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Using a protein produced by a fungus that lives in the Amazon, Brazilian researchers have developed a molecule capable of increasing glucose release from biomass for fermentation. The findings are published in an open-access paper the journal Scientific Reports.

One of the main challenges of second-generation biofuel production is identifying enzymes produced by microorganisms for use in a cocktail of enzymes to catalyze biomass hydrolysis, in which the enzymes act together to break down the carbohydrates in sugarcane trash and bagasse, for example, and convert them into simple sugars for fermentation.

A group of researchers at the University of Campinas (UNICAMP), working in partnership with colleagues at the Brazilian Biorenewables National Laboratory (LNBR) in Campinas, São Paulo State, Brazil, have discovered that Trichoderma harzianum, a fungus found in the Amazon, produces an enzyme with the potential to play a key role in enzyme cocktails.

The enzyme, which is called β-glucosidase and belongs to glycoside hydrolase family 1 (GH1), acts in the last stage of biomass degradation to produce free glucose for fermentation and conversion into ethanol. In the laboratory, however, the researchers observed that high levels of glucose inhibited the activity of β-glucosidase.

We also found that the enzyme’s optimal catalytic activity occurred at 40 °C. This represented another obstacle to use of the enzyme because in an industrial setting, the enzymatic hydrolysis of biomass is performed at higher temperatures, typically around 50 °C.

—Clelton Aparecido dos Santos, a postdoctoral researcher at UNICAMP’s Center for Molecular Biology and Genetic Engineering (CBMEG) with a scholarship from FAPESP

Based on an analysis of the enzyme's structure combined with genomics and molecular biology techniques, the researchers were able to modify the structure to solve these problems and considerably enhance its biomass degradation efficiency.

The study resulted from a project with a regular research grant from FAPESP and a Thematic Project also supported by FAPESP.

The modified protein we developed proved far more efficient than the unmodified enzyme and can be used to supplement the enzyme cocktails sold today to break down biomass and produce second-generation biofuels.

—Clelton Aparecido dos Santos

To arrive at the modified protein, the researchers initially compared the crystal structure of the original molecule with structures of other wild-type β-glucosidases in the GH1 and GH3 glycoside hydrolase families. The results of the analysis showed that glucose-tolerant GH1 glucosidases had a deeper and narrower substrate channel than other β-glucosidases and that this channel restricted glucose access to the enzyme’s active site.

Less glucose-tolerant β-glucosidases had a shallower but wider active site entrance channel, allowing more of the glucose produced by these enzymes to enter the last stage of biomass degradation. Retained glucose blocks the protein’s channel and reduces its catalytic activity.

Based on this observation, the researchers used a molecular biology technique known as site-directed mutagenesis to replace two amino acids that might be acting as “gatekeepers” at the entrance to the enzyme’s active site, letting in glucose or blocking it. Analysis of their experiments showed that the modification narrowed the channel to the active site.

The mutant enzyme’s active site shrank to a similar size to that of the glucose-tolerant GH1 β-glucosidases.

—Clelton Aparecido dos Santos

The researchers conducted a number of experiments to measure the improved protein’s performance in breaking down biomass, especially sugarcane bagasse, an agroindustrial waste with vast potential for profitable use in Brazil. During a research internship abroad with a scholarship from São Paulo Research Foundation - FAPESP, Santos worked with a research group led by Paul Dupree, a professor at the University of Cambridge in the UK, on an analysis of the tailored enzyme’s glucose release efficiency when different sources of plant biomass were converted.

The analysis showed that the catalytic efficiency of the modified enzyme was 300% higher than that of the wild-type enzyme in terms of glucose release. Moreover, it was more glucose-tolerant, so more glucose was released from all the tested plant biomass feedstocks. The mutation also enhanced the enzyme’s thermal stability during fermentation.

Mutation of the two amino acids at the active site made the enzyme super-efficient. It's ready for industrial application. One of the enzyme’s advantages is that it’s produced in vitro and not from a modified fungus or other organism, so it can be mass-produced at relatively low cost.

—Anete Pereira de Souza, a professor at UNICAMP and principal investigator for the project

Resources

  • Clelton A. Santos, Mariana A. B. Morais, Oliver M. Terrett, Jan J. Lyczakowski, Letícia M. Zanphorlin, Jaire A. Ferreira-Filho, Celisa C. C. Tonoli, Mario T. Murakami, Paul Dupree & Anete P. Souza (2019) “An engineered GH1 β-glucosidase displays enhanced glucose tolerance and increased sugar release from lignocellulosic materials” Scientific Reports 9, Article number: 4903 doi: 10.1038/s41598-019-41300-3

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In a major new report on hydrogen, the International Energy Agency says that the time is right to tap into hydrogen’s potential to play a key role in a clean, secure and affordable energy future.

The in-depth study, which analyzes hydrogen’s current state of play and offers guidance on its future development, was launched by Dr Fatih Birol, the IEA’s Executive Director, alongside Mr Hiroshige Seko, Japan’s Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry, on the occasion of the meeting of G20 energy and environment ministers in Karuizawa, Japan.

The report—The Future of Hydrogen: Seizing Today’s Opportunities—finds that clean hydrogen is currently receiving strong support from governments and businesses around the world, with the number of policies and projects expanding rapidly.

Hydrogen can help to tackle various critical energy challenges, including helping to store the variable output from renewables like solar PV and wind to better match demand. It offers ways to decarbonize a range of sectors—including long-haul transport, chemicals, and iron and steel—where it is proving difficult to meaningfully reduce emissions. It can also help to improve air quality and strengthen energy security.

A wide variety of fuels are able to produce hydrogen, including renewables, nuclear, natural gas, coal and oil. Hydrogen can be transported as a gas by pipelines or in liquid form by ships, much like liquefied natural gas (LNG). It can also be transformed into electricity and methane to power homes and feed industry, and into fuels for cars, trucks, ships and planes.

Hydrogen is today enjoying unprecedented momentum, driven by governments that both import and export energy, as well as the renewables industry, electricity and gas utilities, automakers, oil and gas companies, major technology firms and big cities. The world should not miss this unique chance to make hydrogen an important part of our clean and secure energy future.

—Dr Birol

To build on this momentum, the IEA report offers seven key recommendations to help governments, companies and other stakeholders to scale up hydrogen projects around the world. These include four areas where actions today can help to lay the foundations for the growth of a global clean hydrogen industry in the years ahead:

  • Making industrial ports the nerve centers for scaling up the use of clean hydrogen;

  • Building on existing infrastructure, such as natural gas pipelines;

  • Expanding the use of hydrogen in transport by using it to power cars, trucks and buses that run on key routes; and

  • Launching the hydrogen trade’s first international shipping routes.

The report notes that hydrogen still faces significant challenges. Producing hydrogen from low-carbon energy is costly at the moment, the development of hydrogen infrastructure is slow and holding back widespread adoption, and some regulations currently limit the development of a clean hydrogen industry.

Today, hydrogen is already being used on an industrial scale, but it is almost entirely supplied from natural gas and coal. Its production, mainly for the chemicals and refining industries, is responsible for 830 million tonnes of CO2 emissions per year. That’s the equivalent of the annual carbon emissions of the United Kingdom and Indonesia combined.

Reducing emissions from existing hydrogen production is a challenge but also represents an opportunity to increase the scale of clean hydrogen worldwide. One approach is to capture and store or utilize the CO2 from hydrogen production from fossil fuels. There are currently several industrial facilities around the world that use this process, and more are in the pipeline, but a much greater number is required to make a significant impact.

Another approach is for industries to secure greater supplies of hydrogen from clean electricity. In the past two decades, more than 200 projects have started operation to convert electricity and water into hydrogen to reduce emissions—from transport, natural gas use and industrial sectors—or to support the integration of renewables into the energy system.

Expanding the use of clean hydrogen in other sectors—such as cars, trucks, steel and heating buildings—is another important challenge. There are currently around 11,200 hydrogen-powered cars on the road worldwide. Existing government targets call for that number to increase to 2.5 million by 2030.

Policy makers need to make sure market conditions are well adapted for reaching such ambitious goals. The recent successes of solar PV, wind, batteries and electric vehicles have shown that policy and technology innovation have the power to build global clean energy industries.

As the world’s leading energy authority covering all fuels and all technologies, the IEA says that it is ideally placed to help to shape global policy on hydrogen.

Beyond this report, the IEA will remain focused on hydrogen, further expanding its expertise in order to monitor progress and provide guidance on technologies, policies and market design. The IEA said it will continue to work closely with governments and all other stakeholders to support efforts to make the most out of hydrogen’s potential.

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ZF Friedrichshafen AG has expanded its E-Mobility division with new buildings and locations. On Friday, the technology company opened a new building for administration, R&D, and sales at the divisional headquarters in Schweinfurt. In Pančevo near the Serbian capital of Belgrade, a new plant for electric drives will go into operation next week.

The demand for electric driveline solutions has grown enormously. This is why we have invested heavily in this division, creating attractive employment opportunities and increased production capacity. With electromobility, ZF is paving the way for next generation mobility solutions and contributing to a reduction in worldwide vehicle emissions.

—Michael Hankel, Member of the Board of Management of ZF with responsibility for areas such as E-Mobility and Corporate Production

Electromobility, Vehicle Motion Control, fully automated driving, and integrated safety are the four technology pillars that support ZF’s “Next Generation Mobility” strategy.

With the new building in Schweinfurt, ZF has created space for around 520 employees. The workspaces are based on ZF’s office 3.0 concept, which enables project-based, flexible working and makes it easier for employees to communicate with each other.

The €30-million building is also home to 16 Test Benches and checking facilities that can be used to test electric and hybrid drives and their components.

With more than 9,400 employees, Schweinfurt is one of the biggest ZF sites in the world. ZF is also the biggest employer in the Lower Franconia region. In addition to the E-Mobility division founded in 2016, ZF’s Aftermarket division is also run from Schweinfurt.

ZF is also expanding the E-Mobility division and increasing its production capacity at two other sites. Next week, after just a year of construction work, the new Pančevo plant will go into operation.

At the plant, located 14 kilometers northeast of the Serbian capital of Belgrade, ZF will primarily produce electric motors, generators for hybrid and electric drives, transmission selectors, and microswitches. This site is already being expanded to meet the huge demand for these products. Around 1,000 employees are set to work at the site in the future.

Another production location for electric drives is currently under construction in Hangzhou, south of Shanghai, China. This plant is set to go into operation next year.

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LG Chem Ltd. will establish an electric vehicle (EV) battery joint venture (JV) in China with Geely Automobile. Under the terms of a new joint venture agreement, LG Chem and Geely Automobile will establish a 50:50 venture. LG Chem and Geely will each invest US$87 million.

The factory site and the name of the JV will be confirmed later; the company plans to produce 10 GWh of electric car battery by the end of 2021.

LG Chem said that batteries from the joint venture will start being placed in Geely autos to be produced in 2022.

Geely Automobile is a subsidiary of Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, which also owns Volvo Cars and British sports car manufacturer Lotus. In may, Volvo Car Group hs signed long-term agreements with CATL and LG Chem to ensure the multi-billion dollar supply of lithium-ion batteries over the coming decade for next generation Volvo and Polestar models. (Earlier post.)

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Honda’s new compact electric vehicle, the Honda e, is the first Honda to be built on a dedicated EV platform, designed from the ground up to deliver excellent Honda driving dynamics.


The Honda e platform has been developed with a focus on urban environments to offer a rewarding, responsive driving experience. The battery is positioned at a low level under the floor, and centrally within the wheelbase of the car, affording a 50:50 weight distribution and low centre of gravity for optimal handling and stability.

Power from the high-torque electric motor is delivered through the rear wheels, enabling steering precision even at high acceleration.

The platform offers a combination of ride comfort and agility. The four-wheel independent suspension is engineered to offer stability in all conditions, a smooth ride and responsive handling. Elements of the suspension components are forged aluminum to reduce weight and benefit performance and efficiency.

When combined with its compact size and short overhang, the Honda e delivers next-generation small car agility to make city driving enjoyable and tight maneuvers in urban environments effortless.

For continued ease of use and charging flexibility, the 35.5 kWh Lithium-ion battery can be charged using either Type 2 AC connection or a CCS2 DC rapid charger. Combined with a full range of more than 200 km, the fast-charge capability of the advanced powertrain will deliver exceptional usability to meet the demands of everyday commuting providing 80% charge in 30 minutes.

Designed with a focus on simplicity and usability, the Honda e charging port is integrated into the hood, with LED lighting visible through a glass panel to illuminate the port for the driver and highlight the battery charging status. The positioning of the charging port allows easy access from the front of the car or from either side. Displays on the dual touchscreens inside the car present the current level of battery charge, while a drivetrain graphic charts the current power flow and the regeneration and recharging status.

The battery pack is water-cooled to maintain an optimum thermal state therefore maximising the efficiency of the battery and charge state, while also ensuring its size and weight are minimised so that it does not compromise cabin room.

Honda’s new compact electric car is a key part of the brand’s latest electrification commitment to feature electrified technology in 100% of its European sales by 2025. Presented in prototype form at the 2019 Geneva Motor Show, the first Honda production battery electric vehicle for the European market will make its mass production debut later this year.

Honda has already received 31,000 expressions of interest, and customers can make a reservation for priority ordering online in UK, Germany, France and Norway or register their interest in other European markets on the Honda national websites.

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VDL Bus & Coach has expanded its Citea Electric product range with the Citea XLE-145 Electric. With this 14.5-meter e-bus, VDL Bus & Coach adds a new length variant to the available electric Low Entry buses. VDL introduced 12- and 12.9-meter electric Low Entry length variants in September 2018.

In doing so, VDL is supporting the further transition to more sustainable public transport in both urban and regional areas. For VDL this is a logical step towards offering a complete electric product range that includes Low Floor, Light Low Entry and Low Entry versions.

Like the entire VDL Citea range, the Citea XLE-145 Electric is built based on the modular VDL concept, making use of existing components. This offers many advantages in terms of maintenance and service.

The electric variant of the Citea Low Entry is available in a 2-door or 3-door configuration, with flexible interior layouts. With a length of 14.5 meters, the Citea XLE-145 Electric offers a higher passenger capacity than the other Low Entry models. In the direction of travel, there is room for up to 52 comfortable seats.

The Citea XLE-145 Electric is fitted with a 288 kWh battery as standard. A 360 kWh battery pack is also available, as an option.

VDL offers various charging systems. As standard, the Citea XLE-145 Electric is equipped with a Combo2 charging plug. For higher charging capacities and rapid charging options, pantograph options are available, mounted either on the vehicle or on the charging station. With top-up quick charging, operation of more than 600 kilometres per day can be achieved.

Today, 400 electric VDL buses cover an average of 70,000 km in daily operation. Since April 2015, the VDL Citeas Electric have collectively driven 30 million electric kilometers. Compared to conventional diesel buses, this represents a CO2 reduction of 70 tonnes per day, which results in better air quality.

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In May, cumulated BMW Group electrified sales topped the 400,000 mark with a total of 406,756 fully-electric and plug-in hybrid models delivered to customers since the BMW i3 first went on sale in November 2013.

Five and a half years after it was launched, demand for the iconic BMW i3 continues to grow with global sales in May up 40.0%.

Overall sales of BMW Group electrified vehicles grew by 9.8% in May, as customers show increasing interest in low emissions mobility.

Deliveries of the plug-in hybrid BMW 2 Series Active Tourer quadrupled in May and sales of the electrified BMW 5 Series increased by 40.4%.

Sales of the plug-in hybrid MINI Cooper S E Countryman ALL4 in May were almost three times as high as the same month last year.

By the end of next year, the BMW Group will have introduced ten new or updated electrified models and by the end of this year, the company expects to have a total of half a million electrified vehicles on the roads.

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Natron Energy, a developer of new battery cell technology based on Prussian Blue analogue electrodes and a sodium-ion electrolyte, has (earlier post), has been awarded a $3-million grant by the California Energy Commission (CEC) for “Advanced Energy Storage for Electric Vehicle Charging Support.” Natron will utilize the funds to manufacture and install a high powered, long cycle life energy storage system at an EV Fast Charging station.

The project will result in a cost-competitive, at-scale alternative to Li-ion batteries, and offer superior performance for the high-power/short-duration dispatch and long cycle life requirements of the EV Fast Charging market.

Natron’s patented technology uses Prussian Blue pigment which stores and releases energy in the form of sodium ions. Unlike electrode materials found in most Lithium-ion batteries, Prussian blue enjoys widespread availability and low cost that make batteries using Prussian blue electrodes economical, safe, and environmentally friendly.

Meeting California’s goal of 5 million EVs by 2030 and electrifying rideshare (SB 1014) will require a significant acceleration in the deployment of EV charging infrastructure, particularly workplace and EV Fast Charging stations. Energy storage made from Prussian blue chemistry is more cost-effective and durable than the prevalent battery chemistry of Lithium-ion.

Natron says that its Prussian blue technology advantages can address the market’s primary business challenges, including:

  • Expensive utility distribution upgrade and customer interconnection costs at higher concentration and charging levels;

  • High and uncertain customer bills with demand charges; and

  • Maximizing the number and level of chargers at each site given escalating customer acquisition and site preparation costs.

The system will be installed on the University of California San Diego’s campus.

In January, Natron Energy closed a strategic investment by Chevron Technology Ventures (CTV) to support the development of stationary energy storage systems for demand charge management at electric vehicle (EV) charging stations.

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Corporate social responsibility (CSR) rating agency ISS ESG has awarded Valeo pole position in its ESG performance rating of global companies (auto components industry, 64 companies assessed). Valeo has also achieved Prime status for its excellent performance.

Valeo scored particularly well in the three areas identified by ISS ESG as key performance indicators for automotive suppliers: a portfolio of existing products that help reduce CO2 emissions; global management of social and environmental risks; and quality of the Group’s governance.

ISS ESG singled out the quality and diversity of Valeo’s product portfolio, including the 48V system; thermal management solutions for batteries; and new-generation lighting systems, which all contribute to reducing vehicle CO2 emissions.

This ranking underscores the relevance of the Group’s strategy, which is based on innovation for the development of autonomous vehicles and reducing CO2 emissions.

The rating agency had particular praise for the quality of the Group’s governance, with a Board of Directors including independent members, and the positive results of its cross-functional sustainable development policy, which takes into account labor-related, social (supply chain, multilateral commitments) and environmental aspects in all of the Group’s locations.

In 2018, products that directly or indirectly contribute to reducing CO2 emissions accounted for more than 50% of Valeo’s original equipment sales. Half of Valeo’s R&D expenditure— which approached €2.1 billion (US$2.4 billion) in 2018—is dedicated to technologies that contribute to reducing CO2 emissions.

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Researchers at Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden, have developed a small, optical nano-sensor for pollution detection which can be mounted onto an ordinary streetlight.

The technology is already in use in western Sweden, and researchers and other interested parties hope that the sensor could soon be used in many broad contexts. A collaboration with the University of Sheffield is also underway.


The new sensor technology is being tested in the Gothenburg area, including on this streetlight in Mölndal. (Photo:Insplorion/Johan Bodell)

The new optical nano-sensor can detect low concentrations of nitrogen dioxide down to parts-per-billion (ppb). The measuring technique is built upon an optical phenomenon which is called a plasmon. It arises when metal nanoparticles are illuminated and absorb light of certain wavelengths.

A sensor is also installed on the roof of Nordstan in Gothenburg, one of Scandinavia’s biggest shopping malls, and soon more will be placed along the route of Västlänken, a major railway tunnel construction project, also in Gothenburg.

The technology has already raised interest from several organisations, including the Urban Flows Observatory, an air quality center at the University of Sheffield. They will conduct field testing, comparing the nanosensors’ results with data from a number of British reference stations.

Other interested parties include Stenhøj Sverige, a company, which develops gas and smoke analysers for automotive repair shops and vehicle inspection companies, as well as IVL, Swedish Environmental Research Institute. IVL works with applied research and development in close collaboration with industry and the public sphere to address environmental issues.

The new sensor technology is not limited to measuring nitrogen dioxide but can also be adapted to other types of gases. There is therefore potential for further innovation.

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