Yecch, ptooey! The 13 oddest and strangest biofuels feedstocks

June 4, 2012 |

Nothing new under the sun? Potrzebie! These biofuels feedstocks set records for ingenuity, sheer craziness and a liberal dose of “what, me worry?”

Most of the stories we write at the Digest on the subject of biofuels feedstocks fall into the well-established realms of normal. But every once in a while, a feedstock emerges that is so compellingly bizarre that we put the story away in our “yecch, ptooey!” file, ready for the round-up which forms our Top Story today.

None of the feedstocks may change the world, but some of them, though decidedly outside-the-box, have serious merit, Others…well, we offer them as cautionary tales. One thing they all share in common – we aren’t making any of this stuff up.

1. Human liposuction fat

It could only happen in LA, we suppose. In California a couple of years ago, the Beverly Hills plastic surgeon who used liposuctioned human fat to power two SUVs with biodiesel, faced an investigation from the California state public health authorities, for potential violation of a state law that prohibits the use of human medical waste for vehicle fuels. The “lipodiesel” controversy erupted when Dr Craig Bittner was sued by three patients for removing excessive fat and causing disfiguration.  According to reports, Bittner, who closed his practice in November 2008, left the country for South America.

2. Fat Rustlers! Fats and oils, from the growing ring of Grease Thieves

Fryer oil is a cool feedstock, for sure – but when it spawns a crime wave, that’s when it tips over into the world of the bizarre. Last year, the National Renderers Association estimated that grease theft has risen to as much as six million pounds per year across North America, and as much as $1 million in lost revenues for members of (the other) NRA. The figures surfaced in an entertaining loom at grease theft published in City.ca, which looked at the rise of “grease rustling” in the context of a surge in yellow grease prices, from below $300 per tonne, to more than $900 per tonne today.

Last summer, North Carolina Rep. John Torbett responding to the increasing theft of yellow kitchen grease, proposed a bill that would make it a felony to steal $1,000 or more of yellow grease, and a misdemeanor if less were stolen.  Additionally, Torbett is proposing that any yellow grease collectors must be licensed and inspected if the collectors intend to resell either animal fats or vegetable oils for use as fuel.  Lastly, the collectors must be able to prove that they have $1 million in liability insurance.   Farmers who use such grease for the own purposes would be exempted if Torbett’s proposal is adopted in full.

Texas attorney Jon Jaworski is known as “the Grease Lawyer,” specializing in advising on cases involving grease theft. “I had a guy who was paid with a bottle of vodka and a couple cartons of cigarettes to steal grease. I also get a lot of calls from biodiesel companies wanting to know how to protect themselves from people stealing their grease…If it’s rancid oil, a pollutant, sitting in a garbage container, is it really theft? Under supreme court law, if it’s in a trash can, it’s trash.” At thirty cents a gallon, that yellow crud is becoming the new “Texas Tea”.

3. World War Two’s rotting canvas fungi

In this story from January 2010, we looked at WWII canvas rotting fungi as a biomass conversion technology, a fungus that produces diesel, a fungus that synthesizes ethanol, one that produces cellulase, and a symbiotic garden of fungi managed by leafcutter ants to assist in their leaf-converting activities. But the topper was the news that up to 90 percent of Missouri’s  Conservation Reserve Program land, where fescue is running rampant, may be infected with ergot (a fungus from which LSD is synthesized). “A heft amount of carbon is sequestered by endophyte-infected fescue, so it has some carbon benefit. But that is courtesy of its ability to powerfully eradicate microbial life in its growing path and, by creating a nanoscopic, underground Chernobyl, storing carbon that otherwise would be munched and released by those pesky organisms known as life forms.”

4. Stinkweed

Yep, it’s a stinking rose, all right. Famweed, that is, or field pennycress — you might have heard of it as stinkweed, or french weed, or mithridite mustard. You might have heard of it described as a bagful of money waiting to be harvested. It’s a mustard seed, one of the Brassicaceae. It’s not planted as a substitute, but as a transition crop, a cover crop.

“There’s 130,000 acres sitting right there in Illinois, and with a target of 200 gallons per acre, that’s 26 million gallons. 130,000 acres is what our collaborator farmer group cultivates every year, ” said Arvens Technology CEO Sudhir Seth. “Potential acres that can become available in the Cornbelt, corridor between I-70 and I-80 between NE and OH, is about 40 million acres. This is capable of producing 8 billion of alternative biofuels every year without impacting the food supply. This can generate additional farm income of about than $4 billion every year at $100 per acre.”

5. Kudzu, horse manure or demolition debris…your pick

Down in Florida, kudzu is a pretty unpopular topic, as the “weed that Ate the South” is pretty much anywhere in the Southeastern quadrant, but some Oak Ridge researchers think they may be able to convert all that misery into fuels. Back in 2010, the Global Venture Challenge at Oak Ridge National Laboratory gave a project to convert waste materials into renewable jet fuel, from COSI Catalysts, honorable mention last week in the “Advanced Materials for Sustainable Energy” category.

The technology, spun out from the University of South Florida, is based on a patent-pending catalytic process that transforms  horse manure, demolition debris or kudzu vines into fuel, and the company founders said that they are seeking up to $2 million for a 10,000 gallon per year pilot plant.

6. Grow Your Own – Cannabis (the hemp kind) for biofuels

It’s a feedstock story right out of Cheech and Chong. In South Carolina earlier this year, scientists at the USDA reported that farmers in the Southeast could produce the tropical legume sunn hemp (Crotalaria juncea) and integrate it into their crop rotations by harvesting the fast-growing annual for biofuel. The study was conducted by Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists in Florence, SC, and supports the USDA priority of finding new sources of bioenergy.

The scientists measured potential energy production of feedstocks via direct combustion to calculate the feedstocks’ higher heating value (HHV), which indicates how much energy is released via combustion. The HHV for sunn hemp biomass exceeded the HHV for switchgrass, bermudagrass, reed canary grass and alfalfa. Although reduced rainfall resulted in lower hemp biomass yields in 2006, sunn hemp’s HHV for both study years was 4 to 5 percent greater than the HHV of cowpeas.

In a story from 2009, we tracked a 43-acre biomass trial in California that features hemp as a feedstock. The notoriety of hemp’s cousin, marijuana, has created both passionate supporters and opponents of the feedstock, which for centuries provided useful by-products such as rope, but acquired a massive brand identity problem after reefer acquired wide popularity in the 1960s as a recreational drug.

7. The New Orleans Times-Picayune

It was a sad day for its readership, and for national discourse, when the New Orleans Times-Picayune announced that it would be mooing to an all-digital format; but it turns out, it might be bad for biofuels, too. In Louisiana last summer, Tulane University researchers discovered a new bacterial strain that turns newspapers into butanol.  The researchers are currently using old editions from “The Times-Picayune” as a feedstock for their bacterial strain named “TU-103″ to produce the ethanol. Harshad Velenkar, a post doctoral researcher states, “In the United States alone, at least 323 million tons of cellulosic materials that could be used to produce butanol are thrown out each year.”  A patent is pending for the researchers process.

8. Soda Pop

In a story that seems to come right out of the marketing for Jolt Cola (“all the sugar, and twice the caffeine…and a handy transport fuel to boot…”), researchers at Oklahoma State University reported that waste from soda pop production can be used as feedstock for ethanol production simply by adding nitrogen and yeast. The presence of sodium benzoate, a common food preservative, was the major indicator in whether a particular brand of soda would ferment well or not.Soda waste is typically disposed of by adjusting the pH level and sending it to a local wastewater treatment plant, a method that can be costly because it can be done only in limited quantities.

9. Royal Wines

The Prince of Wales has had a rough time with his image in the press over the years, but it was a well-meaning effort that was too high on the “let them eat cake” factor put him in hot water this time. It was reported the Prince of Wales is reported to be fueling his Aston Martin D86 with ethanol made from wine. The prince’s collection of Jaguars, and his Audi and Range Rover run on waste oil biodiesel, part of a $1 million investment by the Prince in converting his fuel and heating systems to eco-friendly sources. The Prince’s staff said that he had reduced his carbon emissions by 18 percent against a targeted 25 percent reduction by 2012. The wine used to make the Prince’s ethanol is waste wine that is unsuitable for consumption.

10. Psychedelic corn

In Pennsylvania two summers ago, researchers have identified new corn genes that increase the export of carbohydrates from corn leaves and could result in higher yields for biofuels. The two genes that were isolated are controlling the movement of carbon from leaves to other parts of the plant, and thereby control carbohydrate creation. The researchers, working under a USDA Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, believe that manipulation of the metabolic pathway will give options for increased food or fuel from the plant.

Because the mutant genes cause the plant’s leaves to become streaked with yellow and green streaks, the write-up in Genetics referred to the “psychedelic” nature of the corn produced from the altered DNA.

11. Bunnies

Sweden’s got a common problem: too many bunnies, breeding like, well, rabbits. Sweden’s got an unusual solution, trap ‘em, kill ‘em, and burn ‘em to generate power. A perfect ecologically pure power source for plug-in electrics…oh, not really. Eew.  We profiled the common problem and the icky solution in this story from last October.

Apparently, Stockholm, which has an overstock of stray, wild rabbits that are destroying local parks, authorized a culling operation, and the killed bunnies were shipped for processing. The Stockholm facility is also incinerating dead cats, cows, deer and horses, according to the report. Yikes.
It remains right up there with 2008-09′s cosmetic surgeon who turned liposuction fat into biodiesel as among the strangest biofuels stories ever recorded.

12. Martian CO2 and space-based residues

Though dollars for commercializing biofuels are as scarce as water on Mars, two projects have found R&D funding to look at opportunities for growing biofuels in space. Last August, we covered a group at NASA’s Ames Research Center who are working to convert space-based plant residues, from plants grown by astronauts to provide food and breathing air for long-period space travel, into sources of fuel, chemicals and food.

In March 2010, jatropha seeds went into orbit on the space shuttle, where a research project looked at growth rates. Perhaps somewhere in outer space, NASA can find a banker ready to lend money for a commercial-stage progress.

13. Human solid waste

Right up there in the yecch department, was this R&D advance reported by Applied Clean Tech and Qteros, which reported the development of high yield ethanol opportunities with liquid solid waste. The companies said they are the first to demonstrate commercial success in creating ethanol from the cellulose in municipal and agricultural liquid waste, and to offer a process that all municipalities can use to help reduce expenses.

By using ACT’s proprietary feedstock, Qteros and ACT’s researchers found that an ethanol production plant can produce 120–135 gallons of ethanol per ton of Recyllose.

Meanwhile, more recently in Ghana, Waste Enterprisers Limited is producing biodiesel from human waste at pilot projects in Teshie-Nungua in Accra and Dompoase in Kumasi. The projects should be at full pilot scale by the end of the summer and at commercial scale in two years with the capacity to process 100 truck loads of waste per day. The project has received SEED Initiative Award founded by the United Nations Environmental Program and financial support from the Gates Foundation.

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