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An A to Z of the Biofuel Economy

We’ve written plenty about the growing biofuel market and the rising concern over the sustainability of corn or wheat ethanol and soy biodiesel production. Here’s an A to Z of alternative materials and innovative processes that can turn that biomass into fuel. From milk-based ethanol, to termite intestines that help make biofuels, check out these 26 sources. [digg=]

Apples: Fructose, the sugar found in apples and other fruit, can be converted into a fuel that contains more energy than ethanol, say scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The fuel is called dimethylfuran or DMF, and it supposedly has a 40 percent greater energy density than ethanol.

Beer: Researchers at The University of Abertay Dundee’s School of Contemporary Sciences are investigating ways to turn waste residues from beer- and whiskey-making processes into biofuels. Meanwhile, the New Belgium Brewery in Fort Collins, Colo., teamed up with Solix Biofuels to make use of the waste CO2 from the booze.

Coffee: Starbucks brand biofuels? Well, maybe. Apparently, coffee grains have enough sugar content to be turned into ethanol. Research paid for by Columbia’s Federación Nacional de Cafeteros (National Coffee producers Federation, Federcafé) found that coffee has an even higher sugar content per bushel than corn. If accurate, coffee prices could soar, and Starbucks might be in trouble.

Dairy: Gull New Zealand, a small oil company, is selling a petrol blended with ethanol made from milk. Yes, the white frothy stuff. The Gull’s Force 10 biofuel contains 10 per cent ethanol produced by dairy cooperative Fonterra.

E, that is, Vitamin E: Scientists from the University of Toronto and Michigan State University have figured out that Vitamin E helps a plant’s ability to transport nutrients and reproduce in cold temperatures. “The surprising finding… has the potential to be applied in the development of biofuels and cold-tolerance in crops,” says

Fungi: Wired reports that scientists at the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology have found a more efficient way to make biodiesel. Instead of wasting energy heating ingredients for hours, an enzyme produced by fungi, at room temperature, does the work.

Grass: From prairie grass to switchgrass, the green stuff that adorns sprawling rural fields might hold the key to our nation’s energy independence. Others are betting on Miscanthus to be the superweed that cracks the cellulosic ethanol code.

Hemp: The stalks and seeds of hemp can be made into biofuels, though it’s illegal to produce the crop in the U.S. These North Dakota farmers are trying to convince the Drug Enforcement Agency to legalize cannabis farming in order to grow industrial hemp. The Sacramento News & Review calls hemp “one victim of the war on drugs,” noting that it is “an energy-efficient producer of ethanol for biofuel.”

Intestines, from termites?: It turns out termites could aid in cellulosic ethanol production. Last year, Diversa* scientists discovered that termites’ intestines have “cellulose-degrading enzymes” that convert biomass into fuel. Other scientists, like those at the Department of Energy, are also interested in the potential of termite guts. *Note, Diversa is now part of Verenium Corp (VRNM).

Jatropha: Hailed by some as “a biofuel panacea,” this potent plant spread globally from Central America by Portuguese settlers in the 16th century, according to the BBC. Developing nations like India and Africa have high hopes for the plant’s potential, as it could provide a needed spike to local economies. The Wall Street Journal says that Jatropha might be cheaper than corn for biofuels production.

Kelp: Seaweed is yet another potential biofuel option, according to The Herald. In Europe, where land for growing biofuel crops is limited, researchers are trying to figure out if producing ethanol from Scotland’s large kelp population would be commercially viable.

Lignin: Zeachem, a Menlo Park, Calif. company which raised $4 million in Series A funding last month, has developed a new way to create cellulosic ethanol. The process converts lignin and other non-fermentable materials derived from wood chips and additional biomass into hydrogen, which is later mixed back in with the parts of the biomass that were able to be fermented. The complete mixture is then turned into ethanol.

Mushrooms: The common mushroom that you’d find at your local grocery store is genetically blessed, say researchers, as it might be able to aid in the creation of biofuels. The ‘shrooms are talented “secondary decomposers” of plant material, breaking down tough materials that other fungi can’t handle.

Nuts: Philip Rutter, the CEO and chief scientist of Minnesota-based Badgersett Research Corp., is a cheerleader for hazelnuts as the next biofuel source, writes “BRC has measured several of its NeoHybrids as having crop production potential nearly 300 percent that of soybeans, in terms of oil,” says Rutter.

Organisms: Synthetic Genomics, a Rockville, Md.-based start-up, believes that its synthetic organisms will be useful in the production of biofuels and hydrogen.

Poop: Algae grown on sewage ponds might sound gross, but it’s a business for New Zealand-based startup Aquaflow Bionomic. Meanwhile, at Virgina Tech, researchers have turned chicken litter (including waste) into oil.

Q Microbe: Amherst, Mass.-based start-up SunEthanol is trying to figure out how to commercialize its “Q Microbe,” a natural microbe that can convert cellulose directly into ethanol without using costly enzymes.

Radish: Wild radish seeds contain up to 48 percent oil content that humans wouldn’t want to eat, so it might be a viable source of biofuel. At Purdue University, a team of researchers are looking at radishes as potential hosts for their “cloned mutant gene” that was designed to collect large amounts of oil in vegetable roots. The team will test a variety of crops with their gene, looking at its potential in the biofuels market.

Sawdust: Researchers at The University of Minnesota have developed a process to convert sawdust and other waste biomass directly into a mixture of gases that can be made into liquid fuels such as diesel.

Tropical sugar beet: Syngenta (SYT) is bringing the sugar beet to India for both processing sugar and biofuel production. “The faster growth of tropical beets increases annual ethanol output over sugarcane,” says the company.

Unknown: There are, of course, many other biofuels that will pop up in the future, and it’s possible that important ones haven’t even been discovered yet. (To be honest, we found out that urine doesn’t work as a biofuel, and couldn’t figure out any other cool materials or technology that starts with “U.”)

Vegetable Oils: Of course, there’s still the option of using — almost — straight-up vegetable oils to power your car. The Web is full of guides that explain how to turn vegetable oil into a substance that works as a fuel replacement.

Wine: The European Union just opened a tender to sell unwanted wine from France, Italy, Spain, and Greece for bioethanol production. Don’t auction your leftover pinot just yet, however. The EU tender is part of “crisis distillation” to correct supply imbalances.

Xylose: Xylose sugars are typically difficult to ferment. DuPont (DD), in collaboration with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, has developed a fermentation process that helps turn “C-5 xylose sugars” into ethanol at high yields, according to Green Car Congress.

Your… Chopsticks: Japan will try to turn the abundance of wooden chopsticks that go discarded each year into biofuel to ease the country’s energy shortage, country officials said last week. “Each of Japan’s 127 million people uses an average of 200 sets a year, meaning 90,000 tons of wood, according to government data,” reports Yahoo News.

Zeolite: Mitsui has developed a technology that uses a zeolite-based membrane to “separate water and ethanol.” The technology is important because it provides a low-energy way of separating water from ethanol in bioethanol manufacturing facilities.

31 Responses to “An A to Z of the Biofuel Economy”

  1. The termite is an amazing creature. The idea is the termite has Microbes living in their guts allowing them to digest wood. Scientists are trying to co-opt the microbial genes that enable this process. The aim is to produce biofuels from trees and grasses.

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  4. justusesugar

    sugar is still the best of all. sugar is cheaper and you are able to pipe it rather than having to truck it like ethanol. It is time to wake up and realize that the only reason the US wants to use ethanol is because we protect the sugar producers in the united states making it more cost effective to produce sugar from corn (corn syrup you find in your soft drinks). We also use beats to produce sugar. This is ridiculous. end sugar tarriffs

  5. grklein

    You forgot sugar cane, which is used to produce brazilian ethanol, which is 7 times more energy efficient than corn based ethanol (and this efficiency can be more than doubled with new developments).