NREL Discovers New Biorefinery Process

Researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have developed a new biorefinery process that more efficiently converts algae to ethanol. The process, Combined Algal Processing (CAP), was featured in the journal Algal Research.

Algal ResearchThe research builds on a project previously completed by NREL In that work, the research looked at two promising algal strains Chlorella and Scenedesmus, to determine their applicability as biofuel and bioproduct producers. They concluded Scenedesmus performed better in this process with impressive demonstrated total fuel yields of 97 gallons gasoline equivalents (GGE) per ton of biomass.

The next step is to reduce the costs of conversion. The research team has looked at increasing the amount of lipids in algae but found the it won’t significantly reduce the costs. However, the NREL team has determined further progress could be made by more completely using all algal cellular components instead of just relying on the lipids. By applying certain processing techniques, microalgal biomass can produce carbohydrates and proteins in addition to lipids, and all of these can be converted into co-products.

According to NREL, the team has determined that through the use of a solid-liquid separation process, the carbohydrates can be converted to fermentable sugars, which can then be used to produce ethanol. However, as much as 37 percent of the sugars were lost during that process. Those trapped sugars “cannot be used for fermentation without a costly washing step, resulting in a loss of overall fuel yield,” according to the Algal Research report. Continue reading

Sandia Labs’ Launches New Algae Raceway

Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories have developed a new algae raceway testing facility to bridge the gap between lab and real world. Today, scientists have not yet discovered a cost-competitive way to convert algae to renewable fuels. The new Sandia algae testing facility is comprised of three 1,000-liter oval raceway ponds that feature advanced monitoring.

The new algae raceway testing facility at Sandia National Laboratories will help scientists advance laboratory research to real-world applications. Shown here is one of the three 1,000-liter ponds, outfitted with custom lighting and 24-hour advanced hyper spectral monitoring. Photo credit Dino Vournas.

The new algae raceway testing facility at Sandia National Laboratories will help scientists advance laboratory research to real-world applications. Shown here is one of the three 1,000-liter ponds, outfitted with custom lighting and 24-hour advanced hyper spectral monitoring. Photo credit Dino Vournas.

“This facility helps bridge the gap from the lab to the real world by giving us an environmentally controlled raceway that we can monitor to test and fine tune discoveries,” said Ben Wu, Sandia’s Biomass Science and Conversion Technology manager. “The success of moving technologies from a research lab to large outdoor facilities is tenuous. The scale-up from flask to a 150,000-liter outdoor raceway pond is just too big.”

According to Wu, the “raceway” design features several benefits:

  • Easy scale-up to larger, outdoor raceways
  • Customizable lighting and temperature controls, operational by year end, to simulate the conditions of locations across the country
  • Fully contained for testing genetic strains and crop protection strategies
  • Advanced hyperspectral monitoring 24 hours a day

The new facility is already in use with researchers Todd Lane and Anne Ruffing testing genetically modified algae strains as part of a project funded by Sandia’s Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) program. The algae raceway should enable the researchers to more quickly identify strains that promise improved performance.

“The bioeconomy is gaining momentum,” Wu said. “Biofuels from algae may be further off, but algae has sugar and proteins that can make fuel or higher valued products, such as butanol or nylon — products that currently come from fossil fuels.”

Wu expects the facility will expand opportunities for Sandia researchers to develop algae as a robust source of biofuels and increase collaborations and partnerships with the private sector, particularly in California where efforts to transform transportation energy are prevalent.

Students Discuss Biodiesel Research Projects at #NBB16

Students who are part of the Next Generation Scientists for Biodiesel had the opportunity to share their research during the recent National Biodiesel Conference and Expo. The students all have one thing in common – their passion for the biodiesel industry.

nbb-16-thomas-kwanI spoke with several of these budding biodiesel leaders during the poster session. Thomas Kwan is a PhD candidate at Yale and is part of the Center for Green Chemistry & Green Engineering. While doing his undergraduate he looked at emissions from diesel fuel, particularly locomotives. He then leveraged this interest into looking not at the tailpipe, but the fuels themselves for emission reductions.

Thomas’s research is framed around an integrated biorefinery with algae as the foundation. In other words, the “plant” accepts some biomass and then produces biodiesel and other biobased products. Enabling technologies for the idea of an integrated biorefinery. Used micro algae that has high content for biodiesel lipids as well as other compounds, in particular, astaxanthin, a powerful antioxident. IN the case of algae, the bioproduct is not yet approved for human consumption but Thomas hopes this research will help change that. Ultimately, they looked at how to tweak the biorefinery to get more lipids for biodiesel, or to get more astaxanthin. To learn more, listen to my interview with Thomas Kwan here: Interview with Thomas Kwan

nbb16-eric-william

Clemson University Biosystems Engineering students Eric Monroe and William O’Connell, present their biodiesel research during the poster session.

William O’Connell is a senior at Clemson University in Biosystems Engineering. He became interested in biodiesel while doing his undergraduate research, and then attended the conference last year. He’s back and this year presented his research during the poster session.

The focus on the project is to reanalyze the school’s current process of collecting used cooking oil and converting it to biodiesel. William said they are looking to see if there is a more efficient way to produce the biofuel. What they have discovered is using interesterification is more efficient. To learn more, listen to my interview with William O’Connell here: Interview with William O'Connell

nbb-16-james-davisJames Davis is in his fourth year of his PhD at the University of Nevada, Reno. He has a keen interest in fatty acids of seed crops such as canola or camelina sativa. He explained that his research is focused on altering the lipid profile of camelina sativa.

The idea is to apply a cutting edge gene editing technology to knock out certain genes. Essentially, his goal is two-fold. One, to alter the fingerprint of the lipid profile and they are also trying to eradicate erucic acid, a semi-negative toxic lipid that is bad for livestock making camelina seed meal restricted for use in feeding livestock. James notes that if they can get rid of some of the negative profile, they can create a more high-value byproduct. To learn more, listen to my interview with James Davis here: Interview with William O'Connell

2016 National Biodiesel Conference Photo Album

Students Benefit From Next Generation Scientists for Biodiesel

James Anderson discusses his research with an attendee during #NBB16.

James Anderson discusses his research with an attendee during #NBB16.

It’s never too early to encourage the next generation of biodiesel and bioproduct scientists and this is just what NBB is doing through its Next Generation Scientists for Biodiesel program. Several members of the group attended this year’s conference and presented posters, attended educational sessions and networked, networked, networked.

James Anderson, from University of Illinois, serves as co-chair for the group and he presented his research looking at fatty acid profiles and studying divergent plants. His goal was to identify not the fastest growing soybean plant or the plant with the best resistance, but the plant with the best profile. The idea is that they would identify soybeans that would be even better suited to biodiesel production. He and his team checked their results against some USDA studies and found positive results.

James is finishing up his project soon and will be awarded his PhD and will soon be looking for a job…hint, hint. He can be reached via email to discuss both his research and future opportunities.

Listen to my interview with James Anderson here: Interview with Co-Chair James Anderson

Jesse Mayer and James Anderson, Co-Chairs of the Next Generation Scientists for Biodiesel.

Jesse Mayer and James Anderson, Co-Chairs of the Next Generation Scientists for Biodiesel.

Jesse Mayer, from the University of Nevada, Reno, is also a co-chair of Next Generation Scientists for Biodiesel. Originally planning on going to medical, he switched gears when the only lab he could find work in was a plant lab. Well, he got hooked. He said he loves the field and the sustainability aspect of it.

He became involved in the group two years ago through his professor. He encourages everyone to join. “It’s really great opportunity to understand all the different aspects of biofuels. Like the students here you’ve got a lot of different fields…. So finding a student organization like NBB, joining them, and getting an idea of what those other aspects are, talking to people in the industry, really helps diversify you as a student and really helps going on to grad school or into the workforce.”

Jesse is also graduating soon and if the networking I saw him doing at the conference is any indication, he won’t be on the market long. You can reach him here.

Listen to my interview with Jesse Mayer here: Interview with Co-Chair Jesse Mayer

2016 National Biodiesel Conference Photo Album

Biomass Innovator to be Recognized by Elite Group

brucedale1An innovator in turning biomass into food and fuel will be recognized by an elite group. This news release from Michigan State University says Bruce Dale, a professor of chemical engineering and materials science at the school will be inducted into the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering’s College of Fellows.

Dale was nominated, reviewed and elected by peers and members of the College of Fellows for outstanding contributions in the biological engineering of transforming plant biomass to food and fuel to achieve a sustainable bioeconomy.

The College of Fellows is composed of the top 2 percent of medical and biological engineers in the country. AIMBE’s mission is to recognize excellence in, and advocate for, the fields of medical and biological engineering in order to advance society.

A formal induction ceremony will be held during AIMBE’s 25th annual meeting at the National Academy of Sciences Great Hall in Washington, D.C., on April 4. Dale will be inducted along with 160 colleagues who make up the AIMBE College of Fellows Class of 2016.

USDA Scientists Develop Bio-Oil

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been working on creating better crude liquid from renewable resources to replace fossil-based fuel. Coined “bio-oil,” the renewable fuel is derived from agricultural waste such as non-food-grade plant matter procured from agricultural or household waste residue such as wood, switchgrass, and animal manures. The advanced biofuel is now a few steps closer to being able to be distilled at existing petroleum refineries.

TGRP mobile Unit

ARS scientists are testing this mobile pyrolysis system for on-farm production of bio-oil from agricultural waste.

The research team, headed by Agricultural Research Services (ARS) chemical engineer Akwasi Boateng with the Sustainable Biofuels and Coproducts Unit at the Eastern Regional Research Center in Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania, is working on a modified pyrolysis technique called “tail-gas reactive pyrolysis” (TGRP). Traditionally, pyrolysis is process that chemically decomposes plant and other organic matter using very high heat. This process is not compatible with current distillation equipment at petroleum biofineries due to its highly acidic and high oxygen content, and requires the addition of an expensive catalyst.

Now, however, using waste materials, bio-oils are being produced at an accelerated rate using a new high-output mobile processing unit funded by a Biomass Research and Development Initiative Grant from USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.  Instead of shipping large amounts of agricultural waste to a refinery plant at high cost, the mobile reactor allows conversion of the biomass into energy-dense bio-oil right on the farm. In addition, this bio-oil is a higher quality bio-oil that is more marketable to biofuel producers than bio-oil made from traditional pyrolysis methods.

“Ideally, the biofuels added to gasoline would be identical to fuels produced at petroleum refineries,” Eklasabi told AgResearch Magazine. “The quality of TGRP deoxygenated liquids is equal to or better than the bio-oil produced by catalyst pyrolysis.” And, added Eklasabi, bringing the bio-oil one step closer to being able to be distilled at existing petroleum refineries.

Grasses Hold Promise for Biofuels in Midwest

A recent study shows that perennial grasses are economical biofuel crops to meet U.S. fuel goals and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, the West will have to contribute to the biofuels market in ways other than grasses. Tara Hudiburg, an ecologist in the College of Natural Resources at University of Idaho along with researchers from the University of Illinois, Colorado State University and the University of Georgia published their research in the first-ever issue of Nature Energy.

CNR - Tara HudiburgHudiburg said the study is the most comprehensive to date focused on perennial grasses and one of the first to bring together economists and ecologists from around the country for a thorough assessment of whether grasses such as switchgrass and Miscanthus can reduce emissions and meet the biofuel demands of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Renewable Fuel Standard. The grasses can be used to make cellulosic biofuels.

Perennial grasses can supply the fuel needed to meet the RFS but only through smart land-use planning, said Hudiburg, and should not be planted in the West where other feedstocks are more sustainable and economical.

“These perennial grasses are not feasible environmentally for the West,” Hudiburg said. “Replacing greenhouse-gas-intensive crops — like corn grain for ethanol — is a much easier greenhouse gas problem to solve than replacing land out here.”

Hudiburg explained that much of the land in the West, such as forest land, is already positively contributing to emission reduction by storing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases rather than releasing them. The Midwest, on the other hand, is a net source of greenhouse gases, largely due to agriculture. Continue reading

IU Researchers Create Hydrogen Biofuels

Indiana University researchers have developed a highly efficient biomaterial that catalyzes the formation of hydrogen by splitting H2O and creating hydrogen and oxygen. The resulting fuel can be used to power vehicles that essentially run on water. According to the research team, a modified enzyme gains strength from being protected within the protein shell — or “capsid” — of a bacterial virus. This new material, called hydrogenase, is 150 times more efficient than the unaltered form of the enzyme. The process of creating the material was recently reported in “Self-assembling biomolecular catalysts for hydrogen production,” in the journal Nature Chemistry.

Trevor Douglas MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.

Trevor Douglas: MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.

“Essentially, we’ve taken a virus’s ability to self-assemble myriad genetic building blocks and incorporated a very fragile and sensitive enzyme with the remarkable property of taking in protons and spitting out hydrogen gas,” explained research lead Trevor Douglas, the Earl Blough Professor of Chemistry in the Indiana University Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Chemistry. “The end result is a virus-like particle that behaves the same as a highly sophisticated material that catalyzes the production of hydrogen.”

The biomaterial created through the process, known as P22-Hyd, is produced through a simple fermentation process at room temperature and is more efficient than the unaltered enzyme. In addition, the biomaterial is potentially less expensive and more sustainable to produce than materials, such as platinum, currently being used to create fuel cells.

“This material is comparable to platinum, except it’s truly renewable,” Douglas said. “You don’t need to mine it; you can create it at room temperature on a massive scale using fermentation technology; it’s biodegradable. It’s a very green process to make a very high-end sustainable material.” Continue reading

Researchers Develop Glycerol-free Biodiesel Process

tobin-marksResearchers at Northwestern University in Chicago have figured out how to produce biodiesel without making the by-product glycerol. This article from Chemistry World says the scientists, led by Tobin Marks, developed the method.

The process uses a tandem catalytic system, consisting of metal triflate and supported palladium catalysts, to selectively break down triglyceride esters into carboxylic acids, which can be converted to biodiesel, as well as propane and valuable C3-oxygenates. ‘We are coupling two different reactions, using two different catalysts in the same pot. One catalyst opens or breaks the carbon–oxygen bond and the other catalyst hydrogenates the product, which is unsaturated. That helps drive the reaction thermodynamically,’ explains Marks.

While recent years have seen a considerable body of research into ways of converting waste glycerol into more valuable chemicals, this new approach avoids making it entirely. As Tracy Lohr who worked on the project explains, ‘The advantage of our system is that we don’t form any glycerol, instead we’re forming more useful products. Going from the triglycerides to those more useful precursors eliminates steps, it’s more cost-effective and you get your product easier and faster.’

The article adds that biodiesel production has contributed to the glut of glycerol worldwide.

Report: Renewables Fastest Growing US Power Source

According to GlobalData, non-hydro renewable energy will be the fastest growing power source in the U.S. through 2025. Installed capacity is expected to increase from 121.9 gigawatts (GW) in 2015 to 216 GW in 2025. “US Power Market Outlook to 2025, Update 2015 – Market Trends, Regulations, and Competitive Landscape,” finds the strong rate of growth suggests that the current U.S. government fully supports the growth of clean generation technologies. The U.S. was one of signers of the most historic climate treaty agreed upon in Paris earlier this month during COP21.

GlobalData logoChiradeep Chatterjee, GlobalData’s senior analyst covering Power, warns that this positive forecast for non-hydro renewables could be subject to the result of the 2016 US presidential election, with a Republican victory likely to mean considerable changes to present policies due to the party’s lower support for green energy projects in general.

“There are several renewable power regulations that have been implemented or revised by the Obama administration in 2015 that will aid the production of renewable energy,” explained Chatterjee. “For example, the Fannie May Green Initiative provides smart energy through financing solutions, while the Weatherization Assistance Program, instituted by the Department of Energy, offers grants to improve the energy efficiency of resident low-income families. Such initiatives are positive steps to achieving green targets established by US states.”

Targets take the form of Renewable Portfolio Standards programs, state policies that mandate a certain percentage of energy supplied to consumers by a utility within the state should come from renewable sources.

“Generally, the objectives are ambitious, ranging from 10% to 40%, with a variety of target dates. However, there is considerable variation between individual states, as Hawaii is aiming for renewables to constitute 100% of all energy use by 2045, while South Carolina is targeting just 2 percent by 2021.” Chatterjee concluded, “Attitudes towards the growth of green energy differ throughout the US, and it must be acknowledged that other sources of power will remain dominant throughout the forecast period.”