Manchester University researchers have made a significant breakthrough in the development of synthetic pathways that will enable renewable biosynthesis of propane gas (aka Liquid Petroleum Gas or LPG).

The research is part of a program of work aimed at developing the next generation of biofuels. The study provides new insight and understanding of the development of next-generation biofuels.

In this latest study, open access published in the journal Biotechnology for Biofuels, scientists at the University’s Manchester Institute of Biotechnology (MIB), working with colleagues at Imperial College and University of Turku, have created a synthetic pathway for biosynthesis of the gas propane.

Graphical Abstract of the Biosynthesis of Propane.  Image Credit: Manchester University Institute of Biotechnology. Click image for the largest view.

Graphical Abstract of the Biosynthesis of Propane. Image Credit: Manchester University Institute of Biotechnology. Click image for the largest view.

The collaborator’s work brings scientists one step closer to the commercial production of renewable propane, a vital development as fossil fuels continue to dwindle.

Professor Nigel Scrutton, Director of the MIB, explains the significance of their work, “The chemical industry is undergoing a major transformation as a consequence of unstable energy costs, limited natural resources and climate change. Efforts to find cleaner, more sustainable forms of energy as well as using biotechnology techniques to produce synthetic chemicals are currently being developed at The University of Manchester.”

Natural metabolic pathways for the renewable biosynthesis of propane do not exist. But the scientists at the University have developed an alternative microbial biosynthetic pathway to produce renewable propane. The team led by Nigel Scrutton and Dr. Patrik Jones from Imperial College, modified existing fermentative butanol pathways using an engineered enzyme variant to redirect the microbial pathway to produce propane as opposed to butanol. The team was able to achieve propane biosynthesis creating a platform for next-generation microbial propane production.

Propane is a hydrogen rich carbon molecule and has very good physicochemical properties which allow it to be stored and transported in an uncooled compressed liquid form. Under ambient conditions propane is a clean-burning gas with existing global markets and infrastructure for storage, distribution and utilization in a wide range of applications ranging from heating to transport fuel. As a consequence propane is an attractive target product in research aimed at developing new renewable alternatives to complement currently used petroleum-derived fuels.

Professor Scrutton comments: “This study focused on the construction and evaluation of alternative microbial biosynthetic pathways for the production of renewable propane. It also expands the metabolic toolbox for renewable propane production, providing new insight and understanding of the development of next-generation biofuels which one day could lead to commercial production.”

Of the light hydrocarbon gases propane is the handiest, lowest cost to store remotely and is even practical as a motor vehicle fuel. In much of the world propane is comparatively costly in view of U.S. prices. This development is welcome news for much of the world. Lets hope the research gets to processes and feedstock questions soon so we can have another look.

A Louisiana State University (LSU) research physicist team has discovered a breakthrough magnetocaloric material that cools. The press release believes food refrigeration and air conditioning may become more efficient and environmentally friendly thanks to the patent-pending work of physicists.

Lead researcher LSU Physics Professor Shane Stadler said, “The world refrigeration market is expected to increase by about $7-8 billion by 2018.” The team’s breakthrough could have a significant economic impact as well as an impact on the energy industry and environment.

LSU Refrigeration Research Team Members.  Stadler Group. Postdoctoral researcher Tapas Samanta, undergraduate Daniel Lepkowski, graduate student Ahmad Us Saleheen and undergraduate Emily Kramer. Image Credit: Louisiana State University. Click image for the largest view.

LSU Refrigeration Research Team Members. Stadler Group members postdoctoral researcher Tapas Samanta, undergraduate Daniel Lepkowski, graduate student Ahmad Us Saleheen and undergraduate Emily Kramer.
Image Credit: Louisiana State University. Click image for the largest view.

Stadler’s research focuses on the next generation of magnetic cooling technologies, which are simpler in design, quieter and more environmentally friendly than the conventional compressed-gas heat moving systems currently in use.

Michael L. Cherry, chair and professor, LSU Department of Physics and Astronomy said, “LSU’s basic research into low temperature physics and materials science has potential applications in areas related to energy, electronics and the environment.”

In this new technology, a magnetic field magnetically orders the material at ambient temperature, which raises its temperature above ambient. The excess heat is removed through a thermal medium, such as water or air, bringing the material back to ambient temperature.

Then magnetic field is removed and the material becomes magnetically disordered and its temperature drops below ambient temperature leading to a cooling effect. This “solid state” cooling process is reported to be significantly more energy efficient than the conventional, compressed gas systems currently on the market today.

Stadler explains the research significance, “We’ve studied these systems for a long time and were fortunate to discover a system in which a magnetic transition coincided in temperature with a structural transition. That this magnetostructural transition occurs near room temperature is what makes it a strong candidate for magnetocaloric cooling devices of the future.”

Stadler’s team’s technological discovery is a promising alternative for refrigeration and air conditioning that can reduce the use of harmful fluorocarbon gases as well as simpler designs and lower maintenance expense.

Andrew Maas, assistant vice president for research over technology transfer and director of LSU’s Office of Innovation and Technology Commercialization adds, “We are excited about the potential applications that are available for Dr. Stadler’s technology. The Department of Energy, General Electric and other companies around the world have been working with magnetocaloric materials for some time. Dr. Stadler’s solution addresses many of the issues that these big players have encountered.”

Currently, a local group of entrepreneurs have expressed interest in this advanced technology. After further testing, they will look into developing commercialization opportunities utilizing it for the heating and cooling industry.

Obviously there isn’t a study paper on this one. The details are likely highly prized intellectual property. The real question is can the Department of Energy or any of the major manufacturers see a commercial advantage strong enough to develop the material and process into products.

This LSU system isn’t as simple as plug it in and its cold, rather its a two step process. Perhaps it isn’t as economical to build as a simple (non existent) plugin, but this could work quite well, be built at far lower costs and run using a lot less power. Keep your fingers crossed that it works out to our products.

A research team has developed a hyper-stretchable elastic-composite energy harvesting device called a nanogenerator. A team led by Professor Keon Jae Lee of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) and Seoul National University (SNU) have collaborated and demonstrated a facile methodology to obtain a high-performance and hyper-stretchable elastic-composite generator (SEG) using very long silver nanowire-based stretchable electrodes.

Hyper Stretchable Elastic Composite Generator.  Click image for more info.

Hyper Stretchable Elastic Composite Generator. Click image for more info.

The team’s paper, A Hyper-Stretchable Elastic-Composite Energy Harvester, has been published in the journal Advanced Materials.

Flexible electronics have come into the market and are enabling new technologies like flexible displays in mobile phone, wearable electronics, and “Internet of Things” devices. But the question remains, is the degree of flexibility enough for most applications? For many flexible devices, elasticity is a very important issue.

For example, wearable/biomedical devices and electronic skins (e-skins) should stretch to conform to arbitrarily curved surfaces and moving body parts such as joints, diaphragms, and tendons. They must be able to withstand the repeated and prolonged mechanical stresses of stretching.

The development of elastic energy devices is regarded as critical to establish power supplies in stretchable applications. Although several researchers have explored diverse stretchable electronics, due to the absence of the appropriate device structures and correspondingly electrodes, researchers have not developed ultra-stretchable and fully-reversible energy conversion devices successfully.

The KAIST SNU stretchable piezoelectric generator can harvest mechanical energy to produce high power output (~4 V) with large elasticity (~250%) and excellent durability (over 104 cycles). These noteworthy results were achieved by the non-destructive stress- relaxation ability of the unique electrodes as well as the good piezoelectricity of the device components. The new SEG can be applied to a wide-variety of wearable energy-harvesters to transduce biomechanical-stretching energy from the body (or machines) to electrical energy.

Professor Lee said, “This exciting approach introduces an ultra-stretchable piezoelectric generator. It can open avenues for power supplies in universal wearable and biomedical applications as well as self-powered ultra-stretchable electronics.”

It looks to be something that for now is completely unique with some very interesting application ideas shown in the study’s supporting information. We’re likely to see this coming to market.

Rice University scientists found they could grow high-value strains of oil-rich algae while simultaneously removing more than 90% of nitrates and more than 50% of phosphorous from wastewater. The study is one of the first studies to examine the potential for using municipal wastewater as a feedstock for algae-based biofuels.

Wastewater treatment facilities currently have no cost-effective means of removing large volumes of nitrates or phosphorus from treated water, so algae production with wastewater has the potential of solving two problems at once.

The findings, which are based on a five-month study at a wastewater treatment facility in Houston, are available online in the journal Algae.

Study lead author Meenakshi Bhattacharjee, a 28-year veteran of algal research who joined Rice’s biosciences last June explains the background, “Biofuels were the hot topic in algaculture five years ago, but interest cooled as the algae industry moved toward producing higher-value, lower-volume products for pharmaceuticals, nutritional supplements, cosmetics and other products. The move to high-value products has allowed the algaculture industry to become firmly established, but producers remain heavily dependent on chemical fertilizers. Moving forward, they must address sustainability if they are to progress toward producing higher-volume products, ‘green’ petrochemical substitutes and fuels.”

Meenakshi Bhattacharjee of Rice University with an algae sample.

Meenakshi Bhattacharjee of Rice University with an algae sample.

Bhattacharjee said the algae industry’s reliance on chemical fertilizers is a double whammy for algae producers because it both reduces profit margins and puts them in competition with food producers for fertilizers. A 2012 National Research Council (NRC) report found that “with current technologies, scaling up production of algal biofuels to meet even 5 percent of U.S. transportation fuel needs could create unsustainable demands for energy, water and nutrient resources.”

The NRC 2012 report also pointed to wastewater-based cultivation as a potential way to make algae production sustainable. An added appeal is that the method could potentially address a looming environmental problem: nutrient pollution in U.S. waterways. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, nutrient pollution from excess nitrogen and phosphorus – two of the primary components of chemical fertilizers – is “one of America’s most widespread, costly and challenging environmental problems.”

Study co-author Evan Siemann, Rice’s Harry C. and Olga K. Wiess Professor of BioSciences noted that wastewater treatment facilities currently have no cost-effective means of removing large volumes of nitrates or phosphorus from treated water, so algae production with wastewater has the potential of solving two problems at once.

“The idea has been on the books for quite a while, but there are questions, including whether it can be done in open tanks and whether it will be adaptable for monoculture – a preferred process where producers grow one algal strain that’s optimized to yield particular products,” Siemann explained. “We were surprised at how little had been done to test these questions. There are a number of laboratory studies, but we found only one previous large-scale study, which was conducted at a wastewater facility in Kansas.”

Siemann said the Rice study was made possible by the participation of the Houston Department of Public Works and Engineering, which helped Rice’s research team set up a test involving 12 open-topped 600-gallon tanks at one of the city’s satellite wastewater treatment plants in July 2013.

The tanks were fed with filtered wastewater from the plant’s clarifiers, which remove suspended solids from sewage. Various formulations of algae were tested in each tank. Some were monocultures of oil-rich algal strains and others contained mixed cultures, including some with local algal strains from Houston bayous. Some tanks contained fish that preyed upon algae-eating zooplankton.

“Prior research had suggested that diverse assemblages of algal species might perform better in open tanks and that fish might keep algae-eating zooplankton from adversely affecting yields,” Siemann said.

“We recorded prolific algal growth in all 12 tanks,” he said. “Our results are likely to be very encouraging to algae producers because the case they would prefer – monocultures with no fish and no cross-contamination – was the case where we saw optimal performance.”

Bhattacharjee said more research is needed to determine whether wastewater-based algaculture will be cost-effective and under what circumstances. For instance, the algae in the Rice study was four times more effective at removing phosphorus than were the algae in the Kansas study. She said that could be because the Houston test was performed in summer and fall, and the tanks were about 30 degrees warmer on average than the tanks in Kansas.

“Using wastewater would be one of the best solutions to make algaculture sustainable,” she said. “If temperature is key, then cultivation may be more economical in the Southeast and Southwest.” She noted that other factors, like starting levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, might have caused a rate-limiting effect. “These are the kinds of questions future studies would need to address to optimize this process and make it more attractive for investors,” she said.

Siemann said he hopes to partner with the city for future studies to further investigate the use of wastewater for algaculture.

“We are excited to be collaborating with Rice to develop innovative, sustainable approaches that remove excess nutrients from wastewater while producing algae-based biofuels, all to the benefit of Houston’s bayous,” said Carol La Breche, supervising engineering of wastewater operations at the Beltway Lab of the Houston Department of Public Works and Engineering.

With no shortage of nutrient rich wastewater laden with expensive fertility the project has obvious economic potential. There is a long way to go, and many more questions – especially that water temperature issue that so limits the potential. Congratulations to everyone involved.

A Virginia Tech research team has discovered a way to create hydrogen fuel using a biomass feedstock. The biological method greatly reduces the time and money it takes to produce the zero-emissions fuel. This research method uses abundantly available corn stover, made up of plant’s stalks, cobs, and husks to produce the hydrogen.

The team already has received significant funding for the next step of the project, which is to scale up production to a demonstration size.

The team’s new findings were published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Joe Rollin, a former doctoral student of Zhang’s at Virginia Tech and co-founder with Zhang of the start-up company Cell-free Bioinnovations, is the lead author on the paper. The research could help speed the widespread arrival of the hydrogen-powered vehicles in a way that is inexpensive and has extremely low carbon emissions.

Percival Zhang, a professor in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering, which is in both the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech said, “This means we have demonstrated the most important step toward a hydrogen economy – producing distributed and affordable green hydrogen from local biomass resources.”

Professor Zhang (right) and doctoral graduate Joe Rollin of Virginia Tech.  Click image for the largest view.

Professor Zhang (right) and doctoral graduate Joe Rollin of Virginia Tech. Click image for the largest view.

The work has already attracted third party reviews. Lonnie O. Ingram, director of the Florida Center for Renewable Chemicals and Fuels at the University of Florida, who is familiar with the work but not associated with the team said, “Although it is difficult to predict cost at this point, this work represents a revolutionary approach that offers many new advantages. These researchers have certainly broadened the scope of our thinking about metabolism and how it plays into the future of alternative energy production.”

The study work builds upon previous studies Zhang’s team has done with xylose, the most abundant simple plant pentose sugar, to produce hydrogen yields that previously were attainable only in theory. The new discovery is unique in two ways.

Unlike other hydrogen fuel production methods that rely on highly processed sugars, the Virginia Tech team used dirty biomass – the husks and stalks of corn plants – to create their fuel. This not only reduces the initial expense of creating the fuel, it enables the use of a fuel source readily available near the processing plants, making the creation of the fuel a local enterprise.

Rollin used a genetic algorithm along with a series of complex mathematical expressions to analyze each step of the enzymatic process that breaks down corn stover into hydrogen and carbon dioxide. He also confirmed the ability of this system to use both sugars glucose and xylose at the same time, which increases the rate at which the hydrogen is released. Typically in biological conversions, these two sugars can only be used sequentially, not simultaneously, which adds time and expense to the process.

One of the biggest hurdles to widespread hydrogen use is the capital cost required to produce the fuel from natural gas in large facilities. Distribution of the hydrogen to users of fuel cell vehicles is another key challenge.

Rollin’s model increased reaction rates by threefold, decreasing the required facility size to about the size of a gas station, which reduces associated capital costs. The dominant current method for producing hydrogen uses natural gas, which is expensive to distribute and causes fossil carbon emissions.

To produce distributed hydrogen at affordable costs, product yield, reaction rate, and product separation must be addressed. In terms of product yield, the use of cell-free artificial enzymatic pathway not only breaks the natural limit of hydrogen-producing microorganisms by three times but also avoids complicated sugar flux regulation.

The team also increased enzymatic generation rates. This reaction rate is fast enough for hydrogen production in distributed hydrogen-fueling stations. The achieved reaction rate is at least 10 times that of the fastest photo-hydrogen production system.

The reaction the researchers studied takes place at modest conditions. This means that hydrogen can be easily separated from aqueous reactants and enzymes. Also, enzymatic reactions such as those being used in this system generate high-purity hydrogen, perfect for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

The modest reaction conditions also indicate the feasibility of low-capital requirements for building distributed hydrogen generating and fueling stations based on the technology.

Rollin said, “We believe this exciting technology has the potential to enable the widespread use of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles around the world and displace fossil fuels.”

With the startup company set up and the funding to build a demonstration size processor we will very likely get to see if the process has real economic potential.