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Are you one of those who thought biotechnology can only find prevention & treatments for the deadly diseases? Well, biotechnology can also be used to fight climate & energy issues. Yes, biotechnology & molecular biology can be used to produce affordable, sustainable, carbon-neutral fuels identical to gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. In this post, I will try to cover the exciting area of biomass energy & biofuels, which is at the interface of biotechnology and renewable energy. Additionally, we will also explore the scopes & limitations of the algae-based genetic engineering technology for the production of biofuels. This is area every biotechnology, biology, physics, chemistry & chemical engineering graduate could explore for research & entrepreneurial ventures.
In 2017, Bill Gates wrote an online essay addressing college graduated all over the world. He made a very important point when he said:
“If I were starting out today… I would consider three fields. One is artificial intelligence (AI). We have only begun to tap into all the ways it will make people’s lives more productive and creative. The second is energy because making it clean, affordable, and reliable will be essential for fighting poverty and climate change.”
The third field, according to Gates is biosciences.
Energy demand is projected to grow by 50% by 2025, with much of the increase in demand predicted to originate from developing countries. The vast majority of energy is currently derived from fossils fuels – a limited, non-renewable and polluting resource.
So, there is a genuine need for a renewable and green sources of energy.
Introduction to Biomass Energy & Biofuels
There has been a dramatic growth in the production of biofuels in recent times. Global biofuel production tripled between 2000 and 2007, and biofuels accounted for about 1.6% of global transportation fuel in 2012 (International Energy Agency).
In 2015, ethanol production is by far the greatest contribution by biotechnology to energy production, with revenue accounting for $40.9 billion worldwide in 2014 vs. $3.8 billion for biodiesel and $0.019 billion for bio-methane. It is logical to imagine the future contribution of biotechnology to world energy production may increase not only in the area of biofuel production, but also in petroleum production, petroleum upgrading, biogas production, chemical production, crop improvement, bioremediation, microbiologically influenced corrosion, space travel, and other fields.
Why Biotechnology over Traditional Chemical Synthesis?
Traditionally, the chemicals are produced via chemical synthesis. Quite often, it takes multiple chemical steps to produce the end product (final molecule). In some cases, it’s too difficult or practically impossible to get the product visa chemical synthesis. Enzymes can do in one step what might take many steps using synthetic organic chemistry. Microbes can be engineered to be a chemical factory by grafting genes from organic sources. Once inside the cells, the genes produce enzymes that do the chemistry to transform sugars into chemicals.
Biomass is a source of renewable energy that is derived from plants & animals. Biomass contains the stored energy from the sun (plants absorb the sun’s energy via photosynthesis). When burned directly, biomass releases the chemical energy in the form of heat. Alternatively, biomass can be converted to liquid biofuels or biogas, both of which can be used as fuels.
Advantages of Biomass Energy
Biomass generally consists of waste materials like certain crops (& agricultural wastes), solid municipal wastes, living organisms, forest debris, manure, scrap wood & other waste residues.
The organic waste residues (e.g. scrap wood, mill residuals, crops, and forest debris) will never cease to exist. If planned & managed properly, the planet earth will have more trees & crops, and hence more residual waste.
This is why biomass is such an excellent and infinite source of clean & green energy.
Applications of Biomass Energy
Examples of biomass and their uses for energy:
- wood and wood processing wastes—burned to heat buildings, to produce process heat in industry, and to generate electricity
- agricultural crops and waste materials—burned as a fuel or converted to liquid biofuels
- food, yard, and wood waste in the garbage—burned to generate electricity in power plants or converted to biogas in landfills
- animal manure and human sewage—converted to biogas, which can be burned as a fuel
The energy derived from biomass can be used for our own energy purposes, such as electricity generation.
Biomass Energy Production Methods
All biomass energy production methods ultimately rely on photosynthesis in plants, where plants capture sunlight, carbon dioxide from the air, and water and use them to produce carbohydrates. These plant-based carbohydrates are materials that are used to produce biomass energy.
In general, the two methods for producing biomass energy are by burning the biomass directly and through the gasification of biomass.
- Direct burning of biomass materials. The biomass materials are burned and the heat that is produced is used to heat water into steam. The steam is then sent through a steam turbine, which generates electricity.
- Gasification. Wet biomass, such as manure or food waste, undergoes fermentation in a special tank, producing methane. Dry biomass, such as agricultural waste, is subjected to high temperatures in the absence of oxygen, producing synthesis gas (syngas). The gas produced through either process is then burned to produce electricity in a gas engine or a gas turbine.
- Fuel Cells. If the syngas is pure, it can be utilized in fuel cells for electricity production. This is not yet a commercially-available technology.
Biofuels are alternative fuels made from plant and plant-derived resources. Biofuels are used mainly for transportation. There are two types of biofuels: bioethanol and biodiesel.
Bioethanol, the principal fuel used as a substitute for petrol for road transport vehicles, is mainly produced by the sugar fermentation process of cellulose (starch), which is mostly derived from maize and sugar cane. Biodiesel, on the other hand, is mainly produced from oil crops such as rapeseed, palm, and soybean.
Many in the energy industry view Biofuel as vitally important to future energy production because of its clean and renewable properties. Ironically, most of the major oil companies are investing millions of dollars in advanced biofuel research.
Biodiesel is an alternative clean-burning renewable fuel similar to conventional ‘fossil’ diesel. It is made using natural vegetable oils, animal oil/fats or bio-lipids, tallow, and waste cooking oil. As it is biodegradable in nature, it is intended to be used as a replacement for fossil diesel fuel. It can also be mixed with petroleum diesel fuel in any proportion.
Biogas is a type of biofuel that is naturally produced by the decomposition of organic waste in the absence of oxygen (anaerobic environment). Biogas can be produced from raw materials such as agricultural waste, manure, municipal waste, plant material, sewage, green waste or food waste. Biogas is considered to be a renewable resource because its production-and-use cycle is continuous, and it generates no net carbon dioxide.
Since this decomposition happens in an anaerobic environment, the process of producing biogas is also known as anaerobic digestion. Anaerobic digestion is a natural form of waste-to-energy that uses the process of fermentation to break down organic matter. Animal manure, food scraps, wastewater, and sewage are all examples of organic matter that can produce biogas by anaerobic digestion.
Biogas comprises primarily methane, carbon dioxide, small amounts of hydrogen sulfide, moisture and siloxanes. Due to the high content of biogas (typically 50-75%) biogas is combustible, and therefore produces a deep blue flame, and can be used as an energy source.
The gases methane, hydrogen and carbon monoxide (CO) can be combusted or oxidized with oxygen. This energy release allows biogas to be used as a fuel for any heating purpose, such as cooking. It can also be used in anaerobic digesters in a gas engine to convert the energy in the gas into electricity and heat. Biogas can be compressed, the same way as natural gas is compressed to CNG, and used to power motor vehicles.
Limitations of Biofuel Production
Despite many advantages, biofuels also have shortcomings. It takes more ethanol than gasoline to produce the same amount of energy, and critics contend that ethanol use is extremely wasteful because the production of ethanol actually creates a net energy loss while also increasing food prices. Few people argued that bio-crops would go to better use as a source of food rather than the fuel.
Specific concerns center around the use of large amounts of arable land that are required to produce bio-crops, leading to problems such as soil erosion, deforestation, fertilizer run-off, and salinity. BP and Shell reduced their investments in biofuels in 2013. That suggested that the big oil companies are realizing that the land-driven limitations of producing ethanol and biodiesel are insurmountable.
Algae-Based Genetic Engineering Approach
To counter these issues, companies are turning to water-based solutions in the form of algae production. Several companies, universities & research institutes are working on re-engineering the process of producing petroleum replacements with algae as the platform.
Algae, microscopic, single-celled, plant-like organisms with photosynthetic abilities, are known to produce high oil and biomass yields. Algae can be cultivated on land unsuitable for other purposes with water that can’t be used for food production.
Algae can tolerate and adapt to a variety of environmental conditions and are also able to produce several different types of biofuels ranging from biogas to biodiesel, and even ethanol if desired.
Recommended Video on Algae-Based Biofuel Production:
Present Scenario Despite Promising Scopes of Algae-Based Biofuel Production
From 2005 to 2012, dozens of companies managed to extract hundreds of millions in cash from VCs in hopes of ultimately extracting fuel oil from algae. With increasing commercial interest, the world got flooded with several research papers.
But, at present, the few surviving algae companies have had no choice but to adopt new business plans that focus on the more expensive algae byproducts such as cosmetic supplements, nutraceuticals, pet food additives, animal feed, pigments, and specialty oils. The rest have gone bankrupt or moved on to other markets.
Just the way science and biotechnology work. Right now the key question is can algae be economically cultivated and commercially scaled to make a material contribution to humanity’s liquid fuel needs? Can biofuels from algae compete on price with fossil-derived petroleum?
It needs to be noted that system design and algae type (the focus of key discussions) are important, but not the only components. The co-products, nutrients, harvesting, drying, and conversion technology are also valuable to the economy.
If there’s one thing that humans need more than fuel it is food – and this work can help us understand how to better grow microalgae to support the farming of fish and shellfish, and produce dietary supplements, like Omega-3.
There is tremendous potential for algae technology in biofuel and other areas like drug discovery, oils and a range of chemicals. Given the size of the liquid fuels market, measured in trillions of dollars, it indeed makes some sense to occasionally take the low-percentage shot. But, is anyone going to take the shot? If not, there are various other verticals folks can play around with the algae technology.
Additionally, further ways should also be looked for producing biofuels. For example, the fungal enzymes can be used to sustainably convert wood biomass into valuable chemical commodities including biofuels.
Caution: Biofuels could produce more Greenhouse Gas than some Fossil Fuels
Studies have suggested that the emissions resulting from such decisions would make biofuels—even advanced biofuels made from cellulosic materials such as switchgrass—worse for the environment than gasoline.
There can be little doubt that some biofuels are as bad, if not worse than fossil fuels. Fuels from palm oil, soybean, and rapeseed make little sense when you consider their greenhouse gas emissions are worse than standard crude. The secondary impacts of these fuels on food prices, resources and biodiversity are difficult to quantify but there are enough examples of them to raise serious concerns. Some biofuels, such as diesel made from food crops, have led to more emissions than those produced by the fossil fuels they were meant to replace.
Whatever the scenario, it’s an extremely great area to pursue higher studies and research. So, if you are planning to pursue MS or Ph.D. in biotechnology or renewable energy field, do explore this area.
Biomass Energy & Biofuels – Scenario in India
Initiatives have been taken by MNRE, DBT, CSIR, and few public companies. But, the process of scaling up hasn’t started yet. DBT, Govt. of India, has sanctioned grants for more than 70 R&D projects towards the development of technology for Bioethanol, biodiesel, biobutanol, biohydrogen, and enzyme development.
CSMCRI, Bhavanagar for the first time in India has been able to produce ethanol using a seaweed polysaccharide. Karnataka was the first state in the country to introduce a biofuel policy way back in 2009 and that there is an increasing demand for biodiesel.
So, the research & development progress is not on par in India at the moment. But, things might change rapidly in the near future. But, the scopes of research work and career prospects in the area of biomass energy & biofuels are really good, provided you go for the proper education, training & guidance.