Poet plant ‘production pause’ furthers cellulosic ethanol’s historic challenges


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Cellulosic ethanol is produced from crop residue, like the material depicted above (via Creative Commons) .

Julia Poska | November 20, 2019

An Iowa plant that produces ethanol from cellulose found in corn residue announced Tuesday that it will stop commercial operations in February.

Cellulosic ethanol is widely regarded as a more environmentally friendly version of the plant-based fuel because it provides a use for waste products like cobs and stalks rather than an incentive to put more land into industrial corn production.

Typical ethanol, made from corn kernels, has an “energy return on investment” (EROI) of less than 2:1, most sources agree. This means that the fuel supplies only about as much energy as was put into growing and refining the product. Researchers believe EROI for cellulosic ethanol could be somewhat higher than for corn-based ethanol, but still much lower than for other energy sources.

Despite the apparent benefits, cellulosic ethanol has been slow to take off. The Renewable Fuels Association 2019 Ethanol Industry Outlook report indicated that cellulosic sources provide only about 3.4% of U.S. ethanol production capacity.

The Des Moines Register reported that personnel of the plant, owned by POET, blamed the “pause” in production on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for granting Renewable Fuel Standard exemptions to oil refineries in recent years. The RFS sets minimum levels of biofuel that gasoline and diesel must contain, so exemptions reduce what would otherwise be a guaranteed demand for biofuel.

Cellulosic ethanol production has lagged behind forecasts since it first entered commercial purview, however.  In 2007, the Bush administration called for 100 million and 250 million gallons of commercial cellulosic ethanol production in 2010 and 2011 respectively. Actual commercial production did not begin until 2012, according to MIT Technology Review.

In July 2018, ethanolproducer.com thought national production of cellulosic ethanol could top 15 million gallons, far behind the EPA’s goal of 7 billion gallons for that year.

The POET cellulosic ethanol plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa opened in 2014, according to the Register. The facility cost $275 million to build and received about $120 million in state and federal incentives. The plant has a capacity to produce 20 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol annually, according to POET, and has spent years working on “optimizing” the production process to reach full capacity.

The plant will continue doing “research and development” on cellulosic ethanol while producing regular corn ethanol at another plant next door, according to the Register. Another cellulosic ethanol plant in Nevada, Iowa closed in 2017, the Register also reported.

North Carolina hurricane victims take a lesson from Iowa Flood Center


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Hurricane Florence as seen from space (via flickr). 

Julia Poska| November 15, 2019

A North Carolina mayor hopes to make his city more resilient against flooding following hurricanes using a method he learned from Iowa experts.

At the end of August, the Iowa Flood Center hosted a “flood resilience learning exchange” for 20 scientists, conservationists, farmers and officials from North Carolina communities impacted by devastating flooding from recent hurricanes. The two-day event featured talks from Iowan experts, a tour of Cedar Rapids’ flood infrastructure and a visit to a farm implementing such strategies.

News source kinston.com reported this week that Mayor Dontario Hardy of Kinston, North Carolina had been advocating for increased funding for flood resiliency projects since attending the event almost two months ago.

In just the past few years, Kinston–located along the Neuse River– faced widespread flooding after Hurricanes Matthew (2016) and Florence (2018). Though the Iowa Watershed Approach was not developed with hurricanes in mind, the basic concept–implementing conservation practices on land that will reduce the speed at which precipitation enters and floods our waterways– can apply to all types of flooding.

 

 

ISU research complicates cover crops


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Cover crops hold onto soil and carbon during the off-season (via Creative Commons).

Julia Poska| November 13, 2019

Though cover cropping has proven advantageous for soil and water conservation in Iowa, the practice’s benefits to atmospheric quality may be negligible, new research from Iowa State University found.

When farm fields are left bare during the winter and spring, wind and water transport soil and nutrients off the land and into streams and rivers, degrading both the field and water quality. Exposed soil typically releases carbon into the atmosphere at increased rates compared to planted areas, contributing significantly to climate change.

Cover cropping involves planting alternative crops like rye or clover to cover and nourish the land throughout the off-season. The conservation practice holds soil in place, pulls atmospheric carbon into plant material and adds carbon back into soil upon decomposition. Sequestering carbon in plants and soil is key to combatting climate change.

That carbon may not remain in the soil for long, however. The new study, published in Global Change Biology Bioenergy,  found that the added soil carbon stimulates microbes in the soil that emit carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere as they digest the organic matter.

The research — conducted by ISU assistant professor of ecology, evolution and organismal biology Steven Hall and grad student Chenglong Ye —  highlights the need for a variety of solutions for the planet’s numerous natural resource problems. While cover crops are a proven protectors against water pollution, we will need to implement other strategies to make farming carbon neutral, too.

U.S. formally withdrawals from Paris Agreement, but 26 Iowan parties are still in


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The Paris Agreement aims to limit harmful emissions (via flickr)

Julia Poska | November 6, 2019

The United States has officially notified the United Nations of its withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement.

President Trump announced his intent to withdraw on the campaign trail and again in January 2017. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted Monday that the administration had begun the formal, one-year withdrawal process that day. U.N. rules declared Nov. 4 the first day formal withdrawal was possible, according to the BBC. 

If a new president is elected in 2020, he or she may choose to reenter the agreement, which intends to minimize global temperature increase by reducing greenhouse gas emissions in participation nations.

In the meantime, over 3,000 U.S. cities, counties, states, businesses, tribes and institutions have declared intent to cut emissions in line with the agreement via the “We Are Still In”  declaration. In Iowa, 26 parties have signed on including…

  • The cities of Des Moines, Iowa City, Dubuque and Fairfield
  • Johnson and Linn Counties
  • Coe College, Grinnell College, Kirkwood Community College, Luther College, Iowa State University and the University of Iowa

 

 

Does October snow contradict climate change theory? Absolutely not.


Julia Poska | October 30, 2019

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Map from Iowa Environmental Mesonet (accessed through Des Moines Register).

Iowans across much of the state awoke Tuesday morning to find a blanket of fresh snow atop vibrant orange and yellow autumn leaves, many still attached to the trees. Parts of east and east central Iowa saw as much as three to four inches, according to the Des Moines Register. 

The National Weather Service  puts the average date of first one-inch snowfall in eastern Iowa in early December.  The unseasonable flurry might have some Iowans questioning how serious Midwestern climate change could really be.

But climate (average temperature and precipitation over several decades) is not the same as weather (daily atmospheric conditions). Years of abnormally high snowfall or abnormally cold weather could have an impact on the averages that create our “climate,” but snow, frost and even “polar vortex” events on their own are products of normal weather variation throughout the year.

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Records show that overall, average annual temperatures in Iowa and most of the world are increasing, despite weather variation. This pushes local 30-year climate averages (shown below for Iowa City) up by small increments over time.

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From U.S. Climate Data

 

Iowans can still expect snow and cold in coming decades, though the overall frequency and intensity of such events may decline over time. Somewhat milder winters will be followed by much hotter, dryer summers, with an increased number of intense rainstorms added to the mix.

CGRER member and teammates make surprising discovery on parasitic wasps


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A wasp (species unknown) hangs out in a tree (via Creative Commons). 

Julia Poska | October 23, 2019

A recent discovery from the University of Iowa is helping fill-in knowledge gaps about some of the planet’s tiniest inhabitants.

University of Iowa CGRER member and biologist Andrew Forbes and teammates published a paper last month describing an unusual behavior of the “crypt-keeper” wasp. This parasitic species lays its eggs in “crypts,” bubble-like nurseries created in leaves in which other parasitic wasps lay their eggs. The baby crypt-keepers then eat their way through the other baby wasps to emerge from the leaves and into the world.

The study, published in Biology Letters, found that while the vast majority of parasite species are thought to be highly specialized and target just one host species, the crypt-keeper wasp is a parasite to at least six other species that create such “crypts” for their young.

Doctoral student Anna Ward, lead author of the paper, told the New York Times  that this finding helps shed light on important yet often overlooked truths about the ecosystem.

“With climate change, how can we know our true impact if we don’t even know what’s there?” Ward asked. 

 

 

UI offers free lead testing kits to state residents


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Faucet from Creative Commons. 

Julia Poska | October 16, 2019

Iowa residents can improve their drinking water and support environmental research by participating in the University of Iowa’s “Get the Lead Out” initiative through Oct. 26.

The program offers free lead testing kits to Iowa residents outside of Johnson County. The UI Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering; IIHR—Hydroscience and Engineering; and Center for Health Effects and Environmental Contamination are leading the initiative to collect information for a new database of lead levels in drinking water across Iowa.

Because lead, especially toxic to children, was once used commonly in household products, it may still be present in aging household plumbing across the state.

Interested households can email get-the-lead-out@uiowa.edu  to request and receive three bottles (and instructions) for collecting tap water samples.  After sending samples back to the university for testing, they will receive their results, an explanation and suggestions for improvement (such as adding a filter to the faucet).

Johnson County residents can contact any DNR-certified testing lab, such as the State Hygienic Laboratory, to acquire testing kits.