Diesel fuel from butter

Butter is not the fuel of the future, but it is possible to churn perfectly good diesel fuel out of it. “It was something we wanted to show could be done,” said Michael J Haas, a research biochemist at the US Department of Agriculture. “It’s quirky,” he acknowledged of the dairy-to-diesel research, which was published in June in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

The impetus was an 800-pound sculpture of Benjamin Franklin and the Liberty Bell. Each year the Pennsylvania Farm Show, held in Harrisburg, commissions a masterpiece made out of butter. In 2007, the organisers solicited suggestions for what to do with the work after the farm show ended. Haas submitted the idea of making biodiesel fuel out of it, and that is what was done. Haas collaborated with BlackGold Biofuels, a small company that has developed a process for making biodiesel fuel out of a wide range of nonedible, low-value “fog” – industry shorthand for fats, oils and grease.

The BlackGold researchers melted the butter, removed the water and fed the rest into their chemical conversion process. The structure of a molecule of fat, oil or grease looks like a jellyfish. The head of the molecule is a compound known as glycerin, and tendrils of fatty acid chains hang off the glycerin. In the conversion, a methanol molecule replaces the glycerin as the head of the molecule, producing diesel.

Biodiesel is already readily made out of cooking oil, but BlackGold says its process is far more flexible in the range of material it can convert into fuel and is not thwarted when the fats turn rancid. The 800 pounds of butter turned into about 75 gallons at the end, a mix of biodiesel fuel and a lower-grade bunker fuel. The beheaded glycerins are also collected for use at wastewater treatment plants.

Kenneth Chang
Nature News

Landscapes that need most work ignored

The world’s top ecologists are failing to study the landscapes that most need work, and they risk delaying conservation efforts and making their subject irrelevant. That is the message from US researchers who have quantified the extent to which ecologists devote themselves to pristine wilderness at the expense of inhabited regions.

“Right now our backyards are black boxes,” says Laura Martin, an ecology graduate student at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, who was inspired to pursue the analysis after she read a feature published in Nature last year.

“There are suburbs, villages and agricultural lands that are being completely left out of the picture as far as ecological processes go,” she says. Martin and her colleagues found that in only around one in six papers had the ecologists deliberately set out to study regions used by humans. Of the 2,573 papers, 323 (13 percent) were described as having taken place in food-production areas; 78 (3%) in urban areas; and 23 (1 percent) in suburban areas.

By contrast, nearly two-thirds of the studies — 1,629, or 64% — were described as having occurred in “protected areas” such as national or state parks, in which people neither lived nor worked. The remaining 520 (20 percent) could not be clearly classified, but did not mention human-used zones.

Zoe Corbyn
New York Times News Service

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