“Forever Young” Switchgrass for Cellulosic Ethanol

Scientists at the USDA might have found a way to keep switchgrass forever young and better for cellulosic ethanol. Agricultural Research Service (ARS) geneticist Sarah Hake, working with University of California-Berkeley plant geneticist George Chuck, found that taking a gene from corn called corngrass and inserting it into switchgrass keeps the grass always in a juvenile form that doesn’t flower, doesn’t produce seeds, and doesn’t have a dormant growth phase. And that means the sugars in the plant starch are more readily available for conversion into cellulosic ethanol.

The scientists observed that the leaves in the transgenic switchgrass are not nearly as stiff as leaves in switchgrass cultivars that haven’t been modified. In addition, they determined that leaf lignin is slightly different in the transgenic switchgrass than leaf lignin in other plants. This could lead to new findings on how to break down the sturdy lignin and release sugars for fermentation, a development that will be essential to the commercial production of cellulosic ethanol.

The researchers are now introducing DNA segments called genetic promoters that would “turn on” the expression of the corngrass gene just in aboveground switchgrass shoots. This could help increase root mass development that otherwise would be inhibited by the gene. Hake and Chuck also suggest that developing nonflowering switchgrass varieties would eliminate the possibility of cross-pollination between transgenic switchgrass cultivars and other switchgrass cultivars.

The work was published in 2011 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Science Magazine Spotlights Seaweed to Biofuel Technology

The cover story in the latest issue of Science Magazine showcases a California-based company’s technology that converts seaweed to biofuel.

The research article details breakthrough technology developed by scientists with Bio Architecture Lab (BAL) using a microbe to extract the sugars in macroalgae that could further the use of seaweed as a feedstock for advanced biofuels and renewable chemical production.

“About 60 percent of the dry biomass of seaweed are sugars, and more than half of those are locked in a single sugar – alginate,” said Daniel Trunfio, Chief Executive Officer at Bio Architecture Lab. “Our scientists have developed a pathway to metabolize the alginate, allowing us to unlock all the sugars in seaweed, which therefore makes macroalgae an economical alternative feedstock for the production of renewable fuels and chemicals.”

“It is both an incredible scientific achievement and a distinguished honor to be published in Science, and I am very proud of our team,” said Trunfio. “It is yet another strong validation of BAL’s breakthrough technology.”

Seaweed can be an ideal global feedstock for the commercial production of biofuels and renewable chemicals because in addition to its high sugar content it has no lignin, and it does not require arable land or freshwater to grow. Globally, if three percent of the coastal waters were used to produce seaweed than more than 60 billion gallons of fossil fuel could be produced. Today, in many parts of the world, seaweed is already grown at commercial scale. BAL currently operates four seaweed farms in Chile and has had great success in growing seaweed at economically viable production yields.

BAL was a beneficiary of the highly selective U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) awarded to DuPont, for the development of a process to convert sugars from seaweed into isobutanol.

Will Biofuels Cause Water Apartheid?

drought_2Biofuels has been compared with fossil fuels, blamed for worldwide starvation, linked to CO2 increases and decreases, and born the brunt of scrutiny for rainforest destruction (aka land use). However, until now, biofuels have yet to receive a real beating on water use. Well, that day may be on the horizon with the release of the new Rice University study, “The Water Footprint of Biofuels: A Drink or Drive Issue?”

The paper studies the relationship between agrofuels and water shortage issues. The study’s lead author was Pedro Alvarez, George R. Brown Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and was funded by Rice University’s Shell Center for Sustainability.

The WorldWatch Institute has declared, “Water scarcity may be the most under appreciated global environmental challenge of our time,” and the Environmental Protection Agency has predicted that in the U.S. 36 states will suffer water shortages within the next five years if water use continues unchecked.

The report states, “As biofuel production increases, a growing need exists to understand and mitigate potential impacts to water resources, primarily those associated with the agricultural stages of the biofuel life cycle (e.g. water shortages and water pollution)–herein referred to as the water footprint.”

waterThe report recommends that specific biofuel crops should be grown in certain regions. For example, corn for ethanol should be grown in states like Iowa where only one percent of the crops are irrigated, whereas significantly less corn should be grown in Nebraska where 61 percent of corn is irrigated. The report ultimately calls for more attention to the water footprint of biofuels as policies and mandates are put into place. However, it also states that with careful water usage planning, sustainable agricultural practices and energy conservation we can, “have our drive and drink our water too.”

The industry is not taking the concern over water lying down. Advanced biofuels are being developed with the need to use significantly less water and seed companies are developing hybrids that will ultimately cut water needs in half per acre. Like the continual debate as to the reality of global warming, we may be on the verge of a long debate on whether the world really has water quality and shortage issues.

National Science Board Calls for More Green Energy

nsf1A 25-member panel of researchers that advises the President and Congress on science and engineering issues is calling for more development of sustainable and clean energy sources to transition the country away from fossil fuels.

The National Science Board has released a draft report entitled “Building a Sustainable Energy Future” for public review and comment:

The NSB recommends that the U.S. government develop and lead a nationally coordinated research, development demonstration, deployment, and education (RD3E) strategy to advance a sustainable energy economy that is significantly less carbon-intensive. A sustainable energy economy values environmental and ecosystem stewardship as well as clean, equitable, reliable, renewable, safe, secure, and economically viable energy strategies and solutions.

The NSB offers priority guidance for the National Science Foundation (NSF) to increase its emphasis on innovation in sustainable energy technologies and education.

“Together, these approaches can help to promote national security by increasing U.S. energy independence, ensure environmental stewardship by reducing energy and carbon intensity, and generate continued economic growth through innovation in energy technologies and increases in green jobs,” said Dan Arvizu, co-chairman of the NSB’s Task Force on Sustainable Energy.

The NSB warns that without concerted international action, there would little change in the global energy mix in the next 25 to 50 years.

You can read the NSB’s report and comment here.

“E-logo” a Hit with Kids

2008 IPL Festival ParadeThe green ethanol flags were a hit with the crowd at the 2008 IPL Festival Parade, especially with the kids. Spectators could spot “e” flags waving at Monument Circle and along the parade route. Some kids were using the flags as drumsticks, beating in time to the college and high school bands that marched past. Well, keeping time in their heads at least. But, the kids weren’t the only ones eager to get there hands on one. Just as one of the brand ambassadors handed out the last flag, a woman came up demanding one for herself. She wasn’t too happy to find out there were none left!

2008 Indy 500 Photo Album

Evidence that Ethanol Works

IndyCar Driver Jeff SimmonsThe ethanol industry in Brazil has been developing some major traction. Marcos Jank, President of UNICA, says the demand for ethanol in Brazil is now matching that of the demand for gasoline. He says ethanol is gaining ground and Brazil “won’t move back to gas.”

Marcos was one of seven speakers at today’s Ethanol Summit held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway today. General Motors sponsored the event. The object of the Summit was to explore Brazil’s strong and sustained success with ethanol while also taking a look at where and how the U.S. ethanol industry has room to grow.

Marcos and Indy racing legend Emerson Fittipaldi – a Brazilian ethanol producer – highlighted a number of milestones the Brazilian ethanol industry has already attained:

  • All fuel sold in Brazil contains a 20 to 25 percent blend of ethanol
  • The unsubsidized ethanol industry offers a fuel that is on average one dollar below the price of gasoline
  • Virtually all 33,000 gas pumps offer E100
  • Just one percent of the 40 percent of arable land in Brazil is being used to produce sugarcane ethanol
  • Forty-five percent of fuel for cars is from sugarcane
  • Sugarcane ethanol production is 100 percent self-sufficient
  • The food industry is growing faster than the ethanol industry
  • Ninety percent of all new automobiles sold are flex-fuel automobiles
  • One-hundred percent of GM vehicles produced in Brazil are flex-fuel
  • Twenty percent of all cars are flex-fuel vehicles today
  • Fifty percent of all cars will be flex-fuel vehicles by 2012
  • Three percent of electricity is from sugarcane
  • Honda and Yamaha are introducing flex-fuel motorcycles this year

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GM & DOE Select Teams for “ECOCAR” Challenge

General MotorsThe U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), General Motors and Natural Resources Canada today announced the 17 teams selected to participate in EcoCAR: The NeXt Challenge, a collegiate vehicle engineering competition set to begin in the Fall of 2008. EcoCAR will challenge university engineering students across North America to reengineer a Saturn VUE to achieve improved fuel economy and reduced green house gas emissions, while retaining the vehicle’s performance and consumer appeal.

Students will design and build advanced propulsion solutions that are based on the vehicle categories from the California Air Resources Board (CARB) zero emissions vehicle (ZEV) regulations. They will be encouraged to explore a variety of cutting-edge clean vehicle solutions, including full-function electric, range-extended electric, hybrid, plug-in hybrid and fuel cell technologies. In addition, they will incorporate lightweight materials into the vehicles, improve aerodynamics and utilize alternative fuels such as ethanol, biodiesel and hydrogen.

The following teams have been selected to compete in the EcoCAR competition:
• Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (Daytona Beach, FL)
• Georgia Tech (Atlanta, GA)
• Howard University (Washington, D.C.)
• Michigan Technological University (Houghton, MI)
• Mississippi State University (Starkville, MS)
• Missouri University of Science and Technology (Rolla, MO)
• North Carolina State University (Raleigh, NC)
• Ohio State University (Columbus, OH)
• Pennsylvania State University (University Park, PA)
• Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology (Terre Haute, IN)
• Texas Tech University (Lubbock, TX)
• University of Ontario Institute of Technology (Oshawa, Ontario, Canada)
• University of Victoria (Victoria, British Columbia, Canada)
• University of Waterloo (Waterloo, Ontario, Canada)
• University of Wisconsin (Madison, WI)
• Virginia Tech (Blacksburg, VA)
• West Virginia University (Morgantown, WV)

During the three-year program, GM will provide production vehicles, vehicle components, seed money, technical mentoring and operational support. DOE and its research and development facility will provide competition management, team evaluation and technical and logistical support.

Additional information about EcoCAR is available on the Web at www.ecoCARchallenge.org.

Student Wins Honor for Solar Cell Project

mccarthy.jpgAn Oregon teenager has been honored for his work on making solar cells more efficiently.

Brian McCarthy of Liberty High School from Hillsboro, Oregon placed third and won a $50,000 scholarship in the 2008 Intel Science Talent Search:

In his research, Brian McCarthy, 18, from Hillsboro, Oregon, investigated the viability of plastic solar cells as a new option in solar energy technology. Using interfacially polymerized combinations of porphyrins and phthalocyanines – plant-like photosynthetic materials found in nature that are photoactive and photoconducting (both properties of functioning solar cells) – he synthesized extremely thin, fragile films for potential use as solar cells and tested them using scanning electron microscopy techniques. Brian’s novel polymer films responded electrically to light, indicating that they could act as solar cells and offer a less expensive option to current silicon-based solar cell technology.

Youth to Take Up Shell Fueling the Future Challenge

2008 Shell Eco-MarathonThe future of energy and fuel isn´t just in the hands of Congress. This spring, the 2008 Shell Eco-Marathon Americas will give today´s youth the chance to develop their own technologies for the transportation of tomorrow.

50 student teams from North and South America? Check. Young engineers bringing innovative thinking to the future of transportation? Check. Prototype vehicles that travel nearly two thousand miles per gallon as part of a global effort to change the way the world uses energy? Check, and check. The Shell Eco-marathon(TM) Americas may not be the fastest race you’ve ever seen, but it’s probably the most fuel-efficient. In 2008, the stakes are high as student teams prepare their eco-friendly vehicles to drive the farthest distance using the least amount of fuel and break the 1,902.7 miles per gallon record set by Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 2007.

“Shell is working aggressively to help meet the energy challenge head-on and long-term, and we understand the importance of encouraging technology and innovation in the minds of tomorrow’s leaders and engineers,” said David Sexton, President of Shell Oil Products U.S. “The Shell Eco-marathon promotes fuel efficiency, and we’re challenging students from North and South America to build environmentally friendly vehicles to inspire future transportation.”

Student teams will take up the 2008 Shell Eco-marathon Americas challenge April 10-13 at the California Speedway in Fontanta, CA. The winning team will receive a grand prize of $10,000, which will be awarded to the team´s educational institution.

Biofuels Research at Arizona State

Science Foundation ArizonaThe Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University is launching a Renewable Biofuel Research Initiative. Science Foundation Arizona and energy company BP are funding the initiative meant to propel the development of a renewable source of biofuel.

The research effort focuses on using a specially optimized photosynthetic bacterium to produce biodiesel, a sustainable high-energy fuel that can be used in conventional engines.

Biodesign Institute at Arizona State UniversityThe use of renewable, photosynthetic bacteria in the production of biofuel eliminates the need for costly and complex processing. In addition, the large-scale microbial cultivation, using only solar energy and an environmentally controlled production facility, can be set up on arid land.

BPThe renewable technology holds significant promise, with an estimated high biomass-to-fuel yield. Furthermore, because the bacteria are dependent upon carbon dioxide for growth, a more environmentally friendly and potentially carbon neutral energy source is feasible. The small footprint needed for bacterial biofuel production allows the technology to be placed adjacent to power generating stations and the utilization of flue gas as a carbon source.

The Renewable Biofuel Research Initiative is part of a series of Strategic Research Group awards being offered by the Science Foundation Arizona.