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Grad student Phong V.V. Le stands with Professor Praveen Kumar in front of a stand of grass. The pair found a potential downside of switchgrass as a biofuel stock -- decreased soil moisture and increased humidity.  (Source: L. Brian Stauffer/University of Illinois)

A new study created a strain of yeast more efficient at turning red algae to fuel via fermentation. The new strand requires only half the time of its predecessor to produce biofuel.  (Source: Antibiotics for)

Algae/seaweed-based biofuels may be the ideal solution for sea-bordering arid regions, such as the Middle East.  (Source: Google Images)
Water usage is a potential concern for using switchgrass as a cellulosic biofuel feedstock

You can ferment it in bacteria.  You can subject it to outlandish temperatures and pressures.  But however you produce biofuel, one thing is constant -- you need a supply of carbon, the "feedstock".

I. Switchgrass == Environmental Threat?

One leading candidate for widespread use as a biofuel feedstock is switchgrass.  Fast-growing and hardy, switchgrass quickly produces a great deal of biomass.  But a new study by the
University of Illinois reveals a potential downside -- switchgrass' growth comes at the cost of soil moisture.

Switchgrass is apparently so effective at sucking water out of the ground that it could cause adverse affects to other human crops, as well as local ecosystems.  
Praveen Kumar, the Lovell Professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Illinois states, "While we are looking for solutions for energy through bioenergy crops, dependence on water gets ignored, and water can be a significant limiting factor.  There are many countries around the world that are looking into biofuel energy, but if they are adopting these (large grasses) into their regular policy, then they need to take into account the considerations for the associated demand for water."

The study examined transpiration -- the loss of water through plant pores.  Ultimately
switchgrass and another fast growing grass, Miscanthus, transpire at a higher rate than corn (the most widely used ethanol biofuel crop) and thus pull water from the soil at a faster rate.  This dries the soil and increases humidity.

The researchers also used a predictive model to study what would happen if the predictions of global warming
 were realized.  What they found was that while higher carbon dioxide levels decreased the transpiration rate by allowing the plant to open its pores to the air less frequently, higher temperatures negated this affect by increasing the rate of water loss while the pores were open.  Overall, the predicted affect was even higher rates of water loss.

Regardless of whether the warming scenario occurs, however, the study raises concerns for the viability of switchgrass and Miscanthus as biofuel feedstocks, particularly in drought-prone regions.

The study was published
 [abstract] in the peer-reviewed journal PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

Of course, the pro-corn, anti-grass bent should be taken with a grain of salt.  The University of Illinois has a long-standing relationship
 with the corn ethanol community, which would be displaced in a move to switchgrass cellulosic ethanol.  While this particular study was funded by a National Science Foundation grant, given the overall financial situation, it's possible that researchers at the University of Illinois could feel incentivized to find downsides of switchgrass and the upsides of corn.

II. Algae Could be the Cream of the Crop

That said, the University of Illinois, in a separate study, is promoting a fascinating biofuel alternative
 to both corn ethanol and switchgrass -- seaweed.  Recent efforts by the U.S. Marine Corps have heated up interested in algae- and seaweed-based biofuels.

The new study looks at how to speed up the slow process of fermenting red seaweed biomass to produce biofuel.  Currently Saccharomyces cerevisiae -- commonly named yeast -- is the leading candidate for fermentation as it has genes which code for proteins capable of digesting both galactose and glucose -- the two primary sugars in red seaweed.  However, wild-variety yeast "eats" glucose before it will eat galactose, making the fermentation process slow, and thus, ultimately, more expensive.

By introducing a new sugar transporter and enzyme that breaks down cellobiose at the intracellular level via a bit of gene splicing, the team was able to create a strain of yeast that simultaneously digests galactose and glucose, cutting the production time of red seaweed-derived biofuel in half.

Yong-Su Jin, an assistant professor of microbial genomics, compared the development "to a person taking first a bite of a cheeseburger, then a bite of pickle. The process that uses the new strain puts the pickle in the cheeseburger sandwich so both foods are consumed at the same time."

Professor Jin says that the pre-treatment process to break down seaweed into cellobiose -- glucose pairs -- and galactose is considerably less toxic than many of the potential processes to break down cellulose from terrestrial crops.  Furthermore, he says that red seaweed has several other advantage as well, including its higher biomass-per-unit-area density, its higher rate of carbon fixation than terrestrial biofuels crops, and its ability to grow in the sea, thus escaping land-space constraints.

The researcher selected the red variety (Gelidium amansii) of seaweed as it’s a fast-growing variety found in abundance in one very space-constrained region -- Southeast Asia.

The study on the work was published [abstract] in the peer-reviewed journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology
.  The study follows work earlier this year published [abstract] in PNAS, which saw Professor Jin's team introduce pathways for simultaneous digesting of xylose -- another plant sugar -- and cellobiose into a yeast strain.

Together the studies paint an interesting picture.  Switchgrass is potentially undesirable in arid regions and in space-confined regions.  However, many of these same regions border the sea.

So for regions like the Southeastern United States, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Japan, growing biofuels in the sea might be the wisest approach of all.

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Filed under "Irony"
By mattclary on 8/30/2011 12:30:23 PM , Rating: 5
Algae/seaweed-based biofuels may be the ideal solution for sea-bordering arid regions, such as the Middle East.

RE: Filed under "Irony"
By Jeffk464 on 8/30/2011 2:25:38 PM , Rating: 2
yup, as Ironic as Iran saying they need nuclear, or as some say nucular, to supply their energy needs. :)

RE: Filed under "Irony"
By michael67 on 8/30/2011 4:32:24 PM , Rating: 2
Actually I think Iran is not a top pick, as the red sea dose not have a constant stream of new water and nourishment like countries that located at the Ocean water streams.
I think it would be a disaster for the flora there, and kill the flourishing diving industry.

I am a diver and dived all over the world, country's like Ireland, Norway the US, and all other countries that are located at the warm streams are prime candidates for these project, at least if seaweed is a good candidate, as it literally grows any ware it can get a foothold.

So cheap floating frames would be perfect for growth and easy harvesting.

Still next to benefits for fish life as a habitat, I wonder if taking all these nourishment out of the water, is bad for sea live in general, but then on the other hand, the sea and Oceans are freaking big, and this will have little if no impact at all and would even create new habitats for sea live.

And everything is still better, then use crops for fuel, what imho should be outlawed!!!

RE: Filed under "Irony"
By Smartless on 8/30/2011 2:31:32 PM , Rating: 2
What's also ironic is that red algae looks alot like the edible type. So we're trading corn for seaweed. Albeit this type looks like the delicacy type we call Ogo in Hawaii.

In any case, I wonder if its possible to use secondary treated sewage water to supply the switchgrass. Health regulations prevent us from using reclaimed water for food even through drip irrigation but for this, I wonder if it would affect the production of ethanol. Not that I like ethanol as a fuel source but just wondering.

RE: Filed under "Irony"
By Raiders12 on 8/31/2011 7:24:06 AM , Rating: 2

America has like the most freshwater resources of the country, so hopefully the foreign countries have to count on us for fuel for a change.

RE: Filed under "Irony"
By Paj on 9/2/2011 4:17:47 AM , Rating: 2
Err... what good would freshwater do with seaweed?

And besides, Russia has more than America.

Biofuel/Food == WATER
By rdhood on 8/30/11, Rating: 0
RE: Biofuel/Food == WATER
By BioHazardous on 8/30/2011 12:45:23 PM , Rating: 2
If we are growing this stuff where ample water falls out of the sky to maintain soil moisture... great. Otherwise, the search for biomass and the process to convert it to biodiesel continues.

So what I'm hearing you say is you didn't read the article and went straight to commenting. The whole point of the article was using the sea/ocean (salt water) to grow seaweed.

Either that or you just like making pointless points.

RE: Biofuel/Food == WATER
By JoJoman88 on 8/30/2011 8:45:09 PM , Rating: 2
The ansewer is fuel cells. Once they get around the cost of materials needed in production of fuel cell all this biomass talk will die off. You know one day they will find a way to make fuel cells cheap and it will be game over for biomass. As many have pointed out, using food crops(corn) or the water for fuel crops(switchgrass) is foolish with the worlds population geting larger all the time. That land and water will be needed to make food.

RE: Biofuel/Food == WATER
By lagomorpha on 8/31/2011 3:53:45 AM , Rating: 2
You should probably be aware that fuel cells don't magically recharge themselves. You're going to need a power source to charge them and at the moment in North America that means coal.

RE: Biofuel/Food == WATER
By DigitalFreak on 8/30/2011 9:32:30 PM , Rating: 2
I stopped reading at the NPR is a liberal Mecca part.

RE: Biofuel/Food == WATER
By michael67 on 8/31/2011 2:51:12 AM , Rating: 2
He is right on the use of cropland for fuel, its imho almost criminal, but it really has no relevants here as we talking about seaweed as the alternative.

And guess what, ware do seaweed grow? was it not in salt water, and "I" never heard of a saltwater shortage any ware in the world.

ps. liberal and conservative Mecca are both as bad, people learn to think for your self!

Liberal talking to Conservative
They both are saying a lot but no one is really listening or even understanding what the say in the other camp as they live both in different worlds.

RE: Biofuel/Food == WATER
By rdhood on 8/31/2011 9:09:00 AM , Rating: 2
So what I'm hearing you say is you didn't read the article and went straight to commenting. The whole point of the article was using the sea/ocean (salt water) to grow seaweed. Either that or you just like making pointless points.

WRONG, douchebag. This article CLEARLY made two points... One about switchgrass, and one about seaweed. YOU read the article.

I was commenting on the switchgrass... primarily because it has been hailed as the the great corn alternative to produce fuel.

I will leave others to comment about the SECOND point of this article, seaweed.

By Zok on 8/30/2011 1:04:00 PM , Rating: 3
Battlestar Galactose.

RE: Sweet!
By bigdawg1988 on 8/31/2011 12:12:22 PM , Rating: 2
I thought Galactose ate planets. How powerful are these bacteria anyway?!?

No need for biofuels now!!
By TheEinstein on 8/31/11, Rating: 0
By TheEinstein on 8/31/2011 12:01:58 AM , Rating: 3
RE: No need for biofuels now!!
By michael67 on 8/31/2011 2:30:42 AM , Rating: 2
Nice, but hows this relevant to making seaweed a bad alternative for fuel?

Can you pleas tell me how seaweed has baring on all this?

Environmental Jiu Jitsu
By drycrust3 on 8/30/2011 3:30:23 PM , Rating: 2
Switchgrass is apparently so effective at sucking water out of the ground that it could cause adverse affects to other human crops, as well as local ecosystems.

Isn't the aim of Jiu Jitsu to use the weight of your opponent against them? So why not grow switchgrass in places where too much water is a hazard to us and the environment? For example, take a mosquito infested swamp in Africa or Florida, mosquitoes in that swamp may kill thousands of people every year and push other species towards extinction. Now throw in switchgrass and what happens? The swamp dries up and kills the mosquitoes and people get better and can harvest the crops and sell it, and the rare animals get a chance to breed.

RE: Environmental Jiu Jitsu
By lagomorpha on 8/31/2011 3:48:42 AM , Rating: 2
According to the EPA they aren't 'swamps', they're 'wetlands' and they're supposed to be protected for some reason. Wouldn't want mosquitos, the majestic state bird of Minnesota, to become endangered would we?

By sleepeeg3 on 8/31/2011 3:50:15 AM , Rating: 2
Wouldn't it be more efficient to just pull oil out of the ground?

RE: Wait...
By shiftypy on 9/1/2011 9:00:09 AM , Rating: 2
How about sucking moisture from ducks?

Acidification influence
By SilentSin on 8/31/2011 2:04:21 PM , Rating: 2
I'm really ignorant on how sea plants do what they do, but would the seaweed's primary source of CO2 be from the air or the sea? Could another potential benefit of this be reduced ocean acidification or even reversal of the effect over time if production is large scale? There really seem to be few downsides to this.

RE: Acidification influence
By SnakeBlitzken on 9/1/2011 9:56:09 AM , Rating: 2
Yes, I assume it would draw CO2 from the sea which has been reported to absorb a lot of atmospheric CO2. While not really scientific, I kept a reef aquarium for many years. I kept a small aquarium which was plumbed into the main tank that I grew macro algae and seaweed in. A refugium with algae absorbs excess nutrients and absorbs CO2. I ran the lights on the refugium at night to help keep the ph from falling at night which it is prone to do on a reef tank. Winter months and hot summer months are tougher on PH when the windows are always closed.

By virtualdll on 8/30/2011 1:38:00 PM , Rating: 1
This is a great new study but an even older better study says we get the majority of our oxygen from sea plants and I'd hate for them to be turning to something like that for fueling our vehicles it just seems like a bad idea

RE: yikes
By nafhan on 8/30/2011 3:37:31 PM , Rating: 2
I guess you're thinking someone would go out in the ocean and destroy all the red seaweed and turn it into biofuel, kind of like those evil tree chopping lumberjacks?

Just a guess, but that's probably not cost effective. It would make more sense for biofuel producers to cultivate seaweed. This would mean more seaweed producing oxygen for us to breath.

Scary thought:
By icanhascpu on 8/30/2011 2:24:43 PM , Rating: 2
If a company engineers a better version of biomass, that captures more energy and makes the extraction of it much more efficient, and successfully patents it... what the hell is going to happen then?

RE: Scary thought:
By Sazabi19 on 8/30/2011 4:07:02 PM , Rating: 1

By Tumn1s on 8/30/2011 6:21:37 PM , Rating: 3
We shouldn't be using switch grass or seaweed for biofuel when industrial hemp is a much better alternative. Industrial hemp doesn't have any THC in it so it shouldn't be an illegal substance since it can't get you high. Henry Ford even predicted that all cars would be run on hemp biofuel in the future... kinda sad that our government is so stupid about this great plant.

Gulf of Mexico
By RU482 on 8/30/2011 7:19:39 PM , Rating: 2
just thinking out loud here. Don't we have a nearby body of water that suffers from a plague of red algae every year?

turn an environmental disaster into fuel!

By MasterBlaster7 on 8/31/2011 10:00:32 PM , Rating: 2
michael67...I will slap you like a hooker in the street if I ever meet you...retarded tapeworms would have difficultly reaching your level of stupidity.

This article is still bogus. Switch grass is still pure frickin gold that Coskata, GM, and a number of other companies are pursuing. Coskata will have a 100 million gallon a year facility put together pretty soon.

as for India. That backwards country is over farming its farm land and also sucking massive water out of the water table due to expanding population, urbanization, and just generally too many people.

go educate yourself monkey boy before you start flinging around your worthless statements.

By michael67 on 9/1/2011 12:48:43 PM , Rating: 2
if I ever meet you

Na tnx, your pure keyboard rage comments, makes me sure I dont wan to have to meet a moron like you ^_^

Have a nice life, and do the Darwin theory, and even better the whole human race a favor and get self a sterilization.

And I am looking forward to reading your rage reply on this here ^_^

by by

By Paj on 9/2/2011 5:53:16 AM , Rating: 1
Water is going to become more and more valuable as it gradually becomes more scarce. Not only is it essential to, and required in vast quantities by, heavy industry and energy production (including NUKULAR), theres also the small matter that it is essential to life. Which shall be given priority?

"This is from the It's a science website." -- Rush Limbaugh

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