Oct 6, 2011

Religion's Insidious Marketing

When discussing the absurdity of organized religion, it’s important to recognize that while the tenets themselves may be silly, the mechanisms utilized to instill brand loyalty are so skillfully designed that Madison Avenue can only look on in jealousy. It starts with some form of affirmation of ownership at birth – be it baptism or circumcision – and continues to cement its hold with layer upon layer of ritual until a near-impervious shell forms to protect the fully matured believer from reason and evidence. As the children in this video are shown repeating unnecessary steps to receive their candy reward, children steeped in a religious upbringing are taught that muttering to an invisible man in the sky is part of the being a good person. And instead of a clear box, religion presents them with smoke and mirrors to obscure the truth. If the vast majority of religious parents weren't themselves the byproducts of this incredibly effective years-long marketing ploy, it would be baffling to me that they would want to steep their child in one religion over another any more than they would demand allegiance to Pepsi over Coke. Most religions make the same promises - moral correctness, eternal salvation, a welcoming community - and it is only through vicious rumors about the quality and efficacy of competing products that brand loyalty is maintained.

Here in Illinois, the grip of this millennia-old campaign remains strong even in the realm of public schools. Just this week, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a case against our mandatory moment of silence, initially passed as the "Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act" until the state legislature renamed it. Through its elected agents, organized religion attempts to normalize its rituals in every sphere of public life and protect those believers still in development from anything that might sway them from the path that claimed them from birth. No wonder Campus Crusade for Christ representative Josh McDowell recently warned that, “The Internet has given atheists, agnostics, skeptics, the people who like to destroy everything that you and I believe, the almost equal access to your kids as your youth pastor and you have". For the first time, a diffused network of information exists, like a sort of spiritual Better Business Bureau to disseminate complaints and counterclaims against the product of organized religion. As the saying goes, the Internet is where religion goes to die. I am not familiar with any research which studies child development as it relates to a religious upbringing, but the strong positive correlation between the faith of parent and child suggests just how hard it is to shake this early developmental programming. It is not socially acceptable to teach your child any number of wrongheaded, antiquated notions, but through organized religion's slick consumer management it has gotten a free pass. With the widespread proliferation of Internet availability, could it be that the world's most successful marketing campaign is finally faltering?

If the South Would Have Won: The NFL and Hank Williams, Jr.

By Dave Zirin

In our segmented, culturally segregated, 5,000 channel era, the NFL might be the last entertainment product that tries to be all things to all people. Black or white; northerner or southerner; male, or female: the NFL wants your passion and wants your money. Last week for example was a nod to the wallets of women everywhere as all players were tinted in bright-pink to “raise breast cancer awareness.” The gravity of the issue didn’t stop Cowboys owner Jerry Jones from displaying his cage-dancing cheerleaders in a more straightforward display of breast-awareness, hold the cancer.

The broadcasts are also pointedly diverse as over-caffeinated talking heads come in all colors. The NFL and their chief broadcast partner ESPN particular wants the disposable income of one particularly thorny demographic: your right-wing, gun-toting, Palin-loving, southern football fans. That’s why ESPN inexplicably hired Rush Limbaugh in 2003 to be part of their NFL pre-game team. And that’s why Bocephus himself, Hank Williams, Jr. has sang the Monday Night Football theme song for 20 years. But therein lies the NFL’s problem. It's a trap game. Eventually Limbaugh had to open his mouth and just as the sun rises in the east, the bile did spew. He of course spoke out in crudely racist terms about then-Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, everyone in the ESPN corporate offices reached for their vapors, and Limbaugh was gone.

Now Hank Williams, Jr. has been bounced from singing about “all [his] rowdy friends” because he appeared on Fox and Friends and compared Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler. ESPN’s issued the following shocked response, saying, "While Hank Williams, Jr. is not an ESPN employee, we recognize that he is closely linked to our company through the open to Monday Night Football. We are extremely disappointed with his comments, and as a result we have decided to pull the open from tonight's telecast."

Hank Williams, Jr.’s then put forward a bizarre apology where he felt the need to say, “Every time the media brings up the Tea Party it’s painted as racist and extremists – but there’s never a backlash – no outrage to those comparisons." So a Tea Party supporter compares the Nation's first African American President to Hitler and then says it's a double standard to criticize him because no one gets mad at those who call the Tea Party racist. I now need more coffee.

The bigger question is why was ESPN surprised? This is Hank Williams, Jr. we’re talking about, not Amy Grant. The man brags that he'll never stop "speaking my mind." Unfortunately, his mind resides somewhere on a plantation rocking chair. It’s not just his past controversial statements, such as when he sang about Obama’s “"terrorist friends” at a McCain Palin fundraiser in 2008. The guy actually wrote a song in 1988 about the Civil War called "If the South Would have Won.” The lyrics are, "If the South would have won we would have it made. I'd make my supreme court down in Texas and we wouldn't have no killers getting off free If they were proven guilty then they would swing quickly, instead of writing' books and smiling' on T.V. We'd put Florida on the right track, 'cause we'd take Miami back" [from who? Jews? Cubans? Haitians? Or will Hank go for the trifecta?]. "I said if the south would a won we would a had it made! Might even be better off!" [In a league where 70% of the players are Black, 100% of the owners are white, maybe this should be the Monday Night theme song.]

The problem, in other words, isn’t Hank Williams, Jr. It’s ESPN and the NFL thinking they can stretch the boundaries of their product to unite racists and anti-racists; neo-confederates and people who are ready to put the Stars and Bars in our national rear view mirror; Redskins fans and those who find that franchise name sickening. We are living in times of profound polarization. If the NFL really wants to cater to the demographic that loves Hank Williams, Jr. and Rush Limbaugh, they’d be better ordering the Broncos to just start Tim Tebow.

Oct 5, 2011

Energy Storage - Flywheel

This piece resulted from a challenge within the staff to write a collaborative post on emerging energy storage technologies. I left Chemistry back in high-school but one technology that for long has fascinated me lead me to volunteer to the project: the flywheel. It seemed a good justification to study why these ancient mechanisms haven't lost of the industry.

The elusive quest for an answer to that question lead to a rather long writing, that justifies a post on its own. Hopefully this shall be the first of a series on energy storage. Flywheels are very simple mechanisms. If you have a bicycle you can see how it works: lift one of its wheels from the ground and give it an impulse so that it starts spinning. If the wheel hub is in proper condition the wheel keeps on spinning for quite some time. In fact, were your bicycle in space and the wheel could spin for ever, all due to the law of energy conservation - the work employed by your hand on the wheel is stored as kinetic energy as the wheel spins. Here on Earth the bicycle flywheel slowly grinds to a halt because air friction and hub imperfections slowly dissipate this energy.

Basic concepts Flywheels are nothing more than discs or cylinders that spin around a fixed axis. The amount of energy a flywheel can store is proportional to its mass (m), the square of the speed at which it spins (w) and the square if its radius (r). The general equation for a solid disc is of this form: E = 1/4 · m · r2 · w2 Flywheels have been known to Man at least since the Neolithic, when the first potter's wheels were built. At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution flywheels started to be employed widely as mechanisms to translate the work of steam engines into constant rotational motion; this solution is still employed today in modern internal combustion piston engines. At face value, a flywheel presents several advantages when compared to chemical batteries:
Efficiency – charge and discharge are made with very small losses; as an electrical storage system a flywheel can have efficiencies up to 97%;
Fast response - it can promptly store huge bursts of energy, and equally rapidly return them;
Lifetime – flywheels built in the XVIII century for the early rail industry still work today.
Maintenance/decommission – flywheels are kept in vacuum containers, functioning with zero material wear in modern designs; they also do not pose the chemical recycling/decommission issues of conventional batteries.

The basic design of an electric storage flywheel is to attach it to an electric engine and enclose it in a vacuum container to avoid air friction. To store energy, the engine provides motion to the disc/cylinder, increasing the rotational speed of the flywheel; the kinetic energy can later be drawn by the engine to generate electricity, this way reducing the rotational speed of the flywheel. First commercial applications, first disappointments This design was the first to be used in commercial applications back in the 1950s, in buses that used heavy steel flywheels as their sole energy storage mechanism; these vehicles got the name of Gyrobus. They were employed in routes with low passenger loads that didn't justify full electrification. Gyrobuses could travel about 5 Km on a full charge, between recharging stations. Recharging would take no more than 3 minutes, since flywheels can easily absorb high voltage electrical currents. These buses were also equipped with regenerative braking systems that recharged the flywheel. Commercial Gyrobus services were started in Switzerland connecting Yverdon-les-Bains and Grandson in 1953 and soon after services were initiated in several routes in the city of Kinshasa in the Belgian Congo; in 1956 another service was started in Belgium, linking Ghent and Merelbeke. With time several problems came up, mostly due to the huge weight of these machines – the Gyrobuses used in Congo weighed more than 10 tonnes. They were hard to drive, damaged roads and above all were electricity guzzlers; a tram used on the same service could easily slash electricity consumption by a third. By the end of 1960 all of the Gyrobus routes mentioned above had been scrapped. This early commercial experiment brought to light the main disadvantages of flywheels:
Weight – alloy flywheels can easily weigh several tonnes, for transport applications this can be a serious issue, due to the added inertia they impose on acceleration and breaking;
Failure – if a flywheel fails by some reason at high rotation, it disintegrates, sending shrapnel as fast as bullets in random directions; to prevent damage they be must kept within an armoured container, adding further weight to the system;
Bearings – alloy bearings proved to wear out quite rapidly, at first reducing efficiency and later rendering the flywheel useless; Gyrobuses required constant service because of this;
Angular momentum – the momentum stored in the flywheel will act against direction changes, which in transport can make turns a complex task.

For every engineering problem there's a solution (or thereabouts) Though Gyrobuses haven't returned, research continued on the application of this technology; at the beginning of the 1990s there seemed to be engineering solutions to deal with all the issues above. The first big change was the introduction of new composite materials: they immediately tackled the weight issue but also ameliorated the container, these materials disintegrate into very small particles much easier to retain. Then the bearings issue was elegantly solved with magnets, creating a magnetic field that makes the flywheel levitate, thus spinning without any contacts with other parts (this requires a small consumption of electricity). Finally, the angular momentum has been addressed with the employment of gimbals, which, while not completely solving the issue, greatly reduce its effects. All these solutions were employed by a company named Rosen Motors in a venture project aimed to produce a car without an internal combustion engine. The concept was based on a small gas turbine coupled with a composite electric flywheel for regenerative braking. In 1997 the first test run was made with the system installed in a Saturn production car; it covered 130 Km in about 2 hours, in what as an engineering breakthrough in many aspects, earning good reactions from several auto-makers. Months later the venture capital of $24 million ran out. Without a single auto-maker wishing to pursue the project the company was forced to fold. Until today no commercial car has ever been fitted with a flywheel based regenerative system. Nevertheless, the research conducted by Rosen Motors proved that flywheel electrical storage had reached technological maturity, with many different potential applications opening up. Many promises, few realizations In the rail industry flywheels have been used more extensively, though it can't be said their usage is widespread. They have been employed to store energy in electric locomotives to guarantee motion along non- electrified sections of rail lines and also to power small locomotives; beyond a few exceptions these solutions have remained mostly experimental. Flywheel powered trams can be particularly convenient in cities for they dispense with overhead electrification. Notwithstanding this fact, today there's only one commercial case to refer, in the Stourbridge line in London. Ever since 2002, 3 different units built by Parry People Movers have been tested, with 2 of them providing regular service since 2008. This sort of tram can also be fitted with diesel engines for longer distances; since the flywheel deals with all acceleration and braking, this engine can be designed to function at optimal revolutions per minute (rpm), thus being very small and efficient. So far the apparent success of these trams hasn't triggered any serious market penetration, though trial services and demonstrations have been run in other lines; a new trial service is set to start next month on the Mid-Hants Railway, also in Britain. More recently, interest has been growing on the employment of flywheels as static batteries by the rail side. They can be used to stabilize the electric current feed to locomotives and also to store energy locomotives feed back to electric lines when braking. In 2009 the press reported a 5.2 million $ project to implement a rail-side 2.4 MW flywheel system on the West Hempstead line in Long Island, US. In parallel, the US company Urenco Power Technology, has been developing and testing smaller rail-side flywheels in the underground lines of New York, London, Tokyo and Lyon. Satisfied with the maturity of the system, at the beginning of this year a spin-off company was launched, Kinetic Traction Systems, with the specific aim of commercializing the technology. Another US company has been working with similar objectives: Beacon Power, but with applications for the electrical distribution grid. The company developed a large scale flywheel that spins up to 16 000 rpm, with a maximum storage capacity of 25 kWh, that can be delivered back to the grid at maximum power rate of 100 kW (over 15 minutes). These flywheels are gathered in clusters that can be used together. Here's a video from 2009 describing the system:

Contrary to what this video suggests, Beacon Power seems quite healthy today, especially after the opening, already this year, of the first commercial flywheel farm, composed by 200 units and installed at Stephentown in New York. This flywheel farm has been deployed primarily as an electricity frequency stabilizer, a perfect match to the flywheel's prompt discharge/recharge characteristics; beyond that, the farm is used to store cheap electricity available in the grid during the night. The company maintains close collaboration with US government authorities through several development programs with broader aims at grid wide stability. The state of Pennsylvania also seems interested in this technology, with capital already committed to a flywheel farm. Further applications are being envisioned, particularly the marriage of flywheel farms with wind farms in order to decentralize load balancing; in this case the system will also be coupled to a thermal generator feed by diesel or gas, that once again can be greatly optimized by the prompt aid of flywheels. If there's an application where flywheels seem bound for serious market penetration it is this one; nonetheless, considering how long intermittent technologies have been penetrating the electricity production market, these seem yet small steps. When fun meets technology To fully understand the flywheel state-of-the-art a final (and longer) story needs to be told. In recent years flywheels took a boost from an unexpected source: Formula 1. In a bid to “green” the sport and provide deeper technological transfer to the auto industry, the FIA introduced new rules for the 2009 season that allowed teams to optionally fit their cars with a regenerative electric storage system with a fixed maximum capacity. This system was baptised Kinetic Energy Recovery System - KERS. These new rules seemed to put those teams opting for the KERS at an advantage, but their late introduction gave little room for the new technology to be developed and absorbed, especially concerning the extra weight applied on the cars. The 2009 season ended up dominated by one of the low budget teams that opted to not even develop a KERS. After this débâcle no F1 team used KERS in 2010, but a left over from 2009 brought the curiosity of many: while most teams opted for chemical batteries, the Williams team had developed a flywheel, that though not successful on track, seemed quite promising for the road. With maximum spinning rates of 60 000 rpm, the Williams flywheel presented itself as such an advantageous systems that the team set up a corporate arm to commercialize it. At the beginning of 2010 the charismatic German marque Porsche commemorated the 110th anniversary of the first hybrid car in history, developed by its late founder Ferdinand Porsche, with the public presentation of a hybrid version of the track going flavour of its flagship. The Porsche 911 GT3 R Hybrid features two electric wheels at the front axle complementing the traditional 6 cylinder engine plus a KERS – the flywheel developed by Williams. This car made its race début that year at the 24 hours of Nurburgring held on the mythical 25 km circuit. Covering 25% more distance on each fuel tank, this car lead the race from the 14th to the 23th hour, with the thermal engine giving up its ghost 45 minutes from the chequered flag. The impact of this near feat was such that Porsche presented a new flywheel fitted race car in 2011, the 918 RSR, termed by the company as a “racing lab” for the technology, though so far it hasn't taken part in any race. This flywheel system is presenting such an advantage over traditional cars in endurance racing that it's actually becoming hard for these cars to be accepted by race organizers. In its latest version, the Williams flywheel has a maximum capacity of 340 Wh, but it can produce more than 200 hp (~ 150 kW). In time, the urge to “green” the sport and reduce energy consumption will likely force endurance race and championship organizers to set specific rules for regenerative systems, once and for all opening the doors to flywheels. As much happened in 2011 in Formula 1, with improvements on KERS regulations resulting in most teams re-adopting it. This season the system is limited to 60 kW peak output and maximum storage of 100 Wh. The next big rules revision will come in 2014 when engines will take a huge downsize from 2.6 litres to 1.6 litres; this will be matched by an increase in flywheel peak output to 120 kW. Several companies are today developing flywheels to use in Formula 1 and motorsport in general. Notable among these is the Flybrid, which is coupled to the transmission, thus avoiding electric conversions with direct kinetic energy translation. Another charismatic car maker, Jaguar, is presently studying the introduction of the Flybrid system into its production cars. In the long run Jaguar aims at completely replacing the traditional combustion engine by small turbines functioning at constant, highly efficient regimes. Here's a corporate video on the application of the Flybrid to city buses:

So, why aren't flywheels popular? Porsche owns Volkswagen, the largest car maker in Europe, and Jaguar is part of the Tata group, the largest car maker in India, could this be the dawn of a new wide-spread technology or just a curiosity restricted to 100 000 € plus cars? Answering this question may start by comparing flywheel state-of-the-art with present chemical battery solutions. This wasn't exactly a simple task, since data varies widely from source to source on certain technologies. For what it is worth I stuck to the numbers found at Wikipaedia. Here's a compilation of energy density (energy per unit volume) and specific energy (energy per unit mass):

Energy Density (Wh/l)Specific Energy (Wh/kg)
Compressed Air1734
Lead Acid Battery4020
Nickel Metal Hydride9090

These are all round numbers that intend above all to present the relative positioning of each technology. Clearly flywheels do not present any drastic advantage above chemical batteries in terms of density, being somewhat above Nickel Metal Hydride, getting close to Lithium batteries but far from Zinc-Air batteries. The only advantage that flywheels may have in this regard is that they don't have funny names in their components; in the long run this may mean a cost advantage to flywheels: carbon is abundant, they have much longer lifetimes (more charge cycles per capital cost) and do not present the same recycling issues. But the lack of data, since presently few systems are in commercial operation, makes an assessment of this sort hard to perform. In any event, flywheels do not seem to be the most appropriate means of pure energy storage, hence it is not to be expected their success on applications of that genre. Things start to look entirely different regarding specific power (power per unit mass) which tells how fast the system can store and/or deliver energy:

Specific Power (W/kg)
Nickel Metal Hydride600

Flywheels not only are clearly ahead of everything else, they also appear at the antipodes of those systems that are ahead in terms of energy density and specific energy. The conclusion is straightforward: for applications where energy must be made available fast and in large quantities, or likewise stored rapidly, and the overall energy capacity isn't critical, flywheels are at a clear advantage. An illustration can be useful, coming again to transport applications. What amount of energy does a car dissipate when braking, say a vehicle weighing 1 tonne and moving at 100 Km/h? To answer this we must dig into the old high-school Physics trunk for the kinetic energy expression: KE = ½ · m · v2 Or in English: half the mass (m) times the square of velocity (v). In SI units the mass is 1000 kg and velocity is 27.(7) m/s; doing the math our illustration results into 385 kJ, or little over 100 Wh. Meaning that a flywheel with 1 kg and occupying about half litre could store the energy needed to bring a car moving at 100 Km/h to a standstill. Depending on how hard the brakes are stepped on, this energy can be produced in just a handful of seconds. If it takes 10 seconds, average power output of such braking will be 36 kW. While an 8 kg flywheel can easily deal with such power, a Lithium-ion battery would have to be much larger, weighting some 120 kg. This means a flywheel is useful even in fully electric cars, dealing with acceleration/deceleration, whilst a chemical battery package could be dedicated exclusively to vehicle range. An answered question I started preparing this post in the hope of finding an answer to the lack of commercial application of flywheels as a means of electrical or kinetic energy storage. With the writing finished I can't say I achieved such an objective. There are a few commercial applications where flywheels are starting a shy market penetration, namely on the rail industry for regenerative braking and cable-less storage and as supporting infrastructure to load balancing within the electrical grid. But precisely where they seem to be more advantageous, in road transport, commercial applications simply do not exist. Car makers have so far chosen storage technologies for their hybrid solutions that seem to go against logic, preferring specific energy to specific power; especially so when the technology has been available for 15 years. Considering that only expensive car makers are developing flywheels (Jaguar, Porsche) could this be a cost issue? There isn't satisfactory data to answer that, but the flywheel's simplicity, long lifetime and lack of rare and/or polluting materials seems to point against it. Nevertheless, the likely success of this technology on the electrical grid and rail industry, plus the unexpected push from motorsport may change things in the years to come.


With an electrical storage system a flywheel can have efficiencies up to 97%... This appears to be a "no brainier" for storage of wind power energy...  Monte

ISU Gets $25M As Part Of New Biofuel Program - Wallaces Farmer

USDA supports big project aiming to develop biofuel production systems using grasses, crop residue, etc. Revolutionizing the process for making a "drop in" fuel is focus of the new grant.

Published: Oct 5, 2011

An Iowa State University-led group will get $25 million of $136 million in federal grants that will go to five universities to develop transportation and aviation biofuels made from tall grasses, crop residues and forest resources. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced on September 27 that an ISU-led group has been awarded the $25 million grant for a land use and biofuel production study.

Perhaps the three largest issues to face agriculture in this century are the food-versus-fuel debate in biofuel production, water and nutrient runoff, and soil erosion. Now, the Iowa State University-based study over the next five years will examine whether a single, coordinated production system can address all of these concerns while making profits for farmers.

A multi-state, interdisciplinary team led by Ken Moore, ISU professor of agronomy, recently won a $25 million USDA grant and will develop the blueprint for using marginal farmlands to grow perennial grasses that will, in turn, provide a biomass source for a drop-in biofuel.

Growing perennial grasses on marginal Midwest cropland has many environmental advantages, including reducing soil and nutrient runoff, slowing soil erosion and increasing carbon sequestration. Growing those grasses currently has few benefits for the farmers who own the land and make the production decisions, however. And convincing farmers to take land out of corn production when prices hover near $6 to $7 per bushel will require developing a market for the perennial grass that gives farmers a solid return.

This use of land takes "food-versus-fuel" argument out of the equation

"In general, the lands we are using in our research aren't really very good for producing food, so we are taking the food-versus-fuel argument out of the equation," says Moore. "By using perennial grasses on this land, we are reducing soil erosion, improving soil and water quality and even providing wildlife habitat."

These marginal lands are primarily riparian lands near waterways, says Moore. He points out that often these lands are planted in corn and can have their yields reduced or lost due to flooding.

The research will focus on harvesting the grasses (mostly native species such as bluestem and switchgrass) and using the biomass as a feedstock for a biofuel process known as pyrolysis.

The study will be conducted in Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Vermont, Idaho and Nebraska by researchers at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind.; University of Wisconsin, Madison; University of Minnesota, Twin Cities; University of Vermont, Burlington; USDA Ag Research Service offices in Madison, Wis., Wyndmoor, Pa., and Lincoln, Neb.; U.S. Department of Energy's Idaho National Laboratory, Idaho Falls; and Iowa State University. Information about the grant and latest results can be found on the project website at http://cenusa.iastate.edu.

Examining the best way to grow, harvest, transport, refine and distribute

Midwestern states were the logical choice, according to Moore, as the land, the producers, the scientists and the know-how are already in place. Researchers will examine the best way to grow, harvest, transport, refine and distribute the biomass and biofuel, which is considered a drop-in fuel that can be added directly to other fuels without any special infrastructure.

The comprehensive study will also involve researchers from many disciplines in order to look at the big picture, says Moore. "One of the great aspects of this is that we have everyone from agronomists, to engineers, to geneticists, to economists, to ecologists, to modelers," he notes.

One of those experts is Robert C. Brown, the Gary and Donna Hoover Chair in Mechanical Engineering, Anson Marston Distinguished Professor in Engineering and Iowa Farm Bureau director of Iowa State University's Bioeconomy Institute. Brown will lead the pyrolysis research.

Robert Brown will lead the pyrolysis research at Iowa State University

Pyrolysis is a process that uses thermal decomposition of biomass in the absence of oxygen to produce an energy-rich liquid known as bio-oil. Additional refining turns the bio-oil into gasoline and petrochemicals, explains Brown.

The bio-oil differs from cellulosic ethanol in several ways. "In the case of bio-oil, we really don't care what the biomass is. It can be wood, straw, switchgrass, even paper waste -- anything that has cellulose in it, we can convert it into a uniform product called bio-oil using the pyrolysis process," he says.

"This is in contrast to biochemical approaches, which use enzymes and microorganisms to turn biomass into fuels. Specific enzymes are needed to break down different kinds of carbohydrates found in plants," he adds. "This makes it more difficult to process diverse kinds of biomass."

Looking at how to make ethanol from big bluestem, other perennial grass

While any cellulosic material can be converted to bio-oil, Brown says the amount of potassium in plants determines the efficiency of conversion to bio-oil. That is a perfect match for the perennial grasses that are the focus of the study. "Perennial grasses die back every year, returning nutrients to the roots where they are stored to support new growth in the spring," says Brown. "This allows us to harvest biomass without removing much of the deleterious potassium."

Part of the agronomic research of the study will be looking at ways to produce bluestem and switchgrass with the trait of having less potassium in the biomass at harvest time.

Interest in bio-oil has "exploded" because it is a drop-in fuel, easy to use

Brown says interest in bio-oil has "exploded" in the past three years partly because it is considered a drop-in fuel that can be added directly to the U.S. gasoline delivery system. "This process gives us the ability to produce, essentially, the same kind of fuel (gasoline) we are using today in automobiles, but we are producing it from renewable resources," he says.

A co-product of the pyrolysis process is a carbon- and nutrient-rich solid called biochar that can be used to as a soil amendment to increase the productivity of poor soils. Brown says preliminary research suggests that biochar can improve corn production in marginal soils. He has even run experiments in his own garden that have increased his harvest of tomatoes by 70%.

Biochar improves Iowa soils only slightly, but can double yield in poor soil

Biochar improves Iowa soils only slightly, while as much as doubling the productivity of poor soils, he says. "It could change the face of agriculture in Africa, potentially increasing corn yields to become comparable to U.S. agriculture," adds Brown.

In addition to pyrolysis research, Moore and his team will focus on how to develop flexible, efficient and sustainable logistics systems; identify sustainable bioenergy systems to achieve social, economic and environmental goals and understand socioeconomic and environmental consequences of perennial bioenergy systems; identify germplasm characteristics amenable to pyrolytic conversion and evaluate performance of pyrolytic biofuels; evaluate policy, market and contract mechanisms to facilitate broad adoption by farmers; develop procedures for managing risks and protecting health for each component of the biofuel productions chain; provide interdisciplinary education and engagement opportunities for undergrad and grad students; and develop outreach programs for all stakeholders of the bioenergy system.

A twitter account has been set up to follow the research at cenusabioenergy.

This project is supported by Ag and Food Research Initiative Competitive Grant no. 2011-68005-30411 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Glad to see our Midwest universities getting significant research monies for these needed technologies development...  Monte