Solazyme Agal Biofuel Production in the United States

by Mariah Valerie Barber

In early February 2014, in Galva, Iowa at the American Natural Products (ANP) facility and in Clinton, Iowa, at the Archer Daniels Midland Company (ADM), Solazyme, Inc., began its commercial production of algal biofuel and oil. Solazyme, a San Francisco based firm utilizes microalgae, which it refers to as “the world’s original oil producer,” in order to produce biofuel ( Solazyme creates oil from microalgae by a process of industrial fermentation, during which the microalgae is not fed with solar energy, but with sugar, which results in the production oil. Using industrial fermentation speeds up the natural chemical processes, which algae undergo. Once the microalgae produce the oil, the oil is extracted and made ready for commercial use. Even before the facilities in Iowa opened, Solazyme has had facilities in both Peoria and Orindiúva, Brazil. Peoria has the capacity to manufacture 2,000 metric tons of oil per year whereas the new facilities now are each able to produce 100,000 metric tons of oil per year (Clean Solayzme, which claims to be the first oil producer, has potential to drastically transform the oil industry and its reliance on fossil fuels. Continue reading

The Importance of Wood as a Renewable Energy Resource

by Shannon O’Neill

The importance of wood as a renewable energy resource has often been solely associated with developing countries. However, Aguilar (2015) stresses the importance of wood in developed nation’s energy markets, specifically in the growing trend of mandated transitions to more renewable energy resources. In the United States alone, wood energy provides 25 percent of renewable energy consumption, which is greater than both wind and solar energy. As wood energy is often overlooked, he highlights the importance of recognizing this valuable and complex resource. Continue reading

How to Reduce California’s Greenhouse Gases by 80%

by Emil Morhardt

According to the latest runs of a complex computer energy model (CA-TIMES) coming out of the University of California at Davis (Yang et al. 2015), the energy scene across California may be quite different by 2050. The model is not designed to predict what will happen, but instead to examine the economic and policy implications of just about every possible major perturbation of energy generation and use in the state to get us to the current policy goal of an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels. What results is a series of least-cost scenarios to get to various policy-driven energy endpoints. The bottom line is that greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced enough to meet the 80% goal at low to moderate costs, but not without major investments in wind and solar power generation, production of synthetic fuels directly from biomass using the Fischer–Tropsch synfuel pyrolysis process (more about that in upcoming posts), and hydrogen production and distribution infrastructure to power fuel cells. Continue reading

How to Find New Enzymes for Making Cellulosic Ethanol

by Emil Morhardt

Nonedible agricultural waste plant material is the most abundant ready source of biomass for making ethanol. But this “cellulosic” ethanol is expensive because breaking down the lignocellulose in plant waste so it can be fermented to ethanol requires either large amounts of energy, or specialized enzymes that are costly to manufacture. Furthermore, the enzymes discovered so far are not as resistant as they might be to the high temperature and high solids (low water) environments that work best for industrial processing.

One way to discover new candidate enzymes is to look for them where they are being produced naturally in an abundant source of agricultural waste; in this case, composting rice straw greenwaste. Genetic engineering technology makes it efficient to look not for the enzymes (proteins) directly, but for the messenger RNA that codes for them—the mRNA that is being actively transcribed from the various microbial genomes present. To distinguish the appropriate genes, a comparison can be made between the RNA products from room temperature (mesophilic) and heated (thermophilic) cultures degrading rice straw. The actual technique is to collect the mRNA, use it to create its complimentary DNA, then sequence the cDNA, looking for genes that code for protein families likely to be involved in degrading lignocellulose. Continue reading

Seasonal Energy Storage using Bioenergy Production from Abandoned Croplands

by Christina Whalen

Producing electricity from biomass could potentially provide a back-up storage source for the intermittency that accompanies wind and solar energy production. Biomass electricity also provides a carbon-negative and efficient method for bioenergy production, which is important because of mandated restrictions on carbon emissions. Furthermore, biomass electricity also provides an efficient method for providing renewable transportation energy that could replace current liquid fuel approaches. Although bioenergy may be important in producing electricity and developing energy storage mechanisms, the economic and environmental effects are unclear. Studies have been conducted on abandoned agricultural lands to try to find a path of producing bioenergy that has reduced land impact. Campbell et al. estimate at county level, the magnitude and distribution of abandoned agricultural lands in the United States and attempt to quantify how much potential energy storage could be produced by the provided bioenergy. Continue reading

Biofuel from Waste Pig Carcasses

by Emil Morhardt

Disposal of waste animal carcasses is expensive, a nuisance, and more trouble than its worth, at least some of the time in China. Consider that in 2013 over 16,000 dead pigs were dumped into one of Shanghai’s primary drinking water sources (Zhang and Ji, 2024). If this waste product were more valuable, than nothing of the sort would happen. According to these authors the carcasses are, in fact, worth $56/tonne, when converted to biofuel. To prove their point, they used pig carcasses to make biodiesel and biogas. They cooked them in water in an autoclave (basically a pressure cooker) for six hours then extracted the pig fat from the water and converted it to biodiesel. The remaining water was inoculated with anaerobic bacteria from a pig farm digester, and allowed to form biogas, in this case 63% methanol. Continue reading

Algae Produce More Biofuel When Starved of Nitrogen, But Why?

by Emil Morhardt

Algae, like all organisms, require nitrogen to produce amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, and necessary for DNA synthesis. When deprived of nitrogen, some species, such as the micro alga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii studied by Valledor et al. (2014), produce more lipids (oil) than normal, presumably as a stored energy source to tide them over until nitrogen again becomes available. These lipids could become the major source of biofuel if their production can be sufficiently ramped up. Valledor et al. wanted a better understanding of what was going on at the molecular level in the nitrogen-deprived algae so that they could eventually modify the species genetically to enhance oil production. They limited nitrogen, and quantified the changes in the cellular mix of protein and metabolic products (the proteome and metabolome), looking at the levels of over 1,200 proteins, 845 of which were recognized as enzymes mediating 157 known cellular metabolic pathways, half of those known for this species. Then they reintroduced nitrogen and followed the process further. Continue reading

Cooling Buildings by Radiating Heat to Outer Space

by Emil Morhardt

Global warming is occurring because there is a slight imbalance in the amount of sunlight striking the earth over the amount of heat being lost. The only way the earth can shed heat is by radiating it into space, and the problem is that with the current concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, earth isn’t quite warm enough to radiate enough heat outward to stabilize the temperature. One way to address this imbalance, often considered in proposals for geoengineering, would be to decrease the amount of sunlight captured by the earth, say, for example, by reflecting some of it back into space so it doesn’t have a chance to be absorbed. Another way would be to increase the effectiveness of radiating heat into space, but I haven’t seen any proposals for the latter. Stanford University researchers, however, have just figured out how to accomplish both substantial reflection (97%) of solar radiation and an increase in radiation of heat to space in a single device, such that it can passively cool the air in it by at least 5°C (9°F), and theoretically by almost 20°C (36°F) if protected from convective warming (from the wind or breezes). Their prototype ejects about 40 Watts per square meter, which they figure could be improved to 100 Watts per square meter. This occurs in full sunlight with no energy expenditure whatever, and is the first time a device such as this has been implemented. It won’t solve the global warming problem directly, but once commercialized, it could go a long way toward decreasing the electricity consumption of buildings, much of which is needed only for cooling. Continue reading

Topographic and Soil Influences on Root Productivity of Three Bioenergy Cropping Systems

by Christina Whalen

Root production in plants plays a vital role in ecosystem carbon, nutrient, and water cycling, but researchers have not made much progress in further understanding this issue. It’s important to understand the impacts of environmental conditions on root production because it aids in the development of a sustainable bioeconomy. However, scaling root productivity estimates for cropping systems beyond plot scales poses a great challenge to researchers. Whether the bioenergy plants are annual or perennial influences the biogeochemical cycling and the ecological benefit of the systems. The foundation of the study is based on previous research of the response of root growth to variations in soil properties at multiple spatial scales. Roots of plants generally respond to different soil types by growing into nutrient patches, but this depends on the species and nutrient demands or limitations. Ontl et al. measured the response of root productivity of three different bioenergy cropping systems across a topographic gradient with variation in typical agroecosystem soil conditions. The hypothesis is that root dynamics would vary by cropping system and position of the landscape across a hillslope. If landscape alone was not a good enough indicator, they predicted that root productivity would be related to differences in soil. Continue reading

Biomass to Butanol via Engineered Yeast

by Emil Morhardt

Butanol is a four-carbon alcohol, next in size after 1-C methanol (wood alcohol), 2-C ethanol (drinking alcohol), and 3-C propanol (rubbing alcohol), so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that yeast ought to be able to synthesize it out of sugar. And it burns like the other alcohols mentioned, so it is potentially a usable liquid fuel that could be mixed with gasoline (like ethanol, to increase it’s non-fossil-fuel content), processed into other types of fuel, or used as commercial feedstock to make bio-based commercial plastics such as the PET (polyethylene terephthalate) used to make beverage bottles. Gevo, Inc., a company based in Englewood, Colorado but with it’s only [troubled] production facility in Luverne, Minnesota, seems to be gradually overcoming myriad difficulties in commercializing biomass-based isobutanol, and is beginning to license its proprietary genetically-modified yeast, which produce more isobutanol than conventional ethanol-producing commercial varieties. Gevo hopes that these yeast will feel right at home in existing ethanol-production facilities (such as the Luverne plant, where they didn’t do so well initially), and that all Gevo will have to do to get isobutanol out is to bolt on a module that separates the isobutanol from the water in which the yeast are living. Continue reading