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    Malaysia's Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister Datuk Peter Chin Fah Kui announces he will head a delegation to the EU in June, "to counter European anti-palm oil activists on their own home ground". The South East Asian palm oil industry is seen by many European civil society organisations and policy makers as unsustainable and responsible for heavy deforestation. Malaysia Star - May 20, 2007.

    Paraguay and Brazil kick off a top-level seminar on biofuels, cooperation on which they see as 'strategic' from an energy security perspective. 'Biocombustiveis Paraguai-Brasil: Integração, Produção e Oportunidade de Negócios' is a top-level meeting bringing together the leaders of both countries as well as energy and agricultural experts. The aim is to internationalise the biofuels industry and to use it as a tool to strengthen regional integration and South-South cooperation. PanoramaBrasil [*Portuguese] - May 19, 2007.

    Portugal's Galp Energia SGPS and Petrobras SA have signed a memorandum of understanding to set up a biofuels joint venture. The joint venture will undertake technical and financial feasibility studies to set up a plant in Brazil to export biofuels to Portugal. Forbes - May 19, 2007.

    The Cypriot parliament has rejected an amendment by President Papadopoulos on the law regarding the use of biofuels that contain genetically modified substances. The amendment called for an alteration in the law that currently did not allow the import or use of biofuels that had been produced using GM substances, something that goes against a recent EU Directive on GMOs. Cyprus Mail - May 18, 2007.

    According to Salvador Rivas, the director for Non-Conventional Energy at the Dominican Republic's Industry and Commerce Ministry, a group of companies from Brazil wants to invest more than 100 million dollars to produce ethanol in the country, both for local consumption and export to the United States. Dominican Today - May 16, 2007.

    EWE AG, a German multi-service energy company, has started construction on a plant aimed at purifying biogas so that it can be fed into the natural gas grid. Before the end of the year, EWE AG will be selling the biogas to end users via its subsidiary EWE Naturwatt. Solarthemen [*German] - May 16, 2007.

    Scania will introduce an ethanol-fueled hybrid bus concept at the UITP public transport congress in Helsinki 21-24 May 2007. The full-size low-floor city bus is designed to cut fossil CO2 emissions by up to 90% when running on the ethanol blend and reduce fuel consumption by at least 25%. GreenCarCongress - May 16, 2007.

    A report by the NGO Christian Aid predicts there may be 1 billion climate refugees and migrants by 2050. It shows the effects of conflicts on populations in poor countries and draws parallels with the situation as it could develop because of climate change. Christian Aid - May 14, 2007.

    Dutch multinational oil group Rompetrol, also known as TRG, has entered the biofuel market in France in conjunction with its French subsidiary Dyneff. It hopes to equip approximately 30 filling stations to provide superethanol E85 distribution to French consumers by the end of 2007. Energy Business Review - May 13, 2007.

    A group of British organisations launches the National Forum on Bio-Methane as a Road Transport Fuel. Bio-methane or biogas is widely regarded as the cleanest of all transport fuels, even cleaner than hydrogen or electric vehicles. Several EU projects across the Union have shown its viability. The UK forum was lauched at the Naturally Gas conference on 1st May 2007 in Loughborough, which was hosted by Cenex in partnership with the NSCA and the Natural Gas Vehicle Association. NSCA - May 11, 2007.

    We reported earlier on Dynamotive and Tecna SA's initiative to build 6 bio-oil plants in the Argentinian province of Corrientes (here). Dynamotive has now officially confirmed this news. Dynamotive - May 11, 2007.

    Nigeria launches a national biofuels feasibility study that will look at the potential to link the agricultural sector to the automotive fuels sector. Tim Gbugu, project leader, said "if we are able to link agriculture, we will have large employment opportunity for the sustenance of this country, we have vast land that can be utilised". This Day Onlin (Lagos) - May 9, 2007.

    Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva meets with the CEO of Portuguese energy company Galp Energia, which will sign a biofuel cooperation agreement with Brazilian state-owned oil company Petrobras. GP1 (*Portuguese) - May 9, 2007.

    The BBC has an interesting story on how biodiesel made from coconut oil is taking the pacific island of Bougainville by storm. Small refineries turn the oil into an affordable fuel that replaces costly imported petroleum products. BBC - May 8, 2007.

    Indian car manufacturer Mahindra & Mahindra is set to launch its first B100-powered vehicles for commercial use by this year-end. The company is confident of fitting the new engines in all its existing models. Sify - May 8, 2007.

    The Biofuels Act of the Philippines has come into effect today. The law requires all oil firms in the country to blend 2% biodiesel (most often coconut-methyl ester) in their diesel products. AHN - May 7, 2007.

    Successful tests based on EU-criteria result in approval of 5 new maize hybrids that were developed as dedicated biogas crops [*German]. Veredlungsproduktion - May 6, 2007.

    With funding from the U.S. Department of Labor Workforce Innovation for Regional Economic Development (WIRED), Michigan State University intends to open a training facility dedicated to students and workers who want to start a career in the State's growing bioeconomy. Michigan State University - May 4, 2007.

    Researchers from the Texas A&M University have presented a "giant" sorghum variety for the production of ethanol. The crop is drought-tolerant and yields high amounts of ethanol. Texas A & M - May 3, 2007.

    C-Tran, the public transportation system serving Southwest Washington and parts of Portland, has converted its 97-bus fleet and other diesel vehicles to run on a blend of 20% biodiesel beginning 1 May from its current fleet-wide use of B5. Automotive World - May 3, 2007.

    The Institut Français du Pétrole (IFP) and France's largest research organisation, the CNRS, have signed a framework-agreement to cooperate on the development of new energy technologies, including research into biomass based fuels and products, as well as carbon capture and storage technologies. CNRS - April 30, 2007.

    One of India's largest state-owned bus companies, the Andra Pradesh State Road Transport Corporation is to use biodiesel in one depot of each of the 23 districts of the state. The company operates some 22,000 buses that use 330 million liters of diesel per year. Times of India - April 30, 2007.

    Indian sugar producers face surpluses after a bumper harvest and low prices. Diverting excess sugar into the ethanol industry now becomes more attractive. India is the world's second largest sugar producer. NDTVProfit - April 30, 2007.

    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.

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Monday, May 21, 2007

U.S. scientists develop drought tolerant sorghum for biofuels

In order to diversify the portfolio of crops grown for the production of biomass and biofuels, scientists at the Texas A&M University's Agricultural Experiment Station (TAES) are breeding a drought tolerant sorghum that may yield between 37 and 50 tons of dry biomass per hectare (15 to 20 tons per acre).

The U.S. has the technical potential to produce about 1.3 billion tons of lignocellulosic biomass that could supply 30 percent or more of the U.S. transportation fuel requirements. But in order to turn this technical potential into real production, new crops are needed and so-called 'second generation' conversion technologies must become competitive. These technologies include the transformation of lignocellulosic biomass into liquids via biochemical and thermochemical processes. Such methods have the promise of converting all of the plant material - not just the grain as is the case with the first generation - into biofuels or directly into electricity.

A drought-tolerant sorghum cultivar is seen as one of the most promising biomass crops to this end. The United States currencly grows approximately 20 million acres of the plant which could provide 25 percent of the country's long-term goal for biofuels. The prospects for accelerated development of sorghum as a premier source of biofuels are excellent.

Sorghum is a highly diverse grass species originating from Africa and Asia, where it is grown on a large scale, often by subsistence farmers in semi-arid regions such as the Sahel. In the U.S. it is currently grown for grain and forage.

But a team of agricultural research centers, including the Institute for Plant Genomics, the USDA Agricultural Research Service and the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station is designing [*.pdf] a sorghum for high sugar and cellulosic biomass production for ethanol and other biofuels. The design of sorghum is being aided by the U.S. Department of Energy’s sorghum genome sequencing project and technology platforms developed by funding from the National Science Foundation. Acquiring fundamental knowledge about optimal sorghum biomass/biofuels design will aid in developing related biofuels crops such as corn, sugarcane, and switchgrass.

The research process adopted includes the following steps:
  • Sorghum genetic resources will be screened for sources of improved yield and biomass composition (sugar content, cellulose, hemicellulose, lignin) optimal for biofuels production.
  • Sorghum germplasm, traits and genes that improve biomass yield, bioenergy composition, and drought tolerance will be identified and pyramided into cultivars and elite hybrids.
  • Advanced material will be tested to identify cultivars that have optimal biomass-to-biofuels conversion properties and agronomic production parameters.
  • Logistical approaches will be optimized for the harvest and transport of sorghum to facilities for biofuels and bioenergy production.
  • Production of high yielding, drought-stress tolerant sorghum bioenergy cultivars and hybrids specifically engineered to meet the needs of the U.S. biofuels industry
  • Generate information and technology useful for improving corn, sugarcane, switchgrass, and other grass species for biofuels production
Rapid breeding
The breeding process of the new sorghum lines is part of a conventional breeding program and does not involve genetic engineering. In a conventional breeding program, parent plants are selected for specific traits, then cross-pollinated with other varieties to strengthen those desired traits. The process is repeated over several growing seasons until the plant with the desired traits breeds true:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Agronomists have essentially used these same breeding techniques for centuries, and all modern cultivars, from improved landscape plants to row crops, have been developed this way. The process is painstaking, and the development of a new variety takes from 8 to 10 years or longer. Much of that time is spent just identifying which parent plants carry the gene that is responsible for the desired trait.

However, plant geneticists at the Norman E. Borlaug Center for Southern Crop Improvement are helping by applying the latest techniques to map the chromosomes of the sorghums. Using these genetic maps, the plant breeders hope to bypass many of the field trials to identify parent plants with the desired traits. With this technique, they expect they can cut the time it takes to further develop high-tonnage sorghum by more than half. As a result, it a drought-tolerant sorghum is expected to be ready for farmers in a few years rather than a decade.

The Texas Agricultural Experiment Station’s sorghum biofuels design team brings together expertise in production systems, breeding, genetics, and genomics that will accelerate developing advanced sorghum bioenergy cultivars for the Texas and U.S. biofuels industry.

Sorghum elsewhere
Outside the U.S., sorghum has been of interest to the bioenergy community for quite a while. In Europe the crop is being improved with the aim to use it as a dedicated feedstock for the production of biogas. German researchers from the University of Applied Sciences in Bingen (South-West Germany), have been collecting and planting 160 different sorghum varieties from Africa and Asia in two test fields. Already in 2005, the agricultural extension services of the state of Rheinland-Pfalz did the same with two promising varieties and in Bingen, Emmelshausen and Herxheim near Landau, another 20 different sorghum species were grown in experimental plots. The goal of this research is to study whether the crop can be made to adapt to the dry but relatively warm climate of South-West Germany, where it can be grown on land less suitable for maize, the major biogas crop in the country.

Likewise, the North Sea Bioenergy partnership, a project to stimulate the use of bioenergy in Belgium, the Netherlands, Scandinavia and the Eastern part of the UK, is experimenting with both sorghum and sudangrass hybrids for the production of biogas. Experiments involving co-digestion of the hybrids with manure in anaerobic fermenters have been encouraging (one hectare of the crop results in around 4000 liters of petro-diesel equivalent biogas).

Most importantly, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) has launched a pro-poor biofuels initiative, linking small farmers of drylands of the developing countries with the global biofuel revolution via a newly developed cultivar of sweet sorghum that yields unprecedented levels of ethanol. The crop meets the main needs of the dryland farmers - they do not require much water, can withstand environmental stress, are not that expensive to cultivate and allow a stream of products (grain, stalks, sugar) that makes it possible for farmers to combine food and fuel production (earlier post).

More information:
Texas Agricultural Experiment Station - Bioenergy Initiative: Designing Sorghum for the U.S. Biofuels Industry [*.pdf] May 21, 2007.

Bioenergy initiatives
at Texas A & M University.

Check Biotech: Texas A&M team to add a 'grain of common sense' to biofuel optimism - May 21, 2007.

Norman E. Borlaug Center for Southern Crop Improvement website.


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