Algae and bacteria can be used to capture energy from carbon-rich waste streams from coal plants, agricultural farms, food processing facilities, wastewater treatment plants and - yes, catfish farms.
Arizona-based PetroSun Biofuels (Subsidiary of PetroSun) has announced plans to integrate algae systems with catfish farm ponds for commercial algae-to-biofuel operations. PetroSun Biofuels is quickly becoming a biofuel startup with global reach. It already operates an open algae biofuel farm in Texas, has licensed its technology outside of the US, and is working to launch operations in China.
PetroSun BioFuels and Biomass Partners have identified up to 80,000 acres of catfish ponds within the state of Mississippi that hold the potential for commercial algae bioenergy systems. Based on PetroSun's annual potential production rate of 2,000 gallons per acre, the existing 80,000 acres of ponds would produce 160 million gallons of algal oil annually for conversion to biodiesel. The remaining algae biomass (e.g. fatty acids) could be processed into ethanol, animal feed, fertilizer and other biomaterial products.
PetroSun is working to secure land surface rights and existing farm ponds located in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas but has not yet announced dates for planned production facilities.
Algae bioenergy is based on a powerful idea that is still just off the radar of mainstream conversations on the future of energy. We can 'grow energy' by tapping 'carbon eating' algae that create usable forms of hydrocarbons for fuel or biomaterials.
The idea seems strange and futuristic, but it actually describes our past. We already tap the power of bioenergy everyday. Coal is ancient plant life, and oil is (likely) ancient microbes that lived in shallow oceans. Both plants and microbes fuse hydrogen and carbon bonds using the power of sunlight. But algae is a more efficient in that conversion and results in a higher hydrogen to carbon ratio. That means a cleaner burning fuel!
Everytime you turn on the light (via coal power plant) or drive a car you are capturing the energy released from carbon-hydrogen bonds form by ancient biology. Now energy visionaries are looking at how we can tap the same processes today to 'grow energy' without relying on food crops like corn or soy.
This week The Takeaway has been running Power Trip a series of programs on the future of energy. Earlier this week, Host John Hockenberry visited algae biofuels company Bionavitas in Seattle, WA.
The US Departments of Energy (DOE) and Agriculture (USDA) have released its National Biofuels Action Plan [4.9MB] detailing Federal agency and private partnership efforts to accelerate the development of ‘a sustainable biofuels industry’. While first generation biofuels such as corn ethanol have been under tremendous scrutiny in recent months, the US agencies appear to be positioning themselves to offer measurably sustainable biofuel resources that will rely heavily on next generation resources (e.g. non-food, waste biomass) and biologically driven conversion processes. [Principles outlined in Biofuel Plan Factsheet]
The official word – We have Plan
“Federal leadership can provide the vision for research, industry and citizens to understand how the nation will become less dependent on foreign oil and create strong rural economies,” USDA Secretary Schafer said. “This National Biofuels Action Plan supports the drive for biofuels growth to supply energy that is clean and affordable, and always renewable.”
Translation: We are hedging our bets on the future of bioenergy!
Looking beyond the rhetoric of energy security, and clear tip of the hat to rural agricultural politics and the influence of mainstream agricultural players, target-based plans do secure federal funding streams for next generation bioenergy solutions. And there are significant funds headed towards innovative start up companies that could develop game-changing bio industrial applications. These start ups could ease our reliance on traditional petrochemicals for making fuels, fertilizers and raw materials processing.
But the key takeaway might be that the DOE is hedging R&D investments on traditional chemical biofuel refining processes (traditional catalysts) by also advancing potentially lower cost biological conversion processes (enzymes/algae).
To develop low cost cellulosic biofuels from non-food biomass feedstock, the agency announced $12.3 million contract with bioenergy startup Novoyzme. The company will be contracted to develop enzymes capable of breaking down strong cellular plant walls under its named project DECREASE (Development of a Commercial-Ready Enzyme Application System for Ethanol).
According to Novoyzme, the company has confirmed plans to launch the enzymes required for commercially viable production of ethanol from cellulose by 2010, midway through this contract, with plans to reach an enzyme cost target that is even further reduced by 2012. But there is still rural politics infused as the primary feedstock is expected to be leftover corn biomass waste.
There is an echo chamber of cynicism around the topic of corn ethanol. Unless you are a corn farmer or part of the ethanol lobby, evergyone agrees that this is not a sustainable path.
So the world is moving forward. The conversation is now focused on next generation bioenergy solutions that avoid the problems of 'crop' based biofuels.
The US government has placed a ceiling on future growth for corn derived fuels, and now the Obama administration has announced up to $25 million in funding for research and development of technologies and processes to produce biofuels, bioenergy, and high-value biobased products.
The money will fund projects related to: Feedstocks development; Biofuels and biobased products development; and Biofuels development analysis.
What is happening? 'Biology' is coming of age as a driver of industrial and energy applications.
Why 'Bioenergy'has more to do with Bio-Industrialism than Farming
Bioenergy 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
Biofuels Digest has released its list of of 'Hottest' Biofuel companies based on research or production achievements in 2008. The analyst panel votes were weighted by industry and region 'to ensure a fair and broad representation of companies and technologies.'
"Innovation in renewable energy is gaining speed," said Jim Lane, editor and publisher of Biofuels Digest. "A slew of advanced bioenergy systems are coming to market from some of the brightest biologists, chemists, agronomists and engineers in the world. These companies are the hottest of the hot."
Top Ten includes:
1. Coskata 2. Sapphire Energy 3. Virent Energy Systems 4. POET 5. Range Fuels 6. Solazyme 7. Amyris Biotechnologies 8. Mascoma 9. DuPont Danisco 10. UOP
Corn is not the future of biofuels. It is a political distraction, and researchers are moving beyond crops for fuel.
We are moving quickly into an era of next generation biofuels such as cellulosic ethanol derived from waste materials, and algae fuels derived from carbon emission feedstocks.
Cellulosic ethanol is a particular challenge given the slow rate of speed associated with the breaking down sugar-rich materials (e.g. agricultural waste like corn cobs). To develop faster, lower cost systems we must first understand how these proteins (enzymes called cellulases) do their magic of breaking down complex cellulose bonds into simple pieces of sugar.
Supercomputers open up new knowledge Researchers at the San Diego Supercomputing Center (SDSC) are creating virtual molecules that might mimic how enyzmes 'dance' above a cellulose chain before it rips up a single sugar molecule feeding it into its 'molecular conveyor belt' to 'unzip' the bonds into basic sugars that can be fermented into a liquid fuel.
Why supercomputers? Few things in the world are as complicated as understanding the shape and movement (folding) of proteins, or the breaking down of strong cellulose walls. Supercomputer simulations help us decode the secrets of molecular movement!
The companies have committed $45 million in funding and assets to progress the development of one of the nation's first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol facilities, located in Highlands County, Florida.
Yes, it will take years to scale up cellulosic (and algae) energy systems, but the pace of breakthroughs and production focused investments remains one of the most compelling stories emerging in the energy sector.
The Real Transition: Growing Energy by Closing the Carbon Loop The law of conservation of energy states that energy may neither be created nor destroyed. But the real question for those exploring the futures of energy is: Will our economy continue to be based on energy that is 'borrowed and wasted' or 'created and recycled'?
We shifted from an Agricultural to Industrial society, by tapping 'stored energy' locked up in the chemical carbon-hydrogen bonds of coal, oil and natural gas. And this system is shamefully inefficient at every level from electric power generation to the mechanical engines that power our transportation sector.
If the Industrial Age was based on a high value energy 'input', low value energy 'output' (waste), the 21st century could be shaped by our efforts to close the loop of chemical energy cycles using biology (chemistry, et al) to return to a high value energy product from that waste.
Here is a recipe for the future of biofuels that avoids the conflict of ‘food versus fuel’ and the politics of corn derived ethanol.
Organic waste plus bio-enzymes = cellulosic ethanol (bioethanol)
Tap the molecular machine power of Mother Nature’s enyzmes that convert raw organic waste into usable forms of fuel. How do we get there? First we need to lower the costs of enzymes and bio-manufacturing facilities that make next generation biofuels possible.
Denmark-based bio-solutions firm Novozymes continues to expand its global partnerships for delivering next generation biofuel solutions that can convert agricultural and organic waste into fuel. The company’s technologies are now supporting the world’s largest enzyme fermentation facility in the world.
The Suzhou Hongda Enzymes Co. facility is located in Taicang, Suzhou, Jiangsu Province just north of Shanghai. The expanded capacity will primarily focus on products for the bioethanol industry.
“We believe bioethanol is a good example how biotechnology can make more from less, decoupling economic growth from the use of natural resources” (e.g. food crops) according to EVP Peder Holk Nielsen, “The Suzhou facility is one of Novozymes’ strategic manufacturing locations, and this new expansion will enable us to accomplish more.”
Why is this important to the future of energy?
Investments in Next Generation Biofuels & China’s Cleantech sector
2008 was a big year for science breakthroughs on next generation bioenergy solutions. And that is a good thing for the future of energy.
The modern economy runs on ancient bioenergy. Coal is ancient biomass, oil is likely ancient microbes.
So why not tap the power of biology to ‘grow energy’ resources.
Forget about corn ethanol, the future taps the power of microorganisms not plants.
Next generation solutions such as algae and bacteria ‘eat’ carbon to produce biofuels, or use sunlight to produce hydrogen. Looking beyond 2015, we can imagine real breakthroughs in the field of Synthetic Biology that could change how we look at energy and carbon solutions.
Penn State University understands that the future of cleantech and the 'new energy economy' comes down to advancing the fundmantals of chemistry, biology and materials science.
The University has become a powerhouse for cleantech research and its scientists are pushing the limits of performance around next generation solar cells, fuel cells and cleaner hydrocarbons.
Now researchers have made a breakthrough related to the breadown of ligin that can be used to lower the cost of cellulosic based biofuels, and change the feedstock industry.
Rethinking the breakdown of Ligin Lignin is a key piece of cellular walls in woody plant material. Breaking it down to access the energy of chemical bonds in the plant material is one of the great barriers to cost effective cellulosic biofuels.
"There is lots of energy-rich cellulose locked away in wood," said John Carlson, professor of molecular genetics, Penn State. "But separating this energy from the wood to make ethanol is a costly process requiring high amounts of heat and caustic chemicals. Moreover, fungal enzymes that attack lignin are not yet widely available, still in the development stage, and not very efficient in breaking up lignin."
Bean gene + Poplar Tree + Enzyme Researchers inserted a gene from beans into a poplar tree that inserts a protein between two lignin molecules when the lignin polymer is created.
"Now we have a lignin polymer with a protein stuck in between," explained Carlson "When that occurs, it creates a type of lignin that is not much different in terms of strength than normal lignin, but we can break open the lignin polymer by using enzymes that attack proteins rather than enzymes that attack lignin."
These enzymes that attack proteins are already used widely in the laundry detergent industry and are commercially readily available, added Carlson. The genetic modification does not appear to weaken the plants or the crop production.
The easy to breakdown ligin variation may also have major implications for agriculture and livestock industries:
'The New Energy Economy' is the latest policy buzz word being used to describe the vision of a future global economy that runs on clean, abundant energy systems.
The incentives to accelerate this cleantech future are growing. Beyond issues of climate change, there are increasing concerns about accelerating resource depletion and 'peak' production of key resources as the world adds 3 billion people and doubles energy consumption by 2050. Paris-based International Energy Agency estimates that peak oil production could occur as soon as 2020.
The 'new energy economy' will require leaps in performance with new forms of energy production and storage systems.
Nothing is likely to happen quickly as the transition takes decades to unfold. And while our dependency on fossil fuels is likely to continue through mid-century, big changes are ahead.
World Watch Energy Report The World Watch has released a report (PDF) looking at a roadmap towards a lower carbon economy based on a wide range of new energy systems.
"We are on the verge of an energy revolution," says Flavin. "With strong political leadership, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to use policy and technology innovation to stave off the greatest human-caused threat our planet has seen."
World Watch believes that 'these new energy sources will make it possible to retire hundreds of coal-fired power plants that now provide 40 percent of the world's power by 2030, eliminating up to one-third of global carbon dioxide emissions while creating millions of new jobs.'