Michigan State IDs Water Usage by Biomass Crops

Researchers at Michigan State University have identified the amount of water used by some key biomass crops. This article from the school says the study, titled, “Comparative water use by maize, perennial crops, restored prairie and poplar trees in the U.S. Midwest,” recently published by Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC), lead authored by Michigan State University professor Steve Hamilton, provides a new perspective on how planting different biomass crop species might impact terrestrial water balances.
There were six biofuel species in this study including corn, switchgrass, miscanthus, a five species grass mix, an 18 species restored prairie mix and hybrid poplar. Four years of data are reported, which include a drought year (2012) and three years of near normal rainfall.

The climate and soils of rain-fed systems in the upper Midwest may limit crop productivity based on water availability. Two key questions were answered with this study:

How much water does each crop use?
Which crops are most efficient in converting water to biomass?

Water use

Average [evapotranspiration] (ET) over the four-year period showed the perennial cropping systems were not much different from the annual crop of corn. Mean growing-season ET increased in the following order: miscanthus < poplar < corn < prairie < switchgrass < native grass (Table 1), although the range of values was only about 4.5 inches. Notice that miscanthus and poplar trees had the lowest ET during the drought year of 2012. Previously, it was expected that perennial crops would require significantly more water, which could have deleterious effects at the watershed scale. This data disputes that theory and shows that planting perennial crops in the landscape with our climate and soils would not have significant adverse impacts.

EPA’s Ethanol Rules Pollutes Air Equal to 1 Mil Cars

ERCThe government’s proposal to cut the amount of ethanol to be blended into the nation’s fuel supply would pollute the air equivalent to one million more vehicles on the road. The Energy Resources Center (ERC) at the University of Illinois at Chicago conducted the analysis on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed ethanol blending rules.

The findings come in the wake of proposed rules by the U.S. E.P.A. that call for a reduction of the volume of ethanol blended in gasoline as mandated by the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), a program of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 signed into law 10 years ago this month. If the rules are adopted as proposed, a total of 17.5 billion gallons of ethanol would be blended with gasoline by 2016, 3.75 billion fewer gallons than originally mandated by Congress.

“The RFS has been one of the most successful federal policies enacted in the United States because it achieved exactly what it was intended to do: spur research and investment, lower greenhouse gas emissions and reduce dependence on foreign oil. Our work has demonstrated that, over the last 10 years, steady reductions in greenhouse gas emissions have materialized as biofuels became a more efficient, high quality product,” said Dr. Steffen Mueller, principal economist at the Energy Resources Center.

The peer-reviewed analysis was conducted using the GREET Model (Greenhouse gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy use in Transportation) developed by Argonne National Laboratory which examines the full life cycle emissions impacts of energy sources. As part of the analysis, carbon emissions related to the planting, growing, harvesting, transportation and production of corn into ethanol were compared to that of oil recovery and production.

Under the EPA’s proposed rules, conventional starch ethanol would likely be reduced to 13.4 billion gallons from 15 billion gallons in 2015. In this scenario, the analysis found that 4,520,000 tonnes of additional CO2 emissions would be incurred in 2015.

Both the National Corn Growers Association and the Illinois Corn Growers Association expressed disappointment in the direction the EPA has taken.

“It is very curious that some vocal audiences known for touting job creation, a stronger domestic economy, and reduced air and water pollution were largely mute on this significant occasion,” said Chip Bowling, NCGA president and a farmer from Maryland. “It is pretty hard to miss the irony of this anniversary-related RFS assessment hitting while the Environmental Protection Agency is weakening the successful legislation.”

“We are disappointed that the same federal agency charged to protect human health and the environment is proposing a rule change that would directly lead to greater greenhouse gas emissions,” said Ken Hartman, president of the Illinois Corn Growers Association. “After 18 months of delay in proposing new rules, the EPA has chosen not only to shirk its legal obligation as set forth by Congress, but to lose sight of its own mission.”

The EPA is expected to release its final rule in November.

Scottish Scientists Identify Algae Best for Biofuels

stephenslocombe1Scientists in Scotland have identified which algae are the best for biofuels. This article from the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) says the researchers used a new technique to figure out which ocean-based strains had the highest oil content.

The screening revealed two marine strains, Nannochloropis oceanica and Chlorella vulgaris, which had a dry-weight oil content of more than 50 per cent. This makes them ideal sources of biofuel for vehicles and aircraft.

The results of the screening, part of the BioMara project, have been published in Nature’s online journal Scientific Reports and are likely to help bring forward research into algae as a source of biodiesel and other biofuels by a number of years.

SAMS scientists have demonstrated that Nannochloropsis, for example, is very efficient at converting nutrients, so it has the perfect combination of high levels of oil and high productivity.

The report’s lead author, Dr Stephen Slocombe, SAMS research associate in molecular biology, said: “In order to produce biofuels from micro-algae we will have to generate high yields, so we need to know which strains will produce the most oil.

“While there is a lot of work being done on micro-algae biotechnology – currently around 10,000 researchers across the world – no-one has identified a shortlist of the best performing strains and how their properties could be used.”

The research also identified algae varieties best for the health food industry.

New Holland Partners with SUNY on Biomass Project

sunyNew Holland Agriculture is partnering with the State University of New York (SUNY) on a U.S. Department of Energy funded research project to develop ways to reduce the cost of delivering biomass for refinement.

New Holland Agriculture will provide SUNY with an FR9080 self-propelled forage harvester with 130FB coppice header for use in the project. The forage harvester and header are used to harvest willow and other short rotation woody crops for biomass applications. The equipment was presented last week at the SUNY ESF Research Station to Dr. Timothy Volk, Senior Research Associate with SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, and his research team.

new-holland-forage“As a company committed to biomass and Clean Energy, New Holland is excited for the opportunity to continue our ten year relationship with Dr. Volk and the SUNY research team,” said Doug Otto, New Holland North America’s Forage Harvester Business Manager. “SUNY’s research played an integral role in our ability to develop the 130FB coppice header, so we are pleased that they will be able to use the header to further their biomass research efforts.”

The relationship between New Holland and SUNY dates back to 2004, when a team of company engineers and product development specialists, headed by John Posselius, Director of Innovations for CNH Industrial, set out to assist Dr. Volk with a research project to optimize the logistics of transporting biomass material. After unsuccessful attempts at modifying existing headers failed to improve logistic efficiencies, Posselius pushed his team to create an original design to efficiently and effectively chop woody biomass such as fast growing willows. Following the research and development phase, Posselius and his team passed the project to a design team headquartered in Belgium to finalize the design of the new header.

Learn more about the project from New Holland.

Bacteria Can Help Boost Ethanol Production

noguera1Microbes play an important role in ethanol production, and researchers in the Midwest are finding a way to get more out of the little bugs to get the most green fuel out of feedstocks, especially waste materials. This news release from the University of Wisconsin-Madison says scientists there teamed up with Michigan State University researchers to create a process for making the work environment less toxic — literally — for the organisms that do the heavy lifting in turning biomass into cellulosic ethanol.

When industrious bacteria like Saccharomyces cerevisiae, Zymomonas mobilis and Escherichia coli go to work converting the sugar in corn stover and other plant-derived materials into ethanol, they also run into aromatic compounds, which, for these particular organisms, are toxic. This slows down the conversion process, a big problem in a field that needs to economize as much as possible to compete with fossil fuels.

“There’s about a billion tons of that biomass material that the U.S. could produce in a year, separate from food production,” says Daniel Noguera, Wisconsin Distinguished Professor of civil and environmental engineering at UW-Madison. “If that material could be converted to just glucose, that would be perfect. But there are other materials that are part of the plants.”

Noguera — along with a team of chemists, microbiologists and engineers associated with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center and the Wisconsin Energy Institute at UW-Madison — proposes sending in a sort of microbial cleanup crew to make things safer for the glucose-eaters.

The plan relies on Rhodopseudomonas palustris, a versatile bacterium that feeds on the aromatics but isn’t interested in the sugars. This offers an advantage over currently available chemical processes for removing the aromatics, which also remove some of the valuable glucose.

MIT Finds Way to Help Ethanol Yeast Thrive

MIT1Ethanol producers might get more production out of the yeast they use, thanks to researchers at MIT. This news release from the school says scientists have added potassium and an acidity-reducing compound to the yeast that helps it tolerate higher concentrations of the ethanol it’s making without dying.

Aided by those “supplements,” traditionally underperforming laboratory yeast made more ethanol than did industrial strains genetically evolved for ethanol tolerance. The supplements also enabled lab yeast to tolerate higher doses of high-energy alcohols such as butanol, a direct gasoline substitute. In other “firsts,” the researchers described the mechanism by which alcohols poison yeast; they defined two genes that control ethanol tolerance; and they modified those genes in lab yeast to make them out-produce the industrial strains — even without the supplements.

Manufacturers worldwide rely on yeast to convert sugars from corn or sugar cane into ethanol, a biofuel now blended with gasoline in cars and trucks. But there’s a problem: At certain concentrations, the ethanol kills the yeast that make it. As a result, a given batch of yeast can produce only so much ethanol.

“The biggest limitation on cost-effective biofuels production is the toxic effect of alcohols such as ethanol on yeast,” says Gregory Stephanopoulos, the Willard Henry Dow Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT. “Ethanol is a byproduct of their natural metabolic process, as carbon dioxide is a byproduct of ours. In both cases, high doses of those byproducts are lethal.”

Efforts to grow genetically modified yeast weren’t successful, but it did give the researchers the idea for adding the common chemicals.

Biofuel Perennial Crops Could Use Less Water

A new research report from the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) finds that perennial crops grown on marginal land for biofuel use could use comparable water to that of corn. The report looked at how these crops could affect the balance of water between rainfall inputs, evaporation losses, and movement of soil water to the groundwater. The report cites that in humid climates such as the U.S. Midwest, evaporation returns more than half of the annual precipitation to the atmosphere, with the remainder available to recharge groundwater and maintain stream flow and lake levels.

The study, led by GLBRC scientist and Michigan State University professor of ecosystem ecology Stephen Hamilton, is a multi-year effort to compare the water use of conventional corn crops to the perennial cropping systems of switchgrass, miscanthus, native grasses, restored prairies, and hybrid poplar trees, feedstocks currently under review for use as biofuel crops.

Michigan State University; (R) Stephen Hamilton, professor of ecosystem ecology at Michigan State University and GLBRC researcher. Photo by John W. Poole, NPR.

Michigan State University; (R) Stephen Hamilton, professor of ecosystem ecology at Michigan State University and GLBRC researcher. Photo by John W. Poole, NPR.

“When we established the different cropping systems in 2008,” said Hamilton, “we installed soil-water sensors at various depths through the root zone. We’ve been continuously monitoring the soil water content ever since.”

To measure the rate of evapotranspiration occurring within each cropping system, soil-water sensors are used. Evapotranspiration refers to the sum total of water lost while the plant is growing, either from evaporation through the plant stem itself (a process called “transpiration”), or from water evaporated off of the plant’s leaves or the ground. By measuring the amount of precipitation that has fallen against actual soil water content, Hamilton said it’s possible to quantify the water lost to evapotranspiration while each crop is growing.

In a finding that contrasts sharply with earlier modeling studies that found particularly high perennial water use in areas with high water tables, the report finds that the perennial system’s evapotranspiration did not differ greatly from corn. Hamilton’s study, however, took place in Michigan’s temperate humid climate and on the kind of well-drained soil characteristic of marginal farming land.

Hamilton and his team also measured the water use efficiency (WUE) of each crop, calculating which plants grew the most biomass with the least amount of evapotranspiration. Miscanthus had the highest WUE, then corn, followed by poplar, native grasses, and prairie.

New CESA Clean Energy Report Available

The Clean Energy States Alliance (CESA) has released a new report, “Clean Energy Champions: The Importance of State Programs and Policies“. The report provides a comprehensive look at the ways in which states are supporting clean energy as well as offers suggestions on how to further encourage growth.

The report includes 31 case studies form 22 states covering various clean energy programs including Renewable Portfolio Standards, renewable energy tax credits, rebates and other less known programs used to develop the clean energy industry.

CESA Clean Energy Champions Report“Over the past decade and a half, states across the country have implemented innovative policies that have achieved significant, measurable results,” said Warren Leon, executive director of CESA. “This report clearly outlines how renewable energy production has far surpassed expectations and created a thriving clean energy sector. We must sustain this momentum by supporting various initiatives at the state level, working in tandem with federal agencies, and advancing clean energy with continued bipartisan support.”

In examining the state’s role in clean energy development over the past 15 years, the report identifies seven lessons to consider for the continued growth of clean energy into the future. Those lessons cover the following:

  • The significance of state experimentation and the ways states can continue to innovate to move the clean energy sector forward;
  • The need for the states to strengthen their existing consumer protection role regarding clean energy technologies;
  • The approach states should take when modifying distributed generation policies;
  • The value of continuing to address clean energy policy in a non-partisan manner;
  • The specific research analysis the federal government should undertake to assist the states;
  • The role of federal tax incentives in leveraging state initiatives for clean energy market growth; and
  • The importance of structuring EPA’s Clean Power Plan in ways that support existing state clean energy initiatives.

In addition, the report found four key areas where state activity has made significant progress to overcome market barriers: developing the clean energy supply;
overcoming barriers by building the infrastructure for clean energy growth; building a vibrant clean energy industry; and protecting and including consumers.

FPL and FIU to Build Solar Power Center

Florida Power & Light Company (FPL) and Florida International University (FIU) have solidified a partnership to build a commercial-scale distributed solar power facility that will both generate electricity for FPL’s 4.8 million customers and serve as an innovative research operation.

Artist's conceptual rendering of the 1.6-megawatt solar installation FPL plans to install at Florida International University in 2015. The solar-powered parking canopies will also create about 600 shaded parking spaces in the parking lot of FIU's Engineering Center. (PRNewsFoto/Florida Power & Light Company)

Artist’s conceptual rendering of the 1.6-megawatt solar installation FPL plans to install at Florida International University in 2015. The solar-powered parking canopies will also create about 600 shaded parking spaces in the parking lot of FIU’s Engineering Center. (PRNewsFoto/Florida Power & Light Company)

The project includes the installation of more than 5,700 solar panels on 23 canopy-like structures that will be built this summer in the parking lot of the university’s Engineering Center. Using data from the 1.6 MW solar array, faculty and students from FIU’s College of Engineering and Computing will study the effects of distributed solar photovoltaic (PV) generation on the electric grid in real-life South Florida conditions.

“This innovative solar project builds on FIU’s relationship with FPL, one that provides our students with unparalleled and unique training opportunities,” said FIU President Mark B. Rosenberg. “Through this project, our engineering students will make a direct contribution to the growth of solar energy in our state, while gaining invaluable experience working side by side with professionals from one of the most forward-thinking utilities in the nation.”

Eric Silagy, president and CEO of FPL noted, “FPL is proud to be a leader in advancing solar energy in smart ways, making sure to keep costs low and reliability high for our customers. As the economics of solar continue to improve, we look forward to harnessing more and more energy from the sun. Our partnership with FIU is designed to help us manage solar power’s interaction with the greater electric grid as part of our commitment to reliably deliver affordable clean energy for all of our customers.”

FIU students have already begun gathering information to be used in their research, including historical weather data and energy production and usage patterns. The research will take Florida’s unique weather conditions into consideration and help determine the types of technology that may be needed to ensure the grid’s reliability is not negatively affected by fluctuations in solar PV production due to clouds, thunderstorms and other variables.

Report: Farmers Can Grow Food, Fuel

According to research conducted by Russ Gesch, a plant physiologist with the USDA Soil Conversation Research Lab in Morris, Minnesota, farmers can successfully and sustainably grow food and fuel. Gesch specifically looked at growing Camelina sativa with soybeans in the Midwest. Gesch’s study was recently published in Agronomy Journal.

Screen Shot 2015-06-01 at 10.14.32 AMCamelina is a member of the mustard family and research shows is well suited as a cover crop in the Midwest. “Finding any annual crop that will survive the [Midwest] winters is pretty difficult,” said Gesch, “but winter camelina does that and it has a short enough growing season to allow farmers to grow a second crop after it during the summer.”

Soils also need to retain enough rainwater for multiple crops in one growing season. Gesch and his colleagues measured water use of two systems of dual-cropping using camelina and soybean. They compared it with a more typical soybean field at the Swan Lake Research Farm near Morris, MN.

Researchers planted camelina at the end of September. From there growing methods differed. In double-cropping, soybean enters the field after the camelina harvest in June or July. Relay-cropping, however, overlaps the crops’ time. Soybeans grow between rows of camelina in April or May before the camelina plants mature and flower. Camelina is being used today to produce aviation biofuels.

Researchers found multiple benefits of Relay-cropping – the technique actually used less water than double-cropping the two plants. Camelina plants have shallow roots and a short growing season, which means they don’t use much water. “Other cover crops, like rye, use a lot more water than does camelina,” said Gesch. Continue reading