Making History: Solazyme, United Airlines and Biofuels

13 12 2011

It was like any other flight. Window or aisle, peanuts or pretzels, wheels up then wheels down. But it wasn’t just any other flight.

Just last week United Airlines made aviation history with a Houston to Chicago trip: the first domestic commercial flight to utilize fuel derived from biofuels that were created by American company Solazyme.

That particular flight alone saved 10-12 tons of CO2. United Airlines sees the fuel as a step for them to reduce not only emission, but also to improve their bottom line.

Check out United Airlines and Solazyme’s spokesmen discuss their revolutionary partnership and why this flight is one for the history books.

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.

Good for National Defense – Good for Civilians.

6 10 2011

When I think national defense, several images emerge: the war in Iraq, drug cartels and shanty-towns along the Mexican border and

The Secretary of Navy, Roy Mabus, recently spoke at a Mississippi State University biofuel conference. He lauded their MSU Energy Institute’s conference and research on emerging biofuel technologies.

The navy and our National Defense is extremely interested in biofuels. Why? Our military branch budget takes a brutal hit whenever a barrel of oil rises. Given the volatile nature that surrounds foreign sources of energy and fossil fuels, it makes sense that they are more attracted to stable, reliable and local fuel sources.

So why biofuels? It’s pretty simple, actually. Given that the majority of our petroleum comes from rogue, unpredictable nations, the price of oil is extremely sensitive to geo-politics, causing price unpredictability as a result of supply shocks.

 (Photo: MSU)

Therefore, that’s why the Secretary of Navy is touting biofuels — to protect the military’s budget against price volatility. Moreover, diversifying the navy’s fuel portfolio will also be another way to support our local, national economy.

Since the national defense feels so strongly about American biofuels, a lot of people think that mainstream society should, too (including myself!). And although as individuals we don’t provide the national defense that the Navy performs on a daily basis, each purchase and fill-up at the pump does, and can, make an aggregate difference to our National Security.

Deepwater Horizon Final Report Offers Takeaways, Lessons.

24 09 2011

I can’t believe it was early last year (April 20th 2010) when the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded, allowing crude oil to taint the Gulf for 87 days following the incident. Several men and women perished that day, leaving behind beloved families and children.

The final investigation has been released this week, calling to question the safety protocols blatantly neglected by the Deepwater Horizon’s owner – Transocean, BP and Halliburton.

Here are just a few of the sickening results uncovered by the  Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) and U.S. Coast Guard Joint Investigation Team (JIT):

  • The U.S. government has committed to submitting sanctions against these companies in light of the panel’s findings
  • BP violated seven regulations
  • Transocean violated three regulations
  • Halliburton’s subsidiary – Sperry Sun – violated three regulations
  • According to the panel, these companies neglected the necessary, mandated protocols to avoid “unreasonable risk to public health, life, property, aquatic life… or other uses of the ocean”

If you want to learn more about one of our nation’s worst natural disasters, I’m currently reading and would highly recommend  Drowning in Oil: BP and the Reckless Pursuit of Profit. Acclaimed Houston Chronicle journalist, Loren Steffy, recounts BP’s history and rise to its current status as a global multi-billion dollar machine; he unveils how the former CEO’s management approach led to not only the oil spill in the gulf, but several preceding warnings including a preventable burst pipeline in the Arctic and a refinery explosion in Texas City in 2005, killing 15 and injuring almost 200.

Loren discovers the main culprits to these and other negligent behavior committed by BP continue to arise because of delayed maintenance; deferred upgrades; and budget cuts.

Comparing this disaster with ethanol or biodiesel production, there will always be small accidents or mishaps when raising crops for sustainable fossil fuel alternatives – accidents happen. Fortunately, family farmers strive to uphold safety and protocol on the farm; when a small accident occurs, they maintain accountability and repair any impact within their communities.

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.

Lights out, ethanol.

8 09 2011

Republican presidential candidate, Michele Bachmann, has vowed to lock the doors and turn out the lights on the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, at a rally last week if she is elected. Moreover, she’s promised $2/gal gasoline.

As the presidential campaign revs up this fall, candidates will be touting promises that their platform will be better than that of their competition.

So what do bureaucratic politics have to do with ethanol or American homegrown energy?

Let us first focus on the $2/gal empty promise. Believe me, it sounds incredibly appetizing. As a broke college student, $4/gal at the pump can drive a girl to want to crave Ramen again or raid the entire maid’s cart while on vacation.

Wait a second.  We’re not talking ethanol.  She promises that gasoline will reach below $2 a gallon. Well, there are only two direct ways to reach such a heavily subsidized and frugal price for petroleum. Option number one: Increase the petroleum industry’s subsidies or tax breaks (this money doesn’t come from anywhere. It comes from you. And I. And everyone else.  Is Michele going to raise taxes, too, to pay for these additional subsidies?).  Option number two: increase drilling in ecologically fragile regions of the United States alongside negligent companies. When black tar desecrates all life forms in the Gulf of Mexico or pipelines burst in the Tundra (both of which have happened within the past couple years), who is ultimately held liable for the corporations that are too large to care? Taxpayers? Yes. You, and I.

These approaches could make way for a quasi deflated price at the pump that’s closer to $2/gal (at least it looks that way when we go to select ‘Debit’ or ‘Credit’). But subsidies, taxpayer money, drain our pockets in the first place to drive the price down. In the end, we still pay the difference.

Currently, ethanol is cheaper than gasoline at the pump. And Michele has yet to extrapolate on a plan to drive down the cost of ethanol, too. Well, it’s already cheaper than gasoline.  It’s grown here in the Midwest.  When was the last time we had an ethanol spill?  When was the last time family farmers had beg for gov’t assistance to clean up a burst pipeline on their farms?

Yet she wants to close the doors on the EPA, the very agency that recently updated a revised ratio for a greater mixture of ethanol in commercial gasoline (up 15% from 10%). She wants to turn out all lights in the EPA, the very agency that wants to proliferate this homegrown fuel into further depths within our economy.

Lights out, ethanol.