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"Paradigm Shift" Reported In Making Biofuel From Plants

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by Michael Keller

The possibility of using nonfood plants to cheaply and sustainably fuel our vehicles may have just veered into the fast lane.

Scientists report they have successfully genetically engineered bacteria to convert complex carbohydrates in tough grasses directly into ethanol, a type of alcohol that can fuel internal combustion engines.

“Making biofuel from plants is really important because it’s carbon neutral—the same CO2 you put in to grow it comes out when you burn it,” says Janet Westpheling, a University of Georgia genetics professor who led the research. “It’s one of the reasons why the future of energy in this country has to rely at least in part on plants.”

At the heart of the work conducted at UGA and Oak Ridge National Lab, is what Westpheling calls a paradigm shift in approaching a longstanding problem in producing biofuels.

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Txch This Week: Modeling The Future And DNA’s New Letters

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by Norman Rozenberg

This week on Txchnologist, we investigated some of the newest innovations that could completely change the world around us. First, scientists have been able to push stem cells from mouse teeth and grow them into cells functionally similar to neurons. The new cells aren’t neurons yet, but the researchers believe such a technology could improve the prognosis and treatment of stroke.

Meanwhile, Carnegie Mellon University roboticists working in the macroworld developed a new robot dubbed CHIMP for a DARPA competition. CHIMP is being designed to respond to natural and man-made disasters and has highly sophisticated moving parts to perform many manual tasks.

Now for some food for thought. Chirality is a natural phenomenon found in everything from molecules to shells. Chirality is a form of asymmetry that displays “handedness,” like how your left and right hands don’t map to each other exactly. One mathematician has designed a first-of-its-kind spinning top that exhibits chirality.

Models are getting better and better at predicting everything from the Big Bang to weather patterns. Japanese atmospheric scientists have designed a new algorithmic model on a supercomputer which could help predict monsoons and cyclones up to a month in advance.

2051 is still far away but scientists have built a land-use forecast for what the United States will look like. Researchers from several universities and the World Wildlife Fund have put together a study outlining different aspects of 2051 to inform policymakers about decisions and future consequences.

Now we’re bringing you the news and trends we’ve been following this week in the world of science, technology and innovation.

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Bioengineers Hope To Make Sorghum and Sugarcane A Sweet Deal For Biofuel

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by Michael Keller

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.”

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Algae Converted To Crude Oil In One Hour

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by Michael Keller

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.”

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