The 10 Most Bizarre Biofuels Stories of the Year

July 25, 2013 |

whales-smTrains to Nowhere, Camel-tummy microbes, a nation run on coconuts, “vibrating blob” tunicates, a high-performing fungus, a cousin of the potato blight microbe, biofuels from a “raging fireball”.

2012-13 stands up with any year for stories both inspiring and bizarre.

Another year in Digestville has come and gone — and along with so many straightforward developments — there have been the ones that comes directly out of left field, or some alternative universe.

It would be hard to top some of the crazy schemes from past years. Consider 2010′s “bunnies for biofuels”: Or 2008-09′s scheme to turn waste liposuction fat into biodiesel. Or the Prince of Wales’ effort to turn below-market quality wine into ethanol fuels.

But 2012-13 has been one for the books. Trains to Nowhere,  Camel-tummy microbes, a nation run on coconuts, “vibrating blob” tunicates, a high-performing fungus, a cousin of the potato blight microbe, biofuels from a “raging fireball” . What a long, strange trip it’s been — but you keep on truckin, all the same.

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10. Turning ‘monstrous carbuncles’ into biofuels

Editor’s Note: Price Charles said it more than 20 years ago, describing a building addition as “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much loved and elegant friend.” It prompted British architects to find new avenues of creativity and many bad buildings, as a result, were not built. But what do you do with the “ugly monster”, the BT Tower? One student came up with a novel beautification idea: turn it into a massive bioenergy plant. Kudos for originality.

In the UK, a design student at the Royal College of Art wants to transform London’s BT Tower into a pollution collection system that in turn produces methanol from the carbon emissions collected. The proposed system would produce 100 metric tons of methanol annually.  The student wants to see the system replicated across all skyscrapers.

9. Biofuels from a raging fireball, purple slime, vibrating blobs, rumen fungus, potato blight, and turkey tail fungus

Editor’s Note: Each year, we hear of a whole new, strange collection of feedstocks. We’ve gathered five of the best stories of the year – “vibrating blob” tunicates, a high-performing fungus, a cousin of the potato blight microbe — and the mysterious Pyrococcus furiosus – a mash-up of Medieval Latin and Classical Greek meaning “raging fireball”. It’s an amazing collection of sources for biofuels – sometimes using their biomass, sometimes their microbial skills.

Raging fireball. Imagine a world where instead of creating CO2 as an emission from burning fuels, you could make fuels from the emissions, the CO2. And could do so in a way that bypasses the production of biomass and the extraction of fermentable sugars — thereby getting around the energy-intensity of making biomass and then destroying it. This week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team from both universities led by Michael Adams has revealed that they have engineered Pyrococcus furiosus to make 3-hydroxypropionic acid using hydrogen gas, and CO2.

It’s a relatively well-known microorganism found in the vicinity of underwater geothermal vents or volcanoes. It’s one of the archaea — a group of one-celled critters long thought to be a subset of bacteria, but which in recent years have been shunted off to a domain in the taxonomy of life all their own. This little archaeon is one for the books — whose name translates from a mash-up of Medieval Latin and Classical Greek as “raging fireball” — known for having a preferred temperature of 100 degrees celsius.

Potato blight. Those whose family chronicles make reference to the Great Irish Potato Famine of 1845-49 and the subsequent starvation of more than 1 million and the emigration of at least another million — may take some comfort in the fact that a cousin of the infective microbial agent responsible for the potato blight, Phytophthora infestans, has been discovered in the Rocky Mountain snowfields and may have some transformative impact on biofuels development down the line. A new strain of yellow-green algae, heterococcus sp. DN1, as examined in the pages of Biotechnology Progress, is found to grow at temperatures approaching freezing and to accumulate large intracellular stores of lipids. T Among the various extremophiles being sought by industry, there’s none so eagerly sought as much as a strain of algae that thrives in cold weather. Accordingly, finding a good candidate strain in a snowfield — well, it’s quite an achievement.

Rumen fungus. In Oklahoma, researchers at Oklahoma State University have published the first analysis of a genome of rumen fungus, organisms that reside in the gut of ruminant animals and are remarkably efficient at digesting plant biomass. The team’s genomic and experimental analyses indicate the fungus efficiently degrades a wide range of non-crop plant materials, such as switchgrass, corn stover, sorghum and energy cane. The extent of plant biomass degradation has rarely been observed in other microorganisms.

Tunicates – the vibrating blob. Consider the tunicate. No, it’s not a garment you wear to a fraternity toga party. No, not what you use in case of a snake bite. It’s a small, tubular, jellyesque, prolifically reproducing marine family that lives just about wherever marine bacteria and algae are found. Some of them look more like purple and orange vibrating blobs — the marine equivalent of a purposeless loafer living off the national bounty and the public dole.

Ah, but they are the only animals that produce cellulose — and no lignin, either —– and they are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which people and fish both need but do not synthesize. It makes them a potential alternative for biofuels production and as a feed ingredient for farmed fish. Dried tunicates contain 60 per cent protein. Perhaps just as importantly, salmon find them tasty.

Turkey tail fungus. In Germany, the turkey tail fungus Trametes versicolor is subject of research being performed at the University of Freiburg in an attempt to source a catalyst for the conversion process. The fungus releases an enzyme called laccasse, allowing electrochemical conversion of oxygen within the biofuel power cell. The findings were recently published in ChemSusChem.

8. A nation run on coconuts

Editor’s Note: Good news can be bizarre. Consider, in this case, the plight of energy-depleted island territory of Tokelau – population 1400, north of Samoa and east of Tuvalu. Their solution to hard energy times — run the economy off coconut oils, which are in plentiful supply. Voila, energy independence! Not long after, Palmyra Atoll in the North Pacific went in the same direction.

In Tokelau, the tiny island nation administered by New Zealand, will become the world’s first entirely renewable powered country. Solar power and biodiesel produced from coconut will generate 150% of the islands’ electricity demand, eliminating the $820,000 spent annually on importing fuel.

In Palmyra, Pacific Biodiesel will supply a second delivery of biodiesel in 2013 for a Nature Conservancy research team on Palmyra Atoll, located in the North Pacific, after first supplying a load of 10,000 gallons in 2011. The Nature Conservancy’s Palmyra Project strives to “conserve unique biological resources on the atoll; supporting scientific research which will enhance our understanding of coastal and marine environments and guide future management actions while maintaining an efficient research station on this remote atoll,” said Palmyra Program Director Laurie Moore.

7. Kookaburras wheeze in the old gum tree

Editor’s Note: Given the immense number of gum trees that practically suffocate Sydney, Australia — and the generally outstanding health and long lives that Sydneysiders enjoy — it may seem odd that someone picked up research support to calculate the number of people who could possibly die from exposure to fumes from eucalyptus plantations. But it happened. Basically, if you’re an Aussie — read this quickly, you’re practically dead already.

In Germany, research led by Karlsruhe Institute of Technology suggests that increased planting of trees such as eucalyptus, willow and poplar near urban areas for biofuel can lead to human deaths due to increased ozone inhalation. The study says that by 2020, as many as 1,400 deaths could be attributable to ozone inhalation.

6. Camel tummy microbes key to fuel generation?

Editor’s Note: Camel tummies? This classic, from last year, found researchers looking for biofuels inspiration in the most unimaginable place possible. Termite guts — we get it. But whoever thought of camels gets a gold star — turns out there is promise in them thar innerds – it’s out of the box thinking on the grand scale. Lawrence of Arabia would be proud.

In the UAE, researchers at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology are researching the microbes found in camels’ stomachs to determine which produce the most methane and could therefore be the most beneficial for biogas production. Waste from the date production process is seen as a key feedstock for biogas production in the region.

5. And now…biofuels for World Toilet Day

Editor’s Note: Another one for the “eeeww…” book — this one, an innovation involving human waste, launching on, of all days, World Toilet Day. Don’t laugh (although a quick chuckle is forgiven) – deploying good toilets in the developing world is key to reducing disease and improving quality of life.

In Ghana, to celebrate World Toilet Day on November 19, researchers at Columbia University’s Engineering School, working in Ghana with Waste Enterprisers Ltd., the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), and the Kumasi Metropolitan Assembly, are launching a pilot facility to convert fecal sludge into biodiesel fuel, thereby addressing a ubiquitous societal problem and concurrently producing renewable, cost-effective sustainable energy. The team is scaling up its research efforts initiated in a Columbia Engineering lab, and expects this working facility to become a revolutionary new model in sanitation.

4. Biobased Briquettes, not Bombs, for the Taliban?

Editor’s Note: Over the years, there have been a lot of discussions about using bio-based industry in a strategic way to help pacify Afghanistan. AT one stage, there were rumors that Afghanis were collaborating with the CIA to develop small-scale biodiesel technology that could be deployed to generate fuels from poppy seed oil, instead of making opium.  But this story – though bizarre – does address a serious problem associated with camouflage, in an interesting way. It’s the first time we’ve heard of a strategic dimension to a cookstove — but in an asymmetric, unconventional warfighting zone, new rules apply.

In November, we heard from Robert Haston of Florida, who wrote:

“I flew 220 medevac missions in Afghanistan last Spring-Summer. The Taliban could shoot at us with near impunity because of the brush and tree covered irrigation ditches. Once the leaves fall off (AKA “deer season”) the Taliban can’t hide from our airpower, so they pretty much close up shop.

“So I asked why do they (unlike any other farms I’ve seen) grow so much brush and trees? It turns out that they use them for cooking fuel. Meanwhile, they burn off crop waste.”

The solution? “Crop waste briquette mills. These run at a profit around the world, particularly in low wage countries. We would also trade improved cook stoves (which cut the need for fuel in half) in exchange for raw materials

“Then the farmers could grow more food instead of brush, saving precious water. One thousandth of what we spent on the war last year would easily fuel all of Afghanistan’s cooking needs and eliminate the need to grow fuel wood. Even if this only reduced the Taliban’s effectiveness by 10%, this would be 100 times more effective than our current methods.”

3. The New Math

Editor’s Note: Now, “do as I say, not as I do” is a philosophy with more followers in Washington, it sometimes seems, than the Golden Rule; but this one really took the cake. Senator Inhofe of Oklahoma, who had been engaged in ardent criticism of buying higher-than-market priced military biofuels — turns out he has secured earmarks for buying natgas-based fuels at 29 times market price for conventional fuels. Hmmm.

In Washington, the battle over advanced military biofuels took a turn for the bizarre this week, amidst revelations that a leading Senate sponsor of legislation to restrict Navy purchases of advanced biofuels, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, had previously secured earmarks for Syntroleum Corporation to produce natural gas-to-liquid alternative fuels which were priced 29 times higher than conventional fuels.

Overall, Syntroleum reported receiving nearly $6 million from 2002, 2004 and 2006 joint development contracts with DoD, stemming from the earmarks by Inhofe. Syntroleum also reported a 2006 contract for $2.3 million for the sale of 104,000 gallons of gas-to-liquid jet fuel to DoD, for testing in Oklahoma-based B52s.

According to the most recent disclosures at opensecrets.org, Senator Inhofe is an investor in BlackRock, which is the largest shareholder in Syntroleum as of March 31, according to SEC filings, through BlackRock Institutional Trust and BlackRock Fund Advisors.

Adjusting for inflation, the $2.3 million contract in 2002 dollars equates to $2.93 million in today’s dollars, or $28.21 per gallon. Back in 2002, jet fuel was selling at considerably less than today – at an average price of 75 cents per gallon in the second half of the year, according to indexmundi.com.

Overall, the cost of the natural gas-based alternative fuel was 29 times more than the cost of conventional fuels at the time, and cost more, per gallon, in today’s dollars than the Navy’s advanced biofuels program.

At the time, the Senator said “Syntroleum’s gas-to-liquids barge project holds great promise for alternative fuel production in a way that has both civilian and military applications. The benefits of this kind of technology to our country are substantial and I am confident that these funds will aid in the further development of this process for the benefit of our nation.”

The Senator took a different line on the benefits of the military advanced biofuels program.

“A fiscally responsible amendment that I authored in the FY13 NDAA,” he wrote, “prohibits the DOD from purchasing high-cost alternative fuels if traditional fuels are cheaper. I pledge to continue working with my colleagues to ensure that President Obama’s far left agenda does not impact military readiness and our national security.”

In a letter to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus last week, Inhofe wrote, “requiring the Navy to spend exorbitant amounts of an already stretched budget on alternative fuels is impacting our near and long term readiness.”

2.You’re Riding on the RIN Train to Nowhere

Editor’s Note: RINs – the renewable energy credits at the heart of the US Renewable Fuel Standard compliance — are always controversial and rarely out of the news. But never more so than in cases of RIN fraud. Although the “perps” are invariably caught and do some astonishing prison time, while the frauds go on there is money to be made, and Madoffesque profits to be made while the going is good. THis year, we had three that particularly caught our attention. In one case, a fraudster managed to buy himself a used Patton tank and a personal jet; in another opera bouffe, a mystery train made repeated border crossings from Canada to the US to register, but never actually deliver, the same batch of fuel.

RIN fraudster. In Texas, court records show that the CEO of Absolute Fuel, one of the companies indicted for selling false RINs, used more than $30 million in revenues to buy a wide variety of luxury goods ranging from a $1.6 million Jetstream personal jet to several homes, and of course, $355,000 on a demilitarized Patton tank.

Train to Nowhere. This story is still unfolding, but here are the essentials. A company is under investigation for transporting the same shipment of biodiesel across the US border 24 times in a compressed period of time, in order to generate renewable fuel credits (RINs). Once the fuel was “imported”, it was “re-exported” back to the US.

The catch, from a RIN-point of view? The company in question, Verdeo, said it was perfectly legal to generate (at the time, $1) biodiesel RINs in the import process and retire (at the time, worth pennies) ethanol RINs in the export process. Total value of the scheme is suspected to run as high as $288 million in RIN credits — the EPA, which is investigating, isn’t saying much at this point.

In Canada, the controversy surrounding US and Canadian biodiesel trade is mounting with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. revealing documents that CN Rail earned more than $2 million in 2010 for transporting biodiesel back and forth across the border that was never even unloaded.

1. Peak whale

Editor’s Note: There’s been a lot of ink spilled on the topic of Peak Oil; less on the problems of Peak Whale back in the 1850s that prompted the world to shift from whale oil to kerosene for lighting. But whale oil made a temporary comeback in this bizarre story of a UK town that was stuck with a beached, dead whale, and figured out something positive to do with it. Somewhat reminiscent of a story a few years ago about the Swedish town that was combusting frozen bunnies into bioenergy, which also made the Top 10 Bizarre List one year. This one was, in 2012-13, unsurpassed in terms of “eeew…” factor.

In the UK, a 10 meter-long fin whale weighing six tons and 780 kg was stranded and subsequently died on the beach near Woodbridge, Suffolk. The whale’s remains will be rendered down to produce approximately 2,000 liters of biodiesel. The decision to process the carcass into biofuel was made by the Suffolk Coastal District Council. Alternatives included dumping the carcass in a landfill or towing it out to sea to decompose. The remains of the whale not used to produce biodiesel will be incinerated at a power station that uses animal remains as fuel to produce electricity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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