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The PristinePlanet.com Newsletter
1 May 2008 — Issue #43
Editor: Michael J. Ross
Environmental News
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Ethanol from Reusable Solar-Powered Microbes

With global supplies of fossil-based fuels declining, energy companies and governments alike are anxious to find economically and technologically viable alternatives to the hydrocarbon fuel sources upon which our societies run. Of all the biofuels, ethanol is currently a popular choice — particularly in the Americas — and can be derived from glucose (e.g., corn), sucrose (e.g., sugarcane), and cellulose (e.g., switchgrass and wood). However, these sources of ethanol have at least two significant disadvantages: they are destroyed in the process of ethanol extraction, and they require large amounts of water relative to the amount of ethanol that can be derived from them.

Fortunately, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have created a microbe that can produce cellulose that can be converted into ethanol and other biofuels. Professor R. Malcolm Brown Jr. and Dr. David Nobles Jr. developed the cyanobacteria (a.k.a. blue-green algae) through genetic modification — specifically by adding a set of cellulose-making genes from Acetobacter xylinum, a non-photosynthetic "vinegar" bacterium that produces large quantities of cellulose.

Both of the aforementioned problems with conventional ethanol sources, are largely overcome by this promising new alternative. The cyanobacteria secrete cellulose, glucose, and sucrose, which allows those substances to be harvested without killing or even damaging the cyanobacteria. Also, the cyanobacteria can be grown in production facilities on non-agricultural lands, even using salty water that, if untreated, is useless for human consumption or growing crops.

There are two additional advantages: Like all forms of algae, the cyanobacteria derive their energy directly from sunlight. This is critical, because in the long run, solar power will likely far outlast the Earth's supplies of oil, natural gas, coal, and materials suitable for atomic energy. But with present technologies, liquid fuels are necessary for all forms of air transportation, including the rockets that boost into orbit large and heavy payloads, such as satellites. Electricity derived from natural gas-burning plants and hydroelectric dams, cannot be used for such vehicles, because of the prohibitive weight of the batteries that would be needed. Only liquid fuels contain the concentration of energy necessary for such uses.

Another major advantage that the cyanobacteria have over ethanol produced from feed crops, is that they can be grown without requiring conventional fertilizer, which is made from petroleum. This will reduce the demand for — and thus our dependency upon — the natural gas that we are currently using for creating fertilizers, as well as burning to produce heat in homes and other buildings, and burning to produce electricity.

Moreover, the previously mentioned sources of cellulose can require a nontrivial amount of machine processing to extract the actual cellulose, primarily because the plant-based material is highly crystalline and impure, being mixed with lignins and other structural compounds. In contrast, these newly-created cyanobacteria produce a gel-like cellulose that is easily processed. This further reduces the amount of energy needed to produce the resultant energy, and is quite unlike corn-based ethanol, which is estimated to consume almost as much energy as it produces — in the form of natural gas-based fertilizer to grow the crops, and diesel fuels to power all of the heavy equipment utilized to harvest and process those crops.

The two researchers have patented their discovery, and are now exploring ways to scale up production of the cyanobacteria.

Member Profiles
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Aguacate & Co.

Consumers nowadays are becoming increasingly aware of the potential medical dangers caused by parabens and other chemicals found in conventional skin care products. Many of these savvy shoppers are switching to organic alternatives, which provide greater health benefits not only to their own skin, but to that of Mother Nature: the ecosystem that encircles our planet. Mainstream shoppers, on the other hand, may realize that their use of artificial ingredients is not leading to optimal health, and it is certainly not helping the environment. But they may be reluctant to change because they have the misconception that all health-care products are packaged unattractively or contain weird ingredients acceptable only to the stereotypical eco-freak. But those invalid and decades-old beliefs will be shattered for anyone who visits the Web site of Aguacate & Co., which bills itself as an independent, boutique retailer of premium, organic-based skin care products. All of the firm's offerings, like its Web site, combine both substance and style. Visitors to the site will find a variety of top-quality skin care products, for cleansing, exfoliation, toning, moisturizing, and replenishing. In addition, gift sets are available. Aguacate & Co., based in Washington DC, was founded in 2007 by three good friends who had attended the same university, and decided to create an enterprise that would leverage their diverse talents, academic training, and professional experience — but with more control over how the organization impacted the environment, compared to the typical company. Aguacate's principals consequently are able to run the company in an eco-friendly manner, reusing and recycling materials, and contributing a portion of their sales to a variety of worthy causes, including One Percent For the Planet, an alliance of eco-conscious businesses committed to giving back at least 1% of sales to support environmental research.

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Rene Geneva Design

"Clothes with a conscience", "Dramatic... Inspired", and "Eco-chic takes on new meaning". These are not the accolades normally directed toward eco-friendly clothing — unless you happen to be describing the offerings of Rene Geneva Design, and you happen to be Rare Magazine, California Apparel News, or POSHGLAM (respectively). It all started in 1993, when Rene Geneva inherited her grandmother's Singer sewing machine, and rapidly taught herself sewing, patterning, and clothing design. She soon began developing apparel for boutiques internationally, for clients requesting custom work, and for movie studios (costumes and parades). In Nicaragua, Rene worked with a women’s textile cooperative, where she taught basic corsetry and appliqué, thus enabling the workers to produce Rene’s latest designs and expand their capabilities beyond T-shirt production. It was an example of her dedication to fair wages, fair trade, sustainable materials, and environmentally responsible business practices. These principles in turn are reflected in the variety of high-fashion clothing displayed on her Web site, including colorful corsets, dresses, coats, separates, fashion accessories, and even bridal gowns. Rene's unique style is largely inspired by Japanese architecture, and is made using organic cotton, wild-crafted silk, hemp, and recycled textiles. Visit her site today, and discover why those accolades are well-deserved.

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All material copyright © 2008 PristinePlanet.com™, except for Environmental News articles copyright © 2008 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved. No portion of this newsletter can be copied without express written permission from its copyright holder.

Letters and guest articles posted in the Newsletter section of the Forum or sent to the publisher become the property of PristinePlanet.com, and may be edited for brevity or clarity prior to publication.