News and Trends

Spain has approved a mandate for biofuels in its transportation sector with a target blending of at least 8.5 percent with gasoline and diesel by 2020.

According to the Ministry of Industry, Energy and Tourism, the mandatory minimum target will begin at 4.3 percent next year and slowly scaling up to the target by the end of the decade. Spain's goal is to get 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020 and has previously stated that 10 percent of its transport energy should be from clean sources.

Spain has set a limit of 7 percent on the use of such fuels because of concerns they compete with demand for food. The government plans to establish a target for inedible crop-derived biofuel or second-generation biofuels by 2017.

Scania Malaysia and Agensi Inovasi Malaysia (AIM) are set to collaborate in exploring viable commercial opportunities for biofuels from municipal waste in Malaysia in line with the National Biomass Strategy 2020 (NBS 2020).

A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed in November between Scania and AIM, Through this MoU Scania accelerates the creation of high-value products and jobs through converting waste to wealth in Malaysia. Scania and AIM conducted a feasibility study on the commercial opportunities of biofuels from municipal waste in Malaysia. The study includes identification of possible project locations, price and market demand projections and economic and operational feasibility.

Malaysia believes biofuels can improve local economies, help create local job opportunities and support industrial development. Malaysia aims to be at the forefront of the development of new biomass-based industries, ultimately contributing towards high-value job creation.

In Washington state, Alaska Airlines will conduct a demonstration flight in 2016 using 1,000 gallons of jet fuel made from forest scraps.

The aviation biofuel was derived from twigs and small branches. These forest residuals were provided by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) and the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe via the Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance Tribal Partnership Program (NARA TPP). CSKT and Muckleshoot are among many groups of Native American forest landowners in the Pacific Northwest.

Native Americans are physically and spiritually tied to the lands and have a holistic land management approach that serves both the present and future. A major driver of tribal participation in TPP has been the opportunity to convert forest residuals into a useful product that would not further contribute to smoke and pollution.

TPP also engages students from tribal colleges in bioenergy research, providing them with relevant land management skills that they can apply on their home reservations.

Research and Development

Ethanol is commonly-used as an additive in engine fuel. However, since ethanol is an oxygenated fuel, its use results in a lower energy output as well as damages to engines. Butanol is a much better additive to gasoline as it yields more energy, is less volatile, and doesn't cause damage to engines.

A research team, led by William Jones of the University of Rochester, developed a series of reactions that results in the selective conversion of ethanol to butanol, without producing unwanted by-products. They were also able to increase the amount of butanol converted from ethanol over currently used methods.

A method of converting the ethanol is the three-step Guerbet reaction. However, it also creates unwanted molecules. The team modified the Guerbet reaction by using iridium as the catalyst in the first step and nickel or copper hydroxide in the second step. By modifying their catalysts, no undesirable by-products were produced. The process currently terminates after one day because one or more of the catalysts has broken down.

Lime pretreatments have emerged as effective methods in preparing the lignocellulosic biomass for bioconversion. These pretreatments can be performed under mild temperature and pressure conditions, resulting in less sugar degradation. The team of Maira Prearo Grimaldi of Sao Paolo State University in Brazil evaluated the effect of these pretreatments on the efficiency of enzymatic hydrolysis of raw sugarcane bagasse.

The highest cellulose hydrolysis rate was obtained for raw sugarcane bagasse pretreated with lime for 60 min at 120C compared with hydrothermally pretreated bagasse under the same conditions. Analysis of pretreated bagasse structure revealed that lime pretreatment damaged the bagasse fibers, including cell walls, exposing the cellulose-rich areas to enzymatic action.

Results showed that lime pretreatment is effective in improving enzymatic digestibility of raw sugarcane bagasse. It was also demonstrated that this pretreatment caused alterations in the structure and composition of raw bagasse resulting in an increase of cellulose hydrolysis rate. The use of raw sugarcane bagasse pretreated with lime may represent a cost reduction in ethanol production.

Microalgae are promising alternative energy sources since they consume CO2 and accumulate lipids that can be used as biofuel. Nannochloropsis is a particularly promising microalga due to its high growth rate and lipid content. Basic helix-loop-helix (bHLH) transcription factors, which regulate growth, development, and stress responses in plants and animals, have been identified in microalgae.

The research team of Nam Kyu Kang from Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology identified two bHLH TFs in the genome of N.salina CCMP1776, NsbHLH1, and NsbHLH2, and characterized their functions that may be involved in growth and nutrient uptake.

NsbHLH2 overexpressing transgenics of N. salina CCMP1776 were developed. Overexpression of NsbHLH2 led to increased growth rate in the early growth period, and higher nutrient uptake than wild types. These enhanced growth and nutrient uptake resulted in increased productivities of biomass and fatty acid methyl ester, which can be used for biofuel production.

Based on the results, researchers claim that NsbHLH2 can be employed for the industrial production of biodiesel from N. salina.

Biofuels Processing

In the U.S., Picatinny engineers have partnered with private industry to harness the photosynthetic ability of algae to develop a way to recycle M6 artillery round propellant and create biofuel.

Propellant is the chemical in the M6 artillery round that ignites and propels the round out of the howitzer tube. Currently, it is disposed via incineration, which produces carbon dioxide. Eliminating the release of carbon dioxide during destruction of propellant helps the Army reduce its carbon footprint.

The algae-based demilitarization method would allow the U.S. Army to recycle nitrogen, which is present in all propellants and explosives. The nitrogen from propellant will be extracted through hydrolysis and will be used to grow algae in a reactor. The algae will then produce ethanol as well as an oil product which can be refined into biodiesel. By creating biofuels, the process will allow the Army to create a source of revenue from a waste-stream.

The Picatinny team is working with the industrial biotechnology company Algenol Biotech LLC, which has a patented algae technology for the production of ethanol and other biofuels.

Algal biomass, a potential feedstock for biofuel production, has cell wall structures that differ from terrestrial biomass. The existing methods for processing algae are limited to conventional pretreatments for terrestrial biomass.

A team led by Le Gao of the Chinese Academy of Sciences investigated a novel hydroxyl radical-aided approach for pretreating algal biomass. In this process, hydroxyl radicals were used in combination with heating to alter the crystalline structure and hydrogen bonds of cellulose in the algal biomass. FeSO4 and H2O2 were also used to initiate the formation of hydroxyl radicals. This method released trapped polysaccharides in algal cell walls and converts them into fermentable sugars. The optimal pretreatment conditions were also identified using a central composite design.

The method increased the amount of glucose released from the algal biomass, enhancing algal biomass digestibility. The new pretreatment requires low concentration of chemical solvents and milder temperature conditions, which can prevent the toxic and corrosive effects. This could be useful for biochemical conversion of algal biomass to fuels and chemicals.