Stories tagged biofuels


In a world gridlocked with cars and gas-guzzling SUVs how can we meet our fuel needs?

According to David Tilman and other researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment (IonE), biofuels, or fuels made from plant materials, are possible substitutes for fossil fuels like gasoline and diesel. In a July 2009 Science article, scientists identify five sources that can produce large amounts of biofuels without destroying natural habitat or using land needed to raise crops and cattle for food.

“We need to transition away from using food for biofuels toward more sustainable feedstocks that can be produced with much less impact on the environment.” Jason Hill, University of Minnesota

One Man’s Trash is Another Man’s TreasureCrop waste, plants grown on abandoned land, and trash, are all possible sources of biofuels.
Crop waste, plants grown on abandoned land, and trash, are all possible sources of biofuels.Courtesy University of California Berkeley News


A Forest of Fuel: Coming soon, to your gas tank!
A Forest of Fuel: Coming soon, to your gas tank!Courtesy Stef Maruch

Move over, old, lame bio-fuels!

Algae! The wondrous plants that can grow easily in controlled conditions and whose needs are very basic for rapid growth is now being tested for use in bio-fuels. ExxonMobil, looking to expand and diversify their alternative fuel options will team up with Venter's Synthetic Genomics Inc. to conduct research on different types of algae to test their effectiveness as biofuels.

The so-called "first generation" bio-fuels caused problems globally when the price of corn (for corn ethanol) sky rocketed when it was being used for food and fuel . Though a small percent of corn (or other) ethanol is added to gasoline, it still has a huge effect on the market, and is therefore not the best long term solution to eliminating our addiction to oil.

The Future?: Someday...someday. Let's keep 'em crossed for a day when all houses are like this!
The Future?: Someday...someday. Let's keep 'em crossed for a day when all houses are like this!Courtesy Bjorn Appel

Many view bio-fuels as only a transitionary solution to the oil problem, hoping that a sustainable energy type (like solar or wind) may soon be widely available. Algae if successful as a bio fuel, it may be used for a longer period than the "first-generation" bio fuels because of how fast it can grow and how easy it can be to care for. It also isn't used for much else, not like corn anyway. Engineers are hoping to develop artificial environments for algae to grow in knowing that this is the only way to produce enough of the green slime to sustain our needs.

It is encouraging, in some ways, that a big business like ExxonMobil is getting involved because research will not be short funded. If there is a will, there is some green slime that can't wait to get in your car!


Have you ever seen anything more dull?: Even the toilet seems to be yawning.
Have you ever seen anything more dull?: Even the toilet seems to be yawning.Courtesy luis echanove
It’s called growing up, Peter, and everyone does it. Even you. But, on the plus side, you can legally buy cigarettes now.

Or am I just tired of life?

Well, whatever. Poop is in the news. Yawn. Again. And again.

Where others might see a barrel, and be all, “Hey, I’m not scraping the bottom of that barrel,” the cleverest capitalists and the sharpest scientists look at the situation and say, “Are you done with that barrel? And does anyone want to buy what I can scrape out of here? Even if it’s poop?” And of course it’s poop. And of course someone wants it.

Awesome I guess.

I should be more excited, shouldn’t I? I mean, someone out there is taking human waste and turning it into an environmentally-conscious coal substitute. It probably looks hilarious. But there’s only so much human waste a person can take. It’s just not exciting anymore.

So some company is squeezing the water from the brown gold of southern California, and turning it into coal-y stuff. Cement factories buy it, they burn it, they mix the ashes with their cement. At full capacity they’ll produce enough crapcoal to equal the energy out put of a 7-megawatt power station.


The fecal sciences just seem to have lost their flavor.


Pond scum to the rescue: Researchers are looking at ways to produce fuel from algae. Photo from NOAA.
Pond scum to the rescue: Researchers are looking at ways to produce fuel from algae. Photo from NOAA.

If some researchers in Colorado have their way, you may one day be driving a car powered by pond scum. Solix Biofuels is one of a handful of companies trying to produce biodiesel from algae.

May people consider biodeisel fuels, like ethanol, a preferable alternative to gasoline for powering. It is renewable (we’ll never run out; we just grow some more); it pollutes less; it is non-toxic and biodegradable; and we can grow it in the US, and not have to import oil from overseas.

One of the big problems with biofuels, though, is they are made from plants. Some of those plants, like corn and soybeans, we eat. Turning those plants into fuel is already driving up the price of food. And replacing all our oil with biofuel would require more farmland than exists in the entire nation.

This is where algae comes in. Algae produces vegetable oil, which can be refined into biodiesel. It can grow anywhere you can set up water tanks. It thrives on sunshine, which is plentiful and free. And it pulls carbon dioxide out of the air. (You could, in fact, take the CO2 produced by a traditional power plant and pump it straight into an algae farm)

Algae researchers are a long way from producing any biofuel yet. But this could be a way of meeting our energy needs while being gentler to the environment.


Dr. Clarence Lehman of the University of Minnesota will present an evening program on Energy and Biofuels at the Warner Nature Center on Friday, January 12, 2007 at 7:00 PM.

Dr. Lehman co-authored a paper featured as the cover story in the prestigious journal Science on Dec. 8, 2006. The highly regarded work emphasizes the importance of native grassland perennials in providing more usable energy, greater greenhouse gas reductions and less agrichemical pollution than corn grain ethanol or soybean biodiesel.

The evening is co-hosted by the Friends of Warner Nature Center and the Friends of the St. Croix Watershed Research Station Research. Refreshments and beverages will follow the program. The cost of the evening is free to any members of either Friends group and is open to the public with tickets priced at $12/family or $8/individual. Call (651) 433-2427 to register or for more information.

Buzz stories about biofuel:


Prairie grasses: This experimental plot contains four species of prairie plants. The nearby plots, going clockwise, contain eight species, four species, and 16 species. (Photo courtesy David Tilman, University of Minnesota)

Scientists at our very own U of M have made some exciting new discoveries about the prospect of using biofuels for energy! They found that planting a diverse mix of native prairie species is more efficient than corn or soybeans, even on degraded soil. Amazingly, their most diverse plots, with 18 different species, produced 238% more bioenergy than the plots with only 1 species.

While there is still a lot of research needed to make this system useable on a wide scale, these findings are encouraging for a few reasons. Unlike all of our other forms of fuel, including corn ethanol or biodiesel from soy beans, the native plants actually absorb more carbon from the atmosphere than is released when used for fuel. Because of the vast root network associated with prairie plants (which allow them to withstand Minnesota’s hot and dry summers), much carbon is stored below ground and is not harvested for fuel. Also, these environmentally friendly crops can be grown on land that is unusable for traditional food crops. They do not need to be fertilized, a benefit to growing a native species, and thus can be grown in nutrient poor areas. Fertilizer runoff from traditional agriculture is a big contributor to water quality problems. Additionally, because native prairie species are perennial crops, they can help prevent erosion. For much of the year, particularly during the rainy months in the spring, corn or soybean fields are bare. This leaves the ground vulnerable to soil loss. Planting a native mix, particularly on steep slopes or along riverbanks, which are less suitable to traditional crops anyway, could mitigate many environmental issues. Plus, we could increase the amount of prairie habitat for native wildlife!

For more information on sustainable agriculture and the latest research check out Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education and the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture.


Hydrogen from soybean oil
Hydrogen from soybean oil

Homegrown fuel

Many consider hydrogen to be a perfect fuel. The waste product produced when it is burned is water. Hydrogen is a component contained in a variety of materials but figuring out how to cheaply extract that hydrogen is what one scientist refers to as the Holy Grail of 21st century energy.

U of Mn scientist, Lanny Schmidt, extracts hydrogen from biofuels

Lanny Schmidt, a Regents professor at the University of Minnesota, has invented such a process. It will produce hydrogen from renewable fuels like ethanol, sugar water, or soybean oil.

The reactor is deceptively simple in design. At the top is an automotive fuel injector that vaporizes and mixes the ethanol-water fuel. The vaporized fuel is injected into a tube that contains a porous plug coated with the catalyst. As the fuel passes through the plug, the carbon in the ethanol is burned, but the hydrogen is not. What emerges is mostly carbon dioxide, burnt carbon, and hydrogen gas. The reaction takes only 5 to 50 milliseconds and produces none of the flames and soot that usually accompany ethanol combustion. The reactor needs a small amount of heat to get going, but once it does, it sustains the reaction at more than 700 degrees C. University of MN

Minimize transportation costs

Also, his device is small and portable One of the thorniest economic problems of making biofuel from cornstalks or sawdust has been the cost of transporting the bulky materials to a distant factory. With Schmidt's invention, you wouldn't have to — the "factory" could be located on a farm or at a sawmill.

Electricity without powerlines

Converting biofuels into electricity requires fuel cells which generate electricty from hydrogen. Schmidt imagines a 1 kilowatt unit about the size of a washing machine where the electricity comes from a fuel cell powered by hydrogen, derived from ethanol or other biofuels. This could allow developing countries to eliminate the need for expensive powerlines into rural areas.

Sources: Pioneer Press and MPR


Black cottonwood: Courtesy Oak Point Nursery
Black cottonwood: Courtesy Oak Point Nursery

Ever heard of Populus trichocarpa? It sure is shaking up what researchers understand about plant biology and evolution. That’s right, Populus trichocarpa is a tree, more specifically a black cottonwood.

The black cottonwood is the first tree to have its full DNA code sequenced. Reports state the poplar tree has far less DNA in its cells than humans or other mammals, but twice the number of genes. The poplar has 485 million basepairs! Basepairs are the letters orchestrating a genetic code (A=adenine, T=thymine, C=cytosine, G=guanine). Researchers have found more than 45,000 possible genes (units of hereditary information). To put this number in perspective, humans and other mammals have a little over 20-25,000 genes.

Why is this cool?

Besides figuring out specific questions about botany, having the full DNA sequence of the black cottonwood will also have industrial implications.

The research team discovered 93 genes of the poplar where involved in making cellulose. Cellulose is an organic material found in large quantities on Earth. Cellulose is the primary structural component of green plants. It can be broken down into sugar, fermented into alcohol and distilled to produce fuel-quality ethanol.

Dr. Gerald Tuskan, the lead author of the report in Science, stated, “Biofuels are not only attractive for their potential to cut reliance on oil imports but also their reduced environmental impact.”

Populus trichocarpa identification:

Leaf structure: Alternate, simple, deciduous, ovate-laneolate to deltoid, dark green and silvery white underneath, wavy margins.

Fruit: Releases cottony-tufted seeds
Bark: When young, it is smooth and yellowish tan to gray; later on it turns gray to gray-brown and has deep furrows and flattened ridges.

Form: Tallest broad-leaved tree in the West. Able to grow up to 200 feet tall and 6 feet in diameter.

Found: Flood plains and along river and stream banks. Prefers moist/wet sites.

Keep your eyes open for a black cottonwood tree near you!