchgrass that control survival over the winter and can be used to breed better adapted cultivars to meet biomass production needs,” noted Richard Triemer, chairperson of the plant biology department.

Buell hopes to identify alternative forms of the same gene that is responsible for cold hardiness by studying switchgrass’ genetic composition, These could then be applied in breeding programs for switchgrass that can thrive in northern climates.

Spinach May Be Powerful Fuel for Biofuels

Spinach may have super strength to unlock some of the mysteries of biofuel production. Purdue University physicists are part of an international group using spinach to study the proteins involved in photosynthesis, the process by which plants convert the sun’s energy into carbohydrates used to power cellular processes.

“The proteins we study are part of the most efficient system ever built, capable of converting the energy from the sun into chemical energy with an unrivaled 60 percent efficiency,” said Yulia Pushkar, a Purdue assistant professor of physics involved in the research. “Understanding this sPushkar spinachystem is indispensable for alternative energy research aiming to create artificial photosynthesis.”

As Pushkar explains, during photosynthesis plants use solar energy to convert carbon dioxide and water into hydrogen-storing carbohydrates and oxygen. Artificial photosynthesis could allow for the conversion of solar energy into renewable, environmentally friendly hydrogen-based fuels.

In Pushkar’s laboratory, students extract a protein complex called Photosystem II from spinach they buy at the supermarket. The students then extract the proteins in a specially built room that keeps the spinach samples cold and shielded from light. Next the team excites the proteins with a laser and records changes in the electron configuration of their molecules.

“These proteins require light to work, so the laser acts as the sun in this experiment,” explained Pushkar. “Once the proteins start working, we use advanced techniques like electron paramagnetic resonance and X-ray spectroscopy to observe how the electronic structure of the molecules change over time as they perform their functions.” Continue reading

DOE Allocates $31M to Establish FORGE

The Department of Energy (DOE) has allocated up to $31 million to establish a new program: Frontier Observatory for Research in Geothermal Energy (FORGE). The field lab will be dedicated to cutting-edge research on enhanced geothermal systems (EGS).

EGS are engineered reservoirs, created beneath the surface of the Earth, where there is hot rock but limited pathways through which fluid can flow. During EGS development, underground fluid pathways are safely created DOE FORGE programand their size and connectivity increased. These enhanced pathways allow fluid to circulate throughout the hot rock and carry heat to the surface to generate electricity. In the long term, DOE believes EGS may enable domestic access to a geographically diverse baseload, and carbon-free energy resource on the order of 100 gigawatts, or enough to power about 100 million homes.

“The FORGE initiative is a first-of-its-kind effort to accelerate development of this innovative geothermal technology that could help power our low carbon future,” said Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Dave Danielson. “This field observatory will facilitate the development of rigorous and reproducible approaches that could drive down the cost of geothermal energy and further diversify our nation’s energy portfolio.”

According to DOE, the research and development (R&D) at FORGE will focus on techniques to effectively stimulate large fracture networks in various rock types, technologies for imaging and monitoring the evolution of fluid pathways, and long-term reservoir sustainability and management techniques. In addition, a robust open data policy will make FORGE a leading resource for the broader scientific and engineering community studying the Earth’s subsurface. These significant advances will reduce industry risk and ultimately facilitate deployment of EGS nationwide.

The FORGE initiative is comprised of three phases. The first two phases focus on selecting both a site and an operations team, as well as preparing and fully characterizing the site. In Phase 1, $2 million will be available over one year for selected teams to perform analysis on the suitability of their proposed site and to develop plans for Phase 2. Subject to the availability of appropriations, up to $29 million in funding is planned for Phase 2, during which teams will work to fully instrument, characterize, and permit candidate sites.

Subject to the availability of appropriations, Phase 3 will fund full implementation of FORGE at a single site, managed by a single operations team. This phase will be guided by a collaborative research strategy and executed via annual R&D solicitations designed to improve, optimize, and drive down the costs of deploying EGS. In this phase, partners from industry, academia, and the national laboratories will have ongoing opportunities to conduct new and innovative R&D at the site in critical research areas such as reservoir characterization, reservoir creation, and reservoir sustainability.

Aviation & Marine Biofuels to Increase by 2024

According to research conducted by Navigant Research, the aviation and marine biofuels market will represent one of the fastest-growing segments of the global biofuels market. “Aviation and Marine Biofuels,” found that in the last five years, more than 40 commercial airlines worldwide have flown nearly 600,000 miles powered in part by biofuel. Much of the development in this sector center on the world’s largest aviation market: the U.S. The report concludes, by 2024, biofuels will make up 6.1 percent of the aviation and marine fuel market in America.

marina gas pump“The United States is expected to emerge as the clear leader in the construction of integrated biorefineries capable of producing bio-based jet fuel and marine distillates over the next 10 years,” said Mackinnon Lawrence, research director with Navigant Research. “New biorefinery construction in the U.S. is expected to generate $7.8 billion in cumulative revenue over the next 10 years, representing 66 percent of the revenue generated globally.”

The European Union (EU) is also an active participant in the emerging aviation and marine biofuels market, according to the report. The biggest wildcard in forecasting EU growth projections is the implementation of the EU emissions trading system. If the EU moves forward with a carbon tax on airlines operating in EU territory, then investment in building aviation and marine biofuels production capacity is expected to increase dramatically across the region.

The report forecasts and market sizing for nameplate production capacity and production volumes for advanced aviation and marine biofuels. Forecasts are segmented by geography, conversion platform, and fuel type. The total addressable market size for commercial aviation, marine shipping, and U.S. military applications is analyzed, and the report also provides a qualitative analysis of key stakeholder initiatives, market drivers, challenges, and technology developments, as well as profiles of key stakeholders across the value chain.

Biostimulation for Algae Growth Could Help Biodiesel

solarmagnatron1Growing algae for biodiesel seems like a viable option when you consider how oil-rich (and thus, feedstock-rich) the one-celled organisms can be. But while algae is one of the fastest growing organisms on Earth, getting enough growth out of the microbes to make the proposition commercially viable is the holy grail for algae-biodiesel producers. Researchers from AlgaStar Inc. have found a way to increase algae growth rates by 300 percent using a technique called biostimulation and a biomass grower called the SolarMagnatron.

Biological stimulation from electromagnetic fields and/or microwaves offers a novel technology that can accelerate algae growth substantially compared with natural sunlight. Laboratory tests at AlgaStar, Inc. and research collaborators at the University of Western Ontario, (UWO) have proven the biostimulation concept but considerably more research is needed. Additional research efforts are now funded for AlgaStar with Los Alamos National Laboratory. Additional grant applications and research sponsor funding will include Dr. Bruce Rittmann’s lab in the Biodesign Institute at ASU, the world class AzCATI Test Bed at ASU, NanoVoltaics, UWO and others.

The AlgaStar algae production and biostimulation system integrates two types of electromagnetic energy. The first is a millitesla generator and the second a millimeter microwave generator that radiates spontaneous growth energy into large volumes of algae biomass. The research teams have demonstrated that electromagnetic energy waves can provide an increase in algae biomass and its corresponding lipid oil production by up to 300%.

AlgaStar is using it’s patented 4500 gallon SolarMagnatron biomass production system that has an automated biosystem controller (ABC), which optimizes biomass production and uses light very efficiently. During the day, it maximizes natural sunlight, and when it’s night, special domed acrylic lenses and flat-panel glass reactors containing high-efficiency florescent and LED lights produce artificial sunlight at specific wavelengths and power levels that optimize algae photosynthesis.

More information is available on the AlgaStar website.

UCR Helps Solar Energy Get a Boost

A recent article published in the Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters by University of California, Riverside (UCR) chemists looks at the research focused on “singlet fission,” a process in which a single photon generates a pair of excited states. This 1->2 conversion process has the potential to boost solar cell efficiency as much as 30 percent.

UC Riverside Singlet Fission researchIn addition to improving solar panels, the research can also aid in developing more energy-efficient lighting and photodetectors with 200 percent efficiency that can be used for night vision. Biology may use singlet fission to deal with high-energy solar photons without generating excess heat, as a protective mechanism.

Today solar cells work by absorbing a photon, which generates an exciton, which subsequently separates into an electron-hole pair. It is these electrons that become solar electricity. The efficiency of these solar cells is limited to about 32 percent; however, by what is called the “Shockley-Queisser Limit”. Future solar cells, also known as “Third Generation” solar cells, will have to surpass this limit while remaining inexpensive, requiring the use of new physical processes. Singlet fission is an example of such a process.

“Our research got its launch about ten years ago when we started thinking about solar energy and what new types of photophysics this might require,” said Christopher Bardeen, a professor of chemistry, whose lab led the research. “Global warming concerns and energy security have made solar energy conversion an important subject from society’s point-of-view. More efficient solar cells would lead to wider use of this clean energy source.”

Turning Biodiesel By-Product into Valued Chemicals

RiceWong1Researchers have discovered a catalyst of precious metals that is uncovering some real treasure in a biodiesel by-product. Rice University says engineers at the school have found palladium-gold nanoparticles, used as catalysts for cleaning polluted water, are also surprisingly good at turning glycerol into valuable chemicals.

Through dozens of studies, [Michael] Wong’s team focused on using the tiny metallic specks to break down carcinogenic and toxic compounds. But his latest study, which is available online and due for publication in an upcoming issue of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s journal Chemical Science, examined whether palladium-gold nanocatalysts could convert glycerol, a waste byproduct of biodiesel production, into high-value chemicals.

In scientific parlance, the data from the study produced a “volcano plot,” a graph with a sharp spike that depicts a “Goldilocks effect,” a “just right” balance of palladium and gold that is faster — about 10 times faster — at converting glycerol than catalysts of either metal alone.

In previous studies, the nanocatalysts were used in reduction reactions, chemical processes marked by the addition of hydrogen. In the latest tests on glycerol conversion, the nanocatalysts spurred an oxidation reaction, which involves adding oxygen.

“Oxidation and reduction aren’t just dissimilar; they’re often thought of as being in opposite directions,” Wong said.

You can read the full study here.

Researchers Look to Turn Fish Waste into Biodiesel

dave1Researchers in Canada are looking at ways to turn waste from processing fish into biodiesel. This article from the Grand Falls-Windsor Advertiser says work by Dr. Deepika Dave, a research scientist with the Marine Institute (MI) of Memorial University, could create biodiesel from salmon waste while cleaning up the environment.

The processing of salmon generates large amounts of solid wastes, up to 45 to 50 percent of the body weight of the processed salmon.

Research from the DFA has revealed that 12 percent of salmon aquaculture production within the province is turned out as waste every year due to disease and other factors which includes mortality.

The province’s salmon industry generates an average of 6276 tonnes of processing discards and 1,712 tonnes of mortalities from which valuable oil can be recovered. The province has the potential to produce 1,600 tonnes of salmon oil that can be converted into approximately 1,520 tonnes of biodiesel.

Salmon waste management is an issue, which has the greatest impact on the environment, especially the marine environment.

The researchers hope that one day the process would help keep the salmon waste out of landfills and provide remote fishing communities with a source of clean fuel to run generators and marine vessels.

Global Wind Power Capacity to Double by 2020

Despite a slowing down of global wind energy power installations in 2013, a new report has found that global cumulative wind power capacity will more than double from 319.6 gigawatts (GW) at the end of 2013 to 678.5 GW bu 2020. The report, “Wind Power, Update 2014 – Global Market Size, Average Price, Competitive Landscape, and Key Country Analysis to 2020,” was released by GlobalData.

Offshore wind farm in chinaThe report finds that China, the largest single wind power market responsible for 45 percent of total global annual capacity additions in 2013, is expected to have a cumulative wind capacity of 239.7 GW by 2020. China overtook the U.S. as the leading market for installations in 2010, when it added a massive 18.9 GW of wind capacity.

Harshavardhan Reddy Nagatham, GlobalData’s Analyst covering Alternative Energy, said: “China doubled its cumulative wind capacity every year from 2006 to 2009 and has continued to grow significantly since then. Supportive government policies, such as an attractive concessional program and the availability of low-cost financing from banks, have been fundamental to China’s success. While China will continue to be the largest global wind power market through to 2020, growth for the forecast period will be slow due to a large installation base.”

The report also finds that the U.S. will remain the second largest global wind power market in terms of cumulative installed capacity, increasing from 68.9 GW in 2014 to 104.1 GW in 2020. This will largely be driven by renewable energy targets in several states, such as Alaska’s aim to reach 50% renewable power generation and Texas’ mandate to achieve 10 GW of renewable capacity, both by 2025. An additional driver would include the reinstatement of the Production Tax Credit that expired on December 31, 2013.

Nagatham concluded, “The slump in 2013 was largely a product of a decrease in installations in the US and Spain. While there are likely to be further slight falls in annual capacity additions in 2015 and 2016, overall industry growth will not be affected as global annual capacity additions are expected to exceed 60 GW by 2020.”

Increases In Ethanol Efficiences Will Decrease Land Use

A study done by researchers at the University of Illinois’ College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences, has found that several factors will lower the need for land used to produced corn-based ethanol to as little as 11 percent of the corn acres by 2026 when adhering to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s 15 billion gallon ceiling on domestic ethanol production.

The researchers note that a too common error made in reporting land used for domestic Disposition among major uses of no 2 yellow cornproduction is to measure the amount of grain shipped to ethanol manufacturers, compute the number of acres required to produce the grain and then end the analysis. However, the researchers say this is a gross oversimplification that leads to incorrectly concluding that 40 percent or more of U.S. corn acres are used for ethanol production. The real number, according to the research team is less than 25%. The reason is that most studies don’t account for the grain being used as high-value animal feed (distillers grains or DDGs).

The new study, conducted by Professors Rita H. Mumm, Peter D. Goldsmith, Kent D. Rausch and Hans H. Stein, explores the impact of technological improvements on corn grain production, ethanol production, and their interrelated effect on land use through a variety of scenarios over a 15 year period beginning in 2011, the year used to establish the base case. The researchers found that land area attributed to corn ethanol will consistently drop because plant breeding improvements and new technologies will result in significantly higher yields.

In addition, over the next decade, corn yields will improve significantly which will greatly reduce land use attributed to ethanol manufacturing. On the higher end of the spectrum, the study finds yields will increase by almost 100 bushels per acre, which represents 66 percent growth. The majority of this contribution will come from conventional breeding, with advanced breeding technology, biotechnology and agronomic improvements together contributing almost half.

“It’s no surprise to the agriculture industry that yield improvements will drive down land used for ethanol,” said Dr. Rita Mumm, coauthor of the study. “However, the mechanisms within the production complex, especially their effects on one another, were not fully understood. This work provides a clear picture on current land use and provides an approach for evaluating future land use.” Continue reading

Maryland Energy Admin Releases Wind Energy Survey

The Maryland Energy Administration (MEA) has released a report detailing a high-resolution geophysical and oceanographic survey of the entire Maryland Wind Energy Area. The survey, focused on opportunities for offshore wind development, is believed by MEA to be the first by any state to map the seafloor geology of a complete Wind Energy Area. This information is critical to optimizing the siting, design and layout of an offshore wind project.

MEA Offshore Wind Energy AreaMEA contracted with Coastal Planning & Engineering to pilot the Scarlett Isabella along lines set 150 feet apart, over 1,500 nautical miles. The team gathered data characterizing the depth, seafloor conditions and seabed geology, as well as looking for submerged cultural resources such as shipwrecks.

MEA Director Abigail Ross Hopper said of the report launch, “MEA is excited to issue this groundbreaking report on our geophysical survey campaign. The data we are making available will reduce the risks and costs of offshore wind energy development, protect the marine environment, and contribute to our scientific understanding of the oceans off our coast.”

This report outlines the physical environment of the Wind Energy Area, including the composition of geological layers, the location and nature of hazards, and distribution of cultural resources. The project trained students at University of Maryland Eastern Shore to serve as federally certified Protected Species Observers on the mission, ensuring that marine mammals and other protected species were not impacted, while providing students with skills in high demand. Teams of scientists from University of Maryland Baltimore County deployed LIDAR, weather balloons and other tools to gather valuable data for refining power production and climate models of the Wind Energy Area.

Navy, Arizona State Work Together on Algae Biofuels

mcginn at asu1The U.S. Navy is working with Arizona State University to develop biofuels from algae. This article from the school says Dennis McGinn, U.S. Navy Assistant Secretary for Energy, Installations and Environment, visited the school’s Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation (AzCATI) to discuss how the Navy and civilian industry have some key overlapping issues, such as cost, sustainability, efficiency and energy security, and how the Navy wants to work with research institutions and industry to solve these problems for everyone.

“We are thinking about energy in three different ways: first in technology terms; biofuels, wind and solar energy storage, power grid systems and more,” McGinn said during a visit to Arizona State University. “But it takes two other critical elements to achieve our energy goals: partnerships and culture. This is why we’re interested in forging and strengthening relationships with outstanding organizations like ASU.”

While the Department of the Navy broadly funds energy research, another key aspect is its considerable influence in setting purchasing standards for their operations. The Navy is using its authority under the Defense Production Act, which allows the Navy, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to invest in industries that are determined critical to national security; in this case, biofuels. McGinn said that the Navy has already invested millions in projects with the DOE and USDA in order to bring down the cost of producing biofuel.

“The Navy wants to buy anywhere between 10 and 50 percent biofuel blends for our ships,” he said. “We want it to be a cost-competitive program. We are working specifically with the USDA to bring down biofuel costs to $3.50 a gallon or less at the commercial scale of 170 million gallons a year by 2016.”

McGinn went on to say that algae biofuels show great potential as an alternative transportation fuel for the nation’s fleets because of their sustainability and scalability.

FL Researchers Look to Sweet Sorghum for Ethanol

sweet_sorghumA partnership between a university and a private company is researching using sweet sorghum for ethanol. This story from Ethanol Producer Magazine says U.S. EnviroFuels LLC and the University of Florida could use the technology in the company’s 30 MMgy advanced ethanol plant under construction in Florida.

A research team from the University of Florida was awarded a four-year, $5.4 million USDA grant to study the crop’s potential as an energy source earlier in May. Multiple varieties will be developed and assessed, looking at water consumption needs, growth in Florida soil, heat tolerance and the tolerance to disease and pests. Cellulosic ethanol will also be produced using a genetically engineered bacteria developed at the University of Florida.

The research project is good news for the proposed ethanol plant, which is behind schedule for construction and startup, said Bradley Krohn, president and chief technical officer of U.S. EnviroFuels, founder and project manager of Highlands EnviroFuels LLC. “Any R&D program that develops commercial sweet sorghum hybrids and improves the performance of sweet sorghum from a tonnage and sugar production standpoint will help the ethanol plant project going forward,” he said.

Sugarcane is the usual feedstock for the plant, but the company wants to use the sweet sorghum during sugarcane’s off season.

U of Washington’s Biodiesel/Electric Hybrid Car

washecocar1Talk about the best of both worlds – University of Washington students have designed and re-engineered a car to run on electricity AND biodiesel. This article from the Seattle Times says the team recently showed off the vehicle to a group of local elementary school students, who had lots of questions and seemed thoroughly impressed.

How much could you sell it for? How long did it take to make it? What’s that red button? What if it doesn’t work?

How did you get that big sticker on the car? Why is there a fire extinguisher inside?

What are those wires for?

Could it charge your phone?

“It’s fantastic,” said sixth-grader Asli Edey. “I think it’s going to be my dream car.”

The Malibu hybrid conversion is part of a collegiate competition, EcoCAR 2, sponsored by General Motors and the U.S. Department of Energy. The UW is one of just 15 universities in the U.S. and Canada selected to participate.

The Malibu has two separate engines: the biodiesel engine in the front of the car, which drives the front wheels; and the 250-horsepower electric motor in the rear of the car, powered by an 800-pound battery pack.

The electric motor runs for about 40 to 50 miles, and the biodiesel-powered motor can carry it for longer or pump up the power when needed as it goes 0 mph to 60 mph in 7.4 seconds — about a second faster than a Malibu with a standard gasoline engine.

The car is being shipped to Michigan to be tested even more, and eventually GM will pick a winner in its EcoCAR 2 competition.