Capturing Energy from Ocean Currents

Raul Delga Delgadillo, a soon to be senior this fall at Bourns College of Engineering at the University of California, Riverside, has learned he will receive a $15,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA. The award is a result of his entry in the national sustainable design competition for his idea to capture energy from ocean currents.

Delgadillo will now build a small-scale turbine and buoy system and test it in a flow tank to determine the best way to maximize energy extraction. He expects the system will provide as much energy as an average wind turbine. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) believes wave and tidal energy, combined with other water-powered sources, could provide up to 15 percent of the country’s electricity by 2030.

“The ocean remains an untapped frontier as a renewable energy source,” Delgadillo said. “I’m hoping to change that.”

The idea for the EPA P3: People, Prosperity and the Planet Student Design Competition mobile-solar-003-603x400for Sustainability entry came out of project for the Sustainable Product Design course. Delgadillo’s project proposes several innovative designs: the buoy, which will allow the device to move around until an optimum location is found, and the telescoping feature on the turbine, which allows it to vary in height and remain stationary if waves are present. Current proposals to harness energy from ocean currents require the turbine be anchored to the ocean floor using cables or rigid supports. This adds a significant cost, disrupts the environment because the ocean floor needs to excavated and limits the mobility of the turbine.

Delgadillo expects several challenges, including varying flow rates from ocean currents due to seasonal fluctuations; the fact that depth and contours of ocean floors can affect ocean currents; and avoiding harming marine life.

In the coming months, Delgadillo will perform experiments in a flow tank in the lab of Marco Princevac, an associate professor of mechanical engineering. He will then use the data he gathers to write a proposal for a second round of funding, for $90,000, from the EPA. He will find out in spring 2014 whether he receives that money, which would allow him to take the design to a real world application.

Michigan Research: Diesel Saves Money

UMTRIA new study shows that vehicles that run on diesel save their owners money. While the research didn’t specifically mention biodiesel, the green fuel would also be part of that savings. Biodiesel Magazine reports the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute found that the total cost of ownership (TCO) is lower for diesel vehicles compared to their gasoline-powered counterparts.

“Our results show that clean diesel vehicles generally provide a return on investment in both the three- and five-year timeframes, though there are differences in the amounts of return among mass market vehicles, medium duty trucks, and luxury vehicles,” authors Bruce M. Belzowski and Paul Green, assistant research scientists with UMTRI, state in their report. “The estimates of savings for three and five years of ownership vary from a low of $67 in three years to a high of $15,619 in five years, but most of the savings are in the $2,000 to $6,000 range, which also include the extra cost that is usually added to the diesel version of a vehicle.”

The report concludes that diesel vehicles can and do compete well in the U.S. market and are at an advantage when fuel economy regulations for 2016 and 2025 are considered.

The Real Reason Government’s Plug EV’s

According to a new study by researchers at the Indiana University Bloomington School of Public and Environmental Affairs and the University of Kansas, contrary to common belief, many country’s promote the manufacture and sale of electric vehicles (EVs) for reasons of economic development, notably job creation, not because of their environmental benefits. 4798The study looked at policies related to EVs in California, China, the European Union (EU), France, Germany and the United States, political jurisdictions with significant automotive industries and markets for EVs.

“Billions of dollars are being invested despite doubts that some express about the viability of electricity as a propulsion system,” said John D. Graham, SPEA dean and co-author of the study. “The objective of many of these national and sub-national governments is to establish a significant position — or even dominance — in the global marketplace for these emerging, innovative new technologies.”

Examining each jurisdiction’s use of risk-management policies (e.g., those designed to reduce environmental and security risks due to oil dependence) or industrial policies (e.g., designed to boost fortunes of a specific technology or sector and increase market competitiveness) indicated the entire lifecycle of making and using EVs is viewed by policy makers mainly as an economic development opportunity. Specific findings include:

  • China: No carbon price has been established in China, where electricity is generated by high-carbon sources and fuel prices are relatively low; thus, its EV policies are geared toward establishing a competitive position in an emerging global EV industry.
  • Germany: The least committed to EVs of the jurisdictions studied, Germany is nonetheless engaging in an industrial policy of hedging to protect the market share and viability of its premium car industry should electric propulsion gain a foothold in the worldwide premium car market.
  • The European Union: The only entity studied that acts as a supranational regulatory state, the EU is also the only one where pure risk management related to EVs occurs. The EU appears to have a technology-neutral approach and has made some investments in research and development support for industry innovation.
  • California and France: California is the largest market for motor vehicles in North America. In addition, its considerable pollution problems, created largely from the automobiles in the 1960s and ’70s and particularly acute relative to other U.S. locations, make it an ideal market for EVs. Thus, it is motivated to promote EVs by a substantial blend of industrial policy and risk management — the same approach taken by France. Both California and France have made significant advancements in risk management policies, having the strongest voices among their peers for mitigating the effects of economic and industrial development that lead to urban air pollution, congestion and climate change. Continue reading

Biodiesel Research Looks at Jatropha Genes

jatrophaJatropha plants with their high oil content are seen as potentially a good alternative to some food crops as a feedstock for biodiesel. But the shrub’s nature makes it just as intensive to raise as a food crop, as well as having issues with drought resistance. Researchers at Penn State University believe they have found the gene that will help them discover a way to allow the plant to be grown with less maintenance in more desert-like conditions.

“It is thought that Jatropha’s future lies in further improvement of Jatropha for large-scale production on marginal, non-food croplands through breeding and/or biotechnology,” said John E. Carlson, professor of molecular genetics at Penn State. “The more that is known about the genetic basis of Jatropha’s key attributes such as drought tolerance, the more readily Jatropha improvement will progress.”

Researchers looked at a little known gene — JcPIP1 — because a similar gene in the model plant Arabidopsis is known to play a role in drought response. They also examined JcPIP2, a potential drought response gene in Jatropha identified in 2007 by researchers at Sichuan University. They reported their findings today (July 15) in the Journal of Plant Physiology.

The JcPIP genes code for membrane channels called aquaporins, which are responsible for transporting and balancing water throughout the plant, though exactly how each gene affects aquaporin behavior under environmental stress remains unclear. However, researchers have found that JcPIP1 and JcPIP2 are expressed at different times during a stressful situation, which hints at what roles they play in response and recovery.

The researchers found that JcPIP2 was mostly active in the early stages of stress while JcPIP1 expression was greater during recovery. The timing indicates that JcPIP1 might be crucial in helping Jatropha recover from damage while JcPIP2 could play a role in prevention.

Chem Students Use Syrris for Biodiesel Research

SyrrisWPUstudent1A group of chemical engineering students in Massachusetts have used technology from UK-based Syrris to investigate the production of biodiesel. Syrris officals say the Worcester Polytechnic University students used Syrris’ Globe jacketed reactor system that allowed for a safe project:

“As part of their senior thesis, some of our undergraduate students suggested a ‘green’ experiment; converting vegetable oil into biodiesel. This base-catalyzed process uses methanol and potassium hydroxide, which is not that simple a reaction or particularly safe,” [said Professor William Clark from the Chemical Engineering Department at WPU].

“To implement this process in an undergraduate teaching laboratory, we needed a computer-controlled mini pilot plant that could run the reaction safely at different temperatures; the Globe system was ideal.”

“Globe enables the biodiesel reaction to be performed under computer control, eliminating manual transfer of reagents and allowing the experiment to be carried out safely, which is paramount.”

The students were able to design a small chemical factory of two Globe reactors and a Globe Reactor Master Module that integrates balances, pumps, temperature probes, stirrers, a temperature bath and a pH meter, using Globe Reactor Master Software.

Tennessee State to Take Biodiesel Maker on Road

Tennbiodieseltrailer1Researchers at Tennessee State University hit the road this week with a mobile demonstration lab to convince more farmers to brew their own biodiesel. This school news release says unit will also be on display at the university’s Small Farm Expo this Thursday, July 18th.

The eye-catching mobile lab is the showpiece of the University’s pioneering alternative fuels program. Funded with $250,000 from the USDA Capacity Building Grant program, the mobile lab takes biodiesel fuel education right to working farmers, and has all the equipment necessary for producing the alternate fuel.

“This region has a modest oil seed production rate by area farmers,” said Dr. Jason de Koff, assistant professor of agronomy and soil sciences in the College of Agriculture, Human and Natural Sciences. “We want to be able to show them something they might not have thought about. With as much oil seed production taking place in the state, we want to explain the production of biodiesel fuel from vegetable oil is a viable process that can replace traditional fuel used in existing diesel engines.”

According to de Koff, a typical farm uses around two to six gallons of diesel fuel per acre every year. Depending on the oilseed crop and yield, a farmer could devote one to 15 percent of farm acreage to producing oilseed crops strictly for biodiesel fuel production.

“It is possible they could become totally self-sufficient in diesel fuel use,” added de Koff. “As a clean-burning, renewable energy source, biodiesel fuel offers a number of built-in advantages that regular diesel fuels simply can’t match.”

The mobile demonstration unit has all that’s needed to produce biodiesel, including an oil seed press and biodiesel processor. Supporters hope to show how easy the process can be not only to farmers but to area lawmakers, 4H clubs and schools.

DF Cast: Algae Backers’ Beef with DOE

Backers of algae, especially for biofuel production, say while the Department of Energy provides millions for universities to do research through the DOE Biomass Program, commercial enterprises are being left by the wayside. And they say that isn’t fair, and after 60 years of looking at the green microbes, researchers have developed nothing.

In this edition of the Domestic Fuel Cast, we talk with Barry Cohen, the Executive Director at the National Algae Association, about how the commercial side of his industry is getting shut out, and he argues if they had just 10 percent of the money that universities get, we would have a commercialized algae-based biofuel within a year.

It’s a pretty interesting conversation, and you can listen to it here: Domestic Fuel Cast - Algae's Beef with DOE

You can also subscribe to the DomesticFuel Cast here.

Closer Look at EPA Biodiesel Winner

epa-logoRecently we told you about how students at Loyola University had won the EPA’s P3 Award (People, Prosperity and the Planet) for their greener way, through a wetland and a distillation process, to treat and reuse byproducts of biodiesel. Our friend Ron Kotrba at Biodiesel Magazine looked a little deeper into what their innovation actually was:

I reached out to Zach Waikman, the biodiesel lab manager at Loyola, who provided some clarity to the project behind the P3 Award…

Loyola undergraduate and graduate students and faculty mentors will design, test, and implement an innovative, cost-effective sustainable system for treating contaminated wash-waters resulting from our student-led Biodiesel Program. This project is original in its approach to treating wastewater on-site with environmentally benign living technologies. It will be the first known attempt to use living machine technology to solve the biodiesel wastewater problem. Our technologies will be transferable and scalable.

Expected results: The primary long-term results of our P3 project will be a) designing and building an environmentally and economically sustainable biological waste-water treatment system capable of cleaning, detoxifying, and recycling 100 percent of the waste-water produced in the LUC Biodiesel Lab and b) disseminating the design and complementary materials to other sustainable biodiesel producers throughout the U.S. and the world in order to prevent unnecessary environmental pollution and increase economic solvency.

Some other things we’re able to find out from this article is that the concept of the machine is in line with an anaerobic digester, although they’re not using that biological process in their plans. The researchers believe there will lots of possibilities with the program.

Hydropower May Cause Unintended Consequences

Findings from scientists from Oregon State University (OSU) conclude that small hydropower projects, supported by various nations and also the Kyoto Protocol to reduce GHG emissions, may cause unintended and potentially significant losses of habitat and River with Nornal Flow Photo-OSUbiodiversity. The findings were reported in the journal Water Resources Research, in work supported by the National Science Foundation.

An underlying assumption that small hydropower systems pose fewer ecological concerns than large dams is not universally valid, scientists said in the report. A five-year study, one of the first of its type, concluded that for certain environmental impacts the cumulative damage caused by small dams is worse than their larger counterparts.

The conclusions were based on studies of the Nu River system in China but the researchers say they are relevant to national energy policies in many nations or regions  including India, Turkey, Latin America, that seek to expand hydroelectric power generation. Hydropower is generally favored over coal in many developing areas because it uses a renewable resource and does not contribute to global warming. Also, the social and environmental problems caused by large dam projects have resulted in a recent trend toward increased construction of small dams.

“The Kyoto Protocol, under Clean Development Mechanism, is funding the construction of some of these small hydroelectric projects, with the goal of creating renewable energy that’s not based on fossil fuels,” said Desiree Tullos, an associate professor in the OSU Department of Biological and Ecological Engineering.

“The energy may be renewable, but this research raises serious questions about whether or not the overall process is sustainable,” Tullos said. Continue reading

Study: Alt Fuels Developing Faster Than Expected

According to a new study commissioned by a coalition of investors, utilities and makers of alternative fuels, the alternative fuels market has developed faster than anticipated. Electric vehicle sales are beating early projections, the surge in natural gas supply is helping decrease the carbon intensity in trucking, and consumption of biodiesel and renewable diesel supplies are growing rapidly, according to the report. The coalition includes CalETC, Ceres, E2, the California Natural Gas Vehicle Coalition, the National Biodiesel Board, and the Advanced Biofuels Association.

Screen Shot 2013-06-17 at 9.43.40 AM“The Low Carbon Fuel Standard is exceeding our expectations and driving us towards a clean fuels future,” said Eileen Tutt, executive director of the California Electric Transportation Coalition (CalETC). “The standard is doing exactly what it was designed to do – open the way for new fuels and technologies to compete fairly in the marketplace.”

The report analyzes recent developments in the transportation sector and presents three scenarios that ratchet down the carbon intensity of transportation fuels 10 percent, to meet the goal of California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard by 2020. All three projections point to an increasingly diverse fuel supply, with more innovation leading to more renewable fuels and advanced vehicles.

Emerging as the report’s biggest surprise is the promise of substitutes for diesel, including biodiesel, renewable diesel, and natural gas – all of which can be produced from waste materials, including animal fats, corn oil, and the gas that would otherwise escape from landfills. The report stated, “2013 promises to be a banner year for biodiesel consumption in California.”

The report also highlights the benefits in terms of greenhouse gas reductions from two additional low-carbon fuel strategies: the addition of off-road electrification (such as electric locomotives and battery-powered forklifts), and improvements to California’s fuel-recovery and extraction processes (using solar energy in crude oil extraction or installing carbon capture and storage technologies at oil and gas wells).

Colombians Find Algae with Biodiesel Potential

colombiaflag1Researchers in Colombia have found a couple of strains of freshwater algae that could be good for biodiesel. FIS.com reports that the scientists at the National University of Colombia (UNC) believe Scenedesmus ovalternus and Chlorella vulgaris will produce biodiesel with less impact on the environment.

Luis Miguel Serrano Bermudez, Master in Chemical Engineering at the UNC and one of the authors of the study, explains that neither the bioethanol (made from the fermentation of corn or sugar cane) nor the biodiesel (made from palm oil, soybean or other grains) can respond to the global fuel demand with environmental and economic sustainability.

Colombia has a high abundance of water and light, which is essential for farming microalgae.

The two species of microalgae studied had the highest productivity of fats, with a value that is equal to 4.1 times the productivity of the African palm, which is the current raw material used by the domestic industry for biodiesel.

The researchers found that Chlorella vulgaris has a 25 percent higher fat content compared to Scenedesmus ovalternus, making the process that much cheaper.

World Bank: Crude Oil Biggest Driver of Food Prices

According to a recent study by the World Bank, “Long-Term Drivers of Food Prices,” oil prices are the biggest driver of higher food prices. The study, using data from 1960-2012, applied an economic model to five internationally-traded food commodities (maize/corn, wheat, rice, soybeans and palm oil) and studied the impact of several food-price drivers. These included energy prices, exchange rates, interest rates, inflation, income and a variable reflecting World Food Bank Food Price Studymarket fundamentals.

The study also paid special attention to two time periods: 1997-2004 and 2005-2007. Between the two time frames, the price of energy, fertilizers and precious metals tripled. In addition, most food prices doubled. Of all the drivers of food prices, crude oil prices had the biggest impact.

Tom Buis, CEO of Growth Energy noted that also during this time, food and energy price increases also coincided with record profits for the oil industry.

“Not only has the oil industry been responsible for the sky-rocketing gas prices each time you fill up your car, now it turns out they are responsible for the price increases you face at the grocery store. While they enjoy record profits, populations around the world suffer at their expense and struggle to pay for the basic staples of life.”

“The World Bank found that crude oil is responsible for more than half of the increase in food prices,” Buis added. “Couple that with the nearly 100 percent increase in domestic gas prices over the same time frame, and the cost of oil has truly affected the well-being of all Americans in a very expensive way.”

Climate Change Raises Stakes on US Biofuels Policy

According to a new study by Rice University and the University of California at Davis, if the climate continues to evolve as predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the U.S. stands little to no chance of satisfying its current Rice Corn Ethanol and Waterbiofuels goals. The study, published in journal Environmental Science and Technology suggests that in 40 years, a hotter planet would cut the yield of corn grown for ethanol by an average of seven percent while simultaneously increasing the amount of irrigation necessary by nine percent.

Principal investigator Pedro Alvarez, the George R. Brown Professor and Chair of Rice’s Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, said that this could sharply hinder a mandate as being executed by the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) that mandates 15 billion gallons of ethanol (corn) per year by 2022. The policy, Alvarez explained, is based on the idea that blending ethanol reduces harmful tailpipe emissions, but the cost in water may outweigh these concerns.

“Whereas biofuels offer a means to use more renewable energy while decreasing reliance on imported oil, it is important to recognize the tradeoffs,” Alvarez said. “One important unintended consequence may be the aggravation of water scarcity by increased irrigation in some regions.”

The authors of the new paper have long questioned the United States’ support of biofuels as a means to cut vehicle emissions. In a 2010 white paper on U.S. biofuels, the authors found “no scientific consensus on the climate-friendly nature of U.S.-produced corn-based ethanol” and detailed what they saw as economic, environmental and logistical shortcomings in the renewable fuels policy and suggested a need for further study of water impacts.

In the most recent study, the team built computer simulations based on crop data from the nation’s top 10 corn-producing states – Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, Minnesota, Indiana, Ohio, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Missouri and Kansas. Continue reading

Researcher Explores Using Tobacco for Biodiesel

lemaux1You can’t smoke it … well, you SHOULDN’T smoke it … but you might be able to burn it. A researcher from the University of California is working on getting more oils out of tobacco plants so it can serve as a feedstock for biodiesel, providing a green fuel source while finding a market for tobacco growers without it harming people’s health.

Peggy G. Lemaux, UC Cooperative Extension specialist, and Anastasios Melis and Krishna Niyogi, Agricultural Experiment Station faculty in the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology at UC Berkeley, are lead researchers in the project.

“There are several reasons we are modifying tobacco to produce biofuel,” Lemaux said, “It is a high biomass crop. If you want to extract oil, then the more biomass you have, the more oil you get. And, since tobacco is not a food source, tobacco production for biofuel would not have an impact on global food markets or find its way into the food supply. Finally, tobacco farmers are anxious to produce a product that is more acceptable to the public.”

The article goes on to say how the researchers are using algae genes to help the tobacco plants produce more oil. A commercially viable method is still in the distance, but Lemaux is optimistic. The school received a three-year $4.8 million grant from a U.S. Department of Energy to conduct the research.

U of Wyoming Inks Deal to Get Into Algae Biz

plantomics1The University of Wyoming has signed a deal that gets it into the algal biomass industry. The school agreed to give PlanktOMICS Algae Bioservices, run by a pair of university researchers, space and support to research how to develop patent-pending processes in exchange for a cut of the profits down the road:

PlanktOMICS principal partners Stephen Herbert, a UW professor of plant sciences, and Levi Lowder, a UW doctoral candidate in molecular and cellular life sciences, will focus on serving small companies that need to solve problems relative to their algae needs.

PlanktOMICS provides advanced phenotype analysis (testing biological traits) and screening services, custom algal vector design and construction, algal transformation and gene-expression analysis, according to its website.

“We’re here to solve problems for other companies that want to produce algae at large scales,” says Herbert, who serves as the company’s CEO. “We see our role as building up research capacity of these small companies that don’t have enough capacity for research.”

“Our services are tailored to companies that want to outsource their biological studies or biological research,” adds Lowder, who is PlanktOMICS’ chief technology officer. “We don’t really produce the end products. We do the biology. You have to know how to grow algae. That’s where we come in, to figure out how to farm algae on a large scale (for other companies).”

PlanktOMICS is working on technologies to control unwanted algae and other microbes in algae ponds, just like corn and soybean farmers control weeds, as well as technology to lower the cost of harvesting of algal biomass, among others. Last year, Lowder’s team won the university’s John P. Ellbogen $30K Entrepreneurship Competition, getting $12,500 and one year of free rent to further develop the company at the Wyoming Technology Business Center (WTBC), a business incubator at the school. Herbert and Lowder say they already have two clients lined up, one in the algal nutritional supplement business for more than 30 years. The developments could ultimately lead to algae-biodiesel projects.