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Naked greed – Branson & biofuels

In the US and Canada, the race to find a cost-effective way of producing biofuel is hotting up. Rapacious entrepreneur Richard Branson is the latest to enter the field as part of a $3 billion ploy to green his image. With many new technologies emerging, it could be tough to decide which is worthy of investment and which will receive your household dollars. Branson is the emperor with no clothes, “a maverick marketeer, sitting on a bubble empire, inflated by the breath of lazy media,” in the opinion of one commentator.

This article covers six legitimate and successful biofuel techniques that are close to rollout:-

Chevron want to transform California’s transport fuel

Chevron Technology Ventures has committed to invest up to $25 million in the University of California, Davis over the next five years to research, develop and advance technology aimed at converting cellulosic biomass into auto fuel.

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They aim to develop commercially viable processes for fuel production from renewable resources such as new energy crops, forest and agricultural residues, and municipal solid waste. Story continues after ad
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Working with the California Biomass Collaborative, research will also focus on renewable feedstocks available in California, including agricultural waste such as rice straw.

California’s huge agricultural industry could be a key source of the raw material for the new biofuels, said Rick Zalesky, Vice President of biofuels and hydrogen for Chevron Technology Ventures. “Once developed, next-generation processing technology will allow locally grown biomass to be harvested, processed into transportation fuels, and distributed to consumers.”

Corn-to-Ethanol and more

Purdue University scientists have developed an environmentally friendly, cost-effective method for creating ethanol from corn. Using a machine originally designed to make plastics, the new Chen-Xu Method grinds the corn kernels and then liquefies the starch with high temperatures.

The process produces about 2.85 gallons of ethanol for every bushel of corn processed. That output is slightly higher than current methods, but the same process that creates the ethanol also creates other marketable products.

Professor Li-Fu Chen explains:

“This process also produces corn oil, corn fiber, gluten and zein, which is a protein that can be used in the manufacture of plastics so that the containers are good for the environment because they are biodegradable and easily decompose. The containers would actually be edible, although there probably wouldn’t be much market for that.”

Sugar Beets s0 this season

Agritech Ethanol Corporation is planning to build a $2-million pilot plant in the eastern P.E.I. community of Georgetown, the first plant in North America able to convert sugar beets into ethanol. If the pilot proves successful, the company plans to build a larger facility capable of producing 40 million litres of ethanol in 2008.

Lowe says in addition to the ethanol, by-products of the production process will include high protein animal feed for the dairy industry and captured carbon dioxide for the beverage industry.

The company president expects the demand for ethanol to increase in the next five years due largely to the federal government’s plan requiring gasoline and other liquid fuels to contain five per cent renewable fuels by 2010.

Termites to the rescue

Turns out termites might be useful creatures after all. Scientists have been trying to discover new enzymes that convert agricultural biomass to clean burning fuel, and surprisingly, one rich source of these enzymes has been found in the digestive tracts of termites.

They have been able to isolate the enzymes using DNA extraction and cloning technologies and create industrial ethanol production enablers. Termites can convert 95% of what they consume into energy within 24 hours or, more accurately, the bacteria that inhabit their digestive tracts can.

Cellulosic biomass is possibly the most underutilized energy asset on the planet; and cellulose-containing natural waste products are widely abundant and can be sustainably produced. So far, biomass has been a challenge to convert to ethanol with scientists using harsh acids and high temperatures but looking at how it happens in natural environments has led them to a solution that could impact quite significantly on our energy use.

Fuel from bacteria

A breakthrough in the production of biofuels has been developed by scientists in Germany. Research published in last year describes how specially engineered bacteria could be used to make fuel completely from food crops.

“Biodiesel production depends on plant oils obtained from seeds of oilseed crops like rapeseed or soy”, explains Professor Steinbchel. “However, production of plant oils has a huge demand of acreage which is one of the main factors limiting a more widespread use of biodiesel today. In addition, biodiesel production must compete with the production of food, which also raises some ethical concerns”.

Microdiesel, as the scientists have named it, is different from other production methods because it not only uses the same plant oils, but can also use readily available bulk plant materials or even recycled waste paper if engineering of the production strain is more advanced.

Also, it does not rely on the addition of toxic methanol from fossil resources, like many other biodiesels. The bacteria developed for use in the Microdiesel process make their own ethanol instead. This could help to keep the costs of production down and means that the fuel is made from 100% renewable resources.

What is The Ultimate Fuel?

At the California Clean Tech Open event Tuesday, Khosla Ventures founder Vinod Khosla said the ultimate fuel probably won’t be ethanol.

Contrary to what you might believe, I think it’s extremely unlikely that in 20 years we will be using any ethanol in cars, a surprising statement from one of ethanol’s most enthusiastic backers. Mr. Khosla has invested millions in ethanol companies such as Altra, Mascoma, and Cilion.

Biomass is going to be an important tool in fighting poverty and generating wealth in a meaningful way, he said. It’s not only good for this country, but it’s good for the planet. But corn-based ethanol and even cellulosic ethanol, made from plant waste are only steps along a larger trajectory toward other fuels, he suggested.

So what will replace it? BP and DuPont are already working on butanol, which can be produced by fermentation of biomass. The difference from ethanol production is mainly in the fermentation of the feedstock producing butanol rather than ethanol as a primary fermentation product, and minor changes in the way it’s distilled. The feedstocks are the same as for ethanol energy crops like sugar beets, sugar cane, corn grain, wheat and cassava as well as agricultural byproducts such as straw and corn stalks. According to DuPont, existing bioethanol plants can cost-effectively be retrofitted to biobutanol production.

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