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    Fuel Tech, Inc., today announced a demonstration order for its 'Targeted In-Furnace Injection' program, part of a set of technologies aimed at controlling slagging, fouling, corrosion, opacity and acid plume problems in utility scale boilers. The order was placed by an electric generating facility located in Italy, and will be conducted on two biomass units burning a combination of wood chips and olive husks. BusinessWire - March 9, 2007.

    At a biofuels conference ahead of the EU's Summit on energy and climate change, Total's chief of agricultural affairs says building environmentally friendly 'flexible-fuel' cars only cost an additional €200 (US$263) a vehicle and that, overall, ethanol is cheaper than gasoline. MarketWatch - March 8, 2007.

    During a session of Kazakhstan's republican party congress, President Nursultan Nazarbayev announced plans to construct two large ethanol plants with the aim to produce biofuels for exports to Europe. Company 'KazAgro' and the 'akimats' (administrative units) of grain-growing regions will be charged to develop biodiesel, bioethanol and bioproducts. KazInform - March 6, 2007.

    Saab will introduce its BioPower flex-fuel options to its entire 9-3 range, including Sport Sedan, SportCombi and Convertible bodystyles, at the Geneva auto show. GreenCarCongress - March 2, 2007.

    British oil giant BP plans to invest around US$50 million in Indonesia's biofuel industry, using jatropha oil as feedstock. BP will build biofuel plants with an annual capacity of 350,000 tons for which it will need to set up jatropha curcas plantations covering 100,000 hectares of land, to guarantee supply of feedstock, an official said. Antara [*cache] - March 2, 2007.

    The government of Taiwan has decided to increase the acreage dedicated to biofuel crops -- soybean, rape, sunflower, and sweet potato -- from 1,721 hectares in 2006 to 4,550 hectares this year, the Council of Agriculture said. China Post - March 2, 2007.

    Kinder Morgan Energy Partners has announced plans to invest up to €76/US$100 million to expand its terminal facilities to help serve the growing biodiesel market. KMP has entered into long-term agreements with Green Earth Fuels, LLC to build up to 1.3 million barrels of tankage that will handle approximately 8 million barrels of biodiesel production at KMP's terminals on the Houston Ship Channel, the Port of New Orleans and in New York Harbor. PRNewswire - March 1, 2007.

    A project to build a 130 million euro ($172 million) plant to produce 200,000 cubic metres of bioethanol annually was announced by three German groups on Tuesday. The plant will consume about 600,000 tonnes of wheat annually and when operational in the first half of 2009 should provide about a third of Germany's estimated bioethanol requirements. Reuters - Feb. 27, 2007.

    Taiwan's Ministry of Economic Affairs has announced that government vehicles in Taipei City will begin using E3 fuel, composed of 97% gasoline and 3% ethanol, on a trial basis in 2007. Automotive World - Feb. 27, 2007.

    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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Sunday, March 11, 2007

Notes on biopolymers in the Global South

The gradual transition towards the biobased economy brings opportunities for 'developing' countries to leapfrog beyond the petroleum era and into a cleaner, greener and more renewable future based on biotechnology. One field in which they are already enjoying late-comer as well as agro-ecological advantages is that of biodegradable plastics and polymers. An overview.

Brazil: biopolymers from cassava, sugarcane, soy
Unlike their petroleum rivals, plant-based plastics and polymers can be developed around locally available biomass feedstocks. A detailed evaluation of this principle and its effects on the competitiveness of such materials was recently published by the Sao Paulo based Institute of Technology Research (IPT). The study was produced on behalf of the Brazilian Ministry of Science and Technology, in order to be used in the development of biotechnology policies and federal grant programs, which have since come forth (earlier post on Brazil's massive injection of funds into the nascent bioeconomy).

The study [*.pdf/Portuguese] shows that the most important starch and sugar-rich crops suitable for biopolymer development in Brazil are cassava, sugarcane and soy. The report compares Brazilian feedstock costs with those of the US:
  • the production cost of industrial starch from cassava in Brazil is around US$262/ton compared to production costs of US$478/ton for corn starch in the U.S.
  • the production cost of sugars for the production of biopolymers, derived from sugarcane is between $150-$200/ton, while the cost of comparably useful glucose from corn starch in the United States is about $450/ton
As a consequence, the production cost for polylactic acid (PLA) and polyhydroxybutyrate (PHB) based biopolymers in Brazil is estimated to be about one half (for PLA) to one third (for PHB) of that in the United States. The competitiveness of biopolymers produced in Brazil with those produced in the U.S. depends on freight costs and import taxes at the destination country. Biopolymers produced in Brazil and the U.S. have significant cost advantages when compared to those (currently) produced in Europe or Japan. The study also evaluates the probability of technical and commercial success in the development of different biopolymers in Brazil.

The country can not only produce biopolymers at low cost, but is also well positioned to develop the necessary technology based on ten years of local experience in PHB research, and current pilot-scale production of this material. The future of large scale production of biopolymers in Brazil (in order to supply European and U.S. markets), is currently restricted by limited investment capital and lack of well developed government incentives.

Malaysia: PLA from sago starch
In Malaysia, an international team of scientists from Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia and the UK succeeded in developing an efficient polylactic acid production process based on starch derived from the sago palm:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Sago starch (earlier post) is obtained directly from the palm tree's trunks, in which it grows in great quantities (see picture). It is easily fermentable by most microorganisms and easily hydrolysed into glucose. This sugar can be further converted into lactate by bacteria. The group has succeeded in maximizing the production of lactic acid from sago starch by utilizing a continuous fermentation system coupled with a cell recycling system which minimized the possibility of wash-out even at high dilution rates.

Recently, the scientists also accomplished the purification of the lactic acid from the fermentation system by electrodialysis. Current research indicates that the purity of lactic acid can be affected by the storage parameters, such as pH, temperature, ionic strength and degree of purification.

The research may be extended into methods in polymerizing the pure lactate in the formation of a biofilm for bioplastic synthesis. Also, processing of solid waste separated from sago mill effluents (known as in Malaysia as 'hampas') is viable for the production of marketable compost.

The research is encouraging because it points to a new viable product stream for sago. Raw starch production based on sago urgently needs new added value, to make the most of this plantation crop that is only beginning to be used on an industrial scale.

The scientists illustrated the importance of this added value: the total amount of sago starch exported in 2000 from the state of Sarawak was 61,000 tons procuring a total income of US$9.15 million. Assuming that only 50% of the total export tonnage is hydrolysed into sugars, a 98% recovery of hydrolysis from 30,500 tons of sago starch would have produced 29,890 tons of glucose. A fermentation capacity of 96% would have generated 28,694.4 tons of lactate. Valued at US$28.694 million, this is more than three times the income from the total export of pure sago starch in 2000.

Colombia: biopolymer from cassava
In Colombia, Professor Hector Villada from the Universidad del Cauca and researchers of the Universidad del Valle en Colombia (grouped under the umbrella of the research group CYTIBIA - Ciencia y Tecnologia de Biomoleculas de Interes Industrial), have developed [*no direct link, scroll down] a bioplastic based on cassava starch.

The scientists fermented cassava root (locally known as 'yuca root') for a 20-day period, mixed it with water and “plasticizers of natural origin”. They then successfully formed resin pellets by a traditional extrusion process.

The scientists also indicated that the cassava polymer has "shape memory" capabilities, or, in other words, a shape shift can be obtained when the material's temperature is changed. There now is a Colombian patent pending application for this bioplastic material and its associated production process.

Malaysia: PLA and PHB from oil palm residues
Finally, back in Malaysia, Professor M. Hassan from the University Putra introduced the challenges and opportunities of biomass research in Malaysia during the Biomass-Asia Forum in 2006.

The major contributor to the biomass industry in Malaysia is the palm oil industry (85% of all available biomass). Palm oil production is rising as a consequence of biodiesel demand around the world. Earlier we also reported on efforts to utilize the vast waste-streams from this industry, for the production of a diversified range of plant-based products (earlier post).

Professor Hassan has contributed to this effort by focusing on the development of biopolymers like PLA and PHB from palm oil mill effluents and palm fruit residues [*.pdf].

MIT and University of Putra researchers worked together between 2000 and 2002 on a project that pursued transgenic palm capable of synthesizing PHB at a commercial scale capacity. The project was successful, but there have not been commercial developments associated with its conclusions.

Thailand: bioplastics from cassava - program
In another development, the Thai Ministry of Science and Technology announced last year that it is going to promote the production and use of cassava starch-based bioplastics [*.pdf], as part of a National Biotechnology Policy Framework [*.pdf]. Under this framework, an investment was announced of about US$26 million (until 2009) to encourage production and application of bioplastics, which will be utilizing local agricultural resources.

The recently created Thai National Innovation Agency (NIA), which manages the funds, indicates on its web page that it is focusing efforts on three strategic areas:

1) the development of a bio-based industrial sector 2) bioenergy and the environment and 3) design and branding.

The NIA and the Federation of Thai industries are the organizers of InnoBioplast, an international conference and exhibition on bioplastics.

United Nations: bioplastics for the developing world

Finally, the United Nations's International Center for Science and High Technology (ICS), part of the UNIDO, recently launched a program [*.pdf] focusing on the development of biodegradable materials with special attention for the opportunities in developing countries.

Focus of this large program is on disposal of plastic waste created by various sectors of human activity. Expanding global production and consumption of polymer materials together with increasing public awareness of environmental issues have created serious concern about the problems related to disposal of plastic waste. In addition to today's options of recycling, reuse, incineration and composting, new technological developments of environmentally degradable plastics are making a highly efficient contribution to the environmental issue in a number of sectors. Novel products and materials coming onto the market, that meet consumer demand and concern for proper disposal, are important targets for basic and applied research.

Rather than end-of-pipe solutions, industrial processes for production of environmentally degradable plastics are being promoted and proposed to technologists in developing countries.

The general approach consists of strengthening national expertise in selected countries to master, use and further develop biodegradable plastics technologies for local application and adaptation; to activate international cooperation programmes on biodegradable plastic applications relevant to priority needs and specific industrial demands of developing countries; to create at the ICS a service capable of providing technologists and researchers in developing countries with information, expertise and ad hoc services for developmental applications in the field of biodegradable plastics.

This snapshot of developments in the sector of plant-based plastics and polymers hints at the opportunity for the Global South to develop biotechnology policies and research routes based on locally available biomass resources.

Even though the international market for bioplastics and polymers is only in its infancy, environmental considerations (such as the carbon footprint of plastics), waste-management and pollution issues, and the prospect of 'peak oil' and higher prices for petrochemical feedstocks, makes it reasonable to assume that the sector has a bright future.

And once again, the South will enjoy both late-comer advantages as well as competitive advantages based on the potential of its agriculture.

Picture: sago palm logs ready to be processed at a large mill in Sarawak, Borneo, Malaysia. Courtesy: Pelita, Malaysian Land Custody and Development Authority, Sago Development website.


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