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Best biofuel breakthroughs of 2009

Best biofuel breakthroughs of 2009

2009 had been a spectacular year in terms of technological innovations, painstaking researches, and some green achievements in the field of biofuels. Despite the recession and a dilly-dallying attitude of governments round the world who kept on recanting on their avowals to promote eco-researches, what 2009 offers is a mixed bag of technological progresses and federal regressions.

• E. Coli Bacteria turned into high-density biofuel


Researchers at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science genetically modified Escherichia coli, a bacterium often associated with food poisoning, to form long-chain alcohols containing more energy that help in the production of gasoline and even jet fuel.

Now, we’ve figured out a way to engineer proteins for a whole new pathway in E. coli to produce longer-chain alcohols with up to eight carbon atoms.

Says James Liao, UCLA professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering.

• Two-step formula to convert corn stock cellulose and pine sawdust into gasoline additive

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Researchers at the University of Wisconsin successfully converted raw biomass cellulose into fuel through a two-step formula. First, they split cellulose into 5-hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF) and later, convert it to 2,5-dimethylfuran (DMF), a biofuel with a 9% conversion rate. The researchers made use of corn stock cellulose and pine sawdust. Since DMF and gasoline have the same energy content and are insoluble in water, the product is being used as a gasoline additive. We first came to know that any form of biomass could be exploited to make biofuel.

• Commercial yeasts upgraded with a new enzyme to make ethanol

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Eckhard Boles, co-founder of the Swiss biofuel company Butalco GmbH and a professor at Goethe-University in Frankfurt, Germany, has revealed a new enzyme that ferments xylose into ethanol. The patented application makes use of Saccharomyces cerevisiae to teach the microorganisms to convert waste sugars, xylose and arabinose, into ethanol in a single step.

• Plant Gene Mapping found to catalyze biofuel production

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Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory have created a “family tree” of genes, their evolutionary and structural properties, that separates one form of woody plant from a less woody one, thereby helping them engineer plants more amenable to biofuel production. By searching the genomes of woody Poplar trees and leafy Arabidopsis, the scientists identified 94 and 61 genes they suspected belonged to this family in those two species, respectively. They also made some interesting observations about gene expression and gene location in their study of the acyl-modifying enzyme genes.

• USDA-ARS suggested rejected watermelons as potential biofuel supplement

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Wayne Fish, working with a team of researchers at the USDA-Agricultural Research Service’s South Central Agricultural Research Laboratory in Lane, Oklahoma, suggests that rejected watermelons can be the potential source of biofuel. Cashing in on the fruit-leftovers, the researchers are hopeful to exploit the neutraceutical value of lycopene and L-citrulline found abundantly in watermelon. Watermelon juice contains about 10% directly fermentable sugars and about 15 to 35 umol/ml of free amino acids. Either the whole juice concentrated thrice or the neutraceutical waste could be mixed with other concentrated feedstock to suffice it for bioethanol production. Hence, it serves as diluent and nitrogen supplement.

• Diatomic solar panels to help produce biofuel

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A group of researchers at IISc (Indian Institute of Science) has proposed to deduce biofuel from genetically modified diatoms. T. V. Ramachandra, a professor of ecology at IISc working in close co-operation with Richard Gordon, a radiology professor at the University of Manitoba in Winnepeg, reflects his desire to make diatomic solar panels to help produce oil instead of generating electricity. Having oil droplets inside to store oil, the microscopic plants can be milked for it. Though not all of it, they can still be sure of the 1/4th of the entire mass. It hardly requires any further processing. Even then, the suitable extraction technology should be there to make it possible.

• MIT researchers to produce biofuel from TB bacteria

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Researchers at MIT, headed by Professor Anthony Sinskey suggested to produce biofuel from a strain of bacteria using synthetic biology. These bacteria are in constant need of large amount of sugars and toxic compounds to produce lipids that can be converted into biodiesel. The team has already succeeded in engineering a strain of bacteria that eats glycerol, while another strain can eat a mix of two types of glucose and xylose. Since the basic chemistry and biology has been sorted out, the team is now working on producing the best yields. The research will be in process for another two to three years.

• Israel-US venture to convert Recyllose into ethanol

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A joint Israel-US venture will seek to collect Recyllose, i.e. a recycled solids-based material produced from municipal wastewater, and produce ethanol from it at a demonstration plant. Qteros and Applied CleanTech have teamed up for the project wherein the former will license its microbes while the latter will ensure the actual production of wastewater ethanol. Qteros’ microbes are capable of converting one ton of Recyllose into 120 to 135 gallons of ethanol. The project site, cost and production stats are not yet revealed. If all goes well, the team wishes to sell the fuel or power the plant using it.

• Scientists identify enzyme that helps growing biofuel crops anywhere

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The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory researchers have identified an enzyme responsible for the formation of suberin — the woody, waxy, cell-wall substance found in cork. Suberin controls water and nutrient transportation in plants and keep pathogens out. The scientists hope to adjust the permeability of plant tissues by genetically manipulating the expression of this enzyme. If they succeed in doing so, it could lead to easier agricultural production of crops used for biofuels.

• Maize cell wall genes gets a second mention

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Purdue University scientists, led by Nicholas Carpita, a professor of plant cell biology, identified and grouped genes responsible for cell wall development in maize. els production. Purdue’s scientists were particularly interested in the genes that regulate cellulose, lignin and other parts of plant’s cell walls. The team hopes to engineer catalysts or catalytic sites into plants and use heat or chemical catalysts to directly convert the biomass into fuel. The annotation of the maize cell wall genes also led to the discovery of more than 80 mutants involved in cell wall production.

• UT researchers switch to switchgrass for biofuel

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A group of researchers headed by ecologist Christine Hawkes at the University of Texas is working to uncover switch grass species best suited for biofuel production. After receiving a grant worth $4.6 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, UT hopes to utilize the funding in conducting genetic studies on the switch grass varieties. Christine is examining the perennial grass grown atop the Welch Hall. Later, some of it will be relocated to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center for virtual rain exposure.

• Ancient protein found to boost algal biofuel production

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Researchers from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have found a protein called LHCSR that discourages green algae from imbibing sunlight during photosynthesis. The discovery may lead to wheedle strains of algae more apt for artificial photosynthesis.

• Nanofarming to protect algae during biofuel production

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A new technology developed by the researchers at DOE’s Ames National Laboratory and Iowa State University, in partnership with Catilin, Inc., makes use of nanoparticles to absorb free fatty acids from living microalgae. It helps researchers to produce oil on a molecular level and mix it with a non-toxic biofuel catalyst to produce biofuel and enable the algae to keep growing. Dubbed the T300, the catalyst is recyclable and would replace the conventional biofuel catalyst sodium methylate, a salt that kills human nerve cells. According to Catilin, the T300 could shave up to 19 cents per gallon off the cost of conventional biodiesel production as well.

• Boosting renewable biofuel production with cyanobacteria

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Arizona State University research team has developed a process to produce inexpensive renewable biofuels by programming a photosynthetic microbe that destructs itself. Better know as cyanobacteria, the blue-green algae offers a potentially higher yield than any plant crops do. During the study, researchers placed a suite of genes into the photosynthetic bacteria to release their precious, high fat cargo more conveniently. The scientists swapped parts from bacteriaphages that infect E. coli and salmonella, simply added nickel to the growth media, where the inserted genes produced enzymes that slowly dissolved the cyanobacteria membranes from within.

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