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Tech Tuesday

Advancing New-Tech Biofuels

When it comes to the latest biofuels, not all the options offer better results than current conventional sources...yet.

There's a lot of talk these days about getting biofuels from algae, but researchers at the University of Virginia's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering have found there are some key environmental hurdles to clear before this technology ramps up to commercial levels. They're suggesting that wastewater could be a solution to some challenges.

The findings come after ExxonMobil invested $600 million last summer and the U.S. Department of Energy announced it was awarding $78 million in stimulus money for research and development of the biofuel. The U.Va. researchers published a paper in the journal Environmental Science & Technology demonstrating that algae production consumes more energy, has higher greenhouse gas emissions and uses more water than other biofuels sources, including switchgrass, canola and corn.

The researchers do propose that situating algae ponds behind wastewater treatment facilities to capture phosphorus and nitrogen - key nutrients for algae that otherwise would need to be produced using petroleum. Those same nutrients are discharged into local waterways and in the case of Virginia those discharges have an impact on the Chesapeake Bay and other water bodies. Current tech to remove phosphorus and nitrogen from wastewater are expensive.

However, putting algae in catch ponds as part of the process would reduce the runoff of those unwanted nutrients. The researchers say that algae production remains an attractive energy source because algae doesn't compete with food crops grown on land and tends to have a higher energy yield than corn or switchgrass. The key is that alternative fuels remain in their infancy and new tech is being applied constantly to improve efficiency and returns for all sources.

Assuring Corn Production. The Crop Science Society of America issued a report recently talking about the threat of climate change on corn production. The organization notes that unexpected changes in climate conditions will bring new stresses to the environment and assuring the stability of crop varieties across environments and conditions is a key breeding goal.

They point to work done by the Spanish National Council investing the effects of multiple climate stresses on corn grain yield. The study evaluated 76 Spanish populations of corn, along with five commercial hybrids. Research was conducted at three distinct locations over three years, for a total of nine environments. They looked at a range of stress conditions from shortage of water, cold temperatures and low nutrient availability. No pesticide or herbicide treatments were applied during the growing cycle and weeding was limited to allow competition. Data on a range of traits related to plant development and yield were collected on each plot. Environmental variables were also recorded to monitor variations in temperature and rainfall during the growing season.

The study's results, published a recent issue of Crop Science shows the impact of genotype and environment on yield stability as well as a host of genotype-environment interactions. Researchers determined that commercial hybrids had higher yield and stability than most populations. That shows that seed company plant breeders - when aiming for yield - have developed plants that perform under different stress conditions.

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