Archive for agriculture

Mar
15

The Future of Biofuels: Environmental Innovation Fatigue for Environmental Advances?

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The federal government has set bold and challenging goals for future increases in the production of energy from non-fossil fuel sources. Seeking to curb our dependence on foreign oil as well as fossil fuels in general, our nation is encouraging the development of fuels from biological sources. Biofuels, diesel and gasoline made from renewable sources such as agricultural waste, forest sources, and algae, are a top priority and are the subject of extensive government-funded research and tax credits. Biofuels are a rich source of innovation and show an explosion in patent activity in the past 3 years.

Unfortunately, biofuels are also facing daunting challenges from uncertainty in federal regulations and tax policy that threatens to bring many innovations to a halt as industry puts many developments on hold due. The uncertainty in the environment–the regulatory and tax environment created by the government–is actually hindering many biofuel projects aimed aimed at enhancing the environment in the long run. This was the sentiment from several speakers in the midst of biofuels innovation in sessions at BioPro Expo 2011, a major conference on biofuels and forest bioproducts, being held in Atlanta, Georgia, March 14-16. Concern about government barriers to commercialization of biofuels advances was a repeated theme.

One example is federal regarding the definition of “renewable” for those seeking federal incentives for the use of renewable sources of fuels. Municipal solid waste (MSW) has a large component of plant-based materials such as paper and food waste, and is one of the most available and commercially attractive biofuel sources. The technology is proven, the raw material is available and economically feasible, and projects are ready to roll–except they have largely been put on hold until the federal government rules on whether MSW can be counted as “renewable” or not. Then there are strict new rules on boiler operation (the Industrial Boiler Maximum Achievable Technology, or BI MACT, rule) throwing another wrench and major cost burden on the backs of those with boilers generating energy from biomass sources. There are a host of other rules and conflicting definitions and policies adding to uncertainty, risk, and cost in commercializing biofuels. For the innovator, it is a challenging era with the potential of innovation fatigue from external or environmental factors.

Let’s hope that the rich opportunities being uncovered in biofuels can be commercialized rapidly and that the barriers to innovation can be reduced.

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Jul
01

Thinking Beyond Ethanol

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Ethanol as a biofuel may soon reach practical limits in the US and frankly is clouded with questions about its economic and environmental utility. However, the fermentation systems for producing ethanol can be adapted to produce much more valuable products using special microbes developed at some of the most promising green energy and biotech companies. The result is enticing, as we read in “Brazil: The Bossa Nova of Biofuels” from Biofuels Digest:

Another wave of next-generation renewable drop-in fuel companies, Amyris, LS9, Gevo and Dupont, are also investing in and partnering with Brazil’s sugarcane fermentation biorefineries. Why? Because their emerging technologies from cellulosic microbes (yeast, algae, fungus and bacteria) can use the same ethanol fermentation facilities in the US corn belt and in Brazil’s sugarcane belt to produce bio-crude, green diesel, petrol and biojet.

The simplicity is astounding. Here’s the big idea. Take an existing, stranded ethanol factory or conglomerate. Buy it for a substantial discount. Start with cheap sugar. Drop in a new Amyris, LS9, Gevo, or Cobalt microbe/ bug in the same fermentation vat and what do you get? An integrated biorefinery that can use cheap, sustainable sugars to produce renewable diesel, aviation fuel, and biobutanol – fuels that are compatible with existing petroleum pipelines, storage, petrol stations, and vehicle engines today.

In the near future, these fermentation-based biorefineries will be able to convert multiple inputs from cellulosic sugars–bagasse, switchgrass, wood chips, municipal solid waste, and glycerin–into a diverse set Of outputs, including renewable diesel, aviation fuel, bio-crude oil, biochemicals and biopolymers with significant GHG reductions and carbon emissions compared to petrochemical hydrocarbons.

This is an important lesson in innovation. Don’t live with current assumptions. Look at existing technologies, processes, and products as simply a stepping stone to something more valuable, and then ask what is next. If I have raw materials and processing stations that can use microbes to convert sugars into a biofuel, why be satisfied with the least valuable biofuel around? Why not look at the higher-value products that similar technology could produce? That’s the genius behind some of these rising bioproducts companies.

Speaking about bioproducts, let me encourage any chemical engineers out there to join me at the AIChE Annual Meeting, where the Division that I chair, the Forest Bioproducts Division, is hosting numerous sessions dealing with the exciting developments in biorefineries and value-added products from cellulosic biomass. That’s where some of the best potential is: energy and chemical products from something besides the food that people need to eat.

Apr
22

Smartphones and Agriculture

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One of the interesting trends in emerging nations is the rapid spread of mobile phones without first moving to landlines. Millions of people who don’t have landlines and may not have the infrastructure for them are able to benefit from cell phones. As cell phones increasingly become smart, offering a variety of apps and services, their smartphones can change the way people work and live. That includes the way they farm, including they way they apply pesticides, apply water, manage the soil, and harvest crops. Look to agriculture and the related fields of water and soil management for added value in coming years.

Lindsay Corporation (no relation, unfortunately, though I did profit as an investor in the past–NYSE:LNN) recently announced a new cell phone application to help farmers track and control their automated irrigation systems such as the Zimmatic® system. Here’s an excerpt:

Lindsay Corporation, maker of Zimmatic® irrigation systems, announces the introduction of FieldNET Mobile—pivot control for smartphones. The new feature allows growers to fully control and monitor their irrigation pivots anywhere through the convenience of smartphones.

“FieldNET Mobile provides a labor-saving innovation with the convenience of web-enabled phones,” says Reece Andrews, GrowSmart™ product manager at Lindsay. “With full control and monitoring from anywhere, growers are more efficient with their time and always know the status of their irrigation systems.”

FieldNET Mobile’s graphical interface supports most industry-leading smartphones, including the iPhone®, Droid® and BlackBerry®, according to Andrews.

FieldNET is an award-winning web-based irrigation management system. With the addition of FieldNET Mobile, growers can view the current status of all their pivots in one list, receive system alerts, arrange pivots by predefined groups, view water usage reports and receive a history of pivot runtimes.

Innovators are already considering many other smartphone-enabled opportunities for improving the way we farm and manage water around the world. It’s too early to discuss some details, but I look forward to seeing what we can do to further improve the quality of life through better agriculture practices enabled by the power of smartphones. Stay tuned!

What do you see as future applications of smartphones in agriculture?

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