News and Trends

The Japanese company Euglena is looking to commercialize microalgae jetfuel by 2020. The company is arranging equity tie ups with five companies in a bid to obtain the finances to accelerate their efforts.

Euglena's biojet fuel facility is scheduled to come into operation in 2019, with plans to supply fuel for buses and planes in 2020. The company hopes to begin mass production of the fuel at a new factory several years after that.

Among the companies is the agricultural machinery producer Kobashi Kogyo, which will provide 500 million yen while Chiyoda will invest 300 million yen. The other three, including Isuzu Motors and Itochu Enex, will put up 100 million yen each.

In 2016, the company reported sales of 11.1 billion yen, mostly from cosmetic and health products. The new biojet fuel business will significantly boost the income of the company to 100 billion yen by 2030.

A new EU research project, called To-Syn-Fuel, aims to build up, operate and demonstrate the production of synthetic fuels and green hydrogen from waste biomass, including sewage sludge.

The project is funded by Horizon 2020, the EU's new research and innovation program. This comes in the wake of the European Commission's proposed Renewable Energy Directive for the post 2020 period, dubbed RED II. To-Syn-Fuel claims their project has the potential to meet the market's need for biofuels produced from sustainable feedstock.

Fraunhofer UMSICHT's new TCR Technology could provide a solution to the EU's needs, producing liquid fuels from waste biomass which can be used to replace fossil fuels. These fuels comply with European standards for gasoline and diesel EN228 and EN590. The TCR technology converts all kinds of residual biomass into three main products: H2-rich synthesis gas, biochar and liquid bio-oil.

Research and Development

A designer and a biofuels scientist from the Netherlands have collaborated to build a motorcycle powered by algae.

Peter Mooij, a scientist from Delft University of Technology, has developed a method to grow algae in salt water for oil production. Mooij's friend, Ritsert Mans, then designed a motorcycle to be powered by the biofuel.

The two friends revealed that the fact that algae oil could be produced in a natural way without genetic manipulation was what inspired them to develop the motorcycle. This interest in the power of nature also went beyond the fuel of the motorbike, as the frames and springs of the bike were made from wood, used cork for the dampeners, and hemp for reinforcement.

The oil yield from the method the pair developed can be a lot cheaper than the oil already available because it is easier to scale, does not require fresh water and the use of naturally evolved algae.

Mans and Mooij's algae powered motorcycle has had its first test on a beach in the Netherlands.

The yeast Yarrowia lipolytica is not capable of growing on cellulose. The team of Zhong-peng Guo from Université de Toulouse in France identified and overexpressed two endogenous β-glucosidases in Y. lipolytica, enabling the yeast to use cello-oligosaccharides as a carbon source for growth.

Initially, different essential enzyme components of a cellulase cocktail were individually expressed in Y. lipolytica in order to establish the viability of the strategy. The team chose four enzymes, namely Trichoderma reesei endoglucanase I (TrEG I) and II (TrEG II) and CBH II (TrCBH II), as well as the CBH I from Neurospora crassa (NcCBH I) since they were successfully expressed in Y. lipolytica and were relatively active components.

Finally, the team coexpressed the four enzymes along with the described Y. lipolytica β-glucosidases. This resulted in an engineered Y. lipolytica strain that was able to grow both on model cellulose substrates and on industrial cellulose pulp. This engineered yeast platform could be the foundation for building a fully cellulolytic Y. lipolytica for use in consolidated bioprocessing of cellulose.

Energy Crops and Feedstocks for Biofuels Production

Bamboo (Phyllostachys pubescens) has become a feedstock of interest for future energy production due to its high productivity and short rotation time. The growth age of biomass is a vital factor affecting the efficiency of conversion and pretreatment for biofuel production. Seung Gon Wi from Chonnam National University in South Korea used a compositional assay to compare a bamboo of two different growth ages.

In young-age (2-month-old) bamboo, the pattern of tissue organization was similar to that of old-age (3-year-old) bamboo, indicating that the former had reached its full height. However, there were significant differences between young-age and old-age bamboo in terms of chemical composition.

For young-age bamboo, the lignin contents were 14.6–18.3%, whereas those of old-age bamboo were considerably higher, ranging from 25.4 to 27.1%. The yield of total sugars from enzymatic hydrolysis of young-age bamboo was approximately eight times higher than from old-age bamboo. Ethanol production was also higher in 2-month old than in 3-year old from initial raw biomass.

These data show that the production of total sugar from raw material was high in young bamboo with low lignin content. With respect to short-rotation biomass, bamboo culm harvested after termination of height growth is more appropriate for use as a biomass.

Biofuels Processing

Spent coffee grounds, which have a high calorific value, offer a good low-cost alternative feedstock. However, most used coffee grounds are currently just dumped. In 2014, more than 9 million tons of spent coffee grounds were discarded. Researchers at Lancaster University found a way to significantly improve the efficiency of the process of using spent coffee grounds for biofuel production.

Traditionally, manufacturers mix spent coffee grounds with hexane and cook the mixture at 60°C for between 1-2 hours. The hexane is then evaporated, leaving behind the oils. Methanol and a catalyst is then added to make biodiesel, and a glycerol by-product. The research team has consolidated the existing multi-stage process into one step, in-situ transesterification, which combines extraction of the oils from the spent coffee grounds and the conversion of it into biodiesel.

Lancaster University researchers, led by Dr. Vesna Najdanovic-Visak, combined the processes by using just methanol and a catalyst in only 10 minutes, a significant reduction in time needed and associated energy costs. The process can potentially produce 720,000 tons of biodiesel each year from spent coffee grounds.

Steam explosion pretreatment is the most common pretreatment method in commercial biorefineries. However, it is not effective for the extremely high recalcitrance of softwood to chemical conversion. Recent studies, though, show that addition of a carbocation scavenger, like 2-naphthol, can enhance the enzymatic digestibility of softwood. ETH Zurich researchers studied the potential of this approach in a larger steam explosion pilot plant.

The addition of 2-naphthol to the steam explosion pretreatment of spruce wood chips significantly enhanced the enzymatic cellulose digestibility. Different ways of adding the solid 2-naphthol to steam pretreatment were also tested. Researchers found that mixing 2-naphthol with the biomass before pretreatment could enhance digestibility by up to 55%.

Impregnation of the biomass with 2-naphthol was found to be more effective. Acetone and ethanol were tested to dissolve 2-naphthol and impregnate the biomass. The solvents were then removed by evaporation before the pretreatment. The impregnation with both solvents enhanced digestibility by more than 100%.

This is the first study that shows that a carbocation scavenger in steam pretreatment can enhance the enzymatic digestibility of lignocellulosic biomass. This opens up new possibilities for overcoming the high softwood recalcitrance.

Policy and Regulation

Gevo Inc. recently announced that a bill in Arizona that will let gas stations sell isobutanol-blended gasoline for vehicles, enabling fuels with renewable content for drivers.

Bill HB 2368 permits isobutanol to be used as an oxygenate in gasoline for vehicles in Arizona and will take effect in August 2017. Isobutanol is an ideal renewable gasoline blend because of its high energy content, high octane, low water solubility, and low volatility.

While the law authorizes the use of isobutanol-blended gasoline for on-road vehicles, isobutanol is already being sold in Arizona only for off-road applications such as boating, ATVs, motorcycles, and landscape equipment.