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The Race for Alt Fuel

White Rot Fungus Boosts Ethanol Production from Corn Stalks, Cobs and Leaves

July 11th 2012

Corn field

Scientists are reporting new evidence that a white rot fungus shows promise in the search for a way to use waste corn stalks, cobs and leaves – rather than corn itself – to produce ethanol to extend supplies of gasoline. Their study on using the fungus to break down the tough cellulose and related material in this so-called "corn stover" to free up sugars for ethanol fermentation appears in the ACS' journal Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research.

Yebo Li and colleagues explain that corn ethanol supplies are facing a crunch because corn is critical for animal feed and food. They note that the need for new sources of ethanol has shifted attention to using stover, which is the most abundant agricultural residue in the U.S., estimated at 170-256 million tons per year. The challenge is to find a way to break down tough cellulose material in cobs, stalks and leaves – so that sugars inside can be fermented to ethanol. Read more ..

The Race for Wind

Romney: Wind Energy Credit Stance Not Set

July 10th 2012

Oahu Wind

A surrogate for GOP White House hopeful Mitt Romney said Wednesday that the presumptive nominee wants to end the production tax credit for wind energy projects, but is still deciding how the popular incentive should be phased out.

Romney’s stance could be critical for the wind energy industry, which is lobbying hard to maintain the incentive that industry officials call vital to funding new power projects.

Linda Stuntz, an energy lobbyist who represented Romney at a Wednesday debate, said that as a general principle, Romney “thinks these kinds of technology-specific incentives are a bad idea.”

“He thinks that this is an illustration of one that has probably outlived its usefulness, but as to how it should be precisely would down — whether it should be a one-year [phase-out], whether it should be a longer period — he hasn’t come completely to ground on that,” Stuntz said of the wind tax credit, speaking at the debate in Washington, D.C., hosted by The Business Roundtable. Read more ..

The Race for Smart Grid

Drexel Engineers Develop New Technology for Grid-Level Electrical Energy Storage

July 9th 2012

electric power lines

In the aftermath of the recent United Nations Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development, the focus of many industrialized nations is beginning to shift toward planning for a sustainable future. One of the foremost challenges for sustainability is efficient use of renewable energy resources, a goal that hinges on the ability to store this energy when it is produced and disburse it when it is needed.

A team of researchers from Drexel University’s College of Engineering has taken up this challenge and have developed a new method for quickly and efficiently storing large amounts of electrical energy.

Electrical energy storage is the obstacle preventing more widespread use of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power. Due to the unpredictable nature of wind and solar energy, the ability to store this energy when it is produced is essential for turning these resources into reliable sources of energy. The current U.S. energy grid system is used predominantly for distributing energy and allows little flexibility for storage of excess or a rapid dispersal on short notice. Read more ..

After the BP Spill

How Winds Kept BP Oil Away from Florida Shores?

July 8th 2012

Deepwater Horizon spill response

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in spring 2010 is the largest oil spill in the history of the United States, with more than 200 million gallons of crude oil released at about 1,500 m. depth off the Mississippi Delta in the Gulf of Mexico. At the time of the accident, the proximity of the intense Loop Current, flowing from the Yucatan Channel to the Florida Straits, raised major concerns that the oil at the surface of the ocean would be headed toward the South Florida and East Atlantic coastal areas. However, the dominant transport of oil and oil products was toward the Northern Gulf coastline, and no oil was observed to reach the Atlantic Ocean.

In a new study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, University of Miami (UM) scientists Matthieu Le Hénaff, Villy Kourafalou, Claire Paris, Judith Helgers, and Ashwanth Srinivasan, in collaboration with Zachary Aman from the Colorado School of Mines, and Patrick Hogan from the Naval Research Laboratory, use numerical simulations performed at the High Performance Computing core of UM's Center for Computational Science (CCS) to explain an important aspect of the observed oil transport. Read more ..

The Race for Alt Fuel

Waste to Watts--The Challenge of Improving Microbial Fuel Cells

July 7th 2012

algal aviation fuel biomass

Some of the planet’s tiniest inhabitants may help address two of society’s biggest environmental challenges:  how to deal with the vast quantities of organic waste produced and where to find clean, renewable energy. According to César Torres and Sudeep Popat, researchers at Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute, certain kinds of bacteria are adept at converting waste into useful energy.  These microorganisms are presently being applied to the task, through an innovative technology known as a microbial fuel cell or MFC.

As Torres explains, “the great advantage of the microbial fuel cell is the direct conversion of organic waste into electricity. “  In the future, MFC’s may be linked to municipal waste streams or sources of agricultural and animal waste, providing a sustainable system for waste treatment and energy production. To scale up the technology however, improvements in efficiency will be required.  “My particular focus is to understand at a fundamental level how anode respiring bacteria transfer electrons from their cells onto an electrode,” Popat says,  “as well as to design new systems that are both economical and efficient.” Read more ..

The Race for Solar

Israel’s bSolar Designs Promising Double-Sided Solar Cell

July 6th 2012

Double-sided solar cells

Researchers have been trying to develop double-sided solar cells that can capture both direct and reflected sunlight for the last forty years, and now an Israeli startup believes they have come up with the winning formula. bSolar, a venture-backed project founded in 2007, showcased their bifacial solar cells at a trade show in Germany last month. According to Yossi Kofman, co-founder and CEO, their cells could produce up to 20 percent more energy than conventional cells. But it won’t be easy.

As Bhushan Sopori, a researcher at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory told GigaOm, there’s a reason that bifacial solar cells have not been successful to date.

Boron is the main component of the bSolar bifacial cell that allows the silicon wafers to capture reflected light on both sides. Although aluminum has historically been used to prevent the loss of electrodes when converting sunlight into electricity, boron won’t bend or break when used in increasingly thin silicon wafers. Plus this chemical element increases efficiency. Read more ..

The Coal Problem

Black Lung Surges Back in Coal Country

July 5th 2012

coal mine

 Ray Marcum bears the marks of a bygone era of coal mining. At 83, his voice is raspy, his eastern Kentucky accent thick and his forearms leathery. A black pouch of Stoker’s 24C chewing tobacco pokes out of the back pocket of his jeans. “I started chewing in the mines to keep the coal dust out of my mouth,” he says.

Plenty of that dust still found its way to his lungs. For the past 30 years, he’s gotten a monthly check to compensate him for the disease that steals his breath — the old bane of miners known as black lung.

In mid-century, when Marcum worked, dust filled the mines, largely uncontrolled. Almost half of miners who worked at least 25 years contracted the disease. Amid strikes throughout the West Virginia coalfields, Congress made a promise in 1969: Mining companies would have to keep dust levels down, and black lung would be virtually eradicated. Read more ..

The Race for Solar

House GOP Wants Chief of Failed Solar Firm to Testify

July 3rd 2012

Solar panels

House Republicans want the CEO of the bankrupt company Abound Solar to testify at a hearing this month, a sign of GOP plans to continue shining the political spotlight on the struggles of the Energy Department’s loan program.

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Republicans have asked CEO Craig Witsoe and his predecessor, Tom Tiller, to appear at a July 18 hearing.

The Colorado-based maker of advanced solar panels, which has drawn $70 million in federal loans, filed for bankruptcy Monday and will liquidate.

Trent Waterhouse, an Abound spokesman, noted Witsoe has appeared before the committee in the past and added, “it would be his intention to cooperate again.” Witsoe appeared at a May 16 hearing of the government spending subcommittee, which will also hold the upcoming hearing. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the panel's chairman, sent Witsoe a July 2 letter asking him to appear. Abound is the second Energy Department-backed manufacturer of solar panels to go belly-up. Solyndra, which had won a $535 million loan guarantee in 2009, collapsed last year.  Read more ..

Oil Addiction

Assessing Iraq’s Oil Industry

July 2nd 2012

Oil fields near Ramadi

Contributing 60 percent of GDP, 99 percent of exports, and over 90 percent of government revenue, the oil industry is by far the most vital sector of the Iraqi economy, with proven petroleum reserves of 143 billion barrels and a potential to recover and refine a further 200 billion barrels. The existence of substantial oil reserves in the area of Mesopotamia has been known since at least the end of the nineteenth century, with the monopoly of oil exploration and production originally lying in the hands of the Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC), which was owned by a consortium of foreign oil companies until the Ba’th government completely nationalized the IPC in 1972. It should be emphasized that since that time, the oil industry has remained a state-run enterprise in Iraq.

In the run-up to and in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion in March 2003, a common theory among critics of the war has been that the coalition forces invaded the country to take over its oil reserves. This speculation was fuelled in 2011 by a report in the Independent on UK government memos that had been obtained through a Freedom of Information request. According to this report, in October 2002, the petroleum firms BP, Shell, and BG had a meeting with Baroness Symons, who was Trade Minister in the British government at the time, and agreed to lobby the Bush administration on BP’s behalf. Read more ..

The Race for Smart Grid

Energy-Aware Plug-in 20 Percent Energy Savings in Data Centers

July 1st 2012

Data center computer corridor

The pan-European FIT4Green project, which is focused on finding new energy saving solutions for data centers, is claiming to have discovered solutions that reduce data center energy consumption by more than 20 percent.

The project designed and implemented an energy-aware plug-in on top of the current data centers’ management tools to orchestrate the allocation of ICT resources and turning off unused equipment. Project achieved its goal: 20 percent direct ICT equipment energy savings without compromising compliance with Service Level Agreements (SLA) and Quality of Service (QoS) metrics. The achieved savings in CO2 emissions were on the same scale as in energy. The direct energy savings in the ICT equipment induce also remarkable additional savings due to the reduced needs for cooling, for example. FIT4Green plug-in is designed to be applicable to any data center type. Read more ..

The Race for Natural Gas

Local Leaders Sue for Right to Control Location of Gas Wells

June 29th 2012

Hydrolic Fracking pollution

When Pennsylvania passed a state law that stripped local authority over where potentially hazardous natural gas wells could be drilled, cities and townships decided to take matters into their own hands.

Seven municipalities from across the state have filed a lawsuit in Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court challenging the constitutionality of Act 13, a law passed in February that charges an impact fee for natural gas wells but also overrides local governments’ zoning authority. The case was argued on June 6 and is currently under review.

At first glance, the impact fee of up to $50,000 per well seems to put wealth from drilling on the Marcellus Shale into citizens’ hands. Detractors of Act 13 say, however, that it is a Trojan Horse of unwelcome stipulations. Thanks to the law, doctors can find out what chemicals are used in fracking, the controversial drilling technique that environmentalists say turns their water taps into flamethrowers and poisons the air. Read more ..

The Race for Batteries

The Edison Battery, 21st Century-style

June 27th 2012

Edison's EV 1910
Edison and his EV, 1910 (credit: Edison National Historic Site)

Stanford University scientists have breathed new life into the nickel-iron battery, a rechargeable technology developed by Thomas Edison more than a century ago. Designed in the early 1900s to power electric vehicles, the Edison battery largely went out of favor in the mid-1970s. Today only a handful of companies manufacture nickel-iron batteries, primarily to store surplus electricity from solar panels and wind turbines.

“The Edison battery is very durable, but it has a number of drawbacks,” said Hongjie Dai, a professor of chemistry at Stanford. “A typical battery can take hours to charge, and the rate of discharge is also very slow.”

Now, Dai and his Stanford colleagues have dramatically improved the performance of this century-old technology. The Stanford team has created an ultrafast nickel-iron battery that can be fully charged in about 2 minutes and discharged in less than 30 seconds. The results are published in the June 26 issue of the journal Nature Communications. Read more ..

Oil Addiction

The Lure of Cuban Energy Independence: One Twist After Another

June 26th 2012

Offshore Oil Rig

On May 29 during a press conference presenting Repsol’s four-year strategic plan, the company’s president, Antonio Bufrau, announced that the Spanish oil giant will almost certainly stop prospecting for oil in Cuban territory after a costly well it drilled turned out to be dry. 

This recent disappointment parallels the 2004 finding by Repsol that established that its explorations on the northwest coast of the country would not yield commercially viable quantities of oil.  After spending $150 USD million in explorations throughout the country, Repsol is likely to turn its attention to more profitable fields in countries such as Brazil and Angola.

With the conclusion of the Spanish company’s operations on the island, the Cuban dream for energy independence could vanish, especially considering that the leased platform Scarabeo 9,is the only one allowed to operate offshore in the Cuban Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), an area of 112 square kilometers in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Read more ..

The Race for Solar

MIT Textures Silicon surface with Inverted Pyramids Patterns to Boost Solar Cells‘Output

June 26th 2012

solar power plant

Researchers at the MIT have found a way to reduce the thickness of the silicon used in solar cells by more than 90 percent while still maintaining high efficiency, by etching inverted nanopyramids into the surface.

These tiny indentations, each less than a micrometer across, can trap rays of light as effectively as conventional solid silicon surfaces that are 30 times thicker, according to their findings. The new findings are reported by MIT postdoc Anastassios Mavrokefalos, professor Gang Chen, and three other postdocs and graduate students, all of MIT's Department of Mechanical Engineering. "We see our method as enhancing the performance of thin-film solar cells," Mavrokefalos says, but it would actually work for any silicon cells. "It would enhance the efficiency, no matter what the thickness," he says.

Graduate student Matthew Branham, a co-author of the paper, says, "If you can dramatically cut the amount of silicon (in a solar cell) ... you can potentially make a big difference in the cost of production. The problem is, when you make it very thin, it doesn't absorb light as well." Read more ..

The Race for Solar

Much Slimmer Thin-Film Solar Cells Decrease Manufacturing Costs

June 25th 2012

Solar panels

Researchers from North Carolina State University have found a way to create much slimmer thin-film solar cells without sacrificing the cells’ ability to absorb solar energy. Making the cells thinner should significantly decrease manufacturing costs for the technology.

“We were able to create solar cells using a ‘nanoscale sandwich’ design with an ultra-thin ‘active’ layer,” says Dr. Linyou Cao, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering at NC State and co-author of a paper describing the research.

“For example, we created a solar cell with an active layer of amorphous silicon that is only 70 nanometers (nm) thick. This is a significant improvement, because typical thin-film solar cells currently on the market that also use amorphous silicon have active layers between 300 and 500 nm thick.” The “active” layer in thin-film solar cells is the layer of material that actually absorbs solar energy for conversion into electricity or chemical fuel.

“The technique we’ve developed is very important because it can be generally applied to many other solar cell materials, such as cadmium telluride, copper indium gallium selenide, and organic materials,” Cao adds. Read more ..

The Environment on Edge

BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Exacerbated Existing Environmental Problems in Louisiana Marshes

June 25th 2012

Gulf oil spill

The BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill temporarily worsened existing manmade problems in Louisiana's salt marshes such as erosion, but there may be cause for optimism, according to a new study.

A study by National Academy of Sciences found the 2010 spill killed off salt marsh plants 15 to 30 feet from the shoreline and this plant die off resulted in a more-than-doubled rate of erosion along the marsh edge and subsequent permanent marsh habitat loss. Vegetation farther from shore was relatively untouched by the incoming oil.

"Louisiana is already losing about a football field worth of wetlands every hour, and that was before the spill," said Brian Silliman, a University of Florida biologist and lead author of the study. "When grasses die from heavy oiling, their roots, that hold the marsh sediment together, also often die. By killing grasses on the marsh shoreline, the spill pushed erosion rates on the marsh edge to more than double what they were before. Because Louisiana was already experiencing significant erosive marsh loss due to the channelization of the Mississippi, this is a big example of how multiple human stressors can have additive effects." Read more ..

The 2012 Vote

T. Boone Pickens Hints at Romney Support, Knocks Koch Industries

June 24th 2012

Boone Pickens
Credit: Steve Jurvetson

Billionaire oil-and-gas magnate T. Boone Pickens suggested Sunday that he will support Mitt Romney over President Obama in the 2012 election.

“I will support the one that has the energy plan for America,” Pickens said on Fox News Sunday. “I think that Romney will show up with the plan is what I think. I have seen Obama, I have heard what he says, but he never has a plan, he has never come forward with a plan for energy for America.”

Pickens, who helped bankroll the “Swift Boat” campaign that hurt Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) White House run in 2004, has said that he has never voted for a Democrat for president.

But in recent years Pickens has de-emphasized politics and worked with Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), to promote the use of natural gas in heavy trucking. Reid has introduced bipartisan legislation that would provide billions of dollars in tax credits to help spur conversion to natural gas-powered trucks, a plan advocates call a way to boost energy security by curbing oil demand in the sector that uses massive amounts of diesel fuel.

Pickens, in the Fox interview, was hardly effusive in his praise for Romney. “Romney has the kind of the skeleton of a plan, but I haven’t heard his plan yet either, but this is an opportunity for us to rebuild our economy off the back of cheap energy,” Pickens said. Neither campaign would likely agree with Pickens' claim that they lack plans. Romney’s energy and environmental platform calls for stripping EPA’s power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions and more broadly rolling back what he calls excessive regulations under the Obama administration. Read more ..

After the BP Spill

BP ‘Sincere’ About Safe Offshore Drilling

June 24th 2012

Burning Oil Platform

A top Interior Department official says regulators are confident that BP is now committed to offshore drilling safety, two years after the catastrophic spill that dumped several million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. “I have a genuine belief that BP is sincere about operating safely and that they have taken steps to reform their culture as well,” said Tommy Beaudreau, director of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), in an interview broadcast Sunday.

The vote of confidence comes several days after BP spent almost $240 million for new federal leases at the June 20 Interior Department auction of tracts in the central Gulf of Mexico.

The British oil giant was among the most aggressive bidders at the first lease sale in the central Gulf since the 2010 spill. BP, in October of 2011, received its first Gulf drilling permit for a new well since the spill. Some lawmakers including Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who is the top Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee, and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) have argued at various times since the spill that BP should be denied new drilling leases over safety lapses that caused the 2010 disaster (more on that here and here). Read more ..

The Race for Natural Gas

Fracking Opportunities But with Many Challenges

June 23rd 2012

Fracking gas well

We are in the midst of one of the most significant transformations in the energy sector in many decades. This transformation is the result of the development of new recovery techniques, such as hydraulic fracturing (fracking), that have unlocked massive supplies of previously unrecoverable fossil fuels, primarily natural gas and, to a lesser degree, petroleum. Since 2007, natural gas supplies and production in the United States have increased dramatically, and the price of natural gas-powered energy has plummeted. Only a few years ago, many in the United States were concerned about the prospects of dwindling supplies of natural gas in North America; today, we must determine how to manage vast new reserves. The implications of this natural gas revolution will be profound and are only now coming into focus. Read more ..

The 2012 Vote

New Romney Swing-State Ads Hit Obama on Energy

June 22nd 2012

Burning Oil Platform

Mitt Romney unveiled new ads Friday that bash the White House refusal to allow oil-and-gas drilling off Virginia’s coast and allege that administration regulations are “strangling our energy industry.”

The new spots, combined with earlier ads pledging to immediately approve the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline, signal that Romney’s campaign hopes to gain traction with repeated attacks on President Obama’s energy record.

The campaign released separate ads Friday in the swing states of Virginia, Ohio, North Carolina and Iowa that tout what Romney would do in his first 100 days if elected. The Virginia and Ohio ads address energy.

“By Day 100, President Romney reverses Obama’s offshore drilling ban, creating thousands of new jobs for Virginians,” the Virginia spot states. Republicans have slammed the Obama administration’s decision not to sell drilling leases off the Atlantic Coast despite the expiration of a leasing moratorium in 2008. Virginia’s two Democratic senators also support drilling off their coast. Read more ..

The Environmental Edge

Interior Allows More Time to Weigh in on 'Fracking' Rule

June 22nd 2012

Hydrolic Fracking pollution

The Interior Department is extending the public comment period on draft rules to regulate oil-and-gas "fracking" by 60 days after being pressured by energy companies that wanted more time to weigh in.

Interior’s Bureau of Land Management had initially required comments by July 10 on the regulations that will govern the oil-and-gas development method called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, on public lands.

An Interior spokesman said the decision was made to give stakeholders more time to provide "important feedback."

“To ensure that the public and key stakeholders, including industry and public health groups, are able to provide important feedback that will help inform any final rule, Interior has decided to extend the public comment period for our commonsense draft rule, which supports the continued development of America’s abundant oil and gas resources on federal and Indian lands by taking steps to ensure public confidence in well stimulation techniques and technologies, including hydraulic fracturing,” said spokesman Adam Fetcher. Read more ..

Oil Addiction

Despite Tapping its Oil Riches, Iraq Remains a Risky Business

June 21st 2012

Kirkuk oil field
Kirkuk oil field

Nine years after the U.S.-led invasion, the Iraqi government says the country is emerging as a global energy giant. A conference in London has brought together leading figures from the government and the oil industry to try to boost investment in Iraq. But, several risks remain - not least the growing instability in some of Iraq's neighbors.

Iraq's government says recent explorations show the country could be sitting on the world's largest oil reserves at up to 350 billion barrels. The figure is unproven, but many agree that Iraq has huge untapped potential. The Iraq Petroleum 2012 Conference in London (June 18-20) brought together Iraqi government and industry figures. Among them was Bayazeed Hassan Abdullah, an Iraqi lawmaker and member of the parliamentary Oil Committee.

"By the end of 2017, Iraq can produce 12 million barrels a day," he said. "And also it has a huge gas (potential) in Iraq because each barrel, when extracted, it is accompanied with 600 cubic feet of gas." Among the speakers at the London conference was Tony Hayward, the former chief executive of BP, who left the company following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. He now runs Genel Energy, the largest oil producer in northern Iraq Read more ..

The Problem with Coal

Environmentalists Decry 'Irresponsible' Lobbying by Coal-Burning Utilities

June 20th 2012

coal fired power plant

The Natural Resources Defense Council condemned eight coal-burning utility companies Tuesday for flouting the Clean Air Act and spending millions to lobby against pollution controls.

In a report, the NRDC detailed how the companies have poured money into blocking or delaying clean air protections. The American public pays the price in the form of illnesses, higher health costs and more than 10,000 deaths annually, the environmental group said. The report was released on the eve of a Senate vote on a resolution by Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., to nullify an Environmental Protection Agency rule aimed at reducing emissions of mercury and other air toxics from power plants.

“The ‘Gang of Eight’ utilities are putting their profits over protecting kids and communities from deadly, dangerous air pollution,” Pete Altman, the NRDC’s climate and clean air campaign director, said during a news teleconference. “The health and welfare of millions of Americans, including children, who are most vulnerable to air pollution, hang in the balance.” Read more ..

Broken Energy Policy

White House Threatens Veto on GOP Energy Bill

June 19th 2012

Koch Pine Bend Refinery

The White House is threatening to veto a broad House energy package that would mandate expanded onshore oil-and-gas leasing, limit environmental reviews of drilling projects and delay several Environmental Protection Agency air pollution rules.

The threat to veto the GOP measure is no surprise, and the bill won’t advance in the Senate after its expected House passage this week anyway. But the threat's arrival a day after the White House similarly waved the veto pen at a Senate GOP plan to scuttle EPA power plant rules underscores deep political divides on energy and environmental policy. Here’s what the White House said about the House energy package:

[T]his bill would favor an arbitrary standard for leasing in open areas over leasing on the basis of greatest resource potential; limit the public's opportunity to engage in decisions about the use of public lands as well as protests of oil and gas leases; raise the potential for costly litigation, protests, and delays; curtail the use of public lands for other uses like hunting, fishing, and recreation; and remove the environmental safeguards that ensure sound Federal leasing decision-making by eliminating appropriate reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act.  Read more ..

The Race for Bio-Fuel

Carbon is the Key for Obtaining More Oil from Algae

June 18th 2012

Brookhaven algae researchers
Researchers (l-r) Jilian Fan, Changcheng Xu, and Chengshi Yan

Overturning two long-held misconceptions about oil production in algae, scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory show that ramping up the microbes’ overall metabolism by feeding them more carbon increases oil production as the organisms continue to grow. The findings — published online in the journal Plant and Cell Physiology  — may point to new ways to turn photosynthetic green algae into tiny “green factories” for producing raw materials for alternative fuels.

“We are interested in algae because they grow very quickly and can efficiently convert carbon dioxide into carbon-chain molecules like starch and oils,” said Brookhaven biologist Changcheng Xu, the paper’s lead author. With eight times the energy density of starch, algal oil in particular could be an ideal raw material for making biodiesel and other renewable fuels.

But there have been some problems turning microscopic algae into oil producing factories. For one thing, when the tiny microbes take in carbon dioxide for photosynthesis, they preferentially convert the carbon into starch rather than oils. “Normally, algae produce very little oil,” Xu said. Before the current research, the only way scientists knew to tip the balance in favor of oil production was to starve the algae of certain key nutrients, like nitrogen. Oil output would increase, but the algae would stop growing — not ideal conditions for continuous production. Read more ..

Oil Addiction

Stressful Relations between Obama White House and Oil Industry

June 17th 2012

PBObama contemplative

Royal Dutch Shell’s top U.S. official credits the White House for recognizing the “strategic importance” of oil resources off Alaska's coast, but says that overall, tensions between the industry and the Obama administration persist.

“I think you see a lot and you hear a lot about it being a very stressed relationship, and that’s real. We should just be honest about the fact that that’s real,” said Shell Oil Co. President Marvin Odum in an interview with Platts Energy Week TV broadcast Sunday.

Shell is on the cusp of winning federal drilling permits to begin exploratory drilling in Arctic waters off Alaska's coast this summer.

The Obama administration has already provided a series of needed approvals, and the permits are expected after Interior Department officials complete testing and inspections of infrastructure the company is deploying in the region.

But more broadly oil companies and allied GOP lawmakers have consistently accused the administration of keeping too many areas off-limits to drilling, and issuing regulations that companies allege are burdensome.

Odum, in the interview, said the approvals Shell has won display federal recognition of the strategic value of the Arctic resources.

“I think it is a recognition of how strategically important Alaska is and offshore Alaska is to the U.S. and U.S. energy security,” he said, citing estimates that there could be over 25 billion barrels of oil off Alaska’s coast. Read more ..

The Race for Solar

Organic Solar Cells Make a Leap Forward

June 17th 2012

Click to select Image

Drawn together by the force of nature, but pulled apart by the force of man – it sounds like the setting for a love story, but it is also a basic description of how scientists have begun to make more efficient organic solar cells.

At the atomic level, organic solar cells function like the feuding families in Romeo and Juliet. There’s a strong natural attraction between the positive and negative charges that a photon generates after it strikes the cell, but in order to capture the energy, these charges need to be kept separate.

When these charges are still bound together, they are known to scientists as an exciton. “The real question that this work tries to answer is how to design a material that will make splitting the exciton require less energy,” said senior chemist Lin Chen of the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory.

Excitons can be thought of as a sort of “quasiparticle,” Chen said, because they exhibit certain unique behaviors. When the two charged regions of the exciton – the electron and a region known as a “hole” – are close together, they are difficult to pry apart. “The closer the hole and the electron regions are inside an exciton, the more likely they are to recombine without generating electricity,” Chen said. Read more ..

Africa on Edge

Can New Oil States in Africa Avoid the 'Resource Curse?'

June 16th 2012

Oil Refinery

When Equatorial Guinea discovered oil in the 1990s, the country was transformed forever from a sleepy former Spanish colony into an oil state.

The country's Gross Domestic Product growth was a staggering 71 percent in 1997, according to the International Monetary Fund, almost entirely on the back of oil revenues.  By 2009, the country was earning more than $8 billion a year from the commodity. But the wealth has only further enriched and entrenched Equatorial Guinea's authoritarian president Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who's held power for more than 30 years, while doing little to improve the lives of 685,000 citizens. The country ranked 136 out of 187 countries last year on the United Nations Human Development Index. Other oil-producing countries, including Angola, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo,  rank even lower. Read more ..

Environment on Edge

Taking Climate into Consideration Affects Carbon Emissions Rankings

June 15th 2012


The U.S. has long been among the world's worst emitters of carbon dioxide, but when accounting for climate in addition to GDP, it is nowhere near the bottom of that list, according to University of Michigan researchers.

"Increased concern about carbon dioxide emissions has resulted in efforts to create methods for ranking countries according to their emissions," said Michael Sivak, director of Sustainable Worldwide Transportation at the U-M Transportation Research Institute. "Such rankings inform policy decisions on an international scale. The more comprehensive these rankings are, the better our chances of reducing emissions."

Sivak and UMTRI colleague Brandon Schoettle say that some rankings adjust the total amount of emissions to account for the size of each country's population (per capita) and its overall economic output (per GDP). But they believe it's important to go one step further: account for the general heating and cooling demands imposed by the climate of a given country because climate control produces carbon dioxide emissions. Read more ..

Oil Addicition

Diesel Engine Exhaust Earns 'Carcinogenic' Label

June 13th 2012

Click to select Image

Diesel engine exhaust is “carcinogenic to humans,” an international health body declared June 12, bolstering the findings of a controversial study published recently in the United States. After a weeklong meeting of experts in Lyon, France, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization, said there is “sufficient evidence that exposure [to diesel exhaust] is associated with an increased risk for lung cancer.” IARC also found “limited evidence” that diesel is linked to a heightened risk of bladder cancer.

IARC previously had classified the fumes—emitted from trucks, trains, ships, buses, mining equipment and other sources—as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” The IARC finding is consistent with a study of 12,000 U.S. miners published earlier this year by the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. That study, publication of which was held up for years by mining industry litigation, found that the lung cancer risk for non-smoking, heavily exposed miners was seven times higher than it was for those exposed to low doses. Some industry-funded scientists have questioned the study’s conclusions. Read more ..

China on Edge

China Defiant on Iran Oil Purchases

June 12th 2012

Iranian oil tanker

The Chinese government has indicated it has no plans to change its position on oil purchases from Iran, a day after the United States left Beijing off a list of economies that are exempt from U.S. sanctions on Iranian oil imports.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin Tuesday rejected a question about whether China will reduce its oil imports from Iran and said these purchases are necessary.

China needs to import crude oil from Iran, Liu said, because of its economic development, describing it as “a completely legal” matter. China's purchase channels are normal, open and transparent and do not violate United Nations resolutions or harm the interests of any other party, he added.

Beijing's defiant tone on the matter follows U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's announcement on Monday of a list of seven more economies exempt from new American sanctions targeting Iran's oil trade. The countries on the list have proven they had significantly reduced the amount of oil they buy from Iran, said Clinton. Read more ..

Oil Addicition

Falling Oil Prices Prompt Russian Economic Fears

June 11th 2012

Russia oil

Oil prices have shown a steady fall in the last few months, prompting fears that the Russian economy, which relies heavily on energy exports, could suffer. Meanwhile, new sources of oil are coming on line and helping to drive down the price at the pump. Khanty-Mansiysk in Siberia - home to around 70 percent of Russia’s developed oil fields and the source of much of the country’s wealth. Russia produces more than 10 million barrels of oil per day - making it a major energy player.

Stephen Tindale, an energy economist at the Center for European Reform, said, “Almost half of the Russian government’s revenue comes from various taxes on oil and gas exports.” Tindale says that leaves the Russian economy highly vulnerable to a fall in oil prices. “It would mean their budget was well out of balance and so would be very serious, short-term, for Putin and the Russian government," he said. In recent weeks, oil prices have begun falling - from around $125 per barrel in March to around $100 by June. Read more ..

The Problem With Coal

South Africa's Coal-Fired Power Plant Advances

June 11th 2012

Pollution Made in China

While the world tries to go green, South Africa still invests in coal. Last Friday, President Jacob Zuma visited what is soon to become the fourth largest coal power-station in the world. The welcome was warm. Gathered against the gates, hundreds of workers greeted South Africa's President Jacob Zuma as he made his way through the construction site.

In Lephalale, a wind-blown desert area 350 kilometers north of Johannesburg, the huge power station is being built. And on June 8, the South African president came to unveil the first unit which has been completed. In his speech, he reminded the crowd about the purpose of the gigantic project. "These new power stations will provide the electricity capacity needed to grow the economy, attract investment, and create jobs," said Zuma.

The Medupi power station is part of a $41 billion project to build several power plants across the country. The project is run by Eskom, South Africa's electricity company. Since construction started in 2005, 17,000 people worked daily on the Medupi site to build what is seen as part of the solution to South Africa's power woes. Read more ..

After Fukashima

Japanese Wary of Nuclear Energy

June 10th 2012

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After almost a month of Japan making do without nuclear energy, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda may have finally persuaded local communities that it is safe to restart two of the 50 reactors that have been idled in the wake of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Nonetheless, 70% of Japanese say their country should reduce its reliance on nuclear energy, in a poll conducted as the country’s last nuclear power stations went offline. This is a much larger number taking this position than in the weeks following last year’s nuclear meltdown at the quake and tsunami-damaged Fukushima Daiichi power plant.

Increased skepticism about nuclear power is coupled with widespread dissatisfaction with the government’s performance: eight-in-ten say the government has done a poor job dealing with the Fukushima crisis and six-in-ten disapprove of how Tokyo has handled the overall recovery from the earthquake and tsunami. Read more ..

Broken Energy Policy

House Votes to Block Enforcement of Energy Efficient Light Bulb Standards

June 10th 2012

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The House approved two amendments to a 2013 spending bill late night June 5 that would prohibit the government from enforcing federal light bulb standards that Republicans say are too intrusive. In a voice vote, the House approved an amendment to the Energy and Water spending bill for 2013 that would prevent the Department of Energy from spending money to enforce a 2007 law that sets bulb efficiency standards. The law bans the sale of 100 watt incandescent bulbs and will ban the sale of 75 watt traditional bulbs in July 2013.

This year, like last year, the amendment was sponsored by Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas), who said the federal government should not be in the business of requiring certain light bulbs to be used. "We shouldn't be making these decisions for the American people," Burgess said on the House floor. Burgess added that his amendment was approved last year and signed into law by President Obama, after which the House quickly passed his amendment again. The language was subject to a brief debate in which Rep. Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.) said he opposed the language because it could hurt U.S. companies making bulbs that comply with the standards. "The only benefit to this amendment is to allow foreign manufacturers who may not feel a similar obligation to export noncompliant light bulbs that will not only harm the investments made by U.S. companies but place at risk U.S. manufacturing jobs associated with making compliant bulbs," he said. Read more ..

The Race for Solar

New Twist on Old Chemical Process Could Boost Energy Efficiency

June 9th 2012

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Chemical reactions on the surface of metal oxides, such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, are important for applications such as solar cells that convert the sun's energy to electricity. Now University of Washington scientists have found that a previously unappreciated aspect of those reactions could be key in developing more efficient energy systems. Such systems could include, for example, solar cells that would produce more electricity from the sun's rays, or hydrogen fuel cells efficient enough for use in automobiles, said James Mayer, a UW chemistry professor. "As we think about building a better energy future, we have to develop more efficient ways to convert chemical energy into electrical energy and vice versa," said Mayer, the corresponding author of a paper about the discovery in the June 8 edition of Science.

Chemical reactions that change the oxidation state of molecules on the surface of metal oxides historically have been seen as a transfer solely of electrons. The new research shows that, at least in some reactions, the transfer process includes coupled electrons and protons. "Research and manufacturing have grown up around models in which electrons moved but not atoms," Mayer said. The new paper proposes a different model for certain kinds of processes, a perspective that could lead to new avenues of investigation, he said. "In principle this is a path toward more efficient energy utilization." Read more ..

The Enviornmental Edge

Conservative Group's $1M Ad Buy Seeks Votes to Kill Coal Rule

June 8th 2012

Missouri coal-fired power plant

A conservative advocacy group says it’s spending almost $1 million on ads to corral support for an upcoming Senate effort to overturn Environmental Protection Agency rules that require cuts in toxic emissions from coal-fired power plants.

American Commitment is running ads starting Friday in four states taking aim at “Obama’s war on coal” — the phrase critics use to allege the EPA rule and other White House policies create costly burdens that will kill jobs and raise power costs.

 The ads running in Tennessee, West Virginia, New Hampshire and Maine urge senators to support Sen. James Inhofe’s (R-Okla.) resolution to overturn the rules that EPA finalized late last year. A vote on Inhofe’s plan is expected as soon as soon as next week. One of the ads urges Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who opposes outright killing the EPA emissions rules, to change course and support Inhofe’s plan. “Is Senator Lamar Alexander joining Obama’s war on coal? It looks like it,” the ad states, alleging that a vote against Inhofe’s plan is “a vote against Tennessee.” Read more ..

The Race for BioFuel

Environmental Benefit of Biofuels is Overestimated, New Study Reveals

June 8th 2012

Two scientists are challenging the currently accepted norms of biofuel production. A commentary published today in GCB Bioenergy reveals that calculations of greenhouse gas (GHGs) emissions from bioenergy production are neglecting crucial information that has led to the overestimation of the benefits of biofuels compared to fossil fuels.

The critique extends to the Life Cycle Analysis models of bioenergy production. Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) is a technique used to measure and compile all factors relating to the production, usage, and disposal of a fuel or product. The authors conclude that LCAs are overestimating the positive aspects of biofuel use versus fossil fuel use by omitting the emission of CO2 by vehicles that use ethanol and biodiesel even when there is no valid justification. Read more ..

The Race for Energy Storage

‘Nanocable’ Could Be Big Boon For Energy Storage

June 8th 2012

energy storage

Thanks to a little serendipity, researchers at Rice University have created a tiny coaxial cable that is about a thousand times smaller than a human hair and has higher capacitance than previously reported microcapacitors.

The nanocable, which is described this week in Nature Communications, was produced with techniques pioneered in the nascent graphene research field and could be used to build next-generation energy-storage systems. It could also find use in wiring up components of lab-on-a-chip processors, but its discovery is owed partly to chance.

“We didn’t expect to create this when we started,” said study co-author Jun Lou, associate professor of mechanical engineering and materials science at Rice. “At the outset, we were just curious to see what would happen electrically and mechanically if we took small copper wires known as interconnects and covered them with a thin layer of carbon.”
Coaxial nanocable

The Race for Alt Fuel

Solar Technology to Convert Greenhouse Gas into Fuel

June 8th 2012

Brown coal mining AU

An Israeli-Australian venture will use solar technology developed at the Weizmann Institute of Science to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the burning of brown coal. The venture was recently launched in Israel by NewCO2Fuels Ltd., a subsidiary of the Australian company Greenearth Energy Ltd., which has acquired an exclusive worldwide license for the solar technology from Yeda, the Weizmann Institute’s technology transfer arm.

The Weizmann technology makes use of concentrated solar energy to dissociate CO2 to carbon monoxide (CO) and oxygen (O2). This method, developed at the Institute by Prof. Jacob Karni of the Department of Environmental Sciences and Energy Research, also makes it possible to dissociate water (H2O) to hydrogen (H2) and O2 at the same time it dismantles the CO2.

CO, or its mixture with hydrogen, called Syngas, can then be used as gaseous fuel, for example, in power plants, or converted to liquid fuel such as methanol, which can be stored, transported, or used to power motor vehicles. Read more ..

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