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    Mongabay, a leading resource for news and perspectives on environmental and conservation issues related to the tropics, has launched Tropical Conservation Science - a new, open access academic e-journal. It will cover a wide variety of scientific and social studies on tropical ecosystems, their biodiversity and the threats posed to them. Tropical Conservation Science - March 8, 2008.

    At the 148th Meeting of the OPEC Conference, the oil exporting cartel decided to leave its production level unchanged, sending crude prices spiralling to new records (above $104). OPEC "observed that the market is well-supplied, with current commercial oil stocks standing above their five-year average. The Conference further noted, with concern, that the current price environment does not reflect market fundamentals, as crude oil prices are being strongly influenced by the weakness in the US dollar, rising inflation and significant flow of funds into the commodities market." OPEC - March 5, 2008.

    Kyushu University (Japan) is establishing what it says will be the world’s first graduate program in hydrogen energy technologies. The new master’s program for hydrogen engineering is to be offered at the university’s new Ito campus in Fukuoka Prefecture. Lectures will cover such topics as hydrogen energy and developing the fuel cells needed to convert hydrogen into heat or electricity. Of all the renewable pathways to produce hydrogen, bio-hydrogen based on the gasification of biomass is by far both the most efficient, cost-effective and cleanest. Fuel Cell Works - March 3, 2008.

    An entrepreneur in Ivory Coast has developed a project to establish a network of Miscanthus giganteus farms aimed at producing biomass for use in power generation. In a first phase, the goal is to grow the crop on 200 hectares, after which expansion will start. The project is in an advanced stage, but the entrepreneur still seeks partners and investors. The plantation is to be located in an agro-ecological zone qualified as highly suitable for the grass species. Contact us - March 3, 2008.

    A 7.1MW biomass power plant to be built on the Haiwaiian island of Kaua‘i has received approval from the local Planning Commission. The plant, owned and operated by Green Energy Hawaii, will use albizia trees, a hardy species that grows in poor soil on rainfall alone. The renewable power plant will meet 10 percent of the island's energy needs. Kauai World - February 27, 2008.

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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Scientists use nanoscale catalysts to produce biofuels from syngas

Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory and Iowa State University are combining gasification with high-tech nanoscale porous catalysts, to create ethanol from a wide range of biomass, including distiller’s grain left over from ethanol production, corn stover from the field, grass, wood pulp, animal waste, or garbage.

Gasification is a process that turns carbon-based feedstocks under high temperature and pressure in an oxygen-controlled atmosphere into synthesis gas, or syngas. Syngas is made up primarily of carbon monoxide and hydrogen (more than 85 percent by volume) and smaller quantities of carbon dioxide and methane.

It’s basically the same technique that was used to extract the gas from coal that fueled gas light fixtures prior to the advent of the electric light bulb. The advantage of gasification compared to fermentation technologies is that it can be used in a variety of applications, including process heat, electric power generation, and synthesis of commodity chemicals and fuels. Moreover, gasification can turn any biomass feedstock into syngas.
There was some interest in converting syngas into ethanol during the first oil crisis back in the 70s. The problem was that catalysis technology at that time didn’t allow selectivity in the byproducts. They could produce ethanol, but you’d also get methane, aldehydes and a number of other undesirable products. - Victor Lin, Ames Lab Chemical and Biological Science Program Director
A catalyst is a material that facilitates and speeds up a chemical reaction without chemically changing the catalyst itself. In studying the chemical reactions in syngas conversion, Lin found that the carbon monoxide molecules that yielded ethanol could be “activated” in the presence of a catalyst with a unique structural feature.

If this ‘activated’ CO adsorption on the surface of the catalyst is increased, it improves the opportunity for the formation of ethanol molecules. And if the amount of surface area for the catalyst is increased, the researchers can boost the amount of ethanol produced.

Lin’s group looked at using a metal alloy as the catalyst. To increase the surface area, they used nano-scale catalyst particles dispersed widely within the structure of mesoporous nanospheres, tiny sponge-like balls with thousands of channels running through them. The total surface area of these dispersed catalyst nanoparticles is roughly 100 times greater than the surface area you’d get with the same quantity of catalyst material in larger, macro-scale particles:
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It is also important to control the chemical makeup of the syngas. Researchers at ISU's Center for Sustainable Environmental Technologies , or CSET, have spent several years developing fluidized bed gasifiers to provide reliable operation and high-quality syngas for applications ranging from replacing natural gas in grain ethanol plants to providing hydrogen for fuel cells.

Gasification to ethanol has received increasing attention as an attractive approach to reaching the Federal Renewable Fuel Standard of 36 billion gallons of biofuel. - Robert Brown, CSET director

The great thing about using syngas to produce ethanol is that it expands the kinds of materials that can be converted into fuels. You can use the waste product from the distilling process or any number of other sources of biomass, such as switchgrass or wood pulp. Basically any carbon-based material can be converted into syngas. And once we have syngas, we can turn that into ethanol, the researchers say.

The research is funded by the DOE’s Offices of Basic Energy Sciences and Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

Ames Laboratory is a U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science laboratory operated for the DOE by Iowa State University. The Lab conducts research into various areas of national concern, including the synthesis and study of new materials, energy resources, high-speed computer design, and environmental cleanup and restoration .

Image: In this transmission electron micrograph of the mesoporous nanospheres, the nano-scale catalyst particles show up as the dark spots. Using particles this small (~ 3nm) increases the overall surface area of the catalyst by roughly 100 times. Credit: Ames Lab.


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