10 MegaVitaVegeTrends for Mega-Efficient Biofuels 

July 15, 2014 |

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Are your biotechnologies run down, listless? Do they poop out at pitch meetings? Are they unpopular?

The answer to your problems may well be in this list — in the technologies that eliminate the waste that comes from biorefining itself? Making industrial biotech more efficient, transformative and sustainable.

So, join the happy peppy people following our 10 top MegaVitaVegeTrends, the researchers working on them, and the progress they’ve made.

Can biofuels be made more economically, socially and environmentally efficient — just be getting better at using its existing inputs better? That’s been the challenge and opportunity in, for example, cellulosic biofuels — to liberate inedible, waste carbon trapped in cellulose (and hemicellulose) for use in energy applications.

UnknownBut there are many other areas — every one of them a mega opportunity. In every case, no new inputs are needed, no extra land, water, or nutrients needed. Breakthroughs simply drive down the cost and drive up the efficiency.

Here are the top 10 we’ve found.

1. Harvesting more light from the sun

Let’s start with the most obvious weakness inherent in all photosynthetic systems — they waste most of the inbound light. Corn, for example, converts as little as 2% of light energy into biomass. Sugarcane is at the top of the pack, but is way short of 10%. Yet, modern solar PV systems can capture 30% or more of the photons and use them.

Frankly, little algae critters are light hogs — able to capture almost 100% of the light coming their way via these microscopic photon-capturing antennae they have. But they waste up to 75 percent of that light because, as it turns out, they don’t have the ability to process all that light into energy, and most of it is dissipated as heat or florescence.

Much of this is explored in the excellent “Optimization of photosynthetic light energy utilization by microalgae,” by Zoee Perrine, Sangeeta Negi and Dick Sayre — which you can access here.  They write:

“At saturating light intensities, the rate of photon capture substantially (> 100 ×) exceeds the rate of linear photosynthetic electron transfer resulting in a large fraction of the captured light energy being dissipated as heat or fluorescence by non-photochemical quenching (NPQ) processes.”

Think of the problem as one of Alga A and Alga B. Both would benefit by cooperating to harvest less light and process it more efficiently. But there is the betrayal option — harvest more light at the expense of the other. Algae generally have chosen the betrayal option over the years.

In their latest research, Perrine, Negi and Sayre are exploring the impact of reducing chlorophyll  levels in their model algae (Chlamydomonas reinhardtii) — sure enough, they found that by reducing light harvesting capabilities they found “a two-fold increase in photosynthetic rate at high light intensities and a 30% increase in growth rate at saturating light intensities.”

Two groups doing amazing work in the area of improving light capture? The Photosynthetic Antenna Research Center at Washington University. PARC aspires to maximize photosynthetic antenna efficiency in living organisms and to fabricate robust micron-scale biohybrid light-harvesting systems to drive chemical processes or generate photocurrent. This vision will be achieved through transformational research to optimize antenna size and composition for natural photosynthetic function and to develop versatile synthetic macromolecular solar-collectors that can be tailored for specific applications.

Over on the left coast, The Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP)  ission is to develop a manufacturable solar-fuels generator, made of Earth-abundant elements, that will use only sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide as inputs and robustly produce fuel from the sun ten times more efficiently than current crops. Such an achievement would minimize trade-offs between food and fuel, would allow for installation of the systems in a diverse range of sites and environments, and would provide the direct production of a useful chemical fuel from the sun.

Areas of current research activity include Light Capture and Conversion; Heterogeneous Catalysis; Molecular Catalysis; High-Throughput Experimentation; Catalyst and Light Absorber Benchmarking; Molecular and Nanoscale Interfaces; Membrane and Mesoscale Assembly; and Scale-Up and Prototyping.

2. Increasing the amount of carbon diverted to oil production in plants

Back in 2011, ARPA-E announced its $30M PETRO project: “Plants Engineered To Replace Oil (PETRO)”.  In this project, ARPA-E is keying in on a few areas that deserve a note.

1. Improving the efficiency with which plants use carbon.

Oil plants are notoriously busy using (or failing to use) carbon in ways other than we would like, do not use light as efficiently as we would like, and devote energy to oil production less efficiently than we would like. The nerve.

Amherst, UCLA, Texas Agrilife Research, the Donald Danforth Center and the Lawrence Berkeley Lab have come up with projects to reengineer crops to enhance carbon uptake, and optimize light utilization. With all the focus on camelina, no surprise that several projects will work on that platform. But a project from Lawrence Berkeley focuses on North America’s original cash crop, tobacco.

2. Getting plants that produce sugars, to directly produce oils.

A continuing theme of advanced biofuels research is to get the plant to do more of the processing work while still in the ground, thereby dramatically reducing the cost of post-harvest processing.

In the alcohol-to-jet programs, for example, plants or other carbon sources have to be harvested for their carbon, fermented or otherwise processed into alcohol, then upgraded into fuel oils like kerosene.

In this round of research, Arcadia Biosciences will modify a number of genes involved in oil biosynthesis to induce grasses to produce vegetable oil. A University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign team will engineer sugarcane and sorghum to produce and store oil instead of sugar. Chromatin will lead a team to engineer sweet sorghum to produce up to 20% of its biomass as farnesene, a diesel-esque molecule which will accumulate in the sorghum plants similar to the way in which sugarcane accumulates sugar.

3. What do you do with all that lignin?

“You can make anything out of lignin, except money,” goes the old saying. It’s a huge component of biomass, yet most technologies can’t break it down or use it.

As we wrote in “The Siege of Ligningrad“: “It’s a fantastically complex set of polymers that give wood and plants their structural strength. The trouble is that lignin is built of complex set of polymers, and in turn those polymers are made of monomers with bonds that are fantastically tough to break.

“Work was done on such a concept in the 1990s by University of Wisconsin-Madison professor and GLBRC Plants Leader John Ralph, who was then working at the U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center. According to notes from the University, “In the mid-1990s, Ralph’s group was looking for ways to reduce energy usage in the paper pulping process by more efficiently removing lignin – the polymer that gives plant cell walls their sturdiness – from trees. The group surmised that if they could introduce weak bonds into lignin, they could simply “unzip” this hardy material, making it much easier for chemical processes to break it down.”

“Recently, a group of researchers at the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center applied the ideas to poplar. Michigan State University associate professor and GLBRC scientist, Curtis Wilkerson, said “By designing poplars for deconstruction, we can improve the degradability of a very useful biomass product. Poplars are dense, easy to store, and they flourish on marginal lands not suitable for food crops, making them a non-competing and sustainable source of biofuel.”

“After Wilkerson found a gene capable of making monomers with bonds that are easier to deconstruct, University of British Columbia professor Shawn Mansfield successfully inserted the gene into poplar.The results were a pleasant surprise. Not only did the poplars manufacture the monomers, the trees successfully incorporated them into their lignin.

“We can now move beyond tinkering with the known genes in the lignin pathway to using exotic genes to alter the lignin polymer in predesigned but plant-compatible ways, essentially ‘designing lignin for deconstruction,” Ralph says. “This approach should pave the way to generating more valuable biomass that can be processed in a more energy efficient manner for biofuels and paper products.”

4. Why slaughter biomass, why not just milk it?

Several technologies don’t use biomass as an intermediate collector of target molecules that can be harvested through crushing. Why use plants, they ask, with all their known inefficiencies and their tendency to make not enough of the products we need?

As we observed in “Joule’s quest for fuels from CO2, sunlight and water“:

Joule’s microorganism’s don’t require sugar as an input, or any kind of finished biomass-like material. Like the highly-trained microbes at, say INEOS Bio or LanzaTech, they can get their carbon in gas form. In the case of Joule’s organisms, they use CO2, sunlight and water as the most plentiful inputs. Plenty of organisms use those same inputs — all photosynthetic microalgae, for example. But you can’t milk them like a cow. You have to crush them.

Then there are companies like Joule and Algenol that work with ethanologens. These are microbes that manufacture, then secrete, ethanol as a byproduct of their metabolic cycle. The inputs for the process are the same as plants use to make lignin, carbohydrates, proteins and oils — the microbes use CO2, sunlight, water and a nutrient package. The secreted alcohol fuel is then collected outside of the organism. It’s a one-step process from sunlight to fuels — one of the reason why Joule likes to refer to its product as a “solar fuel” not a “biofuel,” since there’s no intermediate biomass to harvest and crush to make a fuel precursor such as sugar.

There’s also a company, Proterro, using the same ideas to make sugars directly from sunlight, CO2 and water. LanzaTech’s microbe secretes ethanol after using carbon monoxide (from waste steel gas) as a primary input.

Each one of those is, in its own right, a fascinating and important technology. Now, Joule has taken it one step further by aiming for an alkanogen. That is, a milkable microbe that makes diesel or jet fuel directly from CO2, sunlight and water. If they can do that at scale, affordable — that’s completely market-transformative.

5. How to capture and use all that CO2 from ethanol fermentation.

When you ferment starch to make ethanol, some 30 percent of the original biomass is converted to carbon dioxide. That’s the math of yeast fermentation. But what about capturing all that CO2 and using it?

That’s what algae companies are up to, though many of them target other lower-cost sources of CO2.

But what about Liquid Light? As we observed in The race to capture, use and monetize waste CO2, it’s “a small company funded by BP Ventures, Redpoint, Osage University, VantagePoint and Chrysalix it just emerged from stealth after six years of developing a technology to convert CO2 into an array of speciality chemicals at reactivity rates — and thereby costs — that not only make it attractive as a carbon remediation, but in this case actually lower the cost of carbon compared to using fossil oil & gas in the first place.

Liquid Light’s first process is for the production of ethylene glycol (MEG), with a $27 billion annual market, which is used to make a wide range of consumer products such as plastic bottles, antifreeze and polyester clothing. Liquid Light’s technology can be used to produce more than 60 chemicals with large existing markets, including propylene, isopropanol, methyl-methacrylate and acetic acid.

6. Could amino acid residues be used for fuel?

Fast-growing microorganisms like algae are composed of as much as 25% oil, maybe 10% carbohydrates, and a whole lotta amino acid residues, a/k/a proteins. Could those residues be utilized to make the overall fuel and chemical yields more attractive, and simplify the distribution chain?

After all, with current yields and technologies, if you make a billion gallons of fuel, you’re making 1.2 million tons of protein, which basically means you’re in the protein business whether you like it or not, with attendant FDA or USDA oversight and lots of tough competition with established incumbent players.

Proteins had been completely ignored as a potential biomaterial because they’ve been thought of mainly as food. But in fact, there are a lot of different proteins that cannot be used as food,” said James C. Liao, the Chancellor’s Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at UCLA. “These proteins were overlooked as a resource for fuel or for chemicals because people did not know how to utilize them or how to grow them. We’ve solved these problems.”

“Research [by the UCLA team] is the first attempt to utilize protein as a carbon source for energy production and biorefining,” said Kwang Myung Cho, a UCLA Engineering research scientist and an author of the study. “To utilize protein as a carbon source, complex cellular regulation in nitrogen metabolism had to be rewired. This study clearly showed how to engineer microbial cells to control their cellular nitrogen metabolism.”

In nutrient-rich conditions, proteins are the most abundant component in fast-growing microorganisms. The accumulation rate of proteins is faster than that of any other raw materials, including cellulose or lipids. In addition, protein does not have the recalcitrance problems of lignocellulose or the de-watering problem of algal lipids. Protein biomass can be much more easily digested to be used for microorganisms than cellulosic biomass, which is very difficult to break down.

Further, cellulose and lipids don’t contribute to the process of photosynthesis. But proteins are the major component of fast-growing photosynthetic microorganisms.

The challenge in protein-based biorefining, the researchers say, lies in the difficulties of effectively converting protein hydrolysates to fuels and chemicals.

“Microorganisms tend to use proteins to build their own proteins instead of converting them to other compounds,” said Yi-xin Huo, a UCLA postdoctoral researcher and lead author of the study. “So to achieve the protein-based biorefining, we have to completely redirect the protein utilization system, which is one of the most highly regulated systems in the cell.”

Liao’s team created an artificial metabolic system to dump reduced nitrogen out of cells and tricked the cells to degrade proteins without utilizing them for growth. Proteins contain both ammonia and carbon; Liao’s team took away the ammonia and recycled it back for the growth of the algae they worked with. Algae with rich ammonia fertilizers grow quickly and were used only as a carrier to assimilate carbon dioxide and produce protein, which results in more CO2 fixation and growth. With this strategy, expensive photo-bioreactors can be eliminated.

“Today, nitrogen fertilizers used in agriculture and biofuel production have become a major threat to many of the world’s ecosystems, and the nitrogen-containing residuals in biofuel production can eventually turn into nitrous oxide, which is about 300 times worse than CO2 as a greenhouse gas,” Liao said. “Our strategy effectively recycles nitrogen back to the biofuel production process, thus approaching nitrogen neutrality.

7. Making something out of bio-char.

Cool Planet already has broken ground on its first commercial-scale plant, has two more on the drawing board in Louisiana alone, and each produces, we understand, 10 million gallons of renewable gasoline blendstock — and an as-yet undisclosed fraction of biochar. Even if the biochar fraction is, say, 20% by weight, that’s something like 25,000+ tons of biochar in the planning mix right now, from those three plants.

Can char become a valuable product, not just a waste byproduct? 

In “Auxins, toxins and raging hormones,” we wrote: “Think strawberries, tomatoes, peppers and celery. These are examples of relatively high-value crops grown in wetter or warmer climates that often struggle with poor soils and nutrient leaching. The acreages are small, in comparison to corn and soybeans. But not too small. In the case of strawberries, there’s just over 50,000 acres per year in cultivation, in the US. At 10 tons of biochar per acre, the addressable market would be around 500,000 tons.

We don’t really understand what makes biochar so active, though we know many things it can do. It helps soil hold onto nutrients, it aids water retention and water quality, makes soils less acidic, reduce nitrous oxide and methane emissions from soil, reduce fertilizer and water needs and improve yields.

But we don’t really understand the mechanisms well — making it hard to improve.m In fact, biochar has been known to flip on researchers and start acting like a herbicide, instead of a plant growth enhancer. It happened in the initial stages with Cool Planet’s biochar.

Professor Gail Taylor, Director of Research at the University of Southampton Centre for Biological Sciences with research colleagues in Italy and Scotland have provided an explanation why biochar has this impact, in an article recently published in Global Change Biology Bioenergy. In their study of thale cress and lettuce, the response of more than 10,000 genes was followed simultaneously, which identified brassinosteroids and auxins and their signalling molecules as key to the growth stimulation observed in biochar.

Professor Taylor noted: “Our findings provide the very first insight into how biochar stimulates plant growth – we now know that cell expansion is stimulated in roots and leaves alike and this appears to be the consequence of a complex signalling network that is focussed around two plant growth hormones.”

So, think of it as a case of raging hormones — and just think upon what a case of raging testosterone and estrogen can have, say, on human fertility — and you get the basic idea.


8. Increasing internal combustion engine efficiency.

Internal combustion engines are far less efficient than electric engines. The standard IC engine, using standard fuels, turns about 30 percent of the available energy into work energy.

For those newer to engine technology, octane rating measures the amount of compression that a fuel can tolerate before detonating. Premature detonation is also known as engine knock, which can cause severe engine damage. High-octane fuels can tolerate high compression, which increases engine efficiency. So, the differential between ethanol and gasoline’s octane rating could be a big deal. Ethanol has a 113 octane rating (RON method) compared to 87 for unleaded gasoline.

According to Ricardo, a fully optimized ethanol engine can come within a handful of percentage points, in terms of miles per gallon, of a gasoline-optimized engine.

Back in 2010, USA Today wrote that the Ricardo Ethanol Boost Direct Injection Engine optimized fuel economy at 30-50% ethanol blends. Ricardo’s scenario, based on a 50 percent ethanol blend for that GMC Sierra, the fuel would cost 16 percent less and travel between 95 percent and 118 percent of the distance traveled on straight gasoline. That would equate to a savings of between 15 and 19 percent savings, based on 50 percent ethanol content.

Barriers to deploying such an engine? Formidable barriers of time to develop, auto manufacturer acceptance, and effort to deploy across the auto fleet. The engine would cost $4500 more than a comparable gasoline-based engine (but less than a comparable diesel engine). Just to name a few concerns.

More recently, Oak Ridge National Lab researchers found that E30 blends could realize 10% more fuel economy and 30% reductions in carbon, compared to straight gasoline. E30, they found, offers the highest torque capability when at a high compression ratio compared to the other fuels tested. In addition to reducing fuel consumption and CO2 emissions, the data suggests mid-level alcohol blends with engine and vehicle optimization can offset any reduced fuel energy content.

9. Does algae really have to use that much water?

One of the continuing problems with making algae work at scale is to get the algae out of all that water, or get the water out of all that algae.

BioProcess Algae rightly gets a lot of attention for carbon capture and use, in association with ethanol production. But it also has an innovative approach to water. It has proven (at pilot scale) that its unique growth media can work – and this is an important breakthrough, because the company is growing microalgae out of solution, in thin, controlled biofilms to increase productivity and lower dewatering costs, gas transfer costs, pumping costs and mixing costs.

This past summer, that vision has taken a major series of steps forward as the BioProcess Algae project advances from a small pilot system to a 5-acre demonstration including all components systems that lead from CO2 capture through algae growth, harvest, and extraction.

10. Creating higher value from glycerine.

In the standard biodiesel process, transesterification, you get about 10 percent glycerine and 90% biodiesel from your input oil. What is being done with all that by-product?

Here’s one:

Neol Biosolutions a 50:50 joint venture between the Neuron Bio Group and Repsol has been granted the patent in USA for its technology MicroBiOil 1. This technology makes possible to obtain oils from crude glycerine via a biotechnological process for industrial use. These oils can be used to convert them in advanced biofuels as well as raw material within the oleo chemical industry.

Last year, we highlighted a project in the UK,  Glycerine Fuel for Engines and Marine Sustainability (GLEAMS) project undertaken by Lloyd’s Register, Aquafuel Research, Gardline Marine Sciences, Redwing Environmental and Marine South East. It appears to be gaining traction for using the biodiesel waste product as a potential feedstock for marine fuel.

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