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    The DOE Science News Source is a Newswise initiative to promote research news from the Office of Science of the DOE to the public and news media.
    • 2010-01-21 09:00:00
    • Article ID: 560517

    Engineers Find Significant Environmental Impacts with Algae-Based Biofuel, Offer Alternative to Production

    Contact: Zak Richards

    434-924-1383

    zr8n@virginia.edu

    U.Va. Engineers Find Significant Environmental Impacts with Algae-Based Biofuel, Offer Alternative to Production

    January 21, 2010 — With many companies investing heavily in algae-based biofuels, researchers from the University of Virginia's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering have found there are significant environmental hurdles to overcome before fuel production ramps up. They propose using wastewater as a solution to some of these challenges.

    These findings come after ExxonMobil invested $600 million last summer and the U.S. Department of Energy announced last week that it is awarding $78 million in stimulus money for research and development of the biofuel.

    The U.Va. research, just published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, demonstrates that algae production consumes more energy, has higher greenhouse gas emissions and uses more water than other biofuel sources, such as switchgrass, canola and corn.

    "Given what we know about algae production pilot projects over the past 10 to 15 years, we've found that algae's environmental footprint is larger than other terrestrial crops," said Andres Clarens, an assistant professor in U.Va.'s Civil and Environmental Department and lead author on the paper.

    Clarens collaborated on the paper with Lisa M. Colosi, also an assistant professor in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department; Eleazar P. Resurreccion, a graduate student in the department; and Mark A. White, a professor in U.Va.'s McIntire School of Commerce.

    As an environmentally sustainable alternative to current algae production methods, the researchers propose situating algae production ponds behind wastewater treatment facilities to capture phosphorous and nitrogen – essential nutrients for growing algae that would otherwise need to be produced from petroleum. Those same nutrients are discharged to local waterways, damaging the Chesapeake Bay and other water bodies, and current technology to remove them is prohibitively expensive.

    While the researchers found algae production to have a greater environmental impact than other sources, it remains an attractive source for energy. Algae, which are grown in water, don't compete with food crops grown on land and also tend to have higher energy yields than sources such as corn or switchgrass. Additionally, algae's high lipid content makes for efficient refinement to liquid fuels that could be used to power vehicles, according to the research.

    "Before we make major investments in algae production, we should really know the environmental impact of this technology," Clarens said. "If we do decide to move forward with algae as a fuel source, it's important we understand the ways we can produce it with the least impact, and that's where combining production with wastewater treatment operations comes in."

    As an example of the importance of completing the environmental life cycle study, Clarens points to the 2008 ethanol boom which created a spike in corn prices worldwide and raised complex ethical issues that could have been avoided by producing separate crops for food and fuel.

    "People were investing in ethanol refineries, but then we realized that it takes a lot of petroleum to grow corn and convert it to ethanol," Clarens said. "By the time you get done, you've used almost as much petroleum to make ethanol that you would have if you just put the oil straight into your car."

    The research group's plans include conducting demonstration projects for the wastewater production methods. They are also pursuing complementary research on the economic lifecycle of algae compared to other bionenergy feedstocks.

    The research paper is available online at http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es902838n.

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    Microbial Types May Prove Key to Gas Releases from Thawing Permafrost

    Scientists discover key types of microbes that degrade organic matter and release carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere.

    An effect that Einstein helped discover 100 years ago offers new insight into a puzzling magnetic phenomenon

    Experiments at the Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory have seen for the first time what happens when magnetic materials are demagnetized at ultrafast speeds of millionths of a billionth of a second: The atoms on the surface of the material move, much like the iron bar did. The work, done at SLAC's Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) X-ray laser, was published in Nature earlier this month.

    Found: A precise method for determining how waves and particles affect fusion reactions

    Like surfers catching ocean waves, particles within plasma can ride waves oscillating through the plasma during fusion energy experiments. Now a team of physicists led by PPPL has devised a faster method to determine how much this interaction contributes to efficiency loss in tokamaks.

    Discovery adapts natural membrane to make hydrogen fuel from water

    In a recent study from the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory, scientists have combined two membrane-bound protein complexes to perform a complete conversion of water molecules to hydrogen and oxygen.

    How Plants Regulate Sugar Deposition in Cell Walls

    Identified genes involved in plant cell wall polysaccharide production and restructuring could aid in engineering bioenergy crops.

    Scientists Identify Gene Cluster in Budding Yeasts with Major Implications for Renewable Energy

    How yeast partition carbon into a metabolite may offer insights into boosting production for biofuels.

    Nanocrystals Get Better When They Double Up With MOFs

    Researchers from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have designed a dual-purpose material out of a self-assembling MOF (metal-organic framework)-nanocrystal hybrid that could one day be used to store carbon dioxide gas molecules for the manufacture of new chemicals and fuels.

    Turn, turn, turn: New findings bring physicists closer to understanding the formation of planets and stars

    New findings further the understanding of a machine known as the magnetorotational instability experiment, which is named for and brings us closer to detecting the source of the instability that causes interstellar gas and dust to collapse into celestial bodies.

    Scientists inch closer to fusion energy with discovery of a process that stabilizes plasmas

    Feature describes newly discovered stabilizing effect of underappreciated 1983 finding that variations in plasma temperature can influence the growth of magnetic islands that lead to disruption of fusion plasmas.

    Ten PPPL stories you may have missed from 2018 -- plus a special bonus

    Feature summarizes and links to discoveries and breakthroughs at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory in 2018, plus a profile of the knight who leads the laboratory.


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    Top 10 Discoveries of 2018

    Every year, the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory compiles a list of the biggest advances made by the Lab's staff scientists, engineers, and visiting researchers. From uncovering mysteries of the universe to building better batteries, here, in no particular order, are our picks for the top 10 discoveries of 2018.

    U.S. Department of Energy Announces $33 Million for Small Business Research and Development Grants

    The U.S. Department of Energy announced it will award 189 grants totaling $33 million to 149 small businesses in 32 states.

    DOE to Provide $16 Million for New Research into Atmospheric and Terrestrial Processes

    The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced a plan to provide $16 million for new observational research aimed at improving the accuracy of today's climate and earth system models.

    Machine learning award powers Argonne leadership in engine design

    When attempting to design engines to be more fuel-efficient and emissions-free, automotive manufacturers have to take into account all the complexity inherent in the combustion process.

    ORNL partners with industry to address multiple nuclear technology challenges

    The Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory is collaborating with industry on six new projects focused on advancing commercial nuclear energy technologies that offer potential improvements to current nuclear reactors and move new reactor designs closer to deployment.

    Lithium earns honors for three physicists working to bring the energy that powers the sun to Earth

    Feature describes research of three PPPL physicists who have won the laboratory's 2018 outstanding research awards

    DOE approves technical plan and cost estimate to upgrade Argonne facility; Project will create X-rays that illuminate the atomic scale, in 3D

    The U.S. Department of Energy has approved the technical scope, cost estimate and plan of work for an upgrade of the Advanced Photon Source, a major storage-ring X-ray source at Argonne.

    Costas Soukoulis elected to National Academy of Inventors

    Costas Soukoulis, Ames Laboratory senior scientist and Iowa State University Frances M. Craig Endowed Chair and Distinguished Professor, has been named as a 2018 National Academy of Inventors (NAI) Fellow.

    Biophysicist F. William Studier Elected Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors

    F. William Studier, a Senior Biophysicist Emeritus at the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory and Adjunct Professor of Biochemistry at Stony Brook University, has been elected as a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors (NAI). He is among 148 renowned academic inventors being recognized by NAI for 2018.

    Blast to the future

    A grant from DOE's Technology Commercialization Fund will help researchers at Argonne and industry partners seek improvements to U.S. manufacturing by making discovery and design of new materials more efficient.


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    Microbial Types May Prove Key to Gas Releases from Thawing Permafrost

    Scientists discover key types of microbes that degrade organic matter and release carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere.

    New Method Knocks Out Yeast Genes with Single-Point Precision

    Researchers can precisely study how different genes affect key properties in a yeast used industrially to produce fuel and chemicals.

    How Plants Regulate Sugar Deposition in Cell Walls

    Identified genes involved in plant cell wall polysaccharide production and restructuring could aid in engineering bioenergy crops.

    Scientists Identify Gene Cluster in Budding Yeasts with Major Implications for Renewable Energy

    How yeast partition carbon into a metabolite may offer insights into boosting production for biofuels.

    More Designer Peptides, More Possibilities

    A combined experimental and modeling approach contributes to understanding small proteins with potential use in industrial, therapeutic applications.

    Deep Learning for Electron Microscopy

    Artificial intelligence on Summit to discover atomic-scale structures.

    Clarifying Rates of Methylmercury Production

    New model provides more accurate estimates of how fast microbes produce a mercury-based neurotoxin.

    Drought Stress Changes Microbes Living at Sorghum's Roots

    Scientists explore how drought-tolerant plants communicate to nearby microorganisms, suggesting ways to engineer more resilient bioenergy crops.

    How to Best Predict Chemical Reactions of Contaminants in Water

    Scientists determine the accuracy of computational methods used to study the sulfate radical approach to purifying water.

    Small Particles Play Large Role in Tropical Thunderstorms

    Ultrafine aerosol particles produce bigger storm clouds and more precipitation than larger aerosols in pristine conditions.


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