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.

Math Path to Ideal Algae Biorefineries

A joint research team from the Chemical and Biological Sciences Department, Universidad Autónoma de Sinaloa, and the Chemical Engineering Department of Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolás de Hidalgo, both located in Mexico, have discovered a way to produce biofuels from algae that also removes CO2 emissions from the environment. The findings were published in a recent edition of Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research journal.

Researchers developed a mathematical model to calculate how to efficiently produce biofuel from algae. Credit: MiguelUrbelz/iStock/ThinkStock

Researchers developed a mathematical model to calculate how to efficiently produce biofuel from algae. Photo Credit: MiguelUrbelz/iStock/ThinkStock

To address the issue of cost and energy barriers to the success of algae-based biorefineries, Eusiel Rubio-Castro and colleagues developed a mathematical model to determine the optimal design of an algae-based biorefinery where flue gases from different industrial facilities are used as raw materials. A basic algae biorefinery just needs nutrients, water, sunlight and CO2 to operate.

The team developed a mixed integer non-linear programming (MINLP) model and applied it to a case study in Mexico. Their model determined that using flue gases as a source of CO2 reduced costs associated with the algae-growing stage of the process — the most expensive part — and reduced all other costs by almost 90 percent. Using water recycled within the biorefining process also reduced fresh water needs by about 83 percent. However, as the technology stands, the researchers say that the costs are still too high to justify an algae-based biorefinery on its own. Instead, they say that producing cleaner, algae-based fuels should be seen as a necessary expense in the global effort to reduce and capture carbon emissions.

U of York Team Aids in Biofuel Enzyme Research

A global research team is working together to help develop more efficient production methods for biofuel production. Scientists at the University of York are part of this team looking at how natural occurring enzymes can be used to degrade microbe-resistant biomass. The research is part of ongoing study of a recently discovered family of enzymes produced by fungi and bacteria, which are able to break down tough cellulose-based materials such as plant stems. The hope is that by understanding how the naturally occurring enzymes work, they can then be improved for industrial purposes, principally the production of biofuels from sustainable sources.

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Photo credit: Julia Walton

Professor Paul Walton and Professor Gideon Davies of the Department of Chemistry at York, two members of the team recently presented the first published molecular structure of one of the key enzymes (lytic polysaccharide monooxygenases or LPMOs) involved in these processes. The paper appeared in Nature Chemical Biology.

The research shows how the ‘active site’ of the enzyme changes when it binds to plant cell wall cellulose, and this knowledge, say the scientists, is important in advancing understanding of the reaction chemistry.

“LPMOs have overturned our thinking about biomass degradation in biology; they are also essential components in the commercial production of bioethanol from cellulosic feedstocks,” said Professor Walton. This new structure will help chemists and biochemists improve the efficiencies of these important enzymes.”

Professor Davies added, “When we can understand structure and chemistry we can improve environmentally-friendly processes for the benefit of all. This work, by a combined European team, gives us unparalleled molecular insight into one of the key reactions catalysed by fungi. It is truly exciting.”

The new research resulted from a European consortium project entitled Critical Enzymes for Sustainable Biofuels from Cellulose (CESBIC) involving York and the Universities of Copenhagen and Cambridge, CNRS Aix-Marseille Université, France, Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden, and industrial partner Novozymes A/S in Denmark.

Berkeley Lab’s Enzyme Reduces Plant Lignin

One of the barriers to efficient second generation biofuels is creating a better way to break down the lignin in plants that is then converted to the sugars that create the building blocks of biobased products such as cellulosic ethanol, biomaterials and biochemicals. But this hurdle may be getting lower with research out of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Scientists have demonstrated an enzyme that can be tweaked to reduce lignin in plants.

This illustration shows the molecular structure of HCT that was derived at Berkeley Lab’s Advanced Light Source. The purple and green areas are two domains of the enzyme, and the multi-colored structures between the two domains are two molecules (p-coumaryl-shikimate and HS-CoA) in the binding site. New research shows this binding site is indiscriminate with the acceptor molecules it recruits, including molecules that inhibit lignin production. (Credit: Berkeley Lab)

This illustration shows the molecular structure of HCT that was derived at Berkeley Lab’s Advanced Light Source. The purple and green areas are two domains of the enzyme, and the multi-colored structures between the two domains are two molecules (p-coumaryl-shikimate and HS-CoA) in the binding site. New research shows this binding site is indiscriminate with the acceptor molecules it recruits, including molecules that inhibit lignin production. (Credit: Berkeley Lab)

Lignin is essential to plant health. It resides in a plant’s cell walls and surrounds and traps the sugars inside. In order to extract the sugars, the lignin must first be broken down through chemical pretreament. Thus, the less lignin there is, the less expensive the pretreatment step becomes.

The research was published in Plant & Cell Physiology and focuses on an enzyme called HCT that plays a key role in synthesizing lignin in plants and has been found to be indiscriminate with what molecules it binds with. With this discovery, the researchers introduced another molecule to the enzyme that occupies the binding site usually occupied by the lignin-producing molecule. This swap inhibits the enzyme’s ability to support lignin production. Initial tests showed a decrease in lignin content by 30 percent while increasing sugar production, without weakening the plant.

“Our goal is to tune the process so that lignin is reduced in a plant where we want it reduced, such as in tissues that produce thick cell walls, and when we want it reduced, such as later in a plant’s development,” said Dominique Loque, a plant biologist with the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI), a DOE Bioenergy Research Center led by Berkeley Lab, which pursues breakthroughs in the production of cellulosic biofuels. “This would result in robust bioenergy crops with more sugar and less lignin, and dramatically cheaper pretreatment costs.”

Next the researchers want to learn how to adjust the temporal and spatial specificity of the enzyme’s lignin-reduction abilities in plants. They also want to further study the Advanced Light Source-derived enzyme structures to see if HCT can be modified to be even more attractive to the new molecules.