News and Trends

Singapore Airlines (SIA), in partnership with the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS), has started operating a series of biofuels-powered flights over a three-month period on its San Francisco-Singapore route.

The flights will be powered by a combination of hydro-processed esters and fatty acids, a biofuel from used cooking oils, and conventional jet fuel. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), sustainable biofuel is a promising solution which can reduce the airline industry's carbon emissions.

These ‘green package' flights are the first in the world to combine the use of biofuels, fuel-efficient aircraft and optimized flight operations. The first of these 12 flights, SQ31, departed San Francisco on 1 May 2017 and arrived in Singapore on 2 May with 206 passengers on board.

Singapore Airlines is also a member of the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group (SAFUG), which was established in 2008 to accelerate the development and commercialization of sustainable biofuels for aviation.

Pacific Biodiesel Technologies has started its scaled-up farming demonstration to grow biofuel crops including sunflowers in Maui's central valley.

The initial crop project on 115 acres will expand diversified agriculture by growing combine-harvested oil crops. This is the largest biofuel crop project in the state of Hawaii and the only biofuel farming operation in the state running on 100% renewable fuel.

The company aims to design a sustainable, zero-waste and economically viable system to grow food, animal feed and fuel. Short-term crops that are harvested in 100 days or less can be planted, harvested, crushed, and converted to biodiesel. All of which will be done in Hawaii.

Pacific Biodiesel is planting sunflowers as its first biofuel crop on Maui, applying the knowledge learned from its past experience and partnership with the US military as part of the Hawaii Military Biofuels Crop Program.

Kelsey Simon and Ali Moxley from Appalachian State University received the 2nd place in the International Food Solutions Challenge, held during the Global Food Solutions Conference on April 19-21 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The Challenge was designed to raise awareness around issues stemming from food production and distribution aiming to make the food supply chain more carbon neutral.

The two students developed a process that converts used frying oil from corn chip production to biodiesel to fuel a chip company's transportation fleet. For their work, the students earned a $1,000 prize for Appalachian's Net Impact Club, a professional network that supports and promotes sustainable business practices.

Research and Development

In previous studies, it was found that cereals use tricin, a flavonoid, as a co-monomer with monolignols for cell wall lignification. Lydia Lam Pui-ying from the University of Hong Kong, and colleagues inhibited the production of tricin in rice through genetic engineering of OsFNSII, a rice flavone synthase gene, in to make it easier to break down cellulose. Studies have previously established that flavone synthase II is vital for the synthesis of tricin metabolites in rice (Oryza sativa L.).

The team developed a tricin-deficient mutant rice plant (fnsII mutant) and analyzed its cell wall structure and properties. The mutant has similar growth habit with the wild types. However, chemical and NMR structural analyses demonstrated that the mutant lignin is completely devoid of tricin, indicating that flavone synthase II activity is essential for deposition of lignin in rice cell walls.

The mutant also showed substantially reduced lignin content. The fnsII mutant was also revealed to have enhanced enzymatic saccharification efficiency, suggesting that cell wall recalcitrance of grass biomass may be reduced through manipulation of flavonoid monomer supply for lignification.

Bacteria need mutations to survive under difficult circumstances. When necessary, they can even mutate at different speeds. This is shown in a recent study by the Centre of Microbial and Plant Genetics at KU Leuven. The findings open up various new avenues for research.

When under stress, bacteria start mutating to produce DNA variants for survival and reproduction. However, mutating is dangerous under normal circumstances, and finding the balance between too many and too few mutations is necessary. Losing this balance results in hypermutation, in which the cell mutates more quickly than normal, leading to death.

KU Leuven researchers examined its underlying mechanism in Escherichia coli. The team exposed E. coli to near-lethal concentrations of ethanol. This triggered hypermutation, which led to ethanol-resistant E. coli strains. The team was also surprised that the speed of hypermutation in the bacteria can be changed, as the bacteria mutate more quickly in higher concentrations of ethanol than when the ethanol stress is relieved.

Hypermutation made it possible to select E. coli mutants that are resistant to ethanol. This offers new perspectives for research on biofuel production.

Fuel made from plants is much more expensive than petroleum, but one way to decrease the cost would be to sell products made from lignin, the plant waste left over from biofuel production. Sandia scientists, together with researchers from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, have studied LigM, an enzyme that breaks down molecules derived from lignin.

Sphingomonas was discovered to thrive in waste water of a pulp mill. Researchers realized the bacterium's unique enzymatic pathways that enabled it to live on lignin. They then studied the enzymes in these pathways so they could mimic it and use it productively.

The team focused on LigM because it performs a key step in the conversion of lignin derivatives and it is the simplest of the known enzyme systems. LigM was found to break down lignin derivatives, not lignin itself. LigM's function is only one key step in a longer pathway of reactions needed to fully deconstruct lignin. LigM works on a later stage in the process, when smaller lignin fragments already have been converted into a molecule called vanillic acid.

While there is still a need for more research, the team now have a better understanding of the pathway and are developing enzymes to fit their goals.

Energy Crops and Feedstocks for Biofuels Production

Chicken is a favorite, inexpensive meat across the globe. However, its production results in a lot of waste. One approach for dealing with poultry waste is to turn it into biofuel, and now scientists have developed a way to do this by mixing the waste with another environmental scourge, an invasive weed that is affecting agriculture in Africa, Mexican sunflower (Tithonia diversifolia).

Nigerian researchers, led by Samuel O. Dahunsi of Landmark University performed anaerobic co-digestion of Tithonia diversifolia with poultry droppings. Results revealed that eight kilograms of poultry waste and sunflowers produced more than 3 kg of biogas, more than enough fuel to drive the reaction and have some leftover for other uses. They also said that the residual solids from the process could be applied as fertilizer.

Production and Trade

India's first integrated biorefinery for renewable fuels has been inaugurated by the country's minister for road transport, highways and shipping, Nitin Gadkari.

The new facility will be implemented by Praj Industries and will be vital in advancing the country's ethanol blending program. The new biorefinery boasts integrated production capability of one million litres per year of ethanol from a variety of biomass and is built on Praj's proprietary platform technology, enfinity.

In the inauguration, Gadkari also stressed the Indian government's dedication to fostering the biofuel industry. He also stressed the need for agricultural diversification, wherein agri-waste will generate additional revenues to the farming community. With the help of Praj's ethanol technology, he believes that the country took a vital step toward it.