Exploring the Alternatives

May 28, 2009 - 09:02

At this time a year ago, we were heading into the summer months with record-high gasoline prices inching toward $4/gallon, electrical costs spiraling upward and the promise of record-high costs for natural gas and fuel oil in the fall and winter. Anything remotely related to fossil fuels was sure to cost more. Environmentally friendly biofuels looked like a good choice, from both a cost and ecological standpoint. Likewise for chemicals that could be produced from fossil-fuel alternatives. All this could supposedly be accomplished with little additional cost while appealing to a growing consumer segment demanding sustainably produced products.

Well, the recession worsened, and the laws of supply and demand kicked in to bring costs back to earth. Moving away from traditional fossil-fuel products is still good for the environment, but can we afford to employ these new technologies? And will consumers pay for the more eco-friendly products?

“Green” Fungicides Take Another Approach

As potential alternatives to conventional fungicides, Canadian researchers are reporting the development of a new class of “green” fungicides that may prove to be safer and more environmentally friendly. This potential new class has been dubbed “paldoxins” and is being promoted as an effective alternative to conventional fungicides to control damaging fungi that attack food and biofuel crops, such as wheat and corn. An added benefit appears to be that fungi take a much greater time to develop resistance to this new class as opposed to conventional fungicides. Determining their efficacy on ornamental crops would seem a potential next step.

In an existing scenario, conventional fungicides are applied to crops, destroying the targeted fungus along with any beneficial organisms that may be present. They also have the side effect of being less than environmentally friendly. These new fungicides have a different mode of attack, in that they disrupt the fungi’s ability to break down the plants’ normal defenses. This allows the plant to boost its natural defenses and overcome the fungus without harming people or the environment. When under attack by fungi, plants produce phytoalexins to counterattack the fungi. The fungi retaliate and produce enzymes that destroy the phytoalexins, leaving the plant defenseless. Producing even stronger synthetic phytoalexins and applying them to the plant resulted in destruction of the enzymes produced by the fungi, which allowed the plant to fight off the fungal attack. At this point, the only testing has been under lab conditions. Limited field testing is planned for this summer.

Second-Generation Biofuels Close to Debut

It seems like only yesterday that ethanol, a biofuel derived from corn, was seen as a logical alternative to gasoline. Now, second generation biofuels derived from cellulosic waste and algae are threatening to supplant corn-based ethanol as a more sustainable gasoline replacement. Who will be the winner is anyone’s guess — and depends largely on what happens with the cost of traditional fossil fuels.

Unneeded straw waste from the harvest of cereals provides the raw material. From there, one of two processes, pyrolysis or enzyme fermentation, convert the waste straw into automotive fuel. In the pyrolysis process, the thin-walled plants (straw) are converted into an energy-rich slurry. The concentrated slurry is then transported to a refinery, where it is steam heated to form a synthetic gas. The final step is converting the gas into fuel. To be commercially feasible, a synfuel energy yield of about 42 percent is needed. Present-day technology produces about a 30 percent yield, so more research is needed.

Using enzymes and fermentation to convert waste cellulosic to ethanol is less developed and presently more costly than pyrolysis. The process involves pretreating the cellulosic biomass then turning it into fermentable sugars by enzyme action; the third step is fermenting the sugars into fuel through the use of novel microorganisms. Most of the technology that would accomplish this is still in development. Much research still needs to be done to meet the goal of producing biofuel that can compete with $65- to $70-per-barrel oil.

Growing algae in freshwater ponds or the sea is a third potential method of producing biofuels. More than half the weight of algae can be converted into oil, which then can then be made into biodiesel. Algae also can produce sugars, which can be converted to ethanol by fermentation. The present deterrent to using algae to economically produce biofuel is its slow rate of growth. Algae divides only about once in a 24-hour period. In order to be viable as a biofuel source, it would need to divide approximately once every hour. Extensive research in algae metabolism is under way in an attempt to resolve this issue.

All three of these technologies could potentially offer alternatives for producing biofuel from nonfood sources. Pyrolysis, although still years away from commercialization, is closer than the other two to becoming a reality.

To complicate matters further, new technology to convert sugars found in corn waste into ethanol through fermentation without heat is in the initial stages of commercialization. By eliminating the cooking process that has been used in ethanol production for years, a very costly element of the production is removed. Using corn waste rather than grain is also attractive.

SIDEBAR

Expand Your Knowledge

This month’s topic is environmentally friendly, user- and consumer-safe pesticides.

Florida Researchers Use Essential Oils as Earth Friendly Pesticide:
www.southeastfarmpress.com/mag/farming_florida_researchers_essential/

Organic Pesticide Chart:
www.ghorganics.com/page44.html

Common Organic Garden Pesticides:
gardening.about.com/od/gardenproblems/a/OrganicPesticid.htm

Pros and Cons of Biological Pesticides:
www.echeat.com/essay.php?t=30514

Don’t Waste a Perfectly Good Crisis

As challenging as a bleak economy may be, finding marketing opportunities is sometimes easier than we realize. Although it is increasingly difficult to motivate consumers to make purchases, recent research by the Hartman Group would suggest that this task becomes easier if you tell consumers the story behind a product. Creating “the story” becomes even more important if the product is deemed “eco-friendly, sustainable, organic, locally produced or green.”

In a recent study, the Hartman Group found that, among all segments of potential consumers of sustainable products (from nonparticipants to the most committed organic shoppers), all groups indicated that their No. 1 source of information used to make a purchasing decision was labeling at the point of purchase (33 percent) followed by Internet search engines (28 percent). Ranked near the bottom of the list was a company’s own website (14 percent).

For consumers, sustainability claims are increasingly becoming markers of quality, so it’s essential to have a good narrative that allows consumers to connect with the product and conveys authenticity along with value, quality and functionality. It is also important to remember that consumers generally think much more broadly about sustainability than manufacturers and marketers. Describe in detail the features and benefits of a product beyond the most obvious ones; this is important to consumers and increases their motivation to purchase. Describing the personal benefits derived from using a specific product is critical to creating product differentiation and demonstrating added value.

While we all need to be concerned about “greenwashing,” recent research shows that consumers are less concerned about “greenwashing” and simply want as much information as possible so they can make informed purchasing decisions. A product doesn’t have to fulfill 100 percent of a user’s sustainable needs. Consumers have come to realize that it takes time to transition to sustainable actions and that it’s perfectly acceptable to take small steps toward that end.

Run Like the Wind!

There has been quite a bit of information in the news lately about wind energy, particularly within the horticultural industry. Before you rush out to your local DIY wind turbine store, make sure you understand the concept, technology and regulations. Here are a few things you might not know.

The costs. Producing energy by harnessing the power of the wind is usually very expensive. Make sure you take into account cost of materials, site preparation, engineering studies, permitting, construction and the area’s number of non-windy days. Payback on wind turbines usually takes years, but subsidies and grants can reduce the payback period.

International numbers. Denmark is the leader in terms of the percentage of energy derived from wind power — at about 20 percent. The United States, however, produces more energy from wind than any other country. No. 1 among countries in terms of the most wind turbine installations is Germany.

Sound concerns. In spite of concerns from existing and potential neighbors of wind farms, wind turbines are generally very quiet. Advances in technology make each new generation of equipment even friendlier to the surrounding environment.

For the birds. Critics of wind farms often point to the number of migratory birds that lose their lives in encounters with turbines, but the threat to birds is actually minor, and new installation techniques allow turbines to be placed farther apart and with their rotors closer to the ground to further minimize the risk to wildlife.

Living large. Installations of small residential and private commercial turbines within the user’s property holdings are not necessarily very efficient. Being close to buildings and trees disrupts the flow of wind, making it much more intermittent and less predictable than winds on a large-scale wind farm. The result is a significant reduction in the efficiency and a further increase in cost and payback time.

About The Author

Visions Group LLC is a solutions group providing marketing, management and production assistance to the green industry. They can be reached at (440) 319-2458.

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