In the Labs: Biofuel Efficiencies, Blue-Green Microbes and Silicon Nanotubes

Ethanol Production Showing Efficiency Gains: Despite the biofuels backlash some positive trends are being recorded for the industry. Argonne National Laboratory has released a statistical comparison of data collected by the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA) on ethanol production in 2006 and data collected by the USDA in 2001. Ethanol production in the U.S. increased by 276 percent, or to 4.9 billion gallons annually, in those five years and the report highlights some trends going on behind the biofuel boom:

  • 21.8% decrease in total energy use (fossil and electricity)
  • 23.5% of the ethanol production capacities capture and export CO2 as a co-product
  • 26.6% decrease in water consumption

RFA President Bob Dinneen was certainly optimistic: “The future of this industry is bright and green.” While these energy gains are definitely good news, corn and soy processing will have to be supplanted by cellulosic and next generation biofuel production.

4.5 Generation Biofuel Breakthrough: Two researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have created a sweet microbe that secretes cellulose, glucose and sucrose. Free from the lignin and fleshy plant matter of biomass feedstocks, the sugars can be easily and readily harvested and fermented without disturbing the little buggers making the sweets.

Professor R. Malcolm Brown Jr. and Dr. David Nobles Jr. spliced a cellulose-producing gene from one bacterium into a photosynthetic cyanobacteria (or “blue-green bacteria”). Called “blue-green” because of its chlorophyll, the bacteria uses sunlight to power the reaction and can even fix its own nitrogen from the atmosphere, obviating the need for petro-fertilizers.

Silicon Nanotubes Hold Potential of Holding Hydrogen: Carbon nanotubes are so 2007. Silicon nanotubes are the next big thing in cylindrical nanotech. A new paper from Chinese researchers show that through computer modeling silicon nanotubes could absorb and store hydrogen molecules more efficiently than their carbon counterparts (hat tip Science Daily).

While scientists all over the world have been working to improve the energy density of hydrogen fuel cells with carbon nanotubes none have been able to reach the goals set by the U.S. Department of Energy. This new paper could open the door for silicon nanotube research that could produce a fuel cell breakthrough.