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    Siemens Energy & Automation, Inc. and the U.S. National Corn-to-Ethanol Research Center (NCERC) today announced a partnership to speed the growth of alternative fuel technology. The 10-year agreement between the center and Siemens represents transfers of equipment, software and on-site simulation training. The NCERC facilitates the commercialization of new technologies for producing ethanol more effectively and plays a key role in the Bio-Fuels Industry for Workforce Training to assist in the growing need for qualified personnel to operate and manage bio-fuel refineries across the country. Business Wire - June 29, 2007.

    A paper published in the latest issue of the Journal of the American Ceramic Society proposes a new method of producing hydrogen for portable fuel cells that can work steadily for 10-20 times the length of equivalently sized Lithium-ion batteries. Zhen-Yan Deng, lead author, found that modified aluminum powder can be used to react with water to produce hydrogen at room temperature and under normal atmospheric pressure. The result is a cost-efficient method for powering fuel cells that can be used in portable applications and hybrid vehicles. More soon. Blackwell Publishing - June 29, 2007.

    An NGO called Grains publishes a report that highlights some of the potentially negative effects associated with the global biofuels sector. The findings are a bit one-sided because based uniquely on negative news stories. Moreover, the report does not show much of a long-term vision on the world's energy crisis, climate change, North-South relations, and the unique role biofuels can play in addressing these issues. Grain - June 29, 2007.

    Researchers at the Universidad de Tarapacá in Arica plan to grow Jatropha curcas in the arid north of Chile. The trial in the desert, is carried out to test the drought-tolerance of the biodiesel crop, and to see whether it can utilize the desert's scarce water resources which contain high amounts of salt minerals and boron, lethal to other crops. Santiago Times - June 28, 2007.

    India and Thailand sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that envisages cooperation through joint research and development and exchange of information in areas of renewable sources of energy like, biogas, solar-thermal, small hydro, wind and biomass energy. Daily India - June 28, 2007.

    Portucel - Empresa Produtora de Pasta e Papel SA said it plans to install biomass plants with an expected production capacity of 200,000 megawatt hours per year at its paper factories in Setubal and Cacia. The European Commission gave the green light for state aid totaling €46.5 million, contributing to Portucel's plans to extend and modernise its plants. Forbes - June 28, 2007.

    Petro-Canada and GreenField Ethanol have inked a long-term deal that makes Petro-Canada the exclusive purchaser of all ethanol produced at GreenField Ethanol's new facility in Varennes, Quebec. The ethanol will be blended with gasoline destined for Petro-Canada retail sites in the Greater Montreal Area. Petro-Canada - June 27, 2007.

    According to a study by the Korean Energy Economics Institute, biodiesel produced in Korea will become cheaper than light crude oil from 2011 onwards (678 won/liter versus 717.2 won/liter). The study "Prospects on the Economic Feasibility of Biodiesel and Improving the Support System", advises to keep biodiesel tax-free until 2010, after which it can compete with oil. Dong-A Ilbo - June 27, 2007.

    Kreido Biofuels announced today that it has entered into a marketing and distribution agreement with Eco-Energy, an energy and chemical marketing and trading company. Eco-Energy will purchase Kreido Biofuels’ biodiesel output from Wilmington, North Carolina, and Argo, Illinois, for a minimum of 3 years at current commercial market prices, as well as provide Kreido transportation and logistics services. Business Wire - June 27, 2007.

    Beijing Tiandi Riyue Biomass Technology Corp. Ltd. has started construction on its new fuel ethanol project in the county of Naiman in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region's Chifeng City, the company's president told Interfax today. Interfax China - June 26, 2007.

    W2 Energy Inc. announces it will begin development of biobutanol from biomass. The biofuel will be manufactured from syngas derived from non-food biomass and waste products using the company's plasma reactor system. Market Wire - June 26, 2007.

    Finland based Metso Corporation, a global engineering firm has received an order worth €60 million to supply two biomass-fired power boilers to Portugal's EDP Producao - Bioeléctrica, S.A. The first boiler (83 MWth) will be installed at Celbi’s Figueira da Foz pulp mill and the second boiler (35 MWth) at Caima’s pulp mill near the city of Constância. Both power plants will mainly use biomass, like eucalyptus bark and forest residues, as fuel to produce together approximately 40 MWe electricity to the national grid. Both boilers utilize bubbling fluidized bed technology. Metso Corporation - June 26, 2007.

    Canada's New Government is investing more than $416,000 in three southern Alberta projects to help the emerging biofuels industry. The communities of Lethbridge, Drumheller and Coalhurst will benefit from the projects. Through the Biofuels Opportunities for Producers Initiative (BOPI), the three firms will receive funding to prepare feasibility studies and business plans to study the suitability of biofuels production according to location and needs in the industry. MarketWire - June 26, 2007.

    U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman is expected to announce today that Michigan State and other universities have been selected to share $375 million in federal funding to develop new bioenergy centers for research on cellulosic ethanol and biomass plants. More info soon. Detroit Free Press - June 26, 2007.

    A Kerala based NGO has won an Ashden Award for installing biogas plants in the state to convert organic waste into a clean and renewable source of energy at the household level. Former US vice president Al Gore gave away the award - cash prize of 30,000 pounds - to Biotech chief A. Saji at a ceremony in London on Friday. New Kerala - June 25, 2007.

    AltraBiofuels, a California-based producer of renewable biofuels, announced that it has secured an additional US$165.5 million of debt financing for the construction and completion of two plants located in Coshocton, Ohio and Cloverdale, Indiana. The Coshocton plant's capacity is anticipated to reach 60million gallons/year while the Cloverdale plant is expected to reach 100 million gallons/year. Business Wire - June 23, 2007.

    Brazil and the Dominican Republic have inked a biofuel cooperation agreement aimed at alleviating poverty and creating economic opportunity. The agreement initially focuses on the production of biodiesel in the Dominican Republic. Dominican Today - June 21, 2007.

    Malaysian company Ecofuture Bhd makes renewable products from palm oil residues such as empty fruit bunches and fibers (more here). It expects the revenue contribution of these products to grow by 10% this year, due to growing overseas demand, says executive chairman Jang Lim Kuang. 95% of the group's export earnings come from these products which include natural oil palm fibre strands and biodegradable mulching and soil erosion geotextile mats. Bernama - June 20, 2007.

    Argent Energy, a British producer of waste-oil based biodiesel, announced its intention to seek a listing on London's AIM via a placing of new and existing ordinary shares with institutional investors. Argent plans to use the proceeds to construct the first phase of its proposed 150,000 tonnes (170 million litres) plant at Ellesmere Port, near Chester, and to develop further plans for a 75,000 tonnes (85 million litres) plant in New Zealand. Argent Energy - June 20, 2007.

    The first conference of the European Biomass Co-firing Network will be held in Budapest, Hungary, from 2 to 4 July 2007. The purpose of the conference is to bring together scientists, engineers and members of public institutions to present the current state-of-the-art on biomass co-firing. Participants will also discuss future trends and directions in order to promote awareness of this technology as a sustainable energy supply, which could decrease the dependency on fossil fuels and guarantee a decentralised source of energy in Europe. The conference is supported by the EU-funded NETBIOCOF (Integrated European Network for Biomass Co-firing) project. NetBioCof - June 19, 2007.

    Green Energy Resources predicts US$50 per ton biomass woodchip prices within the next twelve months. The current US price level is between $25-32 per ton. Demand caused by the 25-30 new power plants planned in New England by 2010 does not include industry, institutions, universities, hospitals or conversions from natural gas, or cellulostic ethanol. Procurement of woodchips will be based on the delivery capacity of suppliers not local prices for the first time in history. Green Energy has been positioning in New England with rail and port locations to meet the anticipated sector expansion. MarketWire - June 19, 2007.

    In the first major initiative in the US to build a grassroots communications network for the advancement of biofuels adoption, a new national association called The American Biofuels Council (ABC) has been formed. American Biofuels Council - June 19, 2007.

    The Novi Sad-based Jerković Group, in partnership with the Austrian Christof Group, are to invest about €48 million (US$64.3m) in a biodiesel plant in Serbia. Property Xpress - June 19, 2007.

    Biodiesel producer D1 Oils, known for its vast jatropha plantations in Africa and Asia, is to invest CNY 500 to 700 million (€48.9-68.4 / US$65.5-91.7) to build a refinery in Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, in what is expected to be the first biodiesel plant in the country using jatropha oil as a feedstock. South China Morning Post - June 18, 2007.

    After Brazil announced a record sugar crop for this year, with a decline in both ethanol and sugar prices as a result, India too is now preparing for a bumper harvest, a senior economist with the International Sugar Organization said. Raw sugar prices could fall further towards 8 cents per lb in coming months, after their 30% drop so far this year. Converting the global surplus, estimated to be 4 million tonnes, into ethanol may offer a way out of the downward trend. Economic Times India - June 18, 2007.

    After Brazil announced a record sugar crop for this year, with a decline in both ethanol and sugar prices as a result, India too is now preparing for a bumper harvest, a senior economist with the International Sugar Organization said. Raw sugar prices could fall further towards 8 cents per lb in coming months, after their 30% drop so far this year. Converting the global surplus, estimated to be 4 million tonnes, into ethanol may offer a way out of the downward trend. Economic Times India - June 18, 2007.

    A report from the US Department of Agriculture Foreign Agricultural Services (USDA FAS) estimates that the production of ethanol in China will reach 1.45 million tonnes (484 million gallons US) in 2007, up 12% from 1.3 million tonnes in 2006. Plans are to increase ethanol feedstocks from non-arable lands making the use of tuber crops such as cassava and sweet sorghum. USDA-FAS - June 17, 2007.

    The Iowa State University's Extension Bioeconomy Task Force carried out a round of discussions on the bioeconomy with citizens of the state. Results indicate most people see a bright future for the new economy, others are cautious and take on a distanced, more objective view. The potential for jobs and economic development were the most important opportunities identified by the panels. Iowa is the leading producer of corn based ethanol in the US. Iowa State University - June 16, 2007.

    Biofuel producer D1 Oils Plc, known for establishing large jatropha plantations on (degraded land) in Africa and Asia, said it was in advanced talks with an unnamed party regarding a strategic collaboration, sending its shares up 7 percent, after press reports linking it with BP. Firms like BP and other large petroleum companies are keen to secure a supply of biofuel to meet UK government regulations that 5 percent of automotive fuel must be made up of biofuels by 2010. Reuters UK - June 15, 2007.

    Jean Ziegler, a U.N. special rapporteur on the right to food, told a news briefing held on the sidelines of the U.N. Human Rights Council that "there is a great danger for the right to food by the development of biofuels". His comments contradict a report published earlier by a consortium of UN agencies, which said biofuels could boost the food security of the poor. Reuters - June 15, 2007.

    The county of Chicheng in China's Hebei Province recently signed a cooperative contract with the Australian investment and advisory firm Babcock & Brown to invest RMB480 million (€47.2/US$62.9 million) in a biomass power project, state media reported today. Interfax China - June 14, 2007.

    A new two-stroke ICE engine developed by NEVIS Engine Company Ltd. may nearly double fuel efficiency and lower emissions. Moreover, the engine's versatile design means it can be configured to be fuelled not only by gasoline but also by diesel, hydrogen and biofuels. PRWeb - June 14, 2007.

    Houston-based Gulf Ethanol Corp., announced it will develop sorghum as an alternative feedstock for the production of cellulosic ethanol. Scientists have developed drought tolerant, high-yield varieties of the crop that would grow well in the drier parts of the U.S. and reduce reliance on corn. Business Wire - June 14, 2007.

    Bulgaria's Rompetrol Rafinare is to start delivering Euro 4 grade diesel fuel with a 2% biodiesel content to its domestic market starting June 25, 2007. The same company recently started to distributing Super Ethanol E85 from its own brand and Dyneff brand filling stations in France. It is building a 2500 ton/month, €13.5/US$18 million biodiesel facility at its Petromidia refinery. BBJ - June 13, 2007.

    San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), a utility serving 3.4 million customers, announced it has signed a supply contract with Envirepel Energy, Inc. for renewable biomass energy that will be online by October 2007. Bioenergy is part of a 300MW fraction of SDG&E's portfolio of renewable resources. San Diego Gas & Electric - June 13, 2007.

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Friday, June 29, 2007

Omani biofuel project involves tapping date palms - a closer look

From the futuristic science of synthetic biology, to the ancient art of tapping palm trees... Earlier we referred to a very ambitious biofuel project presented by an entrepreneur from Oman. Mohammed bin Saif al-Harthy and his associates at the Oman Green Energy Company announced they were going to utilize 10 million of the region's ubiquitous date palms as a feedstock for ethanol. Initially it was not clear which parts of the tree would be used, because al-Harty stressed that neither the fruit, nor the cellulosic biomass would be harvested.

From the vague project description we deduced that it might involve the traditional technique of tapping sucrose-rich sap from the palm tree (Phoenix Dactylifera), as is still done today to make date palm wine, sugar and syrup. Reuters' AlertNet service conducted a telephone interview with al-Harty and confirms that this is indeed the case.

Tapping traditions
Tapping trees is very labor intensive and demands traditional skills needed to guarantee the survival of the tree. The technique constitutes a severe intervention, but the rewards may be worth it: sap yields can be high (up to 10 liters per tree per day), the sugar content is high as well and the juice can be readily fermented and distilled (more below).

The date palm sap stores the bulk of its reserve of photosynthetically produced carbohydrates in the form of sucrose in solution in the vascular bundles of its trunk. When the central growing point or upper part of the trunk is incised the palm sap will exude as a fresh clear juice consisting principally of sucrose. When left to stand and favoured by the warm season (when tapping takes place), breakdown of sucrose will soon commence, increasing the invert sugar content, after which fermentation will set in spontaneously by naturally occurring yeasts and within a day most of the sugar will have been converted into alcohol.

Tapping deprives the palm of most of its (productive) leaves and food reserves and to recuperate these losses it is knocked out for at least 3 or 4 years before it will bear a full crop of fruit again. A severe wound inflicted on the palm is kept open every day to maintain the sap flow. The palm's survival depends on the skill of the tapper because if the daily scarring is carried on too far, the palm will die. Literally the palm's life balances on razor's edge:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Other palms
In some countries, like India, tapping (wild) date palms is an established cottage industry and several other trees have undergone such traditions over the course of centuries - from the African oil palm and the coconut to less well known palms such as Arenga saccharifera, Caryota urens or Borassus flabellifer. Traditions go back thousands of years. Earlier, we reported about the Nypa fruticans or mangrove palm, a tropical species with a long history of being tapped for its sugar rich sap and which recently attracted a major ethanol investment in Malaysia (more here). A good overview of such ancient tapping techniques, the products they yield, and the wide variety of palms with potential can be found in Christophe Dalibard's study, titled "Overall view on the tradition of tapping palm trees and prospects for animal production", to which we referred earlier.


In his book 'Date Palm Products', written for the FAO, W.H. Barreveld devotes a chapter to different tapping techniques used on the date palm. He includes an overview of yields, both from Arabia (for Phoenix Dactylifera) and from India (where the 'wild' date palm, Phoenix Sylvestris, is tapped on a wide scale). The numbers look as follows (click to enlarge):

The sugar contained in the palm juice can be processed into a range of products, from jaggery and crystalline sugar with remaining molasses, to sugar-candy, large sugar crystals and sugar syrup.

Barreveld provides us with a number that allows us to estimate the ethanol potential of a hectare of tapped date palms. As an average the outturn of jaggery is 10-15% of the weight of the raw juice. Jaggery itself contains between 85-90% of total sugar (composed of different types), the rest being moisture, proteine and fat.

Taking a yield of 8 liters of sap per tree, a planting density of between 156 to 204 trees per hectare, and a harvesting period of 45 days per year (continuous tapping), between 56,160 and 73,440 liters of juice can be harvested per hectare per year. From this amount some 5616 to 7344 kilograms of jaggery can be obtained at low conversion efficiencies, which comes down to 4550 to 6240 kilograms of pure sugar (low estimate). As a rule of thumb, conventional yeast fermentation produces around 0.5 kg of ethanol from 1 kg of any the C6 sugars. In short, from one hectare of tapped date palms, some 2275 to 3120 kilos of ethanol can be obtained.

These raw numbers are based on yields observed in villages that practise the ancient tapping techniques. With some research they can probably be increased significantly. Even the relatively simple act of tapping a tree can become a field of biotech research and innovation, as was demonstrated over the course of the past years in the case of rubber tapping, a process that has seen the introduction of novel techniques such as gas stimulation with ethylene, which enhances the flow of sap (more here). Basic R&D in date palm tapping techniques will yield similar innovations.

Labor intensity
Still, technicalities, potential and traditions aside, tapping is labor intensive. This explains the very high number of jobs that the project is expected to deliver (up to 3500 people working on 80,000 trees -, in a second phase, 10 million trees will be tapped). In the field of energy this is rather problematic. The entire purpose of modern energy is to allow man to use up less physical energy from his own body, and to let the energy technology do it for him. If an army of low-paid tappers is needed to harvest fuel for another segment of society, then questions about equity and social sustainability must be asked.

Earlier, we hinted at this problem by comparing the 'jobs delivered per joule of energy' for a series of energy technologies and resources: from oil, gas and coal to renewables such as wind, solar and different biofuels. In the case of biofuels, harvesting some crops is so labor intensive, that they can only function in a social system based on low-skilled, manual and badly paid labor.

Some crops, like palm oil, are harvested manually, but because of their extremely high yields, they allow smallholders and harvesters to make a decent living. For a crop like jatropha, this is not certain. Sugarcane is being mechanised.

Of all possible non-mechanised harvesting techniques - cutting (cane), picking (jatropha seeds), slashing (oil palm fruit bunches) and tapping (palms, rubber trees) - tapping belongs to the more labor intensive ones because it requires quite some precision work.

It is very interesting to see an entrepreneur from a developing nation sharing the enthusiasm for biofuels. Mohammed bin Saif al-Harty wants to export to world markets and turn his oil-producing Sultanate into a biofuel empire.

He has seen an opportunity and if it works out in a socially acceptable way, then all the better, because reviving an ancient art to fuel the future is a beautiful idea. Moreover, if the project succeeds, we could be looking at a vast new expanse of land - stretching from the semi-arid zones and deserts of North Africa over the Middle East and well into Central Asia - where sugar can be tapped for biofuels.

Slide show: all pictures on the traditional date palm tapping technique were taken from 'Date Palm Products', written for the FAO, by W.H. Barreveld.

Reuters: Interview-Omani sees date palms as future fuel - June 28, 2007

Christophe Dalibard, Overall view on the tradition of tapping palm trees and prospects for animal production, International Relations Service, Ministry of Agriculture, Paris, France, Volume 11, Number 1 1999.

W.H. Barreveld, Date Palm Products, FAO Agricultural Services Bulletin N° 101, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, 1993

Biopact: Nipah ethanol project receives major investment, January 05, 2007


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