Scientific Leaps

March 5, 2009 - 11:17

Energy-Producing Crop Seed Sales Begin

The first seed sales of non-food, low-carbon crops developed specifically as raw material for biofuels and biopower have been launched. Ceres, Inc. recently started taking orders for switchgrass and high-biomass sorghum marketed under its Blade Energy Crops label. According to the company, these new products build on the natural advantages of the crops, offering double-digit biomass profit gains. High yields are needed because widely dispersed sources of biomass are too expensive to harvest and transport. Given increased emphasis on biofuels from non-corn sources and renewed interest in cleaner-burning fuel alternatives to coal, these new energy crops could offer farm operators new opportunities, especially on underperforming acres.

“Green” Chemicals Approach Market

Rice University and Roquette Frères recently inked an agreement to enable bio-based production of succinic acid, which is used in the production of plastics, textiles, drugs and solvents, reports the Houston Business Journal. Roquette will use Rice’s patented microbial metabolic engineering technologies to produce bio-based succinic acid from renewable resources using “green” chemistry. According to MedicalNewsToday.com, these processes employ the use of “white biotechnology”, production without the use of petroleum.

Succinic acid is produced by microbial fermentation, a process that is both economical and eco-friendly — plus, it’s renewable and does not require fossil fuels. The fermentation process is actually carbon negative, using .75 molecules of carbon for every molecule of succinic acid produced. This new process should stimulate the development of biodegradable polymers.

Getting Biofuel From Modified Plants

According to a recent article on BioMedicine.org, plants that have been genetically modified to ease the breakdown of woody material may provide a more economical and sustainable way to produce ethanol. Most woody plants are loaded with energy-rich cellulose. When the woody plant material’s lignin is intertwined with the cellulose, it creates a stronger plant that reportedly can withstand strong winds and attacking microbes. This “shield” created by the lignin and cellulose makes it difficult to access the cellulose. Separating this energy from the wood to produce ethanol is expensive because it requires heat and caustic chemicals. There have been attempts to avoid this problem by engineering plants with less lignin, but this can weaken the plants making them too limp to stand upright or susceptible to pests.

Researchers at Penn State university are working on replacing the lignin with a “new” lignin — one that is structured differently. By inserting a gene from beans into popular seedlings, they have created a lignin polymer with protein stuck in between. The structural strength of the new lignin is about the same, but it breaks down easier with the use of enzymes. that attack proteins rather than lignin. The plants do not seem to be any weaker, and they create a much more efficient ethanol source.

Many forage crops (rye grass and clover) contain high concentrations of lignin. When used as animal feed, an animal’s digestive system produces ample enzymes to break down the lignin, creating gas and other digestive issues for the animal. Using this technology for feed crops could make it easier for animals to digest those forage crops. Using the technology in other biomass crops may change previous agricultural waste products into animal feed.

Turning Over a New Leaf

A global energy supply based on biomass grown to generate electricity and produce fuel is not as farfetched as it would appear, reports Science Daily. In the next 75 years, fossil fuels such as natural gas, oil and coal that supply most of our global energy needs, will be completely exhausted, according to the online publication. In fact, if we continue our current consumption levels, there is a danger that those fuels will be exhausted before that date.

While a scenario based on biomass as the major source of energy has been commonly dismissed as unrealistic, two researches from the University of Oldenburg in Germany are suggesting that a closer look might reveal promising results.

The researchers propose that enough biomass can be grown on land previously degraded by human activities in historical times to meet the global energy demand predicted by the International Energy Agency in the Reference Scenario for 2030, reports Science Daily. What’s more, they argue that this energy can be produced “both sustainably and economically.” How? Their solution is to plant fast-growing trees on degraded areas, and harvest the biomass for energy usage. This afforestation would not compete with the need for arable land for food production, according to the article.

The researchers argue that the investment required for afforestation is not only sustainable but less than what would be required to invest in infrastructure for non-sustainable fossil energy. The continuous use of biomass as an energy source is also carbon neutral which means that the energetic usage produces not more CO2 as used for the growth of the respective biomass, thus slowing down and stopping the build-up of CO2 and even slowly reducing the CO2 content in the atmosphere, reports Science Daily.

Their scenario also includes numerous perks, such as a convenient way of storing energy, regenerating the global water and especially drinking water resources and controlling soil degradation. Other renewable energies, including solar, tidal and wind power will contribute to the “energy mix,” making the biomass scenario even more realistic, according to the article.

However, the development of new technologies will be required to play out this scenario and convert the chemical energy stored in the biomass to electrical energy more efficiently. As the researchers told Science Daily, “the scenario of afforestation for energy use will be an important step to realize the United Nations programs to combat desertification and deforestation, without additional costs.”

Lighting’s Bright Future

As the price of LEDs (light-emitting diodes) continues to drop and innovation continues to soar, the future of this technology is unlimited.

A recent Forbes magazine feature paints a vivid picture of the evolution of lighting: Phillips Color Kinetics’ reception area is bathed first in pink, then lavender, then pink again. Hallways on either side undulate with a tunnel of pulsing blue and purple lights. The surrounding walls display Philips’ latest products as they have been installed in a rotating selection of buildings, including the CN Tower in Toronto and Harrah’s casino in Atlantic City, N.J., the article vividly describes. LEDs are the masterminds behind the striking visual effects.

The “energy-hogging” incandescent light bulbs will be phased out beginning in 2010, thanks in large part to the former President Bush’s passing of the Energy Independence Act in December 2007. Other nations, such as Europe, are moving at a faster speed: They will be nixing incandescents beginning this year, Forbes reports.

While compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs have become a popular alternative, LEDs have the potential to be twice as efficient. They typically last 50,000 hours, compared with 10,000 for a compact fluorescent and 1,000 for an incandescent bulb, according to the article. The hurdle so far is price, with LEDS costing 10 to 20 more times as incandescents. But the Department of Energy predicts that steady improvements in semiconductor manufacturing will bring the price of white LEDs below that of compact fluorescents in five years, according to Forbes. Large consumers of electricity such as Wal-Mart stores and Shaw’s have already begun putting LEDs in some freezer cases. Lansing, Mich., is testing LED street lights. The consumer will be the last to convert, according to Forbes.

Innovation with LEDS abounds: At Osram Sylvania labs in Danvers, Mass., researchers are experimenting with blankets woven with LEDs to treat babies with severe jaundice. They’re also developing LEDs for use in endoscopic surgery to replace the xenon lights currently in use, which are bulky and don’t last long. ElectroniCast Consultants of Upper Lake, Calif. says the market for LEDs in lighting should grow to $1.4 billion in 2009. “As the price continues to drop and the performance continues to increase, we’ll see more adoption,” Philips Color Kinetics’ vice president of innovation Kevin Dowling told Forbes magazine. “We haven’t scratched the surface of this technology.”

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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