Friday, October 17, 2014

Biofuel crops can be good for the environment and other biofuels research

Normally, I'm skeptical about biofuels, but that's primarily because the main biofuel in the U.S. is corn ethanol, which I have characterized for years as an energy indepence strategy, not a sustainability strategy.  It doesn't help that pretty much all the increased corn production during the past decade has gone into gas tanks.  In one of the first entries on this blog, I described "converting corn into ethanol" as "a big energy loser."  On the other hand, I followed that by writing that it would be "less of a loser if ethanol comes from cellulose in the stalks and leaves instead of the grain, as cellulosic ethanol requires less fertilizer than grain ethanol."

I'd be even more optimistic if the enthanol and other biofuels came from something other than corn.  Fortunately, two stories I included in last week's Overnight News Digest: Science Saturday (Nobel Prizes 2014) on Daily Kos gave me even more reason for optimism, as they show the biofuel crops can be good for the environment even if they aren't burned for fuel.

First, Liz Ahlberg, writing for the University of Illinois, reported Bioenergy crops could store more carbon in soil.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — In addition to providing renewable energy, grass crops like switchgrass and miscanthus could store some of the carbon they pull from the atmosphere in the soil, according to a new study by University of Illinois researchers.

The study compared soil dynamics – the ratio of carbon to nitrogen and microbial activity – of bioenergy crops with that of a standard corn-corn-soybean rotation. They found that in bioenergy crops, a certain threshold of plant matter left in the field after harvest lets much more carbon accumulate in the soil.

Led by civil and environmental engineering professor Praveen Kumar, the researchers published their findings in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.
Next, Kelly April Tyrell, writing for the University of Wisconsin passed along the good news about Balancing birds and biofuels: Grasslands support more species than cornfields.
In Wisconsin, bioenergy is for the birds. Really.

In a study published today in the journal PLOS ONE, University of Wisconsin-Madison and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) scientists examined whether corn and perennial grassland fields in southern Wisconsin could provide both biomass for bioenergy production and bountiful bird habitat.

The research team found that where there are grasslands, there are birds. Grass-and-wildflower-dominated fields supported more than three times as many bird species as cornfields, including 10 imperiled species found only in the grasslands. These grassland fields can also produce ample biomass for renewable fuels.

Monica Turner, UW-Madison professor of zoology, and study lead author Peter Blank, a postdoctoral researcher in her lab, hope the findings help drive decisions that benefit both birds and biofuels, too, by providing information for land managers, farmers, conservationists and policy makers as the bioenergy industry ramps up, particularly in Wisconsin and the central U.S.
Both of those are good news and make me more favorably disposed to (non-corn) biofuels.

Follow over the jump for the biofuel news from Overnight News Digest: Science Saturday (Ebola in the U.S.).

Arizona State University begins this segment with Building the framework for the future of biofuels.
Biofuels – fuels made from plants – are seen by many as one of the better options for brightening the national energy outlook.

They offer a promising renewable resource as a replacement for nonrenewable fossil fuels, and a way to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions being pumped into the atmosphere as a result of our use of conventional petroleum-derived fuels.

They could help the United States take major steps to reduce the country’s dependence on oil from other parts of the world.
That's very generic.  Kortny Rolston of Colorado State University has something more specific in CSU researchers put home-brewed diesel biofuel to the test.
A homemade biofuel used by Colorado farmers to power their trucks and tractors performs similarly to conventional biodiesel and petroleum diesel, according to new studies by Colorado State University researchers.

The fuel, which is made by mixing unleaded gasoline and oil crushed from oilseed crops, showed only a slight decrease in power when tested on a 2007 John Deere tractor engine at CSU’s Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory in Fort Collins.

A group of farmers who operate The Big Squeeze oilseed processing facility near Rocky Ford mix the blend and pour it directly into their diesel trucks and tractors.

“There was an 8 to 10 percent drop in maximum power,” said Aaron Drenth, a CSU doctoral student who led the most recent testing of the homemade fuel. “That’s not very much — most drivers would never notice it. It’s also consistent with what the farmers who use it have been telling us.
Finally, the University of Massachusetts points out there are more ways to get plants to make energy than biofuels in Blades of Grass Inspire Advance in Organic Solar Cells.
UMass Amherst scientists use graphene in new energy conversion architecture

AMHERST, Mass. – Using a bio-mimicking analog of one of nature’s most efficient light-harvesting structures, blades of grass, an international research team led by Alejandro Briseno of the University of Massachusetts Amherst has taken a major step in developing long-sought polymer architecture to boost power-conversion efficiency of light to electricity for use in electronic devices.

Briseno, with colleagues and graduate students at UMass Amherst and others at Stanford University and Dresden University of Technology, Germany, report in the current issue of Nano Letters that by using single-crystalline organic nanopillars, or “nanograss,” they found a way to get around dead ends, or discontinuous pathways, that pose a serious drawback when using blended systems known as bulk heterojunction  donor-acceptor, or positive-negative (p-n), junctions for harvesting energy in organic solar cells. 

Briseno’s research group is one of very few in the world to design and grow organic single-crystal p-n junctions. He says, “This work is a major advancement in the field of organic solar cells because we have developed what the field considers the ‘Holy Grail’ of architecture for harvesting light and converting it to electricity.” The breakthrough in morphology control should have widespread use in solar cells, batteries and vertical transistors, he adds.
Hot stuff.

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