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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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Thursday, September 14, 2006

The first tree genome is published: Poplar holds promise as renewable bioenergy resource

Eurekalert: Wood from a common tree may one day factor prominently in meeting transportation fuel needs, according to scientists whose research on the fast-growing poplar tree is featured on the cover of tomorrow's edition of the journal Science.

The article, highlighting the analysis of the first complete DNA sequence of a tree, the black cottonwood or Populus trichocarpa, lays the groundwork that may lead to the development of trees as an ideal "feedstock" for a new generation of biofuels such as cellulosic ethanol. The research is the result of a four-year scientific and technical effort, led by the U.S. Department of Energy's Joint Genome Institute (DOE JGI) and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), uniting the efforts of 34 institutions from around the world, including the University of British Columbia, and Genome Canada; Umeå University, Sweden; and Ghent University, Belgium.

The research draws on the work of Ghent University's professor Marc van Montagu, the pioneer who first started genetically modifying crops in the 1970s. In 2004, his team at the Flanders Interuniversity Institute for Biotechnology (VIB) succeeded in cracking the DNA of the poplar tree, an important step in the research into 'tree-specific genes', which can be used to make trees even better air purifiers, to have them grow more quickly, or to make them easier to process. The team then formed part of a large group of institutes who work on designing energy crops.

"Biofuels could provide a major answer to our energy needs by giving the United States a homegrown, environmentally friendlier alternative to imported oil," said DOE's Under Secretary for Science Dr. Raymond L. Orbach. "Fine-tuning plants for biofuels production is one of the keys to making biofuels economically viable and cost-effective. This research, employing the latest genomic technologies, is an important step on the road to developing practical, biologically-based substitutes for gasoline and other fossil fuels."

"Biofuels are not only attractive for their potential to cut reliance on oil imports but also their reduced environmental impact," said Dr. Gerald A. Tuskan, ORNL and DOE JGI researcher and lead author of the Science study.

"Biofuels emit fewer pollutants than fossil fuels such as gasoline. In addition, poplar and related plants are vital managers of atmospheric carbon. Trees store captured carbon dioxide in their leaves, branches, stems, and roots. This natural process provides opportunities to improve carbon removal from the air by producing trees that effectively shuttle and store more carbon below ground in their roots and the soil. Moreover, bioenergy crops re-absorb carbon dioxide emitted when biofuels are consumed, creating a cycle that is essentially carbon neutral."

Poplar's extraordinarily rapid growth, and its relatively compact genome size of 480 million nucleotide units, 40 times smaller than the genome of pine, are among the many features that led researchers to target poplar as a model crop for biofuels production:
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"Under optimal conditions, poplars can add a dozen feet of growth each year and reach maturity in as few as four years, permitting selective breeding for large-scale sustainable plantation forestry," said Dr. Sam Foster of the U.S. Forest Service. "This rapid growth coupled with conversion of the lignocellulosic portion of the plant to ethanol has the potential to provide a renewable energy resource along with a reduction of greenhouse gases."

"The challenge of global warming requires global solutions," said Martin Godbout, President, Genome Canada. "The international consortium that successfully sequenced the poplar genome provides a model for great minds working together and serves as an example of how discovery science can be applied to current environmental problems facing humanity."

Among the major discoveries yielded from the poplar project is the identification of over 45,000 protein-coding genes, more than any other organism sequenced to date, approximately twice as many as present in the human genome (which has a genome six times larger than the poplar's). The research team identified 93 genes associated with the production of cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin, the building blocks of plant cell walls. The biopolymers cellulose and hemicellulose constitute the most abundant organic materials on earth, which by enzymatic action, can be broken down into sugars that in turn can be fermented into alcohol and distilled to yield fuel-quality ethanol and other liquid fuels.

Poplar is the most complex genome to be sequenced and assembled by a single public sequencing facility and only the third plant to date to have its genome completely sequenced and published. The first, back in 2000, was the tiny weed, Arabidopsis thaliana, an important model for plant genetics. Rice was the second, two years ago. Populus trichocarpa is one of the tallest broadleaf hardwood trees in the western U.S., native to the Pacific coast from San Diego to Alaska. The sequenced DNA was isolated from a specimen collected along the banks of the Nisqually river in Washington State.

The poplar project supports a broader DOE drive to accelerate research into biofuels production, under the Bush Administration's Advanced Energy Initiative. In August, the department announced it would spend $250 million over five years to establish and operate two new Bioenergy Research Centers. The DOE-supported research into biofuels is focusing on both plants and microbes, in an effort to discover new biotechnology-based methods of producing fuels from plant matter (biomass) cost-effectively.

Earlier this year DOE published a study summarizing the views of over fifty leading scientists in the field of biofuels research that expressed optimism about the prospects for finding cost-effective methods to produce fuels such as ethanol from cellulose in the not-too-distant future (Breaking the Biological Barriers to Cellulosic Ethanol, available at http://genomicsgtl.energy.gov/biofuels/b2bworkshop.shtml). Secretary of Energy Samuel W. Bodman has set a departmental goal of replacing 30 percent of current transportation fuel demand with biofuels by 2030.

DOE scientists envision a future where vast poplar farms in regions such as the Pacific Northwest, the upper Midwest, and portions of the southeastern U.S. could provide a steady supply of tree biomass rich in cellulose that can be transformed by specialized biorefineries into fuels like ethanol. Other regions of the country might specialize in different "energy crops" suited to their particular climate and soil conditions, including such plants as switchgrass and willow. In addition, a large quantity of biofuels might be produced from agricultural and forestry waste.


A 2005 joint study by DOE and the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that the United States has enough agricultural and forestry land to support production of over one billion tons of biomass, which could provide enough liquid biofuels to replace over a third of current transportation fuel consumption, and still continue to meet food, feed, and export demands (Biomass as Feedstock for a Bioenergy and Bioproducts Industry: The Technical Feasibility of a Billion-Ton Annual Supply, available at http://feedstockreview.ornl.gov/pdf/).

The DOE Joint Genome Institute, supported by the DOE Office of Science, unites the expertise of five DOE national laboratories, Lawrence Berkeley, Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, and Pacific Northwest, along with the Stanford Human Genome Center to advance genomics in support of the DOE missions related to clean energy generation and environmental characterization and clean-up. DOE JGI's Walnut Creek, Calif. Production Genomics Facility provides integrated high-throughput sequencing and computational analysis that enable systems-based scientific approaches to these challenges. Additional information about DOE JGI can be found at: http://www.jgi.doe.gov/.

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Land for biofuels becoming a valuable natural resource

Earlier we reported about India and Brazil's bioenergy cooperation pact, which was signed on the eve of the first India - Brazil - South-Africa (IBSA) Summit. The press mentioned that a bilateral agreement about land sales was made. Today, we learn that one of the companies that will make use of this agreement is India's Reliance Industries.
The company is looking to buy thousands of hectares of land in Brazil on which it will grow sugar cane to produce ethanol. Land is cheap in Brazil at €700/US$1000 per hectare, abundant water just a dig away, and added to it are clear ownership titles and a government eager to get it all going.

The company's president R.C. Sharma offers us an interesting insight into what the logic behind the global bio-economy will be, and what place the issue of control over land will be playing. Land is rapidly becoming a most valuable natural resource.

According to Sharma:
  • The big pressure in coming decade will be on land for food and fuel. Brazil will become the world's food and fuel basket of future.
  • In the 'flat world' of globalisation distance no longer deters investors, what matters is opportunity.
  • Very few entrepreneurs understand the opportunity that lies in South America, where land is abundant, fertile, very cheap and governments are now stable.
  • Ethanol and to a lesser extent biodiesel will become a globally traded commodity, sold to wherever there is demand
  • Brazilian ethanol now costs US$30 a barrel. If you take into account its relatively lower calorific value, its price would be about $50 a barrel compared to gasoline. It is the cheapest fuel today, and nothing seems to indicate that oil prices will fall below the US$50 benchmark anywhere soon. Cellulosic ethanol might not be able to compete with 'tropical biofuels'.
  • In the future, more and more countries will convert land into biofuel plantations to hedge against dependency on petroleum.
At the Biopact we are not surprised at this development of companies from the South investing in land as one of the most important natural resources of the future. Our overview of land prices in Africa, which will be published shortly, will show that there lies an even bigger opportunity in that continent [entry ends here].
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Honda achieves breakthrough in technology to produce ethanol from cellulosic biomass

Very imortant news: Honda Motor Co, one of the most innovative auto manufacturers, announced [official release *.pdf] today it has co-developed the world's first practical process for producing ethanol out of cellulosic biomass in what is a big step towards using non-edible plant materials as fuel. Ethanol is becoming a major source of motor fuel but faces supply limits, as it is produced primarily from sugar and starch of sugarcane and corn feedstock, which are also utilized as food.

The breakthrough comes as automakers look for alternatives to petroleum-based fuels that will not release greenhouse gases that fan global warming. Surging oil prices have also spurred companies to develop new fuels that may be cheaper and not as prone to supply disruptions. "Expansion of biomass utilization holds enormous potential as a major step forward toward the realization of an energy sustainable society," Honda said.

Honda co-developed the new process with the Research Institute of Innovative Technology for the Earth, or RITE, a nonprofit entity set up by the Japanese government and private enterprises, which said the new method allows large volumes of ethanol to be produced from the cellulose and hemicellulose found in widely available biomass waste, such as wood chips, leaves, corn stalks, palm fronds, rice hulls and a whole range of other agricultural residues.

Current technology for converting cellulosic biomass yielded impractically low levels of ethanol due to the interference of fermentation inhibitors with the function of microorganisms that convert sugar into alcohol. The fermentation inhibitors are formed primarily during the process of separating cellulose and hemicellulose from soft biomass.

The new process uses a microorganism [Corynebacterium glutamicum, picture released by Honda] developed by RITE that helps reduce such interference, allowing for far more efficient ethanol production .

The process consists of the following operations:

  • Pretreatment to separate cellulose from soft-biomass
  • Saccharification of cellulose and hemicellulose
  • Conversion of sugar into ethanol using the RITE-microorganisms
  • Ethanol refinement
"This achievement solves the last remaining fundamental hurdle to ethanol production from soft biomass," Hideaki Yukawa, chief researcher at RITE's molecular microbiology and genetics lab, told a news conference in Tokyo.

Honda's research unit Honda R&D Co. said it aimed to set up a biorefinery in 2008 at the earliest to test the technology for practical applications. The partners plan to work next on a plant that can produce not only ethanol, but other industrial compounds from plant matter as well:
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Ethanol, or ethyl alcohol, is on its way to becoming a mainstream world commodity as soaring prices for crude oil and gasoline push consumers to use more "green" fuels produced from renewable resources.

Ethanol production is also attracting the attention of investors. Producing ethanol from corn yields profit margins of over 20 percent, Yukawa said, citing U.S. government data -- much higher than selling the crop as food. Bio-ethanol is also carbon-neutral since carbon dioxide released by the combustion of the fuel is offset by the CO2 captured by plants through photosynthesis.

Japan hopes to replace about 500,000 kilolitres (3 million barrels) of transportation fuels with bio-ethanol a year by 2010. In the United States, the Bush administration has called for improving technologies in order to reduce U.S. oil imports from the Middle East by three-quarters by 2025.

More information:
Bloomberg: Honda Finds Way to Make Ethanol From Inedible Plants - Sept. 14, 2006
Reutrers: Honda co-develops process to make biomass ethanol - Sept. 14, 2006
AP: Honda develops new way to make biofuel that could boost environmentally friendly cars - Sept. 14, 2006

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Large-scale biofuel project on Molokai

In June 2006, Aloha Ethanol and Aloha Biomass Corporations [no websites] made an offer to Molokai Ranch, a luxury resort located on 26,000 hectares (66,000 acres) of pastureland, to bring large scale agriculture back to Molokai Island. The proposal was to lease approximately 3,600ha (9000 acres) of former pineapple plantation land, now fallow, to grow biofuel for ethanol production at a new fermentation plant near Kaunakakai.

Sam Monet, VP of Aloha Ethanol explains: "The ethanol fermentation process is not a "refinery" but more like a winery, where naturally occurring enzymes breakdown cellulose to produce sugars, that are then fermented into alcohol in a low pressure distillery. The process is environmentally safe and produces no hazardous materials. The by-products of the process are electricity and lignin, that can be used to make soap."

The Aloha Ethanol proposal to Molokai Ranch included development of a €30 million (US$40 million), 37.8 mio liter (10mio gallon) per year ethanol fermentation plant near Kaunakakai and a new farming operation that would provide over 100 new jobs and over €3 million (US$4 mio) in wages and other incomes to the local economy each year. The Hawaii based company's proposal included providing the island with low cost E-10 and E-85 ethanol based fuels that could bring the cost of gasoline on the island to below $2.50 per gallon. Most of the ethanol produced on the island will be transported to and sold on Oahu.

In addition, the ethanol fermentation plant would produce approximately 4 megawatts of excess electrical power per hour, which could be sold to a local utility for about 12 cents per kilowatt hour, reducing the cost of electricity to the islands residents by about 25%:
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Other aspects of the proposal to Molokai Ranch included development of a new well on the property (at Aloha's cost) to tap into the islands 33 million gallons per day of sustainable yield underground water, trading the new potable water with DHHL for brackish water for farming and use at the fermentation plant. The Aloha Ethanol fermentation plant will consume approximately 25,000 gallons of non-potable water per day in its operations.

Aloha's proposal included an annual donation of up to $200,000 per year to Molokai's public school and library system for computers, sports equipment and building maintenance.

The bio-crop, switchgrass (panicum virgatum) a cousin to guinea grass, is a hardy perennial tall grass that regenerates, fixes nitrogen, is salt tolerant that requires about 35 inches of rainfal per year. Swtichgrass cultivation has been tested at the University of Hawaii. It can also be used as cattle feed.

Aloha Ethanol and Aloha Biomass are owned in part and managed by native Hawaiian businessmen Mr. Buzzy Agard and Mr. Sam Monet, who have family and historic interests in the long term development and benefit of Molokai's native Hawaiian population. "Sustainable, profitable agriculture on Molokai, low cost electricity and gasoline will help the people of Molokai continue on our own path, reducing the need to rely on tourism and real estate developments" says Mr. Buzzy Agard, Aloha Biomass' president.

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ASEAN parliamentarians endorse biofuels

Quicknote bioenergy cooperation
At the ongoing 27th general assembly of the Asean Inter-Parliamentary Organisation (AIPO), a body which aims to put policy pressure on the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), parliamentaries from Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam have endorsed a program to enhance regional cooperation on biofuels and energy security.

To reduce dependence on costly and insecure fossil fuels, AIPO's economic comittee endorsed the production of biomass energy and liquid biofuels such as biodiesel and ethanol, from locally available energy crops such as jatropha, palm oil, cassava, sugar cane, rice husks and sago palm.

The region's 300 lawmakers took into account the 'downsides of biofuels production including the detrimental effects of plantations on the environment'. This comes a day after the government of Malaysia, an ASEAN member-state, denied that palm plantations for biofuels result in deforestation [entry ends here].
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