Biodiesel

September 10, 2014 - Norfolk council has turned down a proposal for an innovative biodiesel refinery on the south side of Waterford.

Council members expressed support for the concept Tuesday. However, they balked because the proposed location on Old Highway 24 is surrounded by residential housing, new housing developments and commercial properties.

“It’s in the wrong place,” said Simcoe Coun. Charlie Luke. “It would be in the wrong place in any community, wedged between two housing developments.”

Sponsor of the proposal was Norfolk Disposal. The company operates a waste transfer station across from Waterford Plaza. Norfolk Disposal was prepared to make a substantial investment in new plant and technology and create 10 new full-time jobs.

READ MORE.

Researchers conducted study in consultation with agriculture industry groups, through the federal National Renewable Diesel Demonstration Initiative.

OTTAWA - In the Off-Road Biodiesel Demonstration - Agriculture Sector, conducted by the Saskatchewan Research Council (SRC) from August 2009 to November 2010, farmers using biodiesel blends in agricultural equipment ranging in age from 1965 to 2009 had no biodiesel-related equipment problems. The study found that canola-based biodiesel blends perform well through all seasons, even when left in tanks over winter. During the study period, temperatures ranged from -36 C to 31 C.

The study was conducted at Foam Lake, Saskatchewan, and included eight farmers using over 50 pieces of farm equipment ranging from sub-100-horsepower yard tractors to +500-horsepower, 4-wheel drive tractors. A wide range of combines and swathers and several engine brands and types were represented. Blends containing from 2 per cent to 10 per cent biodiesel were incorporated into the participants' existing farm operations with no modifications to equipment, fuel storage facilities, or fuel handling practices.

"The study included an entire cycle of farm equipment use, including a lengthy off-season storage period," said Grant McVicar, Director of Energy Conservation at SRC, an independent, third-party research organization. McVicar was and one of the investigators for the study. "Throughout the study, fuel quality was closely monitored in tractors, combines, swathers and on-farm bulk fuel storage facilities."

The Renewable Fuels Regulations, published in the Canada Gazette on September 1, 2010, require an average of 2 per cent renewable content in diesel fuel and heating oil. The Government of Canada has proposed a coming into force date of July 1, 2011 for this requirement.

The Government is making the use of biodiesel mandatory to help reduce Canada's greenhouse gas emissions. The requirement for 2 per cent renewable fuel in diesel and heating oil in Canada, combined with provincial regulations, will reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions by up to four megatonnes-the equivalent of taking one million vehicles off the road. Biodiesel is produced from renewable resources, helping to conserve Canada's non-renewable resources.

Information for farmers available

To help inform farmers about the findings of the Off-Road Biodiesel Demonstration - Agriculture Sector study, and to answer questions about the coming biodiesel regulations, a wide range of groups representing farmers and the agricultural and energy industries have worked together to develop a poster, Fact Sheet and Frequently Asked Questions booklet.

These are available at www.biodiesel-info.ca

Randy Duffy, research associate, University of Guelph’s Ridgetown Campus, sees potential for corn stover beyond bedding and feed.
Photo by Janet Kanters.

If green chemistry sounds more like an oxymoron than an opportunity, be prepared for some big surprises in the not-so-distant future.

Innovators within the manufacturing industry are getting back to nature and the door is open for farmers to take part. While the production of biofuels remains a popular example of green chemistry, ethanol is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to industrial products that are being designed to include more renewable resources. As governments start to wean ethanol companies off of subsidies, Murray McLaughlin, the executive director of the Bioindustrial Innovation Centre in Sarnia, Ont., says farmers can expect to see some positive changes.

“Biofuels are important, but the challenge with biofuels is slim margins,” explains McLaughlin. “On the chemical side of things, as long as oil stays above $80 per barrel, we can be competitive with any of the companies in that space and don’t need subsidies.”

In the petroleum industry, it’s not uncommon for companies to direct 75 per cent of raw materials into fuel production, but these often account for only 25 per cent of annual revenue.

The rest of their income is generated by higher-end products, such as succinic acid, and it has made these products major targets for green chemists. Succinic acid is a specialty chemical used to make automotive parts, coffee cup lids, disposable cutlery, construction materials, spandex, shoe soles and cosmetics. It is usually made with petroleum, but BioAmber, a company that hopes to finish building North America’s largest bio-based chemical plant in Sarnia next year, has found a way to make succinic acid using agricultural feedstocks.

By using agricultural feedstocks instead of petroleum in its process, BioAmber produces a product that is not only more environmentally friendly but also, critically, costs less than petroleum-based succinic acid. In some applications, it performs even better than its petroleum-based competitors. Babette Pettersen, BioAmber’s chief commercial officer, explains how the new technology is outperforming its traditional competitors.

“Succinic acid offers the highest yield on sugar among all the bio-based chemicals being developed because 25 per cent of the carbon is coming from CO2, which is much cheaper than sugar,” says Pettersen. Assuming $80 per barrel of oil and $6 per bushel of corn, BioAmber’s product pencils out at more than 40 per cent cheaper than succinic acid made from petroleum. “Our process can compete with oil as low as $35 per barrel,” Pettersen adds.

The increased efficiency of the company’s process reduces the need for raw product, for example, from two kilograms of sugar to make one kilogram of ethanol to less than one kilogram of sugar to produce one kilogram of succinic acid.

The new plant is projected to purchase an annual quantity of liquid dextrose from local wet mills, which is equivalent to approximately three million bushels of corn. BioAmber’s yeast, the organism that produces bio-based succinic acid, can utilize sugar from a variety of agricultural feedstocks (including cellulosic sugars that may be produced from agricultural residuals such as corn stover when this alternative becomes commercially available).

Randy Duffy, research associate at the University of Guelph’s Ridgetown Campus, co-authored a recent study on the potential for a commercial scale biorefinery in Sarnia, Ont. The idea of producing sugars from agricultural residuals is attractive to companies like BioAmber, which faces public pressure against converting a potential food source into an industrial product, but also to farmers looking to convert excess field trash into cash.

“We’re at the point where some fields probably have too much corn stover and this is an opportunity for farmers if they want to get rid of their stover,” says Duffy. “Some farmers are using it for bedding and feed, but there’s a lot of potential corn stover out there not being used or demanded right now.”

In fact, the report estimated that more than 500,000 dry tonnes of corn stover are available in the four-county region of Lambton, Huron, Middlesex and Chatham-Kent, and the refinery could convert half of it into cellulosic sugar annually, at a relative base price for corn stover paid to the producer of $37 to $184 per dry tonne, depending on sugar prices and sugar yields. McLaughlin says that with more and more companies look into building facilities like biorefineries, the potential benefits for farmers multiply exponentially. At the Bioindustrial Innovation Centre alone, McLaughlin says, there are three green chemistry companies already working in pilot demonstration scale operations to produce ethanol from wood waste, butanol from fermented wheat straw or corn stover, and plastic pellets with hemp, flax, wheat straw or wood fibres in them. On a full-scale basis, any one of these has significant potential to help farmers penetrate entirely new markets.

Although these green products are exciting, McLaughlin strongly believes green chemistry is not going to completely replace oil and he tries to impress this on others. “There are such large volumes of these chemicals produced from oil, I don’t think we ever will get to the point where we can displace these chemicals,” he says, “but we can complement them.” He says Woodbridge’s BioFoam, a soy-based foam used in automobile interiors as seat cushions, head rests and sunshades, is an excellent example of a hybrid product that uses green technology and petroleum technology. In order for the green chemistry industry in Ontario to realize its maximum potential, he believes everyone involved needs to consider the oil industry as a potential ally rather than the enemy. “The petroleum industry already knows the chemical markets and they’ve got the distribution,” he says, “so, who better to partner with?”  



What, exactly, makes some chemistry ‘greener’?

Green chemistry is a relatively new concept, but rather than simply claim to be more environmentally friendly, the philosophy is defined by structured principles. Put simply, these technologies, processes, and services are required to prove safer, more energy efficient and environmentally sustainable. In 1998, Anastas and Warner defined the 12 principles of green chemistry.

Prevention – Avoid creating waste rather than treating or cleaning it up after the fact.

Atom economy – Synthetic methods must maximize the incorporation of all materials.

Less hazardous chemical syntheses – Design synthetic methods that are least toxic to human health and the environment.

Designing safer chemicals – Chemical products should be designed to be effective but with minimal toxicity.

Safer solvents and auxiliaries – Avoid the unnecessary use of auxiliary substances and render harmless when used.

Design for energy efficiency – Energy requirements of processes should be minimized for their environmental and economical impact.

Use of renewable feedstocks – Raw materials should be renewable whenever technically and economically practical.

Reduce derivatives – Use of blocking groups, protection/deprotection, temporary modification of physical/chemical processes, etc., requiring additional reagents should be minimized or avoided if possible.

Catalysis – Catalytic reagents are superior to stoichiometric reagents.

Design for degradation – Environmental persistence of chemical products should be minimal.

Real-time analysis for pollution prevention – Real-time monitoring and control of hazardous substances must be developed.

Inherently safer chemistry for accident prevention – Substances used in a chemical process should be chosen to minimize the potential for accidents.
Turning lower-grade canola into biodiesel presents some challenges, but Prairie researchers are finding innovative ways to overcome those challenges. They’re developing new approaches that are more efficient, produce better biodiesel and valuable byproducts, and help improve the economics of biodiesel production from damaged canola seeds.

“In the short term, we’re working with others to generate a market for low-quality canola. So if a grower has a bin that overheats or a canola field that gets caught under a snow bank, we can at least redeem some value for that material for them by having an industry that is receptive to frost-damaged, heated and field-damaged materials,” explains Dr. Martin Reaney, research chair of Lipid Quality and Utilization at the University of Saskatchewan.

“In the longer run, we are identifying added value in the crop. In my experience, when somebody discovers an added value opportunity, it doesn’t typically result in a much higher price. But it does tend to stabilize the price. We’re introducing technology that may lead to a more stable price by adding another market to the meal and oil markets for the canola crop.”

Reaney has been investigating opportunities for using damaged canola seed for many years, including research when he was at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and now at the University of Saskatchewan. He and his research team have tackled the topic from a number of angles.

“When we first went into making canola into biofuels, [Canada] didn’t have the subsidies that were available in the United States and Europe. So we needed to take advantage of low-cost materials. For that purpose, we looked at seed that had been damaged either in the field or in storage,” he says.

“First we studied how to get the oil out of the seed. A lot of damaged seed has lost its structure, and it is not efficiently pressed to recover oil. So we developed more efficient pressing and extraction technology.”

Another early issue was that sources of damaged canola seed tend to be scattered all over the place, with amounts varying from year to year and place to place. Reaney says, “So we came up with the hub-and-spoke approach, to collect and bring the seed to some common locations for processing.”

The researchers also improved the process of converting the oil into biodiesel. “Damaged seed produces quite low-quality oil with lots of different problems. So we had to figure out a very robust way of making biodiesel so that, no matter what, the biofuel would have good quality,” notes Reaney.

Although canola biodiesel has advantages over biodiesel made from products like tallow and soybean oil, its properties are still somewhat different from petroleum-based diesel. So Reaney’s research group has developed processing technologies to improve such canola biodiesel properties as oxidative stability and low-temperature performance. He notes, “Low-temperature performance hasn’t turned out to be a big problem with canola mainly because when you blend it with other diesel fuel, like with a Canadian winter diesel fuel, it takes on the performance of that fuel.”

One of the overarching themes of Reaney’s research is to develop techniques that are practical on the Prairies. “A lot of researchers will grab the latest technology, a ‘super-’ this or ‘ultra-’ that, and the equipment is very expensive. In my experience, western Canadian biofuel producers usually can’t use that kind of technology,” he explains. “So we look for the best biofuel properties – we can’t ever compromise on the properties of the material – that can be produced with rather conventional, simple, low-cost equipment.”

Along with using damaged seed to reduce input costs, the researchers have been exploring other ways to improve the economics of biodiesel production. “[For example,] the catalyst for making biodiesel is actually quite expensive. We came up with a technology to lower the cost of that catalyst to about one-third of its original cost,” he says.

They are also developing a novel approach that turns a biodiesel processing waste into a valuable byproduct. “We developed a special lithium-based catalyst for biodiesel production, and we’ve developed a method of converting the leftover catalyst into lithium grease [a heavy-duty, long-lasting grease],” says Reaney. “Lithium grease is broadly used all over the world – in heavy equipment, trains, planes, automobiles.” They are now scaling up the process for use at a commercial scale.

Another current project involves making biofuels that are “drop-in” fuels. “Right now, biodiesel still has to be handled somewhat differently than [petroleum-based] diesel,” he explains. “But there are approaches to make it into a drop-in fuel. A drop-in fuel means it would have exactly the properties of diesel. You would be able to use it as is and it would require no special handling.”

As well, the researchers are exploring motor oil technology that uses vegetable oils. “We have been working on trying to get the stability of these oils high enough for use in motor oil applications. We think we have some really good technology for this goal as well.”

Reaney’s research on industrial uses for lower-grade canola has been supported by many agencies over the years such as Saskatchewan’s Agriculture Development Fund, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. His research also has received support from such agencies as GreenCentre Canada and from such companies as Milligan Biofuels Inc. (formerly Milligan Biotech).

Opportunities and challenges
The Canadian biodiesel industry has encountered a number of hurdles and has not grown as quickly as some people had hoped it would. For instance, the industry is still working towards meeting the increased demand arising from the Canadian government’s requirement for a minimum of two per cent renewable fuel content in diesel fuel. This requirement came into effect in 2011.

According to Reaney, one of several issues hampering the Canadian biofuel industry has been the contentious food-versus-fuel debate, about the issue of using farmland to produce biofuel feedstocks. Reaney’s group was ahead of the curve on this issue by focusing on the use of non-food grade canola to make biodiesel. But beyond that, his opinion is that food production and fuel production are not mutually exclusive.

“It isn’t food versus fuel; it is food and fuel,” he says. “All these biofuel industries actually produce more food than would have been produced had they not entered the biofuel industry, because they are always producing a side stream that is edible. So I think that issue has been addressed by the biofuels industry, but I don’t know whether the public has caught up.”

Milligan Biofuels, based at Foam Lake, Sask., is one of the companies managing to weather the ups and downs of the Canadian biodiesel industry. Along with making its own improvements to biodiesel production processes, the company has adopted some of the advances made by Reaney’s research group.

“Their research proved the ability to produce consistent biodiesel from damaged seed, and that’s our business model,” says Len Anderson, director of sales and marketing for Milligan Biofuels. The company manufactures and sells biodiesel and biodiesel byproducts, and provides canola meal and feed oil to the animal feed sector. All of its products are made from non-food grade canola, including green, wet, heated or spring-threshed canola.

“Milligan Biofuels is built in and by the ag community for the ag community,” notes Anderson. “That’s why it is where it’s at and why it’s doing what it’s doing.”

He outlines how this type of market for damaged canola helps growers. “It’s giving them an opportunity for a local, reliable, year-round market. It creates a significant value for damaged canola because we aren’t just using it for cattle feed; we’re using the oil to produce biodiesel. So we’re probably on the higher end as far as value created for damaged seed. It creates value for what was once almost a waste product, is what it boils down to.”

Oct. 1, 2013, Guelph, Ont. – Great Lakes Biodiesel has begun production in Welland, Ont., creating a potential new market for Ontario soybeans.

The facility will be Canada's largest biodiesel plant, producing 170 million litres of biodiesel annually, according to a press release from Grain Farmers of Ontario. The feedstock for this facility will be sourced primarily from processors who currently crush soybeans grown in the province of Ontario.

Grain Farmers of Ontario and Soy 20/20 have worked together to complete research to encourage the Ontario government that a made-in-Ontario biodiesel mandate is good for the provincial economy and good for the environment. Nationally, Canada has a two per cent biodiesel mandate, and with the expansion of production in Ontario, Grain Farmers of Ontario hopes to see the implementation of a two per cent provincial biodiesel mandate.
July 17, 2013, Halifax – The Government of Canada is investing toward the canola and soybean industries in Eastern Canada, announced Gerry Ritz, minister of agriculture, in Halifax today.

The Eastern Canada Oilseeds Development Alliance (ECODA) will receive an investment of up to $3.3 million from the AgriInnovation Program's industry-led research and development stream under Growing Forward 2 to conduct research focused on increasing the successful and profitable production of high-quality canola and food-grade soybeans on eastern Canadian farms, Ritz announced. This project builds on a previous investment of $3.1 million under the first Growing Forward's Developing Innovative Agri-Products and $747,000 under the Agricultural Innovation Program. 

ECODA is a not-for-profit organization based in Charlottetown, P.E.I., that works with producers, processors, exporters, researchers and governments to increase the economic value and export potential of the canola and soybean industries in Eastern Canada. One of the alliance's objectives is to make Eastern Canada a bigger player in the European and Japanese markets for food-grade soybeans and in producing high-quality canola to supply Canadian and international markets.

"The ECODA model is focused on gaining international market share by linking growers, processors and exporters to the scientific research they need to win on competitiveness, productivity and uniqueness in those markets," said Rory Francis, president of ECODA, in a press release. 

Jun. 21, 2013 - A 16-year-old high school student has created, after four years, a new way to grow algae, extract the oil and use it as biodiesel.

Evie Sobczak, a senior at Shorecrest Prepatory School in St. Petersberg, Florida, has been interested in generating power from renewable sources. According to the Tampa Bay Times, Sobczak started her experiments in grade five with a fruit-powered clock.

"After four years of tinkering in her garage for about an hour each day, Sobczak finally figured it out. Her algae-to-fuel project won first place and best in category at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Phoenix, beating 1,600 other finalists from 70 countries."

The project - Algae to Oil via Photoautotrophic Cultivation and Osmotic Sonication - does not use any harmful chemicals and is 20 per cent more efficient that current methods. In addition to winning a bevy of awards and scholarships, Sobczak also received a trip to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, where the Mars rover is piloted. 

Sobczak hopes to get into Columbia Unviersity or MIT for biochemical engineering and work with other scientists to create algal biofuel.

No one wants to buy soybeans at a roadside stand, so there are fewer opportunities for grain farmers who want to capture more value at the farm gate. But a cleverly designed processing unit is helping some growers earn direct sales and become more self-sufficient with little extra effort or investment.

Apr. 1, 2013 - When blessed with a resource in overwhelming abundance it's generally a good idea to make valuable use of that resource and lignocellulosic biomass is the most abundant organic material on Earth.

For thousands of years it has been used as animal feed, and for the past two centuries has been a staple of the paper industry. This abundant resource, however, could also supply the sugars needed to produce advanced biofuels that can supplement or replace fossil fuels, providing several key technical challenges are met. One of these challenges is finding ways to more cost-effectively extract those sugars. Major steps towards achieving this breakthrough are being taken by researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)'s Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI).

"Through the tools of synthetic biology, we have engineered healthy plants whose lignocellulosic biomass can more easily be broken down into simple sugars for biofuels," says Dominique Loque, who directs the cell wall engineering program for JBEI's Feedstocks Division. "Working with the model plant, Arabidopsis, as a demonstration tool, we have genetically manipulated secondary cell walls to reduce the production of lignin while increasing the yield of fuel sugars."

JBEI is a scientific partnership led by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) whose mission is to advance the development of next generation biofuels that can provide the nation with clean, green and renewable transportation energy that will create jobs and boost the economy. Loque and his research group have focused on reducing the natural recalcitrance of plant cell walls to give up their sugars. Unlike the simple starch-based sugars in corn and other grains, the complex polysaccharide sugars in plant cell walls are locked within a robust aromatic polymer called lignin. Setting these sugars free from their lignin cage has required the use of expensive and environmentally harsh chemicals at high temperatures, a process that helps drive production costs of advance biofuels prohibitively high.

"By embedding polysaccharide polymers and reducing their extractability and accessibility to hydrolytic enzymes, lignin is the major contributor to cell wall recalcitrance," Loque says. "Unfortunately, most efforts to reduce lignin content during plant development have resulted in severe biomass yield reduction and a loss of integrity in vessels, a key tissue responsible for water and nutrient distribution from roots to the above-ground organs."

Lignin has also long posed problems for pulping and animal feed. To overcome the lignin problem, Loque and his colleagues rewired the regulation of lignin biosynthesis and created an artificial positive feedback loop (APFL) to enhance secondary cell wall biosynthesis in specific tissue. The idea was to reduce cell wall recalcitrance and boost polysaccharide content without impacting plant development.

"When we applied our APFL to Arabidopsis plants engineered so that lignin biosynthesis is disconnected from the fiber secondary cell wall regulatory network, we maintained the integrity of the vessels and were able to produce healthy plants with reduced lignin and enhanced polysaccharide deposition in the cell walls," Loque says. "After various pretreatments, these engineered plants exhibited improved sugar releases from enzymatic hydrolysis as compared to wild type plants. In other words we accumulated the good stuff – polysaccharides - without spoiling it with lignin."

Loque and his colleagues believe that the APFL strategy they used to enhance polysaccharide deposition in the fibers of their Arabidopsis plants could be rapidly implemented into other vascular plant species as well. This could increase cell wall content to the benefit of the pulping industry and forage production as well as for bioenergy applications. It could also be used to increase the strength of cereal straws, reducing crop lodging and seed losses. Since regulatory networks and other components of secondary cell wall biosynthesis have been highly conserved by evolution, the researchers feel their lignin rewiring strategy should also be readily transferrable to other plant species. They are currently developing new and even better versions of these strategies.

"We now know that we can significantly re-engineer plant cell walls as long as we maintain the integrity of vessels and other key tissues," Loque says.

Mar. 25, 2013, Denver, CO - Vista International Technologies, Inc., a pioneer in efficient Waste-to-Energy technology, has begun construction on the company's previously announced northeastern US pilot Waste-to-Energy project. This project will utilize the next generation of Vista's gasification technology, the MFG-8 Thermal Gasifier, and is the beginning of a multiple phase plan by the host company to reduce the amount of waste it landfills.

The MFG-8 Thermal Gasifier to be used in this project expands on the success of Vista's previous installations, which span three continents, and is capable of converting virtually any hydrocarbon-based feedstock into usable energy. Upon successful completion of this project, the second phase of the plan will involve the installation of a larger, permanent Waste-to-Energy installation at the host company's site.

This project is being fully funded by the host company. CEO Tim Ruddy sees this event as an important milestone for the Company. "The beginning of construction on our initial third generation unit represents a giant step forward for the company, and is the result of a significant amount of hard work by the entire Vista team. We are excited to show the renewable energy community the advances in our newest design."

For more information, please visit www.vvit.us.

Mar. 22, 2013 - Researchers at the UAB's Institute of Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA-UAB) and the Institute of Marine Sciences (ICM-CSIC), have analysed the potential of different species of microalgae for producing biodiesel, comparing their growth, production of biomass and the quantity of lipids per cell (essential for obtaining fuel).

Their study shows that one type of marine algae that has received little attention till now - dinoflagellate microalgae - is highly suitable for cultivation with the aim of producing biodiesel.

The scientists carried out the whole production process in exterior cultures, in natural conditions, without artificial light or temperature control, in cultivation conditions with low energy costs and subject to seasonal fluctuations. Detailed analysis of all costs over 4 years gives promising results: microalgae cultures are close to producing biodiesel profitably even in uncontrolled environmental conditions.

"If we make simple adjustments to completely optimise the process, biodiesel obtained by cultivating these marine microalgae could be an option for energy supplies to towns near the sea", points out Sergio Rossi, an ICTA researcher at the UAB.

Among these adjustments, scientists highlight the possibility of reusing leftover organic pulp (the glycerol and protein pulp that is not converted into biodiesel) and using air pumps and more efficient cultivation materials.

Though similar studies have been done on other alga species, dinoflagellate microalgae have shown themselves to be a very promising group that stands out from the rest. Moreover, these microalgae are autochthonous to the Mediterranean, so they would present no environmental threat in the event of leakage.

Third-generation biodiesel

First-generation biodiesel and bioethanol (obtained from monoculture of palm oil, sugar cane, maize, etc.) have presented problems that make them less attractive. The crops cover large areas of land and need huge amounts of fresh water, and their use implies diverting food products to the energy market.

The possibility of creating energy from hydrocarbons extracted from organisms like marine phytoplankton, the so-called third-generation biodiesel, has several advantages. Firstly, algae offer the same production levels while taking up only between 4 and 7 per cent of the area occupied by crops on land, thanks to their high concentration of energy per cell. Secondly, they do not need fresh water, as sea water is sufficient, which makes them viable even in deserts or arid areas near the coast. Finally, marine algae are not, a priori, sources of food for human consumption, which avoids the ethical problem of monoculture to provide fuel rather than food.

Mar. 14, 2013, Manhattan, KS - A Kansas State University biochemical engineer is part of a national collaboration working to advance biomass as a leading source for more efficient drop-in biofuels, bio-power and animal feed.

Biomass can be converted into biofuels, such as drop-in renewable biodiesel, and other energy sources. Drop-in biofuels are so structurally similar to current transportation fuels that they can be developed with the existing technology and infrastructure used to make petroleum-based fuels, saving on fiscal overhead for new technology.

Praveen Vadlani, the Gary and Betty Lortscher associate professor of renewable energy in Kansas State University's department of grain science and industry, is a co-principal investigator in a more than $6.5 million biomass research project between universities, industries and federal agencies. The three-year project, a jointly funded effort by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Energy, seeks to refine and improve the conversion of biomass into better drop-in biodiesel, bio-lubricants, jet fuel and other value-added products.

"This is a high-risk, high-reward project," Vadlani said. "The goal is to increase commercial industries' interest in the products that are developed from biomass by adding value to those products. It will be a technical challenge because we want to optimize every component used in the production cycle and make sure that the production cycle is done in a closed-loop system without any emissions since we're using a renewable energy source."

The project is being led by Ceramatec Inc., a ceramic, fuel and electrochemical research and development company in Salt Lake City. In addition to Kansas State University, collaborators include Texas A&M, Rice University, Drexel University and the Chevron Corporation.

Vadlani and colleagues are studying biomass made from switchgrass and sorghum, both bioenergy-rich crops. Switchgrass is a warm season grass that can be converted into large amounts of biomaterial, while sorghum is a major grain crop, livestock feed and the primary source for biofuels production. Biomass was selected because it is a more cost-efficient sustainable energy source to produce.

Researchers are evaluating biomass made from these grasses, starting from their growth in the field throughout the production cycles.

Vadlani is focusing on pretreatment and fermentation steps in the production cycle to convert biomass into drop-in biodiesel, jet fuel and bio-lubricants. This includes deconstructing biomass to its core components; separating the sugars from the bio-contaminants; fermentation of useful products; scaling up the production levels from test tubes to liters; and evaluating the energy efficiency of the biofuels produced from the modified production cycle.

"My critical expertise comes in the form of essentially connecting the dots of all of the individual processes in order to make sure that the whole production cycle works efficiently from the first step all the way until the end," Vadlani said. "Each step in the production cycle may work by itself, but once they are put together there may be conflicts and inefficiencies. That results in lower-quality bio-products being produced."  

In addition to advancing biomass research and bio-product development, the project has strong mentorship and educational aspects to it.

Vadlani will work with a graduate student and postdoctoral research assistant, who also will work with undergraduate students and students in the university's summer research experience for undergraduates program.

"Along with making advancements to biofuels and industry, I'm looking at this as an opportunity to mentor undergraduate students who will one day go on to make future advancements in biofuels and eco-friendly materials," Vadlani said.

Mar. 8, 2013 - The search for a less-expensive, sustainable source of biomass, or plant material, for producing gasoline, diesel and jet fuel has led scientists to duckweed, that fast-growing floating plant that turns ponds and lakes green. That's the topic of a report in ACS' journal Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research.

Christodoulos A. Floudas, Xin Xiao and colleagues explain that duckweed, an aquatic plant that floats on or near the surface of still or slow-moving freshwater, is ideal as a raw material for biofuel production. It grows fast, thrives in wastewater that has no other use, does not impact the food supply and can be harvested more easily than algae and other aquatic plants. However, few studies have been done on the use of duckweed as a raw material for biofuel production.

They describe four scenarios for duckweed refineries that use proven existing technology to produce gasoline, diesel and kerosene. Those technologies include conversion of biomass to a gas; conversion of the gas to methanol, or wood alcohol; and conversion of methanol to gasoline and other fuels. The results show that small-scale duckweed refineries could produce cost-competitive fuel when the price of oil reaches $100 per barrel. Oil would have to cost only about $72 per barrel for larger duckweed refiners to be cost-competitive.

Mar. 6, 2013 - A screening tool from the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) eases and greatly quickens one of the thorniest tasks in the biofuels industry: determining cell wall chemistry to find plants with ideal genes.

NREL's new High-Throughput Analytical Pyrolysis tool (HTAP) can thoroughly analyze hundreds of biomass samples a day and give an early look at the genotypes that are most worth pursuing. Analysis of a sample that previously took two weeks can now be done in two minutes. That is potentially game changing for tree nurseries and the biomass industry.

When it comes to making fuels out of trees, crops, grasses, or algae, it's all about the cell walls of the plants. Will they make it hard or easy for enzymes to turn the biomass into sugars? Differences in cell walls are enormous, and choosing the right ones can make the difference between a profit and a loss for tree growers, or between a fruitful or fruitless feedstock line for biomass companies.

Finding that particular species, or that individual tree, that has the genetic markers for the optimal biofuel candidate has heretofore been laborious and painstaking.

The Energy Independence and Security Act requires that the United States produce 21 billion gallons of non-corn-based biofuel by 2022. The market for biofuels is expected to grow steadily between now and then. Market analysts say the successful companies will be those that can steer their enzymes through the cell-wall structures in the easiest and most cost-effective ways, including by making changes in the structures themselves.

Tool Can Pinpoint Phenotypes

To find out the chemical composition of the cell walls, companies have to sample large quantities of biomass, whether it's switchgrass, remnants of corn stalks, fast-growing trees, or algae.

The traditional strategy had been a multistep approach involving sample dissolution and chromatographic analysis, which can determine what the tree is composed of — but at the cost of disintegrating the sample.

NREL developed an approach using pyrolysis, analyzing the vapor from the samples produced by heat in the absence of oxygen, which is called high-throughput analysis pyrolysis, or HTAP. Pyrolysis destroys the sample, but the sample is tiny — four milligrams for the pyrolysis approach versus 10 grams for the traditional approach.

Difference in Signal Intensity Identifies Gene Manipulations

The lignin in a plant is crucial for its development and insect resistance, but it can stand in the way of enzymes that want to get at the sugars locked up in the carbohydrates. It's the deconstruction of the raw sugars that produces the sugars the biofuels industry finds valuable.

Lignin is a big molecule. Heating it up in the absence of oxygen — pyrolysis — breaks it down into smaller fragments that can be read by a molecular beam mass spectrometer.

The ratios of lignin to carbohydrate components, together with the intensity of the lignin peaks, can tell a scientist how easily a plant will give up its sugars.

HTAP integrates a molecular beam mass spectrometer with the pyrolysis unit to quickly determine chemical signatures (phenotypes) on small amounts of biomass samples that can be used for, among other things, identifying the genes controlling the chemical makeup.

Samples drop into the oven, where the pyrolysis creates a vapor that is read by the mass spectrometer — a chemical fingerprint. The auto-sampler quickly moves the samples into place and back out again, so the measurements can be taken every couple of minutes or so. Combining the HTAP chemical phenotypes with information such as genetic markers can signal there is a gene nearby that controls those chemical phenotypes — for better or worse.

HTAP can potentially reduce the amount of energy needed for ethanol production, said NREL's Mark Davis, principal investigator on the HTAP project. And that would make a huge difference in the marketplace.

NREL's Tool Combines Precision and Speed

The path toward an ultra-fast, ultra-sophisticated screening tool went through ArborGen, one of the nation's largest tree seedling suppliers. "They sent us some samples and asked, 'What can you tell us about them?'" Davis said.

Turns out, it was a lot more than ArborGen expected.

"We put the samples in our mass spectrometer, which looked at their genetic transformations and the associated cell-wall chemistry changes," Davis said. They discerned dozens of changes in transgenic biomass samples, each slight genetic tweak corresponding with a slight difference in the amount of lignin in the sample.

NREL was able to tell ArborGen that one sample had, say, half the lignin of another sample. "We were giving them information in a week that it took a month or two for them to get somewhere else," Davis said. "Not only that, but we were getting better information and greater chemical specificity and resolution than they had seen before."

An Explosion in Demand for Quick Sampling

NREL had previously partnered with scientists from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the University of Florida, and the University of California, Davis, to demonstrate that the HTAP method could combine with genetic information to identify genetic markers associated with cell wall chemistry traits. NREL's pyrolysis combined with a mass spectrometer was a big improvement over the old method of using wet chemistry to analyze, but the approach wasn't nearly fast enough to meet demand.

It still took a week to analyze samples from just 250 trees. "We were doing everything manually in a heated furnace," Davis said. "A single person would stand there all day feeding in samples." Even with this approach, the method that would soon evolve into HTAP identified numerous genetic markers associated with cell wall chemistry and provided greater chemical specificity and resolution than had been available before.

So, NREL used money from its internal general purpose equipment account to buy an auto-sampler, the final piece in the goal of combining automation, pyrolysis, spectrometry, and speed. NREL's partners in the project include Extrel CMS which worked with NREL to design and fabricate the molecular beam mass spectrometer, and Frontier Laboratories, which provided the pyrolysis instrument.

NREL scientists integrated the autosampler, pyrolyzer, and molecular beam mass spectrometer to make HTAP. Other partners using NREL's rapid analytical tool for fuel research, besides ArborGen, are the University of Florida, the University of Georgia, Greenwood Resources, the BioEnergy Science Center, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Spectrometer Reads the Chemical Fingerprints of the Samples

The spectrometer's readings are translated into graphs that show single peaks that are easily identifiable phenotypes from which the scientists can infer information about the cell walls. Know the genes associated with the traits, and you gain the ability to manipulate the cell wall to your advantage.

"HTAP provides the information that, combined with other genetic information, tells us there's a gene controlling the plant's cell wall chemistry located somewhere on this chromosome — at the same location every time," Davis said. "Our partners have genetic markers for 1,000 trees and can pinpoint the gene that has an effect on lignin content, cellulose content, or some other factor affecting recalcitrance (the plant's resistance to give up its structural sugars). With that information, the partners can go back and find a tree in the natural population with similar genetic traits or use genetic transformation to introduce the desirable traits."

The data from the chemical makeup is averaged and generated in real time. "If we know what each of these peaks are related to, we can tell what has changed with each sample," Davis said. For example, the ratio of two types of lignin — guaiacol and syringol, or G and S — speaks volumes about how much trouble enzymes will have getting to the cellulose in a particular plant.

"In four minutes, you can look at the spectrum and see that this sample reduces lignin by half — because the S to G ratio has changed by a factor of two," Davis said. Meanwhile, the auto-sampler has already put another sample in place and is ready for a third. "That's information that prior to this would take two people two weeks to acquire."

The speed at which HTAP can analyze samples has launched a new niche market for the tiny cups arrayed on trays that accept the samples. "People send us thousands of samples at a time," Davis said. Now, NREL simply sends universities and companies the large trays of cups. The cups are filled with the samples. Glass fiber disks are used to hold the biomass samples in the cups, which are then sent back to NREL. Quickly sending cups and samples back and forth has slashed the cost of one of the most expensive steps in the process: sample preparation.

Tool Can Detect Minute Differences

HTAP has demonstrated extreme powers of discernment. Growers can determine that some of those identical-looking trees are actually a bit different. Using the information that is provided by HTAP, researchers and breeders can determine what genes in the cloned trees are responsible for the advantageous biofuel potential. And biologists then can graft a desirable cell-wall trait onto a new line of trees.

"We've phenotyped tens of thousands of samples so far," Davis said. "The tool provides a detailed comparison of hundreds of samples a day. Any biomass feedstock type being used for serious biofuels production — chances are, we've tested it."

 

Feb. 25, 2013, Ottawa, ON - The federal government is formally shutting down its controversial biofuels subsidy program, saying companies producing biodiesel have failed to meet ambitious production targets.

Read the full story here: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/ottawa-ending-biofuels-subsidy-over-unfulfilled-industry-promises/article8983024/

 

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