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    A new Agency to manage Britain's commitment to biofuels was established today by Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly. The Renewable Fuels Agency will be responsible for the day to day running of the Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation, coming into force in April next year. By 2010, the Obligation will mean that 5% of all the fuels sold in the UK should come from biofuels, which could save 2.6m to 3m tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. eGov Monitor - November 5, 2007.

    Prices for prompt loading South African coal cargoes reached a new record last week with a trade at $85.00 a tonne free-on-board (FOB) for a February cargo. Strong Indian demand and tight supply has pushed South African prices up to record levels from around $47.00 at the beginning of the year. European DES/CIF ARA coal prices have remained fairly stable over the past few days, having traded up to a record $130.00 a tonne DES ARA late last week. Fair value is probably just below $130.00 a tonne, traders said. At this price, some forms of biomass become directly competitive with coal. Reuters Africa - November 4, 2007.

    The government of India's Harayana state has decided to promote biomass power projects based on gasification in a move to help rural communities replace costly diesel and furnace oil. The news was announced during a meeting of the Haryana Renewable Energy Development Agency (HAREDA). Six pilot plants have demonstrated the efficiency and practicability of small-scale biomass gasification. Capital subsidies will now be made available to similar projects at the rate of Rs 2.5 lakh (€4400) per 100 KW for electrical applications and Rs 2 lakh (€3500) per 300 KW for thermal applications. New Kerala - November 1, 2007.

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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

iGEM prize for team that modified bacterium for biobutanol production

A team of science students from the University of Alberta is one step closer to creating a clean and reliable source of butanol, an alternative biofuel, by using a manipulated bacterium. The 10-member group, who call themselves the 'Butanerds', won first prize in the Energy and the Environment category at the prestigious synthetic biology competition held this weekend at MIT - the fourth annual International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition.
Everybody welcomed our idea. There are certain people working on similar kinds of technology that we were able to chat with and tell them why we thought butanol was better. For the most part, I think they agreed. [...] We haven't gotten any further with our lab work. Hopefully, within the next month we'll be producing butanol and we'll have furthered our development of our computer modelling. It's a very complex project. - Justin Pahara, senior team member
Pahara's team has been working on introducing the genes responsible for butanol production in the organism Clostridium into the E. coli bacterium. The students took five enzymes from Clostridium which play a key role in butanol production ('BioBricks', which ties in with the iGEM contest which focuses on using DNA as 'bricks' for the construction of biological machines) and put them into the cells of E. Coli. By using an organism that is photosynthetic, they can produce the fuel without competing for food supply. They also hope to increase E. Coli's tolerance to butanol.

The process is complicated and still rather inefficient, and Pahara's team is working with computer models to see how to increase production levels. Pahara said he hopes his team, composed of students in a number of different fields - including engineering and biochemistry - will have a system that can produce significantly more butanol by the end of next year.

Pahara said the award might help the team get more research funding by showing sponsors how the project was recognized in an international setting:
It's really hard to talk economics because we don't know what kind of system we're going to end up with. But you just have to look at oil prices right now: this is why biofuels are being investigated so intensely. - Justin Pahara
Biobutanol (butyl alcohol) has come under increasing interest because of its advantages as a renewable transportation fuel compared to first generation biofuels. It has a higher energy content than ethanol, can be used in the existing gasoline supply and distribution lines, has higher octane number, and can be mixed with gasoline in much higher proportions:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The fuel can be obtained by breaking down lignocellulosic biomass via enzymes contained in microorganisms (earlier post). This means a potentially vast range of biomass feedstocks can be used which don't compete with food crops.

Major organisations working on the development of biobutanol are Japan's government-affiliated Research Institute of Innovative Technology for the Earth (RITE), which created a technology for the production of cellulosic biobutanol from materials such as grass cuttings and wood chips. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service (ARS), which is experimenting with a way to convert cellulosic biomass into biobutanol using the bacterium Clostridium beijerinckii (earlier post).

Another player is biotech company Green Biologics which received a large (€855,000) fund to research strategies to develop the fuel from cellulosic biomass by utilizing thermophiles (see here).

But biobutanol made most headlines when chemical giant DuPont and petroleum major BP announced they were going to collaborate on producing the fuel, which they think holds promise over the longer term as one of the best gasoline substitutes (earlier post).

iGEM is a competition attracting hundreds of undergraduates from all over the world spend their summer making synthetic biology a reality. The question driving iGEM is: "can simple biological systems by built from standard, interchangeable parts and operated in living cells, or is biology too complicated to be engineered this way?" Synthetic biologists try to answer the question by actually engineering biological devices. The iGEM competition facilitates this by providing a standardized library of parts, which it calls BioBricks, to students, and asks them to build genetic machines with them. Students are welcome to make their own BioBricks, which is what the team from the University of Alberta did.

Broader goals of iGEM are to include the systematic engineering of biology; to promote the open and transparent development of tools for engineering biology; and, to help construct a society that can productively apply biological technology.

University of Alberta: Butanerds win MIT contest - November 5, 2007.

University of Alberta: U of A team building a better bacterium [includes video] - November 5, 2007.

MIT: fourth annual International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition.

MIT iGEM Wiki: Registry of Standard Biological Parts.

Biopact: Japan's RITE develops cellulosic biobutanol technology - August 14, 2007

Biopact: Scientists develop biobutanol from wheat straw - June 26, 2007

Biopact: Green biologics awarded €855,000 to boost biobutanol fuel development -
January 22, 2007

Biopact: DuPont outlines commercialisation strategies for biobutanol, cellulosic ethanol - February 22, 2007


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