Green Initiatives


In a recent research project, scientists at DOE (US Dept of Energy) identified an enzyme responsible for the formation of suberin, which is the woody, waxy, cell wall substance that makes up cork. Suberin controls water and nutrient transportation in plants and keeps pathogens out. The idea is to adjust the permeability of plant tissues by genetic manipulation, leading to easier production of crops that could be used for biofuels. Suberin is mostly found in the cell walls of seed and root systems qne moderates substances that pass into the organisms, acting as a barrier to harmful substances while encouraging the intake of water and other nutrients. It also aids in the storage of fluids.

What this boils down to is that suberin can be used to encourage the growth of plants for biofuels, including plants that have been hard to cultivate. It could be used to modify plants so that their production is greater and easier. Many plants that have been isolated for use as biofuels are agriculturally demanding and land amassing.

In this experiment, the scientists analyzed a strain of Arabidopsis that had been genetically modified to disrupt the expression of a gene that codes for an enzyme known as hydroxyacid
hydroxycinnamoyltransferase (HHT).  Chemical analysis showed that “knocking out” the HHT gene led to a deficiency of suberin phenolics, indicating that HHT is the enzyme responsible for biosynthesis of the polymer. The scientists then isolated the gene and expressed it in bacteria to further characterize its function.

It was also demonstrated that the HHT-deficient plants were much more permeable to salt in solution than their wild-type counterparts. This finding, together with the constant presence of suberin in plant root tissues that control water and salt uptake, suggests that suberin plays an important role in the adaptation of plants to their terrestrial habitats. Translation: Suberin, found in cork, makes plants more adaptable and easier to cultivate.

If they get a handle on the mechanism responsible for suberin production they might be able to create crops tailored to thrive in specific environments. This means harsh environments, which have been a roadblock to growing plants that can produce economically efficient biofuels. If certain breeds can be created that are more adept at absorbing and storing water and nutrients, then crops could be grown in dry or arid climates, perhaps even in the desert. If they could make use out of the currently unusable vast landscapes that comprise our deserts, then the aerable land used for more delicate food crops could be spared. As well, the current finding that modifications in suberin phenolic production can alter plants’ tolerance to salt suggests that this might also help create crops that can grow in salty conditions. This means agricultural use for currently useless land on our coasts.

This is a fantastic step forward in the science of creating plants for biofuels. It makes use of currently unviable lands, frees up aerable land for food crops and promises the proliferation of genetically modified, non food, crops for use as sustainable biofuels. Looks like a win-win to me!

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In more news about ECD (Energy Conversion Devices), the company has announced it has signed an agreement with Endesa in Spain to install 3.0 MWp of UNI-SOLAR photovoltaic (PV) laminates on the rooftops of two Coca-Cola Company buildings in Seville. This is the second announcement of this sort in as many months. Their other project, in Ontario, is expected to be completed later this year. Read my previous post for details on that.

In this project the company is again operating through United Solar Ovonic, a subsidiary of ECD. In this manner, they will oversee the construction of the rooftop system. In this project, the materials will consist of UNI-SOLAR laminates bonded to the Giscosa waterproofing system and applied directly on the roofs. When finished, the system will be owned and managed by Endesa. Construction will begin this quarter, with completion expected in the first half of calendar 2010.

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Energy Conversion Devices and Enfinity are going to collaborate on a 10MW portfolio of rooftop solar installations in Ontario, Canada. They made the announcement in February and they are currently developing the plan. ECD (Energy Conversion Devices) will provide it’s new PowerTilt product and will combine this with UNI-SOLAR photovoltaic laminates. They will present this through United Solar Ovonic, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of ECD. On it’s part, Enfinity will lead the rooftop acquisition and will arrange construction debt and take-out equity financing for the projects. Enfinity is based in Ottawa. After completion of the project and it is in commercial operation, the projects portfolio will be sold to the permanent equity owners. This might be a sweet deal.

ECD’s PowerTilt product can be installed on any roof type, is very light weight and has higher energy production. This project will be on many different roofing materials so this makes the PowerTilt product the best choice. On the business end, ECD will also provide development equity during the construction phase of the projects.

This project is being done under Ontarios’ new feed-in-tariff program. The companies expect to complete construction of approximately 10MW of projects during calendar 2010.

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The concept behind biochar is a bit complicated but very interesting. Based on an ancient Amazonian practice of burying carbon in the soil, the industry plans to sequester vast quantities of carbon in the soil and sell the latent emissions as credits on the worldwide carbon market. The theory is that if terra preta (charcoal enriched soil) is created on a global scale as much as 6 billion tons of CO2 would be prevented from entering the atmosphere every year. Although this is only about half of the 8 to 10 billion tons of carbon emitted yearly by human activity it is still substantial enough to be investigated. In fact, scientists around the world are saying that burying biochar would not only slow the rate of global warming it would also enhance the soil and make a side dish of sustainable biofuels as well.

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According to OPEC’s 2009 World Outlook, world demand for middle distillate fuel, chiefly diesel, will grow faster than any other refined oil product, up to as much as 34.2 million barrels per day by 2030. The U.S. currently consumes around 19 million barrels of fuel per day, with diesel accounting for 3 million or around 16% of that amount.

Joule Biotechnologies, Inc, a producer of alternative energy technologies based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, announced in 2009 that it had made a major step forward in its’ development of renewable fuels. This step forward involves the direct microbial conversion of carbon dioxide (CO2) into hydrocarbons via engineered organisms, powered by solar energy. I know it sounds convoluted but the creation of renewable energy requires working around.. and I mean a long way around.. current technologies.

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Here is another idea for biofuel: Sunflowers. I know this makes about a hundred ideas that have crossed the table, from algae to corn and back, but they are trying, I suspect, to come up with something that doesn’t take up too much land, is sustainable over the long haul and can be processed inexpensively. So in their search for this miracle, scientists in Canada are trying to determine the genetic makeup of Sunflowers in the hopes that it will lead to a species that can be used for both food and fuel. This is a great idea; something sustainable that has more than one purpose. In this regard, plants that can be used for both food and fuel should be first in line on the testing table.

So the USDA has joined a venture with Genome Canada and France’s NIAR (National Institute for Agricultural Research) which aims to create a reference genome for Sunflowers within the next four years. That seems reasonable to me. I just hope they don’t end up genetically modifying Sunflowers now, creating frankenseeds. That would be another mess like the failed attempt to modify corn for food and fuel. That little experiment had the entire world rejecting our corn, including starving masses who would take the bags and dump them rather than eat them and this during major disasters and war.

The Sunflower comes for the world’s largest plant family. This family of plants contains 24,000 species of food crops, medicinal plants, decorative plants and noxious weeds. As a footnote, I will add that the Sunflower genome is 3.5 billion letters long, slightly larger than the human genome. In modern molecular biology, the genome is the entirety of an organism’s hereditary information. It is encoded either in DNA or, for many types of virus, in RNA. The genome includes both the genes and the non-coding sequences of the DNA.

But once the experiment is completed and the genetic makeup of the Sunflower is known, the species could be crossbred to produce a plant that grows as high as 15 feet with stalks up to 4 inches in diameter and also produces high quality seeds. Sounds like a fantasy, doesn’t it? It’s almost scary when you think about it. But a plant like this, capable of both feeding and fueling, would be a miracle of sorts. The project engineers are saying that the seeds would be harvested for both food and energy, while the stalks could also be used like wood or converted to ethanol. Quite a feat, I believe. A dual use crop that they hope will not be competition with other food crops for arable land. Sustainable. Imagine that! All I hope at this point in time that this isn’t just another scheme dreamed up by folk who want government money to fool around for awhile. We’ve had quite a few busts so far and I am not sure we can afford a lot more of that. I’ll be watching this study closely and I will report back on the results.

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This is the stuff of science fiction movies which are, by the way, my favorite genre. I have been amazed over and over again how the stuff of science fiction eventually becomes scientific fact. I have always loved science and was pretty good at it in school. Now I just write about it on blogs. One scientific dream that was once science fiction is now becoming a fact and that is the collecting of the Sun’s energy in space and beaming it back to earth. This has, in fact, been an idea bounced around in the scientific world for over 40 years. But Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson aside, this idea has now garnered interest from the US Military as well and thanks to advances in technology is close to becoming reality today.

One of the drawbacks in the development of sources for solar power is that it requires the Sun 24/7, which is just not possible from the surface of an orbiting planet. This requirement is the result of the need for electricity every day, around the clock and the drawback is that the Sun is not available all the time and even when it is, it is often reduced by clouds or rain. So how do you fill in the blanks? So that solar power becomes a viable, around the clock source of electrical power?

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