Hemp-to-Biofuels Research Gets Green Light

vote-hempA crop that has had an undeserved stigma attached to it could now become a source for biodiesel and ethanol. The recently passed and signed Farm Bill contains a provision that would allow hemp to be grown for research purposes, including making it into the green fuels.

“Hemp is a great crop for biodiesel, and we’ve already started experimenting with [cellulosic ethanol made from hemp],” explained Ben Droz with Vote Hemp, a group trying revitalize industrial hemp production in the U.S., at last week’s National Agriculture Day in Washington, D.C. He pointed out that hemp goes back a long ways in this country’s history, including being grown by the Founding Fathers and the founder of our modern automobile industry. “Henry Ford was actually doing research on hemp fuels and hemp biocomposites. And now today we are looking back to see if we can grow hemp once again.”

Ben said the Farm Bill defined industrial hemp, not to be confused with marijuana despite its similar appearance, as having 3/10 of a percent or less of THC – the active ingredient in the drug. Even if you smoked a hemp joint the size of a telephone pole, Ben said you still wouldn’t get high. But it’s only legal to do the research at universities and state ag departments in the 10 states where hemp is already legal to grow. He’s hoping that positive results in those locations will allow the effort to go nationwide.

“Those results will then encourage lawmakers to change the law so farmers can grow this profitable crop. There’s literally thousands of uses for hemp.”

Listen to all of Cindy’s conversation with Ben here: Interview with Ben Droz, Vote Hemp

2014 Ag Day Photo Album

Synthetic Chromosome Could Help Biodiesel, Ethanol

boekeThe scientific world today is all a-buzz about the world’s first yeast synthetic chromosome, and the discovery could help the biodiesel and ethanol industries. This article from the Christian Science Monitor says researchers have put together man-made DNA into the synthetic version of a chromosome, a development expected to have implications for the green fuels.

“For me, one of most exciting aspects is the fact that we’ve so extensively edited the sequence of natural chromosome and then synthesized the entire thing from scratch,” said study leader Jef Boeke, a synthetic biologist at NYU Langone Medical Center, who was previously at Johns Hopkins University.

Using a technique known as “scrambling,” the scientists can shuffle the yeast genes like a deck of cards. The researchers could make millions and millions of different decks of genetic cards, which could give yeast totally new properties.

For example, researchers could make synthetic strains of yeast to produce rare medicines such as the malarial drug artemisinin, or vaccines like the hepatitis B vaccine. Synthetic yeast could also churn out more efficient biofuels, such as alcohol, butanol or biodiesel, which could enable humanity to transition off of a petroleum economy, Boeke said.

For now, the costs are prohibitive for the biofuels industry, or any industry for that matter, to use. But the scientists are hopeful they’ll be able to get the costs down as the technology improves.

Research Looks Into Water-Free Biodiesel Brewing

waste-vegetable-oil-for-biodieselEfforts to make biodiesel production even more sustainable might get a boost from research into a water-free method of making the green fuel. This story from Biofuels Journal says researchers at the University of Porto in Portugal are looking at a way to eliminate the water normally used water to remove impurities to meet stringent quality standards.

Instead of water, researchers used catalysts to pre-treat and target impurities such as calcium ‘soaps’ in the biodiesel.

The impurities were then removed by absorption into resins or passing through ceramic membranes.

The researchers were able to produce good quality biodiesel from both virgin vegetable oil and, importantly, waste oils used for frying.

The new process could provide significant economic and environmental benefits compared to other more energy intensive water-based production methods.

The researchers believe that finding more water-free or less-water-consuming methods of making biofuels becomes more and more important as more of the world turns to the alternative fuels.

Biodiesel Bites Back… with a Gator CHOMP!

gator-fuel-webWe’ve told you before about how researchers found a way to turn alligator fat into biodiesel. But this article in Biodiesel Magazine says new findings show a method using a supercritical methanol to make the scaly-sourced biodiesel even more efficiently.

Researchers reported on a novel method this week at the 247th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society, to produce biodiesel from crude animal fats, including waste fat from alligators, using supercritical methanol in a flow reactor. “Conversion of animal fat to biodiesel has been around for some time, but the traditional biodiesel process generates significant quantities of solid waste,” said Thomas Junk with the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. “Our new method creates hardly any such residues.” In an earlier study, Junk used alligator fat and a batch reactor, but for his new research, a flow reactor and supercritical methanol were used. “We set up a flow reactor, and the reaction converting alligator fat to biodiesel happened within a few minutes,” said Junk. “That’s important for commercial manufacturing, where you want to produce as much fuel as quickly as possible.”

The biggest advantage to using the supercritical method is that it doesn’t require a catalyst, which creates residue. In addition, the fat doesn’t have to be extracted and can be used in its raw form. That means while gator fat could be a viable feedstock, the researchers also see a bigger application for even more plentiful animals fats, such as chicken and beef, that might otherwise be dumped into a landfill.

Better Sites for Algae Helps Biofuels Production

ABOA new process for identifying and evaluating algae production facilities could help with biofuels production. The article, “Siting Algae Cultivation Facilities for Biofuel Production in the United States: Trade-Offs between Growth Rate, Site Constructability, Water Availability, and Infrastructure,” in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, talks about the new method developed by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Sapphire Energy and was welcomed by the Algae Biomass Organization (ABO), the trade association for the algae industry.

“Effectively siting algae cultivation facilities for commercial biofuel production is critical to the success of every commercial algae project,” said Margaret McCormick, chair of the Algae Biomass Organization and CEO of algae company Matrix Genetics. “The biology is so complex, existing ‘off-the-shelf’ measurement tools fall short. Because this analysis considers numerous variables along with real-world algae cultivation data, it offers project developers a much more complete and rigorous evaluation of sites.”

Site selection for large construction projects is a complex task, but a particularly challenging one in the case of algae cultivation in open ponds, where facilities could be thousands of acres in size. The factors that drive success include: a warm and sunny climate, available water, economically available land with soils good for construction, and proximity to transportation and utility infrastructure. In addition, special consideration must be given to local issues that are difficult for national-scale models to address, such as regulatory constraints, tax incentives, receptivity of local populations and ecological constraints.

The study found that there is good potential for cultivating green algae along the Gulf of Mexico, especially on the Florida peninsula. It also says that the type of algae to be grown is a big factor when choosing a site.

Veterans Move Into Solar Industry Jobs

According to a new report released jointly from Operation Free and The Solar Foundation, veterans are employed within the solar industry at higher than average rates. The report finds that for a group facing high unemployment, the solar industry is one of the best industries for jobs.

The report, Veterans in Solar: Securing America’s Energy Future, highlights the contributions of veterans to the solar industry, using data derived from The Solar Foundation’s annual National Solar Jobs Census 2013. The findings show that America’s Veterans in Solarsolar industry has grown by 500 percent since 2008, providing more than 13,000 veterans with job opportunities as of November 2013. Veterans represent nearly 10 percent of all solar workers at a time when more than 15 percent of veterans aged 18-24 are currently unemployed. The report also discovered that the growth in the industry is continuing with nearly 62 percent of solar companies that employ veterans plan to add more solar workers within the next 12 months.

Congressman Scott Peters (CA-52), said of the news, “Our servicemen and women have made great sacrifices for our country and it is our responsibility to ensure that when they return home there are high-skill and well-paying jobs available. The solar industry offers our veterans a unique opportunity to use the knowledge they learned serving our country in a rapidly growing sector that is vital to both our national security and economic future.”

According to Operation Free and The Solar Foundation, this is the first time that the significant contributions of veterans to the solar industry have been documented. The two groups intend to amplify these findings in an effort to help more veterans enter into careers in the solar industry.

“This report highlights the ways solar strengthens the US economy and our national security,” added Nat Kreamer, CEO of Clean Power Finance and a former Intelligence Officer, Special Forces, US Navy. “Veterans are over represented in the solar industry because we know first-hand that clean, affordable domestic power makes America and the world safer.”

In addition to examining employment numbers, the report also suggests next steps to expand opportunities for veterans, including the creation of a tool for employers to translate veterans’ skills into language reflecting solar companies’ hiring needs.

MSU Increases Odds of Algal-Biofuel Success

david-kramerA team of Michigan State University (MSU) scientists have invented a new technology that they believe increases the odds of helping algae-based biofuels bridge the gap to success. The environmental photobioreactor or ePBR system is the first standard algae growing platform and it stimulates dynamic natural environments. The system is featured in the current issue of Algal Research.

To better visualize the technology, ePBR is in essence a pond in a jar that helps identify, cultivate and test algal strains that have the potential to make the leap from lab to pond – or thrive and multiple in real-world, real-pond settings and produce vast amounts of oil.

As the quest for “better biofuels” continues, many researchers are looking to algae as a viable solution, but a barrier to commercial success has been that algal strains that perform well in labs don’t often perform well when moved to commercial scale applications.

“It’s like training elementary kids to be really good pingpong players,” explains Ben Lucker, MSU research associate.. “But then they take the kids and throw them into a football game against professional players; in those settings, they simply can’t compete at all.”

epbrThe ePBRs, which the team believes will help make algae biofuel research more desirable to investors, were the brainchild of David Kramer, Hannah Distinguished Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at MSU. His lab is unique. Although it’s housed among other plant biologists, it could be mistaken for an electronics factory. The benches are covered with wires, soldering irons and printed circuit boards. There are even few early prototypes that provide a history of ePBR’s progress.

The latest models glow green and whir quietly as they test various strains. By allowing scientists to duplicate natural settings in a lab, ePBRs eliminate many variables before scaling up. The bioreactors are about the size of coffee makers and can induce changes in light, temperature, carbon dioxide, oxygen, evaporation, nutrient availability and more.

The ePBR system also can duplicate and confirm results from experiments conducted anywhere in the world. It replaces home-built growing platforms made from flasks, tubing, aluminum foil and grow lights and gives researchers a tool that can consistently replicate conditions and reproduce results, Lucker said.

The potential of ePBRs has already inspired the launch of a company, Phenometrics, an MSU spinoff headquartered in Lansing, Michigan, and while only two years old, steady orders for the bioreactors have the company on the same track of success as algal biofuels.

Making Sugarcane into the Next Biodiesel Feedstock

Sugarcane could be a better feedstock for biodiesel than soybeans, but it only grows in warm weather areas. But researchers at the University of Illinois believe they have a way to grow what could be a rich, oil-producing variety of sugarcane in colder climates.

long1“Biodiesel is attractive because, for example, with soybean, once you’ve pressed the oil out it’s fairly easy to convert it to diesel,” said Stephen P. Long, a University of Illinois professor of plant biology and leader of the initiative. “You could do it in your kitchen.”

But soybean isn’t productive enough to meet the nation’s need for renewable diesel fuels, Long said.

“Sugarcane and sorghum are exceptionally productive plants, and if you could make them accumulate oil in their stems instead of sugar, this would give you much more oil per acre,” he said.

Working first with the laboratory-friendly plant Arabidopsis and later with sugarcane, the team introduced genes that boost natural oil production in the plant. They increased oil production in sugarcane stems to about 1.5 percent.

“That doesn’t sound like a lot, but at 1.5 percent, a sugarcane field in Florida would produce about 50 percent more oil per acre than a soybean field,” Long said. “There’s enough oil to make it worth harvesting.”

The multi-institutional team aims to increase the oil content of sugarcane stems to about 20 percent by using genetic engineering to increase photosynthetic efficiency in sugarcane and sorghum by 30 percent, and then cross sugarcane with Miscanthus to allow it to be grown in northern regions.

Biodiesel By-product Could Help with Better Soils

rothamstedThe quality of soils to grow the very feedstocks to make biodiesel could be helped by a by-product of that green fuel’s production. This article from Farmers Weekly says Rothamsted Research in the United Kingdom found that applying biodiesel co-product (BCP) increased soil micro-organism numbers and this effectively “locked up” the nitrates in the soil until spring.

Researchers looked at three treatments to try and cut leaching, which included incorporating straw, growing meadowgrass and applying BCP in simulated field conditions.

“We found that BCP was the most effective soil amendment, rapidly increasing the abundance of soil micro-organisms and preventing more than 99% of nitrate leaching,” says Rothamsted researcher Marc Redmile-Gordon.

He adds that cutting nitrate losses from farmland would help protect the environment, especially watercourses, and could lead to lower nitrogen fertiliser rates.

The “very encouraging” results came in field trials conducted in the 2012-13 season when heavy nitrate leaching would have been expected after a wet harvest followed by an equally wet autumn.

The BCP treatment helps stimulate soil microbe numbers by giving them an energy source and then they suck up nitrate nutrients from the soil to feed this growth, says Dr Redmile-Gordon.

The nitrates are unlocked in the spring as soil microbe levels are reduced by warmer drier weather. The process mimics the use of cover crops over winter in mopping up nitrates in the autumn and then slowly releasing them in the spring.

The researchers believe this method could cut nitrogen fertilizer usage by about 10 percent. They do point out that it might require changing application methods.

California Geothermal Potential Largely Untapped

geysers_unit_18The Geothermal Energy Association (GEA) has released a new report to coincide with the California Air Resources Board’s (CARB) development of a scoping plan for implementing their climate law AB 32. The report finds that California’s geothermal resources are remain largely untapped.

Geothermal power is “a viable, cost effective, and plentiful renewable energy option to meet California’s climate goals,” GEA told CARB. Utilizing the Golden State’s geothermal resources can help achieve “carbon reductions with the least total cost and highest power system reliability,” GEA reports.

In brief, the status report, Report on the State of Geothermal Energy in California, shows that:

  • Geothermal power generated 4.4% of total system power in California in 2012, but could have generated substantially more.
  • Geothermal power produces some of the lowest life-cycle emissions when compared to almost every other energy technology and even some renewables.
  • Depending on the resource characteristics and plant design, geothermal power plants can be engineered to provide firm and/or flexible power.
  • Even with high upfront capital costs, geothermal power is a competitive renewable energy source.
  • About half of California’s identified geothermal resources are still untapped, and significant resources may remain undiscovered.
  • Geothermal power is key to achieving an expanded renewable power portfolio at the lowest total cost.
  • New technology will reduce geothermal power risks and can expand the supply curve to make more resources commercially available.
  • The Salton Sea Known Geothermal Resource Area (SSKGRA) is considered by many to be the best opportunity for growth in California in the near term.
  • Distributed generation geothermal power and heating projects have potential in a number of areas, but are not eligible for the type of support provided other distributed generation projects.
  • Challenges to growth of utility scale plants include weak demand, inadequate transmission, permitting delays, and a lack of coordinated policies.

Student Talks Biodiesel By-Product at Conference

pickett1The cutting edge of innovation was certainly on display at the recent National Biodiesel Conference & Expo in San Diego. Among the many innovations was a University of Kansas graduate student, who, with a little financial assistance from the folks at the Kansas Soybean Commission (KSC), talked about a new use for the biodiesel by-product, glycerin.

Derek Pickett … was part of the Next Generation Scientists for Biodiesel (NGSB) program that aimed to educate and collaborate with young scientists.

Pickett presented his findings about using glycerin for power generation during a conference session specifically designed for student-scientists to share their cutting-edge research. Glycerin is a byproduct of biodiesel production, with each gallon of biodiesel producing about 1 pound of glycerin. His research found glycerin that is converted to a synthetic gas has the potential to be an inexpensive source of power.

“Kansas soybean farmers are excited to see young scientists so enthusiastic about research related to biodiesel, which can be made from our crop,” said Dennis Gruenbacher, Andale, who represents the commission’s south-central district. “Those students already are working hard to find even more opportunities for biodiesel to benefit America’s environment and energy security.”

This year, the National Biodiesel Board’s NGSB program brought 36 students from 18 universities to the conference, with 18 of them received scholarships from state soybean organizations and USB. Last month’s gathering also marked the new session that focused solely on university biodiesel research.

Heliae Algae Techology Headed to ASU

Heliae’s algae production technology is heading to Arizona State University’s (ASU) algae testbed facility. The company is partnering with SCHOTT North America to install a Helix photobioreactor at ASU’s Department of Energy (DOE)-funded algae testbed facility.

Over the next several years, algae research staff at ASU will leverage the Helix photobioreactor, built by Heliae, for pioneering research that will forward the understanding of algae production technology, including an investigation into the effect of glass tubing innovation on the yields and economics of algae production. The reactor will also deliver the production of high-quality algae cultures, which will support broader ASU algae operations.

azcati_testbed_facility_at_asuThe DOE-sponsored testbed at ASU is part of the Algae Testbed Public-Private Partnership (ATP3), a network of algae industry leaders, national labs, and research facilities. Led by ASU, ATP3 enables both researchers and third party companies to succeed in their algal endeavors by providing a national network of testbed systems and other services, such as research and education.

Over the course of the multi-year research plan, ASU will manage Helix operations and research, while Heliae and SCHOTT will support the project in an advisory capacity.

“To develop world-class technology, it’s essential to partner and collaborate with the best innovators in the industry,” said Dan Simon, Heliae’s president and CEO. “For glass innovation, there is no equal to SCHOTT, and the interactions between Heliae’s and SCHOTT’s research and development teams over the years have helped both companies develop world-class technology that will truly enable this industry.” Continue reading

How to Make BioGasoline From Plant Waste

A new process developed by researchers at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis) could better produce “biogasoline” from cellulosic materials. This new process of converting cellulosic materials such as farm and forestry waste, could open up new markets for plant-based fuels beyond existing diesel substitutes.

“What’s exciting is that there are lots of processes to make linear hydrocarbons, but until now nobody has been able to make branched hydrocarbons with volatility in the gasoline range,” said Mark Mascal, professor of chemistry at UC Davis and lead author on the paper published Jan. 29 in the journal Angewandte Chemie. UC Davis has filed provisional patents on the process.

UC Davis process of biogasolineTraditional diesel fuel is made up of long, straight chains of carbon atoms, while the molecules that make up gasoline are branched and shorter. That means gasoline and diesel evaporate at different temperatures and pressures, reflected in the different design of diesel and gasoline engines.

Biodiesel, refined from plant-based oils, is already commercially available to run modified diesel engines. A plant-based gasoline replacement would open up a much bigger market for renewable fuels.

The feedstock for the new process is levulinic acid, which can be produced by chemical processing of materials such as straw, corn stalks or even municipal green waste. It’s a cheap and practical starting point that can be produced from raw biomass with high yield, Mascal said.

“Essentially it could be any cellulosic material,” Mascal added. Because the process does not rely on fermentation, the cellulose does not have to be converted to sugars first.

Global Demand for Transportation Biofuels To Grow

According to a new report from Navigant Research, global demand for biofuels used for road transportation will grow from 32.4 billion gallons in 2013 to 51.1 billion gallons by 2022.

The report, “Biofuels for Transportation Markets,” analyzes the emerging markets and future growth opportunities for biofuels, including ethanol, biodiesel, and drop-in biofuels. The report provides an analysis of the major demand drivers and market challenges related traffic-jam in U.Sto biofuels technologies. The report also examines the key technologies associated with biofuels, as well as the competitive landscape.

“Developed nations in Europe and North America are beginning to see declines in liquid fuels consumption from the road transportation sector, due to increased vehicle fuel efficiency and growing interest in alternative fuel vehicles,” said Scott Shepard, research analyst with Navigant Research.

“The continued growth of conventional biofuels relies either on policies increasing biofuel blend requirements, or on growing vehicle markets in the Asia Pacific region. Meanwhile, advances in biofuels derived from non-food feedstocks, and biofuels that require no changes to infrastructure or vehicles, promise to significantly alter the petroleum industry landscape,” added Shepard.

According to the report, petroleum consumption by the road transportation sector in the United States is expected to peak in 2016, according to the report, as biofuels grow to account for 8.7 percent of demand. Major stakeholders, including the airline industry and the U.S. Department of Defense, stand to benefit greatly from advances in drop-in biofuels and will continue to spur development of the technology, driving the price per gallon down to competitive levels.

Future Scientists Voice Biodiesel Support in RFS

next_gen_scientists_logo1The future of science is voicing its support for the future of biodiesel. This National Biodiesel Board (NBB) news release says the four student leaders of NBB’s Next Generation Scientists for Biodiesel (NGSB) made sure to get in their comments into the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) during its recently completed Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) comment period.

“We see your support as an investment in our future,” the co-chairs said in their formal comments. “As scientists, we can contribute to the sustainable growth of biodiesel and make it an even more valuable product for the nation’s fuel supply. Cutting the RFS will weaken our career prospects by introducing undue risk into the biodiesel industry.”

The comments went on to say, “Why do we strongly support renewables? Among other reasons, the process of petroleum and natural gas extraction entails drilling far into the ground, using a number of undisclosed chemicals and questionable methods, all the while hoping that the chemicals will not contaminate groundwater and endanger the public. In contrast, biofuels facilities are installed close to their feedstock sources; directly contribute to the growth of the local economies in which they exist; and operate with a much higher degree of environmental safety and responsibility.

“The RFS has been a highly successful piece of legislation thus far and we hope that you will allow it to continue to function as such moving into the future,” the comments concluded. “Our greatest hope is that the United States will remain the top producer of biofuels among any country, consistent with our tradition of excellence, creating opportunities for youth, and leading the world by example.”

The four co-chairs of NGSB include Bernardo del Campo, Iowa State University; Dan Browne, Texas A&M University; Deval Pandya, University of Texas – Arlington; and Morgan Curtis, Dartmouth College.