• 'One Pot' cocktail of enzymes produces hydrogen from cellulose

    February 12 2009 / by Garry Golden
    Category: Energy

    enzyme wikimedia

    Our economy grows because it captures stored energy released from the chemical bonds in fossil fuels formed by ancient plants and microbes that became coal and oil.

    Our power plants produce electricity by breaking up carbon-hydrogen chains from coal and natural gas, and our cars blow up ancient microbes that we call 'oil'.

    The value of a 'fuel' is based on its hydrogen to carbon ratio.  The more hydrogen, the cleaner and better the fuel.

    Yes, it's confusing, but also very important for everyone to understand where we 'extract' energy from: chemical bonds.

    An Era of Clean Electrons, Clean Molecules
    In addition to generating electricity via renewables (et al), a central piece of our 21st century energy strategy is to reduce the amount of carbon and increase the percentage of hydrogen to hydrogen bonds (e.g. 'Cleaner molecules' that store energy) that drive our economy.

    One alternative to fossil fuels, is the use of biomass waste materials that contain hydrogen molecules that can be freed (via biological enzymes) to be used in fuel cells to produce electricity.

    An Elegant One Pot' Solution
    Researchers at Virginia Tech, Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), and the University of Georgia have produced hydrogen gas by mixing 14 enzymes, one coenzyme, cellulosic materials from nonfood sources, and water heated to about 90 degrees (32 C).

    The researchers' novel combination of enzymes could equal natural hydrogen fermentation, and a chemical energy output greater than the chemical energy stored in sugars – the highest hydrogen yield reported from cellulosic materials.

    Low Temperature: 'Prometheus Stealing Fire" (Continue)

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  • Forget about algae? Wisconsin researchers turn raw biomass into biofuels via two step chemistry

    February 11 2009 / by Garry Golden
    Category: Energy

    ChemistFlickrBioenergy visionaries with algae and bacteria aren't the only players in town trying to corner the market on the 'future of biofuels'.  We cannot forget the Chemists.

    Biofuels are expanding along two paths- one is based on chemical engineering, the other on biological processes.

    Chemistry vs Biology
    We can create biofuels by applying chemical engineering processes (e.g. ethanol via fermentation, or biodiesel via transesterfication) with high reliability and scale, but usually at a high cost.  

    Or we can let Mother Nature do the work. Biology taps the power of algae and bacteria that contain special enzymes that reorganize molecules into a format that can be used to make biofuels, or converted into electricity via a fuel cell.

    Biology could offer lower cost and turn carbon emissions into a feedstock, but first we must overcome challenges of scaling up volume production, and the unpredictable nature of biomolecular systems.

    Wisconsin Focuses on Path of Chemistry
    For now, chemical conversion is the more immediate opportunity and fits within the current paradigm of processing energy and materials feedstocks.  And engineers are working to overcome the challenges to reduce the number of steps, and facilitate reactions at a lower temperature with non-toxic, abundant resources.

    Now scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have developed a two-step method to convert cellulose into a biofuel called DMF.  Professor Ronald Raines and graduate student Joseph Binder highlight the two step process:  First, they convert the cellulose of untreated biomass into the "platform" chemical 5-hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF) which is used in 'a variety of valuable commodity chemicals'. Generally HMF is made using processed glucose or fructose rather than raw biomass.

    Step Two: Creating a New Biofuel with Gasoline Qualities

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  • Sandia Labs - General Motors Study: 75 Billion Gallons of Cellulosic Biofuel is Possible By 2030

    February 11 2009 / by Garry Golden
    Category: Energy

    algae biofuel

    A joint study by Sandia National Laboratories and General Motors speculates that non-food crop resources (with help from corn) 'could sustainably replace nearly a third of US gasoline use by the year 2030.'

    The 90 Billion Gallon Study [PDF], which focused only on starch-based and cellulosic ethanol, found that an increase to 90 billion gallons of ethanol could be sustainably achieved by 2030 within real-world economic and environmental parameters 'assuming technical and scientific progress continues at expected rates.'

    The Study assumes 75 billion gallons would be ethanol made from nonfood cellulosic feedstocks and 15 billion gallons from corn-based ethanol.

    The set of non-food crop resources explored include: agricultural residue, such as corn stover and wheat straw; forest residue; dedicated energy crops, including switchgrass; and short rotation woody crops, such as willow and poplar trees. Competitive pricing models include costs of producing, harvesting, storing and transporting these sources to newly built biorefineries.

    Not forgetting the real problem: The Combustion Engine
    Tapping biological pathways to capture carbon and create usable forms of energy is a good idea.  But we must not lose site of the real problem: our dependency on the combustion engine and its requirement for liquid fuels.  Energy industry pundits are always quick to raise the problem with the oil market's lack of substitutability.  

    As long as the combustion engine lives we cannot put electrons from solar, wind or nuclear inside the gas tank. It might not be the 'end game', but next generation biofuels are the only viable substitute liquid fuels on our our horizon.

    Key Findings include:

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  • Brookings Institute proposes new R&D framework with Energy Discovery-Innovation Institutes

    February 10 2009 / by Garry Golden
    Category: Energy

    brookings blueprint

    The Brookings Institute has released a report: "Energy Discovery-Innovation Institutes:
    A Step Towards America's Energy Sustainability"[PDF]
    that proposes a new structure for innovation around a national network of regionally based energy Discovery-Innovation Institutes (e-DIIs) 'to serve as the hubs of a distributed research network linking the nation’s best scientists, engineers, and facilities.'

    Committing Ourselves to Enabling Disruptive Science & Technologies
    Given the dynamics of the global energy sector we can expect that nothing is going to change quickly, but when changes do happen - they could be potentially disruptive to how we produce, store and distributed energy.

    Incremental solutions are not going to solve US or Global energy and environmental challenges.  We must enable disruptive science and technologies that can 'do more with less' in fundamentally new ways.   While we cannot pick winners, it is clear that the cross-disciplinary nature of science at the nanoscale will be paramount in all areas of energy from making hydrocarbons cleaner, lowering the costs of renewables, scaling up next generation bioenergy solutions, managing 'smarter grids', and creating storage solutions.  Maybe a new framework for research collaboration is what we need to enable the 'new energy economy'!

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  • Major step forward in non-platinum, carbon nanotube based catalyst for fuel cells

    February 10 2009 / by Garry Golden
    Category: Energy

    Carbon Nanotube CC Gutchis

    Becoming 'energy efficient' goes far beyond changing light bulbs.  Our greatest gains will come from moving beyond today's 'combustion' energy systems that burn fuels in large power plants and under our hoods.

    Central to this 'post-combustion era' strategy is the fuel cell- which converts chemical energy of hydrogen or hydrogen rich fuels (e.g. natural gas, methanol) into electrical energy.  Fuel cells are modular, have no moving parts, offer higher efficiencies, lower maintenance and are ideal for distributed applications.

    One of the major roadblocks has been the high costs of platinum catalysts that are peppered on fuel cell membranes (MEAs).  To scale up in the decades ahead, fuel cell researchers need to find non-precious metal catalysts.

    Can Carbon outperform Platinum?
    Now a research team from the University of Dayton has found a way to create a carbon nanotube based catalyst that might outperform platinum and dramatically drop the costs of fuel cells.

    Shape helps speed up reactions
    The research team, led by Dr Liming Dai, synthesized carbon nanotubes using an iron base and doped nitrogen particles to change the shape (and properties) of the nanotube cathode, resulting in a faster reaction / higher efficiency.

    New Scientist reports Dai's claim that "They are even better than platinum, long regarded as the best catalyst," as they avoid problems with carbon 'poisoning' that leads to lower performance. 

    We have written extensively on the disruptive role of nanoscale science and engineering in all energy applications (old and new), and the importance of 'shape' in determining molecular system performance in catalysis.  We cannot simply extrapolate our assumptions of what is possible or impossible with carbon or hydrogen based on a microscale era of scientific knowledge.  

    Giving Carbon a New Image
    (Nanotubes, Nanoparticles & Graphene Sheets)

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  • Low temperature combustion could double diesel efficiencies, but manufacturing problems remain

    February 09 2009 / by Garry Golden
    Category: Transportation

    ORNLCombustionI see efforts to improve combustion engines as trying to 'build a better buggy whip' in an era of 'diminishing returns' on mechanical heat engine innovations.

    The problem is not their efficiencies, rather it is the manufacturing costs and complexities of building mechanical engine vehicles.

    The world economy would be better off to move beyond combustion conversion towards more efficient, non-mechanical, and modular electrochemical conversion devices like fuel cells. (This doesn't require pure hydrogen, since you can still use hydrocarbon fuels.)

    But I admit that diesel engines are not going away anytime soon, so efforts to improve efficiency for industrial applications could move us further down the road.  

    Now scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory have created the first three-dimensional simulation that fully resolves flame features, such as chemical composition, temperature profile and flow characteristics in diesel engines.  Their efforts could lead to new lower temperature engine designs that are more efficent.

    3D Models / 120 Terabytes of Data Reveals Combustion Process Unfolding


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  • [Video] MIT Professor reminds us of how much there is yet to discover around energy science

    February 09 2009 / by Garry Golden
    Category: Energy

    What we don't know about the fundamental science of energy systems might actually help us!  The problem is that most people assume we already know everything, and that we are running out of solution sets.  In fact, we are only at the beginning of a new era of understanding nanoscale (molecular) energy systems engineering.

    MIT Chemistry Professor Dan Nocera's lecture Whales to Wood, Wood to Coal/Oil to What's Next? describes what we do not understand about solar energy conversion (photosynthesis) and effective energy storage in nature's form of chemical bonds.  His focus is to uncover the science of nature's recipe for storing energy: Light + Water = Fuel. 

    The Real Transition: Era of Extraction

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  • [Video] An Inside Look at Sentilla's Vision of a Smarter Energy Future

    February 05 2009 / by Garry Golden
    Category: Energy

    The Takeaway's Host John Hockenberry interviews the CEO of Sentilla and explores the huge opportunity around the convergence of energy and information.  The era of 'smarter energy' systems is likely to be more efficient and profitable because it taps the integration of software, sensors and energy storage. 

    We have written about Sentilla in the past, along with other smart energy startups including yesterday's post on a 'swarm' organization model developed by REGEN Energy. We have also posted on a number of 'smart grid' infrastructure efforts being pushed by IBM, Johnson Controls and Cisco

    Related posts on The Smart Grid on The Energy Roadmap.com

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  • Waterproofing sand with nano-coatings developed to slow desertification

    February 05 2009 / by Garry Golden
    Category: Environment

    Nanosand Pankaj SharmaReducing the amount of water needed to grow crops and prevent massive desertification could dramatically reduce the need for energy used in producing fertilizers, irrigation and desalination.

    Hydrophobic Sand
    Nanowerk has featured a story written by Derek Baldwin of Xpress News on the development and use of layers of hydrophobic (water resistant) sand that prevents water from evaporating to keep it closer to the root systems.

    The nano-coated sand could be used as a sub-layer for farming, urban landscaping, and a wide range of eco-friendly industrial applications like oil spills. 

    The proprietary coating process was developed by UAE-based DIME Hydrophobic Materials working with German scientist Helmut F. Schulze.  The product's performance has been verified by a German materials testing agency (without details on coating's own  environmental impact or longevity) and is now in pilot projects in the United Arab Emirates.
    Visit: Photo Gallery/Pankaj Sharma


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  • Energy Startup REGEN Building Bee 'Swarm' Model for Smarter Appliances

    February 04 2009 / by Garry Golden
    Category: Energy


    MIT Technology Review has a great post on the use of (bee) 'swarm' inspired algorithms to reduce energy consumption of networked appliances like air conditioners, computers and heating systems.  Toronto-based startup REGEN ENERGY is building smart energy platforms using new technology standards like Zigbee and micro-controllers to 'maximize collective efficiency'.  Their trick is to enable 'bottom up' self organized smart grids for appliances without having to actively manage their energy consumption with a 'single order'.

    Related posts on The Smart Grid

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