Managing Carbon like Coffee Cups

[CARTOON]Coffee cups, by Stefanie DaoBy Dr. Robert C. Brown, an Anson Marston Distinguished Professor of Engineering, Gary and Donna Hoover Chair of Mechanical Engineering, and Director of the Bioeconomy Institute at Iowa State University.

Many people find the role of biofuels in managing greenhouse gases difficult to understand. It can be readily explained over a cup of coffee. Imagine a couple who enjoy cups of coffee every morning. Of course, they wash and reuse the cups.

The husband discovers that will deliver two new coffee cups every morning – how much more convenient than washing cups every day! Soon dirty coffee cups overflow the cupboard. The wife suggests a return to recycling but the husband argues that there is no difference between new and recycled cups, so how does reusing cups help? She explains that although the cups are identical, it matters where they come from. Cups brought into the house are responsible for the problem, not the cups they reuse.

Finally the husband agrees and the accumulation stops. But the house remains uncomfortably full of cups despite their diligent recycling. Fortunately, a neighbor stops by every week to borrow a cup of sugar, which gradually reduces the number of cups in the house, but only slowly and only as long as they reuse rather than purchase new cups every time they want coffee.

To speed up house cleaning, they hit upon a plan to return two cups to every morning after using them. Nevertheless, they must patiently stick to this plan if they are to regain control of their house.

In this parable, coffee is energy, cups are carbon dioxide, and the house is the atmosphere. Recycling cups is carbon neutral energy, as practiced by society before the days of fossil fuels and today to various degrees by biofuels agriculture (as long as agriculture is dependent on fossil fuels, “low carbon energy” is a better description). Buying cups is carbon positive energy, as occurs when we burn fossil fuels. The neighbor borrowing a cup of sugar is Nature slowly removing carbon from the atmosphere, but Nature cannot keep up with our burning of fossil fuels.

Sending cups back to to speed up house cleaning represents carbon negative energy. It requires us to remove carbon from the atmosphere and sequester at least part of it in soils, geological deposits, or the ocean. Although most people are unfamiliar with carbon negative energy, it will become increasingly important to consider as the atmosphere becomes “uncomfortably full” of carbon dioxide.

Doubts about bioenergy as a way to reduce greenhouse gases are of two kinds. The first arises when people think it doesn’t matter where carbon dioxide comes from when counting carbon. As the coffee cup parable makes clear, its origin is important.

The other doubt concerns indirect land use change, which states that growing biomass for biofuels in one part of the world will cause food shortages elsewhere. Purportedly this would encourage conversion of rain forests to agriculture with an increase in carbon dioxide emissions exceeding any savings from using biofuels.

Indirect land use change can be understood in terms of the coffee cup parable. In this case, the conjecture is that by washing and recycling cups the couple is reducing the amount of water available to the neighbors to wash their own cups, forcing the neighbors to buy new cups from The result is a proliferation of coffee cups in the neighborhood.
Would this really happen? If the neighborhood is experiencing a severe and protracted water shortage, the neighbors just might resort to buying cups. But they might also conserve water in other applications, drink less coffee, or find different ways to clean their coffee cups.

Similarly, the dire outcome predicted by indirect land use change would require severe and protracted food shortages and assumes that humans only respond in one way to such a challenge – by burning down old growth forest to expand agriculture. This dismisses other strategies such as reducing food wastage, growing higher yielding crop varieties, and reducing consumption of animal protein. To date there is no experimental evidence that biofuels cause food shortages or encourages destruction of forests.

The principles of carbon management are hardly more difficult to understand than managing coffee cups in a cupboard. From these principles it is clear that bioenergy can play an important role in halting the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In combination with carbon negative energy technologies, it can help accelerate a return to pre-industrialization levels of carbon dioxide. But the first step is for policy makers to understand these principles in all their simplicity.

This article was first published in The Hill on Mar. 6, 2015.

Careers | Polymer Chemist; Polymer Engineer; NREL

We have two positions in polymer chemistry and engineering available immediately in our research groups.

Both positions will be an integral part of a large, multidisciplinary team to produce renewable polymers from biomass-derived monomers. Interested candidates should send a CV and letter describing their research and professional interests via email to Gregg Beckham (for the polymer engineering position) or to Mark Nimlos (for the polymer chemistry position). See contact information below.

 Polymer Chemist: We are seeking candidates for a post-doctoral researcher position to develop renewable polymers and composites from chemical products made from biomass. Unique monomers will be produced by biochemical and thermochemical conversion technologies and this new hire will be responsible for identifying and demonstrating synthetic routes to novel polymers that are of commercial interest. The researcher will work with a team of scientists and engineers to develop, optimize and scale up processes and will also work with industrial partners to insure commercial development.

A Ph.D. in Polymer Chemistry with a strong emphasis on organic synthesis is required for this position. A familiarity with biomass and the chemistry of biomass conversion is desired.

 Polymer Engineer: We are seeking additional candidates for a post-doctoral researcher position as part of the same project with an emphasis on polymer engineering. This new hire will be responsible for the design of new polymeric materials using the aforementioned monomers, testing of their physicochemical properties, and the implementation of new approaches for the design of novel polymer blends.

A Ph.D. in Materials Science and Engineering, Chemical Engineering, Chemistry, or a closely related field with a strong emphasis on polymer synthesis, design, and materials testing is required for this position.

For More Information

Gregg T. Beckham, MSCEP, PhD
Senior Engineer, National Bioenergy Center National Renewable Energy Laboratory
15013 Denver West Parkway, Golden, CO 80401
Phone: 303-384-7806
Mobile: 617-960-7648

Mark R. Nimlos
Principal Scientist, National Bioenergy Center National Renewable Energy Laboratory
15013 Denver West Parkway, Golden, CO 80401
Phone: 303-384-7704
Mobile: 303-518-8445

BEI Launches “Opening Doors” Campaign

The Bioeconomy Institute at Iowa State University has launched its “opening doors to the bioeconomy” campaign to raise awareness of its research, education, and engagement capabilities, especially among potential industry, academic, and government partners.

[IMAGE]BEI Innovation Iowa Ad

The initial push is a two-page advertisement in the Innovation Iowa, an annual magazine that highlights Iowa companies and organizations and their technological achievements. The publication reports on recent achievements and what the future holds for biotechnology in Iowa, including bioscience and agriculture, advanced manufacturing, information technology, and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. View a PDF of the ad

A companion Web page delves deeper into BEI’s many advantages. These include its focus on the entire bioproducts supply chain, long history of collaborating with other academic departments, institutes, federal agencies, and industry; and world-leading thermochemical conversion research. BEI also benefits from being located in the heart of Iowa’s “Cultivation Coordidor.” The institute also works to educate tomorrow’s scientists and engineers and has world-class facilities in which to conduct its research.

The “opening doors” message is also featured in BEI’s unique Opening Doors Brochure  (PDF; large file) and in an animated presentation (below).

Lecture | Green Savings: How Policies and Markets Drive Energy Efficiency

Marilyn Ann Brown
Professor, School of Public Policy and Brook Byers Chaired Professor of Sustainable Systems
Georgia Institute of Technol

April 16th, 2015, 11:00 a.m – 12:00 p.m.
Cardinal Room, Memorial Union
Iowa State University, Ames, IA 50011

Energy and the environment are two of the most critical topics of the 21st century. Dr. Marilyn Brown of the Georgia Institute of Technology will introduce you to fresh perspectives on energy production, new technology, policymaking, user behavior, and how these features all play critical roles in determining the best plan of action to overcome the global energy crisis.

Brown will discuss her new book, “Green Savings – How Policies and Markets Drive Energy Efficiency,” which asserts that reducing energy consumption should be a frontline strategy to address global climate change, threats to energy security, and the challenge of grid reliability. Brown, along with co-author Yu Wang of Iowa State University, support two bold arguments: that policies motivating greater investment in high energy efficiency should be a priority, and that energy efficiency can help the nation in times of crisis.

Register and learn more at the Iowa Energy Center

Presented by the Iowa Energy Center

Reception | Biorenewables Art Competition, Apr. 22, 2015

[POSTER]Biorenewables Art Reception 2015Biorenewables Research Laboratory Lobby

Earth Day 2015
Apr. 22, 2015 (Wednesday)
4:00 – 5:30 p.m. (program at 4:15)

Light refreshments served
Free and open to the public

Join us for the opening and announcement of the winners of our 2015 Biorenewable Art Competition, the sixth annual year for this event. All accepted entries will be on display.

Also during this event, fall 2014 Leading The Bioeconomy Fellowship Recipients and spring 2015 BRT Research Seminar students will present research posters in Sukup Atrium.

Download PDF of Biorenewables Art Poster