Environment Forum

Could “putting the cow inside the plant” make a new biofuel?

SWITZERLAND/The Next Big Thing in biofuel might involve genetically engineered plants that digest themselves, making it cheaper to turn them into fuel. That’s one of the new ideas that Arun Majumdar finds fascinating. As the head of the U.S. Energy Department’s ARPA-E – the path-breaking agency that aims come up with efficient, green energy solutions — Majumdar said this concept is one of a few dozen that are in the development stage now.

Majumdar let his enthusiasm show as he described this project at the Reuters Global Climate and Alternative Energy Summit on Thursday. He was talking about a project in its early stages at Massachusetts-based Agrivida.

“If you look at biofuels, cellulosic biofuels  …  you take agricultural waste, you separate out … the cellulose, then you throw a bunch of enzymes at them. And these enzymes are there in the cow’s gut, or termites, that break down this long chain polymer, this cellulose, into small bits and pieces called sugar molecules. And then you take those sugar molecules and feed them into another bug and then you produce gasoline,” he said.

The costly part of this process, Majumdar said, is growing these enzymes in a bio-reactor instead of in a cow.

“What this company’s doing is a very interesting idea. They take the gene sequences that produce enzymes and put them in the plant itself, so when the plant grows, it produces the enzymes free of cost.” But isn’t there a risk that the plants wouldn’t grow, since they would carry enzymes that would make the plants self-digesting? One possible solution is what this start-up company is trying: make the enzymes inactive, and activate them later by changing temperature, humidity or acidity.

Scottish scientists brew up whisky biofuel

Professor Martin Tangey, Director of Edinburgh Napier University Biofuel Research Centre, holds a glass of whisky during a media viewing in Edinburgh, Scotland August 17, 2010. The University, which has filed a patent for a new super butanol biofuel made from whiskey by-products, 'pot ale' - a liquid taken from the copper stills, and 'draff' which is the spent grain, claims the bio-fuel gives 30 percent more output power than ethanol. REUTERS/David Moir

Scientists in Scotland have unveiled a new biofuel made from whisky byproducts that they say can power ordinary cars more efficiently than ethanol.

A research team from Edinburgh’s Napier University spent two years creating the biofuel butanol that can be used in gas tanks either as a stand-alone fuel or blended with petrol or diesel, they announced Tuesday. It is derived from distillation byproducts pot ale (liquid from copper stills) and draff (the spent grains).

Is this the answer for critics of corn-based, energy-intensive ethanol?

“While some energy companies are growing crops specifically to generate biofuel, we are investigating excess materials such as whisky by-products to develop them,” Professor Martin Tangey, director of Napier’s Biofuel Research Center told the Financial Times.

from Global News Journal:

Biofuels’ green credentials called into question

Biofuels were once seen as the perfect way to make transport carbon-free, but a series of EU studies are throwing increasing doubt on the green credentials of the alternative fuel.

The latest to be released gave a preliminary assessment that biodiesel from soybeans could create four times more climate-warming emissions than conventional diesel.

The European Commission has not helped itself by keeping many of the studies hidden -- the most recent being an annex cut from a published report that was only released after Reuters and several NGOs used transparency laws to gain access.

Will biofuel from algae look like Big Oil or Big Agriculture?

Hundreds of companies and laboratories are racing to find an economical way to make “green crude” from algae. The biofuel industry is grappling with a series of hurdles, which players readily recognized at a summit this week in San Diego and we cover in this story.

One question asked by one of the sector’s early leaders is will biofuel from algae look like Big Oil or Big Agriculture.

Steve Mayfield, who directs a new center for algae biotechnology at the University of California, San Diego, believes it should be more like agriculture.

Green Portfolio: Pacific Ethanol plummets

A gas station worker fills a car's tank with ethanol in Rio de Janeiro April 30, 2008. REUTERS/Sergio Moraes

Shares in Pacific Ethanol lost almost half their value in morning trading after the biggest West Coast-based producer and marketer of ethanol announced that it had put its production facilities in California, Oregon and Idaho into Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

The company said on May 12 that it would likely need to file for bankruptcy if it was not able to restructure its debt.

A string of energy firms have filed for Chapter 11 recently, suffering from weak U.S. demand that has depressed prices and margins. VeraSun Energy, once the largest publicly listed U.S. ethanol maker, filed for bankruptcy last year.

Fessing up to water issues – and biofuel

Water scarcity is a growing risk for businesses and investors and companies should offer more transparency regarding their exposure to water shortages and other climate change concerns, according to investor group Ceres.

“There are still big challenges out there… but disclosure is dismal,” said Brooke Barton, manager for corporate accountability at Ceres, a Boston-based public interest coalition, which holds a conference on green investing in San Francisco this week.

Ceres directs a network of more than 75 institutional investors and financial firms from the U.S. and Europe managing over $7 trillion in assets focused on climate issues.

  •