Sumitomo Invests in Cosan Biomassa

Sumitomo Corporation has signed a contract to acquire up to 20 percent of Cosan Biomassa, a producer of sugarcane pellets for power generation. With an eye on Asia’s need to reduce fossil fuel use and meet goals as set forth in the Climate Treaty last December, the partnership between Sumitomo and Cosan will focus on increasing exports to Japan and Europe as well as increase domestic sales.

bagasse-pelletsAccording to a press statement, the state of Sao Paulo has the collective production potential of 45 million tons/year of sugarcane pellets. The venture has set forth a goal to produce 2 million tons by 2025 and as much as 8 million tons/year in the future. Cosan Biomassa has developed a fuel pellet made from sugarcane residues such as bagasse from the sugar mill and straw left over in the sugarcane field, and built a large-scale production plant with an annual capacity 175,000 tons that went into commercial production in December 2015.

“Brazil is already among the largest producers and exporters of agricultural commodities in the world. Pelletized biomass is a new commodity being created to serve the low carbon economy,” said Mark Lyra, Cosan Biomassa CEO. “By making use of sugarcane residues and benefiting from the economic and environmental advantages that the shift to rail logistics brings to the game, Brazil is positioned to become the Saudi Arabia of renewable energy.”

Sumitomo Corporation has targeted biomass energy as a promising source of renewable energy, and began importing biomass fuel for power generation to Japan in 2008.

“By the year 2030, we foresee that Japan will consume as much as 10 million+ tons of pelletized biomass, the majority of which would come from overseas. Renewable energy including biomass will play a prominent role in our power generation sector by that time,” said Yoshinobu Kusano, general manager, Biomass Business, Sumitomo Corporation. “We believe a relevant portion of this demand will be met by agricultural waste, particularly sugarcane biomass pellets produced in Brazil. Sugarcane’s productivity and abundant availability tied to the fact that we are using its residual byproduct as a raw material gives us a unique sustainability condition when compared to other biomass sources in the world.”

University of Illinois Identifies Ideal Bioenergy Crops

New research from the University of Illinois has identified what bioenergy crops are best for certain regions while minimizing effects on water quantity and quality. The study was based on replacing current vegetation with crops for ethanol production and looked at how each crop would impact water quantity and quality in soils.

“We expect the outcome of this study to support scientifically sound national policy decisions on bioenergy crops development especially with regards to cellulosic grasses,” wrote Atul Jain, professor of atmospheric sciences at University of Illinois, regarding a paper published by the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

This figure shows how much water is used to produced one unit of ethanol (defined as water use intensity) for each energy crop. (Image courtesy of Atul Jain.)

This figure shows how much water is used to produced one unit of ethanol (defined as water use intensity) for each energy crop. (Image courtesy of Atul Jain.)

Today, corn is the primary feedstock for ethanol production in the U.S. Prior research has found that several bioenergy grasses such as Miscanthus and switchgrasses such as Alamo and Cave-in-Rock causes less nitrogen loss as compared to corn. Nitrogen is an important nutrient for crops and a key ingredient in fertilizer, but nitrogen often washes away into rivers and other bodies of water where it is detrimental to aquatic ecosystems.

Researchers argue that another advantage bioenergy grasses and switchgrasses have over corn is their deep root system that allows them to draw water and nutrients from deeper soil levels and enables them to be more resilient in poor growing seasons.

“Growing bioenergy grasses, in general, can mitigate nitrogen leaching across the United States,” said Yang Song, a graduate student and the study’s lead author. “However, the greatest reduction in nitrogen leaching occurs when bioenergy crops displace other cropland or grassland, because energy crops consume more water and less nitrogen fertilizer than the crops and grasses that they replace, resulting in less water runoff and nitrogen loss.” Continue reading

Federal Activities Report on Bioeconomy Released

USDA has released a new report, “Federal Activities Report on the Bioeconomy.” According to Dr. Catherine Woteki, the report was developed to create awareness of federal agency activities that are helping to develop and support the bioeconomy. The “bioeconomy” is an emerging part of the U.S. economy, says Woteki, that utilizes renewable biological resources to produce fuels, power and biobased products.

Screen Shot 2016-02-29 at 11.16.10 AMAccording to the Department of Energy (DOE), the U.S. has the potential to sustainably produce one billion tons of biomass. This could displace 25 percent of U.S. transportation fuels, 50 billion pounds of bio-based products, and generate 85 billion kWh of electricity. To reach this would mean tripling the size of current U.S. biomass usage. USDA, DOE, and other federal agencies have activities in place that provide a foundation for the existing bioeconomy.

The Federal Activities Report on the Bioeconomy introduces the Billion Ton Bioeconomy Vision—the government’s new, collaborative vision of what America could achieve by expanding efforts to develop the bioeconomy. Moving forward, the Biomass R&D Board will be hosting a series of workshops and webinars to gather input for the vision from stakeholders and the public, which will be released later this year.

U of Illinois Miscanthus Research Breakthrough

University of Illinois researchers have studied genetic markers of miscanthus to identify early developmental traits that will improve yield. According to the researchers, “this study begins to establish links between reproducible genetic markers and a number of key agronomic traits in Miscanthus sinensis.” The research paper was published in GCB Bioenergy, “Mapping the genome of Miscanthus sinensis for QTL associated with biomass productivity.”

Miscanthus_1Over a period of three years, researchers measured developmental and biomass traits over a period of three establishment years in the offspring of a cross between Miscanthus sinensis cultivars ‘Grosse Fontaine’ and ‘Undine.’ It can take three-four years for a miscanthus crop to have a reliable yield. Next, the team extracted DNA from the plants and examined the resulting single nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs, to develop a genetic map. The technique improves upon older types of genetic markers that were not as tightly linked to particular genes controlling important biomass traits.

“It represents one of the very first maps that was made and it’s also one of the first times we were able to map a number of genes associated with biomass productivity, and determine the locations of those genes in the Miscanthus genome,” said U of I geneticist Jack Juvik.

On a practical level, the researchers saw strong positive correlations between biomass yield and plant basal circumference, height, and tiller (stem) number, suggesting that plants that are able to grow taller and produce more tillers in the first few years may achieve higher yields in the long term. They also found negative correlations between flowering time and yield, with early flowering individuals producing less biomass. The researchers breeders could make use of that information to improve early selection of plants with enhanced biomass productivity to accelerate the breeding program.

“The advantage to marker-assisted breeding is that you can grow seedlings, collect DNA, and probe for a large suite of DNA markers that are linked to genes that confer the characteristics you want. That can save a lot of time, because you can identify potential phenotypes without having to wait 3-4 years to get a mature plant,” explained Juvik. “The value of this kind of system in Miscanthus is substantial in terms of breeding progress.”

In addition to saving time and providing breeders with specific traits to look for in high-yielding plants, the techniques used in the study and the initial results establish a jumping-off point for future work.

Juvik notes, “This is the starting point. We’ve continued this work and applied it to other populations and to other questions about breeding Miscanthus. This sets up the foundation for moving into a range of different applications.”

Goat’s Guts Lead to Better Biofuels

New research finds that some day your gas tanks could be filled up by horses, sheep and goat’s guts. Researchers looked at how the anaerobic gut fungi, as compared to engineered fungi, were able to convert plant material into sugars that could be converted into advanced biofuels and other biobased materials.

Fungi found in the guts of goats, horses and sheep help them digest stubborn plant material. A team of researchers report in the journal Science that these fungi could potentially lead to cheaper biofuel and bio-based products. Professor of chemical engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara Michelle O’Malley, was the lead author of the paper. She explained, “Nature has engineered these fungi to have what seems to be the world’s largest repertoire of enzymes that break down biomass.”

Fungi found in the guts of goats, horses and sheep help them digest stubborn plant material. A team of researchers report in the journal Science that these fungi could potentially lead to cheaper biofuel and bio-based products. Image courtesy of Daniele Faieta/Flickr

Fungi found in the guts of goats, horses and sheep help them digest stubborn plant material. A team of researchers report in the journal Science that these fungi could potentially lead to cheaper biofuel and bio-based products. Image courtesy of Daniele Faieta/Flickr

These enzymes — tools made of protein — work together to break down stubborn plant material. The researchers found that the fungi adapt their enzymes to wood, grass, agricultural waste, or whatever they were fed. The findings suggest that gut fungi could be modified so the produce better enzymes that will outperform even the best ones on the market today. With a more effective way to break down biomass, it should led to the development of less expensive biofuels and bioproducts.

O’Malley and her colleagues knew the fungi’s hyphae excrete proteins, or enzymes, break down plant material. The researchers understood that like tools in a toolbox, the more diverse the enzymes, the better the fungi can take apart plants and turn them into food. So the goal was to help develop this fungi toolbox for the bioindustry to use to better break down biomass.

“Despite their fascinating biology, anaerobic gut fungi can be difficult to isolate and study,” said Scott Baker, EMSL’s science theme lead for Biosystem Dynamics and Design, one of the agencies that collaboratively participated in the research. “By utilizing the cutting-edge scientific capabilities at EMSL and JGI, O’Malley showed how the huge catalog of anaerobic gut fungi enzymes could advance biofuel production.”

DOC Partners With NEC to Increase Ethanol Exports

Despite low crude oil prices, 2015 was still a robust export year for the ethanol industry according to Kenneth Hyatt, deputy under secretary for International Trade with the U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC). The DOC partnered with the Renewable Fuels Association, the host of the 21st Annual National Ethanol Conference (#RFANEC) where delegates from several countries were on hand to discuss export opportunities.

nec16-hyattHyatt said his organization has four key areas of focus in which they can assist the ethanol industry: promotion of U.S. exports; aid in opening global markets; assist investors in increasing direct foreign investment; and enforce U.S. trade laws and international trade agreements. However, the focus of his presentation was on exports.

“I would think about us as doing anything that would help you figure out whether to export, figure out to where to export. If you want to find a buyer in one of those countries, to help find a buyer in those countries. If it’s to help find a distributor in a country, we help find that distributor. It can also be if you have a problem in a country,” remarked Hyatt.

Hyatt also gave an overview on the top destinations of the export markets (Canada, Brazil and Phillipines), and also discussed the updates on the horizon of its Renewable Fuels Top Markets Report 2016. It covers both ethanol and biomass woodpellets and includes case studies, contact information and ranks them on strength of prospects.

Listen to Kenneth Hyatt’s presentation here: Kenneth Hyatt's Presentation

Kenneth Hyatt’s PowerPoint presentation

2016 National Ethanol Conference Photo Album

Comet Biorefining to Build Biomass to Sugar Plant

TransAlta Energy Park located in Sarnia, Ontario will be the new home of a commercial scale biomass to sugar facility operated by Comet Biorefining. The facility is expected to be operational by 2018 and will produce 60 million pounds per year of dextrose sugar from locally sourced corn stover and wheat straw.

Comet Biorefining logoComet, using its proprietary patented process, coverts the biomass into sugar and then the sugar will be converted into biobased products including organic acids, amino acids and bioplastics. The company notes that the biobased products will replace petroleum-based materials, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help Canada reach its climate reduction goals. Comet also says its dextrose is cost and performance competitive with commercial dextrose sugars.

Andrew Richard, CEO of Comet said, “Construction of this first-of-a-kind plant represents a key step towards the large-scale commercialization of our cellulosic sugar business. It highlights the important role our technology plays in the value chain, helping to drive the bioeconomy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

The company says it chose to locate in Sarnia by working together with Bioindustrial Innovation Canada (BIC), the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) and an Ontario farmers’ cooperative on a project to attract sustainable technology providers to the region and to meet increasing demand from chemical suppliers and consumers for low-carbon products.

“Establishing new uses for agricultural residues in the bio-based chemical supply chain leads to sustainable farms and new markets. Both outcomes are primary goals of the OFA, and this project does just that,” added Don McCabe, OFA’s president.

New BIO-Yeast Could Improve Biofuels Production

Quinn Dickinson, research specialist at the University of Madison’s Wisconsin Energy Institute who also works with the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC), has helped to design a new strain of yeast that he believes holds great promise in improving the efficiency of making biofuel from biomass such as switchgrass.

Dickinson’s goal is to solve a problem in the biomass to biofuels conversion process, namely that in some cases, solvents are so good at breaking down biomass that they often hinder the next critical step of the process, fermentation.

GLBRC assistant research specialist Quinn Dickinson picks a colony of a new yeast strain that could reduce the cost of biofuels produced with ionic liquids.

GLBRC assistant research specialist Quinn Dickinson picks a colony of a new yeast strain that could reduce the cost of biofuels produced with ionic liquids.

The precursor to this finding was research Dickinson was conducting with fellow GLBRC colleague, Jeff Piotrowski, who is now a principal scientist at Yumanity Therapeutics in Massachusetts. The two were working on ionic liquids, solvents that can deconstruct different kinds of biomass into relatively pure streams of the plant’s sugar but which are also toxic to the kind of microorganisms that ferment those sugars into fuel.

“Ionic liquids are a particularly promising technology for deconstructing biomass, but their toxicity to fermentative microbes has posed a challenge,” said Piotrowski. “To really harness the power of this solvent — and to enable a bio-based economy — we need microbes specifically tailored to tolerate the specific toxicity of ionic liquids.” Continue reading

DOE Announces Biomass to Biofuels Funding

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has announced up to $11.3 million in funding to develop flexible biomass to hydrocarbon biofuels conversion pathways. The goal is for these roads, per se, to be able to be easily modified to produce advanced biofuels and/or bioproducts, depending on market demand. Using a DOE example, one pathway could consist of a route to a platform chemical that could be converted to products or renewable fuels. Another idea is a pathway that co-produces both biochemicals and advanced biofuels rather than one or the other at any given time.

Photo credit: Joanna Schroeder

Photo credit: Joanna Schroeder

The grants are being funded specifically through the Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO) who has a goal of meeting the 2022 cost target of $3/gallon of gasoline equivalent (gge) for the production of renewable hydrocarbon fuels from lignocellulosic biomass.

One approach BETO has taken previously to achieve this goal is to focus on conversion pathways that produce biofuels, with little or no emphasis on coproducing bioproducts. However, with the knowledge that adding the production of co-products or value-added chemicals and products can help incentivize the de-risking of “front-end” processes required to convert the biomass to biofuels, BETO is also looking to expand to pathway to product process.

Therefore, the intent of the funding is to identify research and development (R&D) projects that propose a conversion pathway that may flexibly produce bioproducts and biofuels. According to BETO, the proposed pathway must illustrate a realistic approach to producing cost-competitive renewable hydrocarbon biofuels. These pathways could consist of a route to a platform chemical that could be converted to products or fuels, or a route that coproduces chemicals and fuels. Successful applications will include a clear justification for producing the target molecule(s) from biomass, a compelling narrative explaining how the target product(s) will enable biofuels, and supporting techno-economic analysis and life-cycle analysis.

Interested parties can learn more about this opportunity and application requirements here. Applications are due February 26, 2016. An informational webinar for potential applicants will take place at 3:00 p.m. Eastern Time, Feb. 16, 2016. A recording of the webinar will be posted on the EERE Exchange website.

NREL Discovers New Biorefinery Process

Researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have developed a new biorefinery process that more efficiently converts algae to ethanol. The process, Combined Algal Processing (CAP), was featured in the journal Algal Research.

Algal ResearchThe research builds on a project previously completed by NREL In that work, the research looked at two promising algal strains Chlorella and Scenedesmus, to determine their applicability as biofuel and bioproduct producers. They concluded Scenedesmus performed better in this process with impressive demonstrated total fuel yields of 97 gallons gasoline equivalents (GGE) per ton of biomass.

The next step is to reduce the costs of conversion. The research team has looked at increasing the amount of lipids in algae but found the it won’t significantly reduce the costs. However, the NREL team has determined further progress could be made by more completely using all algal cellular components instead of just relying on the lipids. By applying certain processing techniques, microalgal biomass can produce carbohydrates and proteins in addition to lipids, and all of these can be converted into co-products.

According to NREL, the team has determined that through the use of a solid-liquid separation process, the carbohydrates can be converted to fermentable sugars, which can then be used to produce ethanol. However, as much as 37 percent of the sugars were lost during that process. Those trapped sugars “cannot be used for fermentation without a costly washing step, resulting in a loss of overall fuel yield,” according to the Algal Research report. Continue reading