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Archive → May, 2011

But In the Meantime, More CO2

While the  U.S. reviews its nuclear energy policy, countries that turn away from nuclear will have to deal with an uptick in CO2 emissions.

Japanese  Prime Minister Naoto Kan said earlier this month that the country will promote renewable energy rather than bring more nuclear reactors online. And Germany has placed a moratorium on nuclear power generation. Today’s Wall Street Journal has a useful summary of an International Energy Agency report that has quantified the increase in CO2 emissions that will result in Germany.

The story explains that “the shutdown of Germany’s nuclear plants will take out about 50 terawatt hours of low-carbon electricity a year” and says that the country will likely replace it with fossil fuel-derived power that will produce 25 million metric tons a year of CO2 emissions. Germany is subject to the EU’s emissions trading scheme, so it will have to offset those emissions. One way to do so, says the report, is for the country to substitute electricity from natural gas plants for those that use coal (or trade for permits with another country that does so).

But it’ll take a lot of swapping, the Journal finds. “An extra 90 terawatt hours of gas-fired power would be needed, replacing 40 terawatt hours of power from coal plants to offset the entire 25 million tons of CO2.”

Of course countries that want to replace nuclear power – either a little or a lot – will be looking to renewables. It’s not clear yet whether – and how much – governments will spend on incentives to increase the renewables infrastructure if nuclear is less a part of the portfolio. In January, for example, Germany started to cut back on feed-in tariffs for solar power.

Dow Kokam Batteries Get Big Customer – Dow

It’s no Tesla Roadster, but to many Americans it is still a dream vehicle. The iconic Ford F150 pickup truck will get a zippy electrical overhaul in Midland, Michigan, where a plug-in hybrid version will join the fleet at Dow Chemical.

Ford F150s get a charge from Dow Kokam. Credit:Ford Motor Co.

Last Spring, Dow’s electric-car battery joint venture Dow Kokam broke ground on a Midland factory and it is those batteries that will power the trucks. Dow says PHEV trucks will make up 5% of the fleet, or somewhere north of 100 vehicles.

For the auto enthusiasts, here are some stats: 

The 20 kWh Dow Kokam battery enables delivery of the required vehicle range in addition to speeds of up to 85 mph and 0-60 MPH acceleration in less than 12 seconds. The truck goes 35 miles on one charge, and with the gas assisted battery-powered engine can journey 400 miles without running out of fuel.

Dow is working with Quantum Fuel Systems Technologies to supply the drive trains that will work with the Dow Kokam batteries.

When C&EN covered the groundbreaking of the facility last year, analysts warned that the production of electric-vehicle batteries was already likely to outpace demand. Still, delivery and operations fleets are likely to be the first to find cost savings by going electric (and are more likely to stay in the all-electric range). They can be parked at charging stations, too. So when those first million electric cars finally start roaming the roads, most will look more like the work-a-day F150 than the sexy Tesla.

BP, Rio Tinto Exit Carbon Capture Project

It takes some creative thinking to make clean technologies profitable. This is a theme that appears again and again in renewable energy stories about everything from algae to solar.

But cleaning up fossil fuels faces the same hurdle. Yesterday, private energy firm SCS Energy said it would take over a major California carbon capture project from mega industrials BP and Rio Tinto.

The Hydrogen Energy California (HECA) project aims to generate hydrogen for electricity production from petroleum coke and coal, while capturing CO2. The captured CO2 would be pumped into the earth as part of a neighboring natural gas project, where it would aid in gas recovery and presumably stay stored underground.

HECA has been backed by BP and Rio Tinto – to the tune of $55 million each - and by the Department of Energy, which supplied $54 million from Recovery Act funds. It is eligible for an additional $354 million in financial assistance in Clean Coal Power Initiative funding.

In total, that would be $514 million for the power plant, which is expected to start generating power in 2016. It is currently in the design and permitting stage. But operating HECA profitably is apparently still a challenge. SCS energy wants to add the capability of producing urea from the facility to create an additional income stream. The urea would be used for fertilizer.

It seems rather clear that without an additional product/revenue stream, this power producer cannot make the finances work. In its written statement about the transfer of ownership, HECA closes with “The approach of producing both electricity and urea helps address the economic challenge of creating a viable business model to cover the high capital costs of the plant and its carbon capture capabilities. ”

Thin Mints and Palm Oil Sustainability

I want to hand it to Wall Street Journal reporter Julie Jargon for this excellent quote:

“My troop is up in arms,” says Nicole Bell, a Lansing, Kan., leader and former scout. “They do not want to sell cookies next year.”

The WSJ story details how two Girl Scouts, teenagers Rhiannon Tomtishen and Madison Vorva, found themselves, as cookie vendors, in the uncomfortable position of dealing with recalcitrant suppliers. They learned in the course of a Girl-Scout badge-awarding research project that palm oil plantations threaten Indonesian rainforests and wildlife, including orangutans.

Palm oil is in many food and other household products (like soap). The two scouts discovered that it is also in Girl Scout cookies.

But the Girl Scouts organization, and its cookie-bakers, say they are not in a position to replace the palm oil in their products. The cookies are a major fundraiser for the organzation and bring in an eye-popping $714 million in annual revenues.

Still, it’s the Girl Scouts brand that sells the cookie, and not the other way around. Surely, with that kind of buying power, the Girl Scouts could find a way to source sustainable palm oil if there is no other substitute.

The scouts could start by following the example of Dr. Bronners Magic Soaps. This privately held, brand-conscious firm has already laid the groundwork for palm oil that is both earth- and local community-friendly. Dr. Bronners has said it would welcome more supply-chain pull for their sustainable farming efforts.

More on Metabolix: “densified switchgrass”

Though it is technically a word (according to Merriam-Webster), I’m not sure “densify” would make my C&EN editors happy, so I’m going to use it here on the blog. Last week we learned that Metabolix was awarded $6 million in USDA/DOE grant money to densify switchgrass.

Today, the company issued a press release with a bit more detail on the research. And it seems that to densify a biomass really means to get more good stuff out of a given volume (weight?) of material. In fact, Metabolix wants to “produce densified biomass with transportation and fuel properties closely matching coal.”

In addition to growing switchgrass with an ever larger percentage of their star bio-based plastic (polyhydroxyalkanoates or PHA), Metabolix has now confirmed the route (or a route)  it plans to take to obtain C4 chemicals from the engineered plants. It will use a thermolysis process to obtain crotonic acid (C4H6O2), which can in turn be converted into chemical intermediates such as butanol and propylene.

USDA’s Vilsack Visits Agrivida

Baby switchgrass plants grow own enzymes. Credit: C&EN

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack visited biotech start-up Agrivida in Bedford, Mass. today to talk about USDA’s wise investments in R&D operations looking to make fuels from biomass. Prior to his remarks, he took a tour of the 40-employee firm’s lab space to see how they are spending some $3 million in government grant money. C&EN feels pretty wise, too, because it visited Agrivida almost a year ago for a similar tour.

The company was founded by two young entrepreneurs with freshly minted PhD’s in chemical engineering from MIT. Jeremy Johnson and R. Michael Raab found a way to engineer plants (the green variety) to produce the enzymes that cellulosic ethanol producers normally have to add to biomass to derive the sugars that can then be fermented into ethanol (got that?). Those enzymes can get pretty pricey, so if the plants can make them, then fuel producers might save a buck.

And saving a buck – especially if you’re in government – is all the rage these days. In his brief remarks, the Secretary said three times that his agency knows it needs to “spend less and spend wisely.” He said that government spending to spur innovation to make sugar-based fuels more cheaply – and competitive with fossil fuels – would help to “restructure the rural economy” and he predicted that “biorefineries will be dotting the landscape around rural communities” which will bring many jobs.

This week, USDA teamed up with DOE to award biomass R&D grants to eight projects that all have an eye on the bottom line. It’s clear that the government grant award-pickers are well versed on the financial (as well as technical) hurdles that the biomass-to-whatever industry faces. For example, the $5.1 million grant to Exelus, a firm in Livingston, N.J., will support “work to develop energy crops with improved tolerance to drought and salt stress to enhance yields on marginal lands,” and it will also ”redesign a process to make hydrocarbon fuels using new catalysts and chemistry that avoids the high temperatures and large energy inputs required by current processes.”

It’s Sappy – Ford’s plan for Dandelions

Cleantech chemistry doesn’t know where you, dear reader, are sitting right now. But it’s quite likely that if you look out your window at the nearest patch of green, you will see some of these ubiquitous weeds:

Not the Russian variety, but you get the idea. Credit: C&EN

But as gardeners will tell you, it’s only a weed if it appears where it is not wanted. But dandelions ARE wanted in Wooster, Ohio, where a team of agricultural researchers are right this very moment tending to a crop of Taraxacum kok-saghyz or Russian Dandelions. The milky sap of the plant’s taproot contains a high-quality rubber that mirrors the performance characteristics of the Brazilian rubber tree, source of almost all natural rubber.
 Researchers at The Ohio State University’s Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center will provide samples of rubber to Ford Motor Company. Ford says it is interested in blending the rubber with various plastics and using the flexible materials in auto interiors for cup holders, floormats, and trim.
What Ford does not mention, however,  is that the research picks up on an interesting piece of U.S. industrial history.  

Metabolix to get $6M From DOE for Denser Switchgrass

Metabolix is one of 8 firms and research organizations named in a Department of Energy grant program that will put $47 million to work making biomass more productive for fuels and chemicals. All in an effort, of course, to unhitch our economy from fossil fuels.

Switchgrass Credit: Steven Ausmus/USDA

Metabolix already has a way to make bio-based plastics (polyhydroxyalkanoate, or PHA resins) from sugars, and has been doing it at commercial scale with agro partner Archer Daniels Midland. But it has also been spending a great deal of its resources upstream on the biomass end, and can grow switchgrass with PHA inside it.

 The DOE award will give the firm $6 million (actually, it’s $6,000,001. not sure what the extra buck is for) to, in their words “use high temperature conversion to produce denser biomass and other products that can be further processed to make fuels such as butanol, chemicals such as propylene and other materials to improve the economic competitiveness of future biorefineries.”

I will admit to not fully grasping the meaning of “to produce denser biomass” yet, but I’ll be looking out for more details. Still, this announcement hit 7 of my cleantech topic categories (see above!) so it’s well worth mentioning now.

Metabolix was one of the earlier cleantech firms to IPO (helpful to do so before  worldwide recession, is the lesson here). Laurence Alexander of Jeffries & Co. is a fan of the stock, rating the firm a “buy.” He had this to say in a note to clients about the DOE/Metabolix grant: “ We view the announcement as incrementally positive. It should help Metabolix strengthen its technology platform while reducing concerns that the early-stage research into the switchgrass PHA platform could represent a cash drain that detracts from the more timely PHA plastic and PHA-based chemicals platforms.”  Sounds like Metabolix will be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, thanks to this announcement.

On a related note, the news value around the word “switchgrass” has been rather low of late. In this Google Trends chart, you can see little activity in last few years.

Google Trends for "Switchgrass" in search and news

A great deal of attention in the biofuels segment has focused on cellulosic waste materials (wood chips, corn cobs etc) or gassification of biomass. Switchgrass was hot when the nation was going to grow dedicated crops for bio-based energy. We’ll have to see if a new research push will bring it back into the public eye.