St. Louis Scientists Invited to the White House

The White House invited Dr. Terry Woodford-Thomas, director of science education and outreach at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center along with Dr. Cindy Encarncion, director of life sciences at the St. Louis Science Center to D.C. during a recent Champions of Change award program event. The event recognized American citizens’ contributions to their communities and highlighted “citizen science” projects across the nation.

champions-of-changeDr. Woodford-Thomas and Dr. Encarncion, were invited to attend the event because of their contributions to a White House report on the impact of citizen science programs across the nation, as well as for leading Backyard Biofuels, a collaborative program between the Danforth Plant Science Center and St. Louis Science Center.

With funding from National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy, the Backyard Biofuels project opened to the public in 2010. Since then, thousands of algae collection kits were distributed and several hundred “algae hunters,” ranging from the age of six to adults contributed algae from across the nation. The Backyard Biofuels Project not only contributed valuable sets of naturally-occurring oil-producing algae to bioenergy scientists for investigative research; importantly, it allowed students whose interest in science could be enhanced by working side-by-side with “real” scientists in cutting-edge research laboratories to be identified and nurtured.

“Citizen science drives people to engage in discovery, both scientific discovery and self-discovery. It also helps to translate this understanding of science into action,” said Dr. Woodford-Thomas.

For three years, a celebration of “All Things Algae” or Algae Palooza, was held at the Saint Louis Science Center to engage citizens in various activities such as algae identification from pond water, making biofuel from plant vegetable oil, painting with algae, making algae ball “bling”, observing science grade algae photobioreactors in action and meeting Danforth Center scientists engaged in algae biofuels research. Continue reading

EnVirAnized Biofuel – Burns Like Coal, But It’s Not

EnviraCarbon, Inc. has announced the commercialization of a patented and proprietary technology which molecularly alters renewable biomass feedstock into EnvirAnized Biofuel™ (EBF). According to the company, EBF is a product that looks, transports, stores, EnviraCarbon Hybrid Treespulverizes and burns like coal. The only thing it doesn’t do that coal does, they say, is pollute. The super fast process changes woody biomass into clean carbonized EBF in a matter of minutes.

The company say the Enviranization process forces biomass to take on the physical characteristics of coal and as a result can be directly used by coal-burning or biomass fired power plants and industrial facilities without any modification or retrofitting to their existing boiler systems. According to EnviraCarbon since EBF can be used interchangeably with coal or biomass, it eliminates the need for coal burning facilities to spend the billions of dollars in capital expenditures necessary for compliance.

According to information from the company, the EBF product has the same heat value as bituminous coal from the eastern U.S. (12,000+ BTUs), it exhibits a much greater heat value than wood pellets and unlike wood pellets, it is hydrophobic. The EBF product contains negligible amounts of sulfur and non-detectable levels of mercury, arsenic and lead which are toxic elements in coal. EBF is also, by most standards, at or near carbon neutral.

ECI facilities use only certified sustainable biomass and/or waste wood as feedstock and EnviraCarbon has its first EBF commercial facility presently under construction, with export expected to begin in the first quarter 2014.

INL Energy Systems Laboratory Dedicated

The Energy Systems Laboratory (ESL) on the Idaho Falls Research and Education Campus has been official dedicated by the Idaho National Laboratory (INL). John Grossenbacher, Battelle Energy Alliance president and INL laboratory director, hosted special guests including elected officials and U.S. Department of Energy 8596211992_a1835eb9b3representatives, U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho and Jeff Sayer, chairman of Idaho’s Leadership in Nuclear Energy (LINE) Commission and Director of Idaho’s Department of Commerce.

The new facility has 54,000 square feet of reconfigurable laboratory research space, plus a large laboratory for biomass characterization and is LEED Gold certified.

“Our new Energy Systems Laboratory adds significant research capabilities that will contribute to the timely, material and efficient transformation of America’s energy systems and infrastructure,” said Steve Aumeier, Energy and Environment associate laboratory director, who is responsible for research in the new ESL. “The impact of research at ESL is to enhance the nation’s global competitiveness by advancing energy security through integration of clean energy systems, advancement of energy storage technologies, and biomass design and analysis,” he added.

ESL contributes significantly to efforts to integrate low-carbon energy onto America’s electrical grid, reducing the nation’s dependence on foreign-sourced fossil fuels by researching bioenergy and electrical vehicle performances, and increasing energy efficiency in manufacturing, critical materials supplies and used nuclear fuel systems engineering.

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.

Abengoa US Formed

International company Abengoa has announced the creation of a new American subsidiary, Abengoa, US, which will be responsible for all its business in the country. The formation of the new subsidiary supports the company’s strong commitment to the U.S. market.

abengoa logoAccording to the company, Abengoa US has assets in excess of $5.8 billion, more than $1.7 billion in shareholders’ equity, and its revenues account for approximately 20 percent of the company’s total sales.  Today, U.S. projects are coordinated from three offices located in Washington D.C., St. Louis and Denver with R&D+i centers in Denver and St. Louis. In addition, the company has projects completed or underway in 12 sates.

Currently,, Abengoa US is engaged in various landmark projects in the country, including Solana, the world’s largest solar plant using parabolic-trough solar-thermal technology based in the Arizona desert, which has up to six hours of electricity storage, and one of the first commercial second-generation bioethanol plants located in Hugoton, Kansas, which will come into operation at the end of this year.

Farm Bill Extension Without Energy Funding is Job Killer

With the 112th Congress unable to come to terms and pass a new Farm Bill, the current bill was extended for nine months while the 113th Congress works to pass a 2013 Farm Bill. Although the bill is extended as part of the American Taxpayer Relief of 2012, it was extended without energy title funding that includes programs such as the Rural Energy for American Farm Photo: John Helmstetter FarmAmerica Program (REAP), Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) Biorefinery Assistance Program (BAP) and the Biobased Markets Program (Biopreffered). The news was not greeted with enthusiasm by the agricultural and renewable energy industries.

“We are deeply disappointed that Congress ignored the bipartisan bill drafted by House and Senate Ag Committee leaders,” said Lloyd Ritter, Ag Energy Coalition co-director. “By eliminating mandatory funding for energy title programs, the agreement cuts short vitally important job creation and economic growth in rural America.”

According to Ritter, these programs have helped to revitalize rural America, develop new agricultural markets, and reduce the need for direct payments to farmers. In addition, says Ritter, these programs have unlocked private capital for construction of the nation’s first cellulosic and advanced biofuel biorefineries. As part of this movement, more than 150,000 acres of underutilized, such as marginal land, in more than 150 countries.

Last year, the U.S. Senate passed a version of a five-year Farm Bill that set mandatory levels each year for renewable energy and energy efficiency programs. A slightly different version of a five-year Farm Bill was passed by the House Agriculture Committee that provided discretionary funding for these programs. Draft legislation for a one-year extension of the current Farm Bill agreed to by the House and Senate Ag Committee leaders and released at the end of December 2012 set mandatory funding levels for 2013. However, the extension did not pass with these funding levels included and will ultimately cause harm to the momentum of agriculture’s role in renewable energy.

What Do People Think About Biofuels?

What do people in the Southeast think about biofuels? Do they support biofuel ventures? Who will grow the biomass? Will those in established industries fight against it? These are just a few of the questions researchers from the University of Georgia and the U.S. Forest Service are asking as part of studies in locations throughout the Southeast suited for biomass development.

The researchers will use a mix of ethnographic methods to help understand public opinion about bioenergy and also to provide policymakers and business owners with the information they need to make sustainable energy production viable throughout communities.

Corn Stover: Biomass Photo Joanna Schroeder“We’re planning to work on the ground throughout the Southeast,” said Sarah Hitchner, a co-investigator and post-doctoral research associate at UGA’s Center for Integrative Conservation Research. “A lot of people talk about biofuels as being an obvious win-win, but it’s more complicated than that.”

Supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which funds research projects on sustainable bioenergy through its Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, the research team will begin in Soperton, Georgia-formerly home to Range Fuels and now the Freedom Pines Biorefinery owned by LanzaTech-and then moving on to other areas in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida and North Carolina. While visiting local communities, the researchers will participate in the daily activities of community members and conduct in-depth interviews with a variety of stakeholders, such as landowners, industry representatives, potential employees and county commissioners.

“A big part of this kind of research is to listen to as many perspectives as possible,” said Peter Brosius, professor of anthropology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, director of the Center for Integrative Conservation Research and co-investigator in the study. “From there you begin to see patterns emerge.” Continue reading

USDA Supports Sustainable Bioenergy Production

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has awarded $10 million in research grants to help develop production of bioenergy and biobased products. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack made the announcement while visiting Michigan State University, one of the grant winners.

Ford Concept Car with Biobased materialsWhile there, Vilsack mentioned the growth potential of biobased products as detailed in a recent study by Iowa State University (funded by USDA) that found that while biobased products in automobile manufacturing is increasing, there are still many parts that can be replaced with biobased materials.

“USDA and President Obama are committed to producing clean energy right here at home, to not only break our dependence on foreign oil, but also boost rural economies,” said Vilsack. “These projects will give us the scientific information needed to support biofuel production and create co-products that will enhance the overall value of a biobased economy. Today, with a strong and diversified U.S. agricultural sector, the American automobile industry has a greater incentive for expanding use of biobased products while supporting good-paying jobs here in the United States.”

USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) awarded the grants through the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI). AFRI’s sustainable bioenergy challenge area targets the development of regional systems for the sustainable production of bioenergy and biobased products that: contribute significantly to reducing dependence on foreign oil; have net positive social, environmental, and rural economic impacts; and are compatible with existing agricultural systems.

Projects were awarded in four areas: 1) policy options for and impacts on regional biofuels production systems, 2) impacts of regional bioenergy feedstock production systems on wildlife and pollinators, 3) socioeconomic impacts of biofuels on rural communities, and 4) environmental implications of direct and indirect land use change. Click here to view a full list of the winners.

Online Bioenergy Systems Class Set for Spring 2013

With the success of its online bioenergy classes, the Center for Advanced BioEnergy Research (CABER) in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) at the University of Illinois (U of I), is offering the online class Bioenergy Systems (ACES 409) for the Spring 2013 semester. The class begins on January 15, 2013 and ends on May 7, 2013 meeting Tuesday evenings from 6:30 pm to 9:30 pm CST.

ACES 409 Bioenergy Systems is an online introductory survey course of a wide range of bioenergy issues from the life cycle of biofuels to feedstock production to end-product utilization. Lectures will be presented by the course instructors as well as several experts from industry and academic research. Presentations will be delivered via an online virtual environment an online tool that enables students to interact with presenters and other classmates.

“We’re excited to offer this class in bioenergy online. We’ve been teaching it on campus for five years and have had students from around the world take the online version of the class. The diversity among students and countries provides rich opportunity for discussion of technology and policy in various countries,” said Dr. Hans Blaschek, Director of CABER. “Technology is changing so quickly in the bioenergy arena. This class should be beneficial to people throughout the world who are interested in learning more about bioenergy technology and research initiatives at the U of I.”

Students will learn about individual bioenergy issues as well as how each issue fits into the broader bioenergy context and the challenges that remain. This course was designed for students wanting to know more about the status of current bioenergy systems in the U.S. and the opportunities that lie ahead.

Click here to learn more and to register.

Algae Can Draw Energy from Other Plants

Bielfeld University Professor Dr. Olaf Kruse has a class he won’t forget. His biological research team has made what they consider to be a groundbreaking discovery – the green alga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii not only engages in photosynthesis, but is also able to draw energy from other plants. The team believes this could have a major impact on the future of bioenergy.  Findings were released in the online journal, Nature Communications.

According to Kruse, it was believed that only worms, bacteria and fungi could digest vegetable cellulose and use it as a source of carbon for their growth and survival. In contrast, plants engage in photosynthesis of carbon dioxide, water and light. Yet through a series of experiments, Professor Dr. Olaf Kruse and his team cultivated the microscopically small green alga species in a low carbon dioxide environment and observed that when faced with such a shortage, these single-cell plants drew energy from neighboring vegetable cellulose instead.

So how does this work? Kruse explains that the alga secretes enzymes (so-called cellulose enzymes) that ‘digest’ the cellulose, breaking it down into smaller sugar components. These are then transported into the cells and transformed into a source of energy and abracadabra – the alga can continue to grow.

“This is the first time that such a behaviour has been confirmed in a vegetable organism,” noted Professor Kruse. ‘That algae can digest cellulose contradicts every previous textbook. To a certain extent, what we are seeing is plants eating plants.”

So does this trick happen with also forms of alga? Kruse says preliminary findings indicate this is in fact the case. And based on this hypothesis, this unique property of algae, the presence of celulose enzymes could be of interest for bioenergy production. There would no longer be a need for organic materials to feed the fungi that are currently used to extract the enzymes needed to break down the cellulose.