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Green Revolution: Biomass

7 minutes

(Describer) In an animation, different colored icons include a car, a house, a model for hydrogen, and an arrow that looks like lightning. In another one, a woman connects cables. As she laughs and smiles, title: Green Revolution, with Lisa Van Pay PhD (Scientist).

(Describer) Other icons: tree plus insect times liquid in a beaker equals question mark.

(Describer) Title: Biomass.

(female narrator) Things stay alive by converting energy from a form they can't use to one they can.

(Describer) Animals eat.

The same principle powers many aspects of our lives. We convert the energy stored in coal and natural gas, burning it to make heat and electricity. We use oil to make things and transport them. Fossil fuels are just concentrated forms of energy that started with the sun. Basically, coal and oil are just plants and animals that got rotten and gross, but eventually became something pretty useful. As it turns out, the same decay process that made fossil fuels is at work in landfills. When trash decomposes in the landfill, it gives off methane, the same stuff that makes up natural gas. We can burn that methane, creating heat and electricity.

(Describer) Title: How else can we change waste to energy?

Chemistry! So imagine taking stored energy from all kinds of biomass, like... Sawdust! Coffee grounds! Grass. Wood scraps. Food scraps. Trees.

(narrator) and changing it into fuels like ones we already use. At Arizona State University, researchers want to farm algae for fuel.

(Describer) With Emil Puruhito:

So Emil, what are you working on here? What is this big tub for? This is a pond reactor. Algae is being grown in order to produce oil. As you can see, there are several

(Describer) Paddles stir green water.

different sizes of ponds here where several different kinds of algae are being put in experiment.

(narrator) Algae contains oil we can convert to fuel, the same way we convert oil from the ground. You can do something similar with restaurant grease. Delivery vehicles powered with waste oil? Smells like French fries.

(Describer) Title: What about energy from plants? A large molecular model is shown.

There's one big problem. Cellulose. It makes flower stems rigid and tree trunks sturdy. It's tough stuff, but it's packed with energy. To create biofuel from plants, you must convert the cellulose to sugar. To learn more, I visited Garret Suen, a scientist studying leafcutter ants in Cameron Currie's lab at the University of Wisconsin. We're really interested in learning from nature and understanding how these leafcutters optimize this process of degrading all of that plant biomass into the simple sugars.

(narrator) If we convert cellulose into sugar on a large scale, we've solved a big biofuel problem, because we're already good at the next step, fermenting the sugars into ethanol for your car. Garret's team hopes ants can show us about energy conversion. Leafcutter ants are farmers, cutting leaves,

(Describer) They carry leaves.

feeding them to a fungus they grow for food. Large colonies can go through as much as 800 pounds of biomass in a year. Almost everything is broken down, even cellulose. The Currie Lab doesn't know exactly how this happens, but they're working hard looking for the answer.

(Describer) Title: How can we tell what degrades cellulose? Suen stands by an ant colony.

We took material from the top of the gardens and then took it from the bottom. And we measured the amount of cellulose present inside of that plant biomass. Part of what we're doing is trying to find the microbes responsible for this degradation, be it the fungus the ants grow for food or bacteria that live inside this microbial community.

(Van Pay) We got the bacteria out of the dirt.

(Describer) In a lab...

Exactly. Now what? So now you test to see whether they can eat cellulose. Here is our cellulose testing station. I will introduce you to Miss Luara,

(Describer) Laura Schwab.

a student in our lab. Luara, please explain a bit about what you're doing.

(Describer) She sits with some petri dishes.

Once we get the bacteria in isolation from the fungus gardens, we plate them on cellulose media called CNC, to see if they can grow. So if they're able to grow on this media, we know that they probably can degrade cellulose.

(narrator) Once the Currie Lab figures out what's breaking down the cellulose, industrial researchers can produce giant vats of biofuel. But this process takes time, and there's a huge demand for fuel.

(Describer) Title: How can we speed up the break down? A man walks through a park.

(narrator) Engineer George Huber at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, uses chemistry and heat to turn waste from a sawmill into bio oil and gasoline.

(Describer) He holds a plastic cup.

Okay, so right here we have some sawdust that we got from Cole's Lumber. This is our feed to make green gasoline. Our first step is to put this in the hopper...

(Describer) He pours some sawdust through a funnel into the top of the hopper, connected to some other equipment.

...in here. And our hopper-- there's a screw in here that turns around, injecting the sawdust into this reactor.

(narrator) Inside, the reactor looks something like this.

(Describer) A cylinder.

Heat vaporizes the wood. The vaporized wood then passes through a catalyst powder to speed up chemical reactions, turning it into gasoline. As it leaves the reactor, condensers change the gasoline to liquid. We're gonna make the same gasoline from biomass that you make from petroleum oil. You can make gasoline, diesel fuel, home heating oil, jet fuel, and chemicals. Anything you make from crude oil, we believe in 10 to 20 years you'll make from biomass.

(narrator) We always look for better ways to get energy we need. Interestingly, everyone else is too. Fuels made from biomass we were going to throw away-- grease, garbage, sawdust are great ways to recycle waste. Using switch grass and algae means that at least some of the carbon emitted by burning fuel will be removed from the atmosphere as these regrow. We have work to do, but because of biomass, our future looks a little greener.

(Describer) Icons: tree plus insect times liquid in a beaker equals a big leaf.

(Describer) Titles: Produced by Lisa Van Pay, Dana Cruikshank.

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Researchers explore how different types of biomass can be used to produce fuel. One researcher is building reactors to grow algae used to create biofuel. A different study examines how leafcutter ants break down biomass in order to convert cellulose in plants to a fermentable sugar used to make ethanol. Finally, an engineer uses chemistry and heat to turn sawmill waste into bio-oil and gasoline.

Media Details

Runtime: 7 minutes

Green Revolution
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