Turning Biodiesel By-Product into Valued Chemicals

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

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

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

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

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

You can read the full study here.

Navy, Arizona State Work Together on Algae Biofuels

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Texas Researchers Turning Yeast into Biodiesel

alperEverything might be bigger in Texas, but some scientists in the state are looking to tiny yeast cells to yield big feedstocks for biodiesel. This news release from the University of Texas at Austin says researchers at the Cockrell School of Engineering have developed genetically engineered yeast cells to produce the lipids to go into biodiesel production.

Assistant professor Hal Alper, in the Cockrell School’s McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering, along with his team of students, created the new cell-based platform. Given that the yeast cells grow on sugars, Alper calls the biofuel produced by this process “a renewable version of sweet crude.”

The UT Austin research team was able to rewire yeast cells to enable up to 90 percent of the cell mass to become lipids, which can then be used to produce biodiesel.

“To put this in perspective, this lipid value is approaching the concentration seen in many industrial biochemical processes,” Alper said. “You can take the lipids formed and theoretically use it to power a car.”

“We took a starting yeast strain of Yarrowia lipolytica, and we’ve been able to convert it into a factory for oil directly from sugar,” Alper said. “This work opens up a new platform for a renewable energy and chemical source.”

The researchers say the biodiesel they get from the yeast is similar to the high quality biodiesel now made from soybean oil. But the yeast won’t take up any land and can be more easily genetically manipulated to get more oils from the yeast.

MIT Finds New Way to Get More Out of Solar

MITsolar1Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have found a new way to get more out of harvesting solar energy. This article from the school says they’re using the sun to heat a high-temperature material whose infrared radiation would then be collected by a conventional photovoltaic cell.

In this case, adding the extra step improves performance, because it makes it possible to take advantage of wavelengths of light that ordinarily go to waste. The process is described in a paper published this week in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, written by graduate student Andrej Lenert, associate professor of mechanical engineering Evelyn Wang, physics professor Marin Soljačić, principal research scientist Ivan Celanović, and three others.

A conventional silicon-based solar cell “doesn’t take advantage of all the photons,” Wang explains. That’s because converting the energy of a photon into electricity requires that the photon’s energy level match that of a characteristic of the photovoltaic (PV) material called a bandgap. Silicon’s bandgap responds to many wavelengths of light, but misses many others.

To address that limitation, the team inserted a two-layer absorber-emitter device — made of novel materials including carbon nanotubes and photonic crystals — between the sunlight and the PV cell. This intermediate material collects energy from a broad spectrum of sunlight, heating up in the process. When it heats up, as with a piece of iron that glows red hot, it emits light of a particular wavelength, which in this case is tuned to match the bandgap of the PV cell mounted nearby…

The design of the two-layer absorber-emitter material is key to this improvement. Its outer layer, facing the sunlight, is an array of multiwalled carbon nanotubes, which very efficiently absorbs the light’s energy and turns it to heat. This layer is bonded tightly to a layer of a photonic crystal, which is precisely engineered so that when it is heated by the attached layer of nanotubes, it “glows” with light whose peak intensity is mostly above the bandgap of the adjacent PV, ensuring that most of the energy collected by the absorber is then turned into electricity.

The researchers go on to say this technique will make it easier to store solar energy.

Wisconsin Resarchers Find Better Biofuels Chemical

Dumesic-Luterbacher1Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have found a way to get more ethanol out of sugars used in the refining process. This university article says they’re using a plant-derived chemical, gamma valerolactone, or GVL.

“With the sugar platform, you have possibilities,” says Jeremy Luterbacher, a postdoctoral researcher and the paper’s lead author. “You’ve taken fewer forks down the conversion road, which leaves you with more end destinations, such as cellulosic ethanol and drop-in biofuels.”

Funded by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC), the research team has published its findings in the Jan. 17, 2014 issue of the journal Science, explaining how they use gamma valerolactone, or GVL, to deconstruct plants and produce sugars that can be chemically or biologically upgraded into biofuels. With support from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), the team will begin scaling up the process later this year.

Because GVL is created from the plant material, it’s both renewable and more affordable than conversion methods requiring expensive chemicals or enzymes. The process also converts 85 to 95 percent of the starting material to sugars that can be fed to yeast for fermentation into ethanol, or chemically upgraded furans to create drop-in biofuels.

The researchers are adding liquid carbon dioxide to the mix and could reduce the cost to produce ethanol by 10 percent.

Southern Illinois Expands Ethanol Research Team

Arun Athmanathan1A research center dedicated to advancing the study and development of ethanol is expanding its research staff. This news release from the National Corn-to-Ethanol Research Center (NCERC) at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville (SIUE) has added Dr. Arun Athmanathan, a postdoctoral fellow specializing in cellulosic and advanced biofuels research.

“Following a national search that generated candidates from premier research institutions across the country, we are pleased to welcome Dr. Athmanathan to the team,” NCERC Director John Caupert said. “Arun’s expertise in cellulosic biofuels research and his studies under biofuels pioneers like Nathan Mosier, Mike Ladisch and Nancy Ho make him an excellent complement to our research division.”

Arun has a broad range of experiences in the characterization and fermentation of many cellulosic and advanced feedstocks, including corn stover and sweet sorghum bagasse, likely feedstocks that the NCERC research team will explore. He received his MS and PhD in Agricultural and Biological Engineering from Purdue University’s acclaimed agriculture school.

The Illinois Corn Marketing Board and SIUE partnered to provide seed funding for NCERC’s postdoctoral fellowship program following the Center’s recent breakthroughs in corn kernel fiber conversion and feedstock characterization. Arun and an additional postdoctoral fellow will work under Research Director Dr. Sabrina Trupia to extend upon the Center’s existing research and identify new areas of study.

“The NCERC continues to be an incredible asset to public and private researchers and the biofuels industry as a whole,” ICMB Chairman and Okawville farmer Larry Hasheider said. “From accelerating the commercialization of new technologies to increasing production efficiency and developing value-added coproducts, the NCERC has defined the cutting edge of the biofuels research for more than a decade. We believe this investment will yield tremendous dividends for the biofuels and agriculture industries through continued research breakthroughs.”

The NCERC also announced the expansion of its research capabilities through a new faculty fellowship program. University faculty can apply for course-buyouts in order to conduct collaborative research with the Center.

U of Cincy Team Captures Grease for Biodiesel

cincy1A student team from the University of Cincinnati is being recognized for their idea to capture waste grease and turn it into biodiesel. The school’s Team Effuelent, led by students Ron Gillespie, Ethan Jacobs, and Qingshi Tu won the $40,000 prize in the Odebrecht Award for Sustainability Development Competition with their concept of “Using Trap Grease As the Raw Material for Biodiesel Feedstock Production.”

The team’s innovative Waste Grease Extraction process extracts substances such as fats, oils, and greases from the municipal wastewater stream and converts them into a low-cost biodiesel feedstock using processes compatible to the current biodiesel industry.

Not only does the WGE process generate a marketable product of value, it also results in lowered landfill costs for wastewater treatment plants and positively contributes to the environmental, economic, and energy sustainability of the United States.

Mingming Lu, associate professor in CEAS’ Department of Biomedical, Chemical, and Environmental Engineering, originally developed the novel process and serves as the team’s advisor. The students were awarded $20,000, Professor Lu receives $10,000, and another $10,000 goes to the University of Cincinnati.

Team Effuelent is now working on building a prototype system for the Waste Grease Extraction process.

Purdue Jet to Fly on Camelina-based Biofuel

purduejet1A jet from Purdue University will fly on a camelina-based biofuel at an international air show today. This story from the school says the Embraer Phenom 100 jet takes part in the Experimental Aircraft Association AirVenture in Oshkosh using the jet biofuel developed by the U.S. Air Force.

“Aviation biofuels, some of which are approved for use today, are of interest due to their potential to reduce carbon emissions and be derived from non-petroleum sources such as renewable biomass,” said Denver Lopp, professor of aviation technology and co-director of Purdue’s Air Transport Institute for Environmental Sustainability (Air TIES).

The demonstration flight will be one of the first in the United States in which a university-owned jet will be powered by biofuels, said Air TIES co-director David Stanley, and represents an important milestone toward the long-term vision of operating a green training fleet at Purdue University.

The biofuel used will be a Camelina-based HEFA (hydroprocessed esters and fatty acid), developed in partnership with the U.S. Air Force and the Air Force Research Lab. Results from the flight will be studied.

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.

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.

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.

Green Tea Could Lead to More Green Biodiesel

UCDavisalgaeResearchers have found that some of the compounds in green tea could lead to more biodiesel production. Scientists at the University of California, Davis found several compounds, including common antioxidants such as epigallocatechin gallate, found in green tea, and butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), a food preservative, boosted the oil production by green microscopic algae:

“They can live in saltwater, they take sunlight and carbon dioxide as a building block, and make these long chains of oil that can be converted to biodiesel,” said Annaliese Franz, assistant professor of chemistry and an author of the paper.

Franz, graduate students Megan Danielewicz, Diana Wong and Lisa Anderson, and undergraduate student Jordan Boothe screened 83 compounds for their effects on growth and oil production in four strains of microalgae. They identified several that could boost oil production by up to 85 percent, without decreasing growth.

The researchers grew the cultures in culture volumes up to about a pint in size but figure that some of the compounds could be cost-effective when moved up to 12,000-gallon ponds. Plus, the leftover algae mass after the oil is removed still would make a good animal feed.

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.