Hydrogen, carbon dioxide, salt, algae, bacteria … and cover-up

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Making alternative fuels from all the above is quite a breakthrough, don’t you think? Algae remains my favorite, especially now that climate change is creating more of it than we know how to deal with, but the concept of making something important out of readily available waste products — especially when we’re suffering from our oil addiction — seems so glorious it should be shouted from the rooftops. Only … we aren’t hearing about it.

I suspect you already know where the cover-up’s going on. You guessed it — Arkansas! Raw Story is reporting that the oil supposedly diverted away from Lake Conway, wasn’t — and it has video to prove it. As well, people in the effected area are reporting health issues and disputing media reports about the who, what, where and when facts, duly reported and caught in the spin cycle.

Meanwhile, Exxon — the #2 most profitable oil conglomerate globally — is behaving with a remarkably heavy hand, sequestering the town of Mayflower away from the prying eyes of the public; even requesting, and receiving, a temporary no-fly zone over the spill, while police screen people entering the area and weeding out reporters.

This ain’t pretty, kids and none of it should come as a surprise.

The larger question — the one we MUST ask and bring pressure to bare on — is what kind of energy can we ethically support? Carbon-based fuels are killing us and, as you’ll find below, R&D has a whole list of possible alternatives that might make all the difference.

Some fine day, coal, nuclear power and petroleum will be considered as antique artifacts from civilizations’ past, as outgrown as garters, bowler hats and chamber pots. It can’t come soon enough.

Here’s Bill McKibbon’s most recent explanation about WHY we can’t wait.


Biofuel breakthrough turns virtually any plant into hydrogen
Stephen C. Webster, Raw Story
Thursday, April 4, 2013

Researchers at Virginia Tech announced Thursday that their latest breakthrough in hydrogen extraction technology could lead to widespread adoption of the substance as a fuel due to its ease of availability in virtually all plant matter, a reservoir previously impossible to tap.

The new process, described by a study in the April issue of the scientific journal Angewandte Chemie, uses a cocktail of 13 enzymes to strip plant matter of xylose, a sugar that exists in plant cells. The resulting hydrogen is of an such a “high purity” that researchers said they were able to approach 100 percent extraction, opening up a potential market for a much cheaper source of hydrogen than anything available today.

“The potential for profit and environmental benefits are why so many automobile, oil, and energy companies are working on hydrogen fuel cell vehicles as the transportation of the future,” study author and Virginia Tech assistant professor Y.H. Percival Zhang said in an advisory. “Many people believe we will enter the hydrogen economy soon, with a market capacity of at least $1 trillion in the United States alone.”

The rise of such an alternative fuel could seriously disrupt the pollution-producing industries that run on oil and natural gas, and potentially spark a new industrial emphasis on growing plants with high levels of xylose in their cells. The environmental benefits of that potential future are twofold: the plants absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, helping in small part to address the climate crisis, and the resulting portable fuel only outputs water when burned.

Beyond hydrogen fuel cells in cars and industrial equipment, U.S. space agency NASA says that hydrogen in its super-cold liquid form makes an ideal fuel for space exploration due to its low molecular weight and extremely high energy output. If plants could be grown on a space station traveling to a distant solar system some day, it is possible future breakthroughs could lead to an onboard system that actually renders more fuel mid-flight.

Of course, there are potential downsides to Zhang’s enzyme cocktail, namely in the costs of production on a large scale, questions about disposal of the enzyme goo and remaining carbon, and the likelihood of endless legal battles over who owns patents on which enzymes or combinations thereof. Nevertheless, if the world is to move forward into a renewable energy future, this is still a pretty big step. ++

Discovery May Allow Scientists to Make Fuel from Carbon Dioxide in the Atmosphere
Science Daily
March 26, 2013

Excess carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere created by the widespread burning of fossil fuels is the major driving force of global climate change, and researchers the world over are looking for new ways to generate power that leaves a smaller carbon footprint.

Now, researchers at the University of Georgia have found a way to transform the carbon dioxide trapped in the atmosphere into useful industrial products. Their discovery may soon lead to the creation of biofuels made directly from the carbon dioxide in the air that is responsible for trapping the sun’s rays and raising global temperatures.

“Basically, what we have done is create a microorganism that does with carbon dioxide exactly what plants do-absorb it and generate something useful,” said Michael Adams, member of UGA’s Bioenergy Systems Research Institute, Georgia Power professor of biotechnology and Distinguished Research Professor of biochemistry and molecular biology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.

During the process of photosynthesis, plants use sunlight to transform water and carbon dioxide into sugars that the plants use for energy, much like humans burn calories from food.

These sugars can be fermented into fuels like ethanol, but it has proven extraordinarily difficult to efficiently extract the sugars, which are locked away inside the plant’s complex cell walls.

“What this discovery means is that we can remove plants as the middleman,” said Adams, who is co-author of the study detailing their results published March 25 in the early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “We can take carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere and turn it into useful products like fuels and chemicals without having to go through the inefficient process of growing plants and extracting sugars from biomass.”

The process is made possible by a unique microorganism called Pyrococcus furiosus, or “rushing fireball,” which thrives by feeding on carbohydrates in the super-heated ocean waters near geothermal vents. By manipulating the organism’s genetic material, Adams and his colleagues created a kind of P. furiosus that is capable of feeding at much lower temperatures on carbon dioxide.

The research team then used hydrogen gas to create a chemical reaction in the microorganism that incorporates carbon dioxide into 3-hydroxypropionic acid, a common industrial chemical used to make acrylics and many other products.

With other genetic manipulations of this new strain of P. furiosus, Adams and his colleagues could create a version that generates a host of other useful industrial products, including fuel, from carbon dioxide.

When the fuel created through the P. furiosus process is burned, it releases the same amount of carbon dioxide used to create it, effectively making it carbon neutral, and a much cleaner alternative to gasoline, coal and oil.

“This is an important first step that has great promise as an efficient and cost-effective method of producing fuels,” Adams said. “In the future we will refine the process and begin testing it on larger scales.”

The research was supported by the Department of Energy as part of the Electrofuels Program of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy under Grant DE-AR0000081. ++

Salt-based solar thermal power plant takes shape in Nevada
Tina Casey via Clean Technica, Raw Story
Saturday, April 6, 2013

The notorious Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Plant near Tonopah, Nevada passed another milestone this month, as workers finished placing receiver panels on top of a 540-foot tower that forms the centerpiece of the facility. Crescent Dunes is based on molten salt thermal technology and we say notorious because when completed, Crescent Dunes will give the U.S. bragging rights to the largest renewable energy plant of its kind in the world. In certain quarters, however, the project is also notorious because it benefited from a federally backed construction loan to the tune of a whopping $737 million, creating another potentially juicy opportunity for critics of the Obama Administration’s renewable energy policies.

Unfortunately for anyone who is still rooting for failure, Crescent Dunes is on track for completion by the end of this year. ++

Making Fuel from Bacteria
Science Daily
March 13, 2013

In the search for the fuels of tomorrow, Swedish researchers are finding inspiration in the sea. Not in offshore oil wells, but in the water where blue-green algae thrive.

The building blocks of blue-green algae – sunlight, carbon dioxide and bacteria – are being used by researchers at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm to produce butanol, a hydrocarbon-like fuel for motor vehicles.

The advantage of butanol is that the raw materials are abundant and renewable, and production has the potential to be 20 times more efficient than making ethanol from corn and sugar cane.

Using genetically-modified cyanobacteria, the team linked butanol production to the algae’s natural metabolism, says Paul Hudson, a researcher at the School of Biotechnology at KTH who leads the research. “With relevant genes integrated in the right place in cyanobacteria’s genome, we have tricked the cells to produce butanol instead of fulfilling their normal function,” he says.

The team demonstrated that it can control butanol production by changing the conditions in the surrounding environment. This opens up other opportunities for control, such as producing butanol during specific times of day, Hudson says.

Hudson says that it could be a decade before production of biofuel from cyanobacteria is a commercial reality.

“We are very excited that we are now able to produce biofuel from cyanobacteria. At the same time we must remember that the manufacturing process is very different from today’s biofuels,” he says. “We need to improve the production hundredfold before it becomes commercially viable.

Already, there is a demonstrator facility in New Mexico, U.S. for producing biodiesel from algae, which is a more advanced process, Hudson says.

One of Sweden’s leading biotechnology researchers, Professor Mathias Uhlén at KTH, has overall responsibility for the project. He says that the use of engineering methods to build genomes of microorganisms is a relatively new area. A bacterium that produces cheap fuel by sunlight and carbon dioxide could change the world.

Hudson agrees. “One of the problems with biofuels we have today, that is, corn ethanol, is that the price of corn rises slowly while jumping up and down all the time and it is quite unpredictable,” he says. “In addition, there is limited arable land and corn ethanol production is also influenced by the price of oil, since corn requires transport.

“Fuel based on cyanobacteria requires very little ground space to be prepared. And the availability of raw materials – sunlight, carbon dioxide and seawater – is in principle infinite,” Hudson says.

He adds that some cyanobacteria also able to extract nitrogen from the air and thus do not need any fertilizer.

The next step in the research is to ensure that cyanobacteria produce butanol in larger quantities without it dying of exhaustion or butanol, which they cannot withstand particularly well. After that, more genes will have to be modified so that the end product becomes longer hydrocarbons that can fully function as a substitute for gasoline. And finally, the process must be executed outside of the lab and scaled up to work in industry.

There are also plans to develop fuel from cyanobacteria that are more energetic and therefore particularly suitable for aircraft engines.

The project is formally called Forma Center for Metabolic Engineering, and it involves researchers Chalmers University in Sweden. It has received about EUR 3 million from the
nonprofit Council Formas. ++

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. That is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”
~ The Reverend Martin Luther King

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