Study Raises Doubts About Dev of New Fossil Fuels

A new study is raising doubts about future development of new fossil fuel resources. Published in Global Environmental Change and authored by Richard Heede and Naomi Oreskes, the report looks closely at the potential of global warming emissions that could be unleashed from carbon reserves held by the globe’s largest fossil fuel producers.

Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 12.04.41 PMSome key findings of the study include:

  • Burning the reserves of the world’s largest fossil fuel producers will result in emissions of 440 gigatons of carbon—far in excess of the 275 gigatons of carbon scientists say can be emitted this century if global mean temperature increases are to stay at or below 2 degrees Celsius.
  • The future emissions from the proven reserves of the largest 28 state-owned entities, including the National Iranian Oil Company, Saudi Aramco and Russia’s Gazprom, collectively make up more than three quarters (76 percent) of the world’s remaining carbon budget.
  • The future emissions from the proven reserves of the largest 42 investor-owned companies collectively make up 16 percent of the world’s remaining carbon budget.

Funded in part by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) also found that “profound risk” to the climate exists from the prospect of development of these reserves.

“This study shows just how important it is that the world reaches a strong international climate agreement in Paris next month,” said Alden Meyer, the director of strategy and policy at UCS who has been involved in the climate negotiations for 25 years. “The fact is, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and other oil producing counties are continuing to ramp up production, despite the threat climate change poses to communities around the world.”

The study shows the reserves of most of the 42 investor-owned companies will be exhausted in 15 years or less. But oil and gas companies are investing hundreds of billions of dollars to explore for and develop new reserves to extend production in the decades to come. Heede says the threat of exceeding the 2 degree Celsius target comes primarily from the investor-owned companies tapping new reserves and he states the study’s findings can help inform shareholder action.

“The threat of exceeding the 2 degree Celsius target comes primarily from the investor-owned companies tapping new reserves, less so from their relatively small existing reserves,” said Heede, the principal of Climate Mitigation Services.

Oreskes, a Harvard history of science professor and former exploration geologist, added, “The bottom line is that if we’re to have any hope of avoiding a 2 degree temperature increase, the largest state-owned companies cannot fully tap all of their proven reserves and the big investor-owned companies need to decrease rapidly, and ultimately eliminate, their capital expenditures for exploration and development of new reserves.”

Military Jets Could Fly High on Roadside Gumweed

Glenn Miller gumweed1Researchers in Nevada are finding a way to turn a roadside weed into a high performance military jet fuel. This article from the University of Nevada, Reno, says the school’s Glenn Miller is leading the effort in a project that refines roadside gumweed into biofuel.

“The plant grindelia squarosa, known as curly top gumweed, has extractable hydrocarbons with the potential use as a biodiesel or biomaterials crop,” Miller, a professor in the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources, said. “Gumweed is native in Nevada and grows on the side of freeways and, more importantly, is an arid land crop that requires less water than other substitutes like alfalfa. Alfalfa takes five feet of water to grow while gumweed uses no more than a foot of water.”

The collaborators on the project planted the gumweed at the University’s Valley Road Field Laboratory and the Main Station Field Laboratory using minimal water and fertilizer resources. After growing and harvesting the gumweed, it went through biomass processing where it was broken down to liquid that smells like tar.

The researchers say the crop and process can produce up to 122 gallons per acre on a biennial basis on the semi-arid lands of Nevada. The project received $500,000 in grant funding from the United States Department of Agriculture and has the potential to supply up to 20 percent of fuel demand for the military.

“It is estimated that if even 10 percent of sagebrush-covered lands in Nevada are used to grow gumweed for aviation biofuels, 400 to 600 million gallons per year of jet biofuels could be produced,” Hongfei Lin, a collaborator from the College of Engineering, said. “That’s definitely incredible. There’s lots of potential.”

Texas A&M Developing Biofuel, Forage Crop

jessupamResearchers at Texas A&M University are developing a crop that will double as a bioenergy and livestock forage source. This news release from the school says Dr. Russ Jessup, a Texas A&M AgriLife Research perennial grass breeder in College Station, is introducing a new biofuel-biomass feedstock hybrid that is a hybrid “similar to seedless watermelons, seedless grapes and other sterile triploid crops.”

Jessup is utilizing two grass species: pearl millet, a grain crop, and Napier grass, which is a very high-biomass crop that can be crossed to make progeny that are sterile triploids in the field.

“This is a dual-use crop with a low seed cost, high yield potential and quality perennial biomass suitable for both forage and dedicated biofuels,” he said. “So in light of current downtrends in oil prices, this crop can stand on its own as a forage crop in the interim, until that reverses.”

As a high-quality forage crop, Jessup said, it is sterile in the field but has seeded parents, unlike sugarcane that has to be planted from stocks.

To produce this hybrid he started with the larger seeded but shorter pearl millet to give it quality, large seeds and drought tolerance. Pearl millet is native to Africa and can be more drought tolerant than even sorghum, he said.

Then he crossed it with Napier grass, a closely related cousin of pearl millet that is grown in Africa for cut-and-carry silage and high biomass fodder.

“You can cross these two species and get ample seed off of the pearl millet parent,” Jessup said.

U of W Research Converts Poplar Trees to Biofuels

New research from the University of Washington is laying the foundation to use woody biomass from poplar trees into sustainably produced biofuels and biochemicals. A five-year $40 million dollar study funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is in its last year and results will seed a wood-based cellulosic ethanol production facility.

Poplar materials, including bark, leaves and wood, are used to make cellulosic ethanol.Dennis Wise/University of Washington

Poplar materials, including bark, leaves and wood, are used to make cellulosic ethanol.Dennis Wise/University of Washington

ZeaChem, one of the industry partners in the study, is moving ahead with plans to build a commercial production facility in Boardman, Oregon, in 2016 that will produce cellulosic ethanol and biochemicals from poplar trees grown specially for those industries.

“We’ve established that poplar is a viable and sustainable feedstock for the production of fuels and bio-based chemicals,” said Rick Gustafson, a UW professor of bioresource science and engineering, who leads the project. “We’ve provided fundamental information that our industry partners can use to convince investors that production of fuels and chemicals from poplar feedstock is a great investment.”

The research team is known as the Advanced Hardwood Biofuels Northwest and they have set up five demonstration tree farms with different varieties of poplar. None of the trees is genetically engineered, but instead researchers bred them to thrive in different environments and to grow fast. The trees can gain up to 20 feet a year, allowing for a harvest every two or three years.

When a poplar tree is cut, its stump naturally sprouts new shoots and the next generation of trees grow out of the parent stumps. Each tree can go through about six cycles of this regrowth before new poplars must be planted, explained Gustafson. Continue reading

Biofuels Capacity to Grow to 61B Gallons by 2018

According to new research, global biofuels capacity will grow to 61 billion gallons per year (BGY0 by 2018. Ethanol and biodiesel will continue to dominate with 96 percent of the capacity in 2018, but novel fuels and novel feedstocks will be major drivers of capacity growth, according to Lux Research.

The study finds that novel fuels and novel feedstocks will grow at a rate of 27 percent and 16 percent compound annual growth rate (CAGR), respectively, through 2018. Ethanol and biodiesel will grow at a slower 2 percent rate but will reach capacities of 40 BGY and 19 BGY, respectively.

Biofuels growth from Lux research“While ethanol and biodiesel dominate global biofuel capacity today, limits on their growth mean that novel fuels like renewable diesel, biojet fuel and biocrude are crucial to the future of the industry,” said Victor Oh, Lux Research Associate and lead author of the report titled, “Biofuels Outlook 2018: Highlighting Emerging Producers and Next-generation Biofuels.”

“Producers also need to tap into novel feedstocks like waste oils, non-edible biomass, and municipal solid waste to push the industry beyond food-vs.-fuels competition,” he added.

Lux Research analysts studied growth of biofuels utilizing an alternative fuels database of over 1,800 production facilities globally. Among their findings:

  • Waste oils will dominate next-generation biofuels. With a 52% share, biodiesel made from novel feedstock, specifically waste oils, will lead novel fuels capacity in 2018. Cellulosic ethanol and renewable diesel follow with 19% and 18%, respectively.
  • Americas continue dominance. With a 64% share of global biofuels capacity, the Americas are a dominant force. The region, led by the U.S. and Brazil, also leads in utilization of global production capacity with 86%, much higher than the global average of 68% in 2014.
  • Eight countries are biggest emerging producers. China, Indonesia and Thailand in Asia; Colombia and Argentina in the Americas; and Portugal, Poland and France in Europe are the biggest emerging production centers for biofuels after the U.S. and Brazil.

Molecular Swiss Army Knife Improves Algae-Fuel

A molecular Swiss Army knife may hold the key to making blue-green algae biofuel and biochemical production more viable. A research team from Michigan State University (MSU) fabricated a synthetic protein that both improves the assembly of the carbon-fixing factory of cyanobacteria while providing proof of concept for a device that could potentially improve plant photosynthesis or be used to install new metabolic pathways in bacteria. Study results were published this month in The Plant Cell journal.

MSU scientists have built a molecular Swiss Army knife that makes biofuels and other green chemical production from algae more viable. Photo by G.L. Kohuth

MSU scientists have built a molecular Swiss Army knife that makes biofuels and other green chemical production from algae more viable. Photo by G.L. Kohuth

“The multifunctional protein we’ve built can be compared to a Swiss Army knife,” explained Raul Gonzalez-Esquer, MSU doctoral researcher and the paper’s lead author. “From known, existing parts, we’ve built a new protein that does several essential functions.”

For this research, Gonzalez-Esquer worked with Cheryl Kerfeld, the Hannah Distinguished Professor of Structural Bioengineering in MSU’s-DOE Plant Research Lab, and Tyler Shubitowski, MSU undergraduate student. Kerfield’s lab studies bacterial microcompartments, or BMCs. These are self-assembling cellular organs that perform myriad metabolic functions. In other words, they can be though of as molecular factories with many different pieces of machinery.

The research team modernized the factory by creating, in essence, a hybrid protein in cyanobacteria, organisms that have many potential uses for making green chemicals or biofuels. Basically the protein speeds up the process of taking CO2 out of the athmosphere and converting it to sugars.

“It’s comparable to making coffee. Rather than getting an oven to roast the coffee beans, a grinder to process them and a brewing machine, we’ve built a single coffeemaker where it all happens in one place,” Gonzalez-Esquer said. “The new tool takes raw material and produces the finished product with a smaller investment.”

However, this altered cyanobacterial species won’t be taking over any ponds near you just yet. While the improved organisms excel at photosynthesis in a lab setting, the researchers said they are still ill prepared to compete with other bacteria. Hopefully, this will change as the team continues to develop and refine the photosynthesis process in algae.

Tokyo Scientists Increase Algal Oil Production

Hiroyuki Ohta, a researcher at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, together with scientists based at institutions across Tokyo, Japan, have discovered a way of increasing the oil production in algae. The oils are used to create biofuels and biochemicals and researchers are looking for ways to increase the production of triacylglycerols in the Nannochloropsis algal strain NIES-2145.

Triacylglycerols, or TAGs, are a class of lipids which form the backbone to biofuels in algae. The molecules are comprised of glycerol attached to three fatty acid chains, and microalgae is known to produce more TAGs under nutrient stress conditions. When the algal strain Chlamydomonas reinhardtii is starved of phosphorus, TAGs accumulate rapidly following the overexpression of an enzyme known as CrDGTT4, which in turn is triggered by gene promoter SQD2.

03_chlamydomonas6-2_color1aOhta and his team conducted genetic analysis of NIES-2145 and uncovered a homolog of the SQD2 gene. This implied a common expression control system between algal species in response to nutrient stress. The researchers decided to place both CrDGTT4 from C. reinhardtii and its SQD2 promoter into NIES-2145 to find out if this combination could control levels of TAGs production. Their attempt was successful – the SQD2 promoter was able to drive CrDGTT4 expression in NIES-2145 under phosphorus starvation without disturbing the membrane structure of the microalgae, and the production of TAGs in NIES-2145 increased as a result. Notably, incorporation of oleic acid (a preferentially utilized substrate by CrDGTT4) into TAG molecules was enhanced.

The findings point to the possibility of manipulating the production of TAGs, and thereforebiofuel oil production, in multiple microalgal strains. Further research is needed in order to fully understand the processes behind lipid remodeling during phosphorus starvation in algae before these methods are trialled on a larger scale.

Boise State Wants to Run Baja 1000 on Biodiesel

gsr_racing1A Boise State University non-profit wants to run an off-road race in Mexico on biodiesel, which the group believes will give them an edge for the win. This article from KMVT-TV says Greenspeed Research is building a biodiesel trophy truck to compete in the Baja 1000, an off-road race that takes place on Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula in the third week of November.

“Right now, we’re preparing for our next vehicle, which is a biodiesel powered trophy truck. And we’re shooting for racing at the Baja 1000,” said Dave Schenker, co-founder of Greenspeed.

“A biodiesel powered trophy truck is pretty much the top tier of off-road racing that usually has a big gas guzzling V-8 powered engine in it. But we’re bringing a new fuel and a new engine technology to that event,” said Schenker.

What does going green mean, as far as performance is concerned?

“Performance is the same. The gas mileage is different. The regular trophy truck drivers brag about getting 2.5 to 3 miles per gallon. We should be getting 7 to 8, 9. So that means, when they’re pitting twice, and take 5, 10, 8 minutes to pit, we’ve driven by them. So, yes, biodiesel is a game changers in the off road world, for sure,” said Paul Robinson, an off-road racer who is set to drive Greenspeed’s truck in the Baja 1000.

Greenspeed officials say the biggest challenge in building their first biodiesel trophy truck is the price tag. If you’d like to support their efforts, check them out at

A Toast to Making Ethanol from Grape Biomass

univofadelaideRaise your glass in a toast to some researchers from Down Under, as they have figured out how to make ethanol out of some of the leftovers from wine-making. University of Adelaide researchers in Australia showed they could make about 100 gallons of ethanol by fermenting a ton of grape marc – the leftover skins, stalks and seeds from wine-making.

Global wine production leaves an estimated 13 million tonnes of grape marc waste each year. Nationally it is estimated that several hundred thousand tonnes are generated annually and it is generally disposed of at a cost to the winery.

“This is a potentially economic use for what is largely a waste product,” says Associate Professor Rachel Burton, Program Leader with the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence in Plant Cell Walls in the School of Agriculture, Food and Wine.

PhD candidate Kendall Corbin analysed the composition of grape marc from two grape varieties, cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc. She also investigated pre-treatment of the grape marc with acid and enzymes.

Ms Corbin found that the majority of the carbohydrates found in grape marc could be converted directly to ethanol through fermentation with a yield of up to 270 litres per tonne of grape marc.

What was leftover from this ethanol-making process is suitable as an animal feed or fertilizer.

U of North Dakota Gets Biomass Research Funding

My Approved PortraitsFederal funding to the tune of $250,000 is headed to the University of North Dakota for research to study biomass as a biofuel and solar energy absorption by nanoparticles. North Dakota Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp welcomed the research dollars.

“North Dakota has a rich heritage of conservation and we must continue to develop and use our natural resources responsibly,” said Heitkamp. “That also means continuing to invest in new technologies and supporting North Dakota’s renewable energy potential including wind, solar, and advanced biofuels, and these federal funds will help UND continue such critical research.”

The funding is made available through the National Science Foundation to work with their International Research Experience for Students for Technologies to Mitigate Global Climate Change.