tsingtao
(Tsingtao “green” beer)

Ben Pavlik is a student at Keck Graduate Institute (www.kgi.edu)

Last spring, Reid Snowden and I made concoction. Abhorrent to ingestion, we called our creation “algae beer.”  This was done as a independent research project under the guise of one of our professors, and was a great dual introduction to brewing and algal fermentation.

Bioethanol is currently being produced by fermentation of sugars found in plants such as sugarcane and corn. Many social concers have barred the adoption of their future use, so other feedstocks are being considered as substitutes. Algae are one of those feedstocks.

However, algae do not produce as much starch as corn, and do not have firm agricultural practices. However, there is reason to believe that algae will play a role in the future bioethanol market. Why is this so?

Algae are currently “all the rage” when it comes to liquid fuel and biodiesel. This fuel is derived from lipids, or fats within the algae. However, only one possible economically savvy model has been produced (see future post regarding – http://www.itwire.com/content/view/24203/1176/) In order to lower the cost of producing this fuel, other products from algae will have to be processed and sold. Bioethanol is one of those products. Using everything that algae have to offer is the best route towards more favorable economic models for these low-value high-volume products.

Algenol Biofuels has bet that algal ethanol will be a next generation biofuel. They use genetically modified strains which secrete ethanol into their growth media. This fuel is distilled from the closed photobioreactor and concentrated.

Green Sea

    By Benjamin Pavlik

    Ben is a master student at Keck Graduate Institute in Claremont, CA – www.kgi.edu

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     Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been developed and used by both pharmaceutical and agricultural biotechnology industries to change the characteristics of an organism for the benefit its manipulators – i.e. increase product yields or to produce novel products with respect to the host organism.  These techniques are so revolutionary that they have bolstered the success of biotech firms such as Genentech and Amgen.  However, agricultural recombinant DNA (DNA recombined from different sources which would never occur in nature) technology is not currently accepted in practice by many countries, including the entire European Union (EU), because of the issue of “gene flow.”  This issue may produce a real barrier to the biofuels industry, and in particular for GM algae and synthetic biological systems.  Unless contained, GMOs will hurt the environments in which they arecreated to benefit.

     Past experiences in agricultural biotechnology have shown us that because the principles of population genetics and EU perspectives such as the “precautionary principle” that without a physical barrier around the GMO, we are not able to control the passing of genetically modified traits into the natural populations.  The impacts of these transmissions not only effect wild populations of similar species, but can also affect the ecology of the environment in which the transmission occurred, and therefore produce unpredictable catastrophic effects.   Even though these concepts created barriers for recombinant agriculture during the late 20th century, GMOs are now being developed for industrial use in renewable energy production.

     Metabolic engineering of bacteria and algae for the purpose of producing recombinant products has been conducted by many biofuel startups.  Many of these products have not yet gone into full-scale production, but plans are being laid.  Closed bioreactors are intended to be used to grow these cell types and contain the gene flow to the external environment.  However, these are not fool-proof scenarios.

     Due to the high transmission of water as a vector, GM marine algae entering the watershed can travel to the ocean and out-compete natural algae for resources.  Imagine a sea of algae which consumes all available nutrients to produce a thick layer of oil-rich cells on the surface of the ocean.  Because these algae may be able to genetically recombine (have sex) with natural strains, invasive traits may spread to all populations before reaching the ocean.  These are scenarios which are detrimental to riparian ecologies and the life of our oceans.  GMOs could damage the environments they seek to save.

     Further investigation is necessary to assess the effects of releasing GM algae into the environment, and the probability of this occurrence.  There are currently many organization devoted to the remediation of non-recombinant ecological takeovers by “weed” organisms (invasive species).  The Center for Invasive Plant Management (http://www.weedcenter.org/index.html ) is one such organization working to restore the ecological effects of natural plant populations.  In the future, if GM biofuel strains are accidentally released, it may be too late to form such organizations and conduct remediation.

     Future bioreactors intended to collect the energy of the sun will need improvement so as to prevent the release of genetically modified algae.  Synthetic organisms will, without question, need to be strictly contained.  We are fortunate enough to be able to prevent future ecological catastrophes due to the transmission of genetically modified organisms at this point in time.  Research is needed to assess the transmission of GM cells in the production of biofuels before full-scale implementation.  Without this, we may be shooting ourselves in the environmentally-friendly foot.


Benjamin: “Just how do you mean that sir?”
Some of you perhaps remember that old quote from the file The Graduate when Mr. McGuire clues in Dustan Hoffman’s character to the potential of plastics. Although you may have noticed that I made a little substitution above: plastics became crap. That’s right, it’s time to talk about what you flush down your toilet and what biotech can do with it.
I was just reading my latest copy of the Journal of Industrial Microbiology and Biotechnology when a paper title caught my eye: “Molecular insight into activated sludge producing polyhydroxyalkanoates under aerobic-anaerobic conditions.” (1) I read the article and it was mainly about how the authors are using real-time Polymerase Chain Reaction and whole genome shotgun sequencing to identify the bacterial strains (there are several) that operate in cleaning up sludge in treatment plants. I did some more reading though because the whole idea fascinated me. It seems that modern sewage treatment plants use a process known as EBPR (Enhanced Biological Phosphorus Removal) where the sludge is cycled through aerobic and anaerobic conditions. In the anaerobic stage (absence of oxygen or nitrates), bacteria known as PAOs (Polyphosphate Accumulating Organisms) take up large amounts of phosphates removing that pollutant from the waste stream. The excess biomass can then be removed and used for fertilizer or whatever. It is interesting to note though that in this anaerobic phase, the PAOs accumulate and store energy as polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) which they then utilize later during the aerobic phase for growth. PHAs are a class of biodegradable plastics that are coming into industrial scale production. Currently they are produced mainly by recombinant bacteria (E. Coli) fed with corn sugars. The Mirel brand co-owned by Metabolix and ADM is the most successful and largest supplier of PHAs. Metabolix has also done some work in engineering the PHA gene into plants. These approaches though have several drawbacks. The recombinant bacteria approach requires a sterile environment for production to avoid contamination from wild strains and it is expensive. The plant based one would of course require the use of crop land taken away from food production.
Now since the strains of naturally occurring bacteria used in sewage treatment produce PHA as part of the process, why not just make a biodegradable plastics factory as part of the sewage treatment process. This solves several problems with one solution. It cleans waste streams and makes a renewable, biodegradable source of plastic in one process. Why is this not done already? It is because the amount of PHA produced is not cost effective. To be cost effective, it has been estimated that the PHA producing process needs to result in a final biomass that is 80% PHA by weight (2). Recombinant E. Coli is right around there at 76% PHA by weight. The natural bacteria used in sewage treatment only achieve 30% PHA by weight. So this process is no where near cost effective or competitive with recombinant techniques. There seems to be a huge room for improvement however. Changes in the process alone could boost PHA production significantly. Several papers exist with experiments in sludge hold times and adding acetate to the sludge to boost PHA output. The bacteria themselves have really never been studied or even specifically identified. Perhaps with future process improvements and optimization of the bacterial strains used in the EBPR process, our sewage might be used for production of renewable, biodegradable plastics.

(1) Molecular insight into activated sludge producing polyhydroxyalkanoates under aerobic-anerobic conditions. S. Ciesielski, T. Poloj, E. Kilmiuk, Industrial Microbiology and Biotechnology, 2008, 8, 805.
(2) Production of PHA by activated sludge treating municipal wastewater: effect of pH, sludge retention time (SRT), and acetate concentration in influent. A. Chua, H. Takabatake, H. Satoh, T. Mino, Water Research, 2003, 37, 3602-3611

BIY (Blend It Yourself)?

August 16, 2008

OK, so I picked up a free copy of the Industrial Biotechnology journal at this weeks SIM meeting and in it they had something that caught my eye. It is a small company called E-Fuel that is coming out with a home ethanol distilling system. Yes, you read that right. It is a big box with a gas pump on it that you dump raw sugar  and yeast into and out comes ethanol. Apparently it uses membrane distilling instead of traditional heat distilling so things won’t explode on you. They claim that making a gallon of ethanol costs about $1.25 and that you can even dump alcoholic drinks into it and run them straight through the membrane system to recover the ethanol in there for $0.10 a gallon.

The E-Fuel home ethanol production system

The E-Fuel home ethanol production system

I’m not too sure who is going to buy this thing. I can’t imagine your average joe going out and buying big sacks of sugar (it takes about 10lbs per gallon) to feed this thing. Especially if you live in a humid climate, your sugar will be slowly decompose on you sitting in your garage (not to mention your massive new ant problem). I suppose that it does make sense for some customers. If you are a winery or brewery that does have large amounts of alcohol that you discard this could make sense (not to mention your local colleges fraternity – all that stale beer will be put to good use on Sunday mornings). I can also imagine a big aftermarket and hack culture growing up around this thing. People will make mods to use starches and maybe even cellulose efficiently and since it’s basically a rum refinery in your driveway, I can imagine mods to create your drink of choice. Maybe modify the membrane to be not so perfect in its operation and let some of the impurities through that would make a good hard liquor.

Sustainable MBA?

July 25, 2008

Recently, I came across a BNet article about obtaining an MBA under the filter of sustainable business practices. http://blogs.bnet.com/bnet1/?p=510&tag=nl.e713  Why does KGI not have any of these types of courses? 

The self-proclaimed leader in sustainable business education is Bainbridge Graduate Institute:  http://blogs.bnet.com/bnet1/?p=510&tag=nl.e713 . In looking over their program, I was intrigued.  They also offer certificates programs for those of you who are short on time, as we all are…

How does everyone feel about this?  Of course, it cannot be bad thing as long as the curriculum reinforces the reasoning behind sustainable business to an extent that exceeds sustainabilty as a “business driver.”  It seems like this is the case with their “social justice” and “environmental responsibility” themes thorughout their courses.  I like it!


A side effect of the rising crude prices is a drastic increase in naval shipping cost. As a result, the massive amount of stuff that we ship in daily from China to Wal-Marts around the country will become more expensive (Financial Times Article). This reduction in the efficiency of transport creates yet another way in which oil prices are systemically affecting the economy.

So I was thinking about this issue and how biofuels could be applied, and realized that the shipping industry would be a perfect early adopter of biodiesel. I am basing this assessment on two basic facts:
1. All shipping vessels are powered by diesel engines
2. The fuel is all stored in centralized locations (sea ports)

As a result, the naval shipping industry has none of the adoption hurtles for biodiesel found in the auto fuel market. The shipping companies would be greatly incentivized to begin purchasing a fraction of their fuel from a more stable source.

The real question is: what is the current price point for biodiesel production? And could a venture reduce costs to a point where it beats traditional diesel?

As for the technical implementation, I found a great presentation by Richard Sadler of Llyod’s Register Group concerning biofuels and shipping. Slides 25 and 26 have a list of technical challenges and a diagram of a fuel layout system; although, the whole thing has some great data.

Beyond the use of biofuels, there are also various wind power strategies. A minor drawback to the wind assisted ships is their confinement to wind friendly shipping routes.

One forward looking group from Japan produced a concept ship that utilizes biofuel, wind AND solar. I would have to call it the Trifecta.

 

Biofools is a term currently being used in public discourse to describe leaders supporting contemporary biofuel technology.  Agrofuels (first generation agriculture-driven biofuels) have this spurred environmental and social backlash.  Destruction of natural resources and famine has been realized by the hand of agrofuels.  Becoming privy to the work being done by Almuth Ernsting has given me new thoughts about which technologies we choose to fund and implement with respect to agrofuels.  Additional considerations regarding environmental and social issues beyond energy production must be viewed with a more focused lens before technological implementation.

 

The Gallagher Report released by the Renewable Fuels Agency last week has called for employment of the European “precautionary principle” with respect to agrofuels in England.  In short, Gordon Brown is expected to bring about a slowdown of first generation biofuels to determine sustainability.  Some fuels derived from sugar cane and animal fat are considered “sustainable,” but what does this mean exactly, and to whom?  Moratoriums on certain crops are not out of the question, however, and there will be an upcoming clash with the US.

 

Ernsting believes that this slowdown is not sufficient, and that a total moratorium on biomass-derived liquid fuels should be enacted. He states:

 

“…biofuels from agricultural and forest residues that should be returned to the natural cycle because they play an important role in maintaining soil fertility and bio-diversity. Biofuels from true waste, such as biogas from manure or landfill, or waste vegetable oil, are not agrofuels.  Biofuels from algae are not agrofuels either.”

 

Many definitions of sustainability revolve around energy production efficiency and exchange, but other concerns are often not considered.  One outstanding issue is the future use of GM plants and microbes to produce biofuels and the potential ecological impact.

 

Past science and society courses have told me that there is a lack of forethought with respect to biotechnology (we can do this, but should we really?) which leads to ethical dilemma.  Is a moratorium too extreme an action at this point, or just what we need?  Ethics tells us that the deontological argument is to respect our duty to planet earth and humanity to prevent deforestation and hunger.  However, ideological contrary to this is our perogative to preserve the order of the contemporary earth, which requires energy.  Teleology complicates these sentiments by guiding us to think that the lives of millions in starvation cannot outweigh our need for liquid gold.  However, if oil reserves are completely drained without the necessary preparation, how many more will die?

 

This being the case, second and third generation biofuels will have bigger shoes to fill regarding public sentiment, research, and investment.  Hopefully, slowing down production of first gen biofuels may divert more grants and investors their way.  Cellulosic ethanol production is ramping up, and demonstration plants are being built by companies such as Mascoma.  Some capital investments are aimed at procuring fuel technology without forethought to environmental and social impact.  The fuels investors of the future must take this in mind because sustainability is a multifaceted problem in which energy in and out is not the only determinant of success.

 

To view the entire Gallagher Report, click here

 

 

 

Picture Source: http://blog.livedoor.jp/kiwahori/

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