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    The Colorado Wood Utilization and Marketing Program at Colorado State University received a $65,000 grant from the U.S. Forest Service to expand the use of woody biomass throughout Colorado. The purpose of the U.S. Department of Agriculture grant program is to provide financial assistance to state foresters to accelerate the adoption of woody biomass as an alternative energy source. Colorado State University - October 12, 2007.

    Indian company Naturol Bioenergy Limited announced that it will soon start production from its biodiesel facility at Kakinada, in the state of Andhra Pradesh. The facility has an annual production capacity of 100,000 tons of biodiesel and 10,000 tons of pharmaceutical grade glycerin. The primary feedstock is crude palm oil, but the facility was designed to accomodate a variety of vegetable oil feedstocks. Biofuel Review - October 11, 2007.

    Brazil's state energy company Petrobras says it will ship 9 million liters of ethanol to European clients next month in its first shipment via the northeastern port of Suape. Petrobras buys the biofuel from a pool of sugar cane processing plants in the state of Pernambuco, where the port is also located. Reuters - October 11, 2007.

    Dynamotive Energy Systems Corporation, a leader in biomass-to-biofuel technology, announces that it has completed a $10.5 million equity financing with Quercus Trust, an environmentally oriented fund, and several other private investors. Ardour Capital Inc. of New York served as financial advisor in the transaction. Business Wire - October 10, 2007.

    Cuban livestock farmers are buying distillers dried grains (DDG), the main byproduct of corn based ethanol, from biofuel producers in the U.S. During a trade mission of Iowan officials to Cuba, trade officials there said the communist state will double its purchases of the dried grains this year. DesMoines Register - October 9, 2007.

    Brasil Ecodiesel, the leading Brazilian biodiesel producer company, recorded an increase of 57.7% in sales in the third quarter of the current year, in comparison with the previous three months. Sales volume stood at 53,000 cubic metres from August until September, against 34,000 cubic metres of the biofuel between April and June. The company is also concluding negotiations to export between 1,000 to 2,000 tonnes of glycerine per month to the Asian market. ANBA - October 4, 2007.

    PolyOne Corporation, the US supplier of specialised polymer materials, has opened a new colour concentrates manufacturing plant in Kutno, Poland. Located in central Poland, the new plant will produce colour products in the first instance, although the company says the facility can be expanded to handle other products. In March, the Ohio-based firm launched a range of of liquid colourants for use in bioplastics in biodegradable applications. The concentrates are European food contact compliant and can be used in polylactic acid (PLA) or starch-based blends. Plastics & Rubber Weekly - October 2, 2007.

    A turbo-charged, spray-guided direct-injection engine running on pure ethanol (E100) can achieve very high specific output, and shows “significant potential for aggressive engine downsizing for a dedicated or dual-fuel solution”, according to engineers at Orbital Corporation. GreenCarCongress - October 2, 2007.

    UK-based NiTech Solutions receives £800,000 in private funding to commercialize a cost-saving industrial mixing system, dubbed the Continuous Oscillatory Baffled Reactor (COBR), which can lower costs by 50 per cent and reduce process time by as much as 90 per cent during the manufacture of a range of commodities including chemicals, drugs and biofuels. Scotsman - October 2, 2007.

    A group of Spanish investors is building a new bioethanol plant in the western region of Extremadura that should be producing fuel from maize in 2009. Alcoholes Biocarburantes de Extremadura (Albiex) has already started work on the site near Badajoz and expects to spend €42/$59 million on the plant in the next two years. It will produce 110 million litres a year of bioethanol and 87 million kg of grain byproduct that can be used for animal feed. Europapress - September 28, 2007.

    Portuguese fuel company Prio SA and UK based FCL Biofuels have joined forces to launch the Portuguese consumer biodiesel brand, PrioBio, in the UK. PrioBio is scheduled to be available in the UK from 1st November. By the end of this year (2007), says FCL Biofuel, the partnership’s two biodiesel refineries will have a total capacity of 200,000 tonnes which will is set to grow to 400,000 tonnes by the end of 2010. Biofuel Review - September 27, 2007.

    According to Tarja Halonen, the Finnish president, one third of the value of all of Finland's exports consists of environmentally friendly technologies. Finland has invested in climate and energy technologies, particularly in combined heat and power production from biomass, bioenergy and wind power, the president said at the UN secretary-general's high-level event on climate change. Newroom Finland - September 25, 2007.

    Spanish engineering and energy company Abengoa says it had suspended bioethanol production at the biggest of its three Spanish plants because it was unprofitable. It cited high grain prices and uncertainty about the national market for ethanol. Earlier this year, the plant, located in Salamanca, ceased production for similar reasons. To Biopact this is yet another indication that biofuel production in the EU/US does not make sense and must be relocated to the Global South, where the biofuel can be produced competitively and sustainably, without relying on food crops. Reuters - September 24, 2007.

    The Midlands Consortium, comprised of the universities of Birmingham, Loughborough and Nottingham, is chosen to host Britain's new Energy Technologies Institute, a £1 billion national organisation which will aim to develop cleaner energies. University of Nottingham - September 21, 2007.

    The EGGER group, one of the leading European manufacturers of chipboard, MDF and OSB boards has begun work on installing a 50MW biomass boiler for its production site in Rion. The new furnace will recycle 60,000 tonnes of offcuts to be used in the new combined heat and power (CHP) station as an ecological fuel. The facility will reduce consumption of natural gas by 75%. IHB Network - September 21, 2007.

    Analysts fear that record oil prices will fuel general inflation in Kenya, particularly hitting the poorest hard. They call for the development of new policies and strategies to cope with sustained high oil prices. Such policies include alternative fuels like biofuels, conservation measures, and more investments in oil and gas exploration. The poor in Kenya are hit hardest by the sharp increase, because they spend most of their budget on fuel and transport. Furthermore, in oil intensive economies like Kenya, high oil prices push up prices for food and most other basic goods. All Africa - September 20, 2007.

    Finland's Metso Power has won an order to supply Kalmar Energi Värme AB with a biomass-fired power boiler for the company’s new combined heat and power plant in Kalmar on the east coast of Sweden. Start-up for the plant is scheduled for the end of 2009. The value of the order is approximately EUR 55 million. The power boiler (90 MWth) will utilize bubbling fluidized bed technology and will burn biomass replacing old district heating boilers and reducing the consumption of oil. The delivery will also include a flue gas condensing system to increase plant's district heat production. Metso Corporation - September 19, 2007.

    Jo-Carroll Energy announced today its plan to build an 80 megawatt, biomass-fueled, renewable energy center in Illinois. The US$ 140 million plant will be fueled by various types of renewable biomass, such as clean waste wood, corn stover and switchgrass. Jo-Carroll Energy - September 18, 2007.

    Beihai Gofar Marine Biological Industry Co Ltd, in China's southern region of Guangxi, plans to build a 100,000 tonne-per-year fuel ethanol plant using cassava as feedstock. The Shanghai-listed company plans to raise about 560 million yuan ($74.5 million) in a share placement to finance the project and boost its cash flow. Reuters - September 18, 2007.

    The oil-dependent island state of Fiji has requested US company Avalor Capital, LLC, to invest in biodiesel and ethanol. The Fiji government has urged the company to move its $250million 'Fiji Biofuels Project' forward at the earliest possible date. Fiji Live - September 18, 2007.

    The Bowen Group, one of Ireland's biggest construction groups has announced a strategic move into the biomass energy sector. It is planning a €25 million investment over the next five years to fund up to 100 projects that will create electricity from biomass. Its ambition is to install up to 135 megawatts of biomass-fuelled heat from local forestry sources, which is equal to 50 million litres or about €25m worth of imported oil. Irish Examiner - September 16, 2007.

    According to Dr Niphon Poapongsakorn, dean of Economics at Thammasat University in Thailand, cassava-based ethanol is competitive when oil is above $40 per barrel. Thailand is the world's largest producer and exporter of cassava for industrial use. Bangkok Post - September 14, 2007.

    German biogas and biodiesel developer BKN BioKraftstoff Nord AG has generated gross proceeds totaling €5.5 million as part of its capital increase from authorized capital. Ad Hoc News - September 13, 2007.

    NewGen Technologies, Inc. announced that it and Titan Global Holdings, Inc. completed a definitive Biofuels Supply Agreement which will become effective upon Titan’s acquisition of Appalachian Oil Company. Given APPCO’s current distribution of over 225 million gallons of fuel products per year, the initial expected ethanol supply to APPCO should exceed 1 million gallons a month. Charlotte dBusinessNews - September 13, 2007.

    Oil prices reach record highs as the U.S. Energy Information Agency releases a report that showed crude oil inventories fell by more than seven million barrels last week. The rise comes despite a decision by the international oil cartel, OPEC, to raise its output quota by 500,000 barrels. Reuters - September 12, 2007.

    OPEC decided today to increase the volume of crude supplied to the market by Member Countries (excluding Angola and Iraq) by 500,000 b/d, effective 1 November 2007. The decision comes after oil reached near record-highs and after Saudi Aramco announced that last year's crude oil production declined by 1.7 percent, while exports declined by 3.1 percent. OPEC - September 11, 2007.

    GreenField Ethanol and Monsanto Canada launch the 'Gro-ethanol' program which invites Ontario's farmers to grow corn seed containing Monsanto traits, specifically for the ethanol market. The corn hybrids eligible for the program include Monsanto traits that produce higher yielding corn for ethanol production. MarketWire - September 11, 2007.

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Monday, October 15, 2007

Geneticist finds switchgrass could bridge bioenergy and conservation

An important part of the answer to today's energy woes could be blowing in grasslands, according to Agricultural Research Service (ARS) plant geneticist Michael Casler. He has spent the past 10 years breeding switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), a plant native to the U.S. that was an integral part of the tall grass prairies that once dominated America's Midwest. In a new study, part of the ARS' Rangeland, Pasture, and Forages program, he presents findings which show that the switchgrass varieties conservationists are keen on using for reestablishing vanished prairies, are genetically similar to the varieties with a high bioenergy potential.

As a breeder, Casler is mostly concerned with the plant's bioenergy-friendly attributes, including its ability to accumulate large amounts of biomass and tolerate environmental stress. Some quick facts about switchgrass as a biomass crop first:
  • a recent ARS study on energy cropping systems shows switchgrass and hybrid poplar would produce nearly a three-fold greater reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to corn or soybean rotations (earlier post)
  • as a perennial, switchgrass has deep roots with which the crop acts to increase soil carbon levels; boosting carbon storage in the soil mitigates the greenhouse effect and improves soil quality
  • the energy balance of switchgrass based biofuels is up to between 5 and 10 times stronger than biofuels made from food crops like corn and soybean
  • scientists have determined the sequences of about 12,000 switchgrass gene fragments so far; at least 12 of them are associated with genes that regulate the production and deposition of lignin, the cementing agent that holds plant cell walls together; this identification allows for the breeding of low-lignin varieties that can be converted more easily into liquid fuels
These basics show switchgrass is a highly promising energy crop. With this in mind, Casler began looking at switchgrass for more potential benefits: could the crop function as a restorer of once-pristine prairies? (For earlier examples of coupling bioenergy to conservation, see here and here). Historically, a sprawling seas of grasses once stretched from Montana and the Dakotas down to Texas, with pockets of prairie as far east as New York. Now, with much of this land fragmented or altered, only a patchwork of remnant prairies remains.

Numerous conservation efforts are examining how best to revive these vestigial prairies. But a question of genealogy always arises: which switchgrass varieties should be planted that will be in keeping with a site's genetic legacy? Some conservationists insist on using only long-established, local varieties of switchgrass. Others argue that modern-day cultivars can appropriately be used. Along with ARS scientist Kenneth Vogel, Casler set out to bring clarity to this debate and, hopefully, ease the task of grassland restoration:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

After two summers spent trekking native Midwestern prairies, plucking samples and sending them back to his laboratory, Casler discovered that today's agronomically important switchgrass cultivars are nearly identical genetically to their grassy ancestors.

Casler’s switchgrass subjects had their differences, but hardly any were attributable to broad geographic disparities. Actually, aside from subtle differences owed to variations in soil, climate, and slope, the broad switchgrass pool sitting before Casler was pretty homogeneous.

Plants from each individual population were as variable as those from geographically distant populations, and the remnant populations were very similar to the cultivars, he says. Part of this can be explained by the fact that people have been breeding switchgrass for only about 50 years, compared to the thousands of years of domesticating modern wheat or corn.

In fact, the most advanced cultivars he analyzed are only three to four generations removed from wild switchgrass, says Casler. He adds that these breeding-induced changes are small, since breeders only exploited a small amount of genetic variation already existing in native switchgrasses.

The good news about these findings is that so-called 'improved' switchgrass cultivars are, genetically speaking, very similar to populations of plants being used for native restoration. The difference between native and cultivated switchgrass is probably due to changes in the frequency of just a few genes that have little overall impact on switchgrass gene pools.

These findings make switchgrass, which was already enjoying modest agricultural fanfare, especially attractive.
Our findings show that switchgrass that’s grown for biofuel can also be grown for conservation and other uses without the fear of possible genetic contamination. We need to pay attention to the origin of switchgrass seed populations, but we’ve learned that seeds can be transferred widely within the hardiness zone in which they originated. - Michael Casler
Switchgrass as a source of renewable energy still requires more research before its full potential is realized. Casler says that the plant’s biofuel future probably lies in specially designed seed mixtures with supporting role-type plants—including beneficial legumes that fix their own nitrogen.

If Casler’s right, fields of soft, willowy switchgrass growing alongside native legumes like pure prairie clover and Illinois bundleflower could someday provide us with a source of green energy as well as a window into our country’s verdant past.

The study's findings are good news for prairie restorers, who can confidently tap a wider pool of switchgrass cultivars and local varieties for conservation projects. And switchgrass growers can take satisfaction knowing their fields still are, in many ways, symbolic of the country's rich grassy past.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief scientific research agency.

Image courtesy
: Stephen Ausmus.

ARS: Switchgrass: Bridging Bioenergy and Conservation - September 13, 2007.

ARS: Scientists Turn Genetic Keys to Unlock Bioenergy in Switchgrass - April 20, 2007.

ARS: Energy Farming With Switchgrass Saves Carbon - July 19, 2007

Biopact: European project finds nitrogen damages biodiversity - biomass stripping coupled to bioenergy could offer conservation strategy - October 13, 2007

Biopact: Tallgrass Prairie Center to implement Tilman's mixed grass findings - September 02, 2007

Biopact: Study: greenhouse gas balance of different energy cropping systems - June 18, 2007


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