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    Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and his Chilean counterpart Michelle Bachelet on Thursday signed a biofuel cooperation agreement designed to share Brazil's experience in ethanol production and help Chile develop biofuels and fuel which Lula seeks to promote in other countries. More info to follow. People's Daily Online - April 27, 2007.

    Italy's Benetton plans to build a €61 million wood processing and biomass pellet production factory Nagyatád (southwest Hungary). The plant will be powered by biogas. Budapest Sun - April 27, 2007.

    Cargill is to build an ethanol plant in the Magdeburger Börde, located on the river Elbe, Germany. The facility, which will be integrated into existing starch processing plant, will have an annual capacity of 100,000 cubic meters and use grain as its feedstock. FIF - April 26, 2007.

    Wärtsilä Corporation was awarded a contract by the Belgian independent power producer Renogen S.A. to supply a second biomass-fuelled combined heat and power plant in the municipality of Amel in the Ardennes, Belgium. The new plant will have a net electrical power output of 3.29 MWe, and a thermal output of up to 10 MWth for district heating. The electrical output in condensing operation is 5.3 MWe. Kauppalehti - April 25, 2007.

    A Scania OmniCity double-decker bus to be deployed by Transport for London (TfL) will be powered by ethanol made from Brazilian sugar cane, TfL Coordinator Helen Woolston told a bioethanol conference in London. The bus will join a fleet of seven hybrid diesel-electric buses currently running in London, where TfL plans to introduce 50 more hybrid buses by the end of 2008. EEMS Online - April 24, 2007.

    Virgin Atlantic plans to fly a 747 jumbojet on a mix of 60% biofuel and 40% kerosene in 2008. Sir Richard Branson is collaborating with Boeing to achieve this milestone in aviation history. He already hinted at the fact that the biofuels "it was possible the crops could be grown in Africa, thereby helping to alleviate poverty on the continent at the same time as safeguarding the environment." More details to be announced soon. Telegraph - April 24, 2007.

    A top executive of General Motors, vice-chairman Bob Lutz, says the US should launch a 'Manhattan Project' for biofuels to make a 'wholesale switch' within five years. Kentucky.com - April 24, 2007.

    Canada's new government launches a C$200 million 'Ecoagriculture Biofuels Capital Initiative' aimed at helping agricultural producers construct or expand transportation biofuel production facilities. Government of Canada - April 24, 2007.

    Russian oil company Lukoil reportedly installed production facilities for obtaining biofuels in its refinery Neftochim in the coastal city of Bourgas. Lukoil has over 2500 oil stations in Europe, the largest number of which are located in Bulgaria, which joined the EU this year. Sofia Echo - April 22, 2007.

    The government of the Indian state of Haryana approves three small-scale (1MW) biomass gasification projects, while the Haryana Renewable Energy Development Agency (HAREDA) identifies seven industrial sectors it will help to adopt the biomass gasification technology to meet their captive thermal and electrical requirements. Economic Times - April 21, 2007.

    The Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA) is planning to build a coconut oil biodiesel plant in Ivisan, Capiz (a province in the Western Visayas region) by the middle of this year in response to the growing demand for biodiesel. News Today (Iloilo City) - April 20, 2007.

    Scientists working for Royal Nedalco (involved in cellulosic ethanol production), the Delft University of Technology and a firm called Bird Engineering have found a fungus in elephant dung that helped them produce a yeast strain which can efficiently ferment xylose into ethanol. The researchers consider this to be a breakthrough and see widespread application of the yeast within 5 years. More info to follow as details emerge. Scientific American - April 19, 2007.

    As part of its 'Le dessous des cartes' magazine, Europe's culture TV channel ARTE airs a documentary about the geopolitics of sustainable transport tonight, at 10.20 pm CET. Readers outside of Europe can catch it here. ARTE - April 18, 2007.

    Spain's diversified company the Ferry Group is investing €50 million into a biomass plantation in new EU-memberstate Bulgaria. The project will see the establishment of a 8000ha plantation of hybrid paulownia trees that will be used for the production of fuel pellets. Dnevnik, Bulgaria - April 18, 2007.

    Bioprocess Control signs agreement with Svensk Biogas and forms closer ties with Swedish Biogas International. Bioprocess Control develops high-tech applications that optimise the commercial production of biogas. It won Sweden's prestigious national clean-tech innovations competition MiljöInnovation 2007 for its 'Biogas Optimizer' that accelerates the biogas production process and ensures greater process stability. NewsDesk Sweden - April 17, 2007.

    A joint Bioenergy project of Purdue University and Archer Daniels Midland Company has been selected to receive funding by the U.S. Department of Energy to further the commercialization of highly-efficient yeast which converts cellulosic materials into ethanol through fermentation. ADM - April 17, 2007.

    Researchers at Iowa State University and the US Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Services (ARS) have found that glycerin, a biodiesel by-product, is as effective as conventional corn-soymeal diets for pigs. AllAboutFeed - April 16, 2007.

    U.S. demand for uranium may surge by a third amid a revival in atomic power projects, increasing concern that imports will increase and that limited supplies may push prices higher, the Nuclear Energy Institute says. Prices touched all time highs of US$113 a pound in an auction last week by a U.S producer amid plans by China and India to expand their nuclear power capacity. International Herald Tribune - April 16, 2007.

    Taiwan mandates a 1% biodiesel and ethanol blend for all diesel and gasoline sold in the country, to become effective next year. By 2010, the ratio will be increased to 2%. WisconsinAg Connection - April 16, 2007.

    Vietnam has won the prestigious EU-sponsored Energy Globe award for 2006 for a community biogas program, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development announced. ThanhNien News - April 13, 2007.

    Given unstable fossil fuel prices and their negative effects on the economy, Tanzania envisages large-scale agriculture of energy crops Deputy Minister for Agriculture, Food Security and Cooperatives, Mr Christopher Chiza has said. A 600 hectare jatropha seed production effort is underway, with the seeds expected to be distributed to farmers during the 2009/2010 growing season. Daily News (Dar es Salaam) - April 12, 2007.

    Renault has announced it will launch a flex-fuel version of its Logan in Brazil in July. Brazilian autosales rose 28% to 1,834,581 in 2006 from 2004. GreenCarCongress - April 12, 2007.

    Chevron and Weyerhouser, one of the largest forest products companies, are joining forces to research next generation biofuels. The companies will focus on developing technology that can transform wood fiber and other nonfood sources of cellulose into economical, clean-burning biofuels for cars and trucks. PRNewswire - April 12, 2007.

    BioConversion Blog's C. Scott Miller discusses the publication of 'The BioTown Source Book', which offers a very accessible introduction to the many different bioconversion technologies currently driving the bioenergy sector. BioConversion Blog - April 11, 2007.

    China's State Forestry Administration (SFA) and the China National Cereals, Oils and Foodstuffs Import & Export Corp., Ltd. (COFCO) have signed a framework agreement over plans to cooperatively develop forest bioenergy resources, COFCO announced on its web site. Interfax China - April 11, 2007.

    The Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock of El Salvador is speeding up writing the country's biofuels law in order to take advantage of the US-Brazil cooperation agreement which identified the country as one where projects can be launched fairly quickly. The bill is expected to be presented to parliament in the coming weeks. El Porvenir - April 11, 2007.

    ConocoPhillips will establish an eight-year, $22.5 million research program at Iowa State University dedicated to developing technologies that produce biofuels. The grant is part of ConocoPhillips' plan to create joint research programs with major universities to produce viable solutions to diversify America's energy sources. Iowa State University - April 11, 2007.

    Interstate Power and Light has decided to utilize super-critical pulverized coal boiler technology at its large (600MW) new generation facility planned for Marshalltown, Iowa. The plant is designed to co-fire biomass and has a cogeneration component. The investment tops US$1billion. PRNewswire - April 10, 2007.

    One of India's largest sugar companies, the Birla group will invest 8 billion rupees (US$187 million) to expand sugar and biofuel ethanol output and produce renewable electricity from bagasse, to generate more revenue streams from its sugar business. Reuters India - April 9, 2007.

    An Iranian firm, Mashal Khazar Darya, is to build a cellulosic ethanol plant that will utilise switchgrass as its feedstock at a site it owns in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The investment is estimated to be worth €112/US$150 million. The plant's capacity will be 378 million liters (100 million gallons), supplied by switchgrass grown on 4400 hectares of land. PressTv (Iran) - April 9, 2007.

    The Africa Power & Electricity Congress and Exhibition, to take place from 16 - 20 April 2007, in the Sandton Convention Centre, Johannesburg, South Africa, will focus on bioenergy and biofuels. The Statesman - April 7, 2007.

    Petrobras and Petroecuador have signed a joint performance MOU for a technical, economic and legal viability study to develop joint projects in biofuel production and distribution in Ecuador. The project includes possible joint Petroecuador and Petrobras investments, in addition to qualifying the Ecuadorian staff that is directly involved in biofuel-related activities with the exchange of professionals and technical training. PetroBras - April 5, 2007.

    The Société de Transport de Montréal is to buy 8 biodiesel-electric hybrid buses that will use 20% less fuel and cut 330 tons of GHG emissions per annum. Courrier Ahuntsic - April 3, 2007.

    Thailand mandates B2, a mixture of 2% biodiesel and 98% diesel. According to Energy Minister Piyasvasti Amranand, the mandate comes into effect by April next year. Bangkok Post - April 3, 2007.

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Friday, December 08, 2006

European science institutes to participate more actively in public energy debate

Quicknote bioenergy science
The past few years have seen the development of a large number of alternative energy technologies. Given high fossil fuel prices, rapidly rising global energy demand and the threat of climate change, new (renewable) energy projects and investments are being initiated on a daily basis. However, this feverish activity has resulted in sharp public debates over which energy options are most favorable for the long term. Often, both the media and the public at large are left behind confused or fail to put the issues in a broader context. Scientific insights aren't easily understood or translated to broader audiences.

The Technical University of Delft has decided [*Dutch] do something about this. It has formed a knowledge platform with major energy research institutes with the explicit aim of actively participating in the public debate. The launch of NODE ('Nederlandse Onderzoeksplatform voor Duurzame Energievoorziening', 'Dutch Research Platform for Sustainable Energy') will first assess all the possible energy options at hand, then share the scientific knowledge with both the business community and the public at large. Educational outreach to schools is planned as well.
"Energy choices are made for the long term. However, political and public debates are driven by the news of the day, by faits divers. The science behind energy technologies is often twisted or left out of the discussion alltogehter. This is why we want to stimulate scientists to share their expertise with politicians, the media and the public at large. 'Pro and contra' arguments have to be based on science and have to be available to all those who want to take a position in the matter. This is the only way we can have a debate that's worthwile, instead of discussions where parties merely throw mud at each other." -- Tim van der Hagen, professor of reactor-physics at the TU Delft.
NODE unites three technical universities, the Energieonderzoek Centrum Nederland, and FOM-Rijnhuizen, who all have top-expertise on technologies ranging from hydrogen and nuclear physics to wind and bioenergy.

Meanwhile, in Birmingham, the SUPERGEN Bioenergy Consortium has created the Bioenergy Research Forum [*French], which also aims to share its research results with both industry and the public at large. Its main focus is on the use of biomass and organic waste streams as sources of clean energy. Experts in the field will regularly write for broader audiences and publish on a dedicated website [entry ends here].
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Nypa project to bring US$92 million in annual royalties to Malaysia's Perak state

Quicknote bioenergy potential
More details have emerged on the interesting Nypa project in Malaysia's North-Western Perak State (earlier post). Malaysia's national news agency, Bernama, refers to Perak governor Datuk Seri Tajol Rosli Ghazali, who says the state is expected to earn 328 million rupiah (€69.4 million/US$92 million) in royalties from the bioethanol project, each year.

He said the royalty will be paid to the state government by a company that will produce ethanol from Nypa fruticans palms that will be planted on 10,000 hectares of state land in the Hilir Perak district. This is the first time Nypa will be used as a feedstock for bioethanol.

"We have so much nipah forest along the state's coastal areas, at last 35,000 hectares," the state governor said. At an estimated yield of 15,000 liters of ethanol per hectare, if all the state's existing palms would be tapped, it is looking at an annual production of 525 million liters, the equivalent of 2.3 million barrels of oil. But interestingly, the project involves the planting of new Nypa palms, which indicates that plantation cultures are feasible.

Nypa fruticans, also known as nipah, attap chee, or simply as the mangrove palm can be found in large quantities in almost all tropical mangrove ecosystems in South-East Asia (Papua New Guinea, Northern Australia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Burma, India, Bangladesh, Thailand) and Africa (Nigeria, Mozambique, Tanzania and Angola). Of all mangrove plant species, Nypa is the most robust and easily colonises vast tracts of the ecosystem, threatening other species and damaging the biodiversity of mangrove ecosystems. Therefor, it is seen as an invasive, destructive palm. (For more in-depth info on Nypa, see the chapter on Asia in the excellent book "Tropical Palms", of the Non-food Forest Products series published by the FAO).

The Malaysian state government adds that it has also approved an additional 400 hactares of state land as a site for bioethanol refinery, which is expected to cost 200 million rupiah (€42/US$56 million) and would be ready by mid next year. Malyasia's Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is expected to officiate at the refinery's ground-breaking ceremony in April 2007. Last week, governor Tajol announced that Perak will be the world's first and so far only producer of bioethanol from the nipah tree.

Picture shows the traditional Nypa tapping technique as practised by mangrove communities in the Philippines, courtesy, FAO
[entry ends here].
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Transition to non-conventional fossil fuels carries major environmental risks - study

The increasing use of substitute fossil-based liquid hydrocarbons, such as unconventional crude oils or synthetic liquid fuels made from coal and natural gas, will dramatically increase global greenhouse gas emissions unless mitigating steps are taken, according to a new study by researchers at UC Berkeley. The research comes as a boon to biofuel advocates who have been warning a long time for the dangers of new fossil-based fuels.

The authors argue that the global energy system is in the early stages of a transition from conventionally produced oil to a variety of substitutes, bringing economic, strategic, and environmental risks. They further argue that without appropriate policies, tradeoffs between these risks are likely to be made so as to allow increased environmental disruption in return for increased economic and energy security.

Their work is reported in the paper “Risks of the Oil Transition” [*.pdf] published in the Institute of Physics open-access journal, Environmental Research Letters (ERL).

Lead author Alex Farrell writes:
Liquid fuels for transportation are increasingly coming from a wide range of sources other than conventional petroleum. We call this the oil transition and we conclude that the environmental risks associated with this transition are much bigger than the risk to a country’s economy or the security of their fuel supply.
Under the category of substitutes for conventional petroleum (SCP), the authors consider synthetic crude produced from oil sands and oil shale, heavy oil production, and Fischer-Tropsch synthetic fuel production:
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"We have calculated that production of fuels from low-quality and synthetic petroleum, such as tar sands, could have greenhouse gas emissions 30%-70% greater than the emissions from conventional gasoline. Tar sands are already being used as a source for gasoline, with over one million barrels refined each day in Alberta, Canada. With oil selling for $60/barrel on the international market, the $30/barrel production cost for tar sands is no longer an obstacle to production as it used to be", Alex Farrell continues.

The authors suggest approaches that can mitigate all three risks, beginning with the diversification of energy supply and including demand reduction and better transportation planning.

Fossil-based SCP technologies with CCS [carbon capture and storage] could provide supply diversity in the near term if adequate investments were made. Because of the fuel-related GHG emissions, fossil SCPs might be appropriate only as a short-term response, although the path dependence of energy system investments suggests there may be no such thing as a purely short-term response.

The true challenge of the oil transition is to develop and deploy environmentally acceptable energy technologies (both supply and demand) rapidly enough to replace dwindling conventional oil production and meet growing demand for transportation energy.

Because of the large environmental and security externalities involved, markets alone will not respond to this problem, so government policies to manage the all three risks of the oil transition are needed now.

More information:

A E Farrell et al, Risks of the oil transition; 2006 Environ. Res. Lett. 1 014004 (6pp), doi:10.1088/1748-9326/1/1/014004; html version, pdf format, abstract.

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Linking power grids in East-Africa while betting on biomass

Experts at an energy workshop in Nairobi, organised by the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation, have discussed the potential for alternative, clean and renewable energy sources, especially biomass, in East Africa.

The meeting was organised in the context of the construction of a power line to connect Kenya’s national grid to the South African Power Pool, with works expected to begin in March next year. The grid-integration project is aimed at linking Kenya's and Tanzania's national grids through Arusha, as part of government plans to reduce energy costs. Kenya's Energy Secretary Patrick Nyoike said the government has secured 85 million shilling (€914,000/US$1.2 million) for feasibility studies on a connection to the Ethiopian grid as well.

The large project has given East African countries the opportunity to look at renewables to supply electricity to the integrated grid - from geothermal over wind to biomass and biogas. Nyoike said the Kenyan Energy Bill of 2006 has set a legal framework for the development of an economically viable, efficient and environmentally sustainable energy sector. He announced Kenya will spend 70 billion shillings (€750 million/US$1 billion) to increase power generation from the current 1,100 megawatts to 3,000 megawatts by the year 2010:
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Biomass potential
He stressed that escalating fossil fuel prices has renewed the need to produce clean power from biomass and from other renewable energy technologies.

"Clean biomass energy systems for electricity generation through gasification are viable options capable of generating incomes and employment opportunities in rural Kenya at competitive prices," he said.

The experts, led by the Unido representative for Kenya, Uganda and Eritrea, Mr Alexander Varghese, added that investments in the conversion of municipal wastes into biogas could provide a solution to the serious environmental challenges facing Kenya’s urban areas.

Meanwhile Kenya Meat Commission managing commissioner James Kimonye says they are highly considering utilizing their meat processing by products to generate power. Kimonye said the energy is essential for their steam needs and it will also reduce their overhead costs. He said KMC slaughters between 500 and 700 livestock daily, leaving it with a big quantity of dung. Kimonye said high power tariffs by the Kenya Power and Lighting Company has resulted in high-energy costs thus pushing the Commission into source for energy from biomass.

Other renewables
The Energy Secretary also said surveys were underway in Marsabit, Turkana and at Ngong Hills on the potential of harnessing wind to supplement hydropower.

Finally, he said the ministry is spending 150 million shillings annually to install solar panels for schools and health in arid and semi-arid areas.

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Carbon negative biofuels: from monocultures to polycultures

Science magazine's latest cover article is devoted to the topic of carbon negative biofuels. To date, biofuels such as ethanol and biodiesel are produced from monocultures grown on fertile soils. These biofuels are "carbon-neutral" at best, or slightly "carbon-positive" because their production and combustion increases atmospheric CO2, although far less than fossil fuels. Depending on where and what type of crop is grown, the biofuels that result from it are more or less carbon-positive. Corn, grown in the US for ethanol, reduces virtually no CO2 because it has a very low energy balance, whereas ethanol obtained from sugar cane in Brazil cuts down carbon by up to 80%.

Now a new study, published in the Dec. 8 issue of Science [abstract] and led by David Tilman, Regents Professor of Ecology in the University of Minnesota's College of Biological Sciences, finds that biofuels based on polycultures of multiple species can be "carbon negative" and may provide a substantial portion of global energy needs in a sustainable and environmentally beneficial manner without competing with food production for fertile lands.

Highly diverse mixtures of grass species have emerged as a leader in the quest to identify the best source of biomass for producing sustainable, bio-based fuel to replace petroleum. Such mixtures of native perennial grasses and other flowering plants provide more usable energy per hectare than corn grain ethanol or soybean biodiesel and are far better for the environment.
"Biofuels made from high-diversity mixtures of prairie plants can reduce global warming by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Even when grown on infertile soils, they can provide a substantial portion of global energy needs, and leave fertile land for food production" -- David Tilman.
This is good news for the tropics and subtropics, where many energy grass species that are grown today in the US and Europe originate from. Based on 10 years of research at Cedar Creek Natural History Area, the study shows that degraded agricultural land planted with highly diverse mixtures of prairie grasses and other flowering plants produces 238 percent more bioenergy on average, than the same land planted with various single prairie plant species, including monocultures of switchgrass:
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Tilman and two colleagues, postdoctoral researcher Jason Hill and research associate Clarence Lehman, estimate that fuel made from this prairie biomass would yield 51 percent more energy per acre than ethanol from corn grown on fertile land. This is because perennial prairie plants require little energy to grow and because all parts of the plant above ground are usable.

Fuels made from prairie biomass are "carbon negative," which means that producing and using them actually reduces the amount of carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) in the atmosphere. This is because prairie plants store more carbon in their roots and soil than is released by the fossil fuels needed to grow and convert them into biofuels. Using prairie biomass to make fuel would lead to the long-term removal and storage of from 1.2 to 1.8 U.S. tons of carbon dioxide per acre per year. This net removal of atmospheric carbon dioxide could continue for about 100 years, the researchers estimate.

In contrast, corn ethanol and soybean biodiesel are "carbon positive," meaning they add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, although less than fossil fuels.

Switchgrass, which is being developed as a perennial bioenergy crop, was one of 16 species in the study. When grown by itself in poor soil, it did not perform better than other single species and gave less than a third of the bioenergy of high-diversity plots.

"Switchgrass is very productive when it's grown like corn in fertile soil with lots of fertilizer, pesticide and energy inputs, but this approach doesn't yield as much energy gain as mixed species in poor soil, nor does it have the same environmental benefits," said Hill.

To date, all biofuels, including cutting-edge nonfood energy crops such as switchgrass, elephant grass, hybrid poplar and hybrid willow, have been produced as monocultures grown primarily in fertile soils.

The researchers estimate that growing mixed prairie grasses on all of the world's degraded land could produce enough bioenergy to replace 13 percent of global petroleum consumption and 19 percent of global electricity consumption.

The practice of using degraded land to grow mixed prairie grasses for biofuels could provide stable production of energy and have additional benefits, such as renewed soil fertility, cleaner ground and surface waters, preservation of wildlife habitats, and recreational opportunities.

There are 30 million acres of grasslands in the U.S. Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which pays farmers to manage land to benefit the environment. Current CRP regulations do not allow prairie grasses grown on this land to be used for renewable energy, but the U.S. Farm Bill could be revised to accommodate this practice, Tilman added. Doing so would have important economic, environmental and energy security benefits.

"It is time to take biofuels seriously," Tilman said. "We need to accelerate our work on biomass production and its conversion into useful energy sources. Ultimately, this means we need to start paying farmers for all the services they provide society -- for biofuels and for the removal and storage of carbon dioxide."

It must be stressed however that the high energy yields obtained in grass polycultures are theoretical. Growing grasses as a solid biomass feedstock is a viable option for the generation of electricity.

But when it comes to the production of liquid biofuels, other bioconversion techniques have to be used. Since cellulosic ethanol production is not efficient yet and very costly, traditional biofuel crops such as sugar cane, palm oil, canola or corn, grown explicitly for the production of first-generation liquid fuels, will still dominate the market for a long time, we think. These crops are grown because their oils and sugars can be easily extracted and converted into fuels.

For future reference, we publish the abstract of the article here:

Carbon-Negative Biofuels from Low-Input High-Diversity Grassland Biomass
David Tilman,1* Jason Hill,1,2 Clarence Lehman1, Science 8 December 2006: Vol. 314. no. 5805, pp. 1598 - 1600 DOI: 10.1126/science.1133306

Biofuels derived from low-input high-diversity (LIHD) mixtures of native grassland perennials can provide more usable energy, greater greenhouse gas reductions, and less agrichemical pollution per hectare than can corn grain ethanol or soybean biodiesel. High-diversity grasslands had increasingly higher bioenergy yields that were 238% greater than monoculture yields after a decade. LIHD biofuels are carbon negative because net ecosystem carbon dioxide sequestration (4.4 megagram hectare–1 year–1 of carbon dioxide in soil and roots) exceeds fossil carbon dioxide release during biofuel production (0.32 megagram hectare–1 year–1). Moreover, LIHD biofuels can be produced on agriculturally degraded lands and thus need to neither displace food production nor cause loss of biodiversity via habitat destruction.

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Genetically modified yeast strain could boost ethanol production

A novel genetic engineering technique has been used to make yeast more resistant to the ill-effects of alcohol. It could dramatically boost the efficiency of generating ethanol-based fuels from sugar and starch rich biomass.

Yeast produces alcohol as a by-product of its own metabolism, which can then be used as a replacement for petroleum. But yeast is also poisoned by this alcohol. As well as limiting the amount of alcohol in drinks made without distillation, this limitation restricts the efficiency of biofuel production, which converts starch or sugar into ethanol.

The researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) reported their work in the Dec. 8 issue of Science.

"The fact is that science had run out of methods to increase alcohol tolerance," says Greg Stephanopoulos, chemical engineer at MIT in the US. Conventional genetic modification techniques involve altering one gene at a time, and have been ineffective because alcohol tolerance is the product of many genes working together, he explains. Stephanopoulos and colleagues at MIT and the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, also in Massachusetts, US, solved this by altering a gene that controls the activity of many others:
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Alcohol tolerance
The researchers referred to a known sequence of the yeast genome in order to create a mutant version of a gene called SPT15. "This encodes a protein that controls the activity of a lot of other metabolism genes," explains Stephanopoulos. The technique has been used before on bacteria, but never on such a complicated organism as yeast.

The modified yeast cells were found to have a significantly higher alcohol tolerance than normal yeast. The researchers do not yet know why this is, but they also found that it also produced 50% more ethanol during a 21-hour period.

Fiddling with so many genes at once would normally "break the cell", Stephanopoulos says. However, his modified yeast was created with a mixture of mutant and normal genes. "We kept a copy of the [normal] gene to buffer against that," he says.
Industrial strains

The technique has so far only been tested on laboratory strains of yeast, but Stephanopoulos believes it should work just as well on the industrial strains used to make biofuel from corn and plant waste.

Currently, when fermenting corn, these industrial strains are killed when alcohol level reach 12% to 15%. The modified yeast could perhaps survive in several times this concentration. "Being able to increase that even a few-fold would make producing biofuel much more economic," Stephanopoulos says. More alcohol could be produced before having to siphon it off to allow fermentation to continue.

Stephanopoulos adds that genetic engineering could perhaps make yeast that can process toxic compounds that make other types of plant waste unsuitable for ethanol production.

Using the technique on yeast used to brew beer or wine might be interesting too, Stephanopoulos acknowledges. "It could produce new kinds of drinks with different alcohol content but it would also affect the other compounds produced during fermentation so the taste might not be so good."

The new yeast can be used on any starch and sugar rich biomass, of course including those forms produced in the South. So this is good news for biofuel producers in the developing world.

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Another algae-biofuel project: Colorado State University and Solix Biofuels Inc.

Yet another initiative aimed at producing biodiesel from algae, using expensive photo- bioreactors, has been announced by Colorado State University (CSU) researchers. They are partnering with a company called Solix Biofuels Inc.

Interestingly, the rationale behind the project indicates that many are still not aware of the bioenergy potential in the developing world: "You cannot meet the demand for biofuels from current oil crops ... you can't grow enough", says Doug Henston, CEO of Solix, referring to canola (rapeseed) grown in the US and Europe. Mr Henston forgets that the Global South can produce an amount of biofuels several times the total amount of oil the world currently consumes, in sustainable manner (earlier post).

But that aside, let us look at the technology in question. The company's process uses algae grown in specially designed photo-bioreactors. Through photosynthesis, the microscopic algae use sunlight, water, carbon dioxide and other nutrients to produce lipids, a type of oil that can be extracted and made into biodiesel. The goal is to produce massive quantities of algae and oil by tapping into carbon dioxide produced by industrial smokestacks, said Bryan Willson, director of the CSU Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory:

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Through its technology, Solix, which CSU helped create, is addressing the problems of declining petroleum reserves and the build up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere linked to global warming.

Algae grows fast, Willson said, and has the potential to yield 30 to 100 times the amount of lipids per acre produced by traditional oil crops, such as soy of canola [note, these yields are only valid for closed photobioreactor systems; in open ponds, algae yields decline below levels of ordinary energy crops - see below].

Research on oil-producing algae began at the National Renewal Energy Laboratory in 1978. Solix, working with CSU engineers and students, has expanded on that research to overcome some of its problems, said Solix founder Jim Sears. The trick now is applying the advances on a massive scale, Sears said. The United States uses 60 billion gallons of diesel fuel a year and is likely to use up to 100 billion gallons by 2025, he said.

Using oil-from-algae technology, about 25 billion gallons of biodiesel could be produced annually on 4 million acres of land, or about four-tenths of 1 percent of the land dedicated to agriculture in the United States, Sear said. “And it doesn’t have to be farmland,” he said. “It just needs to be flat and get a lot of sunshine.”

Let us remind the reader that the Aquatic Species Program in the US as did European and Japanese algae-to-fuels programmes looked at photobioreactors but quickly dismissed them as being far too costly. The reactors cannot be scaled up, require a huge amount of materials (plastics, glass, steel), which are very carbon and energy-intensive to produce.

So the programmes focused on the alternative: growing algae in open ponds. The research then found that in the open air, algae cultures become unstable and their yield declines to levels below that of many ordinary energy crops.

The algae-to-fuel programs were discontinued in the early 1990s, when oil prices declined.

Today, the situation has changed again, with oil at over US$60 per barrel and with an existing market for carbon, which puts a price on each tonne of CO2. Both these factors may make the economics of algae biofuels more interesting.

Expensive photobioreactors
Crucially, Henston declined to say how much a bioreactor costs or when large-scale use of the technology is likely to occur. He also gave no indication of the energy inputs used to build the reactors, nor of the carbon dioxide released during the manufacturing stage. Market forces will determine how the company and the technology advances, he said.

An experimental bioreactor is expected to be built at New Belgium Brewing Co. in Fort Collins next year. The bioreactor would be 350 feet long and 40 feet wide. It would tap into excess carbon dioxide from the brewing process. If the New Belgium experiment is successful, the technology would be applied to other industrial uses, Henston said.

Henston said the science of oil from algae and the fundamental technology used to do it is not all that new. “What we’re doing is integrating science with various aspects of technology in a new fashion,” he said.

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