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    Spanish company Ferry Group is to invest €42/US$55.2 million in a project for the production of biomass fuel pellets in Bulgaria. The 3-year project consists of establishing plantations of paulownia trees near the city of Tran. Paulownia is a fast-growing tree used for the commercial production of fuel pellets. Dnevnik - Feb. 20, 2007.

    Hungary's BHD Hõerõmû Zrt. is to build a 35 billion Forint (€138/US$182 million) commercial biomass-fired power plant with a maximum output of 49.9 MW in Szerencs (northeast Hungary). Portfolio.hu - Feb. 20, 2007.

    Tonight at 9pm, BBC Two will be showing a program on geo-engineering techniques to 'save' the planet from global warming. Five of the world's top scientists propose five radical scientific inventions which could stop climate change dead in its tracks. The ideas include: a giant sunshade in space to filter out the sun's rays and help cool us down; forests of artificial trees that would breath in carbon dioxide and stop the green house effect and a fleet futuristic yachts that will shoot salt water into the clouds thickening them and cooling the planet. BBC News - Feb. 19, 2007.

    Archer Daniels Midland, the largest U.S. ethanol producer, is planning to open a biodiesel plant in Indonesia with Wilmar International Ltd. this year and a wholly owned biodiesel plant in Brazil before July, the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday. The Brazil plant is expected to be the nation's largest, the paper said. Worldwide, the company projects a fourfold rise in biodiesel production over the next five years. ADM was not immediately available to comment. Reuters - Feb. 16, 2007.

    Finnish engineering firm Pöyry Oyj has been awarded contracts by San Carlos Bioenergy Inc. to provide services for the first bioethanol plant in the Philippines. The aggregate contract value is EUR 10 million. The plant is to be build in the Province of San Carlos on the north-eastern tip of Negros Island. The plant is expected to deliver 120,000 liters/day of bioethanol and 4 MW of excess power to the grid. Kauppalehti Online - Feb. 15, 2007.

    In order to reduce fuel costs, a Mukono-based flower farm which exports to Europe, is building its own biodiesel plant, based on using Jatropha curcas seeds. It estimates the fuel will cut production costs by up to 20%. New Vision (Kampala, Uganda) - Feb. 12, 2007.

    The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has decided to use 10% biodiesel in its fleet of public buses. The world's largest city is served by the Toei Bus System, which is used by some 570,000 people daily. Digital World Tokyo - Feb. 12, 2007.

    Fearing lack of electricity supply in South Africa and a price tag on CO2, WSP Group SA is investing in a biomass power plant that will replace coal in the Letaba Citrus juicing plant which is located in Tzaneen. Mining Weekly - Feb. 8, 2007.

    In what it calls an important addition to its global R&D capabilities, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) is to build a new bioenergy research center in Hamburg, Germany. World Grain - Feb. 5, 2007.

    EthaBlog's Henrique Oliveira interviews leading Brazilian biofuels consultant Marcelo Coelho who offers insights into the (foreign) investment dynamics in the sector, the history of Brazilian ethanol and the relationship between oil price trends and biofuels. EthaBlog - Feb. 2, 2007.

    The government of Taiwan has announced its renewable energy target: 12% of all energy should come from renewables by 2020. The plan is expected to revitalise Taiwan's agricultural sector and to boost its nascent biomass industry. China Post - Feb. 2, 2007.

    Production at Cantarell, the world's second biggest oil field, declined by 500,000 barrels or 25% last year. This virtual collapse is unfolding much faster than projections from Mexico's state-run oil giant Petroleos Mexicanos. Wall Street Journal - Jan. 30, 2007.

    Dubai-based and AIM listed Teejori Ltd. has entered into an agreement to invest €6 million to acquire a 16.7% interest in Bekon, which developed two proprietary technologies enabling dry-fermentation of biomass. Both technologies allow it to design, establish and operate biogas plants in a highly efficient way. Dry-Fermentation offers significant advantages to the existing widely used wet fermentation process of converting biomass to biogas. Ame Info - Jan. 22, 2007.

    Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited is to build a biofuel production plant in the tribal belt of Banswara, Rajasthan, India. The petroleum company has acquired 20,000 hectares of low value land in the district, which it plans to commit to growing jatropha and other biofuel crops. The company's chairman said HPCL was also looking for similar wasteland in the state of Chhattisgarh. Zee News - Jan. 15, 2007.

    The Zimbabwean national police begins planting jatropha for a pilot project that must result in a daily production of 1000 liters of biodiesel. The Herald (Harare), Via AllAfrica - Jan. 12, 2007.

    In order to meet its Kyoto obligations and to cut dependence on oil, Japan has started importing biofuels from Brazil and elsewhere. And even though the country has limited local bioenergy potential, its Agriculture Ministry will begin a search for natural resources, including farm products and their residues, that can be used to make biofuels in Japan. To this end, studies will be conducted at 900 locations nationwide over a three-year period. The Japan Times - Jan. 12, 2007.

    Chrysler's chief economist Van Jolissaint has launched an arrogant attack on "quasi-hysterical Europeans" and their attitudes to global warming, calling the Stern Review 'dubious'. The remarks illustrate the yawning gap between opinions on climate change among Europeans and Americans, but they also strengthen the view that announcements by US car makers and legislators about the development of green vehicles are nothing more than window dressing. Today, the EU announced its comprehensive energy policy for the 21st century, with climate change at the center of it. BBC News - Jan. 10, 2007.

    The new Canadian government is investing $840,000 into BioMatera Inc. a biotech company that develops industrial biopolymers (such as PHA) that have wide-scale applications in the plastics, farmaceutical and cosmetics industries. Plant-based biopolymers such as PHA are biodegradable and renewable. Government of Canada - Jan. 9, 2007.

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Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Ultra-strong nanocrystals from biomass make plastic 3,000 times stronger - integrating biofuel production and nanotech

The green future will be one where biomass streams are refined into a myriad of products ranging from fuels, to high-tech fibres, bioplastics and specialty chemicals. This will make the economics of biofuels production much more viable.

This vision of an integrated and sustainable 'bioeconomy' is becoming ever more realistic because different scientific fields are merging and overlapping. Researchers at the State University of New York (SUNY) College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF), for example, are developing ways to use cellulose from wood to strengthen plastics, providing a lightweight component that has the added advantage of being biodegradable. Their future aim: to integrate the process with the production of next-generation ethanol.

The researchers succeeded in pulling ultra-strong cellulose nanocrystals (CNXLs) out of biomass from trees and willow shrubs to orange pulp and the pomace left behind after apple cider production, and mixing them with plastics. “By adding an ounce of crystals to a pound of plastic, you can increase the strength of the plastic by a factor of 3,000,” said Dr. William T. Winter, a chemistry professor and director of the Cellulose Research Institute at ESF. “And in the end, in a landfill, it’s just carbon dioxide and water, which can be taken up and made into more biomass.”

“All plant materials contain a minimum of 25 percent cellulose,” Winter says. “Wood from trees is a little higher, between 40 percent and 50 percent.” In addition to being used as strengtheners in plastics, the nanocrystals can be used in ceramics and in biomedical applications such as artificial joints and disposable medical equipment (for a more in-depth introduction on CNXLs and their possible applications, see "The Material Science of Nanocrystals" [*pdf], and Dr. John Simonsen's Cellulose Nanocrystal Composites website.) Using cellulosic nanocrystals to strengthen plastics has advantages over the glass that is often used: glass is heavier, harder on processing machinery and therefore more expensive to work with, and it stays in the ground for centuries. The cellulose nanocrystals will break down quickly in a landfill:
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“Anything which is made in nature can be destroyed in nature,” Winter said. “And these cellulose particles have a lifetime in a landfill of less than 90 days, at which time, they go back into carbon dioxide and water. It can be reabsorbed by other plants that use it to make more cellulose.”

Winter and his team work with a reactor that can process up to 500 grams (about a pound) of material at a time, a significant increase over the 5-gram quantities that are typically used in laboratory settings. The next step is to scale it up to a commercial level.

In Winter’s process, the cellulose is first purified in the laboratory as substances such as wax and gluey lignin are removed from the biomass. The cellulose then goes through a homogenizing process, similar to the one used with dairy products. The cellulose is shredded into tiny particles under high pressure, rendering nanocrystals, so-called because they are so miniscule they are measured in nanometers, or billionths of a meter.

The result is a viscous, white liquid that goes into a microcompounder, where it is mixed with plastic under high pressure. The unit produces a cord – or a ribbon, depending on the die being used to shape it – of crystal-reinforced plastic that can tested for several properties.

Winter’s team is currently working on refining the surface of the crystals so they adhere better to the plastic, and disbursing the crystals throughout the material to achieve the best results.

Integrating with ethanol production
In the future, Winter said, the process could be tied to the production of cellulosic ethanol. When hemicellulose is removed from wood for fermentation into ethanol, it leaves behind cellulose that can be treated with enzymes and reduced to the nanocrystals Winter uses in his lab. The value of those crystals in industrial uses represents a significant reduction in the cost of producing ethanol.

And Winter sees possibilities in using the nanocrystals in the bioplastics that are being developed at SUNY-ESF, resulting in strong, lightweight plastics that would degrade in a landfill.

Winter has received more than $1 million in support for the research, mostly from federal sources such as the departments of agriculture and energy, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Other funding has come from Eastman Chemical Company.


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