U of A Wins ‘Underground’ Biodiesel Grant

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health awarded a $1.4 million grant to the University of Arizona‘s Mel and Enid Zumerman College of Public Health along with the department of mining and geological engineering. The three-year project will compare exposure and health effects of miners using diesel versus biodiesel fueled underground mining equipment. During the past few years, miners have shifted to the use of biodiesel-blend fuels in an effort to reduce exposure to particulates from engine exhaust.

Study results will have a dual purpose. Researchers be able to determine the effects of biodiesel-blend fuels in the mining community, and also apply data to establish the beneficial or detrimental effects on the everyday people who are exposed to biodiesel-blend fuels through vehicular emissions.

“Exposures to diesel particulate in underground mining often exceed existing standards,” said Dr. Jeff Burgess, the study’s principal investigator and a professor at the UA Zuckerman College of Public Health. “Biodiesel blends are being employed to reduce these exposures, yet there is no information on whether this increases, decreases or fails to change the toxicity to miners of equipment emissions. This study will help determine the health consequences of using biodiesel fuel blends in the underground mining setting.”

“Information on the health effects of conversion to biodiesel fuels in occupational and environmental settings will also help to inform future policy decisions,” added Burgess.

The research team from the UA College of Public Health includes co-principal investigator Eric Lutz, assistant professor and co-investigator Chengcheng Hu, associate professor. Ros Hill, professor of practice in the department of mining and geological engineering and director of the UA San Xavier Mining Laboratory will assist in the study.

Will Global Biofuel Investments Continue?

Historically, 2009 was a hard year for biofuels. Biofuel spending was down to $5.6 billion from $15.4 billion in 2008. Investments in the industry focused on cellulosic technologies and sugarcane. This according to NRG Expert’s World Biofuels Report.

The report cites sugarcane-based biofuels as being the most competitive with oil and also have the lowest greenhouse gas emissions. The worst – biofuels produced from palm oil and soybeans. Fuel produced from either of these feedstocks do not meet EU sustainability criteria. The highest investments were for technologies focused on developing biofuels from feedstocks such as jatropha and algae. Yet investments in jatropha are tapering off, according to the report, because research has shown it to perform poorly in field trials and consumes more water than expected.

To court investments on the cellulosic side, the report says the technology must incorporate other core areas of business, such as developing biochemicals or high value products along with the production of the biofuel.

Moving in to 2012 and beyond, many biorefineries are operating below capacity due to the U.S. drought. Many mergers and acquisitions have taken place with many oil companies buying advanced biofuel technology. U.S. companies are having difficulty raising capital unless they are focused on the emerging Latin America or South East Asia markets.

While the report focuses on what has happened since 2009, it also looks at several strategies biofuel producers could employ to be more competitive in the tight investment market. For example, palm oil producers can retrofit by adding methane capture equipment to their plant as an effort to meet EU biofuel criteria and generate revenue selling electricity produced from methane.

The report predicts that raising oil prices will help biofuels be more competitive and new blending mandates could create a bigger market. In addition, more countries are expected to enter the sector on a commercial scale including Columbia, the Philippines and Thailand.

CEA Releaess New Energy Future Report

A “New Energy Future Report” has been released by the Consumer Energy Alliance (CEA) that focuses on how the U.S. can achieve energy self-sufficiency by 2020. The report reviews the availability of U.S conventional and renewable resources and the polices that will need to be enacted to develop these resources. The report lays out a plan that incorporates elements of both Gov. Romney and President Obama’s state energy policies. It also offers several recommendations to help implement the plans.

“Consumer Energy Alliance believes this report will improve the overall understanding of energy security and the thoughtful development and utilization of our abundant energy resources,” said CEA President David Holt. “Energy policy greatly affects our country, and we believe it is essential that it remains at the forefront of issues under discussion by our elected officials. Our country needs sound energy policy to help maintain stable energy prices for consumers and facilitate economic growth.”

A few highlights of the report include:

  • Expanded energy production in the United States and Canada can create of over 1.4 million jobs and generate nearly $803 billion in government revenues by 2030.
  • In order to significantly and effectively lower U.S. imports of overseas crude, the United States must focus on both decreasing the demand for transportation fuels and increasing North American supply of fuel.
  • CEA believes that North America can achieve “energy self-sufficiency” and close the gap between North American supply and demand where we can meet anywhere between 80 to 95 percent of our energy needs by 2020. This is the next “big thing.”

Holt added, “America is entering the New Energy Future, one that could potentially lead to North American energy self-sufficiency by 2020. Substantial investment in the development of oil and natural gas has buoyed the economy, helping to support millions of jobs, generate billions of dollars in government revenue, and, most significantly, supply millions of consumers with affordable energy.”

Global Biofuels Market Forecast to Grow

According to a new Global Biofuels Market Report, the global biofuels market is forecast to grow at a CAGR of 7.7 percent between 2011-2015. A key factor is the expected increase in government funding and subsidies. The report looks at growth in the Americas, the EMEA And APAC regions and includes discussions about key companies operating in the market such as POET, Valero Energy Corp, Archer Daniel Midland Co., BioFuel Energy Corp., and more.

The report aims to answer several key questions that would affect biofuels growth both on a global scale as well as within regions and within countries. For example, the report forecasts market size in 2015 and the rate of growth; identifies key market trends; discusses market drivers and challenges; highlights key companies operating in the biofuels sector including analyses of opportunities, threats, strengths and weaknesses of each company.

Study Looks at Converting Biomass & Electricity to Fuel

In a collaborative effort between University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Massachusetts-Amherst and Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology, a continuous process for converting biomass and electricity into renewable liquid transportation fuels has been developed. The researchers used a proton-exchange-membrane fuel cell to convert the model biomass compound acetone into isopropanol. This chemical compound can be used in a myriad of pharmaceutical and industrial applications and can also be used as a gasoline additive.

The project, led by George Huber, a UW-Madison professor of chemical and biological engineering, and other members of his research team, say the advance paves the way for researchers to convert biomass molecules such as glucose into hexanes, which are significant components of gasoline currently derived by refining crude oil.

“Essentially, we are making renewable liquid fuel that fits into the existing infrastructure,” said Huber, whose team published its results in the Sept. 7, 2012, issue of the journal ChemSusChem. Unlike other technologies that use large quantities of expensive hydrogen gas to convert biomass to biofuels, the team’s process is driven by electricity, which is inexpensive and readily available in rural areas. And, we’re storing the electrical energy as chemical energy.”

A fuel cell converts chemical energy into electrical energy, or vice versa. Reactions in a proton-exchange-membrane fuel cell, which consists of two “halves,”  require only water, electricity and the biomass-derived molecule. The chemical reaction is facilitated by a positive electrode coupled with a catalyst. The other side-the cathode-consists of a negative electrode and a catalyst.

The next step involves reducing biomass molecules into fuel. Continue reading

FAPRI Study Weighs Impact of RFS Waiver

A new report has been issued by FAPRI-MU regarding the impacts of various RFS waiver options to inform decision makers who will determine if and how a wavier should be issued to adjust biofuel mandates for the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS2). The request came from various sources in response to the 2012 drought that still continues.

“Renewable Fuel Standard Waiver Options during the Drought of 2012,” outlays several conclusions:

  • Reducing the overall RFS has a small negative effect on the corn price during the current marketing year because overall ethanol use would be almost as much even if there were no mandate.
  • The waiver might have larger impacts on markets for crops harvested a year from now. A key question is if biofuel use during the waived years can count against future mandates, as is normally permitted within certain limits. If so, then it will be less difficult to meet the larger and more challenging mandates in the future.
  • Biofuel use mandates interact with each other and with markets, leading to potentially offsetting impacts. For example, if the advanced mandate is waived, then ethanol imports and exports are affected more than total domestic use.

Renewable Fuels Association (RFA) President Bob Dinneen responded to the study. “The new FAPRI study is just the latest in a series of recent reports that show waiving the RFS would not have the types of impacts claimed by the livestock groups and grocery manufacturers. The suggestion that an RFS waiver would significantly bring down feed prices and reduce retail meat prices is absolutely absurd. The only real impacts of a waiver would be to discourage farmers from planting corn next spring and to interrupt and delay important investments in new feedstocks and advanced biofuels technologies.”

The research showed that a waiver might be expected to reduce corn use for ethanol by just 1.3 percent in 2012/2013 and reduce corn prices from $7.87 per bushel to $7.83 per bushel. Estimates for the the 2013/2014 market year show that corn use for ethanol might fall 6.6 percent and corn prices might decrease 3.2 percent. In addition, the report found that a waiver of the RFS would not meaningfully increase the amount of corn available for feed use in 2012/2013. Rather there would only be 25 million more bushels of corn being fed to livestock, a 0.6 percent increase over the case where there is no waiver.

FAPRI researchers noted that there are important uncertainties in their analysis. For example, there is a mismatch of marketing year corn data and calendar year biofuel mandates, which could be a source of error. Another is the nature of ethanol demand, particularly how quickly markets could shift back to fuels without any ethanol. A third uncertainty is about current market conditions. The markets for mandate compliance certificates reveal how difficult it is to meet mandates at present and in the near future, but they are newly created by the mandates and are not well understood at this point.

Napiergrass Potential Biofuel Crop

There is another potential biofuel crop you don’t hear much about being studied for the Southeast: napiergrass. The potential feedstock is currently used in the tropics to feed cattle, but according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) scientist William Anderson, it could be a good biofuel feedstock as well. Napiergrass is fairly drought-tolerant, grows well on marginal lands and filters nutrients out of runoff in riparian areas says Anderson, who is a geneticist.

The study, recently published in BioEnergy Research, monitored several potential bioenergy crops including cane, napiergrass, switchgrass and giant reed for four years and compared biomass yields and soil nutrient requirements. The team included Joseph Knoll, Timothy Strickland and Robert Hubbard, ARS scientists with the agency’s Southeast Watershed Research Unit in Tifton, Georgia, and Ravindra Malik of Albany State University in Albany, Ga.

With the need for biofuels to be produced from diverse feedstocks, the Southeastern U.S. is expected to play a large role with longer growing seasons than other areas of the country. The team’s initial research is showing that napiergrass could be a viable biofuel crop in the Southeast’s southern tier. Although it is not as cold tolerant as switchgrass, it has other advantages including the ability to produce biomass until the first frost.

The research team is continuing to study napiergrass with an eye toward improving yields, usable fiber content, and disease resistance. They are also evaluating production systems that use chicken litter, synthetic fertilizer, and winter cover crops, as well as different irrigation levels, harvest times and planting dates. Preliminary findings in those studies show yields are sufficient without irrigation, and that there is little difference in yield when poultry litter is used instead of synthetic fertilizers.

“Semi-dwarf” Trees May Enable a Green Revolution

Researchers at Oregon State University recently published results of a study looking at the advantages of growth traits of “semi-dwarf” trees. Through genetic modification, advantageous growth traits could be developed to grow trees better suited for bioenergy or more efficient water use in a drier, future climate.

According to the research team, this approach is contrary to the conventional wisdom of tree breeding which operates under the philosophy that larger and taller is better. Yet similar to how the green revolution in agriculture helped crops such as wheat and rice produce more food on smaller, sturdier plants, this same strategy could be successfully applied to forestry.

“Research now makes it clear that genetic modification of height growth is achievable,” said Steven Strauss, an OSU professor of forest genetics. “We understand the genes and hormones that control growth not only in crop plants, but also in trees. They are largely the same.”

In a study published in Plant Physiology, researchers inserted a several genes into poplar trees, a species often used for genetic experiments, and valuable for wood, environmental and energy purposes. The report details 29 genetic traits that were affected, including growth rate, biomass production, branching, water-use efficiency, and root structure. All of the changes were from modified gibberellins, plant hormones that influence several aspects of growth and development.

The researchers found that the range and variation in genetic modification can be accurately observed and selected for, based on hormone and gene expression levels, to allow production of trees of almost any height. Other genes could be modified to produce trees with a larger root mass that could make them more drought resistant, increase water efficiency, increase elimination of soil toxins, and better sequester carbon. This could be useful for greenhouse gas mitigation, bioremediation or erosion control.

Although researchers can already point to beneficial results of genetic modification of poplar trees, and eventually other trees, it may be difficult to actually use the research for the greater good.

“The main limitation is the onerous regulatory structure for genetically-modified plants in the United States,” Strauss said. “Even short, safe and beneficial trees are unlikely to be able to bear the high costs and red tape inherent to obtaining regulatory approval.”

Utah State Dragster Runs on Cheese Waste Biofuel

A team of engineering students from Utah State University has set a new land speed record using a car that burns a new form of sustainable biofuel made from a waste product of the cheese manufacturing process.

“How many people get to drive a car they helped build with fuel they created from a living microorganism?” asks USU undergrad biochemist Michael R. Morgan, who drove the dragster across Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats Speedway to its landmark finish earlier this month.

The Aggie A-Salt Streamliner, as it’s officially known, runs on yeast biodiesel derived from the industrial waste of cheese production. The sleek, Aggie-blue hot rod was among some 200 high-tech racers competing at the Utah Salt Flats Racing Association’s 2012 World of Speed event Sept. 8-11.

At its top speed, the Aggie vehicle clocked in at 65.344 miles per hour. At first glance, that speed may fail to impress NASCAR fans or even most interstate motorists. But make no mistake; it’s a head-turning achievement for a biofueled vehicle with a one-liter, two-cylinder engine. The USU team raced the dragster in separate runs, using petroleum diesel and the yeast biofuel, respectively. Powered with the latter, the speedster was able to match its previous petroleum-fueled run.

“Developing a biofuel on a large enough scale to run in the dragster was a tough undertaking,” says USU biochemist Alex McCurdy, a third-year doctoral student in Seefeldt’s lab, who is supported by a National Science Foundation research assistantship and is the recent recipient of a departmental environmental chemistry award. “It’s one thing to produce a small amount in the lab and discuss how it will work in theory. It’s another to actually put it in a dragster, while everyone watches it take off.”

Read more from USU.

Disconnect Between Biofuel Mandates & Demand?

A new study, Global Biofuels Outlook to 2025, authored by Hart Energy, finds a disconnect between mandates established in the U.S. Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) and Renewable Energy Directive in the European Union, and actual market demand. While many have speculated this to be the case, it has not been highly discussed.

The study, focused mostly on biodiesel and ethanol, analyzes local and global drivers, public and fiscal policy developments, production capacity, feedstocks, and supply and demand projections through 2015, 2020 and 2025. Both first generation biofuels, as well as advanced biofuels along with ethyl tertiary butyl ether (ETBE) were included in the analysis.

The study focused on four key regions:

  • North America: the United States, Canada, and California (U.S. state)
  • EU-27: Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom
  • Latin America: Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, and Peru
  • Asia Pacific: China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand

Biofuel demand in all regions combined is estimated to be 5.4 percent by energy content by 2025 (110 million toe). Total ethanol demand is projected to reach over 35 billion gallons and biodiesel over 14 billion gallons. In terms of energy, market demand is estimated to increase by 23 percent from 2015 to 2020 and another 16 percent from 2020 to 2025. The projections, however, may not be met if supply is not available, and supply will depend on feedstock and capital availability.

“The U.S. vehicle market simply cannot accept more ethanol,” said Tammy Klein, assistant vice president of Hart Energy. “It’s not a matter of lack of supply or lack of commercial development of cellulosic ethanol.”

Maelle Soares Pinto, director of Hart Energy’s Global Biofuels Center, said the situation in Europe is similar. “The vehicle pool cannot use the amount of ethanol or biodiesel necessary to meet the Renewable Energy Directive. The European Union’s sustainability criteria also constrain the type of biofuels that can be used to meet the mandates and the situation could get worse if the EC’s proposal for ILUC factors is approved in its current form.”