Monday, May 05, 2008

Cellulose vs. Maize vs. Algae: Race to Bioenergy

It is easy to see that no matter how much maize the US chooses to grow, China will be happy to buy it all to use as livestock feed. Corn ethanol will be abandoned not because of food shortages--which have little to do with corn ethanol--but because cheaper feedstocks for producing ethanol (and butanol) are being developed. Chief among these cheaper feedstocks is cellulose from waste biomass. Some parts of the world are particularly prolific in growing cellulosic biomass, and in their own way these regions may one day be considered the "Saudi Arabias of Cellulose."
“I heard recently that the Southeast will eventually be known as the Saudi Arabia of cellulose,” Tiller said of the region’s ease in growing native switchgrass and other potential supplies of biomass that could be used for cellulosic alcohol production.

In 20 years of research, UT has found that switchgrass — a biennial crop that takes two or three years to reach maximum potential with minimal fertilizer even on marginal soils — in one year can produce six to 10 tons an acre compared to hay, which produces one or two tons an acre and requires substantially more fertilizer.

New research may bring that to 12 to 15 tons an acre in the next few years, Tiller said. Research also is looking at ways to more densely pack switchgrass in bales, convert it to pellets, or even alter it genetically to start breaking down soon after harvest....

Tiller explained that the process under study uses a “steam explosion” — forcing heat and steam into the biomass and then drastically relieving the pressure — to coax the sugars out of switchgrass and other biomass, making the biomass “explode like popcorn.”

A lignin byproduct can be used to make biodiesel, other oils, carbon fibers and plastics, depending on the most efficient use and market demand.

And the cellulose and hemicellulose — aside from going to the fermentation and distillation process to make ethanol — also can be used to make biodiesel and other products, depending on economics and demands. __Source
The US consumes 400 million gallons of gasoline a day. Current US ethanol production would only provide about two weeks worth of fuel for the US. Clearly the US needs to rapidly scale up biofuels production--but not using corn. China would clearly outbid ethanol producers for any amount of corn US growers want to grow.

Until cellulosic biomass can be more cheaply converted to alcohols, the US will need to look to Brazilian cane ethanol, and other cheaper feedstocks such as sweet sorghum. Eventually, algae and other monocellular organisms are likely to provide better and cheaper feedstocks for biodiesel and bio-alcohol fuels. But algae still has a number of problems that need ironing out.

H/T NextEnergyNews

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Blogger Unknown said...


University of Hawai'i Professor Pengchen "Patrick" Fu developed an innovative technology, to produce high amounts of ethanol with modified cyanobacterias, as a new feedstock for ethanol, without entering in conflict with the food and feed-production .

Fu has developed strains of cyanobacteria — one of the components of pond scum — that feed on atmospheric carbon dioxide, and produce ethanol as a waste product.

He has done it both in his laboratory under fluorescent light and with sunlight on the roof of his building. Sunlight works better, he said.

It has a lot of appeal and potential. Turning waste into something useful is a good thing. And the blue-green-algae needs only sun and wast- recycled from the sugar-cane-industry, to grow and to produce directly more and more ethanol. With this solution, the sugarcane-based ethanol-industry in Brazil and other tropical regions will get a second way, to produce more biocombustible for the worldmarket.

The technique may need adjusting to increase how much ethanol it yields, but it may be a new technology-challenge in the near future.

The process was patented by Fu and UH in January, but there's still plenty of work to do to bring it to a commercial level. The team of Fu foundet just the start-up LA WAHIE BIOTECH INC. with headquarter in Hawaii and branch-office in Brazil.


Fu figures his team is two to three years from being able to build a full-scale
ethanol plant, and they are looking for investors or industry-partners (jointventure).

He is fine-tuning his research to find different strains of blue-green algae that will produce even more ethanol, and that are more tolerant of high levels of ethanol. The system permits, to "harvest" continuously ethanol – using a membrane-system- and to pump than the blue-green-algae-solution in the Photo-Bio-Reactor again.

Fu started out in chemical engineering, and then began the study of biology. He has studied in China, Australia, Japan and the United States, and came to UH in 2002 after a stint as scientist for a private company in California.

He is working also with NASA on the potential of cyanobacteria in future lunar and Mars colonization, and is also proceeding to take his ethanol technology into the marketplace. A business plan using his system, under the name La Wahie Biotech, won third place — and a $5,000 award — in the Business Plan Competition at UH's Shidler College of Business.
Daniel Dean and Donavan Kealoha, both UH law and business students, are Fu's partners. So they are in the process of turning the business plan into an operating business.

The production of ethanol for fuel is one of the nation's and the world's major initiatives, partly because its production takes as much carbon out of the atmosphere as it dumps into the atmosphere. That's different from fossil fuels such as oil and coal, which take stored carbon out of the ground and release it into the atmosphere, for a net increase in greenhouse gas.
Most current and planned ethanol production methods depend on farming, and in the case of corn and sugar, take food crops and divert them into energy.

Fu said crop-based ethanol production is slow and resource-costly. He decided to work with cyanobacteria, some of which convert sunlight and carbon dioxide into their own food and release oxygen as a waste product.

Other scientists also are researching using cyanobacteria to make ethanol, using different strains, but Fu's technique is unique, he said. He inserted genetic material into one type of freshwater cyanobacterium, causing it to produce ethanol as its waste product. It works, and is an amazingly efficient system.

The technology is fairly simple. It involves a photobioreactor, which is a
fancy term for a clear glass or plastic container full of something alive, in which light promotes a biological reaction. Carbon dioxide gas is bubbled through the green mixture of water and cyanobacteria. The liquid is then passed through a specialized membrane that removes the
ethanol, allowing the water, nutrients and cyanobacteria to return to the

Solar energy drives the conversion of the carbon dioxide into ethanol. The partner of Prof. Fu in Brazil in the branch-office of La Wahie Biotech Inc. in Aracaju - Prof. Hans-Jürgen Franke - is developing a low-cost photo-bio-reactor-system. Prof. Franke want´s soon creat a pilot-project with Prof. Fu in Brazil.

The benefit over other techniques of producing ethanol is that this is simple and quick—taking days rather than the months required to grow crops that can be converted to ethanol.

La Wahie Biotech Inc. believes it can be done for significantly less than the cost of gasoline and also less than the cost of ethanol produced through conventional methods.

Also, this system is not a net producer of carbon dioxide: Carbon dioxide released into the environment when ethanol is burned has been withdrawn from the environment during ethanol production. To get the carbon dioxide it needs, the system could even pull the gas out of the emissions of power plants or other carbon dioxide producers. That would prevent carbon dioxide release into the atmosphere, where it has been implicated as a
major cause of global warming.
Honolulo – Hawaii/USA and Aracaju – Sergipe/Brasil - 15/09/2008

Prof. Pengcheng Fu – E-Mail:
Prof. Hans-Jürgen Franke – E-Mail:

5:08 AM  

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