We get a jolt of energy after eating food sweetened with sugarcane or sorghum, so why can’t our engines?
Separate research teams in February presented their work on coaxing the two globally important, high-sugar-content crops into becoming better raw materials for biofuel production. Their work was part of the showcase presented at the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit.
The first, led by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign plant biologists, say they have successfully introduced genes into sugarcane plants to make them withstand cooler climates and produce more oil that can be turned into biodiesel.
“Our goal is to make sugarcane produce more oil, be more productive with more photosynthesis and be more cold-tolerant,” said Stephen P. Long, a UI plant biology professor and leader of the initiative, in a university statement. “Sugarcane and sorghum are exceptionally productive plants, and if you could make them accumulate oil in their stems instead of sugar, this would give you much more oil per acre.”
An innovative process that starts with an algae slurry efficiently produces crude oil in less than an hour, researchers say.
The biocrude oil can then be refined conventionally into gasoline, diesel and aviation fuel. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory engineers say their method is a continuous process that beats previous attempts to harness algae as fuel.
They say their work has led to a cheaper and less energy intensive technique. It also results in a wastewater stream from which flammable gas can be recovered and nutrients that can grow more algae.
"Cost is the big roadblock for algae-based fuel," said lead researcher Douglas Elliott in a statement. “We believe that the process we’ve created will help make algae biofuels much more economical.”
Scientists working to make exact chemical copies of fossil fuels from living microbes say they have scored a major victory in the lab. Merging genes from the camphor tree, soil- and gut-dwelling bacteria, and a microorganism that is lethal to insects, researchers have produced molecular replicas of petroleum-based fuels.
The team, composed of researchers from Exeter University in the United Kingdom and Shell, engineered the DNA of E. coli, a bacterium commonly found in the gut of mammals, to alter how it metabolizes its food so that it excretes the fossil-fuel replicas.
The new fuel doesn’t need to be heavily processed after it’s produced to work in combustion engines, says study coauthor John Love. It could be a solution that bypasses a major hurdle for conventional biofuels, which are not fully compatible with vehicles already out on the road.
“Modern engines are not suited to using these biofuels without major modifications and/or loss of performance,” Love, an associate professor of plant and industrial biotechnology at the University of Exeter, tells Txchnologist. “Ideally, you’d want to replace the fossil fuel with a biofuel that matches it exactly in chemical structure. We have engineered bacteria to produce such a fuel: biological gasoline or bio-alkanes. These hydrocarbons can be added directly to any engine, including a jet engine.”
University of Michigan researchers say they have transformed algae into biocrude that can be refined into fuel by pressure-cooking it for as little as a minute. Their efficient process transforms 65 percent of sample batches into biocrude, a considerably higher percentage than they had achieved by heating samples more slowly.
The results could mean a more efficient biomass-to-biofuel production process, an innovation needed to bring the renewable energy source down from its currently uncompetitive $20 per gallon.
See a video of the project after the jump.