Tag Archives: biofuels

Moving beyond turning food into fuel

800px-Straw_Bales Producing biofuels from food crops is beginning to look like maybe not the greatest idea.

What does look like a good idea is producing biofuels from agricultural and forestry residue: straw from cereal crops, stover from corn, and left-over wood from lumber operations. After all, every tonne of grain is generally accompanied by another tonne of residue, which for now is generally baled, burned, or simply chopped and mixed back into the soil. (And some of it does need to remain on the land to prevent erosion and maintain soil nutrient levels, but vast amounts could be harvested.)

Research is underway and pilot plants being built to convert this “lignocellulosic” material into biofuels, and things are looking better for it all the time. For example, scientists from Michigan State University have created a genetically modified corn plant that contains three enzymes enabling the stem and leaves to be more easily converted into ethanol. One, from a microbe that lives in hot spring water, cuts cellulose into large pieces; a second, with a gene from a naturally occurring fungus, breaks the large cellulose pieces into sugar pairs, and the third, which is created by a gene taking from a cow’s stomach, breaks the sugar pairs into simple sugars easily convertable into ethanol. Current methods of converting the cellulose from agricultural residue are expensive because the enzymes have to be purchased and added during the process.

Better yet, University of Massachussetts researchers report they’ve made a breakthrough in the development of “green gasoline,” a liquid identical to standard gasoline created not from petroleum but from biomass sources like switchgrass, poplar trees, and straw and stover:

For their new approach, the UMass researchers rapidly heated cellulose in the presence of solid catalysts, materials that speed up reactions without sacrificing themselves in the process. They then rapidly cooled the products to create a liquid that contains many of the compounds found in gasoline.

The entire process was completed in under two minutes using relatively moderate amounts of heat. The compounds that formed in that single step, like naphthalene and toluene, make up one fourth of the suite of chemicals found in gasoline. The liquid can be further treated to form the remaining fuel components or can be used “as is” for a high octane gasoline blend.

“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.

“In theory it requires much less energy to make than ethanol, giving it a smaller carbon footprint and making it cheaper to produce,” Regalbuto said. “Making it from cellulose sources such as switchgrass or poplar trees grown as energy crops, or forest or agricultural residues such as wood chips or corn stover, solves the lifecycle greenhouse gas problem that has recently surfaced with corn ethanol and soy biodiesel.”

You can read more about the latest efforts to produce “green” fuels from the parts of crops we don’t need to feed a hungry world in “Breaking the Chemical and Engineering Barriers to Lignocellulosic Biofuels: Next Generation Hydrocarbon Biorefineries,” a report sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy and the American Chemical Society.

And perhaps best of all, another set of researchers believes they’ve got a revolutionary process for producing hydrogen from biomass, which might eventually lead us all to the Nirvana of the hydrogen economy.

(Image: Shaun MItchem via Wikimedia Commons.)

[tags]biofuels, alternative fuels, ethanol, agriculture[/tags] 

Ancient Amazonian soil enrichment technique may provide ‘carbon negative’ fuel

dark earth - a way to cut down our carbon?A lot of money has been pumped into Carbon Sequestration recently, to try and put some of the CO2 we produce back into the earth in the underground aquifers where we got the oil and gas that caused it in the first place. However, another way of storing carbon is in the soil, which benefits agriculture as well. Indigenous tribes in the Amazon basin have been using a technique of introducing charcoal to soil to produce darker ‘terra preta‘ soil for millenia. The low temperature charring of plants and trees introduces more carbon to the soil and encourages worms to break down the charcoal and soil to make a nutrient-rich loam.

A study into the method by MIT professor Amy Smith found that using agricultural char methods could be a great way of producing low-cost fuel for developing nation. You can view a speech on the subject she made at TED 2006 here. By burning waste materials in a gasifier, the methane, hydrogen and other burnable gases it produces can be used as fuels, leaving behind a charred solid that can be mixed into the soil as fertiliser, building back the soil content. Because the organic content has charred, it doesn’t decompose to be released into the atmosphere. WorldChanging has a great analysis that the process could actually provide power whilst potentially reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.

[via WorldChanging, image via Papa Goiaba]

It’s a big year for alternative energy

These strange snake-like machines tap the power of surface wavesWhilst close to where I live the UK government is looking at proposals for the biggest tidal barrage in the world, elsewhere in Europe similarly ambitious projects are even closer to fruition. In Portugal the first ever commercial wavefarm is due to start any day now. A couple of huge wind turbines tapping into the vast wind energy of the North Sea have been a success and a farm of 200 of the 300ft high towers is now in planning, powering as much as a whole city. As I reported a few weeks ago, algae is looking more and more like the ultimate source for biofuels. Advances in nanotube growing and temperature controlled soldering are making big leaps in solar panel efficiency.

Even without the dual spectres of climate change and dwindling resources our future is likely to be wedded to many of these nascent technologies. When the Earth provides so much energy currently left untapped, it would be a shame not to use it. Economic centres in the future will be invariably tied to the amount of natural energy the environment nearby provides. It’s exciting to think that many of these technologies are reaching the point where they may soon be economically viable on large scale.

[photo from the guardian article on wave power]

The bad and good of biofuels

cornfield We’ve been hearing a lot about the potential of biofuels, particularly ethanol, as being a great (and green) answer to our global dependence of petrochemicals. Which is true, to a certain extent.

The problem being that corn ethanol, while itself a cleaner fuel, is a horrendously climate-intensive crop, the cultivation of which may cause as many (if not more) problems than it solves … which is why we’d be wise to look at the numerous other sources for the same chemical (like algae, prairie grass and fast-growing trees) which won’t cause an environmental and economic trainwreck further down the line. [Via Worldchanging]

Of course, we’ll need to do something about the enticing boondoggle subsidies that are making corn ethanol such an enticing political playing piece first. [Image by Jpeg Jedi]

[tags]environment, biofuels, economics, agriculture[/tags]

Want to use biofuel? There’s oceans of possibilities.

Could this green slime be a goldmine?

{image by Juvetson via Flickr Creative Commons}

A British biologist has suggested that there may be an overlooked candidate to make biodiesel. Corn, soy and Palm oil are three of the main crops converted into the alternative fuel but all have significant problems with environmental impact as well as raising the price of the foods themselves.

 John Munford proposed this week that much of the algae growing on the surface of the ocean could be harvested to produce biodiesel. Utah University has been studying fresh water algae, which can produce as much as 10,000 barrels of oil per acre. Munford says that seaborne algae has the advantage over this kind of pond scum by being self-maintained by existing ecosystems. An area similar to the North Sea could produce all the biodiesel currently used in transport across the world.

 [via The Economist]