NC State Breaks Down Cell Walls

According to Quanzi Li, the greatest barrier to producing biofuels is from stubborn plant cell walls that resist being broken down into biofuel ingredients. Li is the lead author of a paper published in Plant Biotechnology Journal about North Carolina (NC) State’s Forest Biotechnology Group biofuel research progress. Cell walls contain desirable cellulose and hemicellulose, which is “covered up” with lignin, the substance that contributes to the strength of wood but gets in the way of biofuel production.

In the case of wood, the lignin must be removed and then the resulting cellulose is converted to ethanol. Production begins with an expensive pretreatment, followed by enzyme use to release the sugars that can be fermented to produce ethanol. Li and her team are focusing on simplifying the process in various ways.

NC State lignin researchNC State’s team has created genetically modified trees with reduced lignin content. “Normally when you reduce lignin, plant growth is negatively affected, which also reduces biomass production,” explained Li. “However, we now know that we can produce transgenic plants with strong cell walls and normal development but much less lignin.”

Fast-growing trees with high energy content could grow on marginal land without disrupting crop production. NC State has worked extensively with black cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa). Forest Biotechnology Group researchers in the College of Natural Resources have developed engineering models that predict how 21 pathway enzymes affect lignin content and composition, providing the equivalent of GPS directions to guide future research.

This comprehensive approach, which involves genes, proteins, plant chemical compounds and mathematical models, fits into a systems biology perspective that’s the key to future breakthroughs, Li said. She added, “Progress has been made in many areas, but we still lack a complete understanding of how the cell wall is formed. We have to have a better idea of the factors that control its formation to produce better biomass for biofuels.”

Study: Biodiesel in Buses Cuts Pollution

MadisonCountybus1A new study shows that biodiesel used in buses cuts down on the amount of air pollution compared to buses using more conventional diesel. This news release from the Mineta National Transit Research Consortium (MNTRC), a coalition of nine university transportation centers led by the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University, showed that using biodiesel could effectively reduce the mass of particulate matter released in both hot and cold idle modes.

[Principal co-investigators were Dr. Ashok Kumar] said, “Physical properties of biodiesel blends are very important during engine combustion. Higher viscosity causes reduced fuel leakage during injection, which drives an advance in injection timing and an increase of mass injection rate. Density of the fuels affects the start of injection, injection pressure, fuel spray characteristics, etc. When the fuel temperature changes and enters an engine with different temperatures (hot or cold), fuel acts differently and the emissions are different.”

In sum, it is recommended that governments consider using blends of biodiesel in urban and commercial vehicles to enhance the quality of air and to promote healthy living. Continue reading

Biodiesel Researcher Flys High with Scholarship

Jeni_Sorli1A University of Colorado student who includes biodiesel in her research will be flying high – WAYYYY high – as she is awarded a $10,000 scholarship from the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation. Senior Jeni Sorli picks up the scholarship when former NASA astronaut Bruce McCandless presents the honor on campus on Thursday, Oct. 30.

Sorli, a chemical engineering major from Billings, Montana, is the recipient of a number of other prestigious awards. She is a Goldwater Scholar, an Engineering Merit Scholar, a Norlin Scholar, a Presidential Scholar and a Conoco Phillips engineering intern.

Sorli currently is involved with the Engineering Honors Program, the CU Chapter of Engineers without Borders and CU Biodiesel. She has been studying renewable fuels, including working in the lab of Professor Alan Weimer researching biomass degasification.

The Astronaut Scholarship is the largest monetary award given in the United States to science and engineering undergraduate students based solely on merit.

Loyola Students Get Hands-On Biodiesel Experience

loyola biodiesel-lab1Even in the pristine halls of academia, you can learn a lot by getting your hands dirty, especially when it comes to biodiesel. This article from Loyola University Chicago explains how the school’s Clean Energy Lab, the first and only school with an operation license to sell biodiesel in the U.S., is providing a student-run initiative that’s also a certified green business by the Illinois Green Business Association

“The Biodiesel lab is a good experience for students because it gets students involved hands-on in the field they might be interested in,” sophomore Biology major Najla Zayed said. “It helps us realize that sustainability is a practical thing and we can use the knowledge we gain from our labs and classes and project it out in the world, mainly in Chicago.”

Students involved in these course look at the inputs — such as what energy might go into the process — and the outputs such as productivity and byproducts of the process.

“[The students] identified glycerin as byproduct,” said Loyola’s Director of Sustainability Aaron Durnbaugh said while giving a tour Oct. 9. “So they used that to create BioSoap, in which they marketed, and tested.” The BioSoap is used in main bathrooms around the Lake Shore and Water Towers campuses. It is now fully certified as green chemistry by the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

Loyola’s Clean Energy Lab has several other biodiesel-related projects going on, including Bio-Soap, methanol recovery, production efficiency and the creation of household cleaning products.

Indo-U.S. Advanced Bioenergy Consortium launches

A new Indo-U.S. Advanced Bioenergy Consortium for Second Generation Biofuels (IUABC) has been launched. Partners include the government of India’s Department of Biotechnology, Indian corporate leaders and Washington University in St. Louis, who have invested $2.5 million in the consortium. The IUABC is a joint bi-national center led by Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay (IITB), and Washington University.

dreamstime_xs_44872276The Indian transportation fuel infrastructure is undergoing massive transformation due to increased consumer demand and a growing population, which is estimated to reach 1.6 billion by 2050.

“Biofuels are an essential solution to this demand challenge, not only to bridge the supply between traditional fossil fuels and consumer demand, but to deliver better environmental performance,” said Himadri Pakrasi, PhD, director of I-CARES, Washington University’s center for research on energy, the environment and sustainability, and the university’s McDonnell International Scholars Academy ambassador to JNU. “Over the next three years, the IUABC will invest significantly in the knowledge base in India and the U.S. to meet this challenge.”

The goal of the center is to increase biomass yield in plants and algae, enabling downstream commercial development for cost-effective, efficient and environmentally sustainable production of advanced biofuels.

The lead organizations are all members of the McDonnell International Scholars Academy and the new consortium strengthens this relationship.

Biodiesel Research Leads to Biochar Grant

isubiochar1Researchers at Iowa State University looking into ways to make biodiesel more profitable have found a way for farmers to cash in on biochar, a charcoal-like substance used as a carbon sequestering resource. This article from the school says ISU students Bernardo Del Campo, Juan Proano and Matthew Kieffer are expanding their horizons and have picked up a U.S. Department of Energy for $150,000 to help make the idea a reality.

“In the beginning, it was biodiesel and consulting. It was playing around as a club figuring out ‘How do we do biodiesel? How do we help the farmer?’ Proano said. “In that phase, we figured out that Biochar could be a good addition in order to improve the health of the soils on a farm.”

As the group began looking at the idea of making a profit with the research they had done, it became apparent that a change needed to be made.

“People have been doing this pretreatment for some time, but we did it [for] pennies. It was a really reduced budget.” Proano said.

From there, the company began working with around 20 individuals from many different backgrounds and ethnicities to make different products from another bio-renewable resource, Biochar.

The article goes on to explain that biochar starts as sawdust, and through biomass pyrolysis, the sawdust is turned into the biochar, which acts like a sponge to help clean up farm chemicals from streams and rivers while also enriching the soil.

Study Looks at Biodiesel Particulates

keenebiodiesel_research1While it’s a pretty well established fact that biodiesel produces fewer particulates than its petroleum counterpart, researchers on a new study want to see if those fewer particulates are also less harmful. This story from Keene State College in New Hampshire says they are using real-world testing to see if those biodiesel particulates are less toxic.

“We began this project using exposure as our measurement of health,” [Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Nora Traviss] explained. “We examined whether or not the pollution created by biodiesel combustion resulted in higher exposure for workers than the pollution created by petroleum diesel. It was very much an exposure assessment.”

With the cooperation of the Keene Recycling Center, Dr. Traviss and her research team mounted particle impactors in the operator’s cabs in machinery at the Center, collecting samples of both petroleum diesel and biodiesel exhaust. The impactors can separate out different sizes of extremely tiny particles, which lets the researchers see exactly what the drivers are breathing. This approach makes Dr. Traviss’ study different from all the others, which collect samples from diesel engines set up in a lab. Dr. Traviss’ samples are real-world. “The exhaust we’re collecting is diluted in the air, it’s going through chemical reactions from the sunlight, and it’s combining with other molecules in the air,” Dr. Traviss explained. “We’re studying the quantity of the particulate matter the driver is breathing and its unique chemical composition, which we hypothesize will be different from particles collected directly from the tailpipe.”

So far, Traviss’ team has confirmed that the amount of particulates in biodiesel exhaust is indeed lower than those from petroleum diesel, although they also found that they are chemically different. They’ll now be using a $400,000 grant from the National Institute of Health to test the toxicity of those particulates.

Bioenergy for the Birds

A new research paper examines the relationship between bioenergy and the birds. The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison) in conjunction with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and published in PLOS ONE, looked at whether corn and perennial grassland fields in southern Wisconsin could provide both biomass for bioenergy as well as a bird habitat.

The answer is yes.

UW-Madison biofuels and bird studyThe study found that where there are grasslands there are birds. For example, grass and wildflower dominated field supported more than three times as many bird species as cornfields. And grassland fields can product ample biomass to be used to produce advanced biofuels.

Monica Turner, UW-Madison professor of zoology, and study lead author Peter Blank, a postdoctoral researcher in her lab, hope the findings help drive decisions that benefit both birds and biofuels, too, by providing information for land managers, farmers, conservationists and policy makers as the bioenergy industry ramps up, particularly in Wisconsin and the central U.S.

The research team selected 30 different grassland sites – three of which are already used for small-scale bioenergy production – and 11 cornfields in southern Wisconsin. Over the course of two years, the researchers characterized the vegetation growing in each field, calculated and estimated the biomass yields possible, and counted the total numbers of birds and bird species observed in them.

According to Blank and Turner, the study is one of the first to examine grassland fields already producing biomass for biofuels and is one of only a few analyses to examine the impact of bioenergy production on birds. While previous studies suggest corn is a more profitable biofuel crop than grasses and other types of vegetation, the new findings indicate grassland fields may represent an acceptable tradeoff between creating biomass for bioenergy and providing habitat for grassland birds. The landscape could benefit other species, too.

Among the grasslands studied, the team found monoculture grasses supported fewer birds and fewer bird species than grasslands with a mix of grass types and other kinds of vegetation, like wildflowers. The team found that the presence of grasslands within one kilometer of the study sites also helped boost bird species diversity and bird density in the area.

This is an opportunity, Turner said, to inform large-scale land use planning. By locating biomass-producing fields near existing grasslands, both birds and the biofuels industry can win.

MIT Boosts Yeast Tolerance

Gregory Stephanopoulos, with the Willard Henry Dow Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT has discovered a way to boost yeast tolerance to ethanol by altering the composition of the medium in which yeast are grown. “Toxicity is probably the single most important problem in cost-effective biofuels production,” said Stephanopoulos. The research was published in the journal, Science.

Ethanol and other alcohols can disrupt yeast cell membranes, eventually killing the cells. The MIT team found that adding potassium and hydroxide ions to the medium in which yeast grow can help cells compensate for that membrane damage. By making these changes, the researchers were able to boost yeast’s ethanol production by about 80 percent. They found the approach works with commercial yeast strains and other types of alcohols, including propanol and butanol, which are even more toxic to yeast.

MIT yeast and ethanol research.jpg“The more we understand about why a molecule is toxic, and methods that will make these organisms more tolerant, the more people will get ideas about how to attack other, more severe problems of toxicity,” explained Stephanopoulos.

The research team began its quest searching for a gene or group of genes that could be manipulated to make yeast more tolerant to ethanol, but this approach did not yield much success. Yet when the researchers began to experiment with altering the medium in which yeast grow, they found some dramatic results. By augmenting the yeast’s environment with potassium chloride, and increasing the pH with potassium hydroxide, the researchers were able to dramatically boost ethanol production. They also found that these changes did not affect the biochemical pathway used by the yeast to produce ethanol: Yeast continued to produce ethanol at the same per-cell rate as long as they remained viable. Instead, the changes influenced their electrochemical membrane gradients — differences in ion concentrations inside and outside the membrane, which produce energy that the cell can harness to control the flow of various molecules into and out of the cell.

Ethanol increases the porosity of the cell membrane, making it very difficult for cells to maintain their electrochemical gradients. Increasing the potassium concentration and pH outside the cells helps them to strengthen the gradients and survive longer; the longer they survive, the more ethanol they make.

Researchers are also working on using this approach to boost the ethanol yield from various industrial feedstocks that, because of starting compounds inherently toxic to yeast, now have low yields.

ADM, Mizzou to Open New Biofuel Research Center

cafnr1The University of Missouri’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources and its College of Engineering have teamed up with Archer Daniels Midland Company to open a new research center focusing on biofuels and food production. The ADM Center for Agricultural Development was designed to give students more of a hands on approach in learning the latest theories of biofuel development, food production and energy processing.

“As the global population continues to grow, the world is looking toward agriculture to create viable, sustainable solutions to some of the world’s most pressing needs – like an abundant food supply and advanced renewable fuels,” said Michael D’Ambrose, ADM senior vice president and chief human resources officer. “To help our industry meet this challenge, ADM is pleased to invest in the University of Missouri and the next generation of agricultural leaders.”

Leon Schumacher, professor of agricultural systems management helped coordinate the project and said the lab will allow students to step out of the classroom and into the lab where they will team with peers and faculty on projects and equipment typical in the rapidly-changing agricultural industries

Schumacher said the lab allows students to select critical issues facing agriculture and brainstorm solutions, develop a timeline and budget, make decisions, take the initiative to test solutions in the lab, and be accountable for results. Schumacher said this is the best approach to develop team skills needed by industry.

ADM donated $1 million to renovate the labs that will help students to “learn to work as a team and tackle problems in a systematic way,” officials said. They also expect the labs will be key in finding solutions to the problem of fueling and feeding an expected world population of 9 billion by the year 2050.