Tag Archives: biofuel

Researchers are using food waste to produce biofuels and reduce emissions

Developed countries (and the US especially) wastes an enormous amount of food. Now, a group of researchers has found a possible solution, developing technologies that can convert food waste into renewable fuel that could be used to power vehicles while tackling greenhouse gas emissions.

Food waste could be turned into something useful. Image credit: Flickr / WMaster

The US is the ignoble global leader in food waste, with Americans discarding nearly 40 million tons of food every year. That’s around 80 billion pounds of food (219 pounds per person) — and between 30 and 40% of the US food supply is wasted. Most of this food is sent to landfills. In fact, food is considered the single largest component taking up space in US landfills. A survey showed 94% of Americans throw away food regularly.

Food waste happens for many reasons, and at every stage of the production and supply chain. It can arise from problems during drying, milling, transporting, or processing, for example with food exposed to bacteria. At the retail level, the equipment can malfunction and lead to food loss. Consumers also contribute, buying or cooking more than they actually need.

Researchers at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have been working for decades to efficiently produce fuels derived from plants or animal wastes rather than petroleum. So far they managed to create biofuels from feedstock such as agricultural residues, algae, forest byproducts, sewer sludge, and manure.

Now, they’ve decided to take it a step further and tackle food waste, successfully converting it into an energy-dense biofuel that could complement today’s fossil fuels. While further research is still needed, early results already show that food waste could be transformed into biofuel efficiently at a large scale, delivering economic and environmental benefits, the researchers explain.

The process starts by blending the food waste. The researchers used a piece of customized equipment known as the Muffin Monster that grinds everything, including wrappers and packaging. They obtain a mush and warm it so it can be continuously pumped into a reactor and converted into fuel. Still, they want to further improve the process by testing different types of food waste.

Thanks to its higher fat content and lower mineral content, more gallons of biofuel could be produced per ton of food waste than with other feedstocks, according to Steven Ashby, the director of Northwest National Laboratory. Food waste can be made into a pumpable slurry, simplifying biofuel production and reducing the pre-processing cost needed with the other feedstocks.

The researchers also believe that food waste could be obtained much cheaper than other feedstocks, which have higher cultivation and harvesting costs. Food waste is generated in abundance across the US and people are willing to pay for its disposal. Using it instead of growing crops also prevents arable land to be used to fuel rather than food.

At the same time, turning this waste into fuel would prevent it from going to landfills. When waste decomposes, it generates methane, a powerful greenhouse gas (GHG) that drives climate change if it’s not captured. A United Nations report estimated that global food waste generates annually 4.4 GtCO2 eq or about 8% of total anthropogenic GHG emissions.

The researchers are now specifically assessing the resources available near Detroit, Michigan, so to establish the mixture of food waste, sewage sludge, and fats, oils, and greases that could be consolidated and used to produce biofuel. They estimate that the production of biofuel plants could be 10 times larger in urban areas by including food waste while tackling emissions. Still, in order to use this method at a large scale, a hefty amount of infrastructure needs to be built.

New ceramic catalyst sponge promises to turn waste organic matter into cheap biofuel, medicine

A new, ultra-efficient catalyst could pave the way towards turning various products from food waste to old tires into biofuels or medicine.

Stock photo — biofuel doesn’t actually look like this. Image credits Chokniti Khongchum.

The new material allows for efficient, low-cost recycling of low-grade organic material into valuable chemical products. Food scraps, used cooking oil, agricultural waste, or even plastic can be used in the process (even when relatively impure) can be used as part of the process.

Leftover fuel

“The quality of modern life is critically dependent on complex molecules to maintain our health and provide nutritious food, clean water, and cheap energy,” says co-lead author Professor Adam Lee from RMIT University, Australia.”These molecules are currently produced through unsustainable chemical processes that pollute the atmosphere, soil, and waterways.”

“Our new catalysts can help us get the full value of resources that would ordinarily go to waste to advance the circular economy. And by radically boosting efficiency, they could help us reduce environmental pollution from chemical manufacturing and bring us closer to the green chemistry revolution.”

Turning unwanted organic material into useful products isn’t out of our reach. Currently, however, the processes we use to do so are slow and inefficient, and the tools we have to improve on them, such as chemical catalysts or engineering solutions, are quite expensive. They also require that the raw materials used be very pure. For example, waste cooking oil needs to undergo a very energy-intensive purification process before being used for biodiesel production, as our current methods can only handle around 1-2% contaminants in their raw materials.

The new catalyst, however, can work with ingredients (‘feedstock’) comprising up to 50% contaminants. According to the authors, it’s so efficient it could also double the efficiency of our current processing methods.

The team first fabricated a porous ceramic sponge 100 times thinner than a human hair that contains several different (and specialized) active components. Feedstock molecules enter through the larger pores and undergo an initial chemical reaction, and later flow into smaller pores where final reactions take place. It’s the first catalyst that can mediate several chemical reactions in a sequence in a single particle, the authors note, which helps simplify the process and keeps costs low.

This approach, they explain, mimics the way enzymes handle complex chemical processes in living cells.

“Catalysts have previously been developed that can perform multiple simultaneous reactions, but these approaches offer little control over the chemistry and tend to be inefficient and unpredictable,” said Professor Karen Wilson, also from RMIT.

“Our bio-inspired approach looks to nature’s catalysts — enzymes — to develop a powerful and precise way of performing multiple reactions in a set sequence. It’s like having a nanoscale production line for chemical reactions – all housed in one, tiny and super-efficient catalyst particle.”

Even better, these sponges are cheap to manufacture and don’t use any rare and expensive materials like precious metals. They’re also meant to be employed in a similarly simple manner: mix feedstock such as agricultural waste with the catalysts in a large container, heat gently, and stir.

Their ease of use and low cost should make them attractive in developing countries where diesel is widely employed. Farmers, in particular, are well suited to using these catalyst sponges, as they have access to large quantities of agricultural byproducts to turn into fuel for their farms and machinery.

“If we could empower farmers to produce biodiesel directly from agricultural waste like rice bran, cashew nut and castor seed shells, on their own land, this would help address the critical issues of energy poverty and carbon emissions,” Wilson said.

The team now plans to further refine their catalyst sponges to allow for production of a greater range of final products and useful feedstock, such as producing jet fuel from forestry waste or old rubber. Until then, however, they will be hard at work scaling up production, which is currently limited to the order of a few grams.

The paper “A spatially orthogonal hierarchically porous acid-base catalyst for cascade and antagonistic reactions” has been published in the journal Nature Catalysis.

contrails aircraft

Biofuels reduce jet engine emissions by as much as 70%, NASA says

According to flight tests ran between 2013 and 2014 by NASA scientists, biofuels can reduce jet engine particle emissions by 50 to 70 percent.

contrails aircraft

Credit: Pixabay.

The researchers collected data on engine performance, emissions, and contrails generated at altitudes flown by commercial airliners. Contrails or ‘condensation trails’ are the white, line-shaped clouds that aircraft produce when the hot engine exhaust meets the cold air several miles above the Earth’s surface. It’s primarily made of water ice crystals, although many conspiracy theorists refer to contrails as ‘chemtrails’ and claim these containing anything from fluoride to mind-control chemicals intentionally dumped by the government.

Anyway, back to real science.

“Soot emissions also are a major driver of contrail properties and their formation,” said Bruce Anderson, ACCESS project [Alternative Fuel Effects on Contrails and Cruise Emissions Study], scientist at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

According to 2011 paper, contrails cause cirrus clouds to form which can have a larger impact on Earth’s atmosphere than all the aviation-related CO2 emissions since the Wright brothers made their first flight. While the CO2 emissions from airplanes account for around three percent of the annual CO2 emissions from all fossil fuels and change the radiation by 28 milliwatts per square meter, the aviation contrails are responsible for a change of around 31 milliwatts per square meter.

The tests run by NASA were performed on a DC-8 workhorse operating as high as 40,000 feet above the surface (very challenging) on a 50-50 blend of renewable biofuel and kerosene. The alternative fuel is made of hydro-processed esters and fatty acids obtained from the camelina plant oil.

“Measurements in the wake of aircraft require highly experienced crew members and proven measuring equipment, which DLR has built up over many years,” said report co-author Hans Schlager of the DLR Institute of Atmospheric Physics. “Since 2000, the DLR Falcon has been used in numerous measurement campaigns to investigate the emissions and contrails of commercial airliners.”

Camelina Sativa, a remarkable oil-seed plant with a massive potential for reducing emissions from transportation. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Camelina Sativa, a remarkable oil-seed plant with a massive potential for reducing emissions from transportation. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Incidentally, my Msc. thesis was about camelina oil-derived biofuels and although I focused on a life cycle analysis in non-aviation transportation, I found camelina to be promising as a liquid fuel too. The results weren’t peer-reviewed so I won’t say more about it other that the plant’s seeds have a very high fatty acid content and camelina can grow in arid locations where food crops aren’t suitable. Camelina needs little to any fertilizer input. It’s also a great nitrogen fixer which means you can use camelina in rotation with grain crops and, theoretically at least, you can improve the soil while making a profit.

Compared to straight Jet A fuel, the 50-50 blend achieved remarkable reductions in exhaust emissions, as much as 50 to 70 percent. The findings were reported in the journal Nature.

“As a result, the observed particle reductions we’ve measured during ACCESS should directly translate into reduced ice crystal concentrations in contrails, which in turn should help minimize their impact on Earth’s environment,” Andersson said.

This NASA study is just the most recent to confirm camelina-derived biofuels can have a huge environmental impact on aviation. One 2009 study found camelina jet fuel could cut carbon emissions by 84 percent, for instance.

NASA plans on continuing these sort of studies to assess whether or not it’s feasible to replace current fuels with biofuels. They even hope to use only biofuels for NASA’s upcoming supersonic X-plane. 

The CO2 reduction reaction takes place in three steps: (1) an intermediate (EMIM–CO2 complex) formation, (2) adsorption of EMIM–CO2 complex on the reduced carbon atoms and (3) CO formation. Photo: Nature Communications

Synthetic fuel production may become cheaper after using carbon nanofibers

In transportation, there aren’t that many alternative energy sources like in conventional industry, where you can supply a plant or even a home using solar, hydro or wind power. Before electric vehicles make a significant contribution (don’t hold your breath for too long), alternative means of fueling engines need to be found. This is why biofuels are growing so feverishly, helping cut fossil fuel dependency but at the expense of displacing food crops and, in some unfortunate cases, leading to deforestation. Synthetic fuels have been explored since the turn of the last century, and during WWII Nazi Germany actually used millions of gallons of synthetic gasoline, oil, rubber and such to compensate for loss of oil field control.

Since conventional gasoline and diesel is so cheap, however, attempts at making synthetic fuels at a mass scale have been more or less ineffective. Currently, some  240,000 barrels per day of synthetic fuel are produced, compared to 80,000,000 barrels of crude oil produced every day. Competing with cheap fossil fuel is tough, but by making synthetic fuels cheaper it’s possible to accelerate their share growth.

Making synthetic fuels cheaper and more accessible

Researchers at University of Illinois at Chicago found that  using carbon nanofibers doped with nitrogen as a co-catalyst led to a highly efficient conversion of  carbon dioxide to carbon monoxide, a useful starting material for synthesizing fuels.

“I believe this can open a new field for the design of inexpensive and efficient catalytic systems for the many researchers already working with these easily manipulated advanced carbon materials,” says Amin Salehi-Khojin, UIC professor of mechanical and industrial engineering and principal investigator on the study.

The CO2 reduction reaction takes place in three steps: (1) an intermediate (EMIM–CO2 complex) formation, (2) adsorption of EMIM–CO2 complex on the reduced carbon atoms and (3) CO formation. Photo: Nature Communications

The CO2 reduction reaction takes place in three steps: (1) an intermediate (EMIM–CO2 complex) formation, (2) adsorption of EMIM–CO2 complex on the reduced carbon atoms and (3) CO formation. Photo: Nature Communications

Reducing carbon-dioxide typically involves a two-step process, but despite this chemists have used only one catalyst. Salehi-Khojin  and team decided to use a catalyst for each step. Previously,  they used an ionic liquid to catalyze the first step of the reaction, and silver for the final reduction to carbon monoxide which rendered a better efficiency than single-catalyst reduction. Silver, of course, is expensive and with this in mind the method doesn’t particularly bring much to the table.

[READ] Synthetic fuels could replace crude oil and cut CO2 emissions by 50%

An unexpected catalyst

The researchers began to explore cheap, metal-free alternatives and finally settled on using  carbon nanofiber, a readily available structural material, which was doped with nitrogen in hopes of acting as a silver substitute for the second step of CO2 reduction. Something interesting happened: instead of nitrogen acting a the primary catalysis driver, the carbon nanofibers took charge.

The carbon dioxide reduction ability of carbon nanofibres is attributed to the reduced carbons rather than to electronegative nitrogen atoms. Apparently, thanks to  the nanofibrillar structure and high binding energy of key intermediates  these nanofibers work as excellent catalysts to the researchers’ surprise and good fortune. Indeed, this is most fortunate since the carbon nanofibers can tweaked to increase catalysis efficiency even further.

“If the reaction happened on the dopant, we would not have much freedom in terms of structure,” said Salehi-Khojin.

But with the reaction happening on the carbon, “we have enormous freedom” to use these very advanced carbon materials to optimize the reaction, he said.

Using their method for the first step reforming process of CO2 to CO, synthetic fuels like syngas may be produced cheaper. Yes, I know what you’re thinking: what about using graphene instead of the graphitic nanofibers?

“Further, one can imagine that using atomically-thin, two-dimensional* graphene nano-sheets — which have extremely high surface area and can easily be designed with dopant atoms like nitrogen — we can develop even far more efficient catalyst systems,” Kumar said.

The findings were reported in a paper published in the journal Nature Communications.

It’s time to rethink misguided policies which promote biofuels

To my constant surprise and dislike, people continue to think of biofuels as a clean, renewable alternative for the future. People (and especially policy makers) need to rethink the idea of promoting biofuels to protect the climate, because it simply doesn’t work.


biodiesel 1

Unless you’re working in the energy department (or perhaps marketing), the odds are you’re not familiar with this concept, but it’s an easy one to grasp. EROEI stands for energy returned on energy invested – it’s a measure of how much energy you’re getting from something compared to how much energy you invest in it. If the EROEI is 1, then you get exactly as much energy as you put in, which makes it usefull. If it is 2, you get twice as much energy, and so on.

The EROEI for shale oil for exaple is 5, for natural gas it is 10, for wind 18, and for hydro 100. But what’s the EROEI for biodiesel? 1.3. That means that thinking only in terms of energy, you get 1.3 times more than what you put in; if you take into consideration the work put into it, the land which could be used for something else and the necessary infrastructure, you get to about 1 – which means that biodiesel is mostly useless; it doesn’t provide any additional energy into the equation (for a more detailed list on EROEI, check this wikipedia article).

Carbon neutrality

Also, one of the main points behind people supporting biodiesel is carbon neutrality – the idea that the CO2 emitted while the biodiesel is used is balanced by the plants, as they grow (before becoming biodiesel). But in a new paper published online in the journal Climatic Change, John DeCicco takes on that widespread and fundamentally wrong idea.

Why is it fundamentally wrong? Because the argument is invalid: the plants used for biodiesel (usually corn, soybeans and sugarcane) are already pulling the CO2 out of the atmosphere – using them for fuel doesn’t provide any additional benefits!

“Plants used to make biofuels do not remove any additional carbon dioxide just because they are used to make fuel as opposed to, say, corn flakes,” DeCicco said.

DeCicco’s paper is unique because it strays from the traditional life-cycle-analysis approach that forms a basis for current environmental policies promoting biofuels, and instead, goes for a more scientific carbon cycle analysis based on biogeochemical fundamentals. His point was to show the conditions under which biofuels provide a climatic advantage. Gas emissions from biofuels are just 2% lower than those from gasoline, and about 1% higher than those from petroleum diesel.

“If there is any climate benefit to biofuels, it occurs only if harvesting the source crops causes a greater net removal of carbon dioxide from the air than would otherwise have occurred,” DeCicco said.

This is only the latest in a series of scientific papers which show that when you take into consideration all the global impacts, ethanol and biodiesel, which are currently regarded as the replacement for petroleum fuels, don’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions at all.

Source: Yale
Scientific reference

The same organisms that make pandas effective at digesting bamboo may help turn plant waste into biofuels, according to researchers. (c) Keren Su, Corbis

Panda poop might help biofuel production take a turn for the better

The same organisms that make pandas effective at digesting bamboo may help turn plant waste into biofuels, according to researchers. (c) Keren Su, Corbis

The same organisms that make pandas effective at digesting bamboo may help turn plant waste into biofuels, according to researchers. (c) Keren Su, Corbis

Biofuels are very ‘hot’ at the moment, as they’ve started to gain traction. Production as increased about 400% since 2000, and that’s a good thing. Right? After all, anything that can replace fossil fuels is a better option. Well, not necessarily. A while ago, I wrote a piece for ZME Science in which listed some of reason why biofuels aren’t that ‘green’ as most people would like to think. In short, unsustainable biofuel production can be hazardous to the environment creating deforestation, erosion, loss of biodiversity, and impact on water resources. People shouldn’t forget that biofuels produce greenhouse gas emissions as well, albeit not in the same degree as fossil hydrocarbons.

Another important downside to biofuel production is that an important chunk of them are made from food crops, affecting food supply. For instance, ethanol made from corn is the most common alternative fuel in the U.S. Engineers tried developing fuels from non-edible corn stalks, corn cobs, and other plant material not meant for food production, however these require special processing to breakdown their tough cellulose fibers. Typically this translates in an energy intensive process that requires high temperature and pressure. It’s simply not feasible. Not impossible, though.

Scientists at Mississippi State University, led by Ashli Brown, think they may have found a method to work-around the energy intensive process and derive biofuels from non-edible crops much easier. And they have two of Memphis Zoo’s giant pandas to thank: Ya Ya and Le Le. The secret lies in their super panda feces.

“The giant pandas are contributing their feces,” explained Ashli Brown, a biochemist at Mississippi State University who heads the research. “We have discovered microbes in panda feces might actually be a solution to the search for sustainable new sources of energy. It’s amazing that here we have an endangered species that’s almost gone from the planet, yet there’s still so much we have yet to learn from it.”

Pandas’ diet mainly consists of bamboo and their small intestinal tract is perfectly adapted to digest them. Since bamboo is similar to the tough cellulose fibers non-edible crops have been given scientists so much headaches, the Mississipi researchers were on to something. Closer inspection showed 40 microbes living in the guts of the giant pandas with unusually potent enzymes.

“The time from eating to defecation is comparatively short in the panda, so their microbes have to be very efficient to get nutritional value out of the bamboo,” Brown notes. “And efficiency is key when it comes to biofuel production – that’s why we focused on the microbes in the giant panda.”

In addition to identifying bacteria that break down lignocellulose into simple sugars, the researchers also found bacteria that can take those sugars and transform them into oils and fats – which could be used for biodiesel production. Brown said that either the bacteria themselves or the enzymes in the bacteria could be used in the production of biofuels.

“These studies also help us learn more about this endangered animal’s digestive system and the microbes that live in it,” said Brown. “Understanding the relationships between the microbes and the pandas, as well as how they get their energy and nutrition, is extremely important… as fewer than 2,500 giant pandas are left in the wild and only 200 are in captivity.”

Next, the researchers have to work on a way to use these bacteria and enzymes themselves to produce biofuels in the lab.

via Nat Geographic

Water demand for energy to double by 2035


Water and energy are two of the things we pretty much take for granted – but we shouldn’t. Water is not infinite, and if you consume it at a high enough rate, it will run out; meanwhile, there’s a tight connection between living standard and energy consumption – and as the population continues to increase and raise its living standards, the energy demand increases as well.

Water and energy


The amount of fresh water consumed for world energy production is on track to double within the next 25 years, the International Energy Agency (IEA) explains. The main culprits for this are probably  not the suspects you’d expect though: coal and biofuels. The lesser discussed but profoundly significant energy sources are expected to dramatically gain more land.

Today, the world needs about 66 billion cubic meters (bcm) of water for energy production; if today’s policies remain in place, then you can expect the number growing to 135 bcm by 2035 – just over 20 years from now. Just so you can get an idea, that’s about four times the volume of the largest U.S. reservoir, Hoover Dam’s Lake Mead. While, of course, people working in the biofuel and coal industry claim these numbers are exaggerated, data compiled by governmental and international agencies seem to support the IEA results – some paint even a darker picture.

“Energy and water are tightly entwined,” says Sandra Postel, director of the Global Water Policy Project, and National Geographic’s Freshwater Fellow. “It takes a great deal of energy to supply water, and a great deal of water to supply energy. With water stress spreading and intensifying around the globe, it’s critical that policymakers not promote water-intensive energy options.”

Coal and biofuel


China’s industrialization and economic growth is powered with coal – literally; and it’s not only them that are paying the price [China smog intensifies] – the effects are felt on an international level. China’s coal consumption on it’s own is comparable to the rest of the world combined. The thing is, even though it greatly relies on coal, the US coal consumption hasn’t grown in the last years – which is something you can only say for a few more European countries. Other than that, the entire world seems to have rediscovered the magic of coal. The thing is, coal plants are among the worst you can get; they pollute like… well, like a coal plant, while also requiring massive quantities of water. If today’s trends continue in the next 20 years, then water consumption for coal electricity alone will rise with about 84 percent, from 38 to 70 billion cubic meters annually. Coal plants could be less water-extensive, the IEA explains, but the process would be more expensive and not as efficient.

After coal, the much-hailed biofuel comes next. For some reason, people seem adamant to ignore the fact that at the moment, biofuel does much more harm than good. The agency anticipates a 242 percent increase in water consumption for biofuel production by 2035, from 12 billion cubic meters to 41 bcm annually – but here’s the kicker! The amount of energy biofuels will deliver will continue to be modest!

Just so you can get an idea on how water extensive this energy source is, biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel now account for more than half the water consumed in “primary energy production” (production of fuels, rather than production of electricity), while providing less than 3 percent of the energy that fuels cars, trucks, ships, and aircraft. They are also nowhere near as efficient as traditional hydrocarbon sources.

Hunger games


Experts worry that this impending shortage of water will occur at the same period when a shortage of food and water are expected. What, didn’t you know that if we continue to grow our population at this rate, we will soon run out of food and water? After all, there’s only so many people we can feed, and the projections for 2035 show a popullation of 9 billion.

Biofuels, in particular, will siphon water away from food production,” says Postel. “How will we then feed 9 billion people?”

Hydraulic fracking will not have a global impact as big as biofuels and coal, but the regional impact will definitely be significant. An average of 15 million liters of water (~4 million gallons) are required for the fracking process, for each well ! A good oil site has at least 50-100 wells – and this can add a lot of stress to the local water supply. So what’s the sollution?

If this trend continues, things will become pretty dire. What can we do? We can try to harness the untapped potential that our planet has, in a win-win situation; renewable energy sources are only starting to make an impact, and hopefully, that impact will increase as years go by.

“There is still enormous untapped potential to improve energy efficiency, which would reduce water stress and climate disruption at the same time,” she says. “The win-win of the water-energy nexus is that saving energy saves water.”

Via National Geographic

Side-by-side comparison of FT synthetic fuel and conventional fuel. The synthetic fuel is clear as water because of a near-absence of sulfur and aromatics.

Synthetic fuels could eliminate U.S. crude oil addiction and hamper carbon emissions

Over the past few years, a series of papers looked on how the United States could benefit by switching from crude oil to alternative synthetic fuels. Their findings show that, given the current economic environment where oil prices have simply skyrocketed, synthetic fuels are more advantageous compared to crude oil from a number of perspectives, including environmental.

Synthetic oils are chemical processed hydrocarbons made from various feedstock like coal, natural gas and non-food crops. The resulting products include fuels, waxes and lubricants normally made from crude oil. Actually plants can produce gasoline, diesel and aviation fuels at competitive prices, depending on the price of crude oil and the type of feedstock used to create the synthetic fuel, all with the same or similar performances of those derived from crude oil.

This means that motor vehicles can run without issues on synthetic fuels without the need for complicated addons or new specifically designed engines, like ethanol, a biofuel, requires.

Lowering greenhouse gas emissions with synthetic fuels

Side-by-side comparison of FT synthetic fuel and conventional fuel. The synthetic fuel is clear as water because of a near-absence of sulfur and aromatics.

Side-by-side comparison of FT synthetic fuel and conventional fuel. The synthetic fuel is clear as water because of a near-absence of sulfur and aromatics. (c) Wikimedia Commons

Because refineries, extraction facilities and non-edible crops would have to be integrated in a newly build infrastructure, an enormous social and economic impact could potentially unfold. Millions of jobs would open and the country wouldn’t have to import oil or resort to unorthodox extraction methods (see wars). Moreover, since  plants absorb carbon dioxide to grow, the United States could cut vehicle greenhouse emissions by as much as 50 percent in the next several decades using non-food crops to create liquid fuels, the researchers said.

“The goal is to produce sufficient fuel and also to cut CO2 emissions, or the equivalent, by 50 percent,” said  Christodoulos Floudas, a professor of chemical and biological engineering at Princeton, who led the research. “The question was not only can it be done, but also can it be done in an economically attractive way. The answer is affirmative in both cases.”

Synthetic fuels make for an important chapterof a white paper recently produced by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) and authored by Vern Weekman, one of Floudas’ co-researchers.

“Right now we are going down so many energy paths,” said June Wispelwey, the institute’s director and a 1981 Princeton alumna. “There are ways for the system to be more integrated and much more efficient

The struggles that come with transitioning to synthetic fuels

The main synthetic fuel production method employed today is the Fischer-Tropsch process, first developed in the 1920s in Germany out of the need to convert coal into liquid fuels. The process involves heat and a complicated chemistry to create gasoline and other liquid fuels from high-carbon feedstock ranging from coal to switchgrass, a native North American grass common to the Great Plains.

“This is an opportunity to create a new economy,” Floudas said. “The amount of petroleum the U.S. imports is very high. What is the price of that? What other resources to do we have? And what can we do about it?”

If synthetic fuels hold so many benefits, why isn’t the US or other countries in the world use them at a mass scale? As with all things – cost. Experts estimate that an investment of $1.1 trillion would be required for a synthetic fuel infrastructure to be developed. Also, an expected 30 to 40 years transition period would have to pass before the U.S. would be capable of fully embracing synthetic fuels.

Why not start now? This is exactly what the researchers are striving for, and the white paper published by the AIChE is particularly addressed to key national planning agencies like the national academies, the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Defense Department.

“Even including the capital costs, synthetic fuels can still be profitable,” said Richard Baliban, a chemical and biological engineering graduate student who graduated in 2012 and was the lead author on several of the team’s papers. “As long as crude oil is between $60 and $100 per barrel, these processes are competitive depending on the feedstock,” he said.

The paper was published in the AIChE Journal.

[source Princeton]

Seaweed farmer Nyafu Juma Uledi tends her crop in a tidal pool on Zanzibar Island in Tanzania, which exports thousands of tons of the greenery to Asia annually. (Photo: Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters)

Genetically engineered microbe turns seaweed into biofuel

US-based scientists have successfully managed to engineer a microbe that reacts with seaweed to produce ethanol, and thus making it a new source of biofuel, an alternative to coal and oil. If the research can be applied at an economically feasible scale, it could finally set biofuels usage on an exponentially growth path, as seaweed doesn’t compete with food crops for arable land.

Most of today’s biofuels are extracted from crops like corn, sugar or oil palms, which are turned into ethanol. However, to reach today’s production mark of tens of billions of gallons worth of biofuel the industry had to use an immense amount of arable land, which directly interferes with actual food production and provides interest for companies to deforest rain forests and wood lands to make way for more crop land. Also, a entire arsenal of chemical fertilizers are used in the crop cultivation process. The last point has lead many climate experts to state that biofuels aren’t that green at all.

Since seaweed doesn’t compete with arable land, turning it into a biofuel energy source is an extremely interesting prospect, and scientists at Bio Architecture Lab, Inc., (BAL) have managed to accomplish just that. The Berkley, Ca. researchers used a genetically engineered form of E. coli bacteria that can digest the seaweed’s sugars into ethanol. They were inspired by the Vibrio splendidus bacteria, which brakes down alginate, the predominant sugar molecule in the brown seaweed. They then took the genetic machinery responsible for this process and split it into the E. coli. The scientists involved in the research claim that the engineered microbe gives 80% of the theoretical maximum yield, converting 28% of the dry weight of the seaweed into ethanol.

“Natural seaweed species grow very fast – 10 times faster than normal plants – and are full of sugars, but it has been very difficult to make ethanol by conventional fermentation,” said Yannick Lerat, scientific director at Centre d’Etude et de Valorisation des Algues. “So the new work is a really critical step. But scaling up processes using engineered microbes is not always easy. They also need to prove the economics work.”

Man has been harvesting seaweed for centuries as a food source. In China and Japan, there are farms that are the equivalent of the midwest cornfields in the US. It is believed that around 15 million metric tons of kombu and other seaweeds are grown and harvested as a food source. So the basis and mechanics for a biofuel centered farms is more or less already in place, but a lot of investment and work needs to be put in order to make seaweed produced biofuels economically feasible.

BAL currently has four aquafarming sites in Chile where it hopes to “scale up its microbe technology as the next step on the path to commercialization” in the next three years. A Carbon Trust official said seaweed biofuels are “still five times higher than they need to be to get to a reasonable fuel price” and that “the use of genetically modified microbes could be a concern in Europe – where the perception of negative impacts can be quite harmful – but less so in the US and elsewhere.”

Still, there’s a huge potential, considering most of the planet is covered in water. Also, the researchers claim that the microbe can used for making molecules other than ethanol, like plastics or sobutanol.

“Consider the microbe as the chassis with engineered functional modules,” or pathways to produce a specific molecule, synthetic biologist Yasuo Yoshikuni, a co-founder of BAL says. “If we integrate other pathways instead of the ethanol pathway, this microbe can be a platform for converting sugar into a variety of molecules.”


Young oil palm in plantation in Indonesia. The mature plant is used to produce biofuels, an alternative clean energy in emissions, however thousands of hectars of rainforest have been swept to make way for the palm. Because oil palms don't absorb as much CO2 as the rainforest or peatlands they replace, palm oil can generate as much as 10 times more carbon than petroleum. (Photo: T. Durand-Gasselin)

Biofuels aren’t so green after all

Young oil palm in plantation in Indonesia. The mature plant is used to produce biofuels, an alternative clean energy in emissions, however thousands of hectars of rainforest have been swept to make way for the palm. Because oil palms don't absorb as much CO2 as the rainforest or peatlands they replace, palm oil can generate as much as 10 times more carbon than petroleum. (Photo: T. Durand-Gasselin)

Young oil palm in plantation in Indonesia. The mature plant is used to produce biofuels, an alternative clean energy in emissions, however thousands of hectars of rainforest have been swept to make way for the palm. Because oil palms don't absorb as much CO2 as the rainforest or peatlands they replace, palm oil can generate as much as 10 times more carbon than petroleum. (Photo: T. Durand-Gasselin)

Biofuels are considered one of the leading alternative fuels on the market right now, because of their lower impact on the environment. Biofuels are made from plants or animals, and have gained a lot of attention from the general public and scientists driven by a need for increased energy security and concern for greenhouse gas emissions. However, biofuels aren’t all green. To make biofuels, a huge amount of carbon is released into the atmosphere, not by combustion, but as a result of its production process. A team of researchers from University of Leicester have revealed in a recently published study that carbon dioxide emission levels, due to oil palm plantations, are more than 50 percent larger than previously thought.

Previous studies have displayed erroneous results, since a number of various factors weren’t taken into account, as opposed to the current study. The Leicester researchers show that the scale of greenhouse gas emissions from oil palm plantations on peat is significantly higher than previously assumed. Previous studies estimated around 50 tonnes of CO2 per hectare per year, the price paid for manufacturing biofuels, however the true figure is around 86 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) per hectare per year.

“CO2 emissions increase further if you are interested specifically in the short term greenhouse gas implications of palm oil production – for instance under the European Union Renewable Energy Directive which assesses emissions over 20 years, the corresponding emissions rate would be 106 tonnes of CO2 per hectare per year,” they note.

“This research shows that estimates of emissions have been drawn from a very limited number of scientific studies, most of which have underestimated the actual scale of emissions from oil palm. These results show that biofuels causing any significant expansion of palm on tropical peat will actually increase emissions relative to petroleum fuels. When produced in this way, biofuels do not represent a sustainable fuel source,” said Leicester’s Ross Morrison.

Over the past decade alone, biofuel production, especially biodiesel has soared, as the manufacturing technology, as well as the finished product itself, has become more efficient and cheaper. Just in 2010 worldwide biofuel production reached 105 billion liters (28 billion gallons US), up 17% from 2009, and biofuels provided 2.7% of the world’s fuels for road transport, a contribution largely made up of ethanol and biodiesel. This growth, however, has to be backed-up by a matching production chain, which inherently involves the oil palm business on tropical forests and carbon dense peat swamp forests in particular.

The rain forest in particular is affected by this, because of the enormous pressure imposed by plantations. Projections indicate an increase in oil palm plantations on peat to a total area of 2.5M hectares by the year 2020 in western Indonesia alone – an area equivalent in size to the land area of the United Kingdom. The plantation also uprooted monkeys and wild boar, which began raiding the neighboring community’s food supply.

It’s incredibly saddening that a “clean” source of energy such as this has to be tainted by careless expansion operations, which significantly harm the environment. Hopefully, the present discussed paper, which has already been acknowledged by top government climate officials and scientists alike, will help sprung actions for measures to be taken.

“It is important that the full greenhouse gas emissions ‘cost’ of biofuel production is made clear to the consumer, who may otherwise be mislead into thinking that all biofuels have a positive environmental impact. In addition to the high greenhouse gas emissions associated with oil palm plantations on tropical peatlands, these agro-systems have also been implicated in loss of primary rainforest and associated biodiversity, including rare and endangered species such as the orang-utan and Sumatran tiger,” co-researcher Sue Page, warned.

“Our study has already been accepted and used by several scientists, NGOs, economists and policy advisors in Europe and the USA to better represent the scale of greenhouse gas emissions from palm oil biodiesel production and consumption,” she added. “This is essential in identifying the least environmentally damaging biofuel production pathways, and the formulation of national and international biofuel and transportation policies.”


Virgin Atlantic

Virgin Atlantic wants to fuel its planes with waste gas by 2014

Virgin Atlantic

Part of an amazing initiative to lower its carbon footprint and inspire the rest of the aeronautical industry, billionaire Richard Branson recently announced in a press release that within three years Virgin Atlantic’s airplanes will be fueled by waste gas.

The waste gas will come from the likes of power plants, steel works, and aluminum plants and Branson claims that within 24 hours they’ll have the infrastructure in place to turn this waste gas into fuel for its airplanes. When finally in place, Virgin Atlantic’s carbon footprint will be reduced by 50%.

“I’ve been lucky enough to make some exciting announcements in my lifetime, and I think this is one of the most exciting,” Branson said in an interview with Bloomberg. “24 months from now we should have planes flying from Shanghai, flying from Delhi, using this fuel. Then we want to start rolling it out around the rest of the Virgin Atlantic Fleet,” Branson told Bloomberg.

Partnering with Virgin Atlantic on this recycled waste fuel venture are LanzaTech and Swedish Biofuels. Allegedly, the process through which the new fuel will be created, involves the  capturing, fermenting and chemically converting waste gases from industrial steel production. These refining process recycles gases that are typically burned and released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, contributing to the ever pressing issue of the greenhouse effect. Thus the waste gas will be diverted from the atmosphere and turned into valuable fuel. Also, this procedure will also overcome the land issues associated with producing biofuels.

“The airline industry could radically transform its carbon output and instead of being the industry that everyone points a finger at, it could well become the industry that people cite as one of the best examples of an industry that has managed to completely change itself,” Branson continued.

In two to three years, Virgin plans to use the new fuel on its routes from Shanghai and Delhi to London Heathrow. Other airlines have already started using biofuels on regular commercial flights in the race to cut carbon dioxide emissions, and Virgin’s significant increase of pace will do only wonders. In July, European airlines, biofuel producers and the EU Commission also signed up to produce 2 million tonnes of biofuel for aviation by 2020.

“Only a few years ago the idea of powering planes with biofuel seemed “very pie-in-the-sky and futuristic.” But today “I believe that the most significant leap forward in the industry’s environmental performance in the coming years will be the commercial use of sustainable biofuels,” said Tony Tyler, head of the International Air Transport Association and former chief executive of Cathay Pacific

Significant breakthrough in biofuels

I was writing a while ago that major biofuel production is not really that far away and the good news is things seem to be moving in that direction. The importance of biofuels has been underlined as a possible solution to fight the crisis, but the big problem was that creating such alternative fuels required too big amounts of power, despite numerous options that were considered (sugar, waste materials and even algae).

biofuel_logo11However, an innovative device constructed by researchers from the University of Sheffield promises to give the necessary power lowering necessary to make this method viable. This invention was awarded with a prestigious international award (Moulton Medal from the Institution of Chemical Engineers) and it’s estimated that it will make biofuel production efficient.

The invention is basically a bioreactor that creates microbubbles using 18% less energy. Microbubbles are miniature gas bubbles (measuring less than 50 microns in diameter) which means they can transfer materials in a bioreactor much more faster than with regular bubbles, thus using less energy. This innovative approach has the whole scientific world excited and it’s currently being tested with a local water company, and it’s also estimated that the necessary electricity current will be 30% lower;we will post updates as they are released by the researchers.

Professor Will Zimmerman, from the Department of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Sheffield, said: “I am delighted that our team’s work in energy efficient microbubble generation is being recognized by the Institution of Chemical Engineers. The potential for large energy savings with our microbubble generation approach is huge. I hope the award draws more industry attention to our work, particularly in commodity chemicals production for gas dissolution and stripping, where energy savings could enhance profitability. There are many routes to becoming green, and reducing energy consumption with the same or better performance must be the most painless.”

Professor Martin Tillotson, from Yorkshire Water, added: “Many of our processes use forced air in order to treat water and wastewater streams and, given the huge volumes, it is very costly in electricity and carbon terms. This technology offers the potential to produce a step-change in energy performance. We are pleased to be working with Professor Zimmerman and his group in developing the microbubble technology, and delighted with the recognition they have received from the Moulton Medal award.”

Alternative energy could be the key to the economic crisis

With the US economy tanking, natural disasters caused by climate change, several wars being fought in the world and with Italy announcing they will go back to nuclear power, it seems that nobody is looking deeper into the source of these problems and the solution that solving this problem brings.

Climate change causes natural disasters, and green energy sources would no longer cause this issue. The need for oil and other fuels could become less stringent if other sources are available, and the economy would sense the benefic effects of this emerging industry too; there will also be a lot of new jobs available. It could also be what separates the US candidates, being in the center of almost every debate, including those between Biden and Palin.

Actually, Obama claims that he will continue the to make clean energy and fuel his top priority even in this crisis, and it could be the solutions that help the environment that also help us. However, it seems that he understands how important other projects are too.

“To create new jobs, I’ll invest in rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure — our roads, schools, and bridges. We’ll rebuild our outdated electricity grid and build new broadband lines to connect America. And I’ll create the jobs of the future by transforming our energy economy. We’ll tap our natural-gas reserves, invest in clean coal technology, and find ways to safely harness nuclear power. I’ll help our auto companies re-tool so that the fuel-efficient cars of the future are built right here the United States of America. I’ll make it easier for the American people to afford these new cars. And I’ll invest $150 billion over the next decade in affordable, renewable sources of energy — wind power and solar power and the next generation of biofuels — an investment that will lead to new industries and 5 million new jobs that pay well and can’t ever be outsourced.”

China will build algae biofuel facility

It seems that China is taking a more and more serious interest in green energy (actually they’re taking a serios interest in everything), as Shanghai Jun Ya Yan Technology Development Company made an agreement with PetroSun for the construction of an algae farm facility.

The agreement is that the chinese company will invest $40 million (US) in the construction of the facility and will then split the profit half way, in exchange for technology and expertise. They will also be producing what they claim to be “other commercial products”, which are probably livestock food, created from what remains after the algae have been squeezed for biodiesel.

Microalgae have received a considerable amount of attention since it has been proven that they can produce up to 100 times the oil yield of soybeans and they can also be useful to feed livestock for example. Of course there is a catch with this technology.

The problem has been to collect, squeeze and protect the algae, but PetroSun CEO Gordon LeBlanc, Jr. claims PetroSun has surpassed that problem by either a superior technological approach, sheer luck or a redneck can-do attitude. I seriously doubt luck can be involved here, so just two other things remain; in any case, the attitude is probably right.

‘Green Gasoline’ from sugar

biofuelThis month, two independent teams have announced that they have succesfully converted sugar-potentially derived waste from agriculture and non-food plants into gasoline, diesel, jet fuel and other chemical substances of high importance.

Randy Cortright, a chemical engineer at Virent Energy Systems of Madison, Wisc. announced that carbohydrates and sugars can be processed into a number of substances used as petroleum, or in the pharmaceutical industry.

“NSF (National Science Foundation) and other federal funding agencies are advocating the new paradigm of next generation hydrocarbon biofuels,” said John Regalbuto, director of the Catalysis and Biocatalysis Program at NSF and chair of an interagency working group on biomass conversion. “Even when solar and wind, in addition to clean coal and nuclear, become highly developed, and cars become electric or plug-in hybrid, we will still need high energy-density gasoline, diesel and jet fuel for planes, trains, trucks, and boats. The processes that these teams developed are superb examples of pathways that will enable the sustainable production of these fuels.”

Also, a separate discovery of a very similar process was reported by Dumesic laboratory. The key to both these discoveries is a process called phase reforming. Basically, when you pass a water slurry from plant derived sugar over some catalysts that speed up reactions without self destroying, carbon-rich organic molecules split apart, and then recombine to form chemicals that are extracted from non-renewable petroleum. Dumasic explains that a key role in this was played by an intermediary stage of the sugars.

“The intermediate compounds retain 95 percent of the energy of the biomass but only about 40 percent of the mass, and can be upgraded into different types of transportation fuels, such as gasoline, jet and diesel fuels,” said Dumesic. “Importantly, the formation of this functional intermediate oil does not require the need for an external source of hydrogen,” he added, since hydrogen comes from the slurry itself.

Turning waste material into ethanol

Biofuels seems to be the word on everybody’s lips today, and for good reason. It’s necessary that people understand the benefits and importance of this development, as it could be a huge step in protecting our resources and planet. Fortunately, some breakthroughs have been made which give us confidence that things are moving (slowly, but pretty sturdy) in the right direction.

However, it’s not only towards the future that we have to look at; the past is pretty important too. Scientists are trying to revive and older technology, called gasification. It was abandoned about 30 years ago, but due to the development of nanotechnology it could prove to be very useful. The benefit of this technology is that it can be used in a variety of applications, virtually everywhere.

Gasification is a process in which carbon-based feedstocks in an oxygen controlled atmosphere at a high temperature and pressure are transformed into synthesis gas, or syngas. This syngas is made of mostly carbon monoxide and hydrogen and a smaller amount of carbon dioxide and methane. It’s a technique that’s almost similar to that used to extract the gas from coal.

“There was some interest in converting syngas into ethanol during the first oil crisis back in the 70s,” said Ames Lab chemist and Chemical and Biological Science Program Director Victor Lin. “The problem was that catalysis technology at that time didn’t allow selectivity in the byproducts. They could produce ethanol, but you’d also get methane, aldehydes and a number of other undesirable products.”

“The great thing about using syngas to produce ethanol is that it expands the kinds of materials that can be converted into fuels,” Lin said. “You can use the waste product from the distilling process or any number of other sources of biomass, such as switchgrass or wood pulp. Basically any carbon-based material can be converted into syngas. And once we have syngas, we can turn that into ethanol.”
The research is funded by the DOE’s Offices of Basic Energy Sciences and Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

Breakthrough in biofuel production process – green gasoline is not that far away

gasolineResearchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison have made a significant breakthrough in the development of biofuels (“green gasoline”), a liquid identical to standard gasoline yet created from sustainable biomass sources, such as poplar trees and switch grass. Poplar plants have been in the scientific spotlight before, as they are considered to disarm toxic pollutants 100 times better than the usual stuff.

Reporting in the April 7, 2008 issue of Chemistry & Sustainability, Energy & Materials (ChemSusChem), chemical engineer and National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER awardee George Huber of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst (UMass) and his graduate students Torren Carlson and Tushar Vispute announced for the first time the direct conversion of plant cellulose into gasoline components. While we are probably 5-10 years away from actually making this gasoline a viable choice, this is definetly a significant breakthrogh which has surpassed several hurdles in its way to bringing green gasoline biofuels to market.

“It is likely that the future consumer will not even know that they are putting biofuels into their car,” said Huber. “Biofuels in the future will most likely be similar in chemical composition to gasoline and diesel fuel used today. The challenge for chemical engineers is to efficiently produce liquid fuels from biomass while fitting into the existing infrastructure today.”

“Green gasoline is an attractive alternative to bioethanol since it can be used in existing engines and does not incur the 30 percent gas mileage penalty of ethanol-based flex fuel,” said John Regalbuto, who directs the Catalysis and Biocatalysis Program at NSF and supported this research.

Also, aside from the academic laboratories, other smaller businesses and petroleum are chasing the green gasoline objective. Aside from other advantages, producing it also requires less energy, and with the plan that Huber presented, it seems we can see the light at the end of the tunnel in the the impending fuel crisis.

Major advanced in biofuels: trash today = ethanol tomorrow

biofuelResearchers from the University of Maryland started researching some characteristics of bacteriae from Chesapeake Bay that could lead to a process of converting large quantities of all kinds of plant products (including leftovers and trash) into ethanol and other biofuels. This sounds pretty dreamy but it’s quite possible as the technology is not at all far away from us.

This process was elaborated by University of Maryland professors Steve Hutcheson and Ron Weiner, professors of cell biology and molecular genetics; they set the basis for their incubator (with help from Zymetis).

“The new Zymetis technology is a win for the State of Maryland , for the University and for the environment,” said University of Maryland President C.D. Mote, Jr. “It makes affordable ethanol production a reality and makes it from waste materials, which benefits everyone and supports the green-friendly goal of carbon-neutrality.”

This process can make biofuels from virtually anything, such as waste paper, brewing byproducts, leftover agriculture products, including straw, corncobs and husks, and energy crops such as switchgrass. When fully operational, the device is believed to lead to the production of 75 billion gallons a year of carbon-neutral ethanol.

The secret to this is as natural as it can be: a Chesapeake Bay marsh grass bacterium, S. degradans. Hutcheson found that the bacterium has an enzyme that quickly breaks down plant materials into sugar which afterwards turns into biofuel.