News and Trends

Clariant has announced its plan to invest in a new full-scale cellulosic ethanol plant in Romania. When complete, the new facility will produce ethanol from agricultural residues using sunliquid technology.

The facility will be a flagship site to demonstrate the competitiveness and sustainability of the sunliquid technology at commercial scale. Earlier this year, Clariant also announced that it signed its first sunliquid technology license agreement with Enviral, Slovakia's largest bioethanol producer. The agreement will see Enviral use Clariant's technology to construct a full-scale commercial plant for cellulosic ethanol production in Slovakia.

The new plant is expected to deliver its first batch of products in 2020. It will be capable of processing approximately 250,000 tons of wheat straw and other cereal straw annually, which will be sourced from local farmers. By-products from the process will also be used for the generation of renewable energy with the goal of making the plant independent from fossil energy sources.

The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) has announced that it will build a new biofuel plant capable of producing 65 million liters of biofuel per year. The corporation decided on the biofuel plant as part of its commitment to ensure supply of petroleum products in Nigeria, as well as reduce its carbon emission and footprint.

NNPC would not be alone operating the plant as investors are expected to invest in it to create at least one million direct and indirect jobs aside from helping Nigeria reduce the volume of fuel imports. The plant would be located on a 15,000-hectare land space to be provided by the government. A special breed of cassava would be cultivated there to provide feedstock to the biofuel plant and animal feed production.

Research and Development

Giant clams are mollusks that can grow up to three-feet long and weigh hundreds of pounds. The surfaces of giant clams are iridescent, appearing to sparkle before the naked eye due to the lustrous cells on the surface of the clam that scatter bright sunlight among the thick layer of algae living inside the clam which then efficiently converts sunlight into fuel. Using what they learn from these giant clams, Alison Sweeney of the Penn State University hope to improve the process of producing biofuel.

Sweeney and colleague Shu Yang aimed to create a material that works similarly. They came up with a method of synthesizing nanoparticles and adding them to a mixture of water, oil, and surfactants to form microbeads mimicking the iridocytes, the cells in giant clams responsible for solar transformation. The mixture was then shaken at the right speed to control the droplet size, functioning very similarly to the clam cells.

The researchers' next step is to try to mimic the organization of the algae within the clams by getting them to grow in pillars. They then plan to combine their artificial iridocytes and the algae and measure the system to produce fuel at efficiencies at par with the giant clam. If successful, the method can be used for photosynthesis to enhance the efficiency of biofuel production.

Researchers from Washington State University, Oregon State University, and the University of Montana, have devised new methods to estimate the amount of forest residue that would be available for wood-based biorefineries to use. The resulting model could help determine sites for future biorefineries by providing a better understanding of the availability of forest residue in the region.

Wood-based biorefineries use forest residue to make isobutanol and then to convert it into jet fuel. Last November, Alaska Airlines used a blend of traditional  and wood-based fuel to fly from Seattle to Washington D.C. The wood-based fuel came from timber harvested in the Pacific Northwest, which has some of the most extensive forest cover in the nation and a high potential for wood-based biorefineries. Jet biofuels can reduce the environmental impact of aviation, empower rural economies and increase the nation's energy security.

Two methods were used to estimate feedstock availability. One was based on publicly available data and the other used a bioeconomic model to simulate forest growth and harvest through time, based on market demand for timber. The researchers also created models that simulate the harvest and the resulting forest residue at several locations across the country and then compared their simulations against data gathered by the University of Montana.

The researchers also plan to expand into federal lands and use data from there.

Enterobacter aerogenes is an anaerobe and is a widely studied strain due to its ability to use a variety of substrates, to produce hydrogen. However, the rate of hydrogen production has not been optimized. Zhejiang Sci-Tech University researcher Yan Wu evaluated strategies to improve hydrogen production in E. aerogenes, such as disruption of nuoCDE, and overexpression of NadE. This study also aims to clarify the effect of nuoCDE and NadE on hydrogen production.

NADH dehydrogenase activity was impaired by knocking out nuoCD or nuoCDE in E. aerogenes IAM1183 using the CRISPR-Cas9. The hydrogen yields from IAM1183-CD(∆nuoC/∆nuoD) and IAM1183-CDE (∆nuoC/∆nuoD/∆nuoE) increased significantly. The hydrogen produced via the NADH pathway also increased significantly in IAM1183-CDE, suggesting that nuoCDE plays an important role in regulating NADH concentration in E. aerogenes.

Meanwhile, overexpression of NadE (N) resulted in increased hydrogen yields of IAM1183/N, IAM1183-CD/N, and IAM1183-CDE/N, compared with the control IAM1183. The team then focused on IAM1183-CDE/N, which had the best hydrogen-producing traits, as a potential candidate for industry applications. Hydrogen production from IAM1183-CDE/N reached up to 1.95 times greater than that measured for the control IAM1183.

Knockout of nuoCD or nuoCDE and the overexpression of nadE in E. aerogenes resulted in a redistribution of metabolic flux and improved its hydrogen yield. This study also shows the success of CRISPR-Cas9 technology in editing genes in E. aerogenes.

Energy Crops and Feedstocks for Biofuels Production

Researchers from the Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee have developed a new, low-cost method for production of biofuels. The team led by Dr. Richa Katiyar investigated the use of crude glycerol, for cultivation of microalgae.

Microalgae are considered as a superior resource for production of biodiesel due to its ability to produce higher biomass and accumulate more lipids. However, the cost of feedstock and expense of operation are two crucial cost components in biodiesel production. The cost of feedstock used for biodiesel production accounts about 60-70% of the total cost of biodiesel production from microalgae. Moreover, the cost of the substrate used in microalgal-based biodiesel production also contributes to a huge part of the total cost.

In the new method developed by the researchers at IIT Roorkee, the team used crude glycerol, a low-cost organic carbon source and the main by-product of the biodiesel production process. Crude glycerol also works as a media feedstock for cultivation of microalgae, further minimizing the costs. Moreover, the research has shown that the use of crude glycerol enhanced the total lipid accumulation in the algal cells. This also increases waste minimization by using agro-waste and is able to produce enhanced quantity and quality of biodiesel.

Houman Fei, together with a team of researchers from Saint Mary's University in Canada, investigated the use of Azospirillum brasilense N8, Penicillium bilaii, Variovorax paradoxus JM63, and a seaweed extract from Ascophyllum nodosum (ANE) on the growth and nutrient content of three clones of hybrid poplars, Populus x cv. ‘Hill', ‘Okanese' and ‘Walker', and two cultivars of switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), wild type  and the ‘Cave-In-Rock' cultivar.

Researchers found that the biomass accumulation in the poplar clones ‘Okanese' and ‘Walker' was significantly enhanced in treatments with either A. brasilense N8 or P. bilaii. There is also evidence that ANE increased the second-year growth of the clone ‘Walker'. However, there were no significant effects on biomass accumulation in ‘Hill,' indicating a genotype-specific effect.

In switchgrass, an 18% increase in shoot biomass in cv. ‘Cave-In-Rock' inoculated with either A. brasilense N8 or P. bilaii were observed in greenhouse tests. However, there were no significant increases in the field trials. None of the treatments had significant effects on biomass accumulation in the WT switchgrass, hinting another genotype-specific effect.

These results indicate that application of certain beneficial soil microbes and plant-growth promoting substances such as ANE could be used in certain genotypes of biomass feedstock crops to improve sustainable production of these crops.

Policy and Regulation

India's cabinet has recently approved a 5% increase in the price of ethanol to ease pressure on suppliers of the fuel and cut crude imports. The price of ethanol was fixed at 40.85 rupees, or $0.6327 per liter, and would be in effect for a year starting on December 1, 2017.

India has been aiming to boost the use of ethanol as a cleaner fuel option in terms of carbon emissions. The government has also made it mandatory to blend 5% ethanol in petrol. However, oil companies find it difficult to source the sugar by-products cheaply due to its use in the heavily taxed liquor industry. Furthermore, sugar mills prefer to sell to higher-paying spirit distilleries, where they get a better and quicker deal.

Indian millers use molasses, a by-product of sugar-making, to produce ethanol, so a rise in sugar production will also boost ethanol output.