Wednesday, May 28, 2008

1st Demonstration-scale Cellulosic Ethanol Plant Opens in U.S.

A 1.4 million gallon demonstration-scale plant will use waste biomass to make biofuel.

A biorefinery built to produce 1.4 million gallons of ethanol a year from cellulosic biomass will open tomorrow in Jennings, LA. Built by Verenium, based in Cambridge, MA, the plant will make ethanol from agricultural waste left over from processing sugarcane.

The new Verenium plant is the first demonstration-scale cellulosic ethanol plant in the United States. It will be used to try out variations on the company's technology and is designed to run continuously. Verenium wants to demonstrate that it can create ethanol for $2 a gallon, which it hopes will make the fuel competitive with other types of ethanol and gasoline. Next year, the company plans to begin construction on commercial plants that will each produce about 20 to 30 million gallons of ethanol a year.

Until now, technology for converting nonfood feedstocks into ethanol has been limited to the lab and to small-scale pilot plants that can produce thousands of gallons of ethanol a year. Since these don't operate continuously, they don't give an accurate idea of how much it will ultimately cost to produce cellulosic ethanol in a commercial-scale facility.

Almost all ethanol biofuel in the United States is currently made from corn kernels. But the need for cellulosic feedstocks of ethanol has been underscored recently as food prices worldwide have risen sharply, in part because of the use of corn as a source of biofuels. At the same time, the rising cost of corn and gas have begun to make cellulosic ethanol more commercially attractive, says Wallace Tyner, a professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University. A new Renewable Fuels Standard, part of an energy bill that became law late last year, mandates the use of 100 million gallons of cellulosic biofuels by 2010, and 16 billion by 2022.

So far, however, there are no commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plants in operation in the United States, although a number of facilities are scheduled to start production in the next few years. The Department of Energy is currently funding more than a dozen companies that will be building demonstration- and commercial-scale plants. One of these, Range Fuels, based in Broomfield, CO, plans to open a commercial-scale plant next year. It will have the capacity to produce 20 million gallons of ethanol and methanol a year.

Verenium will use a combination of acid pretreatments, enzymes, and two types of bacteria to make ethanol from the plant matter--called bagasse--that's left over from processing sugarcane to make sugar. It will also process what's called energy cane, a relative of sugarcane that's lower in sugar and higher in fiber. The high fiber content allows the plants to grow taller, increasing yield from a given plot of land.

Cane bagasse largely consists of bundles of cellulose that are surrounded by hemicellulose. Cellulose is made of long chains of glucose, a six-carbon sugar of the type usually fermented to make ethanol from sources such as corn. Hemicellulose, however, is made of five-carbon sugars, which typically can't be fermented using the same organisms as glucose. One of the things that makes Verenium's process novel, says John Malloy, the company's executive vice president, is its ability to ferment sugars from both cellulose and hemicellulose.

The process begins when the cane is ground up and cooked under high pressure with a mild acid to hydrolyze the hemicellulose and separate it from the cellulose. The five-carbon sugars in hemicellulose are then fermented using genetically modified E. coli. The cellulose is broken down with enzymes and fermented with another type of bacteria called Klebsiella oxytoca. This bacteria does double duty, since it also produces enzymes that break down cellulose, reducing the amount of enzymes from outside sources by 50 percent. The dilute ethanol produced from fermentation of both types of sugar is then distilled to make fuel.

In addition to opening the demonstration plant, Verenium is also starting to grow energy cane and to work with local farmers to ensure a steady stream of material for its planned commercial plants. Short term, the company says that it can rely on leftover bagasse from sugar production, but eventually it will draw on energy cane grown specifically to make ethanol. Provisions in the Farm Bill, which was recently passed by the United States Congress, will help by providing farmers with incentives to plant energy crops, says Carlos Riva, Verenium's CEO. The incentives are important because it takes two to three years for energy cane, a perennial plant, to become established and reach ideal production levels. As a result, farmers will need to start planting the crops next year, before commercial plants are built and there is a market for these crops.

The opening of the demonstration plant, and the current construction of a number of other demonstration- and commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plants, marks a turning point for the industry, Riva says. The development of improved enzymes and fermentation organisms means that no further scientific breakthroughs are needed to make cellulosic ethanol commercially successful, he says. "There's been a tremendous amount of background work in science and technology development," he says. "We've learned so much about the process that the really important thing now is to start to deploy the technology at a commercial scale."

Source - Technology Review
Photo Credit: Shelly Harrison Photography

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Oil Left in the Ground

High prices still haven't prompted companies to use advanced extraction methods.

Even with record-high oil prices, about two-thirds of the oil in known oil fields is being left in the ground. That's because existing technologies that could extract far more oil--as much as about 75 percent of the oil in some oil fields--aren't being widely used, according to experts in the petroleum industry.

Several well-established technologies, including "smart oil fields," exist that could significantly boost the supply of petroleum from oil reservoirs. But a lack of investment in such technologies, particularly by the national oil companies that control the vast majority of the world's oil reserves, is holding back implementation.

When oil is drawn from a field too quickly, or from a bad location, or with the wrong kind of well, large amounts of oil can be left behind, says Richard Sears, a visiting scientist at MIT who has served as a vice president for exploration at Royal Dutch Shell, based in the Netherlands. But the best technologies for managing an oil field require up-front investment--when an oil field is mapped and characterized and the first wells are drilled--and the payoff can take decades.

In most oil reservoirs, the oil resides in porous rock in geologic layers that are tens of meters thick but stretch for miles. A conventional oil well is a vertical shaft, so it is in contact with only a narrow cross section of the reservoir. Such a well depends on oil percolating through microscopic pores over long distances. That can slow production, and often oil can be stranded inside the irregular geometry of the oil field.

For 15 to 20 years, however, it's been possible to drill horizontal wells. These follow along the length of an oil field, so that the well is in contact with oil for miles, rather than for just several meters. What's more, advanced imaging technologies and new drilling rigs have made it possible in recent years to drill to an accuracy of one or two meters, Sears says. The increased precision in drilling allows oil companies to stay close to the top of the reservoir, where the oil is, and away from the water that can exist in the reservoir.

It has also become possible to make "smart wells" that include sensors that can survive the extreme temperatures and pressures found deep underground. These allow oil companies to detect, for example, when water, instead of oil, is being pulled into the well, and to quickly shut off production from that area, while continuing to produce from other sections of the well.
Such smart oil fields have started to become more common for international oil companies such as Shell, Exxon-Mobil, and BP. But they still aren't used in most oil fields. And their use is particularly low in fields run by national oil companies, says Larry Schwartz, a longtime researcher and scientific advisor for Schlumberger, a Houston-based company that provides various services to oil companies.

Schlumberger historically focused on providing services at the "front end," he says, which includes taking measurements, such as of the amount of oil and how easy the oil will be to produce, and "drilling sophisticated wells." But since oil prices have been high, the company's biggest revenue stream has come from projects related to improving existing wells, such as by fracturing rock underground to try to improve oil production at conventional wells that have stopped producing as much as they used to.

Steven Koonin, BP's chief scientist, says that cutting-edge research could lead to automated oil rigs on the sea floor, ultra-deep-water ocean drilling, and arctic exploration and production, as well as to technology for extracting oil from unconventional sources, such as shale. But although oil prices have been higher than $60 a barrel for almost three years, Koonin says that for the most advanced technologies, "oil prices will have to stay high for a couple of years longer before companies think they can make big investments."

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Billionaire Oilman T. Boone Pickens Backs Wind Power

(CNN) -- Billionaire oilman T. Boone Pickens is sinking billions of dollars into a new wind farm in Texas. It is likely to become the biggest in the world, producing enough power for the equivalent of 1.3 million homes. CNN's Ali Velshi asked the oil legend why he thinks wind could be the answer to this country's energy problems:

Ali Velshi: Tell me about the wind. Now, you are buying, for a start, more than 600 wind turbines from General Electric. You're going to put them on this big tract of land in Texas, and you're going to generate a lot of electricity.

What happens to that electricity? Tell me where you think you're going to make your money and how this is going to help the situation in America.

T. Boone Pickens: Well, that's the first step to a 4,000-megawatt wind farm. This is 1,000 megawatts.

We start receiving those turbines in mid 2010. We will have the total 4,000 megawatts finished by the end of 2015. That power will go into a transmission line that will tie into the Electric Reliability Council of Texas system in the state of Texas, and it will be transmitted downstate.

Velshi: What's your view of wind power? It's one of several things that we should be looking at in terms of powering our homes, electrical power? We get most of it from coal and natural gas, and some from nuclear. Are you thinking it's one of the formats of power we should be thinking about, or is this going to be bigger than we all thought?

Pickens: The Department of Energy came out with a study in April of '07 that said we could generate 20 percent of our electricity from wind. And the wind power is -- you know, it's clean, it's renewable. It's -- you know, it's everything you want. And it's a stable supply of energy.

It will be located in [the] central part of the United States, which will be the best from a safety standpoint to be located. You have a wind corridor that goes from Pampa, Texas, to the Canadian border. And it has -- the wind, it's unbelievable that we have not done more with wind. Look at Germany and Spain. They have developed their wind way beyond what we have, and they don't have as much wind as we do. It's not unlike the French have done with their nuclear. They're 80 percent power generated off of nuclear, we're 20 percent.

Velshi: I'm fascinated by wind power. I love going by a field of these turbines. And I think they're fascinating.

You don't happen to think they're attractive, and you're not really putting them on your land. You're going to be using other people's land to put these things on.

Pickens: That's right. And it's very clear, these are my neighbors. And they want them. It generates income for them.

A turbine will generate somewhere around 20,000 [dollars] a year in royalty income. And on a 640-acre tract, you can put five to 10 of these on the tract. And you don't have to have them if you don't want them.

Velshi: And it's quite common that people who maybe have a piece of land, they might be farmers or something like that, this is extra income to them by making a deal with somebody like you who is going put these things up, if they don't mind having them on the land. Do they get the electricity from it or do they just get a royalty check?

Pickens: A royalty check. But look at Sweetwater, Texas. That town was 12,000 people, then went down below 10,000. The wind came in, it's above 12,000 in population now. The local economy is booming.

That can be repeated over and over and over again all the way to the Canadian border. Then you have a solar corridor that goes from Sweetwater, Texas, west to the West coast, and that solar corridor can also be developed.

But we are going to have to do something different in America. You can't keep paying out $600 billion a year for oil.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Air Pollution Increases Blood Clot Risk

(WebMD) Air pollution increases the risk of deep vein thrombosis (DVT) -- dangerous blood clots in the veins -- even at pollution levels the EPA deems "acceptable."

Harvard researcher Andrea Baccarelli, MD, PhD, and colleagues in Italy studied 870 people diagnosed with DVT from 1995 to 2005. They compared their particulate air pollution exposure in the year before their diagnosis to that of 1,210 matched people without DVT.

They found that DVT risk goes up 70% for every 10 microgram-per-cubic-meterrise in particulate air pollution above 12 micrograms per cubic meter of air (the lowest pollution level measured in the study).

The U.S. EPA standard for particulate air pollution is 150 micrograms per cubic meter of air. However, it's likely that fine and very fine particles cause most of the health risks linked to particulate air pollution. The EPA sets much lower standards for these smaller particles, which Baccarelli and colleagues did not specifically measure."

Our findings introduce a novel and common risk factor into the pathogenesis of DVT and, at the same time, give further substance to the call for tighter standards and continued efforts aimed at reducing the impact of urban air pollutants on human health," Baccarelli and colleagues conclude.

Air pollution affects the heart and blood vessels even more than the lungs, notes Robert D. Brook, MD, a University of Michigan expert on the cardiovascular effects of air pollution. An editorial by Brook accompanies the Baccarelli report in the May 12 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine.

The study, Brook notes, adds DVT to a long list of cardiovascular illnesses linked to air pollution that includes heart attacks, heart failure, stroke, and sudden death.

However, Brook warns that while Baccarelli and colleagues link air pollution to a huge increase in DVT risk, part of this result may be due to chance or the unique circumstances of the population studied. Other studies are needed to better determine the absolute risk.

Even so, Brook says, we don't have to wait for these studies -- we already know that air pollution, even at current levels, is not healthy."

You do not need to know every last detail about the archer who shot you with a poison arrow before you know you need to pull the arrow out," he writes.

to the source


Saturday, May 10, 2008

Shell pulls out of Iran gas deal

LONDON, May 10 (Reuters) - Oil major Royal Dutch Shell (RDSa.L: Quote, Profile, Research) has pulled out of a planned gas project in Iran, after coming under pressure not to participate from U.S. lawmakers who were concerned about Iran's nuclear programme. A spokeswoman said on Saturday that the world's second-largest non government-controlled oil company by market capitalisation was pulling out of Phase 13 of the giant South Pars gas field but may yet join later stages of the field's development.

Shell, Spain's Repsol (REP.MC: Quote, Profile, Research) and the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) signed a Memorandum of Understanding in January 2002 to develop Phase 13 in a project to be known as Persian LNG.

At the time, Shell said deliveries of liquefied natural gas -- gas cooled to liquid under pressure for transportation in special tankers -- could begin in 2007.

However, United Nations sanctions on Iran related to its nuclear programme, which it claims is for power generation but which the U.S. and European states believe is aimed at developing weapons, and criticisms of the deal from U.S. politicians and investors, slowed progress.

Meanwhile Iran grew impatient and threatened Shell with eviction from the project if it did not commit formally.

The spokeswoman for the Anglo-Dutch company said:

"We have agreed the principal of substitution of alternative later phases for the PLNG project so that INOC can proceed with the immediate development of Phase 13."

She would not give a reason for the decision. Repsol was not available for comment.

Iran will now need to find new partners for the project. Media reports have suggested Russia's Gazprom (GAZP.MM: Quote, Profile, Research), Indian Oil Corp (IOC.BO: Quote, Profile, Research) and Chinese companies could join, as they are expected to be less susceptible to U.S. political pressure, but the companies have limited experience of LNG.
(by Tom Bergin, editing by David Christian-Edwards)