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Green fuels cause more harm than fossil fuels, according to report

Ben Webster, Times
Using fossil fuel in vehicles is better for the environment than so-called green fuels made from crops, according to a government study seen by The Times.

The findings show that the Department for Transport’s target for raising the level of biofuel in all fuel sold in Britain will result in millions of acres of forest being logged or burnt down and converted to plantations. The study, likely to force a review of the target, concludes that some of the most commonly-used biofuel crops fail to meet the minimum sustainability standard set by the European Commission.

Under the standard, each litre of biofuel should reduce emissions by at least 35 per cent compared with burning a litre of fossil fuel. Yet the study shows that palm oil increases emissions by 31 per cent because of the carbon released when forest and grassland is turned into plantations. Rape seed and soy also fail to meet the standard.

The Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation this year requires 3¼ per cent of all fuel sold to come from crops. The proportion is due to increase each year and by 2020 is required to be 13 per cent. The DfT commissioned E4tech, a consultancy, to investigate the overall impact of its biofuel target on forests and other undeveloped land…
(1 March 2010)

Chemists create biofuel from plant waste

CBC News
U.S. researchers have developed a highly efficient way of creating biofuel out of crop waste.

The researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison developed a chemical process that converts gamma-valerolactone, a derivative of the woody and grassy parts of plants, into fuel.

The chemists say the resulting biofuel, called alkenes, is powerful enough to be used as jet fuel, unlike ethanol which lacks the energy density needed for such an application.

Converting crop waste, the non-edible parts of food crops, into biofuel is especially attractive because it doesn’t require converting food crop land into crops specifically for biofuel.

The process starts with gamma-valerolactone (GVL), a colourless liquid with an herbal smell that is used as an additive in perfumes.

The researchers developed a process using metal catalysts that converts GVL into jet fuel. Their research appears this week in the journal Science…
(25 February 2010)

Seeking a More ‘Poplar’ Biofuel

University of Maryland press release
Gas money for your car doesn’t grow on trees, but one day you might be filling up with fuel that does.

An interdisciplinary team of researchers from the University of Maryland and Bowie State University is working on ways to turn poplar trees into high-yield crops for biofuels including ethanol, the renewable biofuel used in gasoline blends and flex-fuel vehicles. The hybrid trees would be grown on plantations and harvested without affecting existing woodlands.

The study is funded by a $3.2 million, four-year grant from the National Science Foundation’s Plant Genome Research Project, which supports research on plants seen as having economic and agricultural importance. Researchers Gary Coleman, Ganesh Sriram and Jianhua Zhu of Maryland and George Ude of Bowie State are using the recently completed poplar genome to look for ways to improve the tree’s nitrogen processing capability, which would enhance its growth rate and feasibility for use in fuel production.

In the United States, corn is the crop of choice for biofuel production. While corn is renewable, home-grown (unlike foreign oil) and plentiful, it may not be the best solution.

“We need to develop an alternative crop that we use exclusively for biofuels and not food,” explained Sriram, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Maryland’s A. James Clark School of Engineering.

Enter poplar (also known as cottonwood or aspen), which is already commonly cultivated for the production of paper and timber.

“What we want are trees like poplar that grow fast and efficiently so they can become the raw material for cellulosic [fiber-based] biofuel,” Sriram said. “The carbon found in poplar could be converted into fuels just like the sugars we extract from corn.”

Lead researcher Coleman, an associate professor of plant science and landscape architecture in the university’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources) explained there are many advantages of a poplar crop over traditional biofuel sources.

“Growing trees doesn’t eat into farmland, and trees don’t require a lot of maintenance during their growth cycle,” said Coleman. “A dedicated energy crop like poplar would contribute to the development of a sustainable and renewable energy system.”

Simply growing acres of poplar trees to convert into biofuel isn’t enough to solve current fuel problems. Researchers already know how to make ethanol from fibrous plants, but for poplar to be truly effective as a biofuel source, its growth cycle needs to speed up and become more efficient. One of the keys to doing so is to understand how it stores and cycles nitrogen, since nitrogen is an important factor in the growth and productivity of trees and crops.

The fertilizers that help produce big harvests are rich in nitrogen, but are expensive and must be reapplied each year. Poplar is a perennial plant, capable of pulling nitrogen from its leaves, storing it through the winter, and redistributing it in the spring. And while a crop like corn must be replanted each year, a poplar tree is capable of regrowing itself from its roots after being cut, and may go through several cycles of growth and harvest throughout its life before a new tree needs to replace it.

“Both the growth in the spring and regrowth from roots after the stems are harvested depend on the availability of stored nitrogen,” Coleman explained. “The data we collect will allow us to understand mechanisms of nitrogen cycling, determine how to increase the rates of the cellular reactions, and identify the genes that play a crucial role in the process. Eventually, we should be able to breed a variety of poplar with a more efficient nitrogen process, optimized for growth and rapid maturity.”

The research team, a mix of experts in metabolic engineering (Sriram), genetics (Ude of Bowie State) and plant biology (Coleman and Zhu), are examining how the thousands of genes in poplar are being switched on and off during the nitrogen storage cycle, measuring the rates of dozens of chemical reactions and studying the many proteins that facilitate all of the activity.

“What we’re looking for is the most efficient way for these plants to process nitrogen,” Sriram said. “It’s like dealing with traffic. Imagine you’ve got cars on a road, each can only hold one passenger, and that can’t be changed. If you want more people to get to a destination in a certain amount of time, you can increase the speed limits, add more traffic lanes, reroute the cars onto parallel roads, avoid delays, or change the timing of the traffic lights. That’s what we’re doing on a genetic and molecular level for poplar.”

The team’s large-scale study of woody plants for use in biofuel production has only recently been made possible by the availability of the poplar tree’s genome, a map of its complete genetic structure. “We’re one of the first groups to work on nitrogen cycling and metabolism in poplar,” said Sriram. “We expect to produce a large amount of unprecedented information about the way nitrogen moves around and is stored in a tree. It’s an amazing problem we can work on together.”

Undergraduate research internships and courses built around poplar research will be offered for undergraduates and Prince George’s County, Md., high school teachers.
(24 February 2010)