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Mushroom-as-polymer Powers Packaging Business

Ecovative Design's filimentous fungi packaging material

The era of renewable packaging is upon us, but a few details remain to be worked out. For example, Frito-Lay has been making noise (while irritating snackers) with its very loud – but compostable – plant-based polylactic acid bag for Sun Chips. Meanwhile, a quieter innovation is growing near the campus of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York.

Ecovative Design grows its EcoCradle packaging material by adding filamentous fungi to buckwheat hulls inside a plastic form. The result is a composite material that the company markets as a competitor to expanded polystyrene. If you’re having trouble picturing this, take a moment to view the video linked at the end of this post.

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Flow Batteries: Coming to a wind farm near you?

A year ago while I was refreshing my knowledge of lithium-ion batteries, I started to hear chatter about other, newer types of batteries that were attracting attention and funding. One was a rather yoga-sounding technology: flow batteries.

I was reminded about flow batteries when I read that the last set of Recovery Act funding from DOE’s ARPA-E program would go to energy storage technologies. Three of the projects will be working on flow batteries, one of which will be led by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

But what is a flow battery? Basically, it’s a battery where the voltage differential is stored outside the cell in two separate tanks of electrolytes. Pumps circulate the two fluids into a cell chamber where they come together separated by a membrane that prevents them from mixing, but does allow select ions to pass through. Electrodes in the cell convert the chemical energy to electric current.

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Breaking News! Gulf Oil Spill: New ACS Symposium Announced

The BP oil spill saga in the Gulf has occupied scientists, policy-makers and citizens since April 20th, making this the summer of Deepwater Horizon. It seems only fitting then, that ACS will convene a line-up of speakers and panel to discuss what we know about the science of oil spills.

On Tuesday, August 24 at the ACS Boston National Meeting there will be a full-day symposium titled “Gulf Oil Spill: Tackling the chemistry and food science implications.”

Scientists from government, academia, and non-profits will review what is already known about the impacts of past spills on marine ecosystems and economically important seafood industries. The afternoon sessions will look deeply at the science of characterizing the components of crude oil as it breaks down in the gulf. After the talks there will be plenty of time for discussion.

The symposium is being cosponsored by the ACS Committee on Science, Multidisciplinary Planning Group, and the Green Chemistry Institute. A schedule has been posted to the ACS Community Network website: https://communities.acs.org/docs/DOC-3106

Too Many Batteries?

The Chevy Volt's electric drive train will be powered by LG Chem batteries produced in Holland, MI

The U.S. will soon be awash in lithium-ion batteries for electric cars. But how many are too many?

The other day I observed a rush-hour traffic jam of Toyota Prius’ on a major artery that leads into Washington, DC. The particular stretch of road is restricted to high-occupancy vehicles and hybrids. So Prius-driving commuters have an edge getting to work in the mornings. Seeing hybrid after hybrid, I mused on the likely demand for the first generation of mainstream electric vehicles like GM’s Volt and the Nissan Leaf. Federal and local government incentives and restrictions, like the rush-hour one, really muddy the waters when experts try to forecast how many of these cars will be sold.

One whopping market-muddier is the Federal government’s support of U.S. electric-car battery manufacturers.

Yesterday afternoon, President Obama visited the site of what will be an LG Chem manufacturing facility for lithium-ion car batteries in Holland, MI. The plant has received a $151.4 million Department of Energy grant as part of the Recovery Act of 2009.

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Burning Biofuels

The biofuels industry has had to confront some baggage lately. Crops for fuels might require land that would otherwise be used to grow food, and take up precious water and petroleum-derived fertilizers. When biomass is burned in order to convert, say tropical forest into a biofuel crop, such as oil palm, the CO2 balance can get out of hand.

Corn cobs to be used for cellulosic ethanol production. Credit: Poet

Nevertheless, optimal examples of biofuels such as cellulosic ethanol (especially when derived from agricultural wastes) and high energy biobutanol are generally considered to have large climate advantages over petroleum fuels.

Now a research team led by Katharina Kohse-Höinghaus, of the Department of Chemistry, Bielefeld University in Germany, have published a review paper in Angewandte Chemie

to explore what is known about what happens when we burn biofuels.

Of course there is no such thing as a free lunch – when we burn biofuels in a car we are still engaging in combustion, and the products of that combustion — other than heat and getting the car moving — are going to go into the air. Common biofuels are oxygenated, which suggests they will burn differently compared to fossil fuels. Kohse-Höinghaus points out that 1) we should  study what the products of biofuels combustion (and resulting pollution) really are and 2) we should use this knowledge along with other more well-understood criteria to decide which biofuels should receive policy support.

The authors review the available research and provide some broad-brush insights (in addition to many specifics). Biofuels can produce polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and soot, just like conventional hydrocarbons, though often in lower amounts. But that benefit is paid for by increased output of carbonyl compounds, including formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, acetone, and higher aldehydes and ketones.

A  wild card for biofuel combustion is possible emissions of NOx molecules, depending on how much nitrogen is present in the biofuel. Another unknown is what happens with mixtures of fossil fuels and biofuels, such as petroleum diesel and biodiesel.

Recently, the controversial concept of indirect land use was applied to the renewable fuels standard in the U.S. (now in its second edition). Perhaps when RFS3 is being debated, we’ll have a firmer grasp on which biofuels burn cleanest.

More Chemistry Aids Gulf Cleanup

C&EN recently took a closer look at the chemical dispersants being used to clean up the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. In the current state-of-the-art application, the team, led by BP, is pumping Nalco’s dispersant about a mile underwater, at the site of the leak.

Late yesterday afternoon, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson reported that the effort overall has used 430,000 gallons of dispersants, and has ordered over 800,000 gallons more.

Meanwhile, my colleague Lauren Wolf brought to my attention another substance that is being used in a somewhat more limited fashion in an effort to gather up oil before it reaches shore on Dauphin Island, AL.

The product, called C.I.Agent, made by C.I.Agent Solutions, is described by the company as an environmentally-friendly and non-toxic blend of petroleum-based polymers.  In a video posted on the firm’s website, C.I.Agent looks like a white powder. The video shows the powder sticking to liquid diesel fuel and turning it into a soft, plasticy mass that can then be removed from water.

The material is being given a trial run off the Gulf coast as part of a beach-protecting bunker system. A reporter-blogger from the LA Times was on the scene on Dauphin Island and posted a report with photos.

Hair and Stockings Help Gulf Cleanup

My colleage Lisa Jarvis tipped me off that NPR’s All Things Considered is featuring a story about a tried-and-true oil containment boom technology -  nylon stockings stuffed with human hair. An organization that works with hair salons (and obtains nylons from helpful transvestites) is sending 400,000 lbs of hair to the Gulf to help with the cleanup.  

Another unusual use for human hair appeared recently in C&EN. I wonder if there are others…

Gulf Clean-up: Breaking down oil with surfactants

Cleantech Chemistry will save for later the discussion of whether the environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico will put more attention on replacing petroleum in the U.S. economy. But in the meantime it is interesting to note the contribution that chemistry is making to clean-up efforts.

Water treatment firm Nalco released a statement confirming that it is supplying quantities of oil dispersants for the Gulf operation, but did not elaborate on how much of it the company was selling. Nevertheless, the announcement prompted Nalco’s stock to rise 18% to $29.25, hitting its highest point since October 2007. In the press release, Nalco thanks its suppliers for stepping up to the plate, which suggests the company is selling its dispersant as fast as it can be manufactured.

Though Nalco has not yet responded to a request for an interview, the company’s website describes its Corexit dispersant technology as designed specifically to protect and clean shorelines affected by oil spills at sea. The product is made with bio-degradable surfactants in a low-toxicity, de-aromatized hydrocarbon solvent system.

If the chemical dispersant works as designed, the solvent system distributes the surfactants into the oil slick. Then the surfactants go to work reducing the surface tension at the oil/water interface. With the oil film’s cohesion lessened, the action of the waves helps to break up the slick into small droplets of oil. The small drops sink from the surface of the sea and are further degraded by the ocean’s native bacteria.

BP CEO Tony Hayward has been reported as claiming the dispersants have had a significant impact keeping the oil from floating to the surface, but there is very little detail available about how successful the chemical treatment has been so far.

In addition to  Nalco, other producers of dispersants include BP, Croda, Dasic International, INEOS Chemical, Shell, Taiho, Total, and U.S. Polychemical, writes Laurence Alexander, chemicals analyst at Jefferies & Company. Alexander has been tracking reports that the operation is requiring around 10,000 gallons of dispersants a day.

Codexis – An example of “integrated innovation”?

I’m at the Lux Research Executive Summit today. You can follow my twitter stream from the conference.

Lux Research Director Michael Holman (who also happens to be a PhD chemist) just gave a presentation discussing the shortcomings of the venture capital model for bringing innovations in physical sciences to market (especially in materials science, energy, and the environment). VC investments worked well for tech companies like Google, which raised a mere $25 million of venture funds before going public.

Another problem is that scientists with lab-discovered innovations do not always pick the right markets and applications for their discoveries. Holman suggests that physical sciences start-ups would be better off partnering in their early stages with the venture and partnership arms of larger corporations.

Corporate partners have a clear understanding about where new technologies are most needed, and they know a great deal about the potential market sizes. Still, most early-stage start-ups are very concerned about being taken over or co-opted by corporations that might not care about the smaller firm’s health and possible future. Holman suggests that agreements that include particular financial incentives can help smooth the way.

One company that Holman says successfully partnered with corporate ventures is Codexis, a biocatalysis firm targeting renewable fuels, pharmaceuticals and chemicals. Codexis went public last week and raised $78 million, a strong result in a fragile economy. (Though Codexis originally hoped to raise a cool $100 million). Though the firm did raise some venture money, it partnered early and widely with firms like Chevron, GE, Pfizer, and Shell. Holman says firms like Codexis benefit from the insights of corporate partners and can even speed up their time to market for their products or to exits like IPOs.

How Green is Your University?

It’s been so many years since I applied to college that I had forgotten all about those Princeton Review books designed to help high school students select an institution of higher learning.

This year, Princeton Review has teamed up with the U.S. Green Building Council to publish a guide to green campuses. I took a moment to look up how my alma mater, The University of Virginia, made out in the green rankings.

It turns out that there aren’t any rankings. But I enjoyed reading about the steps the University has taken in recent years to become more sustainable, especially since I  majored in Environmental Sciences way back in [redacted] when few people could even define “sustainability.”  (Actually, that last bit is still a little tricky).

Thomas Jefferson’s university has been busy since my graduation. According to the guide, in 2007 it decreed that all new buildings would be LEED certified. UVa is developing a carbon reduction plan, has decreased its water usage and spends 16% of its food budget on local and organic food.

So I’d like to send out an enthusiastic Happy Earth Day to the University of Virginia, and especially to all the great professors and students in the department of environmental sciences.