News and Trends

Scientists from the SCMS Institute of Bioscience and Biotechnology Research and Development and the SCMS School of Engineering and Technology in Kochi, India have approached the union government to commercialize their biofuel from coconut oil. They have used the biofuels to run their diesel pick-up truck for the past year.

"We purchased this brand new vehicle a year back. By now, it has done 20,000 km and has proved beyond doubt that coconut oil can replace diesel. We can provide this product at  0.40 Rupees a litre," said C. Mohankumar, the head of a team of six scientists. "The emission levels are lower than other forms of biodiesel, making it a very eco-friendly product too," he added.

They also mentioned five other by-products of their biofuels, including husk, coconut shells, coconut water, glycerol and "cake" which can be used as cattle feed. The study was published in the December 2014 issue of the journal ‘Fuel'.

Procter & Gamble and Constellation have announced their collaboration in developing a 50 MW biomass plant to help run one of P&G's largest US facilities. The plant will help move the company towards its goal of getting 30 percent of its total energy from renewable sources.

Constellation will build, own and operate the $200 million plant, which will supply steam to P&G's paper manufacturing facility in Georgia and generate electricity for the local utility, Georgia Power. Construction has already begun on site. The plant is scheduled to begin commercial operation in June 2017. Construction is expected to create up to 500 new jobs over the next two years.

The plant's fuel supply will come from biomass including discarded tree tops, limbs, branches and scrap wood from local forestry operations, crop residuals, such as pecan shells and peanut hulls, and mill waste, such as sawdust.

The National Biofuels Board (NBB) has tapped the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB) to evaluate the impact of increasing the alternative-fuel content of the biodiesel blend to 5 percent.

"The Board approved the terms of reference for the study being conducted by UPLB to look into the impact of B5 (5% biodiesel blend)," said Energy Undersecretary Zenaida Y. Monsada. "We want to consider the impact on the agriculture sector, specifically the coconut industry. We want to ensure if the farmers will really benefit from this," she explained. The Agriculture department has also been pushing the increased blend to assist the coconut industry.

The government is optimistic that it can implement the increased blend this year. Ms. Monsada also assured that supply concerns are not an issue since the coconut produced in the country is enough to accommodate the higher blend. The coconut oil is milled before converted into coconut methyl ester (CME), which is the country's version of biodiesel.

Research and Development

Bark and bark-containing residues have the potential as raw material for ethanol production due to their abundance and low cost. However, the properties and chemical composition of bark may influence the conversion process. Balázs Frankó of Lund University in Sweden assessed the effect of bark on the overall bioconversion in separate hydrolysis and fermentation (SHF) and simultaneous saccharification and fermentation (SSF).

Mixtures of different proportions of spruce bark and wood chips were subjected to SO2-catalyzed steam pretreatment at 210 °C for five minutes. The highest final ethanol concentration was recorded in the samples without bark and decreased significantly with increasing proportions of bark in both processes. Moreover, the ethanol yield also decreased as the fraction of bark also increased.

Results show that it is more difficult to hydrolyze spruce bark than wood chips. Bark had an adverse effect on the whole bioconversion process due to its lower enzymatic hydrolyzability.

The ability of Clostridium thermocellum to consume cellulose and produce ethanol makes it a leading candidate for a consolidated bioprocessing (CBP) biofuel production. However, it also produces substances, such as H2, that compete with ethanol production for carbon and electrons. Elimination of H2 production could redirect carbon towards ethanol production.

H2 production in C. thermocellum is encoded by four hydrogenases. Adam M. Guss of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and his team, targeted the hydG gene, involved in converting the [FeFe] hydrogenase apoenzymes into holoenzymes. Further deletion of the ech gene resulted in a mutant that functionally lacks all four hydrogenases. H2 production in the resulting transgenics without both hydG and ech was undetectable, and the ethanol yield nearly doubled.

The significant increase in ethanol production suggests that targeting protein post-translational modification is a promising new technique for simultaneous inactivation of multiple enzymes.

Harvard University's Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard Medical School and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University have developed a way to produce isopropanol using what they call a "bionic leaf".

The "bionic leaf" uses solar power to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Then, the hydrogen is fed to a bacterium called Ralstonia eutropha. An enzyme takes the hydrogen back to protons and electrons and combines them with carbon dioxide to replicate. Next, new pathways in the bacterium are metabolically engineered to make isopropanol. The artificial leaf depends on catalysts made from materials that are inexpensive and readily accessible.

"This is a proof of concept that you can have a way of harvesting solar energy and storing it in the form of a liquid fuel," said Pamela Silver, a Core Faculty at the Wyss Institute.

The team's next challenge is to increase the bionic leaf's ability to translate solar energy to biomass by optimizing the catalyst and the bacteria. Their findings are published in PNAS.

Energy Crops and Feedstocks for Biofuels Production

Corn (Zea mays L.) stover and cobs left after harvest can serve as feedstock for cellulosic ethanol production. Aaron J. Sindelar of the USDA Agricultural Research Service conducted field trials at two locations in Minnesota over three years to determine the effect of tillage system (chisel tillage, strip-tillage, and no-tillage) and fertilizer N rate on corn cellulosic yield composition and ethanol yield.

Biomass yield, C and N concentrations and content, and potential ethanol yield of corn stover increased with increasing fertilizer N rate. However, the stover's parameters were less in no tillage compared the other tillage systems. All the parameters for cob also increased with fertilizer N rate, however, it was not as high as that for stover. Tillage system did not influence any parameter of cobs.

These show that biomass and ethanol production of stover and cobs are affected by N and tillage system. Cobs may be a more viable feedstock option than stover since it was less sensitive to management.

Louisiana State University researchers continue to evaluate energycane varieties in Louisiana as a possible biofuel feedstock for producers to grow.

Energycane is a cross between sugarcane and its wild relatives grown for its high fiber or biomass rather than sugar content. Researchers at the USDA-Agricultural Research Service Sugarcane Research Unit in Louisiana are breeding sugarcane with ancestral species of sugarcane to produce a number of different energycane varieties that can be grown in colder climates.

"The plants have survived the cold temperatures common during north Louisiana winters. They are yielding well and don't appear to be suffering from any damages caused by frigid temperatures," said Collins Kimbeng, an LSU AgCenter plant breeder.

"Creating an energycane variety that is cold-tolerant will extend the range of cultivation and allow for producers outside the traditional cane growing areas to produce energycane crops," Kimbeng added.

In addition to creating new varieties of cane, researchers also are studying management practices involved with growing energycane in colder climates.