Assessing Trends in Biofuels with Dr. Raj Shah

March 15, 2012

With March 18 designated as National Biodiesel Day, we checked in with Dr. Raj Shah, an expert in biofuels. Dr. Shah serves as the Director of Sales, Marketing, and Technical Services for Koehler Instrument Company. He is currently on the industrial advisory board at the engineering department of Hofstra University, NY, and also on the advisory board of State University of New York at Stony Brook, Department of Chemical Engineering. He is an active member of ASTM, STLE, NLGI, SAE, ACS, and AICHE and chairs subcommittees in several of these organizations.

Q: Biofuels-related topics are abundant in today’s news. From commercial airlines powering their jets with biofuel to the food vs fuel debate in biofuel production, the dialogue is both dynamic and passionate. What do you see as the significant issues in biofuels right now?

A: Most biofuel-related issues can be traced back to the source: feedstock (including vegetable oil). The cost of feedstock used to produce biodiesel is high due to limited availability. Aside from its use as an energy source, it is a primary source of food for human nutrition. This is the essence of the food vs fuel debate. A fraction of vegetable oil is available for nonfood use. With a limited supply of land for crops, a dilemma emerges as to how much can be used for biofuel production.

For years, the main argument against biofuels has been the cost of production. Biodiesel prices must remain low because they are linked to the diesel price with which it is blended. Meanwhile, feedstock used to produce biodiesel is also a globally traded commodity whose price is determined by the balance between supply and demand in the market. Demand for the commodity increases as more biodiesel production occurs, which in turn leads to shortages in supply. In order for the two to reach equilibrium, the price of feedstock is raised to lower the demand. This in turn increases the cost of production—which is already criticized for being too high.

Additionally, newer issues have emerged involving agrofuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel, which are manufactured from crops grown on a massive level to be used purely for biofuel. These agrofuels have been chastised not only for their negative impact on the price of food, but for other environmental reasons including their absorption, during production, of thousands of gallons of fresh water. Biofuel production from ethanol requires a greater quantity of water than gasoline. This high volume may increase the stress on water supplies in vulnerable areas of a producing country. The surge in corn production for the use of fuel has been blamed for the rising presence of air pollutants such as particulate matter, ozone, and sulfur oxides. Ethanol production has also contributed adversely to surface and ground water, with effects including eutrophication (an increase in supply of organic matter in an ecosystem), hypoxia (reduced oxygen level in a body of water), and harmful algal blooms.

Finally, there is great uncertainty surrounding the effectiveness of biofuels in reducing greenhouse gases. Much depends on how the biofuels are produced and how the land is used. There is a good possibility that as a greater supply of ethanol is needed, uncultivated crop land will need to be cultivated. As a result, plants grown for the sole purpose of being cut down to produce fuel will replace naturally existing, carbon-dioxide-reducing plants. This will result in an increase in the quantity of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.

Underlying all of these biofuel production issues is the need to globally standardize testing for quality. Currently the United States has one set of standards, Europe has another, and so forth. Without a definitive worldwide common standard, the quality of a particular sample of biofuel may vacillate widely. This diversity is a challenge in producing and distributing biofuels worldwide. For the last few years, ASTM has worked to create common standards. This is still in progress but moving in the right direction.

Q: What do you see happening on the international landscape with biofuels?

A:  The answer to this question depends on where we look in the world. Let us take the example of two different developing economies.

India shows great promise in entering the biofuels market with the cultivation of the jatropha plant. Jatropha is a second generation biofuel which has the ability to be grown as an agrofuel. Jatropha is a “wonder plant” because it grows easily in India where no other plant product will grow. It is not eaten, so using it for biofuels does not take away from the food supply. Growing jatropha requires little maintenance. Yet the cost of producing jatropha-based biofuels is currently about twice as much as other sources. Finding a method of making commercially viable biofuels from jatropha is certainly an opportunity.

And, considering that India has reasons to look for new sources of fuel, it seemingly is an opportunity that is welcome in India. Right now, the demand for crude oil in India is drastically rising as the country develops rapidly. Biofuels offer a sustainable source of energy for India and provide it with an opportunity to greatly reduce its global footprint.

Internationally, the US and Brazil currently provide 80% of the world’s ethanol. While the US produces corn-derived ethanol, Brazil makes ethanol from sugar cane. Sugar cane requires less land, less fossil fuels, has better climate benefits, and fewer environmental detriments. At the end of 2011, a US tariff on imported ethanol expired, opening up trade options. Because the cost of the tariff raised the price of the ethanol, the tariff elimination means that ethanol can now sell at market prices.

Read more of the interview, or go to Biofuels.

Try the Latest Tech Challenge!

February 16, 2012

Take the challenge and see if you are right: 

Extracting DNA Samples

Challenge: Larry from Labotech Logistics is extracting DNA samples for forensic research. Since DNA is pH sensitive, the researchers are using Tris buffers to stabilize the pH of the samples he prepares. Recently they had a problem with the effectiveness of their buffers and lost several DNA samples. They can’t afford for this to happen again, so Larry wants to check the pH quality of his samples throughout the process.

Larry dusted off an older pH meter, but it was missing an electrode. What type of pH electrode should Larry purchase when working this type of application?

  1. A low-cost single-junction electrode
  2. Any combination pH electrode with built-in ATC (Automatic Temperature Compensation).
  3. A calomel (mercury chloride) electrode
  4. A double-junction electrode

See the answers.


Don’t Forget to Take our Survey!

Masterflex® and the Human Heart: How One Pump is Supporting Research for the Other

February 9, 2012

Diseases of the heart remain the leading cause of death for Americans.¹ At Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, a multidisciplinary team of surgeons, biomedical engineers, medical personnel, and graduate students hopes to change the way heart disease is treated—and perhaps even affect clinical outcomes.

In their research, led by Assistant Professor of Surgery, Hardean Achneck, MD, the team is using blood-derived endothelial progenitor cells (EPCs) to create a biocompatible lining for titanium surfaces. In other words, they are testing the possibility of using a coating of the patient’s own endothelial cells within a titanium stent so that the device becomes fully biocompatible. Because commonly used drug-eluting stents impede the growth of healthy endothelium and can activate coagulation, this lining, if proven successful, would prevent the occurrence of late-stent thrombosis (or blood clots) and occlusion (or blockage) of the stented artery.

Life-changing developments

“This research has the potential to change the way we practice medicine today,” said Dr. Achneck. “Currently coronary artery disease (decreased blood supply due to blockages in the blood vessels of the heart) is treated with angioplasty and stenting or coronary artery bypass graft surgery (CABG). To perform a CABG, a vein is harvested from the patient’s leg as a conduit to bypass a blocked artery. Yet, the vein itself—or more precisely its inner lining, the endothelium—sustains damage when removed and exposed to the much higher pressures in the arterial system. Supplementing the lining with the patient’s own EPCs might mitigate this damage”.

“Further, when stents are placed in the heart, the blood vessel is dilated with a balloon. This process damages the endothelial lining and results in endothelial dysfunction. Our proposed technology lines the stent with healthy EPCs that would replace damaged endothelial cells. Lastly, we are working to utilize a similar approach to coat the titanium surfaces of implantable pumps and artificial hearts with EPCs to create a more biocompatible surface that prevents clot formation.”

The research, which has been in process for four years, has now successfully completed its first proof of concept stage. The team has implanted solid titanium tubes into pigs in their inferior venae cavae, the large veins carrying de-oxygenated blood into the right atria of the pigs’ hearts. The team discovered that the bare metal tubes became fully occluded after only three days. However, those tubes seeded with an EPC lining remained open and functional, thus allowing blood flow. It is a promising result.

“The next step is using self-expanding nitinol (nickel titanium alloy) stents that are commonly deployed in humans,” said Dr. Achneck. “We hope that our patented QuickSeed technology moves into humans within two to three years. In the interim, we will evaluate the performance of the cells on stent surfaces that are exposed to physiological shear stresses in order to adequately imitate biological conditions in the lab. We can create flow conditions that mimic the shear stresses cells experience in blood vessels using our flow chamber and flow circuit.”

Simulating flow conditions

Integral to creating these flow conditions is a Masterflex® tubing pump with L/S® digital drive and L/S® Easy-Load® pump head. The peristaltic pump system drives the cell medium into the flow circuit, enabling researchers to evaluate the EPCs under flow conditions similar to those within the body. “The digital drive makes it easy to program the flow rate,” stated Dr. Achneck. “It has proven to be a very reliable research tool.”

The team uses a system that employs both Masterflex® peroxide-cured silicone tubing and Masterflex® PharMed® BPT tubing with female and male luer adapters and barbed polypropylene fittings. Additional instruments used in the research include polypropylene pulse dampeners to create a laminar flow and Cole-Parmer® programmable syringe pumps.

Beyond the heart of the matter

If the research continues on its current path and proves successful, it has potential impact beyond the treatment of heart disease.

“It may also be applied to peripheral vascular disease, or treating blood vessels outside the heart region,” said Dr. Achneck. For example, arteries in the lower legs can become obstructed by thrombosis or embolism, potentially resulting in an amputation. “The same principles of tricking the blood into thinking it is in a blood vessel instead of an artificial device can be used to repair major arteries throughout the body.”

¹National Institutes of Health. Retrieved from

 Disclaimer: Cole-Parmer products are not approved or intended for, and should not be used for medical, clinical, surgical or other patient-oriented applications.

Masterflex® Pump Decreases the Risk of Heavy Metal Exposure

January 19, 2012

Mercury, a highly reactive and toxic substance, can damage the central nervous system, kidneys, lungs, and brain when one is exposed to high enough doses. Mercury poisoning may trigger symptoms including swelling, peripheral neuropathy, and skin-shedding. Scientists in the Remote Systems Group of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) who have handled elemental mercury transfers are well aware of its hazards.

The team initially conducted mercury transfer as part of the Spallation Neutron Source (SNS) project and later the MERcury Intense Target (MERIT), a high-energy physics collaboration for demonstrating a flowing mercury-jet target in an intense magnetic field. More recently, ORNL researchers investigated the structural integrity of decades-old mercury storage flasks which required transferring mercury into new flasks.

Far-reaching implications

ORNL is a US Department of Energy (DOE) facility that delivers technical breakthroughs in clean energy and global security. As the largest DOE science and energy laboratory, ORNL’s research and development in neutron science, materials science and engineering, and nuclear science and technology have far-reaching applications. ORNL’s examination of the properties of materials at a subatomic level, using the SNS, may ultimately lead to improved medicines, metals, plastics, and ceramics.

Yet, mercury transfer can be a risky business. The project’s engineers and technicians don side-shield goggles, nitrile gloves, lab coats, and safety shoes according to ORNL’s safety standards. With precautionary respirator training and the use of snorkels and fume hoods to mitigate vapors, scientists are relatively well-protected. However when using centrifugal and/or vacuum pumps to transfer the substance, the pump mechanics became contaminated. The team needed a better solution.

“At the time, we investigated ‘blood pumps’ which are used in the medical and food industry,” explained Philip Spampinato, an ORNL senior engineer. “That search led us to peristaltic pumps, which led us to the Masterflex® pump.”

The right technology for the task

The Remote Systems Group has used Masterflex pumps for fluid transfers since 1999. More recently, when it came to transferring 76 pounds of mercury from a standard storage flask into containment vessels, the Masterflex I/P® Precision Brushless Drive with Analog Remote proved to be advantageous on many levels. Along with the Masterflex I/P Easy-Load® pump head and compatible Tygon® long-life tubing, the pump system solved several of the group’s dilemmas at one time.

“The quantity of mercury flow can be controlled by varying the pump speed and occlusion,” said Spampinato. “The mechanical components of the pump do not become contaminated. The mercury only comes into contact with the tubing. This decreases the risk of exposure to elemental mercury and its vapors. We only need to be concerned about safely discarding the tubing when it becomes necessary to replace it. Finally, because the tubing is clear, the operator can visually observe the transfer. This provides an added level of confidence that the process is working well.”

It also automates a process that might have otherwise been handled manually, a prospect that is both ineffective and potentially hazardous.

“The Masterflex pump system is a significant advantage compared to pouring mercury out of a flask that weighs about 80 pounds,” said Spampinato. “While the viscosity of mercury is similar to water, its density is 13.6 times that of water and it is a nonwetting liquid. Therefore, controlled pouring is virtually impossible.”

 Disclaimer: Cole-Parmer products are not approved or intended for, and should not be used for medical, clinical, surgical or other patient-oriented applications.


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