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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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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The bioeconomy at work: petroleum-free tires in the making

On the one hand, the 'bioeconomy' is an economy where petro-chemical products are substituted and replaced by biobased alternatives, and on the other hand, an economy where entirely new products and biobased systems are developed that are sustainable, durable, recycleable and efficient.

Contrary to common perceptions, the substitution logic requires just as much innovation as the development of new products and applications. An interesting and important example of this is the creation of petroleum-free tires, which have raised a lot of interest given high oil prices.

But a 100%, petroleum-free tire? Sounds like a fantasy, doesn’t it? Sumitomo Rubber Industries Ltd. doesn’t think so. At the International Tire Exhibition and Conference (ITEC) held in Akron, Ohio, Sumitomo’s Mamoru Uchida presented an overview of how his company has reduced the content of oil in a tire by 46% in its Dunlop 'ENASAVE ES801', the 'next generation environmentally friendly tire.' And it’s a tire in production, not just a concept tire.

Tires are made from around 100 different kinds of material. Of this number, the four main petroleum materials are synthetic rubber, carbon black as a filler, mineral oil and synthetic fiber for the casing. The Dunlop 'ENASAVE ES801' tire reduces the use of synthetic rubber by increasing natural rubber - a tropical commodity farmed by millions of smallholders in the developing world -, and utilizes bio-materials for filler, oil and casing. This has successfully raised the proportion of non-petroleum materials from 44% for conventional tires, to 70% for the 'ENASAVE ES801'. The increased use of these materials has also lowered rolling resistance by 30%, contributing to improved fuel economy.

This is quite some important news, showing that substitution and innovation will make 'Peak Oil' less dramatic than some portray it to be. Many in the so-called 'Peak Oil community' have written that global transport might collapse not only because fuel prices will spiral out of control, but simply because oil-based synthetic rubber tires would be too expensive to manufacture. The substitution logic - demonstrated nicely by the development of the petroleum-free tire - tells us that things will not come this far. Just as petroleum fuels will be replaced by biofuels, SBR tires will find alternatives in high-tech biobased tires.

Let's listen to Mamoru Uchida's speech entitled "Development of the Petroleum-Free Tire". Some excerpts:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

A modern tire has to perform the following fundamental functions:

* to support the vehicle load
* to absorb shocks from the road surface
* to transmit traction and braking forces to the road surface
* to change and maintain direction of travel

To realize these functions, around 100 kinds of material are used in a tire. These materials were improved in their performance with the progress of vehicle technology starting from the Model-T Ford, the development of expressway service, the development of petrochemistry and a certain number of inventions regarding tire technology such as the pneumatic tire and subsequently the radial tire.

Today, petroleum materials account for over 50% of the materials by weight which are used in a tire.

Petroleum materials are taken into confidence for tire technology due to their special characteristics. Therefore, tire performance has been able to follow the progress of vehicle technology. On the other hand, there is an anticipation that oil supplies will dry up and also the considerable consumption of oil is responsible for many environmental issues.

Product concept: ENASAVE ES801
We considered the following two approaches to make our contribution to this environmental issue. One is to increase the usage of petroleum-free materials and the other is to reduce a tire’s rolling resistance for reduced fuel consumption.

1. Substitution of materials. The usage of material for the standard and the petroleum-free tire ENASAVE ES801 is as follows. The weight ratio of petroleum-free material is raised from 44% to 70% by replacing synthetic rubber with natural rubber, carbon black with silica, mineral oil with vegetable oil and synthetic fiber with vegetable fiber.

The substitution of rubber is important to the weight ratio of petroleum materials and tire performance. When the substitution of rubber is made at the tread compound, then the tire performance is degraded with respect to grip.

Natural rubber has the characteristics that its grip performance is inferior to that of synthetic rubber SBR when applied in a tread compound. Natural rubber has a longer molecular chain but compact side chain compared with synthetic rubber SBR; therefore, natural rubber shows better rolling resistance but less grip performance compared with synthetic rubber SBR. Since grip performance, especially wet grip is important for safety… we applied a modified natural rubber to improve grip performance.

2. Modified natural rubber tread compound. An epoxidized natural rubber, which is one of the modified natural rubbers, shows a change of the loss tangent curve and is close to that of synthetic rubber SBR. With the combination of epoxidized natural rubber, silica and vegetable oil, we are able to produce a tread compound which is competitive to a synthetic rubber tread compound in grip performance.

3. Tire design. The new concept tread pattern design is effective in the reduction of rolling resistance, with good wet grip, dry handling and noise reduction on ENASAVE ES801.

Compared with the standard tire, ENASAVE ES801 can achieve a 30% reduction of rolling resistance and better performance in all other criteria.

The first pneumatic tire made in Japan was launched in 1913. In this tire, the tread compound was composed of natural rubber and magnesium carbonate together with other materials that were considered as petroleum-free materials.

We continue to develop the petroleum-free tire aiming at this first pneumatic tire made in Japan as the target of petroleum-free materials ratio but with the excellent tire performance properties required from a modern day product.

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Fraunhofer scientists develop ethanol fuel cells

The hydrogen economy has been on the back burner for quite a while now, mainly because producing, storing and distributing the clean gas is problematic (earlier post). Moreover, when biomass-to-hydrogen is used as a production path, well-to-wheel analyses show that the biomass can be used more efficiently for other fuel paths (earlier post).

One element of hydrogen systems that remains on the radar of research are fuel cells which convert the hydrogen contained in gaseous or liquid fuels into electricity that can be used for stationary or mobile applications. Earlier, we reported about an Italian group of researchers who have developed cheap non-platinum catalysts for fuel cells that can work on a range of fuels (including biofuels, and probably on butanol too). And now, researchers from one of Europe's main R&D institutions, the Fraunhofer Institute, are working on direct-alcohol fuel cells (DAFC, also known as direct-ethanol fuel cells: DEFC).

The cells work on ethanol without the need for prior reforming of the fuel. Instead, the alcohols are directly converted into energy via the cell's membrane [picture] and catalysts under development. The advantage of DAFCs is that they use fuels that are easy to produce, store and distribute and which have a higher energy density than hydrogen.

The development of such a DAFC is in its infancy, says Michael Krausa who heads the research at the Fraunhofer Institute's dept. for Chemical Technologies: we are in a phase where research into direct-methanol fuel cells (DMFCs) was about 10 years ago. In DMFCs, methanol reacts directly with oxygen from the air at the membrane, with the reaction delivering electricity. But because ethanol differs considerably from methanol, the DAFC has to be built from scratch. The main challenge lies in the fact that ethanol consists of two strongly bonded carbon atoms, that have to be broken down. Methanol only contains one such an atom.

Central to the development of the DAFC is the membrane: it should be impermeable for the ethanol molecules, but has to be able to allow the protons that are needed for the reaction with oxygen to pass through:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

As with the DMFC, so-called unwanted cross-over effects occur during this proton exchange: part of the ethanol does penetrate the membrane at the cathode and can thus no longer be used for the reaction. The Fraunhofer Institute's goal is now to develop special anorganic components in the membrane that will block the ethanol, without stopping the flow of the necessary protons. New catalysts that are adapted to the properties of ethanol are the main focus of the research. The design of the DAFC cell must also ensure that these new catalysts and membranes function optimally under the high temperatures that arise during the reaction.

So why the choice for an alcohol-fuel cell? "Ethanol is a much versatile and better energy carrier [than both hydrogen and methanol]", says Krausa and adds that the concept of ethanol fuel cells holds tremendous potential. Ethanol has a higher energy density than methanol and is already widely used and accepted in numerous industries and by the public at large. In contrast to methanol, it is also non-toxic. Ethanol is being produced more and more from biomass, with the industry becoming a global market. DAFCs can be used as mobile energy systems or in decentralised concepts.

More information:

Fraunhofer-Institute: Fraunhofer-Forscher entwickeln Ethanol-Brennstoffzelle - Oct. 10, 2006

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Global bioeconomy needs sustainability safeguards - survey covering 50 countries finds

There is strong support for establishing international sustainability standards for the bioeconomy that ensure the environmental, economic and social benefits are reached, according to an informal survey of representatives from non-governmental organizations, government and businesses carried out by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

The bioeconomy is a rapidly growing sector producing fuel, energy and other products from agricultural crops, grasses, and forest materials. The sector has exploded recently with the help of renewable fuel mandates and Wall Street investment. In early September, IATP conducted a survey of multiple networks it has developed over the years as part of its international trade, and domestic farm and environmental work. Nearly 300 people responded from over 50 different countries.

The survey was released prior to an international meeting this week in Bonn, Germany on 'Sustainable Bioenergy - Challenges and Opportunities' sponsored by the UN Foundation.

In the survey, respondents were allowed to check more than one answer. Some of the survey’s findings [full survey here, you or your organisation can still participate in it yourself]:

  • Potential positive outcomes for the bioeconomy included less reliance on oil (62 percent), more jobs for rural communities (57 percent), more opportunities for sustainable biomass (53 percent), less pollution (50 percent), and better prices for farmers (49 percent);
  • Potential negative outcomes included increased use of genetically engineered crops (63 percent), increased power for multinational agribusiness and energy companies (63 percent), more intensive industrialized agriculture (62 percent), depletion of water resources (56 percent), and damage to biodiversity (48 percent).
  • Respondents identified the impact on biodiversity (80 percent) as the top information gap in understanding the future of the bioeconomy, followed by the impact on market concentration (67 percent), impact on food security (65 percent), impact on pollution (62 percent) and impact on prices paid to farmers (53 percent).
  • There was strong support for the establishment of international standards that would ensure the positive benefits of the bioeconomy, and limit the potential negative outcomes. Sixty four percent of respondents agreed to participate in a process to set sustainable international standards.
Major changes are taking place in agriculture because of the new bioeconomy. This rapidly growing sector is producing fuel, energy and products from agricultural crops, grasses, and forest materials. There is the potential for positive outcomes such as higher farm crop prices, less export dumping, less dependence on polluting fossil fuels and stronger rural communities where local ownership is entrenched in development policies. But there are also concerns about negative impacts on food security, natural ecosystems and rural development:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Many in nongovernmental organizations, government, and the business sector are grappling with the new opportunities and challenges posed by the bioeconomy, including how to define trade, fiscal and budgetary policies that will promote equitable growth and sustainability. To better understand what others in the U.S. and around the world think about this emerging economy, IATP conducted an informal survey in September. The survey went out to multiple networks that IATP has developed over the years as part of its international trade work, as well as U.S.-based domestic farm and environmental networks. The survey was also present on our various web sites and open to anyone who wanted to contribute.

Summary of findings
The survey is by no means comprehensive, but it does give us a snapshot of where many leaders following the bioeconomy think this new sector is going. We received numerous informal comments from respondents that their organization, government or business were debating many of the same issues described in our survey. In all, over 275 respondents from more than 50 countries took the survey.

Benefits and risks for the environment seemed to be at the front of respondents’ thinking about the bioeconomy. Most saw the greatest benefits of the bioeconomy coming from less reliance on oil for energy, more jobs for the rural economy, more opportunity for sustainable, perennial biomass, and less pollution. Most were concerned about the increased use of genetically engineered crops to grow energy crops, increased market power for agribusiness and energy companies and more intensive, industrialized agriculture. Most identified the biggest gap in knowledge as the impact on biodiversity and the environment, followed by corporate concentration, impact on food security, and impact on greenhouse gas emissions. Most respondents saw the bioeconomy being developed for local or national use, not for export.

There was strong support for the development of international sustainable biomass standards. Ecosystem protection was the most important element of developing international standards for the bioeconomy. One hundred and seventy respondents said they would be willing to participate in a process to develop international standards.

Enthusiasm for the bioeconomy is clear from the survey. But so are the strong concerns about risks, particularly in the areas of environmental damage and corporate market concentration. Strong support for participating in the development of international sustainability standards for the bioeconomy indicates that it is a necessary and worthwhile endeavor.

About the respondents
Respondents identified themselves as from the following sectors: nongovernmental organizations (92), higher education (47); government (20); UN Agency (10); private sector (22); lending and aid organizations (3); and foundations (8).

Respondents came from 51 countries from all five continents including: United States, Philippines, Ireland, Panama, Brazil, United Kingdom, Canada, Uruguay, Netherlands, Switzerland, New Zealand, Fiji, Indonesia, Mongolia, Australia, Thailand, India, Italy, Turkey, Sweden, Pakistan, Denmark, France, Germany, Senegal, Chile, Jamaica, Mexico, New Zealand, Nepal, Oman, Kenya, Egypt, Mozambique, Sri Lanka, Tunisia, Sudan, South Africa, Belgium, Morocco, Columbia, Guatemala, Austria, Norway, Paraguay, Algeria, Cameroon, Bangladesh and Finland.

Seventy three percent of the respondents were connected to organizations that worked in agriculture, and 63 percent had some overlap with the environment. Fifty seven percent worked locally, 64 percent nationally, 55 percent regionally, and 69 percent internationally.

Defining the bioeconomy
Of those working directly within the bioeconomy, 37 percent were focused on fuels, and 25 percent on biomass energy. In their region, 57 percent said that corn was the predominant crop for biomass energy, followed by woody biomass (39 percent), soybeans (32 percent), sugar (23 percent), and canola (20 percent). Most did not see the bioeconomy as being built for export (only 14 percent). They expect most of it to be built for local and national use.

In exploring possible positive outcomes for the bioeconomy, less reliance on oil topped the list at (62 percent), followed by more jobs for rural communities (57 percent), more opportunities for sustainable biomass (53 percent), less pollution (50 percent) and better prices for farmers at (49 percent). Ten percent saw no real benefits from the bioeconomy.

Concerns about the bioeconomy were topped by: increased use of genetically engineered crops (63 percent), increased power for multinational agribusiness and energy companies (63 percent), more intensive industrialized agriculture (62 percent), depletion of water resources (56 percent), and damage to biodiversity (48 percent).
Information gaps

Respondents identified the impact on biodiversity (80 percent) as the top information gap concerning the new bioeconomy, followed by impact on market concentration (67 percent), impact on food security (65 percent), impact on pollution (62 percent), and impact on prices paid to farmers (53 percent).
Interest in international standards

International standards are being discussed as a way to ensure the positive benefits from the bioeconomy, and limit or eliminate negative outcomes. Forty eight percent of respondents considered ecosystem protection the most important of such standards, 34 percent thought local ownership was most important, and 23 percent thought local regional use was most important.

Sixty four percent (170 respondents) said they would be willing to participate in a process to set sustainable international standards.

Responses to the survey fully reflected the multifaceted aspects of the bioeconomy—excitement about the possibilities, concern about the risks. The survey reflected the global development of this sector with respondents from over 50 different countries around the world. The responses also support the clear need for more research to better understand the consequences of an emerging bioeconomy. Finally, strong interest in supporting international standards reflects the critical importance of a well-planned, informed, and democratic approach to the growth of this sector.

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Ericsson, GSMA and MTN to use biofuels to expand mobile coverage in developing world

We have often said that bioenergy and biofuels offer opportunities to realise a new energy paradigm, based on inclusion of previously excluded, energy-poor and technology deprived groups who live at the (conceptual) fringes of societies in the South. Through decentralisation and local resource control, biofuels allow such communities to 'jump' out of poverty by creating synergies between biofuels production and other sectors and services (food production, mining, education, healthcare...).

An exciting example of a synergy between biofuels and high-tech in the developing world is now being implemented by Ericsson (the mobile phone manufacturer), the GSM Association and multinational telecommunications group MTN. The companies have teamed up to establish biofuels as an alternative source of power for wireless networks in remote parts of the developing world to bridge the digital divide. The three organizations have set up a pioneering project in Nigeria to demonstrate the potential of biofuels to replace diesel as a source of power for mobile base stations located beyond the reach of the electricity grid.

Biodiesel has several important advantages over conventional diesel as a power source for base stations. Biodiesel can be produced locally, creating employment in rural areas, while reducing the need for transportation, related logistics and security. Biodiesel has a much lower impact on the environment than conventional diesel. The cleaner burning fuel results in fewer site visits and also extends the life of the base station generator, reducing operators' costs. "The early adoption of biofuel-powered mobile networks would place Africa at the forefront of a new wave of innovation that is making mobile communications affordable and accessible across the developing world," said Karel Pienaar, CTIO of the MTN Group.

In a pilot project, supported by expertise and funding from the GSMA's Development Fund, Ericsson and MTN are setting up a pilot biodiesel-powered base station solution in Lagos and will later deploy biodiesel-fueled base stations in rural regions of south eastern and south western Nigeria. The three organizations are setting up a supply chain designed to benefit the local population by sourcing a variety of locally-produced crops and processing them into biofuel. Groundnuts, pumpkin seeds, jatropha, and palm oil will be used in the initial pilot tests:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

"The extension of mobile networks into rural areas is vital to boost the social and economic welfare of the developing world," said Rob Conway, CEO of the GSMA, the global trade association for mobile operators. "Biofuels have the potential to make that happen by giving mobile operators local access to a commercially and environmentally sustainable power supply."

The GSMA and Ericsson will draw on the findings of the pilot to help operators across the developing world determine whether they can use biodiesel to power their networks in rural areas.

"In order to reach the next billion mobile users, we need to reach lower-spending segments of the population profitably," said Bert Nordberg, Executive Vice President, Sales and Marketing, Ericsson. "By using locally-produced biofuels, we could significantly lower the cost of operating mobile base stations in rural areas."

The pilot project is the first time that biofuels has been used as a power source for radio base stations. Only 25 percent of Nigeria is connected to the electricity grid. MTN has invested in Y'ellowWatts, its own power system made up of an extensive grid of generators designed to keep the entire MTN network at an optimum level of performance.

The GSMA's Development Fund was set up in October 2005 to provide consulting support to innovative pilot projects that use mobile technology to boost social, economic and environmental welfare in developing countries. Working together with mobile operators, the Fund supports easily-replicable and sustainable projects that have the potential to be widely-deployed.

Photos courtesy by Ericsson.

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U.S. DOE to sequence the DNA of six photosynthetic bacteria to make biofuels

The United States Department of Energy (DOE) is devoting US$1.6 million to sequencing the DNA of six photosynthetic bacteria that Washington University in St. Louis biologists will examine for their potential as one of the next great sources of biofuel that can run our cars and warm our houses. That's a lot of power potential from microscopic cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) that capture sunlight and then do a variety of biochemical processes. One potential process, the clean production of ethanol, is a high priority for DOE.

Himadri Pakrasi (picture), Ph.D., Washington University Endowed Professor of Biology in Arts & Sciences, and Professor of Energy in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, will head a team of biologists at Washington University and elsewhere in the analysis of the genomes of six related strains of Cyanothece bacteria. One additional Cyanothece strain, 54112, already has been sequenced by the Joint Genome Institute in Walnut Creek, California, DOE's sequencing facility, the largest DNA sequencing facility in the world , that also will sequence the additional six.

The amazing Cyanothece 54112 is a one-celled marine cyanobacteria, which is a bacterium with a well-defined circadian rhythm, or biological clock. In particular, Cyanothece has the uncanny ability to produce oxygen and assimilate carbon through photosynthesis during the day while fixing nitrogen through the night, all within the same cell. Incredibly, even though the organism has a circadian rhythm, its cells grow and divide in 10 to 14 hours.

Why sequence six? The strains, two isolated from rice paddies in Taiwan, one in a rice paddy in India, and three others from the deep ocean, are related, but each one comes from different environmental backgrounds and might metabolize differently. Thus, one or more strains might have biological gifts to offer that the others don't , or else combining traits of the different strains could provide the most efficient form of bioenergy.

A natural at fermentation
"The Department of Energy is very interested in the production of ethanol or hydrogen and other kinds of chemicals through biological processes," said Pakrasi, who also is director of the University's Bioenergy Initiative. "Cyanobacteria have a distinct advantage over biomass, such as corn or other grasses, in producing ethanol, because they use carbon dioxide as their primary cellular carbon source and emit no carbons and they naturally do fermentation. In biomass, yeast needs to be added for fermentation, which leads to the production of ethanol. Cyanobacteria can offer a simpler, cleaner approach to ethanol production." Pakrasi heads a group of nearly two dozen researchers who will do a lengthy, painstaking manual annotation of the gene sets of each organism to figure out what each gene of each strain does:

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

"The diversity in those sequences will give us the breadth of what these organisms do, and then we can pick and choose and make a designer microbe that will do what we want it to do," Pakrasi said. "We want to tap into the life history of these organisms to find the golden nuggets."

One possible way to produce ethanol using Cyanothece strains is a hybrid combination of the microbe and plant matter where the cyanobacteria coexist with plants and enable fermentation. The model exists in nature where cyanobacteria form associations with plants and convert nitrogen into a useful form so that plants can use the nitrogen product.

Extracting ethanol
At Washington University, Pakrasi and his collaborators have designed a photobioreactor to watch Cyanothece convert available sunlight into thick mats of green biomass, from which liquid ethanol can be extracted.

Pakrasi led the sequencing of Cyanothece 54112 as the focus of a Department of Energy "grand challenge project" that resulted in the sequencing and annotation of a cyanobacterium gene that could yield clues to how environmental conditions influence key carbon fixation processes at the gene-mRNA-protein levels in an organism.

Two of the most critical environmental and energy science challenges of the 21st century are being addressed in a systems biology program as part of a Grand Challenge project at the W.R. Wiley Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL), a national facility managed by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) for the Department of Energy. This program features an elaborate international collaboration involving six university laboratories and 10 national laboratory groups, Washington University being one of them.

Pakrasi is leading a grand challenge project in membrane biology that is using a systems approach to understand the network of genes and proteins that governs the structure and function of membranes and their components responsible for photosynthesis and nitrogen fixation in two species of unicellular cyanobacteria, specifically Cyanothece and Synechocystis.

The Cyanothece sequencing is the second Joint Genome Institute project involving Washington University. In 2004, the university was directly involved in sequencing the entire genome of the moss Physcomitrella patens at the Joint Genome Institute.

The Community Sequencing Program at the U.S. Department of Energy chose a proposal submitted by Ralph S. Quatrano, Ph.D., the Washington University Spencer T. Olin Professor and chair of the Department of Biology in Arts & Sciences, and Brent Mishler, Ph.D., professor of integrative biology and director of the Jepson Herbaria at the University of California, Berkeley, to sequence the plant's DNA.

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