News and Trends

Scientists from the Centre for Microbial Ecology and Technology (CMET) in Ghent University in Belgium have recently developed a process that can turn grass into fuel. During his PhD research at Ghent University, Way Cern Khor investigated methods that can disintegrate and convert grass into fuel.

In the process, grass is first pretreated to increase its biodegradability. Enriched bacteria are then used to convert the sugars in the grass into lactic acid. The produced lactic acid can serve as an intermediate chemical to produce other compounds such as biodegradable plastics (PLA), or biofuels. In the process, however, lactic acid is converted into caproic acid which was further converted into products such as decane, which can be used as fuel for aviation.

While the approach is revolutionary, currently, the amount of biofuel that can be made from grass in the laboratory is limited to a few drops. However, results indicate that the overall conversion can be highly efficient.

In Florida, state legislators are aiming to ease restrictions on industrial hemp research. Florida State Senate said that the House Bill 1217, which authorizes specified universities in state to engage in industrial hemp research projects, has been pending review in the past week.

Representative Ralph Massullo said industrial hemp is a viable crop for rural areas. Also stated in the proposed law is that universities could study how Florida's climate affects the plant and the market information  for the byproducts. Some Floridians believe industrial hemp could become the next agricultural powerhouse.

Industrial hemp has absolutely no recreational applications compared to its relative. It only has medical and industrial applications. Bruce Perlowin, CEO of Hemp, Inc. stated that Florida has been cautious about hemp since the government banned it alongside marijuana. Hence, Hemp, Inc continuously educates the public on the difference between hemp and marijuana.

Research and Development

Researchers at Washington State University Tri-Cities and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have discovered the molecular structure of cellulose, which could lead to cheaper and more efficient ways to make bioproducts.

The researchers discovered differences between the surface layers and the crystalline core of cellulose using Total Internal Reflection Sum Frequency Generation Vibrational Spectroscopy (TIR-SFG-VS) and conventional SFG-VS. The discovery of this non-uniformity in the structure of cellulose can be a key to improve the efficiency of industrial application of cellulose. It may also lead to modification of the current procedures for biofuel production and pretreatment.

Understanding the cellulosic biomass recalcitrance at the molecular level is a vital step towards overcoming the barrier to production of cost-competitive cellulosic biofuels. While plant cell walls are complex, recent advances in analytical chemistry and genomics have enhanced understanding of cellulosic biomass recalcitrance.

Waste cooking oil (WCO) can serve as a feedstock for producing biodiesel, which can address food security, waste disposal, and reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. China Agricultural University researchers evaluated restaurant waste oil (RWO) availability in China and conducted life cycle analysis (LCA) of GHG and particulate matter emissions of RWO-based biodiesel.

The results showed that the amount of RWO in China varies between 0.56 and 1.67 million tons in 2013 and between 0.54 and 1.63 million tons in 2014. The life cycle analysis estimated a reduction of GHG and particulate matter emissions through the use of RWO-based biodiesel by 90% and 46%, respectively, per 100 km driven by busses in 2014.

With the total amount of RWO available in 2014 in China, the researchers estimate that the potential decrease in annual GHG emission as a result of the use of RWO-based biodiesel ranges from 1.5 - 4.5M tons of GHG and 16.9 - 50.8 tons of particulate matter.

A team of researchers from the University of Wisconsin–Madison has found a way to produce a compound used in plastic production from plant biomass. They estimate that this could lower the cost of ethanol produced from plant material.

The researchers report a new chemical pathway used to produce 1,5-pentanediol, a plastic precursor primarily used to make polyurethanes and polyester plastics. The team's approach is much cheaper than a previous method, and is the first economically-viable way of producing 1,5-pentanediol from biomass.  Plant biomass is typically about 40 percent oxygen by weight, while petroleum oil is less than 0.1 percent oxygen. In the process, the oxygen already inherent in the biomass is used to produce high value oxygenated commodity chemicals that can be used to make performance polymer materials such as polyurethanes and polyesters.

The study's newly discovered pathway for chemical production could also be applicable to a wide range of products, as the same pathway could be used to produce two other plastic precursors, 1,4 butanediol and 1,6-hexanediol, which are both currently derived from petroleum.

The team will continue to refine their work, aiming to scale their process up to pilot plant testing.

The 2005 Environmental Protection Act (EPAct) was enacted to strengthen the biofuel industry. However, 52% of advanced biofuel projects have ended by 2015. While there were plenty of research on the biofuel industry, there are no lists of internal and external barriers that can explain why biofuel projects have failed.

Virginia Tech University researchers developed a list of barriers plaguing advanced biofuel projects by conducting a survey of biofuel stakeholders. The survey produced a list of 23 hypothesized internal and external barriers. Another survey was conducted to have industry stakeholders provide their perspective on these barriers. The perceptions of industry stakeholders were analyzed by dividing the sample into three different stakeholder groups: industry members, government representatives, and others, which included publishers, journalists, suppliers, and other related stakeholders.

The most significant barrier indicated by the survey was technology issues, an internal barrier. On the other hand, Funding and Renewable Fuel Standards were perceived as external barriers by the three groups.Identification of these barriers will be vital as stakeholders, producers, and consumers can formulate solutions to these barriers.

Energy Crops and Feedstocks for Biofuels Production

In the United States, biodiesel production from vegetable oils has increased substantially during the past decade. However, a further increase in production is limited by the low amounts of oil produced per hectare of temperate oilseed crops.

Recently, a transgenic sugarcane was developed to accumulate both sugars and lipids in stems, making it a promising dual-purpose feedstock to produce both ethanol and biodiesel. Researchers from various academic institutions led by Haibo Huang characterized two lines of the transgenic lipid producing sugarcane (lipid-cane) and the wild-type sugarcane.

The total lipid concentrations were 0.7% for the wild-type and 0.9% and 1.3% for the lipid-cane lines, 19B and 25 C, respectively. Lipid analysis showed that about 31–33% of the total lipids from lipid-canes were triacylglycerols, the main feedstock for biodiesel production, while the wildtype sugarcane only contained 5% triacylglycerols.

By processing the sugarcane stems with a juicer, about 90% of the sugars and 60% of the lipids were extracted with juice. The extracted sugars were then fermented to ethanol and the lipids were later recovered from the fermented juice using organic solvents.

This study proved that lipid and sugar co-production from the novel lipid-cane is feasible and has the potential to be a replacement for fossil-derived fuel.

Biofuels Processing

The tea oil fruit hull (TOFH) is mainly made up of lignocellulose and bioactive substances. Previous studies have already developed a two-stage solvent-based process, which includes an atmospheric glycerol organosolv (AGO) pretreatment, for bioprocessing of the TOFH into diverse bioproducts. However, the AGO pretreatment is not as selective as expected in removing the lignin from TOFH.

Song Tang led a team of scientists from Jiangnan University and Hunan Academy of Forestry in China, and the Queensland University of Technology in Australia to evaluate the use of acetic acid organosolv (AAO) as pretreatment for TOFH. AAO was optimized to fractionate the TOFH selectively. Alkaline hydrogen peroxide (AHP) pretreatment was then used for further delignification.

Results indicate that the AAO–AHP pretreatment had an extremely good selectivity at component fractionation, resulting in 92% delignification and 88% hemicellulose removal, with 87% cellulose retention. The pretreated substrate presented a remarkable enzymatic hydrolysis of 85%.

The AAO–AHP pretreatment can be an environmentally safe approach for pretreatment of the agroforestry biomass.