BP makes major agrofuel move; UCLA beats Cal


From The Biofuels Digest comes word of a major new move by BP, the oil company that bought UC Berkeley, is moving into Brazilian ethanol in a major way:

In Brazil, BP announced that it has agreed to acquire majority control of the Brazilian ethanol and sugar producer Companhia Nacional de Açúcar e Álcool (CNAA), from Açúcar e Álcool Fundo de Investimento em Participações and Açúcar e Álcool II Fundo de Investimento em Participações.

When CNAA’s assets are fully developed, this is expected to increase BP’s overall annual Brazilian production capacity to 370 million gallons (1.4 billion litres of ethanol equivalent per year, nine million barrels).

>snip<

BP has agreed to pay approximately US$680 million to acquire 83 per cent of the shares of CNAA and to refinance 100 per cent of CNAA’s existing long term debt. After the acquisition, which is subject to regulatory approval and agreed closing conditions, BP will become the operator of two producing ethanol mills, located in Goiás and Minas Gerais states. A third CNAA mill is currently under development in Minas Gerais state. Around 2,500 people are employed across the three mills

>snip<

Since 2008, BP has held a 50% share in Tropical BioEnergia S.A., which operates an ethanol mill in Goiás state with a production capacity of 435 million litres of ethanol per year. The ownership and operation of this mill is not impacted by this acquisition.

Read the rest.

Bruins beat Bears in gas substitute microbe race?

Meanwhile, it looks like another University of California campus in conjunction with another Department of Energy lab may have stolen a march on the $500 million BP-funded agrofuel program run by UC Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

A primary goal of the research program here at Cal has been the development of genetically altered microbes capable of transforming cellulose into a motor fuel completely compatible with current car engines, unlike ethanol, which can only be added to gasoline in small amounts.

Here’s the announcement from Oak Ridge National Laboratory:

In the quest for inexpensive biofuels, cellulose proved no match for a bioprocessing strategy and genetically engineered microbe developed by researchers at the Department of Energy’s BioEnergy Science Center.

Using consolidated bioprocessing, a team led by James Liao of the University of California at Los Angeles for the first time produced isobutanol directly from cellulose. The team’s work, published online in Applied and Environmental Microbiology, represents across-the-board savings in processing costs and time, plus isobutanol is a higher grade of alcohol than ethanol.

“Unlike ethanol, isobutanol can be blended at any ratio with gasoline and should eliminate the need for dedicated infrastructure in tanks or vehicles,” said Liao, chancellor’s professor and vice chair of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science. “Plus, it may be possible to use isobutanol directly in current engines without modification.”

Compared to ethanol, higher alcohols such as isobutanol are better candidates for gasoline replacement because they have an energy density, octane value and Reid vapor pressure – a measurement of volatility – that is much closer to gasoline, Liao said.

While cellulosic biomass like corn stover and switchgrass is abundant and cheap, it is much more difficult to utilize than corn and sugar cane. This is due in large part because of recalcitrance, or a plant’s natural defenses to being chemically dismantled.

Adding to the complexity is the fact biofuel production that involves several steps – pretreatment, enzyme treatment and fermentation – is more costly than a method that combines biomass utilization and the fermentation of sugars to biofuel into a single process.

To make the conversion possible, Liao and postdoctoral researcher Wendy Higashide of UCLA and Yongchao Li and Yunfeng Yang of Oak Ridge National Laboratory had to develop a strain of Clostridium cellulolyticum, a native cellulose-degrading microbe, that could synthesize isobutanol directly from cellulose. “This work is based on our earlier work at UCLA in building a synthetic pathway for isobutanol production,” Liao said.

While some Clostridium species produce butanol, these organisms typically do not digest cellulose directly. Other Clostridium species digest cellulose but do not produce butanol. None produce isobutanol, an isomer of butanol.

“In nature, no microorganisms have been identified that possess all of the characteristics necessary for the ideal consolidated bioprocessing strain, so we knew we had to genetically engineer a strain for this purpose,” Li said.

While there were many possible microbial candidates, the research team ultimately chose Clostridium cellulolyticum, which was originally isolated from decayed grass. The researchers noted that their strategy exploits the host’s natural cellulolytic activity and the amino acid biosynthetic pathway and diverts its intermediates to produce higher alcohol than ethanol.

The researchers also noted that Clostridium cellulolyticum has been genetically engineered to improve ethanol production, and this has led to additional more detailed research. Clostridium cellulolyticum has a sequenced genome available via DOE’s Joint Genome Institute. This proof of concept research sets the stage for studies that will likely involve genetic manipulation of other consolidated bioprocessing microorganisms.

The paper is titled “Metabolic Engineering of Clostridium Cellulolyticum for Isobutanol Production from Cellulose,” and is available online at http://aem.asm.org/. This work was supported in part by BESC (http://bioenergycenter.org/) at ORNL and by UCLA-DOE Institute for Genomics and Proteomics. BESC is one of three DOE Bioenergy Research Centers established by the DOE’s Office of Science in 2007. The centers support multidisciplinary, multi-institutional research teams pursuing the fundamental scientific breakthroughs needed to make production of cellulosic biofuels, or biofuels from nonfood plant fiber, cost-effective on a national scale. The centers are led by ORNL, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of Wisconsin-Madison in partnership with Michigan State University.

The UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, established in 1945, offers 28 academic and professional degree programs and has an enrollment of almost 5,000 students. It is ranked among the top 10 engineering schools at public universities nationwide and is home to seven multimillion-dollar interdisciplinary research centers.

ORNL is managed by UT-Battelle for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

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