News and Trends

A bio-based process to create crude oil was developed by the Chemelot Institute for Science & Technology in the Netherlands. The thermo-catalytic chemical process invented at the Eindhoven University of Technology, aims to create crude oil from lignin and could soon be ready for commercialization.

Lignin is a by-product in the production of second-generation bioethanol. It is commonly burned and then used as an energy source in the same biorefinery. However, if converted into Crude lignin oil (CLO) and used as an alternative for more expensive bunker oil, the economic value of lignin increases significantly.

Crude lignin oil (CLO) will be used as a fuel for ships and boats. It is much more sustainable and environmentally friendly than bunker fuels that contain high levels of sulfur. Alternatively, CLO, just like fossil crude oil, can be converted into other valuable products such as octane-boosting additives for gasoline, as well as phenol and various polymer resins.

Work is still ongoing to fine-tune the CLO refining process to further improve the efficiency and reduce the costs. Researchers are also currently investigating variables like process temperatures, solvent concentration, and catalyst concentrations.

A multi-purpose pilot plant is scheduled to be in operation in 2018.

Biofuel created from waste coffee grounds is helping to power some of London's buses.

The technology firm Bio-bean has been producing biofuels from coffee waste. Oil extracted from the collected used coffee grounds in Bio-bean's factory is being processed and is blended into a B20 biofuel. The firm believes it would take just over 2.55 million cups of coffee to create enough biofuel to run a London bus for a year, once the oil has been blended with diesel.

Transport for London, the local government body responsible for the transport system in the British capital, has turned to biofuels to reduce the city's transport emissions. Biofuels made from waste products such as cooking oil and tallow from meat processing are already being used in many of the capital's buses.

Qantas announced that it will operate the world's first biofuel flight between the United States and Australia. This is largely due to their new partnership deal.

Qantas has recently signed a partnership with Agrisoma Biosciences, the Canadian based agricultural-technology, which developed the Brassica carinata seed, a non-food, industrial type of mustard. The two organizations will also work with Australian farmers to grow the country's first commercial aviation biofuel seed crop by 2020.

Carinata produces a high quality oil which is ideal for the production of aviation biofuel, bio-jet for aircraft, and biodiesel for airport vehicles. Carinita also requires no specialized production or processing techniques.

Qantas International CEO, Alison Webster said the historic flight and the partnership is the first step in developing an aviation biofuel supply in Australia. Their work with Agrisoma will enable Australian farmers to start growing the seeds for the country's biofuel needs of the future. The trans-Pacific biofuel flight is deemed as a demonstration of what they can achieve with locally produced plants.

Research and Development

Recent studies from the United Nations have revealed that about one-third of all food products produced for human consumption are discarded. The total volume of discarded products is 1.3 billion tons per year. With this much waste, a way to utilize discarded food products will be extremely important.

One approach is converting food waste into biofuel, which would carry both environmental and energy benefits. However, these approaches don't solve the food disposal issue since only a part of the waste biomasses is converted to fuel and the leftovers are still disposed.

Scientists from Skoltech and the Russian Academy of Sciences' Joint Institute for High Temperatures have recently proposed converting food waste into biofuel via hydrothermal liquefaction, a process used to turn wet biomass into oil. This method makes it possible to produce biofuel directly from wet biomass. The research team experimented with various types of food waste, including parmesan cheese, ham and apples. They then analyzed the molecular composition of the biofuel produced.

The team found that meat and cheese were converted into a water-soluble fraction and a water-insoluble oil. Apples were only converted into a water-soluble fraction. The composition of the biofuel produced from the meat and cheese was very diverse and was more like tar than oil. Knowledge of the composition of products obtained from hydrothermal liquefaction will allow scientists to develop optimal methods of processing to produce fuel suitable for powering cars.

A team of researchers from the University of Minnesota Duluth has developed the "instant coal", an energy-dense biofuel made from wood and agricultural waste from the Natural Resources Research Institute's (NRRI) Renewable Energy Lab.

The new biofuel's characteristics were comparable with coal. In laboratory tests, the fossil coal yielded 8,000 to 9,500 British thermal units or BTUs per pound, while briquettes of the biofuel yielded 10,000 BTUs per pound. A second biofuel, called "energy mud," packed even more energy per pound.

These "instant coal" briquettes could help salvage energy from trees killed by the emerald ash borer, as well as biomass from invasive plants and other excess plant material. The team uses a process similar to coffee roasting in which raw biomass is dried, heated in a low-oxygen atmosphere, and compressed. To make energy mud, the researchers used a process similar to pressure-cooking that requires no drying.

While more research is needed to determine the new fuel's future impact, it can be foreseen that these briquettes will reduce the emission of carbon dioxide and impurities in coal-fired powered plants.

A wide variety of molecules which can be used as biofuels or biofuel precursors are produced using microbial enzymes. However, a common challenge in the industrial implementation of enzyme catalysis for biofuel production is the unavailability of a comprehensive biofuel enzyme resource, low efficiency of known enzymes, and limited availability of enzymes which function under extreme conditions.

Hence, the team of Nikhil Chaudhary from Indian Institute of Science Education and Research has developed a comprehensive database of known enzymes with proven or potential applications in biofuel production. They did this through text mining of PubMed abstracts and other publicly available information. A total of 131 enzymes with roles in biofuel production were identified and classified into six enzyme classes and four broad application categories.

A prediction tool ‘Benz' was also developed to identify and classify novel homologues of the known biofuel enzyme sequences from sequenced genomes and metagenomes. Using the Benz tool, 153,754 novel homologues of biofuel enzymes were identified from 23 diverse metagenomic sources. The database and the Benz tool is publicly available.

Energy Crops and Feedstocks for Biofuels Production

The date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) has been providing food, leaves used to make baskets, and seeds that are burnt to produce charcoal to the people of UAE. Oils from date pits, the stones inside the dates, have gone into soap and cosmetics, while the seeds have been used as feed. However, date pits are still often considered waste.

Date pits contain small quantities of oil than some oil crops. But the fact that it comes from a waste product could make it special. Scientists at UAE University in Al Ain, the Masdar Institute in Abu Dhabi and Heriot-Watt University Dubai Campus are now looking at date pits as a source of biodiesel. Researchers extracted oil from the Khalas date variety, yielding up to 11.7% relative to its weight.

The quality of the extracted oil was found to be similar to vegetable oils used to create biodiesel, and it can be converted into biodiesel with an efficiency of about 90%. The wide availability of date pits also suggests that it is a potentially suitable source of biodiesel. The scientists also believe that using date palm pits as sources of biodiesel would help the UAE to play its part towards sustainable fuels.

Researchers will now be refining methods for extracting oil and look further into what gases are produced.

Poplar trees are one of the best picks as biofuel feedstock due to their abundance, fast-growth, adaptability and their wood can be transformed into substances used in biofuel and high-value chemicals. However, a commercial-scale processing plant for poplars has yet to be achieved. This is mainly because production costs still are not competitive.

 A University of Washington team is trying to make poplar a viable competitor by testing the production of younger poplar trees that could be harvested more frequently, after only two or three years, instead of the usual 10- to 20-year cycle. These trees are planted closer together and cut in such a way that more branches sprout up from the stump after each harvest, using the same root systems for up to 20 years. This method is called "coppicing," and the trees are known as poplar coppice.

The UW team first tested the conversion of the entire young poplar trees into sugar using high temperature, pressure and enzymes to break down the wood into sugar. From there, it is possible to make ethanol, acetic acid, lactic acid and other valuable chemicals by fermenting the sugar. These results proved that poplar coppice can be a good option to meet the cheap, high-volume criteria of biofuel feedstock.

The researchers then concluded that coppice poplar is likely the best balance of cost and reliability for growers to produce biofuel.