News and Trends

The Scientific Technology Options Assessment (STOA) body of the European Parliament has published a report called “Alternative Technology Solutions for Road and Air Transport”. In this report, the pros and cons of energy alternatives categorized into 5 technologies (hydrogen/fuel cells, battery electric vehicles, hybrid technology, biofuels and natural gas) were analyzed.  With respect to biofuels, the report states that “second generation biofuels” (cellulosic ethanol and biomass-to-liquids technology) present a long term viable option. Biogas or biogas/natural gas blends for transport fuels are also a possible scenario. To meet Europe’s biofuel needs, biomass may have to be imported from abroad..

A joint public-private partnership between ICRISAT (International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics) and Rusni Distilleries in India has successfully produced ethanol from sweet sorghum with the benefit of providing additional income to “resource-poor farmers from the drylands”.  “Sweet sorghum ethanol” is now being produced at a distillery in Mohammed Shapur village in Andhra Pradesh, India.  Dr. William Dar, ICRISAT Director General, says that the project successfully blends (1) ICRISAT's scientific capability in developing sweet sorghum varieties with higher juice availability, (2) the entrepreneurial capability of Rusni Distilleries, and (3) the effective linkage with the dryland farmers through the grass-roots networking strength” of partners like the Aakrithi Agricultural Associates of India (AAI).  Under the program, the farmers (previously identified in village clusters) are given the sweet sorghum varieties for planting.  Mechanisms are also in place to allow farmers to take their sweet sorghum stalk harvest to cluster centers where the stalks are crushed to extract the juice, converted into syrup, and then transported to Rusni Distilleries for ethanol production. According to ICRISAT, an additional source of income is provided to the farmers, while “they do not lose out on food security”. The stalks are processed into ethanol, while the grains can be used for food.

More information:
ICRISAT Brochure, “Sweet Sorghum: Food, Feed, Fodder and Fuel Crop” (in pdf)
Related article, “ICRISAT sorghum for ethanol now a sweet reality”

The liberation of sugars from plant cellulose (also called, “saccharification”) is a process component that contributes dominantly to the cost of ethanol production from cellulosic feedstocks.  Research is therefore underway to identify ways to improve cellulose degradation into fermentable sugars for ethanol, in order to bring down the cost of ethanol production. An article from Technological Review reports that scientists from the United States Department of Energy (DOE) are sequencing the genes of button mushrooms and other plant degrading organisms, to develop better and more cost-effective methods for biofuels production.  Mushrooms are known natural plant biomass degraders; they feed on decaying plant matter and utilize plant degradation products for their energy.  By sequencing the genes of these organisms, scientists hope to identify better performing enzymes and reactions that can be harnessed to improve the liberation of sugars from cellulosic biomass.  These genes could then be introduced into the ethanol fermenting organisms..

Energy Crops and Feedstocks for Biofuels Production

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) and Miscanthus (Miscanthus x giganteus) are two “C4” perennial grasses which have been reported to be promising cellulosic feedstocks for ethanol production in the United States. “C4” is one of 3 pathways that plants use to fix carbon dioxide into sugars by photosynthesis. However, which of these two grasses is better?  Recently, the team of Frank Dohleman of the Plant Biology Department of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign published their side-by-side field trial results, comparing the productivities of these two grasses.  Overall, Miscanthus was shown to be more productive than switchgrass. Greater productivity means greater ethanol production potential.  The following were the key attributes that may explain why Miscanthus produced more usable biomass relative to switchgrass: (1) 45% greater leaf area, (2) capability to gain more photosynthetic carbon per leaf area (33% greater than switchgrass), and (3) longer growing season (11 days longer than switchgrass). 

More information about C4 photosynthesis from Wikipedia

Biofuels Processing
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Researchers from University of Wisconsin-Madison in the United States have developed a process for producing a biofuel with better properties than ethanol.  In a recent issue of the journal Nature, Chemical and Biological Engineering Professor James Dumesic and his team reported the “production of dimethylfuran for liquid fuels from biomass-derived carbohydrates”. The process starts with the chemical conversion of the raw material (a 5-carbon sugar called fructose) to HMF (hydroxymethylfurfural) using an acid catalyst in the presence of a low boiling point solvent.  The solvent extracts the HMF from the reaction mixture for processing in the next step, which is the conversion of HMF to DMF, using a copper-based catalyst.  The final biofuel product, DMF, is said to contain the following improvements over ethanol: (1) 40% higher energy density, (2) higher boiling point (i.e., DMF is less volatile and remains liquid in the fuel tank, and vapour in the engine, and (3) does not absorb water..

Biofuels Policy and Economics

Durum wheat is main raw material of Italian pasta and is reported to be one of the reasons that make Italian pasta taste good.  The endosperm of Durum wheat gives pasta its characteristic yellow color. Although Durum wheat for pasta is sourced in Italy, the country is forced to import 40% of its supply (mainly from Canada and Syria), due to strong domestic demand and a growing export market.  However, Syria recently banned the export of this commodity, and the wholesale price in Canada has increased due to new demand of the wheat as a biofuel feedstock. Consequently, Italian pasta manufacturers are warning of a 20% surge in pasta prices in autumn this year. 

Global warming has been attributed to the productivity declines of Durum wheat in the Mediterranean. The Biopact website  also describes another component of the problem, related to “European and American tariffs on imported ethanol, which allow durum wheat to be used as a raw material for ethanol”. More details are available at the Biopact website.

Information about Durum wheat from Wikipedia: