Project Aims to Convert Natural Gas to Butanol

From microbe to fuel_large

Using enzyme engineering and other capabilities, Sandia National Laboratories will work to engineer pathways from methanotroph organisms into another microbial host that can generate butanol. Butanol has long been considered one of the best biofuel options for transportation energy. (Photo by Dino Vournas)

A new project spearheaded by researchers at Sandia National Laboratories are using their expertise in protein expression, enzyme engineering and high-throughput assays to develop biocatalyst technologies that can convert natural gas to liquid fuel or methane to butanol for transportation. The $34 million project by the Advanced Research Project Agency Energy (ARPA-E) is one of a set of 15 Reducing Emissions using Methanotrophic Organisms for Transportation Energy or REMOTE, projects. Sandia is a part of a two-year award led by MOgene Green Chemicals, a wholly owned subsidiary of St. Louis-based MOgene, LC.

The broad goal of REMOTE is to have another source of energy in the U.S. that doesn’t have to be imported and could lead to lower carbon monoxide emissions than conventional fossil fuels.

Methanotrophs are microbes that can metabolize methane. Sandia’s Blake Simmons, manager of the labs’ biofuels and biomaterial science and technology group, calls this microbe the “poster child” of organisms that are capable of metabolizing and converting methane. The goal of the project is to engineer pathways from these organisms into another microbial host that can generate butanol. Butanol can be used as a fuel in an internal combustion engine and, along with ethanol, has long been considered one of the best biofuel options for transportation energy.

“The need for hydrocarbons that are nonpetroleum in origin is still growing, including applications such as aviation and diesel engines,” said Simmons. “But in its natural state, you’re not going to readily burn natural gas in those types of engines, and the same goes for some combustion engines.” Natural gas, he explained, requires a special modification to be used effectively as a liquid fuel in vehicles, much like biomass needs to be converted before it can be used as a drop-in fuel.

“With biomass, we are essentially taking something that exists in nature and converting it into a low-cost, low-carbon, domestically-sourced fuel. With this project, we’re using natural gas as the input rather than biomass,” Simmons continued. Natural gas extracted from the ground is not renewable, he pointed out, but it is playing an increasingly important role for the Department of Energy and the nation’s energy supply.

Simmons said MOgene brings a great deal of organism expertise to the table, while Sandia offers enzyme engineering and other capabilities.

Using organisms to convert natural gas into liquid transportation fuels isn’t a new objective for the research community, Simmons said. “There have been plenty of investigations into this in the past, since there are plenty of organisms in nature that thrive and survive and multiply off of natural gas metabolism. The problem, though, is that they exist in unique, tailored environments and are typically very slow at what they do.” Continue reading

Industrial, Commercial, to Dominate EV Market

According to a new report from IDTechEx, over the next decade, the largest global electric vehicle (EV) value sector will be industrial and commercial for land, water and air – accounting for nearly 50 percent of the total hybrid and pure electric vehicle business. “Industrial and Commercial Hybrid & Pure Electric Vehicles 2013-2023: Forecasts, Opportunities, Players,” finds that the EV industry is expected to grow five-fold to over $300 billion in 2024.

The report find that those EVs not bought primarily on up-front price, such as buses and military vehicles and the heavy lifting or pushing vehicles such as forklifts and earthmovers, will continue to dominate. These customers are companies and governments primarily EV Reportconcerned about the total cost of ownership and performance. Less important are private individuals with concerns about up-front price when they buy smaller or lighter duty EV vehicles or electric bikes.

In addition, the EV market will grow with consumers also buying leisure boats, light aircraft with this category to dominate about 35 percent of the EV business to 2024. Military e-vehicles, land, water and airborne will be most of the remaining value market in 2024 and, as with industrial and commercial ones, they are not bought primarily on up-front price.

Dr. Peter Harrop, Chairman of IDTechEx said, “Manufacturers of industrial and commercial electric vehicles and their parts/services tend to be profitable whereas those making personal electric bikes and cars report most losses and bankruptcies. That said there are far too many manufacturers of light industrial and commercial e-vehicles. Their profitability can be improved even further by mergers and a shakeout of those that are neither niche nor volume players, as happened in the heavy lifting, pulling or pushing industrial and commercial sector with electric forklifts, ten years ago.”

The report shows that within the on-road types, buses are particularly important vehicles primarily due to the massive program of the Chinese government followed by electric vans and delivery trucks, conventional electric cars and special designs used as taxis and converted golf cars converted as people movers in airports, theme parks and hotel grounds. Finally, the report finds that indoor forklifts will continue to be the main subsector of industrial and commercial vehicles but with largest growth from relatively new applications such as agriculture, mining, utility and construction vehicles and outdoor forklifts.

Study Aims to Debunk Indirect Land Use Change

A new paper, “Wood Bioenergy and Land Use,” authored by Roger A. Sedjo, Brent L. Sohngen, Anne Riddle on behalf of Resources for the Future attempts to debunk indirect land use change theory (ILUC). The paper looks at how the use of biomass energy will affect the forests.

Wood BioEnergy and Land Use paperBack in 2008, Timothy Searchinger examined the issue related to corn ethanol and posited that substituting corn ethanol for petroleum would increase carbon emissions associated with the land conversion in other areas, such as Brazil. In other words, what would the indirect impact be of planting corn on an acre of land that used to be virgin forest and how would this affect the carbon “savings” of using ethanol, an environmental concern tied to climate change.

The authors point out that the issue is broader than simply corn. If agricultural croplands are drawn into the production of biofuel feedstocks, commodity prices are expected to rise, triggering land conversions overseas, releasing carbon emissions, and offsetting the carbon reductions expected from bioenergy.

Using a general stylized forest sector management model, the study examines the economic potential of traditional industrial forests and supplemental dedicated fuelwood plantations to produce biomass on submarginal lands. It finds that these sources can economically produce large levels of biomass without compromising crop production, thereby mitigating the land conversion and carbon emissions effects posited by the Searchinger hypothesis.

Click here to download the paper.

New Report Highlights the Power of Geothermal

The Geothermal Energy Association (GEA) and Geothermal Resources Council (GRC) have released a new joint report, “The Values of Geothermal Energy: A Discussion of the Benefits of Geothermal Power Provides to the Future of U.S. Power System“. The report addresses the role geothermal energy can play in states with Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) or Renewable Electricity Standards (RES) who are considering the full value of the power sources they use.

The Value of Geothermal ReportThe report was prepared by Ben Matek, GEA’s Industry Analyst, and Brian Schmidt, Librarian, GRC, and documents the many benefits of geothermal power.

“Geothermal power offers both firm and flexible solutions to the changing U.S. power system by providing a range of services including but not limited to baseload, regulation, load following or energy imbalance, spinning reserve, non-spinning reserve, and replacement or supplemental reserve,” the report begins.

Looking beyond the benefits to the power system, the report also summarizes other key benefits of geothermal power including economic and environmental benefits. “We are often asked about the full range of services and benefits available from geothermal,” Matek said. “So, we decided to join with GRC and put out a white paper that addresses these questions.”

“This is a timely report,” added Karl Gawell, GEA’s Executive Director. “The California PUC recently noted active questions before policy makers in California and elsewhere, specifically: ‘how increasing amounts of intermittent generation are impacting grid reliability, quantifying the impact and benefits of various resources to integrate intermittent generation, and what new policies should be adopted to manage the changing electric grid.’”

As the report indicates, these questions are gaining in importance as the United States expands its renewable power production, which today means “generating approximately 14% of the electricity” nationwide. Much of this is coming from wind and solar photovoltaic technologies that rely heavily on the prevailing weather conditions in order to generate power. However, the report note that “Geothermal energy is a renewable power source that can provide baseload and flexible power, quickly adjusting to fit the needs set by variable renewable energy technologies.

Dutch Researchers ID Fittest of Fattest for Biodiesel

TUdelftalgae1Researchers in The Netherlands are finding the fattest, or best oil-producing, algae in hopes of developing the fittest strain for biodiesel production. This story from TU Delft says the school’s scientists have published their findings in the scientific journal Energy & Environmental Science.

‘The ultimate goal of our research is to make oil-producing algae as fat as possible, then press the oil out of them and finally produce biodiesel suitable for cars from this oil,’ explains PhD student Peter Mooij of TU Delft.

A major threat to the stable cultivation of oil-producing algae is infection by other, thinner algae. One option is to use a sealed cultivation system and keep unwanted algae out of the system by means of sterilisation. Although this is theoretically possible, it would be practically infeasible and extremely expensive to do this on a large scale.

‘Our method is more suitable for large-scale algae production. We try to select for a particular characteristic and not for a particular species of algae. We are unconcerned whether species A or species B is used in our system, as long as they have the characteristic ‘fat’. So all algae are welcome in our system,’ says Mooij.

The article goes on to explain how the researchers are using a technique that provides light and carbon dioxide to the algae during the day that promotes oil production but keeps them from dividing by holding back the nutrients needed for cell division. Those fattest algae are then separated from the others to find the fittest, fattest strain.

USDA Says Spring Canola is Good Biodiesel Crop

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAResearchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture believe spring canola could be a good crop for biodiesel for producers in the drier parts of the Great Plains. This news release from the Agricultural Research Service says ARS agronomist David Nielsen and others are finding ways to stretch scarce water supplies and increase crop returns in that part of the country.

Nielsen, who works at the ARS Central Great Plains Research Station in Akron, Colo., worked with colleagues to combine existing plant growth computer models and generate spring canola production simulations. Then they ran their results from the combined model with 16 years of regional weather data, four different soil water levels at planting time, and other site-specific information to generate spring canola yield estimates for nine locations in Nebraska, Colorado and Kansas.

Results from their crop simulations suggested the highest yields would be produced in the north-central area near Champion, Neb., and the lowest yields would be produced in the south-central area near Walsh, Colo. When 75 percent of the soil water was available for crop use at planting, the model indicated six of the sites had more than a 70 percent probability of producing a canola seed yield of at least 900 pounds per acre.

The researchers found they could net anywhere from $67 to $189 per acre in returns, depending on plant-available soil water levels. They’ve also developed a simple decision support tool for canola production and economic analysis that can be used by farmers for canola planning.

Report: U.S. Military to Rely on Electric Vehicles

According to a new report, “Alternative Drive Vehicles for Military Applications,” the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) is expected to increase its purchases of electric vehicles (EVs), hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) and plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) in the next few years. The move is part of the military’s efforts to operate vehicles that do not run on fossil fuels. According to a recent report from Navigant Research, the DOD will acquire more than 92,400 EVs for non-tactical purposes from 2013 to 2020.

AdvancedTransportationTechnologies_Icon“In remote theaters of operations, the cost of moving fuels to forward military locations can be a multiple of the cost of the fuel itself,” said Scott Shepard, research analyst with Navigant Research. “The military’s approach to reducing fossil fuel consumption from non-tactical operations includes acquiring increasing numbers of vehicles powered by ethanol blend and biodiesel blend fuels; but the majority of the investment will go toward HEVs and PEVs.”

The report highlights one particular area of focus for the military market, and that is the development of microgrids in tandem with vehicle-to-grid (V2G)-enabled PEVs. Microgrids can enable bases in both tactical and non-tactical operations to utilize energy generation sources more efficiently and to operate independently of conditions on the grid. V2G-enabled PEVs used solely in non-tactical applications provide an additional layer of energy support and storage that can assist islanding microgrids and balance distributed energy generation resources by providing power from the vehicles’ battery packs to buildings.

The report examines the market for alternative drive vehicles for both tactical and non-tactical military fleets. Market drivers and barriers are analyzed in detail, and key industry players are profiled. Market forecasts for vehicles and fuel consumption, along with fuel cost savings, extend through 2020.

Renewable Energy in Mining Industry to Reach $4B

EmergingRenewables_IconAccording to a new report, “Renewable Energy in the Mining Industry” the worldwide market for renewable energy systems in the mining industry will grow from $210.5 million in 2013 to $3.9 billion in 2022. Today, less than 0.1 percent of power consumed by the mining industry is generated from renewable energy; yet, mining operations consume enormous amounts of power- as much as 400 terawatt-hours of electricity per year.

“The mining industry has clearly reached a tipping point, with a growing consensus that renewable energy at mine sites, both grid-tied and off-grid, is doable and, in many cases, desirable,” said Kerry-Ann Adamson, research director with Navigant Research, who conducted the study. “This understanding now needs to be coupled with an understanding of how best to deploy these solutions. Renewable energy developers are realizing that mining companies need solutions, not just technology.”

Of the renewable energy technologies in which the mining industry is investing, wind power is the technology nearest to eliciting wide-scale adoption. A number of mines are already utilizing large-scale wind power, but these sites were chosen based on extreme needs and/or ideal wind characteristics. According to the report, over the next 2 to 3 years, mining companies will begin deploying wind power for broader use rather than considering it only on a case by case basis.

“Renewable Energy in the Mining Industry,” analyzes the global market for renewable energy in the mining industry and provides an analysis of developments in the sector from a quantitative and qualitative perspective. Global market forecasts of revenue and capacity, segmented by region, technology, and investment scenario (base and aggressive), extend through 2022. The report also examines market and technology issues related to the adoption of renewable energy in the mining industry and profiles key industry players.

Fossil Fuels Still Dominate Energy Consumption

According to new Vital Signs Online trend report released by Worldwatch Institute, coal, natural gas, and oil accounted for 87 percent of global primary energy consumption in 2012. This occurred as the growth of worldwide energy use continued to slow due to the economic downturn. The analysis shows the relative weight of these energy sources keeps shifting, although only slightly. Natural gas increased its share of energy consumption from 23.8 to 23.9 percent during 2012, coal rose from 29.7 to 29.9 percent, and oil fell from 33.4 to 33.1 percent. The International Energy Agency predicts that by 2017, coal will replace oil as the dominant primary energy source worldwide.

The report notes that the shale revolution in the U.S. is reshaping global oil and gas markets. The United States produced oil at record levels in 2012 and is expected to overtake Russia as the world’s largest producer of oil and natural gas combined in 2013. Oil drilling in KansasConsequently, the United States is importing decreasing amounts of these two fossil fuels, while using rising levels of domestic natural gas for power generation. This has led to price discrepancies between the U.S. and European natural gas markets that in turn have prompted Europeans to increase their use of coal power. Coal consumption, however, was dominated by China, which in 2012 for the first time accounted for more than half of the world’s coal use.

Global natural gas production grew by 1.9 percent in 2012, dominated by the United States (with 20.4 percent of the total) and Russia (17.6 percent). Other countries accounted for less than 5 percent each of global output.

In 2012, coal remained the fastest-growing fossil fuel globally, although at 2.5 percent the increase in consumption was weak relative to the 4.4 percent average of the last decade. China increased its coal use by 6.1 percent, and India by a significant 9.9 percent in 2012. Coal use by members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) declined by 4.2 percent, as an 11.9 percent decline in U.S. consumption outweighed increases of 3.4 percent in the EU and 5.4 percent in Japan.

Oil remains the most widely consumed fuel worldwide, but at a growth rate of 0.9 percent it is being outpaced by gas and coal for the third consecutive year. The OECD’s share declined to 50.2 percent of global consumption-the smallest share on record and the sixth decrease in seven years. This reflects declines of 2.3 percent in U.S. consumption and 4.6 percent in EU consumption. By contrast, usage in China and Japan rose by 5.0 and 6.3 percent, respectively. Continue reading

More Oil from Plants Could Increase Biodiesel Output

oil-production1Government scientists have found the genes that increase the oil production in plant leaves, and that could increase the amount of biodiesel that can be squeezed out of plants. This news release from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory says finding a way to enhance that oil expression in those parts of the plant could have significant implications for biofuel production.

“If we can transfer this strategy to crop plants being used to generate renewable energy or to feed livestock, it would significantly increase their energy content and nutritional values,” said Brookhaven biochemist Changcheng Xu, who led the research. The experiments were carried out in large part by Xu’s group members Jilian Fan and Chengshi Yan.

Think about it in the familiar terms of calories: Oil is twice as energy-dense as carbohydrates, which make up the bulk of leaves, stems, and other vegetative plant matter. “If you want to cut calories from your diet, you cut fat and oils. Conversely, if you want to increase the caloric output of your biofuel or feed for livestock, you want more oil,” said Xu.

But plants don’t normally store much oil in their leaves and other vegetative tissues. In nature, oil storage is the job of seeds, where the energy-dense compounds provide nourishment for developing plant embryos. The idea behind Xu’s studies was to find a way to “reprogram” plants to store oil in their more abundant forms of biomass.

The biggest challenge for the researchers was finding the oil production genes in the vegetative part of the plant, where the oil isn’t normally stored. If this works out, scientists could find ways to transfer the technology to biomass-dedicated crops.

Ethanol Sweet Spots – Part II

Yesterday, DF featured an article on “Must Know Ethanol Trends” that came out of Christianson & Associate’s, PPL (C&A) Biofuels Benchmarking 2012-13 Annual Report. In addition to identifying important trends for the industry, the report also identified some “sweet spots” for the industry.

John-ChristiansonJohn Christianson, partner with C&A, said running a good business is the first thing and being as efficient as possible is important and having good sound prudent risk management is always going to be at the forefront of your business. But going forward, he said there are technology and market issues that will be a factor, or a sweet spot, for the ethanol industry.

“From a technology perspective, we’re seeing plants go further and digging further into the yield component,” said Christianson. “They are looking at difference technologies that will allow them to remove different components of the kernel of corn and allow them to create multiple products on the back-end. As we see this industry evolve, we’re going to see them evolve into a biorefinery industry.”

He cautioned that in order for a plant to make investments, you need a technology that is going to provide a return on investment. Last year was not the year for plants to make investments but Christianson said plants will need to make technology investments if they want to continue to be a long-term viable company.

Any ethanol plant interested in becoming a participant in C&A’s Benchmarking program, or interested in purchasing the The Biofuels Benchmarking 2012-13 Annual Report can contact the Benchmarking team.

Listen to John Christianson discuss ethanol sweet spots in detail here: Ethanol Sweet Spots

Must Know Ethanol Trends – Part I

The Biofuels Benchmarking 2012-13 Annual Report is out and in addition to identifying past, current and future biofuel trends, the report identifies some emerging trends for the ethanol industry. During an interview with John Christianson, partner with Christianson & Associates, PPLP (C&A), I asked him what trends they have been seeing and he noted five in particular of importance.

Biofuels Benchmarking Report coverChristianson noted that spinning corn oil off the back of the plant has had a big impact on the industry and to date, nearly 75 percent of all ethanol plants are using a corn oil extraction technology. He also noted that 2012 was a very difficult year for the ethanol industry, very tight margins, and with the high feedstock costs, it really squeezed margins for the year. He said that when looking at the Benchmarking report the industry was hovering over break-even and the laggards were losing money and the leader plants were making money.

“In the first two quarters of 2013 we’re seeing a really nice trend where we’re getting upward into the areas where we have some positive grind margins,” said Christianson. “This is due to ethanol net-back prices staying strong in 2013 first two quarters and our feedstock costs dropping off and having better margins.” He anticipates this will continue into 2014.

The last year also saw ethanol yields drop a bit due to the drought-ridden 2012 harvest; however, Christianson said based on forecasts for the 2013 harvest, yield should go back up once the ethanol plants start grinding 2013 harvest corn and the industry should go back on the trend of increasing yield each year.

Other trends include the sophistication of the ethanol industry on their grind margin management, improved risk management practices and improved environmental sustainability. “So enhanced risk management and enhanced production efficiencies going forward are going to allow plants to squeeze out as much profitability as possible,” said Christianson.

Listen to John Christianson discuss current ethanol trends in detail here: Must Know Ethanol Trends

European Researchers Look to Turn Algae to Biofuel

swanseaUniversity researchers in Europe are looking at ways to turn algae into biofuels, including biodiesel. This article from the BBC says Swansea University is teaming up with scientists in seven other European countries to find the best way of turning it into fuel.

“The big driver behind the research for algae is the consideration about what we’re doing to our environment,” [EnAlgae project coordinator Dr Shaun Richardson] said.

“It’s the need to reduce CO2 levels and to find a more sustainable way of producing fuel, energy and products.

“We are growing it, we harvest it, take the water out of it and then you can convert it into a range of energy sources or products.

“Algae, especially micro algae, is ideally suited to turning into an oil which can then be turned into either aviation fuel for aeroplanes or a bio-diesel to power our cars.”

Swansea University opened its laboratories at the Centre for Sustainable Aquatic Research (CSAR) to the public on Tuesday to see the latest work being carried out.

School officials point to a test flight four years ago of a plane flying on an algae-based biofuel.

Sugar-Based Catalyst Could Help Brew Biodiesel

wfuvatechOne of the knocks about trying to turn fatty wastes into biodiesel is the use of sulfuric acid to aid in the esterification process to remove the free fatty acids (FFAs) that appear in high quantities in low quality oils. But researchers at Wake Forest and Virginia Tech universities have found a sugar-based alternative to sulfuric acid to improve the esterification process.

It is inexpensive, environmentally friendly and easy to filter out from produced biodiesel. “Unlike liquid sulfuric acid which has to be neutralized over a long period of time, our catalyst is a solid and can be separated relatively easily,” says Brian Hanson, a chemist at Virginia Tech who worked on the project.

From a commercial standpoint, this new catalyst could reduce costs by as much as 15 percent for a small-scale biodiesel production facility, according to a feasibility study conducted by Wake Forest University Schools of Business. While more research needs to be done to test the viability of the catalyst on a larger scale outside of the lab, it could one day help to make sewer waste and used oil waste affordable sources of fuel.

“Where this will make a lot of commercial sense in the near term will be in the developing world or on an island,” says Dan Fogel, an executive professor of strategy at the Wake Forest Schools of Business. “In these kinds of places, energy costs can be as much as 50 cents a kilowatt hour. Here in Winston-Salem you pay around 11 or 12 cents per kilowatt hour.”

“Right now, you and I actually pay companies to come and dispose of sewer and used oil waste,” says Abdou Lachgar, a professor of chemistry at Wake Forest University and the project’s lead researcher. “What we want to do is to take the fat out of that waste and convert it to energy.”

The researchers believe that existing biodiesel plants can be retrofitted to use the new catalyst.

Cellulosic Byproduct Increases Ethanol Yield

jin_yongsu1-bScientists from the University of Illinois have reported that they have engineered yeast to consume acetic acid, a previously unwanted byproduct of the process of converting plant leaves, stems and other tissues into biofuels. This innovation increases ethanol yield from lignocellulosic sources (aka second generation feedstocks) by nearly 10 percent. According to researchers, the new advance will streamline the fermentation process and will simplify plant breeding and pretreatment of the cellulose. The results were published in Nature Communications.

Lignocellulose is the fibrous material that makes up the structural tissues of plants. It is one of the most abundant raw materials on the planet and, because it is rich in carbon it is an attractive source of renewable biomass for biofuels production.

The researchers explain that the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae is good at fermenting simple sugars (such as those found in corn kernels and sugarcane) to produce ethanol. But coaxing the yeast to feast on plant stems and leaves is not so easy. Doing it on an industrial scale requires a number of costly steps, one of which involves breaking down hemicellulose, a key component of lignocellulose.

“If we decompose hemicellulose, we obtain xylose and acetic acid,” said University of Illinois food science and human nutrition professor Yong-Su Jin, who led the research with principal investigator Jamie Cate, of the University of California at Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Jin and Cate are affiliates of the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI), which funded the research. Jin is an affiliate of the Institute for Genomic Biology at the U of I.

“Xylose is a sugar; we can engineer yeast to ferment xylose,” Jin said. “However, acetic acid is a toxic compound that kills yeast. That is one of the biggest problems in cellulosic ethanol production.” Continue reading