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Energy in the News: Friday, May 20

Chemists settle longstanding debate on how methane is made biologically

U-M News Service, feat. Stephen Ragsdale

Like the poet, microbes that make methane are taking chemists on a road less traveled: Of two competing ideas for how microbes make the main component of natural gas, the winning chemical reaction involves a molecule less favored by previous research, something called a methyl radical.

Reported today in the journal Science, the work is important for both producing methane as a fuel source and tempering its role as a powerful greenhouse gas. Understanding how microbes generate methane might help scientists find ways to control pollution or make fuels.

“Methane is a greenhouse gas and, at the same time, one of the major sources of energy used worldwide,” said study lead author Stephen Ragsdale, University of Michigan professor of biological chemistry. “Detailed knowledge of the microbial mechanism may lead to major breakthroughs for designing efficient catalytic processes for converting methane into other chemicals.”

Although other types of radicals are common—think hydrogen peroxide and ozone—this study demonstrates one of a very few known instances of nature using a highly reactive methyl radical, different because it contains carbon, in its biological machinations.

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A tale of two oil and gas boomtowns – a boost to the economy, a tricky landing

The Conversation, feat. Daniel Raimi

Over roughly the past 10 years, the United States has experienced remarkable growth in the production of natural gas and oil. This growth has taken place across dozens of regions, from the scrub of west Texas to the plains of North Dakota to the pastoral hills of Appalachia. It has sparked economic growth, raised environmental concerns and reduced energy prices.

But how does the oil and gas industry affect the financial well-being of the communities where it operates? Over the past three years, we have looked deeply into this question, traveling to 21 regions across the top 16 oil- and gas-producing states. We interviewed more than 200 officials from over 150 local governments (mostly cities and counties), analyzed financial records from each of these government entities and examined how policies have shaped their experiences.

Our results illustrate the difficulty of generalizing from one region to another, as each community experiences oil- and gas-driven growth differently. Despite the differences, our findings can offer lessons for regions where oil and gas activity – an industry marked by booms and busts – is likely to play a major role in the economy for decades to come.

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Biofuels Plant in Hawaii Is First to Be Certified as Sustainable

The New York Times, feat. John DeCicco

The trucks roll in and out of the plant at a business park nestled near papaya farms and a forest preserve on the Big Island here, an operation that transforms waste cooking oils, animal fats, fruit and seeds into biodiesel fuel, nearly 13,000 gallons a day.

Owned by Pacific Biodiesel, an industry pioneer, the plant was designed with an eye toward conserving water and energy and avoiding environmental harm.

But after about $20 million and four years of operation, a central question about the plant, and the industry as a whole, has persisted: Do biofuels ultimately reduce carbon emissions?

“You can’t just automatically make assumptions that, say, waste-based fuel is O.K.,” said John M. DeCicco, a research professor at the University of Michigan Energy Institute. “If you have a waste that was otherwise not going to decay, then that carbon is already being kept out of the air with respect to the atmosphere, and at that point you’re as ahead of the game as you’re ever going to be.”

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National engineering leaders gather at MCity

Michigan Engineer, feat. Huei Peng

Nearly 200 leading engineers from across the Midwest and the nation will be on the University of Michigan’s campus next week to gain insights into autonomous and connected vehicles as they chart a path toward adopting these rapidly maturing technologies.
The National Academy of Engineering’s regional meeting is May 24 and 25 on U-M’s North Campus. The topic is advanced mobility and the event is open to the public. Read the agenda.

“NAE members comprise the nation’s most influential engineers. It is our privilege and responsibility to share our expertise in autonomous and connected vehicles with this preeminent group of thought leaders,” said Huei Peng, director of the U-M Mobility Transformation Center, the public-private partnership that operates Mcity, the university’s unique simulated urban and suburban environment for testing connected, automated and driverless vehicles and technologies. Peng, the Roger L. McCarthy Professor of Mechanical Engineering, is also on the board of directors of the new American Center for Mobility.

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David Munson, Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering, testifies before Senate Committee on the future of science and technology policy

University Record, feat. David Munson

On May 11, David Munson, Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering at U-M, testified before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. The hearing, titled “Leveraging the U.S. Science and Technology Enterprise” focused on ways to improve the roles of the federal government, private sector, and academia in science and technology research and development, STEM education and workforce opportunities, and the application of research and development to commercial use. The testimony of Munson and the other witnesses will help inform the Committee as they work on legislation to reauthorize the America COMPETES Act.

The America COMPETES Act authorizes programs and funding levels for agencies including the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Standards and Technology, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy. This legislation was last reauthorized in 2010, and has been overdue for reauthorization since the end of fiscal year 2013.

Munson was the only witness representing a university to testify. Among several topics, he discussed the importance of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education to ensure a robust workforce. He noted several programs that help us achieve these efforts, including integration of the arts with STEM, and also the value at having a coordinated, scalable approach. He also discussed the need for programs that create strong links to industry and federal customers, such as the National Network for Manufacturing Institutes.

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