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.


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:

Macroalgal Culture

June 26, 2008

Robert I and have been discussing the issues around macroalgal culture.  He found this cool like to a patent for a cultivation truss:

I would like to know if anyone knows about species selection or condtion optimization for this type of aquaculture.  The best contact I know of for this is Greg Mitchell, at Scripps Oceanography in SD, but I dont want to bother him with basic reserach questions.

The reason that this came up was becuase Robert and I were discussing open ocean algal biofuel cultivation strategy.  Ecological issues seem to detract from the feasibilty of microalgal culture, and larger species seem to be more containable.

Any comments?

Most people who know me know that I love to cook.  A while ago I learned about El Bulli, a restaurant located on Spain’s Costa Brava.  It is repeatedly voted the best and most innovative restaurant in the world and is lead by sort of a mad scientist chef named Ferran Adria who combines the deterministic knowledge of science with the art of cooking to create what has become known as Molecular Gastronomy.  He frequently uses industrial food ingredients in innovative ways to form edible art.  One of his most famous inventions is “El Bulli” style caviar.  This caviar is formed by combining a flavored liquid with Sodium Alginate.  This mixture is then dropped one drop at a time into a solution of Calcium Chloride.  When the drop hits the solution, the strong attraction of the Chloride ions pulls the Sodium ions out of the caviar liquid.  This void is then replaced by the Calcium ions which have a 2+ charge instead of a 1+ charge like the Sodium.  This increase in the charge causes an instantaneous cross linking of the Alginate polymers causing the drop to solidify into something that looks a lot like caviar; only it is flavored what ever the original liquid was. 

Here, I create a dessert Nigiri with Strawberries and caviar made from Balsamic vinegar.  First, gather the ingredients.  You will need Balsamic vinegar and some sweet Mirin for the caviar liquid, some large Strawberries, and a bowl of water with a strainer that can fit inside of it.  You will also need a “flavor injector” type food syringe which you can buy at most any well stocked cooking store.


You will also need some pretty unique ingredients which you can order from Will Powder.  They are food grade Sodium Alginate, Calcium Chloride, and Sodium Citrate.  For the caviar liquid you will want about a half cup or so of Balsamic vinegar and a tablespoon of sweet Mirin to add some sweetness.  To this liquid, first add a teaspoon of Sodium Citrate.  Alginate dosen’t work optimally in acidic liquids so you add this as a buffer to get a more neutral pH.  Next, get a teaspoon or so of the Sodium Alginate and very slowly wisk it into the liquid.  You should only add a little bit at a time otherwise the powder will clump into one big ball. 


Now, prepare the Calcium Chloride solution by dissolving a heaping teaspoon of it into a pint or so of cold water.


Suck the caviar liquid up into the syringe and move over to the Calcium Chloride solution.  Position the tip of the syringe about an inch above the surface of the solution.  If it is too low, drops will not form properly and if it is too high the impact of the drop on the surface will distort the drop into a flat disk.  Drop by drop, add the liquid into the solution.  Leave for a few minutes and you will have Balsamic caviar.


Remove the caviar with the strainer and rinse gently under cold water. 

Make Nigri pieces with sushi rice and rub a little Wasabi on them (trust me, it works).


Then add some thin slices of Strawberry and top with the caviar.  Presto, an innovative, unique dessert!


I can tell right about now that you are asking “This is a blog about sustainable biotechnology.  What could dessert sushi possibly have to do with sustainable biotechnology?”  It turns out that it has a whole lot to do with it!  Immobilization of cells and enzymes in bioprocessing units is an active area of research.  This immobilization facilitates easier handling of the cells or enzymes including bioseperations.  In the latest Journal of Industrial Microbiology, a team if Chinese researchers reports on a diesel fuel desulfurization process using exactly Sodium Alginate “caviar”(1).  New regulations for diesel fuel require strict limits on the amount of sulfur compounds that can be present in the fuel.  This team used Pseudomonas delafieldii bacteria isolated from the waste pools of Chinese oil fields which eat the sulfur in diesel fuel.  They made the Alginate spheres containing this bacterium instead of Balsamic vinegar.  This allowed desulfurization of the fuel while allowing easy separation and decontamination of the fuel once the process is complete.  There are a bunch of other applications of immobilization of cells and enzymes out there which I will leave to the reader’s curiosity.


(1)   Improvement of biodesulfurization activity of alginate immobilized cells in biphasic systems. Y.G. Li, J.M. Xing, X.C. Wong, W.L. Li, H.S. Gao, H.Z. Liu, Industrial Microbiology & Biotechnology, Volume 35 Number 3.