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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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Monday, October 16, 2006

Reclaiming the desert: acacia turns Sahel into green farmland

Quicknote bioenergy potential
The arid and semi-arid subtropics form regions that don't get much attention when it comes to their biofuels potential. However, quite a number of crops are being studied and bred to thrive in these regions (such as cardoon, jatropha, sorghum, or groundnut). But the zone where a desert ends and potential farmland begins is very fragile. It is a battlefield where desertification and efforts to combat it play out.

According to New Scientist "for once there is some good news" from the Sahel in Africa. Farmers there are reclaiming the desert, turning its barren wastelands into green, productive farmland, that could potentially be used as a base for bioenergy feedstock production. Satellite images taken this year and 20 years ago show that the desert is in retreat thanks to a resurgence of trees. They are mainly ana trees (Faidherbia albida), a type of acacia, which is itself a kind of energy crop. Wherever the trees grow, farming can resume.

Tree planting has led to the re-greening of as much as 3 million hectares of land in Niger, enabling some 250,000 hectares to be farmed again. The land became barren in the 1970s and early 1980s through poor management and indiscriminate felling of trees for firewood, but since the mid-1980s farmers in parts of Niger have been protecting them instead of chopping them down.

"The results have been staggering", says Chris Reij of the Free University Amsterdam in the Netherlands, and are due to a "virtuous circle of benefits" between trees and their surrounding landscapes. "Leaves and fruits provide food, fodder and organic matter to fortify the soil," for instance. "More livestock means more manure, which further enriches the soil enabling crops to be grown, and spreads tree seeds so new trees grow. The trees also provide shelter for crops and help prevent soil erosion. In times of drought, firewood can be sold and food purchased to tide families over."

Further, pro-tree land use policies – including better rainwater management practices – "are helping communities in Niger re-establish control over their fate, simultaneously halting the march of the desert and helping to prevent famines like the one that hit Niger in July 2005."
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IEA chief: Europe and United States should import ethanol from developing world

Very important news. Finally someone with some authority is saying it: instead of producting it themselves and subsidizing it like mad, the United States and the European Union should import ethanol and biofuels from the developing world. Making it themselves is not good for the environment, nor for the economy as a whole, and even less for individual consumers. These are the words of Claude Mandil, chief of the International Energy Agency.

In La Tribune, Claude Mandil explains [*french] that ethanol is currently made from three main feedstocks: corn in the United States and Europe, sugar beet in Europe and sugar cane in the developing world, most notably in Brazil and India.

"The first two methods are the worst imaginable", says the chief executive of the IEA, because they are only commercially viable with permanent subsidies and trade barriers, and their production requires a large amount of fossil fuel inputs, which is not the case for sugar cane and other tropical crops.

According to Claude Mandil, "ethanol produced in Brazil, even when it is imported by Europe [taking into account the energy needed to transport the fuel across the Atlantic] makes sense. If the United States and Europe are serious about biofuels, they must turn to the South for their supplies". The South has the land available, the climate and the crops. Mandil does not deny that careful planning must be undertaken to limit environmental damage, though.

Claude Mandil warns that the United States and Europe do not see the larger picture. They are confusing agricultural policies and energy policies, mixing them up in a cocktail that "has no advantages", Mandil concludes. Implicitly, he is referring to both President Bush and President Chirac's recent announcements that they are going to support biofuel farming in the US and the EU.

Here at the Biopact we welcome Mr Mandil's statement. As chief of the IEA, the multilateral agency that analyses energy and its future in a truly global context, he knows which way biofuels should go. And it is clear that the route on the map points Southwards. We hope that Mr Mandil becomes more outspoken in the future, with his plea to have the West import their green fuels from the South, in a win-win situation that benefits both farmers in the developing world, consumers in the West, the global economy and the planet's environment [entry ends here].
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Japanese scientists develop high-yield sugar cane variety for biofuels

Scientists from Asahi and the National Agricultural Research Center for Kyushu Okinawa Region, an administrative agency, have developed a sugar cane variety that yields twice as much biomass and requires less fertilizer and water to grow than traditional sugar cane.

The new variety, dubbed 'Monster Cane' for its size as much as its vigor, is grown on a test field on the tiny island of Ie in Japan's southernmost prefecture of Okinawa. The researchers used inter-specific conventional crossing to develop the new high biomass variety and combined it with crossing varieties that are well adapted to adverse conditions (drought, salinity). Dr. Akira Sugimoto who headed the research, says the hybrid was made from the inter-specific crosses between Saccharum officinarum and S. spontaneum.

'Monster cane' compared to standard varieties grown in Japan:

  • estimated dry matter yield: 37.4 tonnes per hectare - processed into: 7.1 tons of sugar, 4300 liters of ethanol and 24 tons of bagasse
  • conventional cane: 17.4 tons per hectare - processed into: 6.9 tons of sugar, 1400 liters of ethanol production, 7.8 tons of bagasse
  • new cane yields three times as much bagasse, or crushed sugarcane refuse, which is burned to generate the energy to run a sugar-ethanol plant; large amount of excess electricity to be fed into the grid
  • excess biomass (leaves, non-crushed stalks) to be mixed with manure used as organic fertilizer

Formally known as 'high-biomass sugarcane', Monster Cane is Japan's first variety designed to produce ethanol without sacrificing sugar output. In a few months, the cane grown on Ie will be harvested to feed a pilot plant run by Asahi Breweries, which aims to test its technology for producing ethanol from cane at a cost of just 30 yen (20€urocent/US$25cents) per liter, making it very competitive with gasoline:
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The researchers hope the new variety will breathe life into Japanese farming of sugarcane, an important part in crop rotation in Okinawa, by adding value to sugar production. "We believe biomass energy will be widely used in Japan in the future, and as a maker of alcohol, we want to contribute to society using our technology," said Satoshi Ohara, researcher at Asahi's Engineering & Technology Development Laboratory.

Fuel-use ethanol is currently not produced commercially in Japan as the country lacks the necessary excess farm produce and the costs involved are usually too high. But Tokyo, which has signed the Kyoto Protocol to cut emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases blamed for global warming, is getting serious about promoting ethanol.

Some critics say that ethanol is no solution to global warming if massive inputs of fossil fuels are required to grow the crops and power the facilities used to produce ethanol. This is true for ethanol based on low yielding crops such as corn, but not in the case of sugar cane. In Brazil, bagasse is used to power the production process. Likewise, Asahi's ethanol production process itself is carbon-neutral because it uses the large amount of biomass from the cane sugarcane to power the conversion process.

An increasing number of Japanese farmers have been abandoning sugarcane production amid intensifying competition from cheap imported sugar and shrinking domestic sugar consumption. Sugarcane output on Ie Island plunged to a record-low 1,500 tons last year from 52,000 tons in the peak year of 1979. The island's only sugar mill closed in 2004. "If an ethanol plant is set up for commercial operations in Okinawa, sugarcane production may recover," said Hirokazu Nagayama, director at a farmers cooperative on the island.

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British finance minister likely to cut duty on biodiesel for trains

Sir Richard Branson, the billionaire serial entrepreneur who recently announced that he will be investing US$3 billion in green energy, operates 'Virgin Trains' in the UK. His business is close to winning a concession from British finance minister Gordon Brown that will launch the UK's first biofuel-powered rail service.

Virgin is lobbying the Treasury for a temporary concession on duty for blended biofuel, which is seven times the levy for industrial diesel fuel. The private train operator has warned that it will not go ahead with a planned biofuel trial on its trains if the government does not grant an incentive for using renewable energy sources.

Virgin plans to run its fleet of diesel-powered Voyager trains, which operate on the Cross Country Penzance-to-Aberdeen franchise, on a blend of biofuel and diesel as part of an environmentally friendly scheme.

The biodiesel to be used will likely be made from feedstocks from the developing world, blended with local feedstocks (such as rapeseed). The biofuel is carbon-neutral because the carbon emitted when it is burned was absorbed from the atmosphere while the plant grew. In the UK, the duty on pure biodiesel (B100) is 6 pence per litre, 1 pence cheaper than so-called "red diesel", or industrial diesel. However, the duty on blended biofuel and diesel is 50 pence per litre and Virgin hopes the Treasury will cut the levy substantially:
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"Using biofuels is an exciting and unprecedented initiative on British railways," said a Virgin Trains spokesman. "We have had extremely positive discussions with government and our industry partners to bring this about. But there is still detailed work to be done." A spokesman for the Treasury declined to comment on the discussions. An announcement may be made in the pre-budget report next month.

The Virgin trial hopes to start with one train in the New Year. If the six month experiment is successful, the entire 78-strong fleet of Voyager engines will be converted to biofuel.

The fleet uses around 90 million litres of diesel per year and generates 3.2kg of carbon per mile.

Elsewhere on the Virgin transport empire Virgin Atlantic, Sir Richard's airline business, is leading the formation of an aviation industry body dedicated to combating climate change. The organisation's first meeting will take place on October 30, with airlines, airports and aircraft manufacturers expected to attend. However, scientists have warned that running aircraft on a biofuel such as bioethanol could be dangerous.

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The bioeconomy at work: Ford develops polyol foam based on soybeans

Earlier we reported about Toyota's initiative to produce bioplastics for car parts, about natural rubber flooring to be used in health care architecture and about the petroleum-free tire -- a range of bio-based product developments signaling the arrival of the bioeconomy. When such products will be mass-produced, the feedstock will likely come from the developing world, which is why developments in green chemistry are of interest to us. Now scientists at Ford's Research and Innovation Center are hailing a major breakthrough with soy-based polyurethane foams – the primary substance that makes up a vehicle's seat cushions, seat backs, armrests and head restraints.

Picture: Dr. Cynthia Flanigan (left) shows colleague Dr. Ellen Lee the formula to a soy-based polyurethane used to make foam for seats and head restraints. This technology will someday replace petroleum-based foams and would help lessen the automaker's dependence on oil.

While many in the auto industry are experimenting with a 5% soy-based polyol – one of the many ingredients used to create the foam used in vehicles – Ford researchers have formulated the chemistry to replace a staggering 40% of the standard petroleum-based polyol with a soy-derived material. And they are doing it without compromising the durability, stiffness or performance of the foam.
"Five percent is relatively easy, a nice walk-before-you-run application, but there really isn't a solid business case to do it. We're talking about only 2% biomaterial for the total foam product. At 40%, which was formulated in our lab by our researchers, we have the ability to make a significant impact on the environment, while reducing our dependency on imported petroleum."
Dr. Matthew Zaluzec, manager of Ford's Materials Research & Advanced Engineering Department.
Initial projections estimate that using a soy-based foam at high volumes could represent an annual material cost savings of as much as $26 million. As for the potential environmental benefit, according to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, soy polyols have only one-quarter the level of total environmental impact of petroleum-based ingredients:
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Ford first showcased its industry-leading work with soy foams in 2003 on the Model U concept, which featured soy-based seat cushions as well as a soy-based resin composite tailgate. Ford's research of possible applications for soybean products, however, actually dates back to the company's early years. The Model T, for example, once contained 60 pounds of soybeans in its paint and molded plastic parts.

"Soy is a very green, renewable resource," says Dr. Debbie Mielewski, technical leader for Ford's Materials Research & Advanced Engineering Department. "Using a soy-based foam gives us the opportunity to conserve natural resources and reduce our environmental footprint."

Most auto manufacturers today use a 100% petroleum-based polyol foam. Per year, the U.S. market for this material is 3 billion pounds; 9 billion pounds worldwide. According to Mielewski, an average of 30 pounds of petroleum-based foam is used in each vehicle produced, making a great case for auto manufacturers to consider and research other renewable, more environmentally friendly materials to produce the foam.

To protect its scientific advancements with soy-based foams, Ford has applied for two patents, one for high-content soy foam formulations and the other for a novel, low-odor process to synthesize polyols.

For some time, Ford researchers had been hitting a road block with the 40% soy-based foam because of its odd odor, reminiscent of vegetable oil. According to Formulation Chemist Christine Perry, that issue is now resolved thanks to a new synthesis method for soy polyol developed and tested at Ford's Research and Innovation Center. The new process utilizes room temperature UV light instead of high heat and catalysts to make the soy polyol. "Using high temperatures for the chemical reaction can cause numerous side products, which produce the rancid odor. It also requires a metal catalyst and more energy," says Perry. "With our breakthrough UV process, we have a simple reaction that is readily controlled by time of exposure, is inexpensive, and reduces the odor."

The actual foam is created by combining the 40/60 blend of soy- and petro-based polyol with an isocyanate cross-linking agent and nine other additives in precise combinations. "We have done a lot of work on the formulation," says Dr. Cynthia Flanigan, a technical specialist with Ford's Materials Research & Advanced Engineering. "Because none of the additives are independent of one another, when you make a change to one, it affects all the others." Extensive testing of high and low soy percentages revealed that a 40% to 50% soy substitution produced a product with properties most similar to the 100% petroleum-based polyol foam.

For Ford, the end product is a soy-based foam that exhibits the desired automotive properties for seating applications such as seat cushions, seat backs, armrests and head restraints. The foam's chemistry can also be altered as needed depending on factors such as the geometry of a part or required hardness of the foam.

Ford is working in conjunction with other organizations and suppliers to bring these innovative technologies to the mainstream as quickly as possible –several companies have already expressed interest in licensing them. Auto parts supplier Lear Corporation has conducted head restraint trials with the 40% soy foam, measuring how it performs with a variety of production head restraint tools used for Ford vehicles. Bayer MaterialScience LLC has made significant contributions to the foam's formulation development.

For the past three years, the project has received funding from the United Soybean Board (USB), a group of farmers/leaders that oversees investments in soy-based technologies. To date, Ford is the only auto manufacturer financially supported by the USB.

"We are certain that many of Ford's competitors are watching the company's efforts very closely with the idea of emulating any success Ford has with soy-based cushioning," says Todd Allen, chair of the USB's New Uses Committee. "We believe that when the first soy foams are introduced on Ford vehicles it will have a snowball effect on the usage of soy polyols by other industries such as agriculture equipment, recreational vehicles, office furniture cushioning and other automotive components."

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