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    Spanish company Ferry Group is to invest €42/US$55.2 million in a project for the production of biomass fuel pellets in Bulgaria. The 3-year project consists of establishing plantations of paulownia trees near the city of Tran. Paulownia is a fast-growing tree used for the commercial production of fuel pellets. Dnevnik - Feb. 20, 2007.

    Hungary's BHD Hõerõmû Zrt. is to build a 35 billion Forint (€138/US$182 million) commercial biomass-fired power plant with a maximum output of 49.9 MW in Szerencs (northeast Hungary). Portfolio.hu - Feb. 20, 2007.

    Tonight at 9pm, BBC Two will be showing a program on geo-engineering techniques to 'save' the planet from global warming. Five of the world's top scientists propose five radical scientific inventions which could stop climate change dead in its tracks. The ideas include: a giant sunshade in space to filter out the sun's rays and help cool us down; forests of artificial trees that would breath in carbon dioxide and stop the green house effect and a fleet futuristic yachts that will shoot salt water into the clouds thickening them and cooling the planet. BBC News - Feb. 19, 2007.

    Archer Daniels Midland, the largest U.S. ethanol producer, is planning to open a biodiesel plant in Indonesia with Wilmar International Ltd. this year and a wholly owned biodiesel plant in Brazil before July, the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday. The Brazil plant is expected to be the nation's largest, the paper said. Worldwide, the company projects a fourfold rise in biodiesel production over the next five years. ADM was not immediately available to comment. Reuters - Feb. 16, 2007.

    Finnish engineering firm Pöyry Oyj has been awarded contracts by San Carlos Bioenergy Inc. to provide services for the first bioethanol plant in the Philippines. The aggregate contract value is EUR 10 million. The plant is to be build in the Province of San Carlos on the north-eastern tip of Negros Island. The plant is expected to deliver 120,000 liters/day of bioethanol and 4 MW of excess power to the grid. Kauppalehti Online - Feb. 15, 2007.

    In order to reduce fuel costs, a Mukono-based flower farm which exports to Europe, is building its own biodiesel plant, based on using Jatropha curcas seeds. It estimates the fuel will cut production costs by up to 20%. New Vision (Kampala, Uganda) - Feb. 12, 2007.

    The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has decided to use 10% biodiesel in its fleet of public buses. The world's largest city is served by the Toei Bus System, which is used by some 570,000 people daily. Digital World Tokyo - Feb. 12, 2007.

    Fearing lack of electricity supply in South Africa and a price tag on CO2, WSP Group SA is investing in a biomass power plant that will replace coal in the Letaba Citrus juicing plant which is located in Tzaneen. Mining Weekly - Feb. 8, 2007.

    In what it calls an important addition to its global R&D capabilities, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) is to build a new bioenergy research center in Hamburg, Germany. World Grain - Feb. 5, 2007.

    EthaBlog's Henrique Oliveira interviews leading Brazilian biofuels consultant Marcelo Coelho who offers insights into the (foreign) investment dynamics in the sector, the history of Brazilian ethanol and the relationship between oil price trends and biofuels. EthaBlog - Feb. 2, 2007.

    The government of Taiwan has announced its renewable energy target: 12% of all energy should come from renewables by 2020. The plan is expected to revitalise Taiwan's agricultural sector and to boost its nascent biomass industry. China Post - Feb. 2, 2007.

    Production at Cantarell, the world's second biggest oil field, declined by 500,000 barrels or 25% last year. This virtual collapse is unfolding much faster than projections from Mexico's state-run oil giant Petroleos Mexicanos. Wall Street Journal - Jan. 30, 2007.

    Dubai-based and AIM listed Teejori Ltd. has entered into an agreement to invest €6 million to acquire a 16.7% interest in Bekon, which developed two proprietary technologies enabling dry-fermentation of biomass. Both technologies allow it to design, establish and operate biogas plants in a highly efficient way. Dry-Fermentation offers significant advantages to the existing widely used wet fermentation process of converting biomass to biogas. Ame Info - Jan. 22, 2007.

    Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited is to build a biofuel production plant in the tribal belt of Banswara, Rajasthan, India. The petroleum company has acquired 20,000 hectares of low value land in the district, which it plans to commit to growing jatropha and other biofuel crops. The company's chairman said HPCL was also looking for similar wasteland in the state of Chhattisgarh. Zee News - Jan. 15, 2007.

    The Zimbabwean national police begins planting jatropha for a pilot project that must result in a daily production of 1000 liters of biodiesel. The Herald (Harare), Via AllAfrica - Jan. 12, 2007.

    In order to meet its Kyoto obligations and to cut dependence on oil, Japan has started importing biofuels from Brazil and elsewhere. And even though the country has limited local bioenergy potential, its Agriculture Ministry will begin a search for natural resources, including farm products and their residues, that can be used to make biofuels in Japan. To this end, studies will be conducted at 900 locations nationwide over a three-year period. The Japan Times - Jan. 12, 2007.

    Chrysler's chief economist Van Jolissaint has launched an arrogant attack on "quasi-hysterical Europeans" and their attitudes to global warming, calling the Stern Review 'dubious'. The remarks illustrate the yawning gap between opinions on climate change among Europeans and Americans, but they also strengthen the view that announcements by US car makers and legislators about the development of green vehicles are nothing more than window dressing. Today, the EU announced its comprehensive energy policy for the 21st century, with climate change at the center of it. BBC News - Jan. 10, 2007.

    The new Canadian government is investing $840,000 into BioMatera Inc. a biotech company that develops industrial biopolymers (such as PHA) that have wide-scale applications in the plastics, farmaceutical and cosmetics industries. Plant-based biopolymers such as PHA are biodegradable and renewable. Government of Canada - Jan. 9, 2007.

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Friday, September 01, 2006

Sequencing the cassava genome to boost biofuel potential

Bioenergy crops and the process under which they are converted into fuels, can be classed into 'generations':
  • 'first generation biofuels' are made from crops whose yield has been improved without direct genetic alteration, and via (thermo)chemical or biological conversion methods (e.g. biogas made from elephant grass or ethanol from sugarcane)
  • 'second generation biofuels' are made from the similar crops, but via bioconversion techniques that rely on genetically improved micro-organisms (microbes, bacteria) or engineered enzymes (e.g. cellulosic ethanol using special enzymes that breakdown lignin and release cellulose from biomass)
  • 'third generation biofuels' come about when both the energy crops and the organisms used for biological conversion have been genetically altered or bio-engineered and when during the conversion process highly efficient synergies emerge which result in fuels and a series of specialty byproducts (e.g. energy trees whose lignin structure, quantity and composition has been altered, and on which specially designed micro-organisms are released that free the cellulose in a hyper-efficient manner)
In order to make second and third generation biofuels a reality, a lot of research still has to be done. This is precisely why the US Department of Energy and European partners have teamed up to form the Joint Genome Institute which will be researching how to engineer energy crops and micro-organisms. Key to the research is genetic sequencing of 40 different high potential organisms: the genomes of these plants and microbes will be sequenced and characterized as part of a Community Sequencing Program (CSP). More than 15 billion letters of genetic code -- the equivalent of the human genome five times over -- will be processed through the DNA sequencers at the DOE JGI Production Genomics Facility.

A major part of the project is the sequencing the of cassava genome (Manihot esculenta). Cassava (about which we reported earlier here, here, here and here) is a so-called 'underresearched' crop, even though it makes for an excellent energy source and is a staple food for approximately one billion people around the planet. Its roots contain 20 to 40% starch from which ethanol can be derived, making it an attractive and strategic source of renewable energy. Moreover, the crop yields a vast amount of woody and ligno-cellulosic biomass from the shrub, that is not being used today. And this mass makes a future feedstock for second and third generation biofuels.

Cassava is a crop with great potential because it grows in diverse environments, from extremely dry to humid climates, acidic to alkaline soils, from sea level to high altitudes, and in nutrient-poor soil. It also dislikes rainforest ecologies - which is important given the debate over tropical energy crops' potential to damage the environment and in particular rainforests (e.g. palm oil). Improved genetically altered cassava yielding up to 2.6 times more than ordinary plants already exists (see earlier post), but there's much more to learn still.

Norman Borlaug, Nobel laureate, father of the “Green Revolution,” and Distinguished Professor of International Agriculture, Texas A&M University, is excited about the prospect of an improved cassava crop:
Sequencing the cassava genome will help bring this important crop to the forefront of modern science and generate new possibilities for agronomic and nutritional improvement. It is a most welcome development.
The cassava project will extend benefits to its vast research community, including a better understanding of starch and protein biosynthesis, root storage, and stress controls, and enable crop improvements, while shedding light on such mechanisms shared by other important related plants, including the rubber tree and castor bean.

The cassava project, led by Claude M. Fauquet, Director of the International Laboratory for Tropical Agricultural Biotechnology and colleagues at the Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, includes contributions from the USDA laboratory in Fargo, ND; Washington University St Louis; University of Chicago; The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR); Missouri Botanical Garden; the Broad Institute; Ohio State University; the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Cali, Colombia; and the Smithsonian Institution.

This research is important to the Biopact's objective of supporting Africa's development of a viable biofuels industry. Currently, more than 300 million people in sub-Saharan Africa plant, harvest and use cassava on a daily basis for food, feed, fibre and energy. With a much improved crop that is easy to handle, these farmers can become the energy farmers of the future. They have the land, the climate and the human resources to do so. And soon they will have a very competitive energy crop to plant on that land.

A full list of the CSP 2007 sequencing projects can be found here. [Entry ends here].
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