Biofuel R&D updates

The biofuel industry might be struggling right now but advanced technology developments are definitely still alive and kicking — especially if government grants and funding from both public and private sector are flowing in.

There are sooo many news this past two weeks but the recent ones that came into my attention are Cobalt’s new biobutanol demo facility in California; Cavitation Technologies’ new patent on algal extraction for biofuel; renewable jet fuels using camelina oilseed; and advancement of jatropha-based biofuels.

BIO-BUTANOL:

Cobalt formally launched this week its first biomass-based n-butanol pilot facility in California. The chemical can be used as a standalone fuel; blended with gasoline, diesel and ethanol; converted into jet fuel or plastics, or even sold as is for use in paints and coatings.

The company intends to quickly scale up its technology, adding two additional small-scale plants and a commercial 15-to-50-million-gallon plant by 2014 and producing biobutanol that is competitive with corn-based ethanol by 2012.

By the way, another biobutanol producer, Gevo, started up its 1m gal/year first biobutanol demonstration plant in St. Joseph, Missouri, last year October. Check out my article on ICIS Chemical Business published last year for more about biobutanol.

ALGAE BIOFUEL:

In the algae department, Cavitation Technologies (CTI) said it has successfully completed the development and testing of their algae reactor and filed a patent about it. The company was able to extract oil from algae on a continuous basis for commercial applications such as of course, biofuel.

CTI is looking to license their technologies to qualified companies and individuals.

BIOFUELS FROM NON-FOOD CROPS:

BioJet Corporation and Great Plains Oil & Exploration announced a joint deal to producing renewable jet fuels that contain oils from camelina plant. The companies plan to jointly develop integrated Camelina cultivation and associated refinery projects in the U.S., Europe, South America, and Asia.

The companies estimate that within 5 years, camelina production from currently planned team projects will yield 200 million gallons/year of renewable jet fuel, 65 million gal/year of co-products, and 2.3 million tons/year of camelina meal, for use as a high-quality animal feed.

Plant science company SG Biofuels, meanwhile, announced its collaborating with life science company Life Technologies Corporation to advance the development of jatropha as a sustainable biofuel feedstock. The alliance brings together SG Biofuels’ Genetic Resource Center that contains the largest and most diverse library of jatropha genetic material in the world, with the advanced biotechnology and synthetic biology tools of Life Technologies.

Other R&D news:

Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory have created a new enzyme and demonstrated its potential ability to interfere with the production of lignin, a key cell-wall component in plants. This approach to enzyme engineering could be used to further understand the mechanisms of lignin biosynthesis, and may lead to the production of plants that are easier to convert to biofuels.

In the UK, a team of scientists from the University of Sheffield have been working on an innovative device which will make the production of alternative biofuels more energy efficient.

The team have devised an air-lift loop bioreactor which creates microbubbles using 18% less energy consumption. Microbubbles are miniature gas bubbles of less than 50 microns diameter in water. They are able to transfer materials in a bioreactor much more rapidly than larger bubbles produced by conventional bubble generation techniques and they consume much less energy.

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Hey, maybe if these technologies work in the long run, the biofuel industry wouldn’t depend that much on subsidies!

[Photo 1: Cobalt Laboratory. Photo 2: Brookhaven biochemist Chang-Jun Liu]

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