Jason Barton

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Archive for the ‘Cellulosic Biofuels’ tag

Algae May Be the Future of Biofuels, but it’s a Distant Future

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This is promising. Whatever we may say about Monsanto (read more here), there are some smart people working there, and their investment in technology to use algae for biofuels shows there is some real promise in those efforts. The innovation needed to make this technology energy efficient and cost effective, however, is a long way off.

Cellulosic biofuels from crops with which we have great experience, such as corn and grasses, continues to face considerable barriers. First, while we have known for millennia how to ferment 6 carbon sugars such as glucose,we lack the experience and an efficient method to ferment the diverse, 5 and 6 carbon sugars in cellulose. To complicate matters further, unlike the sugars in cane or in the carbohydrates in corn, the sugars in cellulose are mixed in with lignin, the stiff, woody parts of plants that give them their structure.

Sapphire energy, the company discussed in the article below, will not likely ferment the sugars for fuels like ethanol, but will extract the oil to make diesel fuel. This process still faces barriers as formidable as those I discuss above, plus the added disadvantage that we don’t have proven methods to grow, harvest, and process algae efficiently.

You might be thinking, ‘the pond near our backyard grows tons of algae and we don’t even want it, how hard can it be?’ When we’re trying to grow enough to be used to power cars and planes, and in a small space with limited inputs of water and other form energy, it gets trickier.

It will take time to develop the methods to do all of this. It can be done, but let’s not figure that developments such as this give us license to continue using fossil fuels with our present, reckless abandon.

Innovation, yes, efficiency always.

Monsanto Backs Algae Startup Sapphire Energy

content by earth2tech

By Katie Fehrenbacher at Earth2Tech

Tue Mar 8, 2011 11:07am EST

Agriculture and genetics giant Monsanto has made its bet on algae. On Tuesday Monsanto announced that it has made an equity investment in, and developed a partnership with, algae startup Sapphire Energy.

Founded in 2007, Sapphire Energy uses synthetic biology to make a green crude out of algae that can be turned into gas, diesel or jet fuel. Monsanto wants access to Sapphire’s genetic research technology to use it for its own agricultural development. Using Sapphire’s genetic technology, Monsanto can isolate traits in algae (like high yields and stress traits) that could be used to tweak other crops. Monsanto’s CTO Robb Fraley said in a release that algae is an “excellent discovery tool,” for agricultural genetic research.

Read the entire article here.

Written by Jason

March 20th, 2011 at 10:52 am

More Advancements in Cellulosic Biofuels

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Government investments in cellulosic biofuels may be paying off.

Not only do these advances move us closer to using grasses and other crops that require less water and fertilizer and compete less with food, it also moves us closer to the advanced biofuels that, unlike ethanol, can be used as drop in replacements for gasoline (read more here).

We need to combine these advancements with further efforts in conservation and efficiency, or we risk converting so much of the Earth’s biomass to serving human uses that we will decrease biodiversity to the extent that we risk further ecological collapse.

This doesn’t just diminish our ability to go camping in pretty places, it also threatens our supply of essential resources such as clean, healthy water and soil.  I like to go camping, but I like eating and drinking healthy food and water even more. They’re really important, and clearing diverse forests and prairies so we can plant crops such as grasses, whether for fuel, food, fiber, or feed, poses risks to water and soil.

Energy Department Announces New Advance in Biofuel Technology

Highlights Opportunity to Reduce America’s Oil Dependence and Create Jobs in Rural America

March 07, 2011

U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu today congratulated a team of researchers at the Department’s BioEnergy Science Center who have achieved yet another advance in the drive toward next generation biofuels: using bacteria to convert plant matter directly into isobutanol, which can be burned in regular car engines with a heat value higher than ethanol and similar to gasoline. This research is part of a broad portfolio of work the Department is doing to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil and create new economic opportunities for rural America.


Secretary Chu added that: “America’s oil dependence—which leaves hardworking families at the mercy of global oil markets—won’t be solved overnight. But the remarkable advance of science and biotechnology in the past decade puts us on the precipice of a revolution in biofuels. In fact, biotechnologies, and the biological sciences that provide the underlying foundation, are some of the most rapidly developing areas in science and technology today – and the United States is leading the way. In the coming years, we can expect dramatic breakthroughs that will allow us to produce the clean energy we need right here at home. We need to act aggressively to seize this opportunity and win the future.”

Read the entire article here.

Biofuels Beyond Ethanol

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Here are a couple of interesting articles about the next generations of biofuels.

The first two sentences of the first article below are priceless, and quite correct. As expected, the article in The Economist is excellent. It’s not exactly cutting edge, as these technologies have been discussed for well over a year, and it doesn’t look like we’re a whole lot closer now.

As I said in that post above over a year ago, when these fuels do become cost effective and energetically efficient, we will need to be very careful about converting more land to monocultures to produce biomass as feedstocks for these fuels.

The Worldwatch article below addresses this issue obliquely with its hopeful look at algae as a feedstock. We face some of the same problems with algae as we do with cellulosic bofuels–trying to expose the diverse, 5 and 6 carbon sugars for fermentation–as well as the added difficulty in our lack of experience either growing or harvesting algae.

It’ll be a while before any of these are ready for your gs tank, but it’s encouraging that we’re thinking this far ahead.

It’s a fascinating time to be alive.

The future of biofuels

The post-alcohol world

Biofuels are back. This time they might even work

Oct 28th 2010 | London and san francisco

MAKE something people want to buy at a price they can afford. Hardly a revolutionary business strategy, but one that the American biofuels industry has, to date, eschewed. Now a new wave of companies think that they have the technology to change the game and make unsubsidised profits. If they can do so reliably, and on a large scale, biofuels may have a lot more success in freeing the world from fossil fuels than they have had until now.


That is a start, but it will not be enough, Wood is a possibility, particularly if it is dealt with chemically, rather than biologically (much of the carbon in wood is in the form of lignin, a molecule that is even tougher than cellulose). But energy-rich grasses look like the best bet. Ceres, which is based in Thousand Oaks, California, has taken several species of fast-growing grass, notably switchgrass and sorghum, and supercharged them to grow even faster and put on more weight by using a mixture of selective breeding and genetic engineering. Part of America’s prairies, the firm hopes, will revert to grassland and provide the cellulose that biofuels will need. The Energy Biosciences Institute that BP is funding at the University of Illinois, in Urbana-Champaign, is working on hybrid miscanthus, an ornamental grass that can produce truly remarkable yields.

Read the entire article here.

Third Time’s the Charm, or Three Strikes and You’re Out? Third-Generation Biofuels Are Here

Sam Shrank Revolt 2010-11-01

This entry is the latest in a series on innovations in the climate and energy world.

Ethanol from corn and sugar cane? Beyond passé at this point, with major environmental, land use, and food security concerns.

Second-generation biofuels, made from non-food crops and wastes? So 2008.

The next big thing in biofuels? Algae.

So-called third-generation biofuels have begun to receive serious attention. Biofuels can technically be made from just about any plant material, and some of the advantages of algae are obvious: it wouldn’t compete for arable land, for example, as it is grown in water, and it grows like, well, a weed, allowing for incredible yields.

The two avenues of third-generation development being considered so far are microalgae (pond scum, etc) and macroalgae (seaweed). Research is going into both harvesting algae from its natural environment and creating artificial growing environments.

Various algae have been discussed academically as a potential fuel since 1955. The U.S. Department of Energy has looked into fuels from microalgae since 1978, although the Aquatic Species Program, as it was called, was discontinued in 1996. Since then, various government bodies, including the Department of Defense, National Science Foundation, and Department of Agriculture, have continued to look into algal biofuels.

Read this entire article here.

Standing at the Crossroads: The Biofuels Industry in Colorado

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One of the more important points in this article is that “the Federal Government should let the marketplace determine who wins this race.” George Bush already laid out the framework in his 2007 update of the Renewable Fuel Standards, and it has just recently been clarified with the EPA’s RFS2 decision.

Under the RFS, the U.S. will need to increase use of renewable fuels, up to 36 billion gallons in 2022. Furthermore, the use of corn ethanol is capped at 15B gallons starting in 2015, meaning that those Colorado companies with the most economically, environmentally, and energetically efficient cellulosic and other advanced bioenergy technologies will have a place in the market.

As for the need for qualified managers with extensive technical understanding of bioenergy, as well as the ability to convey it’s merits to potential buyers and the public, I’m currently in Brazil working in their bioenergy sector, but I’ll be back in Colorado at the beginning of May.

February 1st, 2010

Colorado’s biofuels industry is faring better than elsewhere in the country, thanks to local entrepreneurial spirit, the area’s universities, the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) coupled with Governor Ritter’s early leadership in the New Energy Economy. However, bolder and more sustained actions are required if the state’s vision of becoming the cleantech version of Silicon Valley is to be realized. Colorado’s biofuels industry stands very much at a crossroads.


As an example, consider alternatives to traditional diesel fuel. At last count there were six different feedstock-technology pathways being developed by various companies across the US. How can federal policy makers know with any certainty [which technology] will ultimately win the race for a conventional diesel substitute? Maybe one is better in certain climates and geographies while another elsewhere. The federal government should let the marketplace determine who wins this race. Similar complexity exists for ethanol, butanol and other fuel alternatives.


Two-thirds of biofuels firms in Colorado believe enhancing the availability/supply of skilled employees is needed to build a robust clean-energy sector in the Front Range. Views vary, however, as to which functional areas (e.g. engineers, sales, technical) are most pressing, but expanding the pool of talented managerial staff emerges as the top priority.

Read the entire article here.

Cellulosic Biofuels–Got gasoline?

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To hear Dr. Regalbuto describe it, you’d think these technologies were all but ready for deployment. They’re not. I can definitely appreciate his forward thinking, as well as him coming to speak to my class at the University of Illinois, but even he will admit that these fuels are a bit farther away than this article describes.

It will indeed be a great day when we can fuel our vehicles on renewable energy sources, but we will also need to accompany that development with vast decreases in the amount of fuel we use. Failing to do so will require HUGE swaths of land dedicated to growing the biomass that serves as feedstocks for these drop-in replacements for gasoline. If present practice holds, these swaths will likely be monoculture in order to maximize the yield per unit of land, and monocultures can be very harmful to the health of soil and water, and potentially to the people who live near these fields and depend on these systems.

It’s a fascinating time to be alive.

John R. Regalbuto

14 August, 2009

Most people think of ethanol as the only liquid biofuel, and that the major advances in biofuels will revolve around enzymatic conversion of cellulosic or woody biomass (including nonfood stems and stalks of corn stover or switch-grass, and wood chips) into simple fermentable sugars (1). However, in just a few years the commercial scale production of liquid hydrocarbons from biomass will be possible. Hydrocarbons can be made (see the figure) from the sugars of woody biomass through microbial fermentation or liquid-phase catalysis, or directly from woody biomass through pyrolysis or gasification (2). Finally, lipids from nonfood crops as well as algae (3) can be converted to hydrocarbons. The resulting hydrocarbon biofuels will be drop-in replacements for gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel; will give much higher gas mileage than ethanol; and will work in existing engines and distribution networks.

Read the entire article here.