Advanced #Biofuel Production in One-Pot

A strain of bacteria, Escherichia coli (E. coli), engineered by researchers at Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory enables a “one-pot” method for producing advanced biofuels from a slurry of pre-treated plant material. The bacteria is able to tolerate the liquid salt used to break down plant biomass into sugar-based polymers. However, the salt solvent, called ionic liquids, interferes with later stages of the production process; thus, it needs to be removed. This problem is solved with the engineered strain and eliminates the need to remove ionic liquids saving time and money.

Marijke Frederix (left) and Aindrila Mukhopadhyay in a microbiology lab at the Joint BioEnergy Institute. (Credit: Irina Silva/JBEI, Berkeley Lab)

Marijke Frederix (left) and Aindrila Mukhopadhyay in a microbiology lab at the Joint BioEnergy Institute. (Credit: Irina Silva/JBEI, Berkeley Lab)

“Being able to put everything together at one point, walk away, come back, and then get your fuel, is a necessary step in moving forward with a biofuel economy,” said study principal investigator Aindrila Mukhopadhyay, vice president of the Fuels Synthesis Division at the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI), a DOE Bioenergy Research Center at Berkeley Lab. “The E. coli we’ve developed gets us closer to that goal. It is like a chassis that we build other things onto, like the chassis of a car. It can be used to integrate multiple recent technologies to convert a renewable carbon source like switchgrass to an advanced jet fuel.” Study results were published in Green Chemistry journal.

As explained by Aindrila, the basic steps of biofuel production start with breaking apart the cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin that are bound together in the complex plant structure. Traditionally, enzymes are then added to release the sugars from the mixture of cellulose and hemicellulose, a step called saccharification. Bacteria can then take that sugar and churn out the desired biofuel. The multiple steps are all done in separate “pots”.

A JBEI research team has pioneered the use of ionic liquids, salts that are liquid at room temperature, to tackle the deconstruction of plant material because of the efficiency with which the solvent works. However, what makes ionic liquids ideal for deconstruction also makes it harmful for the downstream enzymes and bacteria used in biofuel production. Based on previous work, a suite of saccharification enzymes were discovered that were tolerant to ionic liquids. Continue reading

UCR Awarded $1.3 for Waste-to-Energy Research

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has awarded two University of California Riverside (UCR) researchers with $1.3 million for waste-to-energy research focused on creating biofuels and biochemicals from waste plant materials. Charles Wyman, Distinguished Professor in Chemical and Environmental Engineering and holder of the Ford Motor Company Chair in Environmental Engineering at the Center for Environmental Research and Technology (CE-CERT), and Charles Cai, Research Engineer at CE-CERT and Adjunct Assistant Professor, both with Riverside’s Bourns College of Engineering, lead the team that is looking to convert poplar wood into ethanol and polyurethanes based on novel platforms for pretreatment and lignin polymer synthesis.

Charles Wyman, the Ford Motor Company Chair in Environmental Engineering at UC Riverside.

Charles Wyman, the Ford Motor Company Chair in Environmental Engineering at UC Riverside.

The Wyman/Cai team has patented the method, Co-solvent Enhanced Lignocellulosic Fractionation (CELF), and is using this platform to convert raw ag and forest residues into biofuels and other biochemicals. The goal is to create a pathway in which biofuels and biochemicals can be produced from biomass at high enough yields and low enough costs to become a market competitor to traditional fuels and chemicals. The research team believes CELF will enable production facilities to increase revenue by offsetting pretreatment costs, thus improving overall production economics.

“This project takes advantage of the unique ability of our novel CELF technology to effectively fractionate lignin from low-cost non-food sources of cellulosic biomass such as agricultural and forestry residues for conversion into polyurethanes that increase revenues for biorefineries while also enhancing ethanol yields,” explained Wyman. Wyman leads a team of researchers at UCR’s CE-CERT as well as their additional research partners University of Tennessee Knoxville and MG Fuels LLC.

The funding is one of seven institutions to receive a share of $10 million from the Biomass Research and Development Initiative (BRDI), a joint initiative between USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the Department of Energy (DOE).

Research Develops Ultra Productive Biomass Crops

The University of Illinois and the University of Florida have been awarded a third round of ARPA-E funding (U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy) to continue research work on the Plants Engineered To Replace Oil in Sugarcane and Sweet Sorghum (PETROSS) project. The funding is for projects that are focused on developing ultra-productive biomass crops for use in biofuels.

PETROSS_Sugarcane“Our research project is on a trajectory to produce sugarcane that could give the U.S. an inexhaustible and environmentally friendly oil supply that could satisfy one quarter of the nation’s fuel and provide a renewable source of jet fuel,” said Project Director Stephen Long, Gutgsell Endowed Professor of Crop Sciences and Plant Biology at Illinois. “These crops could be grown in areas of the Southeast that can no longer produce food crops, giving the region a much needed economic boost.”

PETROSS is engineering sugarcane and sorghum to produce 20 percent oil, which equates to 13 times more biodiesel (and six time more profit) per acre than an acre of soybeans. Naturally these crops produce just 0.05 percent oil, which is not enough to convert to biodiesel. PETROSS has now produced a cane that accumulates 13 percent oil by dry weight. With just 5 percent oil that can be turned into biodiesel, PETROSS sugarcane is 4.5 times more profitable than soybeans per acre.

The research team is continuing to work on yield increases as well as improving cold tolerance to expand the growing region of sugarcane in the U.S.  To increase yields, PETROSS is focusing on photosynthesis, which turns the sun’s energy into biomass for biofuel production. An improvement in photosynthesis directly correlates with an increase in yield. PETROSS has developed a plant that is 20 percent more efficient (producing 20 percent more biomass) under normal conditions. Under cooler conditions, PETROSS cane is nearly 50 percent more efficient.

Producing Biodiesel Using Cooking Oil & Microwave

Researchers have discovered a way to produce biodiesel using used cooking oil and a microwave. Scientists have developed a process of using a microwave and catalyst-coasted beads to produce the renewable fuel. The research, with funding from the Israeli Ministry of Science, Technology and Space, was recently published in ACS’ journal Energy & Fuels.

french fries to biodiesel

Converting leftover cooking oil into biodiesel could become less expensive with a new processing technique. Photo Credit: Rena-Marie/iStock/Thinkstock

One of the challenges of biodiesel production is the cost per gallon. With this in mind, the researchers, led by Aharon Gedanken, set out to discover a less expensive method.

The research team developed silica beads coated with a catalyst and added them to waste cooking oil. Then, they zapped the mixture with a modified microwave oven to spur the reaction of the beads with cooking oil. In just 10 seconds, nearly 100 percent of the oil was converted to fuel. The researchers could also easily recover the beads and reuse them at least 10 times with similar results.

With conversion values as high as 99 percent, the research team believes economical production of biodiesel from cooking oil is feasible and on the horizon.

Research Uses Waste Papayas for Biofuels

Research led by the U.D. Department of Agriculture (USDA) scientists is looking at how to encourage algae in to producing oil from waste papayas and other unmarketable crops or byproducts such as glycerol. The lead scientist for the project is Lisa Keith, a plant pathologist with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS). The experiments are taking place in Hilo Hawaii and utilizing Chlorella protothecoides algae. They are part of larger efforts to reduce Hawaii’s need for imported oil and energy through zero-waste systems.

papayasKeith’s research uses specialized vats called “bioreactors,” which allow for the growth of 150 liters’ worth (approximately 40 gallons) of algae. Her team selected “UTEX 249,” a top-performing strain of C. protothecoides that can store as much as 60 percent its cellular weight in lipids when grown—in the absence of sunlight—on a diet of 35 percent papaya juice.

In addition to sugar, papaya juice contains carbon, a critical but costly component of current algal-based methods of producing oil for conversion into biodiesel. The zero-waste system only uses unmarketable papayas, which account for one-third of Hawaii’s $11-million crop and represent a substantial revenue loss for growers there.

Keith has been awarded a $1.6 million grant for the project from the Hawaii Department of Agriculture’s Agribusiness Development Corporation.

Texas A&M Discovers Algae to Biofuel Breakthrough

Scientists from Texas A&M may have discovered a way to coax algae into making larger amounts of oil. The team discovered an enzyme responsible for making hydrocarbons that could in turn increase the amount of oil algae produces improving the algae to biofuel process. The green algae strain researched was Botryococcus braunii, and the study was published in the current issue of Nature Communications and led by Dr. Tim Devarenne, an AgriLife Research biochemist at Texas A&M.

Dr. Timothy Devarenne studies the biofuel properties of a common green microalga called Botryococcus braunii in his lab at Texas A&M University. Photo Credit: Kathleen Phillips

Dr. Timothy Devarenne studies the biofuel properties of a common green microalga called Botryococcus braunii in his lab at Texas A&M University. Photo Credit: Kathleen Phillips

“The interesting thing about this alga is that it produces large amounts of liquid hydrocarbons, which can be used to make fuels such as gasoline, kerosene and diesel fuel,” Devarenne told AgriLife Today, a Texas A&M campus publication. “And these liquid hydrocarbons made by the alga are currently found in petroleum deposits, so we are already using them as a source to generate fuel.”

“Botryococcus is found pretty much everywhere in the world except for seawater,” he added. “It’s very cosmopolitan. It grows in freshwater or brackish water. It’s found in almost all ponds and lakes around the world. It’s been found in every continent except Antarctica, and it grows from mountain to desert climates.”

The goal of the research was to discover how to get algae to make more oil and so the team looked at how Botryococcus braunii makes the liquid hydrocarbons — what genes and pathways are involved — with the idea of manipulating the genes to express specific traits. Continue reading

Research: Sugar to Biodiesel Better

Researchers at the University of Illinois have discovered a method to economically produce biodiesel from sugarcane as compared to the production of biodiesel from soybean oil. At the beginning of the research, which was designed to find a better way to make biodiesel than using food crops or land needed for food production, the team landed on sugarcane and sweet sorghum as viable options to achieve the goals. An article based on the research was published this month in BIOfpr.

Soybean field in Iowa. Photo Credit: Joanna Schroeder

Soybean field in Iowa. Photo Credit: Joanna Schroeder

According to lead project investigator Stephen P. Long, U of I crop scientist, the team altered sugarcane metabolism to convert sugars into lipids, or oils, which could been be used to produce biodiesel. While the natural makeup of sugarcane is typically only about 0.05 percent oil, within a year of starting the project, the team was able to boost oil production 20 times, to approximately 1 percent.

Today the so-called “oil-cane” plants are producing 12 percent oil with the team’s ultimate goal of achieving 20 percent oil. Oil cane has additional advantages that have been engineered by the tea iincluding increased cold tolerance and more efficient photosynthesis, which leads to greater biomass production and even more oil.

“If all of the energy that goes into producing sugar instead goes into oil, then you could get 17 to 20 barrels of oil per acre,” Long explains. Today an acre of soybean produces about one barrel or oil. “A crop like this could be producing biodiesel at a very competitive price, and could represent a perpetual source of oil and a very significant offset to greenhouse gas emissions, as well.”

In their analysis, the team looked at the land area, technology, and costs required for processing oil-cane biomass into biodiesel under a variety of oil production scenarios, from 2 percent oil in the plant to 20 percent. These numbers were compared with normal sugarcane, which can be used to produce ethanol, and soybean. An advantage of oil cane is that leftover sugars in the plant can be converted to ethanol, providing two fuel sources in one.

“Modern sugarcane mills in Brazil shared with us all of their information on energy inputs, costs, and machinery. Then we looked at the U.S. corn ethanol industry, and how they separated the corn oil. Everything we used is existing technology, so that gave us a lot of security on our estimates,” Long said. Continue reading

Penn State Harvests First Shrub Willow Crop

Researchers at Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences have completed the harvest of its first experimental crop of shrub willow. The intention of the biomass crop is for use to produce renewable energy and bio-based products. The 34 acres of the shrub willow is part of a five-year program called NEWBio one of seven regional projects of which the goal is to investigate and research sustainable production of woody biomass. Planted in 2012 on land formerly owned by the State Correctional Institution at Rockview, the biomass crop will regrow and will be harvested every three years.

Biomass energy from crops such as shrub willow could provide the social, economic and ecological drivers for a sustainable rural renaissance in the Northeast, researchers say. Photo Credit Penn State.

Biomass energy from crops such as shrub willow could provide the social, economic and ecological drivers for a sustainable rural renaissance in the Northeast, researchers say. Photo Credit Penn State.

“The shrub willow stand at Rockview can continue producing biomass for more than 20 years, and we hope to use it both as a source of renewable energy and as a platform for sustainability research,” explained Armen Kemanian, associate professor of production systems and modeling in the Department of Plant Science, one of the lead researchers in the project. “This is an excellent site to investigate impacts on soil and water quality, biodiversity, avoided carbon dioxide emissions, and the potential for growing a regional bio-based economy. Students from our college visit the site and have a firsthand and close-up view of this new crop for the region.”

Kemanian said shrub willow was selected because the perennial likes to be cut. The team is taking advantage of the shrub willow’s vigorous regrowth allowing for multiple harvest cycles. In addition, Kemanian notes the plants also establish a root system that stabilizes the soil and stores substantial amounts of carbon that otherwise would be lost to the atmosphere.

Other advantages of the plant include its ability to store an recycle nutrients leading to little need for fertilizer and an ability to help improve water quality.  Increasing perennial vegetation is a critical component of Pennsylvania’s water quality strategy, and these biomass crops allow vulnerable parts of the landscape to remain economically productive while protecting water quality says Kemanian who notes that shrub willow can produce the same amount of biomass as a corn crop with only a third of the nitrogen fertilizer. When the plants grow, they take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. After harvest, when the biomass is combusted either as wood chips or as a liquid biofuel, the carbon dioxide returns to the atmosphere to complete the cycle.

Researchers believe the NEWBio project could hold an important key to future economic development for the region but first an understanding of how to economically handle the harvesting, transportation and storage of massive volumes, which constitutes 40 to 60 percent of the cost of biomass is needed. The continuation of the research will address these concerns as well.

Research Converts Tomato Paste to Energy

© Jamie Wilson | Dreamstime Stock Photos

© Jamie Wilson | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Researchers from South Dakota School of Mines & Technology have developed a way to convert tomato waste in electricity. Led by Venkataramana Gadhamshetty, Ph.D., he and his team used a biological-based fuel cell that uses tomato waste left over from harvests in Florida. The characteristics of the decomposing waste make it a “perfect fuel source” for enhancing electrochemical reactions, Gadhamshetty said.

Food waste comes in many forms including the leftovers of manufacturing processes of sauces, ketchup and other cooking products. He began the research several years ago as a professor at Florida Gulf Coast University. He says the project is important to Florida, where tomatoes are a key crop, because the state generates 396,000 tons of tomato waste every year but lacks a good treatment process. Gadhamshetty said a lot of this waste is ripe with chemical energy and he and his team wanted to see if this could be used as a source of electrons. The answer: yes.

The team tested the defective tomatoes in a new electrochemical device built at the South Dakota Mines campus, which degrades tomato waste and then extracts electrons. The power output from their mini reactor is small: 10 milligrams of tomato waste can result in 0.3 watts of electricity. But the researchers note that with an expected scale up and more research, electrical output could be increased by several orders of magnitude.

Screen Shot 2016-03-21 at 9.11.17 AM“It might be possible to one day put this device at the bottom of my kitchen sink” to convert waste into household electricity, Gadhamshetty said who added that this alternative fuel source is inexpensive technology because operations can be conducted at room temperature requiring no major investment of materials.

Gadhamshetty and SD Mines graduate student Namita Shrestha are collaborating on the project with Alex Fogg, an undergraduate chemistry major at Princeton University. Other project collaborators include Daniel Franco, Joseph Wilder and Simeon Komisar, Ph.D., at Florida Gulf Coast University.

“I’m really excited about this research. I come from a small country, Nepal, and we have power cut off as much as 20 hours in a day, so this could really help developing countries,” Shrestha said. “We cannot afford expensive technologies like waste treatment.” According to Shrestha’s calculations, there is theoretically enough tomato waste generated in Florida each year to meet Disney World’s electricity demand for 90 days, using an optimized biological fuel cell.

U of Florida Researchers Tout Algae Breakthrough

Researchers at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) may have broken the code on better algae-based biofuels. Bala Rathinasabapathi, a UF/IFAS professor of horticultural sciences, said they have identified a “transcription factor” called ROC40 that controls the expression of many genes inside algae. He likens this process to a policeman controlling a large crowd.

UF/IAFS Horticulture Professor Balasubramanian Rathinasabapathi, seen here working in his Gainesville lab, has found what could be a big key to converting microalgae to biofuel. He and former doctoral student Elton Gonçalves found that the transcription factor ROC40 helps control lipid production when the algal cells were starved of nitrogen. Credit: Tyler Jones, UF/IFAS photography.

UF/IAFS Horticulture Professor Balasubramanian Rathinasabapathi, seen here working in his Gainesville lab, has found what could be a big key to converting microalgae to biofuel. He and former doctoral student Elton Gonçalves found that the transcription factor ROC40 helps control lipid production when the algal cells were starved of nitrogen. Credit: Tyler Jones, UF/IFAS photography.

While starving algae of nitrogen to draw out the lipids, it was discovered that the synthesis of ROC40 was the most induced when the cells made the most oil. According to Elton Gonçalves, a former UF/IFAS doctoral student in the plant molecular and cellular biology program, this suggested to the researchers that ROC40 could be playing an important biological role. The team’s research found that ROC40 helps control lipid production when the algal cells were nitrogen starved. This suggests the ROC40 protein may be increasing the expression of genes involved in the synthesis of oil in microalgae.

“Such information is of great importance for the development of superior strains of algae for biofuel production,” said Gonçalves. “We conducted this research due to the great socioeconomic importance of developing renewable sources of fuels as alternatives for petroleum-based fuels for future generations. In order to advance the production of algal biofuels into a large-scale, competitive scenario, it is fundamental that the biological processes in these organisms are well understood.”

Rathinasabapathi added that this information is valuable for the future for engineering algae so it overproduces oil without starving the algae of nitrogen.

Rathinasabapathi and Gonçalves co-authored the study, which has been accepted for publication in The Plant Journal.