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RFS Plagued by Critics While Bio-based Chemicals Move Forward

In the U.S., the push to increase the percentage of fuel that comes from bio-based feedstocks has turned into a tug of war. This year’s drought has re-invigorated the longtime “food versus fuels” debate that is now targeting the EPA’s Renewable Fuels Standard. Both the EPA and the USDA are working hard to hold the line on what is supposed to be a year-by-year increase in the amount of biofuels that go into the transportation fuels supply.

Big drought puts ethanol in doubt. Credit: USDA

When it comes to using corn for something other than food (i.e., animal feed), ethanol for transportation fuel is getting a big thumbs down from many quarters, while bio-based chemicals made from sugar is an endeavor that’s quietly moving right along.

This year, a projected lower corn harvest has alarmed many who keep a close eye on global food markets. The U.S. exports about 13% of its yearly corn harvest. Another third goes to animal feed, and between one-third and 40% is used to make ethanol. Many critics both in the U.S. and abroad are suggesting that the U.S. ease up on the amount of corn used in ethanol to prevent skyrocketing global food prices — of the kind that caused food riots in 2008.

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Our Favorite Toxic Chemical: Nitrate

Today’s post is from guest blogger Melissae Fellet, a science writer based in Santa Cruz, California, and was written for the “Our Favorite Toxic Chemicals” blog carnival hosted by Sciencegeist.

Feeding my vegetable garden so it will feed me

I’m eager to grow some of my own food this summer, so I planted a vegetable garden in pots on my porch. Since my previous gardening experience consists of ignoring my plants, learning some gardening tips was a must.

I hope my plants look this healthy in a few weeks! (Image by flickr user despi88)

Like humans, plants need food, too. Those nutrients come from boosts of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium-containing fertilizer. But plants need help getting their roots on some nutritious nitrogen when that fertilizer contains kelp, alfalfa, crushed bones, chicken poop and ground feathers, like the organic stuff I put in my garden.

Some of those ingredients contain nitrogen as ammonia, which plants can absorb directly. Proteins are another source of nitrogen. Bacteria in the soil separate proteins into amino acids. Other microbes chomp the nitrogen off the amino acids as ammonia. And super-specialized bacteria eat ammonia and release the nitrogen as nitrate (NO3-). Nitrate is great plant food, too, because it zips through the soil straight to a plant’s roots.

This biological nitrogen transformation is slow, so farmers may feed their plants a nitrate-containing fertilizer to speed growth. That’s a touchy subject in the agricultural areas near my home in California.

About 10 percent of 2500 public water wells tested in the Tulare Valley and Salinas Valley exceed the state limits of 45 mg nitrate per liter of water, according to a report prepared for the state water department last March. The majority of the nitrate in groundwater — about 96% — washes off cropland, the report found.

Nitrate takes time to trickle from a field into the groundwater, so most of that contamination is due to decades of past farming in the area. But if the nutrient pollution trend continues, 80% of the people living in those valleys could be drinking nitrate-laden water by 2050.

Nitrate becomes harmful when our bodies convert it to its chemical cousin, nitrite (NO2-). Nitrite transforms the iron in our blood so that it can no longer carry oxygen. Enough altered iron — 10 percent of the hemoglobin in your blood — causes breathing troubles especially in infants and pregnant women. Higher concentrations can lead to suffocation.

Still, it takes a lot of nitrate to harm a person. According to data from the World Health Organization [PDF], an average three-month old baby boy might have to drink about four liters of water contaminated with nitrate at twice the state limit to induce toxicity. An adult might drink up to 56 liters of the same water at once to get a fatal dose of nitrate.

Excess nitrate can be toxic to the environment, too. The nutrient washes into a Central Coast wetland, feeding microscopic algae until they grow into thick green mats that suffocate ponds and channels.

The UC Davis report says that fertilizer fees and improved groundwater monitoring can help protect drinking water. And policy changes are in the works for one part of the state. In March, the Central Coast Regional Water Control Board passed regulations to reduce nitrate-containing runoff from fields. These rules took three years to negotiate and they are still tangled in a lawsuit from growers.

Even without regulations, farmers can prevent nitrogen pollution by controlling the amount of fertilizer on the fields and feeding plants only what they can absorb. The state report also suggests using nitrate-laden ground water for irrigation. Plants absorb the nitrate from the water, and clean water returns to the aquifer.

Lacking a home nitrate test kit for my garden, I’ll choose organic fertilizer when it comes time to feed my plants again. That should give my plants a slow drip of nitrogen and hopefully prevent a build up of excess nutrients. I feed my plants nitrogen so they’ll be strong and healthy enough to produce food for me.

Bring on the orange carrots, yellow peppers and purple beans!

Hitting Pause on BPA

Last Friday morning I was looking for news about the FDA decision on bisphenol A (BPA) - a court mandated answer to a petition from the Natural Resources Defense Council. On my way to a Forbes blog entry on the topic, I was first confronted with Forbes’ randomly generated quote of the day:

“Life, as it is called, is for most of us one long postponement. ”— Henry Miller

Of course, as my colleague Britt Erickson details in her news story, FDA has opted not to ban BPA, saying the research submitted by NRDC wasn’t compelling enough. The agency, however, has gotten in deep with it’s own research and it says this is not the last word on the substance.

I’ve looked into the use of BPA in canned foods, and the dearth of adequate substitutes that protect cans from food, and vice versa. Erickson reports that packaging makers are still working very hard to find alternative technologies for can coatings. They are getting requests from their customers – food makers – who are themselves being pressured by consumers and by some shareholder groups to remove BPA.

The shareholder activist group As You Sow has been asking canned food brands to disclose how they are dealing with BPA in their products. They have also proposed shareholder resolutions to get companies to stop using cash register receipts coated with BPA. Actions by the group and others seem to have had some effect – most major brands like Campbell Soup are now talking about what they are doing, and are at least phasing out their use of BPA. Yum Brands and Walmart are two firms that no longer use BPA register receipts.

As You Sow CEO Andrew Behar says his group is meeting to discuss its strategy about BPA in the wake of the decision (non-decision?) by FDA. He says that consumer and investor pressure on the issue is not going to abate. “It’s far from over. This is a momentary pause to get some science done,” Behar says. As You Sow believes that BPA is indeed dangerous to humans, but Behar emphasizes that science needs to address the effects of small doses since BPA is an endocrine disruptor. Human exposure and downstream effects on unborn children as they grow up are also important research topics, he adds.


Two Weeks of Bee News

It has been a busy spring season for bee research. Last week, C&EN ran a news story about field research suggesting a link between pestides used in seed treatments and honeybee deaths. And C&EN’s Elizabeth Wilson has reported on two new studies that show that exposure to pesticides may interfere with the hive health of both honeybees and bumblebees.

The pesticides are from the neonicotinoid family, and include clothianidin and imidacloprid. Their use as seed treatments actually reduces the need to spray incecticides on to the plant’s leaves. Instead, small doses in a seed coating confer systemic protection to the plant as it grows. (Formulations of the products may also be used as foliar sprays).

The question that these studies are trying to explore is whether, and to what extent, use of neonicidinoids contribute to massive die-offs of bees, commonly called Colony Collapse Disorder.

In Europe, Italy, Germany, and France have placed restrictions – some are temporary – on the use of neonicitinoids in agriculture. The rules vary widely by country. Earlier this month beekeepers and environmentalists in the U.S. petitioned EPA to ban the use of clothianidin.


They’re the Tops: Leading Solar Module Producers

According to the new Lux Research Solar Supply Tracker, in 2011 the top ten solar module producers made 12.5 GW worth of solar modules, and accounted for 44% of the year’s total module production. That makes for a fairly consolidated industry. The research firm says that  crystalline silicon modules made by so-called tier 1 firms were selling for the low, low price of 90 cents per watt.

Lux also points out that Japan and South Korea both have a manufacturer on the list – the two countries are motivated by the Fukushima nuclear disaster and competition from China to ramp up their PV industry.

First Solar stands out in the list – not just for being the #1 producer with a 7% share of global production – but because it makes thin-film cadmium telluride modules. The CdTe photovoltaics sell for a bit less than crystalline silicon versions. First Solar’s manufacturing facilities are in the U.S. as well as in Germany and Malaysia.

Here’s the top ten list, then, without all the details and numbers which you can get from Lux’s website (or download the PDF).

1. First Solar (HQ: US)

2. Suntech Power (HQ: China)

3. Yingli Green Energy (HQ: China)

4. Trina Solar (HQ: China)

5. Canadian Solar (HQ: Ontario)

6. Sharp (HQ: Japan)

7. Hanwha Solar One  (HQ: South Korea)

8. Jinko Solar (HQ: China)

9. LDK Solar (HQ: China)

10. SolarWorld (HQ: Germany, but is world’s largest PV cell producer in North America)



Trending in Liquid Fuels

I’ve never had an automobile that ran on anything other than gasoline. Sure, sometimes I buy the high-octane stuff, and nowadays my go-to fuel has 10% ethanol in it. Someday soon it may have 15%. But I’m old school. If I were more cool, I’d be filling up on trendier stuff – perhaps some home-brewed diesel from vegetable oil, for example.

Actually, french fry grease drivers are also getting to be passe these days – its so hard to keep up! According to former Pennsylvania Governor (and our first Homeland Security head) Tom Ridge, methanol is the way cool fuel. Or so he contends in an OpEd in today’s New York Times.

Sprint car drivers run on methanol. Maybe you will to. Credit: Ted Van Pelt (cc)

This idea is pretty timely for me, as I was thinking of trading in my Mazda for a sprint car. If Ridge’s idea gets traction, I won’t have to – I’ll be able to fill up with the way high octane stuff without needing to upgrade my ride. He points out that just as a normal car can run on ethanol (or be cheaply converted to run on ethanol) the same is essentially true for any alcohol fuel. It takes way more methanol to go the same miles as on the same amount of gasoline, but worry not, it’s cheap. The bottom line? Methanol can be made from (say it with me)  clean-burning, domestic natural gas.

This thread continues neatly over at the Department of Energy, where $30 million in grants will go to projects to make it possible to fuel a car on compressed natural gas (those tanks are too big, bulky, and pricey to use now, but can be improved).

And in the same press release, DOE says it will make available $14 million to explore making transportation fuels from algae.

Meanwhile, on a recent drive through Eastern Pennsylvania I again pondered the meaning behind a billboard on Interstate 81. “Future Site of the Nation’s First Waste Coal to Clean Transporation Fuels Plant.” Questions that came to mind were “what is waste coal? how do you make transporation fuels from it? that sounds like it would be expensive? and are my tax dollars paying for this?”

Anyway, that pilot plant, which was originally slated for operation in 2006, was never built. Cost over-runs and difficulty arranging the neccesary financing (at last count the cost was around $1 billion) seem to have made that idea a trend of the past.


Lufthansa Cargo Looks for Green Ideas

Win a free trip to Frankfurt! And 25,000 miles for a winning green idea submitted to Lufthansa Cargo. Cleantech Chemistry hopes that those free miles would net you a seat in the passenger compartment, but the firm’s press release is not explicit. Anyway, C&EN was alerted to the contest, which you can enter RIGHT NOW or any time before December 19.

I checked out the ideas that have been submitted so far, and I note the dearth of chemistry and materials science-related suggestions. I enjoyed one about making cargo containers from carbon fiber rather than aluminum, and the comments section shows that people know a lot about carbon fiber, as do C&EN readers thanks to a recent cover story.

Go to the contest website and submit an idea. I will check back in when the winners are announced.

Why FedEx is an Early Adopter of Transportation Tech

My colleague Steve Ritterrecently attended a conference about electrofuels. Electrofuels are made by using energy from the sun and renewable inorganic feedstocks such as carbon dioxide and water, processes facilitated by nonphotosynthetic microorganisms or by using earth-abundant metal catalysts.

The conference was attended by researchers and at least one early adopter who is ready to give them a try. Cleantech Chemistry is pleased to have Steve’s report on what he learned. [Edit: You can read Steve's story on electrofuels in this week's issue]

FedEx operates more than 680 aircraft and 90,000 motorized vehicles, including delivery vans and airport and warehouse support vehicles such as forklifts. Dennis R. Beal, the company’s vice president for global vehicles gave a talk at the conference explaining why FedEx is open to many new fuel and other transportation technologies that likely would not reach the masses for years, if ever.

A FedEx all-electric vehicle pauses at the Oklahoma City airport in front of a FedEx Airbus A310. Credit: FedEx

Although FedEx is a service company, “what we sell as a product is certainty—if you absolutely positively have to get it there, use FedEx,” said Beal. Beal gave a keynote talk during the Society for Biological Engineering’s inaugural conference on electrofuels research, which was held on Nov. 6–9, in Providence, R.I.

“That means we have a very high standard for our vehicles that pick up and deliver packages,” Beal added. “We have to be very careful in making business decisions to not negatively impact our ability to deliver certainty for our customers.”

With that philosophy, about 20 years ago FedEx starting taking a holistic view at transportation options, including battery and fuel-cell electric, hybrid, biofuel, and natural gas vehicles. “If it relates to fuel in any form, or alternative engines and drive trains, we are keenly interested,” Beal said.

The company has retrofitted delivery vans itself and partnered with vehicle manufacturers, electric utilities, electric equipment providers, and federal agencies on other fronts. FedEx even teamed up with the nonprofit group Environmental Defense Fund when pioneering the first hybrid electric delivery vehicles. Beal related that he and his colleagues have had a long climb up the learning curve searching for the most efficient transportation technologies that are safe, user friendly, meet driving range requirements, and offer a secure supply of affordable electricity or alternative fuel.

“We have tried a little bit of everything to see where these different technologies will and won’t work, Beal said. “We share the results with the rest of the delivery industry—the goal is to help advance the technology so that it will be widely adopted, not just for ourselves, but to help build scale to bring the cost down for everyone.”

FedEx has built its fleet to now contain 43 all-electric vehicles, 365 diesel hybrid and gasoline hybrid vehicles, and nearly 380 natural gas vehicles. In addition, the company has some 500 forklifts and 1,600 airport ground support electric and alternative-fuel vehicles in service.

The prototypes have a long way to go to be cost comparative with internal combustion engines, Beal said. For example, a typical all-electric delivery van costs $180,000 compared with $40,000 for a gasoline or diesel version. A consolation is that electric vehicles are 70% less costly to operate. “We believe the cost is going to come down and be economically viable in the long term,” Beal noted. “But given the logistics and needs of different regions—city versus rural and colder versus warmer climates—there is no one solution that fits all.”

FedEx plans to use a collection of approaches—gasoline, diesel, biofuel, hybrid, electric, fuel cell, and natural gas—and choose the right vehicle for each mission, Beal said. “What will drive adoption, once a technology passes the certainty test, is not that it is elegant, but that it also makes economic sense.”

Bad Biofuels Vibes, but no Break for Solar

Last week the National Academies released a report about the federal Renewable Fuels Standard – and the scientist-authors basically panned it from top to bottom. As a policy tool, the NAS said, the RFS is unlikely to work. They point out that production of cellulosic ethanol – the type of renewable fuel the policy is supposed to spur production and use of – still struggles to get off the ground.

As Jeff Johnson reported in this week’s issue, the government estimates this year’s haul of cellulosic ethanol will be a mere 6.6 million gal, far below the RFS target for 2011 of 250 million gal. The standard mandates a huge upswing in production of cellulosic ethanol – 16 billion gal by 2022 – at which point it would pass the amount of ethanol the country is supposed to get from corn. NAS points out what most folks would likely observe – that this goal would be very difficult to meet.

But NAS goes farther by questioning the green credentials of cellulosic ethanol. As a second-generation or advanced biofuel, cellulosic ethanol was supposed to be much better for the environment than corn ethanol, and certainly a vast improvement over fossil fuels. But, Johnson reports, the authors forecast major downsides from growing crops for biofuels including “the one-time release of greenhouse gases from disturbed biomass and soil may exceed future reductions of greenhouse gases expected as a result of the shift from gasoline to biofuels.”

Meanwhile the solar saga continues. The Washington Post is still digging into government e-mails related to the Obama administration’s dealings with Solyndra – the defunct solar firm that benefited from a $535 million loan guarantee. It looks like there will be plenty of material to keep this topic open for a while – as I predicted – and the issue will continue to cast a shadow over government actions in the green manufacturing sector.

That said, the U.S. will soon become a leading destination for solar installations, as I report in this week’s issue. This is a positive development in terms of the country’s ability to generate renewable power. But it comes at a price – the low, low cost of crystalline silicon solar cells, mainly imported from China, is likely to blast a hole through a portion of the U.S. solar manufacturing base.

If I were to put on my policy hat (first I’d have to dust it off and remove some cobwebs), I’d be pondering a few questions this week. Is it more important for the U.S. to be able to ramp up its capacity to generate renewable solar power by installing cheap solar modules or should the U.S. try to spend more money to spur more solar cells, panels, and modules to be made in this country? Right now, those two goals are not aligned.

And what should the future of cellulosic ethanol be? If there are questions about the environmental benefit of a production system that can generate 16 billion gal of the stuff, how should we begin to answer those questions? Biofuel backers say we should move forward and get facilities and feedstocks going and work to improve the climatic impacts as part of the learning curve. Critics say we should acknowledge the trade-offs up front, which may minimize the role of cellulosic ethanol.

Algae and Water Energy

Could the energy cost of moving water sink the burgeoning algae industry?

C&EN recently checked in with a number of leading algae-growing firms to learn more about their current plans for profiting from the prolific green slime. Though eventually many hope to make money in the large market for biofuels, most firms say that other products like chemicals and high-protein fish food will go first.

Water World. Cellana's marine algae ponds are in Hawaii. Credit: Cellana

Building large-scale algae-growing systems is still too expensive to make fuels profitable. The key to bringing down costs is in the engineering of the infrastructure. A recent study by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin looked at the energy costs of moving water into and around algae-growing systems (Environ. Sci. Technol., 2011, 45 (13), pp 5861–5868).Researchers Cynthia Murphy and David Allen presented a startling conclusion:

Energy output in the form of algal biodiesel and the total energy content of algal biomass are compared to energy inputs required for water management. The analysis indicates that, for current technologies, energy required for water management alone is approximately seven times greater than energy output in the form of biodiesel and more than double that contained within the entire algal biomass.

Seven times greater?

Ouch. Like any model, this one began with a host of assumptions. Importantly, the model did not assume that algae farmers would be using fresh water, but did assume algae would be grown in open ponds (except for the inoculation vessels). In fact, the main problem is not the water itself, but the need to move it around from place to place.

First water from various sources (saline, fresh, reclaimed from the facility) needs to be obtained and pumped into the inoculation area and the algae pond. More water would be added to compensate for algae removed, evaporation and other “leaks” from the system. Evaporation would concentrate salts in the pond, and may require compensating amounts of fresh water for “blow down.” Cleaning after each growing season would require removing the water and replacing it.

In addition, energy would be required to remove water from the harvested algae, and then to return that reclaimed water to the system. The researchers also included in the model the embodied energy of the plastics used to contain the algae in ponds (and the lifespan of the plastics).

There is no way, of course, to compare the assumptions in the model to any particular firm’s proprietary growing system. But I did pose the question of water energy to the companies I spoke with that use open ponds.

Cellana’s CEO Martin Sabarsky said, “Water is a big issue. It’s an issue for biofuels generally. You have to deal with it on the backend too. We’ve developed and are continuing to optimize cost effective technology to handle water issues at the back end including dewatering. “

And Sapphire President Cynthia Warner commented, “It is true that to optimize the process and get costs down, you have to minimize water movement, maximize efficiency. Using sophisticated equipment is key.”