USDA Supports Sustainable Bioenergy Production

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has awarded $10 million in research grants to help develop production of bioenergy and biobased products. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack made the announcement while visiting Michigan State University, one of the grant winners.

Ford Concept Car with Biobased materialsWhile there, Vilsack mentioned the growth potential of biobased products as detailed in a recent study by Iowa State University (funded by USDA) that found that while biobased products in automobile manufacturing is increasing, there are still many parts that can be replaced with biobased materials.

“USDA and President Obama are committed to producing clean energy right here at home, to not only break our dependence on foreign oil, but also boost rural economies,” said Vilsack. “These projects will give us the scientific information needed to support biofuel production and create co-products that will enhance the overall value of a biobased economy. Today, with a strong and diversified U.S. agricultural sector, the American automobile industry has a greater incentive for expanding use of biobased products while supporting good-paying jobs here in the United States.”

USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) awarded the grants through the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI). AFRI’s sustainable bioenergy challenge area targets the development of regional systems for the sustainable production of bioenergy and biobased products that: contribute significantly to reducing dependence on foreign oil; have net positive social, environmental, and rural economic impacts; and are compatible with existing agricultural systems.

Projects were awarded in four areas: 1) policy options for and impacts on regional biofuels production systems, 2) impacts of regional bioenergy feedstock production systems on wildlife and pollinators, 3) socioeconomic impacts of biofuels on rural communities, and 4) environmental implications of direct and indirect land use change. Click here to view a full list of the winners.

66 Projects Receive ARPA-E Funding

Sixty-six research projects were selected to receive funding from the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA-E), part of the Department of Energy’s “OPEN 2012” program. The projects, which show fundamental technical promise but are too early for private-sector investment, will receive a combined total of $130 million.

The selected projects encompass 11 technology areas in 24 states and focus on a wide array of technologies: advanced fuels, advanced vehicle design and materials, building efficiency, carbon capture, grid modernization, renewable power and energy storage. Approximately 47 percent of the projects are led by universities, 29 percent by small businesses, 15 percent by large businesses, 7.5 percent by national labs, and 1.5 percent by non-profits. The “OPEN” funding began in 2009 and to date, there nearly 285 projects that have been awarded approximately $770 million in awards.

There were a wide-range of projects selected. For example, Plant Sensory Systems was awarded $1.8 million over three-years to develop an enhanced energy (sugar) beet optimized for biofuel production. The beets will be engineered to use fertilizer and water more efficiently and produce higher levels of fermentable sugars compared to current feedstocks.

Another example is Metabolix, who received a subaward to work with UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science to reengineer biochemical pathways for carbon fixation into camelina. Carbon fixation is the key process that plants use to convert carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into higher energy molecules, such as sugars, using energy from the sun.

Click here for the full list of 66 OPEN 2012 winners.

ISU Researchers Growing Algae in Poultry Houses

A research project conducted by several Iowa State University (ISU) researchers is studying the feasibility of growing algae in poultry houses. Poultry manure generates ammonia, a health and safety concern for both animals and workers. Ammonia can burn the eyes, but if released into the atmosphere, could also cause acid rain. But if Honwei Xin, professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering at ISU he will turn a challenge into an opportunity.

Juhyon Kang, graduate research assistant in food science and human nutrition is joining Xin in the research and are working together, according to an article in the Iowa State Daily, to design and develop a bioreactor that will filter  ammonia out of the exhaust air. The gas will then be repurposed to grow algae in a controlled environment.

“We want to improve the environmental stewardship of the poultry operation,” Xin said. “It would be a perfect match if we could remove ammonia from the exhaust air in poultry houses and use it to grow algae.”

Algae can be used to create a myriad of products including biofuel, biojet fuel, biomaterials, biochemicals and animal feed. Algae thrives on gases that for humans, can negatively affect health such as carbon dioxide and ammonia.

Kang said tests have shown that up to 96 percent of the ammonia is removed from the [air] exhaust. She is currently working on scaling up the algal bioreactor ro commercial scale while other team members study optimal algae growth conditions, analyze algae to produce feed and exploring optimum amounts of ammonia concentration for the algae to grow.

Xin added, “Algae can serve as a feedstock for biorenewable energy or [an additive] for animal feed. It’s a win-win situation; you kill two birds with one stone.”

Could Biofuels Be Produced from A Tobacco Tree?

Could biofuels be produced from the tobacco tree? With a grant from the European Union, researchers at Royal Holloway, School of Biological Sciences, will test this theory based on initial findings that the Nicotiana Glauca produces compounds that could be used to produce biodiesel or cracked to produce petroleum products.

There are some advantages of the tobacco tree: it is known to grow well in warm and arid climates; it does not require fertile ground; and it can thrive in regions that only 200mm of rainfall a year, with temperatures exceeding 40 degrees Celsius.

“This is a crucial factor,” said Dr Paul Fraser from the School of Biological Sciences. “It means that growing this crop will not be in competition for land space with food crops. Indeed, many farmers have already raised concerns about giving their land over to biofuel crops. Our discovery could potentially solve this issue.”

Initial studies have shown that the plant is able to grow in desert climatic conditions, such as those found in the United Arab Emirates, North Africa and other arid tropical regions of the world.

The European Union has awarded funding to develop this work further through the MultiBioPro project. Together with partners in industry and academia Royal Holloway has received a research grant totalling 5,770,922 euros (approximately £4.4 million). The project will look to provide new insights into biological processes and improve the use of renewable energy resources.

Transforming Marine Algae into a Biofuel Crop

Are marine algae just as good as fresh water algae in producing biofuels? Yes, according to biologists at University of California San Diego. In a research study published in Algal Research, scientists genetically engineered marine algae to produce five different kinds of industrially important enzymes. The same process, say the researchers, could be used to enhance the yield of petroleum-like compounds from salt water algae.

Researchers say this discovery is important because it expands the kinds of environments in which algae can be conceivably grown for biofuels. For example, algal biofuels could be produced in the ocean, in brackish water of tidelands, or on agricultural land where crops can no longer grow due to the high salt content of the soil.

“What our research shows is that we can achieve in marine species exactly what we’ve already done in fresh water species,” said Stephen Mayfield, a professor of biology at UC San Diego, who headed the research project. “There are about 10 million acres of land across the United States where crops can no longer be grown that could be used to produce algae for biofuels. Marine species of algae tend to tolerate a range of salt environments, but many fresh water species don’t do the reverse. They don’t tolerate any salt in the environment.”

“The algal community has worked on fresh water species of algae for 40 years,” added Mayfield, who also directs the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology. “We know how to grow them, manipulate them genetically, express recombinant proteins—all of the things required to make biofuels viable. It was always assumed that we could do the same thing in marine species, but there was always some debate in the community as to whether that could really be done.”

The timing of the research was fortuitous – in October, the National Academy of Sciences committee published a report concluding that the production of algal biofuels might be limited by fresh water. “But now we’ve done it,” said Mayfield. “What this means is that you can use ocean water to grow the algae that will be used to produce biofuels. And once you can use ocean water, you are no longer limited by the constraints associated with fresh water. Ocean water is simply not a limited resource on this planet.”

In addition to expanding this research, the scientists would like to determine whether whole algae, post-oil extraction, could be sued as a feed additive to improve animal feeds.

Report: Wind Energy Reduces GHG Emissions

Environment America has released the new report, “Wind Power for a Cleaner America: Reducing Global Warming Pollution, Cutting Air Pollution and Saving Water,” detailing how current power generation from wind energy prevents as much global warming pollution as taking 13 million cars off the road each year. With the Production Tax Credit (PTC) quickly reaching its expiration date, Environment America is urging Congress to extend the federal incentives for wind power. In addition to the PTC, they are also encouraging the offshore wind investment tax credit (ITC) be renewed as well.

“Our message to Congress is clear: Don’t throw wind power off the fiscal cliff,” said Courtney Abrams, Clean Energy Advocate for Environment America. “Our clean air, water, and children’s future are too important to blow it now.”

In light of the results of the report, several U.S. Senators who support wind energy offered comments. U.S. Senator Mark Udall, whose bill to repeal the clause that prevented the U.S. military from pursuing aviation biofuels was passed by the Senate, said, “Extending the wind Production Tax Credit is one of the most straightforward ways we can support clean, Made-in-America energy and American manufacturing jobs. We need the PTC to help create more good-paying jobs here at home, including jobs for our veterans who are transitioning from the military into the civilian workforce. The wind PTC is also a commonsense way to support clean energy and to reduce our carbon emissions. It is critical that Congress extend the PTC ASAP and support clean, renewable wind energy.”

U.S. Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.), a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, noted, “Wind energy is a win for the economy, a win for the environment, and a win for New Jersey. We will continue fighting in Congress to extend the wind production tax credit and support the kind of energy development that is needed to create jobs, clean up the air our children breathe, and move America to a clean energy future.”

The report sites one advantage of wind is that it saves water. Continue reading

Algae Can Draw Energy from Other Plants

Bielfeld University Professor Dr. Olaf Kruse has a class he won’t forget. His biological research team has made what they consider to be a groundbreaking discovery – the green alga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii not only engages in photosynthesis, but is also able to draw energy from other plants. The team believes this could have a major impact on the future of bioenergy.  Findings were released in the online journal, Nature Communications.

According to Kruse, it was believed that only worms, bacteria and fungi could digest vegetable cellulose and use it as a source of carbon for their growth and survival. In contrast, plants engage in photosynthesis of carbon dioxide, water and light. Yet through a series of experiments, Professor Dr. Olaf Kruse and his team cultivated the microscopically small green alga species in a low carbon dioxide environment and observed that when faced with such a shortage, these single-cell plants drew energy from neighboring vegetable cellulose instead.

So how does this work? Kruse explains that the alga secretes enzymes (so-called cellulose enzymes) that ‘digest’ the cellulose, breaking it down into smaller sugar components. These are then transported into the cells and transformed into a source of energy and abracadabra – the alga can continue to grow.

“This is the first time that such a behaviour has been confirmed in a vegetable organism,” noted Professor Kruse. ‘That algae can digest cellulose contradicts every previous textbook. To a certain extent, what we are seeing is plants eating plants.”

So does this trick happen with also forms of alga? Kruse says preliminary findings indicate this is in fact the case. And based on this hypothesis, this unique property of algae, the presence of celulose enzymes could be of interest for bioenergy production. There would no longer be a need for organic materials to feed the fungi that are currently used to extract the enzymes needed to break down the cellulose.

Global Biofuel Enzymes Industry to Grow

A new report, “Biofuel Enzymes Market – Global Industry Size, Market Share, Trends, Analysis and Forecast, 2012 – 2018,” published by Transparency Market Research, concluded that global biofuel enzymes demand was worth USD 1,021,9 million in 2011 and is expected to reach USD 1,653.1 million in 2018. This would be a CAGR growth rate of 7.6 percent during this timeframe.

Today, North America represents the largest market; however, Asia Pacific is growing steadily. The European Union is making progress and in China is an attractive market for biofuel enzymes due to its low cost structure.

According to the report, the global biofuel enzyme market is primarily driven by growth in end application markets, for example growing consumption of biodiesel and bio-based ethanol. This growth, in turn, has been driven by an increase in awareness regarding biofuel sustainability and changing economics of fossil fuels, when combined have encouraged governments to pass biofuel legislation and consequently, grow  biofuels markets, and finally grow the biofuel enzyme market.

The biofuel enzyme market includes amylases, industrial lipases and others with amylase representing the fastest growing segment of the global biofuel enzymes market due to its capability to withstand a wide range of temperatures and pH levels. The market for amylases enzymes is growing at a CAGR of 8.0 percent from 2013 to 2018 and it is further subdivided into two types:  cellulase and industrial proteases enzymes. The market for industrial proteases is growing rapidly at a CAGR of 8.7 percent from 2013 to 2018.

The research estimated and analyzed the demand and performance of biofuel enzymes, for various enzyme segments, in a global scenario. It also provides an in-depth analysis of biofuel enzymes manufacturers, product segments and sales and trend analysis by segments and demand by geography.

Using White Rot Fungus for Corn Stover Ethanol

There’s new scientific evidence that a certain fungus could help speed up the production of ethanol from corn stover.

A study on using the fungus to break down the tough cellulose and related material in this so-called “corn stover” to free up sugars for ethanol fermentation appears in the journal Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research

“Treating corn stover with the white rot fungus for one month enabled us to extract up to 30 percent more sugar from the leaves and 50 percent more from the stalks and cobs,” said lead author Yebo Li, Ph.D., from Ohio State University. “Because corn leaves are useful for controlling soil erosion when left in the field, harvesting only the cobs and stalks for ethanol production may make the most sense in terms of sustainable agriculture.”

Previous studies indicated that the microbe Ceriporiopsis subvermispora, known as a white rot fungus, showed promise for breaking down the tough lignin prior to treatment with enzymes to release the sugars. To advance that knowledge, Li and colleagues evaluated how well the fungus broke down the different parts of corn stover and improved the sugar yield.

Listen to the American Chemical Society podcast on the research here: ACS Podcast

NRC Releases Algae Sustainability Report

This week, the National Research Council (NRC) released a new report, “Sustainable Development of Algal Biofuels in the United States.” The report was a result of a request from the Department of Energy, Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s (DOE-EERE) Biomass Program.

The purpose of this study was to identify and anticipate potential sustainability concerns associated with a selected number of pathways for large-scale deployment of algal biofuels; discuss potential strategies for mitigating those concerns; and suggest indicators and metrics that could be used and data to be collected for assessing sustainability across the biofuel supply chain to monitor progress as the industry develops. In addition, NRC was asked to identify indicators that are most critical to address or have the greatest potential for improvement through DOE intervention as well as to suggest preferred cost and benefit analyses that could best aid in the decision-making process.

Ultimately, the report found that scaling up the production of biofuels made from algae to meet at least 5 percent, or approximately 39 billion liters, of U.S. transportation fuel needs would place unsustainable demands on energy, water, and nutrients. However, these concerns are not a definitive barrier for future production, and innovations that require research and development could help realize algal biofuels’ full potential.

The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) today welcomed the report and noted that mitigation strategies are currently being developed to reduce energy, water and nutrients needed to convert algae to biofuels.

Brent Erickson, executive vice president of BIO’s Industrial & Environmental Section, said, “While the National Research Council catalogued and prioritized every potential environmental and resource challenge for the development of algae biofuels, their report correctly concludes that the industry has developed or is developing sustainable strategies to overcome these challenges. Biotechnology will continue to play a crucial role in the improvement of the productivity and economic viability of algae biofuels and other advanced biofuels that are cleaner, safer and healthier than petroleum-based fuels.”

Erickson added, “The potential benefits of developing algae biofuels – which include reducing reliance on foreign oil and contributing to a healthier economy by deploying U.S. technology – warrant continued research, development and commercial development of algae biofuels.”