DF Cast: Algae Backers’ Beef with DOE

Backers of algae, especially for biofuel production, say while the Department of Energy provides millions for universities to do research through the DOE Biomass Program, commercial enterprises are being left by the wayside. And they say that isn’t fair, and after 60 years of looking at the green microbes, researchers have developed nothing.

In this edition of the Domestic Fuel Cast, we talk with Barry Cohen, the Executive Director at the National Algae Association, about how the commercial side of his industry is getting shut out, and he argues if they had just 10 percent of the money that universities get, we would have a commercialized algae-based biofuel within a year.

It’s a pretty interesting conversation, and you can listen to it here: Domestic Fuel Cast - Algae's Beef with DOE

You can also subscribe to the DomesticFuel Cast here.

Closer Look at EPA Biodiesel Winner

epa-logoRecently we told you about how students at Loyola University had won the EPA’s P3 Award (People, Prosperity and the Planet) for their greener way, through a wetland and a distillation process, to treat and reuse byproducts of biodiesel. Our friend Ron Kotrba at Biodiesel Magazine looked a little deeper into what their innovation actually was:

I reached out to Zach Waikman, the biodiesel lab manager at Loyola, who provided some clarity to the project behind the P3 Award…

Loyola undergraduate and graduate students and faculty mentors will design, test, and implement an innovative, cost-effective sustainable system for treating contaminated wash-waters resulting from our student-led Biodiesel Program. This project is original in its approach to treating wastewater on-site with environmentally benign living technologies. It will be the first known attempt to use living machine technology to solve the biodiesel wastewater problem. Our technologies will be transferable and scalable.

Expected results: The primary long-term results of our P3 project will be a) designing and building an environmentally and economically sustainable biological waste-water treatment system capable of cleaning, detoxifying, and recycling 100 percent of the waste-water produced in the LUC Biodiesel Lab and b) disseminating the design and complementary materials to other sustainable biodiesel producers throughout the U.S. and the world in order to prevent unnecessary environmental pollution and increase economic solvency.

Some other things we’re able to find out from this article is that the concept of the machine is in line with an anaerobic digester, although they’re not using that biological process in their plans. The researchers believe there will lots of possibilities with the program.

Hydropower May Cause Unintended Consequences

Findings from scientists from Oregon State University (OSU) conclude that small hydropower projects, supported by various nations and also the Kyoto Protocol to reduce GHG emissions, may cause unintended and potentially significant losses of habitat and River with Nornal Flow Photo-OSUbiodiversity. The findings were reported in the journal Water Resources Research, in work supported by the National Science Foundation.

An underlying assumption that small hydropower systems pose fewer ecological concerns than large dams is not universally valid, scientists said in the report. A five-year study, one of the first of its type, concluded that for certain environmental impacts the cumulative damage caused by small dams is worse than their larger counterparts.

The conclusions were based on studies of the Nu River system in China but the researchers say they are relevant to national energy policies in many nations or regions  including India, Turkey, Latin America, that seek to expand hydroelectric power generation. Hydropower is generally favored over coal in many developing areas because it uses a renewable resource and does not contribute to global warming. Also, the social and environmental problems caused by large dam projects have resulted in a recent trend toward increased construction of small dams.

“The Kyoto Protocol, under Clean Development Mechanism, is funding the construction of some of these small hydroelectric projects, with the goal of creating renewable energy that’s not based on fossil fuels,” said Desiree Tullos, an associate professor in the OSU Department of Biological and Ecological Engineering.

“The energy may be renewable, but this research raises serious questions about whether or not the overall process is sustainable,” Tullos said. Continue reading

Study: Alt Fuels Developing Faster Than Expected

According to a new study commissioned by a coalition of investors, utilities and makers of alternative fuels, the alternative fuels market has developed faster than anticipated. Electric vehicle sales are beating early projections, the surge in natural gas supply is helping decrease the carbon intensity in trucking, and consumption of biodiesel and renewable diesel supplies are growing rapidly, according to the report. The coalition includes CalETC, Ceres, E2, the California Natural Gas Vehicle Coalition, the National Biodiesel Board, and the Advanced Biofuels Association.

Screen Shot 2013-06-17 at 9.43.40 AM“The Low Carbon Fuel Standard is exceeding our expectations and driving us towards a clean fuels future,” said Eileen Tutt, executive director of the California Electric Transportation Coalition (CalETC). “The standard is doing exactly what it was designed to do – open the way for new fuels and technologies to compete fairly in the marketplace.”

The report analyzes recent developments in the transportation sector and presents three scenarios that ratchet down the carbon intensity of transportation fuels 10 percent, to meet the goal of California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard by 2020. All three projections point to an increasingly diverse fuel supply, with more innovation leading to more renewable fuels and advanced vehicles.

Emerging as the report’s biggest surprise is the promise of substitutes for diesel, including biodiesel, renewable diesel, and natural gas – all of which can be produced from waste materials, including animal fats, corn oil, and the gas that would otherwise escape from landfills. The report stated, “2013 promises to be a banner year for biodiesel consumption in California.”

The report also highlights the benefits in terms of greenhouse gas reductions from two additional low-carbon fuel strategies: the addition of off-road electrification (such as electric locomotives and battery-powered forklifts), and improvements to California’s fuel-recovery and extraction processes (using solar energy in crude oil extraction or installing carbon capture and storage technologies at oil and gas wells).

Colombians Find Algae with Biodiesel Potential

colombiaflag1Researchers in Colombia have found a couple of strains of freshwater algae that could be good for biodiesel. FIS.com reports that the scientists at the National University of Colombia (UNC) believe Scenedesmus ovalternus and Chlorella vulgaris will produce biodiesel with less impact on the environment.

Luis Miguel Serrano Bermudez, Master in Chemical Engineering at the UNC and one of the authors of the study, explains that neither the bioethanol (made from the fermentation of corn or sugar cane) nor the biodiesel (made from palm oil, soybean or other grains) can respond to the global fuel demand with environmental and economic sustainability.

Colombia has a high abundance of water and light, which is essential for farming microalgae.

The two species of microalgae studied had the highest productivity of fats, with a value that is equal to 4.1 times the productivity of the African palm, which is the current raw material used by the domestic industry for biodiesel.

The researchers found that Chlorella vulgaris has a 25 percent higher fat content compared to Scenedesmus ovalternus, making the process that much cheaper.

World Bank: Crude Oil Biggest Driver of Food Prices

According to a recent study by the World Bank, “Long-Term Drivers of Food Prices,” oil prices are the biggest driver of higher food prices. The study, using data from 1960-2012, applied an economic model to five internationally-traded food commodities (maize/corn, wheat, rice, soybeans and palm oil) and studied the impact of several food-price drivers. These included energy prices, exchange rates, interest rates, inflation, income and a variable reflecting World Food Bank Food Price Studymarket fundamentals.

The study also paid special attention to two time periods: 1997-2004 and 2005-2007. Between the two time frames, the price of energy, fertilizers and precious metals tripled. In addition, most food prices doubled. Of all the drivers of food prices, crude oil prices had the biggest impact.

Tom Buis, CEO of Growth Energy noted that also during this time, food and energy price increases also coincided with record profits for the oil industry.

“Not only has the oil industry been responsible for the sky-rocketing gas prices each time you fill up your car, now it turns out they are responsible for the price increases you face at the grocery store. While they enjoy record profits, populations around the world suffer at their expense and struggle to pay for the basic staples of life.”

“The World Bank found that crude oil is responsible for more than half of the increase in food prices,” Buis added. “Couple that with the nearly 100 percent increase in domestic gas prices over the same time frame, and the cost of oil has truly affected the well-being of all Americans in a very expensive way.”

Climate Change Raises Stakes on US Biofuels Policy

According to a new study by Rice University and the University of California at Davis, if the climate continues to evolve as predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the U.S. stands little to no chance of satisfying its current Rice Corn Ethanol and Waterbiofuels goals. The study, published in journal Environmental Science and Technology suggests that in 40 years, a hotter planet would cut the yield of corn grown for ethanol by an average of seven percent while simultaneously increasing the amount of irrigation necessary by nine percent.

Principal investigator Pedro Alvarez, the George R. Brown Professor and Chair of Rice’s Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, said that this could sharply hinder a mandate as being executed by the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) that mandates 15 billion gallons of ethanol (corn) per year by 2022. The policy, Alvarez explained, is based on the idea that blending ethanol reduces harmful tailpipe emissions, but the cost in water may outweigh these concerns.

“Whereas biofuels offer a means to use more renewable energy while decreasing reliance on imported oil, it is important to recognize the tradeoffs,” Alvarez said. “One important unintended consequence may be the aggravation of water scarcity by increased irrigation in some regions.”

The authors of the new paper have long questioned the United States’ support of biofuels as a means to cut vehicle emissions. In a 2010 white paper on U.S. biofuels, the authors found “no scientific consensus on the climate-friendly nature of U.S.-produced corn-based ethanol” and detailed what they saw as economic, environmental and logistical shortcomings in the renewable fuels policy and suggested a need for further study of water impacts.

In the most recent study, the team built computer simulations based on crop data from the nation’s top 10 corn-producing states – Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, Minnesota, Indiana, Ohio, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Missouri and Kansas. Continue reading

Researcher Explores Using Tobacco for Biodiesel

lemaux1You can’t smoke it … well, you SHOULDN’T smoke it … but you might be able to burn it. A researcher from the University of California is working on getting more oils out of tobacco plants so it can serve as a feedstock for biodiesel, providing a green fuel source while finding a market for tobacco growers without it harming people’s health.

Peggy G. Lemaux, UC Cooperative Extension specialist, and Anastasios Melis and Krishna Niyogi, Agricultural Experiment Station faculty in the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology at UC Berkeley, are lead researchers in the project.

“There are several reasons we are modifying tobacco to produce biofuel,” Lemaux said, “It is a high biomass crop. If you want to extract oil, then the more biomass you have, the more oil you get. And, since tobacco is not a food source, tobacco production for biofuel would not have an impact on global food markets or find its way into the food supply. Finally, tobacco farmers are anxious to produce a product that is more acceptable to the public.”

The article goes on to say how the researchers are using algae genes to help the tobacco plants produce more oil. A commercially viable method is still in the distance, but Lemaux is optimistic. The school received a three-year $4.8 million grant from a U.S. Department of Energy to conduct the research.

U of Wyoming Inks Deal to Get Into Algae Biz

plantomics1The University of Wyoming has signed a deal that gets it into the algal biomass industry. The school agreed to give PlanktOMICS Algae Bioservices, run by a pair of university researchers, space and support to research how to develop patent-pending processes in exchange for a cut of the profits down the road:

PlanktOMICS principal partners Stephen Herbert, a UW professor of plant sciences, and Levi Lowder, a UW doctoral candidate in molecular and cellular life sciences, will focus on serving small companies that need to solve problems relative to their algae needs.

PlanktOMICS provides advanced phenotype analysis (testing biological traits) and screening services, custom algal vector design and construction, algal transformation and gene-expression analysis, according to its website.

“We’re here to solve problems for other companies that want to produce algae at large scales,” says Herbert, who serves as the company’s CEO. “We see our role as building up research capacity of these small companies that don’t have enough capacity for research.”

“Our services are tailored to companies that want to outsource their biological studies or biological research,” adds Lowder, who is PlanktOMICS’ chief technology officer. “We don’t really produce the end products. We do the biology. You have to know how to grow algae. That’s where we come in, to figure out how to farm algae on a large scale (for other companies).”

PlanktOMICS is working on technologies to control unwanted algae and other microbes in algae ponds, just like corn and soybean farmers control weeds, as well as technology to lower the cost of harvesting of algal biomass, among others. Last year, Lowder’s team won the university’s John P. Ellbogen $30K Entrepreneurship Competition, getting $12,500 and one year of free rent to further develop the company at the Wyoming Technology Business Center (WTBC), a business incubator at the school. Herbert and Lowder say they already have two clients lined up, one in the algal nutritional supplement business for more than 30 years. The developments could ultimately lead to algae-biodiesel projects.

New Yeast Strain Could Cut Cellulosic Ethanol Costs

Liu1Researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture have developed a new strain of yeast that could cut the costs of cellulosic ethanol production. This Agricultural Research Service (ARS) news release says the work is being done at the agency’s National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research in Peoria, Ill.

ARS molecular biologist Zonglin Lewis Liu and his colleagues determined that this yeast strain can break down and ferment the sugars in corn cobs left behind after the compound xylose—which is sometimes used for industrial activities—has been extracted. The new strain of yeast, Clavispora NRRL Y-50464 (Y-50464), can tolerate cob-derived compounds that interfere with yeast growth and fermentation rates.

It is able to grow rapidly at 98.6 °F, so it thrives at the higher temperatures needed to optimize simultaneous saccharification and fermentation (SSF) rates. SSF is a one-step process in cellulosic ethanol production that combines releasing and fermenting feedstock sugars…

The scientists added the enzymes cellulase and beta-glucosidase, which are often used to break down residues and extract sugars, and observed that Y-50464 reached its peak ethanol production rate of 25.7 grams per liter 5 days after the experiment began. But the yeast actually produced more ethanol, 26.6 grams per liter in 5 days, without the addition of beta-glucosidase.

Confirmation of beta-glucosidase in Y-50464 will eliminate the need to include the cost of that additional enzyme to the process.