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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Friday, October 13, 2006

Shipping industry waking up to the biofuels call - BioShip

On July 2 of this year, the cargo ship Anna Desgagnés (picture) delivered a cargo of heavy machinery and trucks to several Atlantic ports. Its final destination was the bay of Resolute, one of Canada's most Northern and coldest harbors. In addition to this routine cargo, the 17,850MT ship carried other loads: a message of innovation, a wake-up call to the shipping industry, and some hundred tonnes of biodiesel.

Rothsay Biodiesel, a division of Maple Leaf Inc., supplied the 115,000 litres of biofuel, in the context of the project 'BioShip'. The generator of the Anna Desgagnés ran on B20 fuel (20% bio and 80% petro), during its 38,000 kilometer journey. After reaching its final destination, researchers from Canada's Centre de Technologie Environnementale will measure the exact emission levels of the generator which are then to be compared with results taken earlier when the Anna Desgagnés ran on ordinary bunker fuel. First estimates put the CO2 emission reductions for the ship at 400 tons per year.

Even though the world trade fleet is one of the largest oil consuming sectors and one of the big contributors to dangerous greenhouse gas emissions, it is only now waking up to the biofuels call. Let us have a look at some basic numbers about this transport sector:
  • According to the WGBU's data, the entire world trade fleet in 2001 consisted of approximately 41,000 cargo and passenger vessels (over 300 RT), amongst those are some 10,000 tankers, 6,000 ships for dry bulk articles, 2,600 container ships, 18,000 general cargo and roll-on-roll-off-freighters, 2,500 combined cargo-passenger ships and ferries, as well as 1,500 passenger ships.
  • A recent study from the University of Delaware (USA), the world trade fleet consumes approx. 280 million tons of oil or 2 times more than the entire German economy (approx. 125 million tons).
  • Experts from Lloyd’s Register Quality Assurance (London) estimate that shipping traffic generates 7% of the total worldwide output of sulphur dioxide (SOx), and is thus one of the main causes of climate-damaging gases. A special survey of the WGBU (2002) reaches a similar conclusion: global shipping traffic is responsible for approx. 7% of the CO2 emissions of the traffic sector, or for approx. 2% of global CO2 emissions. Furthermore shipping accounts for approx. 7% of all SO2 and 11-12% of all NOx emissions.
  • Cargo shipping is one of the main causes of climate-damaging emissions and thus contributes substantially to environmental pollution. According to a study from the University of Delaware (11/2003), cargo shipping emits the same amount of nitric oxides as the entire USA. Additionally, according to investigations by the German journal “Bild der Wissenschaft 1/2006”, commercial shipping is the 3rd largest source of climate-effecting toxic substances after industry and road traffic.
  • The biggest environmental problem is that 90% of ship diesels (the standard propulsion for medium to large tankers, bulk barrier and container ships are slowly-operating two-stroke diesel engines) run on a comparatively cheap, but highly contaminated fuel oil. The low-grade fuel oil is a viscous substance, which is a by-product residual at the end of crude oil production. It consists of all the components of crude oil unusable for the production of petrol or diesel fuel. Fuel oil with low sulphur levels (MDO/MGO quality) costs almost twice as much as the IFO 180 and IFO 380 qualities predominantly in use.
  • Total emissions from the world's trading fleet: CO2: 813 million tons per year (in 2001); NOx: 21,4 million tons per year (in 2001); SO2: 12,0 million tons per year (in 2000)
  • During the combustion of fuel oil large quantities of toxic substances pass into the air. In comparison to other substances fuel oil has characteristics causing considerable environmental pollution. The combustion of fuel oil mainly produces nitric oxides (NOx). A 90-95% reduction of NOx emissions through, for example, the installation of ship catalysts, requires the investment of approx. 40,000 Euros per Megawatt (MW) installed propulsion power. Additionally, costs for operating supplies and increased fuel consumption have to be covered.
  • Nitric oxides (NOx) react with hydrocarbons (HC) under the influence of sunlight, generating ozone and leading to smog. Sulphur oxides can aggravate respiratory illnesses and are a cause of “acid rain”. Ozone leads to breathing difficulties in humans and damages flora.

The Anna Desgagnés and its marine biodiesel does not come too late. In the future, substantial cost pressures will arise for ship owners due to the introduction of emission-dependent charges in cargo shipping. The International Maritime Organisation (IMO), a sub-organisation of the UN, is responsible for ship safety and the prevention of pollution caused by ships at an international level. In order to reduce air pollution caused by ships the IMO enacted laws on 19th May 2005 (MARPOL 73/78, Annex VI) regulating threshold values for the emission of SOx and NOx and controlling the emission of ozone-reducing substances by ships. These laws include the stipulation of a maximum sulphur level of 4.5% in heavy oil internationally, and a maximum sulphur level of 1.5% in ‘SOx Emission Control Areas’. The English Channel is a SOx Emission Control Area, as the Baltic Sea will be from the beginning of 2006, and the North Sea from the beginning of 2007. The regulation stipulates that ships can either be fitted with a flue able to clean waste gases or with an arbitrary technology which reduces SOx emissions.

Additionally, the IMO is preparing for the implementation of a CO2-indexing-scheme in order to reduce the CO2-emissions of ships. Ships with low CO2-emissions will be in a favourable position with regards to emission-dependent charges:
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Aware of these measures, the BioShip project has called on a large number of actors in Canada to test the viability of biofuels for the marine industry. Participants in the project are Transports Canada, Environnement Canada, the Centre de Recherche Innovation Maritime, the Groupe Sine Nomine et the company Transport Desgagnés Inc. Most of the funding comes from Environnement Canada.

The project follows in the footsteps of two previous projects, called BioMer and BioPêche, which tested marine biodiesel in respectively cruise ships and fishing fleets. BioShip now targets the much larger trade fleet. According to Mme Carole Campeau, spokesperson for Transport Desgagnés, the results so far have been very promising, with the biodiesel showing an increased engine performance in all three of the tested categories of ships. Amongst the main advantages is the fact that no modification of existing bunker fuel based engine systems is required. In fact, the marine biodiesel acts as a lubricant and cleans the system, which is already adapted to the roughness of heavy fuel oil. When it comes to using the biodiesel in the cold areas of northern Canada, there were no problems as long as the biodiesel content of the fuel did not exceed 20%.

Researchers of the BioShip project sum up some facts about marine biodiesel:

-it is 10 times less toxic than table salt and as biodegradable as sugar. Therefor it is highly suitable in ecologically fragile marine environments.

-marine biodiesel acts as a superior lubricant and its use increases overall engine performance; it also saves on the lifetime of engine parts

-marine biodiesel is renewable, reduces CO2 and non-GHG emissions

-handling and transporting marine biodiesel is safer than doing the same with its petroleum counterpart

More information:

Project outline: Project BioShip [*.pdf], Groupe Desgagnés.

EnviroZine (Environnement Canada), number 69: L'industrie du transport maritime sonde les eaux au moyen du projet de navire au biodiesel - Oct. 2006

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Green hospitals and natural rubber

Earlier we reported about the substitution logic at work in the rapidly growing bioeconomy. The development of the petroleum-free tire was one example of this logic (earlier post), but new applications of bio-based products can be found in many places, such as the health care sector with its hospitals. Even though hospitals play a pivotal role in our healthcare infrastructure, they may also have a surprising unhealthy side - inadvertently contributing to illness and pollution by exposing patients and staff to a witch's brew of toxins from building materials, medical waste, hospital supplies and cleaning products.

Environmental health experts warn that materials that cover floors, walls and ceilings release hundreds of chemicals into hospital air, and chemicals used to clean and maintain hospitals add more. Volatile organic compounds such as formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, naphthalene and toluene are released into the air from particle board, carpets and other finish materials and are inhaled by patients and staff. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which releases the carcinogen dioxin during its manufacture, is widely used in the production of carpets, flooring, IV and blood bags and in plastic tubing and other hospital products.

Now as the healthcare industry in the West embarks on programmes over the next decades to replace or rebuild decaying facilities and meet growing demand from aging baby boomers, while at the same time the bioeconomy is growing rapidly, a new paradigm is silently introducing itself. Under pressure from governments, as well as health-care architects and designers and their own environmentally conscious donors, some hospitals are building more efficient, eco-friendly facilities with sustainable design features that conserve energy, use natural light and materials and reduce potentially dangerous emissions. The Green Guide for Health Care offers insights into how healthcare facilities can green their buildings and operations (see Greener Hospitals: Improving Environmental Performance [*.pdf]- Environment Science Center, Augsburg, Germany).

One series of products that receives special attention is flooring materials. Many kinds of flooring materials (such as vinyl) and carpets contain PVC, with evidence showing that hazardous additives in PVC are toxic to both the reproductive and neurological systems. Even though some manufacturers doubt whether their flooring materials are potentially damaging to humans, nonprofit advocacy group Healthcare Without Harm says hospitals have a responsibility to choose the safest course when evidence suggests harmful effects. And hospitals are taking the message serious: they are scrambling for substitutes for building and interior finish materials.

Petroleum-free, natural rubber flooring

In comes green natural rubber flooring. It is rapidly becoming a preferred alternative in healthcare facilities, for many reasons: the flooring material requires less aggressive cleaners, it gives patients a more comfortable feeling, it is aesthetically superior to 'plastic' looking floors, and the environmental benefits are directly tied to the production of the raw material in the developing world. Natural rubber trees (Hevea brasilensis) are excellent carbon sinks, at the end of their lifecycle they are a prime bioenergy feedstock, and the rubber industry provides jobs to millions of smallholders in the South (earlier post). Moreover, the flooring product is almost entirely petroleum-free, which adds to its longterm sustainability.

Currently there are very few manufacturers, but one of them, Dalsouple, has created an innovative flooring product that contains 90% natural products (in contrast to ordinary rubber flooring which contains synthetic, petroleum-derived SBR rubber), and that has made the link we like to see: tying the production of a high quality, renewable and green product to sustainability criteria in the South:

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

While many of this kind of innovations cost more up front, they can actually reduce operating costs over time, says Gary Cohen, executive director of the Environmental Health Fund, a nonprofit group that works on chemical-safety issues. Natural rubber flooring is more expensive to install than PVC, for example, "but the hospital will save much more during the lifetime of the flooring due to the fact that you don't need to constantly strip the floor with toxic chemicals and rewax it," Mr. Cohen says:

Large market potential
At first sight, natural rubber flooring materials do not seem to be the most worldchanging product. But a quick look at the potential - from the perspective of the smallholder in the South - shows that the market is large and that the social and environmental benefits are not to be underestimated.

Using some basic numbers from the literature on green hospital architecture, we can roughly estimate the market potential as follows: there are some 6.9 million hospital beds in the West (Europe, North America, Japan), with each bed accounting for some 10 square metres of floor space (hospital room, plus hallways, corridors and other spaces). In total we are talking about a surface of 68.7 million square metres that can and should be replaced by a clean, sustainable and toxic-free product like natural rubber flooring.

For the smallholder in the South, this market is huge: per square meter of green flooring, some 8 kilos of latex are required. A smallholder in Malaysia and Indonesia produces some 2000kg per hectare per year of it, on average. Now assume for a moment that all hospitals in the West were to become 'green' and 'healthy', this would imply that half a million new jobs will be created for smallholders in the rubber sector. Quite impressive.

Note that the above numbers show the potential for the hospital sector alone. We can think of many more sectors that would gladly turn green in the future: from kindergartens and schools, to facilities for retired and elderly people. And why not our homes and the work place? After all, we all spend many hours there every day.

From the development of the petroleum-free tire over biodegradable plastics to aesthetically pleasing natural rubber flooring, the bioeconomy thrives on the substitution of petrochemical products. In this economy we are all winners: the planet's climate, the smallholders in the South who can look at the future with more confidence as new markets for their products arise, and consumers in the West who understand that the petroleum era should be abandoned in favor of cleaner, healthier and greener living.

More information:

Green Guide for Health Care, homepage.

Health Care Without Harm, homepage, umbrella of 443 organizations in 52 countries working to protect health by reducing pollution in the health care industry.

Green Guide for Health Care: Greener Hospitals: Improving Environmental Performance [*.pdf] - Environment Science Center, Augsburg, Germany.

Post-Gazette: Hospitals go 'green' to cut toxins - Oct. 4, 2006

EcoBuild: New generation natural rubber from Dalsouple

GreenHomeGuide: Navigating the Flooring Thicket: Find the Greenest Way to Meet Your Needs

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Electronic 'nose' to make better biogas

Quicknote bioenergy technology
The current biogas boom in India, China and Europe is seeing rapid developments of new technologies to improve the production efficiency of the green gas. A research project carried out jointly by the Leibniz Institute for Agricultural Engineering in Bornim (Potsdam, Germany) and the German Federal Agency for Renewable Energies, has resulted in the development of gas sensors capable of determining the concentration of propionic acid in biogas installations.

The electronic sniffers allow for the development of a dynamic regulation for optimal biogas production by intervening during the fermentation process. Together with the company "Airsense Analytics", the Leibniz Institute wants to concentrate a series of such sensors throughout biogas installations in order to stabilize and optimize the anaerobic fermentation of biomass, which tends to be sensitive to many different sub-processes, in particular the concentration of propionic acids.

Increased biogas yields as well as increased operational safety can thus be guaranteed. The research group is now taking the sensors out of the laboratory and into real installations. Europe is currently undergoing a biogas boom, with dedicated energy crops as well as municipal and agro-industrial biomass waste being used as a feedstock.

In another development, the Leibniz Institute is also working on systems in which biogas is used in fuel cells [*pdf]. It thinks this fuel path is very promising given the fact that biogas can be produced much more easily and economically than hydrogen.
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Palm biodiesel viable with crude oil at US$58

The commercial viability of many kinds of biofuels hinges on the price of crude oil. Green fuels based on low yielding crops, such as corn or rapeseed, survive when the price per barrel of crude reaches record highs, like it did a few weeks ago, when oil hit US$77/barrel. But now, with prices down US$20/barrel, not many biofuels from the North can compete. Subsidies and market distortions are needed to keep them alive.

Not so with tropical biofuels. Golden Hope Plantations Bhd chief executive Datuk Sabri Ahmad announced that "It is feasible [to produce palm oil based biodiesel] if crude oil stays around US$58 per barrel and crude palm oil (CPO) continues to be traded within the RM1,450 to RM1,500 [€314/US$394 to €324/US$407] per tonne range." Currently, CPO is trading slightly above RM1500 per tonne [MPOC daily prices].

Golden Hope is Malaysia's plantation group with the largest number of biodiesel plant projects in hand – three in Malaysia and one in the Netherlands. Once operational by end-2007, the plants are expected to generate an annual production of about 400,000 tonnes. The group is reportedly looking at setting up biodiesel plants in China, South Korea and Indonesia:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: Demand for biodiesel was not only driven by crude oil prices but also regulatory and environmental reasons, Sabri said.

He said Europe and the US were supporting the move for alternative energy. "Many are putting up legislations to make it mandatory for biofuel usage," Sabri said, adding that no petroleum tax was imposed on biodiesel in Europe.

He said from this year onwards Europe was expected to increase its palm oil uptake to about one million tonnes as the commodity was widely used as feedstock for power generation.

Earlier Sabri, who is also a Mentakab Rubber director, said the company would invest about RM30mil to expand its land bank to 10,000ha from the current 2,263ha as part of efforts to sustain its earnings.

"I believe a quick way to increase land bank is via acquisitions of existing plantations but, for green fields [unworked pristine land], we will look at Sabah, Sarawak and Indonesia," he said.

Sabri said Mentakab Rubber currently had over RM 20million in cash. “However, we plan to finance future acquisitions using both internally-generated funds and other financing instruments,” he added. Mentakab Rubber’s performance for the current financial year ending June 30, 2007 was expected to be better than the last financial year, he said, given the prospect of higher CPO prices.

"For the final quarter of this year, we expect the price of CPO to strengthen at RM1,550 per tonne. It is set to be traded at at least RM1,700 next year given the growing usage of the commodity as an alternative fuel," Sabri added.

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Biofuels subsidies in the US have reached 'startlingly high levels'

Quicknote bioenergy economics
A new report commissioned by the International Institute for Sustainable Development's Global Subsidies Initiative (GSI) provides the most comprehensive tally to date of subsidies to liquid biofuels in the United States. The first in a series of studies covering Australia, Brazil, Canada, the European Union and Switzerland, the report reveals that subsidies to biofuels in the US have reached startlingly high levels, and are characterized by a troubling lack of policy coherence.

In the USA, hundreds of government programs have been created to support virtually every stage of production and consumption relating to ethanol and biodiesel. With subsidies stacked on top of each other, there is scant evidence that those proposing these incentives have a clear picture of the full gamut of support already provided by the different levels of government. Nor does there appear to be any assessment of the overall impact that government support for biofuels is having on the environment and the economy. And, while already at unprecedented levels per unit of energy, subsidies to biofuels are projected to expand, since the bulk of subsidies are tied to output and output is increasing at double-digit rates of growth.

Government subsidies to liquid biofuels are being promoted under the banner of energy security, CO2 emission reduction, and rural development. Yet the subsidies keep millions of potential energy farmers in the developing world in poverty. For a country that prides itself for its philosophy of free trade, market capitalism and globalisation, the contradiction is all the greater.

American consumers are paying billions worth of taxes to subsidize uncompetitive farmers, whereas they could import biofuels from the developing world. This would be better for American consumers and it would lift millions of the world's poorest out of poverty.

On October 25th, there will be a press conference at the National Press Club, Washington D.C., about this issue, when the report is made public. We will surely follow up on it [entry ends here].
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Colombia: a biofuels superpower in the making

The sun generates energy; sugar cane, cassava, African oil palm, beets and potatoes store it; and Colombians are determined to transform the energy concentrated in these crops into biofuels. They know they have an excellent climate, ample land resources and a huge potential to produce green fuels.

To harvest Colombia's sunlight and soil resources the Colombian Environment Ministry is developing an ambituous biofuels plan, with a series of separate projects involving these crops.

Peak Oil, a reality in Colombia
The aim is to confront the drop in Colombia’s oil reserves and to place the country at the forefront of the generation of clean fuels in Latin America, where Brazil is a pioneer and the top global producer of ethanol made from sugar cane. President Álvaro Uribe announced on Aug. 7, at the start of his second term, that production of biofuels would be one of his administration’s priorities.

The government reported this month that oil production dropped 0.5 percent in the first quarter of the year due, among other factors, to a reduction in output at one of the country’s biggest oil fields: the northeastern complex of Cusiana-Cupiagua, which produced 116,000 barrels in June, 16,000 barrels less than in January. It also reported that 20 of 38 exploratory wells that were drilled have been closed off and abandoned because little oil was found, even though foreign investment in the industry is at one of its highest peaks.

It seems that the grim reality of Peak Oil is knocking at Colombia's door. And this constitutes a threat to the country's energy security, export revenues and in the long run to its overall prosperity.

Biofuels to the rescue
Besides the usual energy crops, potatoes and castor oil are also being studied as a source of biofuel, according to Leonidas Tobón, director of the Agriculture Ministry’s Institute of Technological Development. "The production of biofuels will be very important this decade in Colombia, because it is driving the cultivation of crops that did not previously play a role in industry, like sugar cane and cassava," he said. "It has also given a boost to the sugar cane-growing Valle del Cauca region (in the west), where five mills currently produce one million litres of ethanol per day."

In January 2005, Colombia began to mix gasoline with 10 percent ethanol produced from sugar cane, and the plan is to gradually increase the proportion until reaching 25 percent in 20 years. The one million litres of ethanol currently produced from sugar cane supplies only Bogota and the southern and western regions of the country. But output should increase by half a million litres to cover other important regions in the north and the east, according to Tobón.

Some 200,000 hectares are currently planted in sugar cane, 50,000 of which go towards the production of ethanol. That means "between 15 and 25 percent of surplus sugar, which used to be sold at a low price on the international market, is now used in biofuels," he said.

The cassava revolution
But Colombia’s "big discovery" in terms of biofuel production is, without a doubt, cassava, considered the "poorest" of the basic food crops, which played virtually no role in agribusiness until recently, even though it is grown in every region. Cassava has now become the second source of ethanol in Colombia:
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The first plant in this country to produce ethanol from cassava -- 20,000 litres a day this year -- is run by the private firm Petrotesting, which also exploits natural gas, oil and coal. It is a two-hour drive from Puerto López in the central province of Meta.

Seven million dollars have been invested in the ethanol plant so far. But the company plans to increase output in the medium term to one million litres a day, according to the project director, engineer Jaime Jaramillo.

"We started five years ago, and when we decided to build the plant, we already had experience in cassava, as well as in hydrocarbons. It was a perfect marriage," Jaramillo says.

Tests were first carried out with different varieties of cassava, until researchers settled on three that are well-adapted to the acidic soil and the climate of Colombia’s eastern plains region, agronomist Álvaro Santos commented.

Petrotesting also signed an agreement with the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), based in the western city of Cali, to research which varieties of cassava would be most profitable in the production of ethanol. CIAT has an internationally renowned cassava improvement programme, with more than 6,000 varieties in its gene bank.

"There are species that have a smaller starch granule and thus require a smaller quantity of enzymes to break it down, and we are studying these varieties," Hernán Ceballos, the manager of CIAT’s cassava project says.

There are also sweet cassava plants used by indigenous people in Ecuador, Guyana, Colombia and Brazil to make a kind of beer. The sweet varieties, which are easier to ferment, could be better for the production of ethanol. "That fills us with optimism and leads us to believe that in around 10 years we will have a raw material of excellent quality," said Ceballos.

A total of 350 hectares were initially planted with the three abovementioned varieties of cassava for use by the Petrotesting plant that produces biofuel. But 30 other varieties are also being studied, and the cassava plantations should expand to 800 hectares by the end of the year.

The plant is using Italian technology and will be assisted by technical experts from Brazil and Colombia. Investors from the United States and Japan have expressed an interest in the project, but would get involved in the second phase. "We are very optimistic with respect to the future," said Jaramillo.

And he has reason to be. The company’s ethanol project is getting underway with prospects for success, and there is a possibility of cutting production costs due to the advances achieved in transforming starch into sugar.

"The 'gringos' have really made progress in the processing of corn and have made discoveries in terms of technology, new enzymes and yeasts. Those advances are useful to us in working with cassava," he said.

To preserve the environment, a crop rotation system is being created, using corn, soybeans and sweet sorghum, "in order to strengthen the soil and improve its physical and chemical characteristics," said Jaramillo.

The Agriculture Ministry maintains that environmental problems should not be caused by the sugar cane or cassava plantations, because "open grassland areas are used, like in the eastern plains or the Magdalena Medio region in central Colombia, where no jungle or forest has to be cleared," said Tobón.

Some 128,000 hectares of cassava are currently planted in Colombia, mainly for human consumption. But cultivation of the crop is growing, not only for the production of ethanol but for other industrial uses as well.

Biodegradable plastic and even overfenders for cars have begun to be produced from the bitter starch of cassava, as part of a project that is being carried out with the support of the Japanese carmaker Toyota.

There are currently two other biofuel projects using cassava, in the northern provinces of Sucre and Córdoba, one of which plans to produce 75,000 litres a day of ethanol, with an initial investment of 30 million dollars and the support of the Agriculture Ministry.

Thus, a new use has been found for a crop that has been used in agriculture by indigenous people in the region for 10,000 to 12,000 years, according to research studies.

Text adapted from: IPS News (*subscription req'd), Harvesting Sunshine for Biofuels

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