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Category — biofuel

Science finds new routes to energy

Tim Radford


The research opens the way to more nutritious soya beans grown with less water. Image: H. Zell via Wikimedia Commons

Scientists in the US have found new ways to make biofuel, increase crop yields and exploit carbon dioxide through novel applications of familiar materials.

While politicians posture, and climate scientists sigh sadly, researchers in laboratories continue to devise ingenious new ways to save energy, increase efficiency, and make the most of solar power.

Darren Drewry of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and two colleagues from the University of Illinois have a computer model that could design soybean crops able to produce 8.5% more nourishment, use 13% less water and reflect 34% more sunlight back into space.

They report in the journal Global Change Biology that they can achieve all three goals by breeding for slightly different leaf distribution on the stalk, and for the angle at which the leaf grows, using a technique called numerical optimisation to try a very large number of structural traits to get the best results. “And surprisingly, there are combinations of these traits that can improve each of these goals at the same time,” says Dr Drewry.

In the great evolutionary challenge match, plants fight for the light and try to put each other in the shade. “Our crop plants reflect many millions of years in the wild under these competitive conditions,” said Stephen Long, a plant biologist. “In a crop field we want plants to share resources and conserve water and nutrients, so we have been looking at what leaf arrangements would best do this.” [Read more →]

April 19, 2014   No Comments

Hydrogen fuel comes a little closer

Tim Radford


Hydrogen powers a London bus: The French team’s discovery may hasten their introduction. Image: Felix O via Wikimedia Commons

The discovery of a way to make hydrogen quickly and easily holds out hope that the process may eventually be scaled up to produce commercial quantities.

French scientists have discovered a swift and easy way to make hydrogen, the raw material of a whole universe and a clean source of energy for fuel cell transport.

The catch is that it may be a few decades before the process can be turned into industrial-scale production. The bonus is that the discovery may be the key to a deeper understanding of planetary processes and the origin of life.

Hydrogen would be a valuable fuel for a post-carbon world. It is lightweight, fiercely reactive, and burns with oxygen to make water, so it would solve the greenhouse gas emissions problem, and there would be no other air pollution either.

Hydrogen is the power source for 100 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, and it is a food and energy resource for microbial communities that dwell miles below the Earth’s surface. But in energy terms, it is expensive to make in a laboratory or a factory. [Read more →]

December 18, 2013   No Comments

New technologies offer more climate sensitive renewables

Tim Radford


Willow saplings being grown for biofuel: The Finnish method promises economies
Image: David Wright via Wikimedia Commons

Finnish researchers say they have found how to produce biofuel cheaply, while a US team says it can make hydrogen from water at less cost than conventional methods.

Finnish scientists have found a way to turn dead wood into high quality biofuel for less than one euro a litre. They believe they can convert more than half the energy of raw wood – ligno-cellulosic biomass, if you prefer the technical term – into something that will drive a taxi, a tractor or a tank.

Biofuels were long ago proposed as an alternative to fossil fuels: they are not exactly carbon-free, but they exploit the carbon freshly captured by plants so the carbon dioxide returned to the atmosphere was going to get back there anyway, from compost, leaf litter, food waste or firewood.

In the years of agricultural surplus in Europe and the US, farmers embraced the idea as an alternative source of income; environmentalists cheered them on because large stands of trees, shrubs or grasses provided at least some fresh habitat for birds and insects as well as ground cover to prevent erosion; economists applauded because real estate was being used for some form of income. [Read more →]

August 5, 2013   No Comments