Reason to stray, but don’t go far before you fill up.

9 12 2011

I will have to admit. This breakthrough is by far the most startling milestone that I’ve come across in the realm of emerging biofuel research.

E. Coli, the bacteria we all fear. Responsbile for many food scare epidemics. Culprit for frequent illnesses. Cause for some deaths.

DOE, E. Coli, Joint BioEnergy Institute, Biofuel, Jet Fuel

Now researchers at the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Joint BioEnergy Institute in San Francisco have experimented with a strain of E. Coli and found promising, and surprising, results. Their creation is rigorous enough to eat away at swithgrass, a touch plant which could be the next promising feestock for cellulosic ethanol. They found that when the E. Coli eat the swithgrass, the feast yeilds three products: gasoline (that’s renewable), diesel and jet biofuel.

It’s important to understand the BioEnergy Institute’s reasons for putting in so many resources to find a bacteria that could eat a renewable fuel feedstock. I coundn’t come up with any idea why, but hang on– it makes sense. The bacteria breaks down the woody matter (called lignen) in the feedstock that otherwise requires intensive processes, technology and finances to break down. By doing so, they have been able to cut projected costs dramatically and ramp up production more cheaply, efficiently and quickly.

Thumbs up to this globally feared bacteria.

Research Award: Corn Ethanol’s Positive Role in Health and Medical Arenas

14 11 2011

Ethanol, University of Illinois, bioplastic, corn oilDr. Munir Cheryan will be lauded this Tuesday with an ethanol award for his modern advances in the arena of ethanol production.  Research professor at University of Illinois’ Agriculture Bioprocess Laboratory, he continues to license more patents and works alongside Prairie Gold, Inc. since 2006 toward the commercialization of high-value ethanol by-products.

corn ethanol, Illinois, University of Illinois

I called Dr. Cheryan earlier today to garner a further insight into his accomplishments and breakthroughs. Although I will not delve into every shared detail, the main takeaways hold enough magnitude to stand on their own.

Dr. Cheryan’s research ramped up in the 1980s because he wanted to be a part of solution to clean air, reduce pipe emissions and enable a farm support program. Until this time, ethanol production was a costly, time-intensive process that, in his words, relied on “moonshine technology.”  His research and breakthroughs helped augment the time efficacy of ethanol production and brought it from 100 hours down to 24 hours or less by improving the separation process.

In the ‘90s he helped improve the energy ratio for ethanol production by the application of membrane technology in several areas of corn processing. A key driver for efficiency improvement was to drive costs down for ethanol production; Dr. Cheryan saw this market signal’s solution was to seek out higher valued co-products from corn that can co-exist with ethanol. Zein, one of four proteins found in maize, touts a whole suite of applications and can be extracted from the corn without reducing yield of the ethanol end-product; this protein is natural, biodegradable and can be used in agriculture (hay baling), in the manufacturing of plastics, food products (a non-stick, biodegradable chewing gum) and in biomedical markets (for medical sutures that safely dissolve in the body).

An accidental co-product discovered from zein extraction demonstrated corn’s ability, after ethanol production, to offer additional benefits to, this time, the health market. Dr. Cheryan explained to me that the compounds, lutein and zeaxanthin, which make corn yellow in color (same for Marigold flowers!) also contribute significantly to retina and cardiovascular health while preventing age-related macular degeneration, or AMD. He envisions a future opportunity to sell the crude material to vitamin companies.

Another coproduct from his technology is a “healthy” corn oil containing much higher levels of health-promoting compounds than conventional corn oil. A unique feature of all Dr. Cheryan’s processes is that corn-based ethanol is used instead of petroleum-based solvents.

Key takeaway: Dr. Cheryan’s devotion will help ethanol stand on its own in a competitive market saturated with petroleum-based products while improving the quality of our air and health.

Abengoa: Jack of All Trades

12 11 2011

Abengoa Bioenergy‘s new 23 million-gallon refinery will take biomass feedstocks, such as switchgrass, and generate ethanol for the production of homegrown fuel.  Having already successfully test-driven pilot plants of the same technology, Abengoa is working to extract more useful material from grain and cereal tailings in the form of residual starch.  These residual starches are generally 5% of the entire starch levels in cereals and grains and can be as high as 10%, according to Abengoa Bioenergy.

So, what does this mean for the biofuel/ethanol industry?  More extractable starch = more ethanol.  Abengoa estimates theoretically one could obtain 3.2 gallons of ethanol per bushel of corn.  However, through efficiency losses in the starch extraction processes of current ethanol facilities, the common producer gets 2.6 gallons on average.  With Abengoa’s new technology, we could see this average raise to 2.9 gallons per bushel.  That is about a 10% gain.

Abengoa is also advancing in the study of ethanol co-products.  Primarily, distillers dry grains and solubles or DDGS are of hot topic in the industry.  At the moment, DDGS are mostly given to rumenoids because of their high vegetable content, but Abengoa is working to supplement these co-products and create feeds that are more suitable for poultry and pork stock.  This is done by concentrating the proteins in the DDGS.  This means less waste will come from the ethanol production process, and more money is to be made.

Switchgrass, bioenergy, Abegonea, cellulosic ethanol(Photo)

Lastly, but not least, as if Abengoa didn’t have all of the bases covered already, they are also improving the efficiency of cellulosic ethanol production.  Cellulose, by nature, is much harder to break down than starch and requires the addition of special enzymes in the processing phase.  These enzymes are expensive to create and relatively large doses are needed to bread down the cellulose.  Abengoa is currently studying to increase the effectiveness of these enzymes while driving the cost to produce them down as well.  In other words, a smaller dose will have the same impact as a current dose and will cost less to make.

Quick recap: Abengoa sounds like the Westinghouse of ethanol.  They didn’t start it, but they are sure bringing the best out in it (ethanol in Abengoa’s case, electricity in Westinghouse’s).  They are increasing ethanol yields per bushel by unlocking residual starches; they are expanding the usefulness of DDGS as a feedstock not only for cattle but for pigs and chickens; and they are increasing the efficiency of breaking down cellulose so it can be used to make more ethanol.

Bravo, Abengoa! Bravo!  You get two cobs up!

Lessons from Mr. Ford.

15 10 2011

We might think that biofuels are a 21st century invention. Well, they kind of are, and kind of aren’t, depending on what feedstock you’re talking about. There is more than meets the eye on this ever-prevalent fuel.

Henry Ford, automotiveHenry Ford Ethanol, Model T, Alcohol, Fuel pump, gasoline pioneer and champion of the assembly line, revolutionized  the machining processes and drove down the cost of the Model T from $800 to $290, making automobiles economical for the first time to families and mainstream society.

Another notable component to the Model T appears under the hood. Mr. Ford first engineered his cars to run off of either alcohol–ethanol–or gasoline, depending on what was available at the time or location. The Model T was in fact the first flex fuel car America has ever seen.

Insert prohibition in 1919 which threw a wrench into things for Henry Ford (literally). In order for his cars to continue to run on alcohol,  the fuel had to undergo a denaturing process to make it poisonous and undrinkable.  Prohibition finally released its grasp on Ford in 1933.

Henry’s innovations and applications have taught us that ethanol has made itself known to be a successful ethanol, Model T, Henry Ford, assembly linecompetitor to gasoline for over 100+ years. After all, this alternative was powering cars before the Wright Brothers and their crazy inventions ever took flight.

Caffeine and…. Ethanol… from Coffee?

29 09 2011

What do coffee and ethanol have in common? Well, Ethanol.

I cannot express how much I love coffee. The hot, wafting aromas, sharp acidity and ‘terroire’ (taste derived from the particular soil in which the bean is raised) all combine into one perfect package–along with the added bonus… caffeine and ethanol.

It still amazes me that 21st century advances have enabled us to use ‘waste’ feedstock leftovers and reuse them for a better purpose – providing us with homegrown and clean energy.

So, when roasting and producing the beans, a waste byproduct is generated called mucilage. Typically, this byproduct hurts the roasters/farmers economically because they have to pay to get rid of it. Well, some Colombian scientists have been able to figure out a process to generate ethanol from this waste. It’s not up to commercial production, but the technology keeps increasing and becoming more improved.

This advancement offers a multitude of positive feedback benefits: the byproduct is no longer an economic burden to dispose of, roasters/farmers can produce a clean fuel with recycled waste, and its clean nature protects our families’ health and well-being.

Succulent qualities aside, it’s important to recognize the niche sector in our food and beverage industry that produces coffee products. Alongside traditional agriculture producers, small, family owned businesses roast coffee beans throughout the Midwest –from Michigan to Iowa–providing local jobs, economic stimulus and vitality.

Check out Energy Digital’s site to learn more information on this developing homegrown fuel!

Biofuel offers more than meets the eye.

22 09 2011

Did you know that the food we grow, after aiding in cooking, can also help us clean up the dishes, too?

I’m sure you’ve heard of folks undertaking biofuel projects either at Universities or featured in documentaries of a guy/gal that converted his/her Jetta to run on the waste cooking grease discarded from fast food joints.

But did you know that biodiesel is not only a direct substitute for dirty, fossil fuel-derived diesel, but making it creates an everyday useful byproduct?

Take a look at this neat video – it talks about how students at Loyola University Chicago are making their own batches of homegrown biodiesel that can be used directly in diesel cars! They also talk about how the conversion of the waste food oil into clean, renewable fuel gives them an added bonus – glycerin. They are using the glycerin to make soaps that are gentle enough for hands, yet strong enough for cars and hardwood floors!

Can you think of any other by-products that biofuels produce?

Take flight with Camelina.

13 09 2011

Q: How does a 48,000 pound aircraft lift off the ground without a second thought?

Several agencies including the U.S. Airforce and G.E. Aviation along with Embraer have successfully completed test flights over the past several months of aircraft ranging from the F-22 Raptor to CF34-8E-powered E-170. The raptor also seamlessly flaunted a supercruise earlier this year in California – a supersonic flight, sans spleen-bursting afterburner.

Here comes the kicker: both flew on biofuels.

March 18, 2011, at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. (Image: U.S. Air Force photo/Kevin North)

Camelina sativa is a fast growing crop that requires little water and inputs; it has become the recent acclaimed cohort in an ever evolving realm of research in a quest for the next aviation fuel. A cousin to the mustard and canola families, this multi-functional plant also reduces the majority of carbon dioxide emissions when compared to its dirty step cousin: traditional petrol-derived aviation fuel.

After the seed is processed and the oil extracted for fuel, a ‘meal’ is leftover. Not to be put to waste, the USDA has also deemed the residual meal fit for poultry or livestock feed.

So. How exactly does a 48,000 pound aircraft lift off the ground without a second thought?

With a little might, a lotta grease… and a pinch of homegrown biostock.

Fall’s here… almost! Plenty of attractions for young and old.

10 09 2011

So although this particular post may not cover renewable fuels directly, I would like to explore how pre-harvested corn (before it’s produced into an amazing, local fuel for our cars) can provide a wonderful fall attraction for families looking to spend time with their loved ones.

The official start of the 2011 Autumn season is on the September equinox, or September 23. This is one of only two days a year in which we experience almost exactly 12 hours of sunlight and 12 hours of darkness (f you’re sitting on the equator, that is).

What better way to soak up this amazing weather than spending it outside with your kids or friends?

Insert Coleman’s Corn Maze (picture at right). They offer everything from a 17 acre corn maze, hayrides, farm animals to bonfires. They also provide U-pick pumpkins at the end of this month.

But if you don’t live anywhere near Coleman’s Corn Maze in Saline, Michigan, there are plenty of alternative corn mazes near you. Just google your state’s tourism website and search for corn mazes to find local farms.

Besides gooey, tart candy apples paired with savory kettle corn, what’s the best part about an activity like exploring a corn maze or picking apples on a family farm?

Quality time spent with the ones you love.

McLean County Fair: 4-H’ers perservere.

12 08 2011

I enjoyed every minute out at the McLean County Fair last week.

I have never seen so many pigs, goat, bunnies, chickens… or little kids all in one place! The diverse smells were abundant, too, wafting from the bubbling corn on-the-cob fryers and sizzling funnel cake griddles.

My favorite part? The 4-H’ers. Each kid demonstrated immense dedication and perseverance to his/her chosen craft. And to think the youngest out there competing is merely eight years old!

These photos embody the 4-H’ers’ hard work put forth at the 2011 McLean County Fair.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I hope you are also inspired by these little tykes’ commitment.

Up next – Illinois State Fair… here I come!