DOE to Fund Three Bioenergy Research Centers

DOE_logo1Three labs working on advanced, next-generation biofuels will get funding for another five years … of course, if Congress funds it. The U.S. Department of Energy announced the intent to fund the BioEnergy Research Center (BESC) led by Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) led by the University of Wisconsin-Madison in partnership with Michigan State University, and the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) led by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. All three were part of the DOE’s 2007 program to accelerate fundamental research breakthroughs:

“Developing the next generation of American biofuels will enhance our national energy security, expand the domestic biofuels industry, and produce new clean energy jobs. It will help America’s farmers and create vast new opportunities for wealth creation in rural communities,” said Energy Secretary Steven Chu. “By investing in innovative approaches and technologies at our Bioenergy Research Centers, we can continue to move the biofuels industry forward and grow our economy while reducing our reliance on foreign oil.”

In five years of operation, the Centers have produced more than 1,100 peer-reviewed publications and over 400 invention disclosures and/or patent applications. Among the breakthroughs the Centers have achieved are new approaches for engineering non-food crops for biofuel production; reengineering of microbes to produce advanced biofuels such as “green” gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel precursors from biomass; and the development of methods to grow non-food biofuel crops on marginal lands so as not to compete with food production.

Each of the centers is expected to be funded at $25 million per year. The next five years are expected to emphasize work on new methods and discoveries, as well as developing new lines of research.

Analysis: RIN Prices Not Pushing Up Gas Prices

d-goodContrary to what some in oil industry are trying to tell the public, the recent rise in prices for Renewable Identification Numbers (RINs), the government’s tracking system to make sure companies are properly complying with federal rules about using renewable energy, is not pushing up gas prices. University of Illinois analysts Scott Irwin and Darrel Good say RINs also don’t make money in the supply chain:

We concluded that the buying and selling of RINs within that supply chain results in something close to a zero-sum game in terms of profitability for the industry. The result is that high RINs prices at the present time likely have a minimal impact on RFS2 compliance and the cost of motor fuel at the retail level.

Irwin and Good do admit, though, that RFS2 compliance costs could go up:

Even though ethanol blending margins are expected to remain generally positive in the future, the collision between the E10 blendwall and the RFS2 mandate in 2013 and prospects for an increasingly larger wedge between the RFS2 mandate and the E10 blendwall in 2014 and beyond raise the specter of sharply higher compliance costs. Soaring RINs prices beginning in January 2013 are an early warning sign about the potential for higher compliance costs, particularly in 2014 as the existing stock of RINs could be depleted entirely.

Read what they have to say here.

Wind Turbine without Blades Debuts at Dutch University

EWICON1A university in the Netherlands debuts a wind turbine without blades, which means it produces no noise nor even casts any moving shadows.

The Dutch architecture firm Mecanoo recently installed the EWICON, or Electrostatic WInd energy CONvertor, which turns wind energy in electrical power without moving parts at the Delft University of Technology:

The Ewicon can be installed on land or sea, and can also be integrated in the roof of a tall building. The principle is as follows: Using high voltage, electrically charged droplets of water are produced in the horizontal elements. At the same time these horizontal elements, which are electrodes, generate an electric field. As the wind forces the electrically charged droplets against this electric field towards the earth, the converter is charged to DC.

This video also explains how the concept works:

This new type of wind turbine might be especially welcome in urban areas, where some opponents have complained about the noise and the repetitive shadows a traditional turbine casts.

Purdue Study: Indiana, Midwest Open to Wind Energy

Purdue University College of Agriculture funded studies shows Hoosiers, and possibly by extension, Midwesterners, are pretty receptive to wind energy. This school news release says that can even be true for areas that might have rejected wind turbine development:

prokopy1Linda Prokopy, an associate professor of natural resources planning, said much of the research on attitudes toward wind energy and wind farms has focused on coastal states and the reasons people don’t want turbines in their communities. She and Kate Mulvaney, a former graduate student, wanted to know how people in the Midwest feel about having wind farms in their communities and the factors that led some places to embrace or reject them.

Prokopy and Mulvaney published two studies on their results in the journals Energy Policy and Environmental Management. One focused on Benton County, Indiana, which has embraced wind farms. The other study compared Benton County with two other Indiana counties – Boone County, which rejected wind farm development, and Tippecanoe County, which at the time was still considering wind farms. The researchers conducted surveys and interviews and studied local newspaper articles on wind energy.

“We found that there is not a lot of opposition from the people in the Midwest,” Prokopy said. “And there are not a lot of perceived negative impacts from people who have or live near wind turbines.”

The survey found that more than 80 percent of respondents said they either supported wind farms in their counties or supported them with reservations. Those most opposed to wind turbines seemed to be those who worked in big cities, such as Indianapolis, but lived in rural areas. They were small in number but loud in opposition.

Switchgrass Versus Heating Oil

According to a recent study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), using switchgrass pellets could be a cheaper source of energy, instead of fuel oil to heat homes and businesses in the Northeast. Agricultural Research Service (ARS) researcher Paul Adler led efforts on a lifecycle analysis that compared costs of energy generation from coal, natural gas, fuel oil, and switchgrass in the form of energy-dense cubes, briquettes, and pellets.

burning switchgrassThe researchers calculated the economic outlays associated with switchgrass production throughout the supply chain, as well as greenhouse gas emissions generated by switchgrass production, densification, and conversion to heat and power. This included the first lifecycle inventory of switchgrass seed production and greenhouse gas emissions associated with seed production.

The analysis indicated that 192 pounds of “carbon dioxide equivalent,” or CO2e, was emitted for every ton of switchgrass dry matter that was sown, harvested, and delivered to densification plants for processing into pellets. CO2e is a measurement used to compare the emissions from various greenhouse gases based upon their global warming potential.

The researchers calculated that using switchgrass pellets instead of petroleum fuel oil to generate one gigajoule of heat in residences would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 146 pounds of CO2e. Totaling all costs associated with installing an appropriate residential heating system and fuel consumption, the team concluded that each gigajoule of heat produced using switchgrass pellets would cost $21.36. Using fuel oil to produce the same amount of heat would cost $28.22.

Adler is now working with Plainview Growers to determine how the carbon footprint differs between heating greenhouses with biomass and heating them with fuel oil. The results of the research were published in the journal, Environmental Science & Technology.

Turning Cow Manure Into Brown Gold

In the heart of Wisconsin, a project is underway to produce energy from a resource that is in little danger of running low: cow manure, or “brown gold.” Thanks to a $7 million grant from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Biomass Research and Development Initiative (BRDI), the University of Wisconsin-Madison and several state companies have formed a consortium to pilot the conversion of dairy farm manure into useful product streams—a project that is expected to have significant environmental and economic benefits.

cute cowThe Accelerated Renewable Energy (ARE) project is already in progress at the 5,000-cow Maple Leaf Dairy in Manitowoc County, where animal waste is separated into different streams, or fractions, of processed manure. After small plant fibers in the manure are separated out and anaerobically digested to create biogas, liquids from the digestion process are used to fertilize crops, while leftover solids can be converted into useful chemicals and bio-plastics. Larger plant fibers, on the other hand, make great animal bedding and mulch, as well as a starting material for ethanol fermentation.

WBI director and Biological Systems Engineering (BSE) faculty member Troy Runge, who is a co-investigator of the project, is interested in supporting a renewable energy economy through the development of value-added products from biomass. Runge’s lab is analyzing the ARE project’s separation techniques to improve their efficiency and economic performance.

“We are performing many of the same separations that occur on the farm, but in the controlled environment of the lab to both measure and optimize the system,” says Runge. Continue reading

Stover Harvesting Requires Careful Management

According to Purdue University researchers, removing corn stover from agricultural fields to produce cellulosic ethanol requires careful management to avoid adding greenhouse gas emissions and soil erosion to the environment. However, environmental impacts from stover removal can be reduced by switching to no-till corn or adding winter cover crops, but these practices likely would increase production costs, researchers reported in a study, “Environmental and Economic Trade-Offs in a Watershed When Using Corn Stover for Bioenergy,” published in Environmental Science & Technology.

“Some crop rotation and tillage combinations are more environmentally benign than others,” said Ben Gramig, a Purdue agricultural economist and the study’s lead researcher. “But there are water quality and greenhouse gas tradeoffs when collecting stover.”

As Gramig explains, stover is the parts of a corn plant that remain after grain harvest. Greenhouse gases from cropfields are released into the atmosphere when carbon escapes disturbed soils during stover removal. Emissions also occur when nitrogen fertilizer is applied to the land or crop residues decompose. Plowing fields loosens soil and, when combined with removing stover, causes increased soil erosion.

The study examined the environmental effects and costs of stover collection from eight corn-soybean rotation and continuous corn systems in a watershed typical of the eastern Corn Belt. The comparisons were made by combining results from watershed and greenhouse gas computer simulation models and minimizing the cost of stover collection, to select which farming practices to use in an agricultural watershed.

Continue reading

Organizing Enzymes to Create Electricity

Ian Wheeldon, an assistant professor of chemical and environmental engineering at the University of California, Riverside’s Bourns College of Engineering, has recently received a $360,000 grant to better organize enzymes on electrodes to create nanoscale devices that more efficiently convert the chemical energy of sugars and complex Ian_Wheeldoncarbohydrates in to electricity. Wheeldon, who will receive the funding over three years, is one of 40 scientists and engineers to win an award from the Young Investigator Program run by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research.

In nature, enzymes are often in precisely organized multi-enzyme structures. Influenced by nature, spatial organization of multi-enzyme pathways has emerged as a tool in bionanotechnology, synthetic biology and, most recently, bioenergy systems. Initial experiments have shown spatial organization of enzymatic pathways has resulted in increased power density in biofuel cells. However, there is a lack of understanding of the fundamental principles that govern reaction pathway kinetics.

“This limits engineering pathways to trial-and-error approaches,” Wheeldon said. “That’s an impossible task when increasingly complex pathways are considered, such as those needed for advanced biofuel cells.”

The first objective of Wheeldon’s project is to define relationships between multi-enzyme scaffold design and pathway reaction rate. These relationships will define a set of rules that can enhance kinetics by spatial organization. The second objective is to apply the newly developed understanding of multi-enzyme pathways to create novel anodes for enzymatic biofuel cells.

Beyond biofuel cells, potential applications include new synthesis routes for pharmaceuticals, including antibiotics, and commodity chemicals, such as ethers and biofuels.

Duckweed for Biofuels?

Duckweed may be a viable material for biofuel production according to a new report in ACS’ journal Industrial and Engineering Chemistry Research. Duckweed is a fast growing floating plant that turns ponds and lakes green.

DuckweedChristodoulos A. Floudas, a professor at Princeton and Xin Xiao with Langfang Engineering and Technology Centre, Institute of Process Engineering, Chinese Academy of Sciences, along with several colleagues explain that duckweed, an aquatic plant that floats on or near the surface of still or slow-moving freshwater, is ideal as a raw material for biofuel production. It grows fast, thrives in wastewater that has no other use, does not impact the food supply and can be harvested more easily than algae and other aquatic plants. However, they say, few studies have been done on the use of duckweed as a raw material for biofuel production.

In the article, Floudas and Xiao describe four scenarios for duckweed refineries that use proven existing technology to produce gasoline, diesel and kerosene. Those technologies include conversion of biomass to a gas; conversion of the gas to methanol, or wood alcohol; and conversion of methanol to gasoline and other fuels. The results show that small-scale duckweed refineries could produce cost-competitive fuel when the price of oil reaches $100 per barrel. Oil would have to cost only about $72 per barrel for larger duckweed refiners to be cost-competitive.

The research was partially funded from grants from the National Science Foundation and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

How to Ensure Biofuel Crops Don’t Become Weeds

A Virginia Tech researcher, along with several others, have offered a way to ensure that plants grown for biofuels do not become an invasive weed. According to Jacob Barney, an assistance professor of plant pathology, physiology and weed science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, careful introduction of new species for production of more energy per acre is increasingly critical, as is the evaluation of new or bioengineered plants for agricultural or horticultural uses.

L_030613-cals-jacobbarneyThe article, “Navigating the ‘Noxious’ and ‘Invasive’ Regulatory Landscape: Suggestions for Improved Regulation,” published in BioScience proposes a way to improve and streamline the regulatory methodology for evaluating the invasive potential of plants, especially biofuel feedstock. Biofuels are increasing in economic and ecological importance, said Barney, as the RFS continues to be implemented.

“We did this analysis to draw attention to state noxious weed lists and to suggest ways to help prevent additional plants from escaping cultivation and potentially becoming noxious or invasive species,” said Barney.

“According to our analysis, current noxious weed laws do not provide adequate protection to prevent invasions in natural areas, and we have a shared responsibility for proper stewardship of these landscapes,” said Lauren Quinn a research associate at the Energy Biosciences Institute at the University of Illinois-Urbana, and the lead author of the study. “Going forward, it will be essential to base legal reforms on an awareness of this responsibility and, more importantly, on a rational public dialogue that includes sound science.” Continue reading

Fat Worms Play Role in Algal Biofuels

Fat worms confirm are playing a role in improved biofuel and animal feed production.

Catapillar's on Arabidopsis thaliana plantsResearchers from Michigan State University (MSU) have successfully engineered a plant with oily leaves, a feat that could improve biofuel production. The research was led by Christoph Benning, MSU professor of biochemistry and molecular biology along with a team from the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center.

The results of the study were published in the journal, The Plant Cell, and show that researchers could us an algae gene involved in oil production to engineer a plant that stores lipids or vegetable oil in it leaves. This is uncommon for most plants.

To date, little research has been done to examine the oil production of leaves and stems because in nature, most plants don’t store lipids in these tissues.

“Many researchers are trying to enhance plants’ energy density, and this is another way of approaching it,” Benning said. “It’s a proof-of-concept that could be used to boost plants’ oil production for biofuel use as well as improve the nutrition levels of animal feed.” Continue reading

NASA Researching Alternative Biofuels

NASA researchers are conducting a series of lights using the agency’s DC-8 flying laboratory to study the effects of biofuels on engine performance, emissions and aircraft generated contrails at altitude. The Alternative Fuel Effects on Contrails and Cruise Emissions (ACCESS) research involves flying the DC-8 as high as 40,000 feet while an instrumented NASA Falcon HU-25 aircraft trails behind at distances ranging from 300 feet to more than 10 miles. Research began February 28, 2013 and is expected to take 3 weeks to complete.

NASA DC-8 Aircraft“We believe this study will improve understanding of contrails formation and quantify potential benefits of renewable alternate fuels in terms of aviation’s impact on the environment,” said Ruben Del Rosario, manager of NASA’s Fixed Wing Project.

ACCESS flight operations are being staged from NASA’s Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, Calif., and will take place mostly within restricted airspace over Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. During the flights, the DC-8′s four CFM56 engines will be powered by conventional JP-8 jet fuel, or a 50-50 blend of JP-8 and an alternative fuel of hydroprocessed esters and fatty acids that comes from camelina plants. While the flight are occurring, more than a dozen instruments mounted on the Falcon jet will characterize the soot and gases streaming from the DC-8, monitor the way exhaust plumes change in composition as they mix with air, and investigate the role emissions play in contrail formation.

If weather conditions permit, the Falcon jet will trail commercial aircraft flying in the Southern California region, in coordination with air traffic controllers, to survey the exhaust emissions from a safe distance of 10 miles.

ACCESS follows a pair of Alternative Aviation Fuel Experiment studies conducted in 2009 and 2011 in which ground-based instruments measured the DC-8′s exhaust emissions as the aircraft burned alternative fuels while parked on the ramp at the Palmdale facility. A second phase of ACCESS flights is planned for 2014. It will capitalize on lessons learned from the 2013 flights and include a more extensive set of measurements.

The ACCESS study is a joint project involving researchers at Dryden, NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland and NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virgina. The Fixed Wing Project within the Fundamental Aeronautics Program of NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate manages ACCESS.

RMI Announces Solar Research Project

Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) is launching a Simple BoS project, or Balance of Systems, in partnership with Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI), to explore the cost divide between the U.S. and Germany for residential solar photovoltaic systems. BoS costs now account for more than 60 percent of the price of U.S. rooftop PV systems, according to RMI, yet such costs are 75 percent lower in Germany, who is the solar PV global leader.

gI_87078_solarpanelinstallerRMI sees reducing BoS costs—all the related solar energy system costs besides the panels themselves including permitting, financing, installation, and inspection—as a critical pathway to affordable PV and widespread solar adoption. RMI and GTRI are partnering with key solar installers across the two countries to explore specific components of the cost divide between solar installation processes in the U.S. and Germany. Using survey data and time-and-motion studies, the project will measure the status quo in both countries, analyze key differences, and then propose solutions to improve the installation process in the U.S. and beyond.

“Despite the U.S.’s failure to lower soft costs to date, others—notably Germany—show it can be done,” said Jon Creyts, program director at RMI. “Identifying the key drivers of price differences between the two markets will help us understand how U.S. installers can dramatically lower these costs and drive the industry into the future.”

Building on the recommendations of RMI’s 2010 charrette on achieving low-cost solar PV, the Simple BoS project will delve deeply into the installation processes and will look at several key factors in the solar installation process, including the labor hours of PV installation, the impact of local government involvement and permitting regulations on installation time and pricing, and the difference in time-to-system activation—the length of time it takes for a solar project to go from signed contract to energized system—between the U.S. and Germany.

RMI is actively recruiting installers now to participate. Interested companies should click here.

New Report Shows Wind Energy Continues to Expand

According to a report from the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC), global installed wind energy capacity increased by 19 percent in 2012 to 282,000 megawatts (MW).  Canada remains a global wind energy leader as it experienced the 9th largest increase in installed capacity in 2012 (936 MW). Both China and the United States, the world’s wind energy leaders, installed more than 13,000 MW of new capacity in 2012.

“While China paused for breath, both the US and European markets had exceptionally strong years,” said Steve Sawyer, Secretary General of GWEC. “Asia still led global markets, but with North America a close second, and Europe not far behind.”

Global Wind Statistics 2012Canada now ranks 9th globally in total installed capacity with more than 6,500 MW of wind energy in operation – providing enough power to meet the annual needs of almost 2,000,000 Canadian homes. Ontario is the Canadian leader in the production of clean wind energy with more than 2,000 MW of installed capacity now supplying over 3 percent of the province’s electricity demand. Both Ontario and Quebec will lead the country with new installations of clean wind energy in 2013 as the Canadian Wind Energy Association (CanWEA) expects to see a record year for new installations with the addition of almost 1,500 MW of new capacity – driving over $3 billion in new investments.

The growth of wind energy development in Ontario and Quebec continues to have strong public support. According to a survey, 69 percent of Ontarians agreed that, “Ontario should be a leader in wind and solar energy production,” compared to only 20 percent that disagreed. The same poll also found that solar and wind energy scored highest in a top-of-mind question about Ontarians’ preferred choice for new electricity generation.

“Wind energy continues to enjoy strong majority support as a choice for new electricity generation in Ontario and Quebec because it is understood to be both good for the environment and a provider of significant economic benefits for local economies that host developments,” said Robert Hornung, president of CanWEA. “Less well known is the fact that wind energy is also now cost-competitive with virtually every option for new electricity generation. It is for these reasons that wind energy continues to be the fastest growing mainstream source of electricity in the world.”

The rapid growth of wind energy in Canada is also reflected south of the border where the American wind industry had its best year ever in 2012, with more than 13,000 MW installed. The extension of the Production Tax Credit (PTC) in the U.S. means that although the market will slow substantially in 2013, it is unlikely to be as much of a slowdown as originally expected, said Sawyer.

Plant Breakthrough May Improve Biofuel Processing

Tan-Li---Mohnene-Debra-230x151There may be a connection between two different types of cell wall glycans (sugars) and specific wall protein known as arabinogalactan protein. The initial discovery was made by Li Tan, who then approached researchers at the University of Georgia (UGA to continue the research. According to Tan and Debra Mohnen, who both work at part of the BioEnergy Science Center, this connection is not known to exist and does not conform to the commonly held scientific definitions of plant cell wall structure. Yet what they found could redefine the understanding of basic plant biology, and it may lead to significant improvements in the growth and processing of biofuel crops.

“This is totally new,” said Tan, a research scientist in the Complex Carbohydrate Research Center and lead author of a paper detailing the group’s findings published in the online journal The Plant Cell. “We had never seen linkages between these structures before, and we had to develop a variety of new tests to prove that what we saw was not simply a mistake or a contamination.”

The scientific community generally agrees that complex sugars like pectin and xylan, which allow for cell wall structure, extension and growth, exist in separate networks from cell wall proteins. However, the UGA researchers have identified a direct and indisputable link between these two domains.

“What this means is that plant scientists’ view of the plant cell wall is at least partially wrong,” said Mohnen, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and also a  member of UGA’s Complex Carbohydrate Research Center. “There have been hints over the last 30 or 40 years that this link might exist, but no one has been able to prove it until now.” Continue reading