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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.

2 Responses to “In the Labs: Biofuel Efficiencies, Blue-Green Microbes and Silicon Nanotubes”

  1. Prof.Hans-Jürgen Franke & Prof. Pengcheng Fu


    University of Hawai’i Professor Pengchen “Patrick” Fu developed an innovative technology, to produce high amounts of ethanol with modified cyanobacterias, as a new feedstock for ethanol, without entering in conflict with the food and feed-production .

    Fu has developed strains of cyanobacteria — one of the components of pond scum — that feed on atmospheric carbon dioxide, and produce ethanol as a waste product.

    He has done it both in his laboratory under fluorescent light and with sunlight on the roof of his building. Sunlight works better, he said.

    It has a lot of appeal and potential. Turning waste into something useful is a good thing. And the blue-green-algae needs only sun and wast- recycled from the sugar-cane-industry, to grow and to produce directly more and more ethanol. With this solution, the sugarcane-based ethanol-industry in Brazil and other tropical regions will get a second way, to produce more biocombustible for the worldmarket.

    The technique may need adjusting to increase how much ethanol it yields, but it may be a new technology-challenge in the near future.

    The process was patented by Fu and UH in January, but there’s still plenty of work to do to bring it to a commercial level. The team of Fu foundet just the start-up LA WAHIE BIOTECH INC. with headquarter in Hawaii and branch-office in Brazil.


    Fu figures his team is two to three years from being able to build a full-scale
    ethanol plant, and they are looking for investors or industry-partners (jointventure).

    He is fine-tuning his research to find different strains of blue-green algae that will produce even more ethanol, and that are more tolerant of high levels of ethanol. The system permits, to “harvest” continuously ethanol – using a membrane-system- and to pump than the blue-green-algae-solution in the Photo-Bio-Reactor again.

    Fu started out in chemical engineering, and then began the study of biology. He has studied in China, Australia, Japan and the United States, and came to UH in 2002 after a stint as scientist for a private company in California.

    He is working also with NASA on the potential of cyanobacteria in future lunar and Mars colonization, and is also proceeding to take his ethanol technology into the marketplace. A business plan using his system, under the name La Wahie Biotech, won third place — and a $5,000 award — in the Business Plan Competition at UH’s Shidler College of Business.
    Daniel Dean and Donavan Kealoha, both UH law and business students, are Fu’s partners. So they are in the process of turning the business plan into an operating business.

    The production of ethanol for fuel is one of the nation’s and the world’s major initiatives, partly because its production takes as much carbon out of the atmosphere as it dumps into the atmosphere. That’s different from fossil fuels such as oil and coal, which take stored carbon out of the ground and release it into the atmosphere, for a net increase in greenhouse gas.
    Most current and planned ethanol production methods depend on farming, and in the case of corn and sugar, take food crops and divert them into energy.

    Fu said crop-based ethanol production is slow and resource-costly. He decided to work with cyanobacteria, some of which convert sunlight and carbon dioxide into their own food and release oxygen as a waste product.

    Other scientists also are researching using cyanobacteria to make ethanol, using different strains, but Fu’s technique is unique, he said. He inserted genetic material into one type of freshwater cyanobacterium, causing it to produce ethanol as its waste product. It works, and is an amazingly efficient system.

    The technology is fairly simple. It involves a photobioreactor, which is a
    fancy term for a clear glass or plastic container full of something alive, in which light promotes a biological reaction. Carbon dioxide gas is bubbled through the green mixture of water and cyanobacteria. The liquid is then passed through a specialized membrane that removes the
    ethanol, allowing the water, nutrients and cyanobacteria to return to the

    Solar energy drives the conversion of the carbon dioxide into ethanol. The partner of Prof. Fu in Brazil in the branch-office of La Wahie Biotech Inc. in Aracaju – Prof. Hans-Jürgen Franke – is developing a low-cost photo-bio-reactor-system. Prof. Franke want´s soon creat a pilot-project with Prof. Fu in Brazil.

    The benefit over other techniques of producing ethanol is that this is simple and quick—taking days rather than the months required to grow crops that can be converted to ethanol.

    La Wahie Biotech Inc. believes it can be done for significantly less than the cost of gasoline and also less than the cost of ethanol produced through conventional methods.

    Also, this system is not a net producer of carbon dioxide: Carbon dioxide released into the environment when ethanol is burned has been withdrawn from the environment during ethanol production. To get the carbon dioxide it needs, the system could even pull the gas out of the emissions of power plants or other carbon dioxide producers. That would prevent carbon dioxide release into the atmosphere, where it has been implicated as a
    major cause of global warming.
    Honolulo – Hawaii/USA and Aracaju – Sergipe/Brasil – 15/09/2008

    Prof. Pengcheng Fu – E-Mail: [email protected]
    Prof. Hans-Jürgen Franke – E-Mail: [email protected]

    Tel.: 00-55-79-3243-2209