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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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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The spirit of Rudolf Diesel: peanuts and socialism

Rudolf Diesel was a great inventor and a typical 'universal man', an erudite whose interests ranged from mechanics and physics to linguistics and sociology. The french-born German inventor's biography reads like a Greek tragedy, with his deportation to London during the Franco-Prussian War, his brilliant career as a student, the disputes surrounding his patents and business deals, his rise to the status of multi-millionaire, and his political activism as an internationalist and socialist which contrasted with his wealth. His huge debt in later life, the peculiarities of his psyche (mildly paranoid) and his suspicious death (suicide or murder), add to the suspense.

For biofuel advocates, Diesel has become somewhat of a symbol, but for rather humble reasons: at the Exposition Universelle of 1900 in Paris, he demonstrated his revolutionary engine by using pure peanut oil as fuel. His own words have inspired many biodiesel enthusiasts eversince: "The use of vegetable oils for engine fuels may seem insignificant today. But such oils may become in the course of time as important as the petroleum and coal tar products of the present time" (1912).

Wealth, socialism, energy, engines and peanuts. A bizarre combination. But one that might work in the future. Suppose we were to take Diesel's vision of peanut-oil fueled engines seriously, then the question obviously becomes: where will all the peanuts come from? The answer immediately takes us to the sub-tropics, and in particular to the Sahel in Africa.

Peanuts, an important oil crop
Peanuts or groundnuts (Arachis hypogaea L.) are a nitrogen-fixating legume that is cultivated in over 100 countries in the global south [overview at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics]. It is the 13th most important food crop of the world. Today, groundnut is the world's 4th most important source of edible oil and the 3rd most important source of vegetable protein. Groundnut seeds contain high quality oil (50%), easily digestible protein (25%) and carbohydrates (20%).

The nut is currently grown on 26.4 million ha worldwide with a total production of 36.1 million metric tons, and an average productivity of 1.4 metric tons per hectare. Major groundnut producers in the world are: China, India, Nigeria, USA, Indonesia and Sudan. Developing countries account for 96% of the global groundnut area and 92% of the global production.

Globally, 50% of groundnut produce is used for oil extraction, 37% for confectionery use and 12 % for seed purpose. Groundnut haulms (vegetative plant parts) provide excellent hay for feeding livestock. They are rich in protein and have better palatability and digestibility than other fodder. The production of groundnuts is concentrated in Asia and Africa, where the crop is grown mostly by smallholder farmers under rain-fed conditions with limited inputs.

Groundnut as a biofuel feedstock

Groundnut is an interesting energy crop for several reasons:
  • it grows well in semi-arid regions and requires limited fertilizer and water inputs
  • therefor it does not cause any pressures on rainforest ecologies, a critique often raised against other tropical energy crops (most notably palm oil)
  • the regions where groundnut thrives are populated by the world's poorest people (especially Sahelian countries, like Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Chad, the Central African Republic, Sudan -- who all rank at the bottom of the scale of, for example, the Human Development Index)
  • many non-commercial and non-edible varieties with high yields can be developed and improved (with several such varieties being tested in Georgia, U.S. - see below)
  • In contrast to other energy crops which thrive well in semi-arid regions, such as the perennial shrubs jatropha curcas and pongamia pinnata, groundnut can be harvested mechanically
All of the crop's parts can be used as bioenergy feedstocks:
  • the nuts themselves have a high oil content (around 50%) and one hectare of groundnut yields around 1000 litres of oil; the oil has a relatively low melting point, a medium iodine value and a high flash-point - characteristics which make it a suitable oil for biodiesel production
  • the groundnut has a residue-to-product ratio (earlier post) of around 0.5-1.2 for pods and 2.2-2.9 for straw; this means that for every ton of nuts produced, 500 to 1200kg of shells become available and 2.2 to 2.9 tons of straw residue are harvested; in total groundnut yields between 3.7 and 5.1 tons of biomass per hectare
  • these residues offer an interesting solid biofuel, with a relatively high energy content of 16Mj/kg for shells and 18Mj/kg for straw - with advanced bioconversion technologies (cellulosic ethanol or dry pyrolisis) this 'waste' biomass can be turned into liquid fuels and bioproducts; alternatively, it could be densified and used in biomass (co-firing) power plants
As can be seen from the AEZ map above (very large version here, 4mb), sub-Saharan Africa has the largest potential suitable land base for rainfed cultivation of groundnuts. The main areas where the crop thrives are the vast Sahel region, the Central-African sub-Congo basin's 'groundnut belt' and in Southeastern-Africa. In total, there are some 200 million hectares of moderately to highly suitable land for the nuts in the Sahel, some 80 million in the sub-Congo basin belt, and another 100 million in East Africa.

According to the African Groundnut Council, there are several projects underway with peanut oil as a biodiesel feedstock (in Europe and Brazil) and the nut's byproducts make it a crop with potential applications outside biodiesel production. The use of compacted groundnut shells in the form of 'bio-coal' (fuel briquettes) may save millions of hectares of woodlands which are under pressure because they are a source of firewood. This could be a very effective strategy for tackling desertification in the Sahel:

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Peanut economics

The major hurdle facing the adoption of groundnut as an energy crop, is the economics of groundnut oil. As such, peanut oil is one of the more expensive vegetable oils on the market, often fetching twice the price of palm oil.

But the trend could quickly be reversed if the global biofuels industry keeps growing as it is doing today, with multi-feedstock biodiesel plants searching for and processing any a diversity of vegetable oils. Moreover, planting and harvesting alternative energy crops grown in semi-arid regions, like jatropha and pongamia, requires vast amounts of manual labor, whereas peanuts do not. They can be planted and harvested mechanically, which allows for a very rapid expansion of the hectarage. Finally, land prices in these Sahelian countries are the lowest in the world, whereas prices for land suitable for tropical biofuel crops (like sugar cane or oil palm) are considerably higher. When the biofuels industry expands, land (lease) costs and harvesting costs might become very important business factors. And on both, groundnuts have a competitive advantage.

The best bet however is to use and develop non-commercial varieties of the nut, with higher yields. These varieties exist but have so far not been cultivated because they cannot be sold on the edible oils market. This is where farmers and agronomists from Georgia come in.

Tests are under way at the University of Georgia to develop non-edible peanuts that are high in oil, and could be grown specifically for biodiesel production. These varieties are higher in oil content than currently grown runner and Virginia type varieties and would not compete on the world market with peanuts grown for food and commercial cooking oil products.

Georgia Brown is a commercially grown peanut that is high in oil content, but not good for commercial oil. Georganic is a test variety that is high in oil, low in input costs and not suitable for commercial use. Georganic, or similar varieties will likely be the future of peanut biodiesel, according to Daniel Geller, a research engineer at the University of Georgia.

“Running peanut biodiesel cleans residue from a diesel engine. This can be good and bad, because the particles tend to clog up the filter on an engine. After cleaning the filters a few times, peanut biodiesel actually runs much cleaner than diesel,” Geller explains.

Worldwide, the demand for alternative fuels is huge. In the U.S. the demand is critical. The U.S. has roughly six percent of the world’s population, but consumes nearly 25 percent of all the fossil fuel produced worldwide. Whether biodiesel from peanuts becomes a popular alternative to fossil fuel depends on the economics of peanut oil worldwide.

More information:
Diesel, The Man and the Engine. Morton Grosser. New le der Erstausgabe von 1913 mit einer technik-historischen Einführung. Moers: Steiger Verlag, 1984.

International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), groundnut information.

African Groundnut Council: Groundnuts, an alternative source of energy for transportation.

African Groundnut Council: New Source of Energy From Groundnut - combatting desertification through groundnut shell briquettes

Farm Press: Georgia working with peanuts as biodiesel source - Sept.11, 2006

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Rabobank committed to playing a key role in financing bioenergy industry

Quicknote bioenergy finance
The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reports that Rabobank has entered into a long-term commitment in relation to the development of sustainable energy solutions, both in the developed as well as in the developing world. The bank seeks to play a leading role in financing and stimulating clean energy. This commitment is stated in the Rabobank report entitled 'Financing and the emerging bio-energy markets' [*.pdf]. Rabobank and Robeco also employ the report to announce the launch of a new investment fund for clean technology. The fund is called Robeco Clean Tech Private Equity II and will contain approximately 500 million U.S. dollars.

The 'Financing and the emerging bio-energy markets' report was presented in Singapore in conjunction with the annual meeting of the IMF and the World Bank. The report puts forward recommendations for a transition to a more sustainable energy supply. This development is necessitated by sustained supply uncertainty and energy price fluctuations on the one hand and the growing threat of climate change on the other. The report looks specifically at the fast-growing market for bio-energy. A key conclusion of the report is that agriculture and forestry could play a key role in the near future with regard to supplying clean, more sustainable and more renewable energy:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Biomass production must, however, be carried out in a responsible and sustainable manner. This market provides opportunities for both Rabobank customers and for Rabobank itself. Especially now that the prices of fossil fuels are rising, the alternatives are becoming increasingly more attractive and profitable.

Rabobank already has extensive activities in this area Rabobank invests in numerous projects, products, services and alliances that are aimed at improving the environment. The bank also encourages its customers to invest actively in energy, environmental and climate solutions. Rabobank furthermore employs non-financial criteria in its credit lending process, issues green bonds and develops sustainable investment funds in association with Robeco. The bank also trades in CO2 emission rights and develops sustainable real estate projects.

Developing countries are also not forgotten. Rabobank has confirmed its long-term commitment to the development of sustainable energy solutions and agriculture in developing countries where millions of people do not or virtually do not have access to energy. In dialogue with other NGOs and government agencies, the bank will continue to explore opportunities for implementing best practices in the field of sustainable agriculture and energy production.

We will be looking at this report in depth soon, together with another such report prepared by Swiss bank Sarasin, and analyse how these European banks define 'sustainability'. As may be apparent by now, the Biopact stresses social sustainability and not merely environmental durability. Both concepts have to be weighed off against each other.
As has often been suggested, chances are that European and American banks, NGO's, and governments will use the notion of environmental sustainability as a protectionist tool, to close off their markets for competitive biofuels from the developing world.
[Entry ends here].

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Biofuels and social sustainability

Discussions about the advantages and disadvantages of biofuels often tend to focus on environmental aspects only (on the one hand green fuels like ethanol and biodiesel can mitigate climate change, but on the other their cultivation opens questions about soil and water resources, biodiversity, deforestation and reforestation).
Most often, the social aspects of this nascent energy sector are not taken into account at all. However, we think 'social sustainability' and even 'social justice' are just as important as 'environmental sustainability'. Both can be fused into a synergy in the biofuels industry.

The opportunity for social change that can be brought about by large-scale biofuel production should not be neglected: the sector promises to bring a large number of jobs to the rural poor (as we have tried to show in numerous articles about e.g. Indonesia, Brazil, China and Nigeria), it may generate stable incomes to farmers who are at the mercy of a volatile global market, it (re-)opens the debate about land reform, it makes apparent the issues of access to energy and of local energy security in rural areas, and it represents a new paradigm in which local resource control and 'bottom-up' decision making take central stage.

Perhaps the best illustration of this potential comes from biofuels superpower Brazil. In this country, Latin America's largest social movement, the Movimento de Trabalhadores Rurais sem Terra (MST) or Landless Workers' Movement, is actively being integrated into society by way of the biofuels opportunity. During his first term, President Lula has been trying to solve the age-old problem of Brazil's rural poverty and of its tens of thousands of landless people. He thinks biofuels might offer a way out. "I have always believed that biodiesel might solve the problem of small and landless farmers". Lula's aim now is to strengthen the rural and land reforms that he initiated by tieing them to an ambitious biodiesel program ('Probiodiesel') - and to speed up both.

Another very tangible example comes from the state of Andhra Pradesh in India. Here, many of the poorest peasants have formed so-called 'Naxalite' groups who fight for social justice. The Naxalites, who have been around for decades, use a marxist-leninist or maoist discourse and have taken up the armed struggle against the local, state, and national governments. They feel structurally left out of the country's rising prosperity, and since they are the poorest farmers who live on marginal, fringe lands, they don't have much opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty. As inequality in the country grows, the Naxalites feel increasingly alienated, and consequently resort to ever more violent and desperate campaigns. Far from seeing it as a magical solution to all social problems, the Andhra Pradesh government does take the biofuel opportunity serious and has launched a massive planting campaign on Naxalite lands, with the aim of turning the tide. The marginal lands are suitable for not much else than pongamia and jatropha shrubs - but these biodiesel crops are now seen as green gold. There are some signs that Naxalite farmers agree that a win-win situation is in the make: they might obtain income security through biofuel farming, whereas the government hails their reintegration into society as part of a national security strategy:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Finally, biofuel production may become part of post-conflict strategies focused on reintegrating ex-combatants and rebels, by making them part of viable agricultural projects. The technique of giving ex-combatants land and the means of production to develop sustainable livelihoods, which prevents them from re-joining armed groups and factions, is well tested. In such diverse countries as Liberia, Sudan, Sierra Leone or Congo, where the social fabric has become very fragile after years of civil war and where ex-combatants are continuously tempted to take up arms again because of a lack of employment opportunities, biofuel plantations and production may play an important role as stabilizing factor, because of its local rootedness and because of the job creation potential it offers.

We will be exploring the concept of 'social sustainability' and its role in the biofuels sector more often and more in depth in future articles [entry ends here].

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Tanzania turns to cassava for energy, ethanol

Cassava is rapidly becoming a preferred crop for the nascent biofuels industry in sub-Saharan Africa. The starchy tuber is widely and easily cultivated, yields an impressive amount of useable biomass, thrives in poor soils far away from rainforests, without requiring much water, and it copes well with difficult climatic conditions (it withstands moderate droughts). This is why cassava or manioc is traditionally seen as an 'emergency crop' in Africa, planted when all else fails.
Nigeria is a leader in the use of cassava for the production of ethanol, on which it has based an ambitious biofuels program, and now Tanzania is following in Nigeria's footsteps.

Millions of dollars Tanzania spends on importing petroleum products could be saved, thanks to an ambitious three-year pilot project on the use of cassava to produce energy for for industrial processes. The project is run by the Tanzania Commission for Science and Technology (COSTECH).

According to East African Business Week (via AllAfrica) Tanzania spent US$1.1billion on oil imports in a period of one year starting July 2005 to about the same time this year, a situation the country's central bank is not comfortable with. Understandably so, because high energy prices impact developing countries heavily. Many developing countries, such as Tanzania, have a high 'energy intensity', which means that they feel the effect of rising oil prices immediately, and in all economic sectors (highly developed countries both have a very efficient energy infrastructure, financial and economic instruments to mitigate price rises, and scale-advantages - which is why they are better armed against high energy prices). Tanzania is therefor looking elsewhere, away from the oil and gas that plagues its economy so much.

According to Mr. Matheo Raphael, the director of COSTECH's Centre for the Development and Transfer of Technology, the project will add value to cassava by turning it from being a food security crop into a crop for industrial use and even for export. "Cassava production may be oriented for industrial use and that will push its production and value as well as help fight poverty," Raphael said. He said currently many farmers hesitate to cultivate more cassava since they see it as an 'emergency crop' only. The centre now wants to extract ethanol from cassava which is easy to cultivate and resistant to drought. Raphael said the development of cassava into bio-fuel was crucial at this time when oil prices are soaring and foreign reserves dwindling.

"The spotlight is turning to ethanol made from fermented cassava starch, which is a promising resource." Similar to other types of ethanol obtained from agricultural products, it can be used to substitute 25% of petrol in vehicles with standard engines, and up to 50 for diesel engines, especially in agricultural machines. Producing biofuels using agricultural machines that work on biofuels... :
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"That means the country would import less fuel," Raphael said.

He said, however, that the project needs a lot of support from politicians. "We will first run a pilot project in the coastal and central regions to convince politicians that it is viable."

The expert, however, warns that the product must be vigilantly guarded because the same chemistry used in production of bio-fuel ethanol is applied in the preparation of illicit spirits (see earlier post about Nigeria's 'alcohol-as fuel or alcohol-to-get-drunk' dilemma).

Tanzania is one of the largest cassava producers in Africa. About 700,000 hectares of land are under cultivation with total production of about 1.8million tonnes of cassava. Cassava producing regions are Mtwara, Mara and Ruvuma.

A fortnight ago, the Prime Minister, Mr. Edward Lowassa said the government is set to sign agreements with Thailand and Vietnam in fields that cover biotechnology among other things. Lowassa said President Kikwete was to sign the agreements during an international conference in Cuba last week. The Premier said there was a consensus about inviting businessmen from Thailand and Vietnam to invest in production of petrol and diesel from cassava, sugarcanes and jatropha.

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Banana biofuels

Quicknote biofuel feedstocks
Bernama. Three students win Malaysia's National Competition in Innovative Science and Engineering with their project "Bio-ethanol from banana as an alternative bio-fuel".
The innovative students will represent Malaysia at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) with their project. Intel ISEF is the world's largest pre-college science competition, which will be held in Albuquerque, New Mexico, United States, in May next year.

The students are Mohammad Ashraaf Raiez Mohammad Ridzuan, 16, Aminuddin Abdul Raheem, 16, and Muhammad Na'im As-siddiq Wan Hasamudin,17, from Sekolah Sains Sultan Hj Ahmad Shah, Pekan, Pahang. They had toiled on the intricacies of this innovation for over five months, Intel Malaysia said in a statement. Deputy Education Minister Datuk Hon Choon Kim gave away the prizes to the winners in a ceremony held at Sekolah Menengah Tuanku Ampuan Durah, Seremban, recently.

"These competitions allow young Malaysians to pursue their interest in science, mathematics and engineering while encouraging them to practise inquisitive thinking and problem-solving skills. "For the past years we have seen home-grown talents doing us proud in the international fair and we wish this year's team the very best in ISEF 2007," KC Yoon, managing director, Assembly and Test, Intel Malaysia said.

Bananas and plantains are an obvious feedstock for biofuels, both liquid (ethanol) and gaseous (biogas), because they are easy to manage plantation crops, they have high sugar (bananas) or starch contents (in the case of plantains), they ferment very easily and they have a high per hectare yield. Yields for bananas can go up to 50 tonnes per hectare, for plantains up to 40 tonnes. (The picture above shows the sweeter banana and under it the longer, darker, starch-rich plantain).

There is great potential for the production of non-commercial varieties of the fruit, most notably the wide diversity of plantains [more in-depth at the International Network for the Improvement of Banana and Plantain], which are cultivated all over the tropics and especially in Africa, but which do not comply with the monotony of the taste and shape of the straight 'Eurobanana'. More about banana biofuels soon [entry ends here].
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The BBC looks at second generation biofuels and biomass

BBCNews just published a good introductory article on the future of 'second generation' biofuels and another one on bioenergy with a focus on solid biomass. As both articles explain the key issues well and illustrate them graphically, we republish them full, for future reference (all images, BBCNews.com):

Biofuels are being hailed by politicians around the globe as a salvation from the twin evils of high oil prices and climate change. The boom in biofuels in the US stems from President Bush's drive to reduce dependence on imports of foreign oil; in Europe it has a more environmental dimension.

Transport is responsible for a quarter of the UK's total emissions; four-fifths of that quarter comes from road vehicles. Realising this could threaten to undermine efforts to meet Kyoto Protocol commitments, the UK government announced earlier this year the introduction of a Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO). It requires fuel companies to add 5% biofuel to all petrol and diesel sold on their forecourts by 2010.

Click here for more information about growing demand for non-food crops.

Environmental concerns
When the plant-derived biofuel is burned in an engine, the CO2 released is offset by the amount of the gas absorbed by the plants when they grew. It is, in principle, approximately carbon neutral; though the energy needed to plant, tend, harvest, process and transport the finished product can make the equation less favourable.

  • The scientific principle behind biomass is the carbon cycle
  • As they grow plants absorb carbon dioxide (C02)
  • The carbon (C) builds tissues and feeds the plant while the oxygen (02) is released
  • When plant material is burned the carbon re-combines with oxygen
  • The resulting carbon dioxide is released back into the atmosphere
  • The contribution of biomass to the greenhouse effect is therefore far less than for traditional fossil fuels
The two main players in the market, bioethanol and biodiesel, are made from crops such as cereals, soybean, rape seed oil, sugar cane and palm oil. While governments embrace what they see as a key player in a low-carbon future, there are concerns over some potential unwanted consequences.

Demand for land to grow these crops could put pressure on valuable ecosystems such as rainforests, and reduce the area available for subsistence food crops in developing countries. Jeremy Tompkinson, chief executive of the UK National Non-Food Crop Centre (NNFCC), shares these concerns. "If you are chopping down huge areas of rainforest in order to grow palm oil, not only is the palm oil not very environmentally friendly, think of the damage to the area's biodiversity. "This is a problem with some biodiesel, but the fuel we are using now is only a transitory thing."

The next generation
Mr Tompkinson predicts that within a decade, current biofuel production methods could be replaced by "second generation" fuels. "To me, this is the answer," he says. "It opens up a whole new ball game." "What we are calling second generation, when it comes to gasoline, is the use of lignocelluloses.

"Lignocellulose is a clever, technical way of saying biomass - it means anything that comes out of the ground." Mr Tompkinson says it will more than double yields:

:: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

"Instead of just taking the grain from wheat and grinding that down to get starch and gluten, then just taking the starch, we are going to take the whole crop - absolutely everything." Second generation fuel will also have a smaller carbon footprint because the amount of energy-intensive fertilisers and fungicides will remain the same, he adds, for a higher output of useable material.

Because the technology will allow biofuel to be produced from any plant material, there would be no conflict between the need for food and the need for fuel. "We can let the lads who grow wheat grow it for nutritional value, and we can have another sector that is growing non-food crops for fuel, chemicals and pharmaceuticals," Mr Tompkinson suggests.

"Because we are going to break everything down anyway, we can look at a whole new range of crops that really are energy crops, not short-rotation coppice crops that we are using now." He says two possible energy crops are sunflowers and fodder maize.

Early days
Oil giant BP is investing $500m (£266m) in an "energy bioscience institute", which will be based in either the UK or US. "There have been major improvements to food yields and productivity by applying plant science to agriculture," says spokesman David Nicholas, "but it has not been done yet in terms of applying that science to the yielding of energy crops."

BP is also investing money into research in India, where it is looking at whether it can derive biodiesel from plants that can be grown on soil not suitable for food crops. "Biofuels are a reality and will become an increasing part of our industry, but we are at the early stages of what are the most efficient and advanced biofuels," Mr Nicholas observes.

There are two sizeable barriers that need to be tackled before second generation biofuels arrive at the pumps - technology and cost. "It is technically far more complicated than current production methods," says Mr Tompkinson. "All the different [sugars] in the plant need their own enzymes to break them down.

"A number of companies are looking at something called 'cellulose accessing packages' that will allow us to take a bag of enzymes and pour it on to lignocellulose and ferment the whole lot," he explains. The NNFCC is about to carry out a feasibility study to find out whether the UK could have a Biomass-To-Liquid (BTL) processing plant, which can produce the fuel.

Mr Tompkinson believes a BTL plant will require a serious amount of investment: "For a world-scale BTL plant, you are looking in the region of £200m ($375m). "Currently, a 250,000-tonne biodiesel plant costs about £50m ($94m), so that is a big difference for the same amount of fuel.

But because of its environmental advantages, Mr Tompkinson says governments all over Europe are paying close attention to this technology "because BTL really could be the way forward".

UK 'lacks ambition' on bioenergy
British policies on bioenergy from plants and other natural materials lack ambition and clarity, MPs have said.

The Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (Efracom) says the UK is lagging behind other countries.

It urges the government to look beyond its existing 5% target for biofuels in road transport, and promote bioenergy for heating homes and aviation.

However, it says that wide adoption of currently available biofuels could have serious consequences for wildlife.

The government's target, announced last year in response to a European directive, is to have 5% of road transport fuelled by bioethanol and biodiesel by 2010.

Last year, Efracom says, the figure was 0.25%; in 2003, France and Germany combined produced 100 times more biofuel than Britain.

"The government has got to show a much greater commitment, coherence and enthusiasm in the way it develops its bioenergy policies," said Efracom chairman, Michael Jack MP.

"For a nation that prides itself on its international leadership role on the climate change agenda, it's not acceptable for Britain to lag behind so many other countries in the way that it is embracing bioenergy."

Biofuels made from crops such as wheat and rape are currently the most viable alternative to conventional petrol and diesel for road transport.

Like other bioenergy crops, their adoption would reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They release carbon dioxide to the atmosphere when they burn, but absorb it as they grow.

But land for growing them could quickly become scarce, Efracom concludes. Moving beyond the existing 5% target for road transport would, it says, have "serious land use implications".

The diversity of plants and animals would also be threatened.

The committee suggests that if the goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, biofuels for transport may not be the best option.

Using the same land to grow plants which would be burned to produce heat or electricity or both could yield better returns, it feels.

How biomass works

:: One possible use of biomass fuel is in power plants using a process such as the one shown above, the Combined Cycle
:: The fuel is turned into hot pressurised combustion gases, which are cleaned to prevent corrosion of the system
:: The clean gases are then burned with air before entering a turbine, generating electricity
:: Heat from the gases is recovered after the gas turbine using water in the heat exchanger
:: The combustion gases can then usually be vented from a stack without further cleaning
:: The only other by-product is non-toxic ash, which could, for example, be mixed with compost to help grow more biomass fuel

Last year, a government-commissioned Biomass Task Force said biomass could provide 7% of Britain's heat by 2015. But the energy review published in July refrained from setting targets for its take-up.

The UK's non-food crops
Biofuels - oilseed rape, wheat, barley, sugar beet
Energy crops - willow, miscanthus
Biopolymers - linseed, high erucic acid rape, cereals
Biolubricants - crambe,
Pharmaceuticals - borage, crambe, poppy, echium, chamomile
Construction - hemp

The report is optimistic too about "second generation" technologies which could take organic waste such as wood chips, chicken litter, or straw and either burn them or convert them into other fuels.

It notes with particular interest that kerosene could be produced this way for use in aviation, currently the fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Efracom concludes the government is not doing enough in these areas.

"Policy... amounts to disjointed piecemeal incentives, allowances and grant schemes," it says.

"The lack of ambition... by the government calls into question its whole commitment to the domestic climate change agenda."

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