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    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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Saturday, January 27, 2007

Anthropological study explores the effects of genetically modified crops on developing countries

Biofuels, bioenergy and plant-based products are set to transform the fossil fuel based economy of the past, into the bioeconomy of the future. The developing world by far has the largest potential to contribute to this emerging post-oil revolution.

But some fear this green, clean and climate-friendly economy will increasingly rely on the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Considerable research is currently going into the development of crops that yield more biomass that can be converted easily into useful products (from fuels to plastics) or in to plants that withstand previously unsuitable agro-climatic conditions.

So far, the developing world has already had its fair share of experiences with GMOs. But very few studies have actually looked at the long-term economic, social and cultural impacts of these crops on the farming communities who cultivate them. Often, social and environmental impact assessments are written in a routine, standard fashion (by the companies that sell the crops), or they are ideologically burdened because written by (Western) NGOs with a narrow, ethnocentric agenda. The analytical tools used in such studies are often of dubious quality, not to say outright superficial.

In such a climate, the scientific, deep, ethnographic gaze of the social anthropologist is more than welcome. A new study in the February issue of Current Anthropology explores how the arrival of genetically modified crops affects peasants in developing countries. Glenn Davis Stone, professor of anthropology and environment at Washington University, carried out a multi-year ethnography of farmers the Warangal District of Andhra Pradesh in India, a key cotton growing area notorious for suicides by cotton farmers.

In 2003 to 2005, market share of "Bt cotton" seeds rose from 12 percent to 62 percent in Warangal. Bt cotton is genetically modified to produce its own insecticide and has been claimed by its manufacturer as the fastest-adopted agricultural technology in history.

Monsato, the firm behind Bt cotton, has interpreted the rapid spread of the modified strain as the result of farmer experimentation and management skill � similar to mechanisms that scholars cite to explain the spread of hybrid corn across American farms. But Stone's multiyear ethnography of Warangal cotton farmers shows an unexpected pattern of localized cotton seed fads in the district. He argues that, rather than a case of careful assessment and adoption, Warangal is plagued by a severe breakdown of the "skilling" process by which farmers normally hone their management practices:
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"Warangal cotton farming offers a case study in 'agricultural deskilling'," writes Stone. The seed fads had virtually no environmental basis, and farmers generally lacked recognition of what was actually being planted, a striking contrast to highly strategic seed selection processes in areas where technological change is learned and gradual. Interviews also provided consistent evidence that Warangal cotton farmers prefer trying new seeds - seeds without any background information whatsoever - to trying several strains on smaller, experimental scales and choosing one for long-term adoption.

The problem preceded Bt cotton, Stone points out; its root causes are reliance on hybrid seed, which must be repurchased every year, and a chaotic seed market in which products come and go at a furious pace and farmers often cannot tell what they are using. Farmer desire for novelty exacerbates the turnover of seeds in the market, Stone argues, and seed firms will frequently take seeds that have fallen out of favor, rename them, and resell with new marketing campaigns. For instance, one recent favorite seed in several villages is identical to four other seeds on the market.

Stone argues that the previously undocumented pattern of fads, in which each village lurches from seed to seed, reflects a breakdown of the process of "environmental learning," leaving farmers to rely purely on "social learning." Bt cotton was not the cause of this "deskilling," but in Warangal it has exacerbated the problem.

"On the surface, [Warangal] appears to be a dramatic case of successful adoption of an innovation," Stone explains. "However, a closer analysis of the dynamics of adoption shows that the pattern some see as an environmentally based change in agricultural practice actually continues the established pattern of socially driven fads arising in the virtual absence of environmental learning."

Strangely, in another part of India, a very different history of Bt cotton has led to an improvement in agricultural skilling. In Gujarat, the loss of corporate control over the Bt technology has led to an increased involvement of farmers in local breeding, and an apparent increase in knowledge-based innovation.

We will be needing this kind of studies much more in the future. The introduction of bioenergy and biofuel production is not merely a technological or economic matter. Instead, it is caught up in the dense realities of social structures and cultural change. An anthropological approach to studying the ways local cultures perceive and deal with the introduction of new energy paradigms, markets and products, implies that we are willing to question our own ideas on 'modernisation', 'technological progress', and 'development'.

Too often, the institutions involved in 'development' (governments, corporations, international development agencies, NGOs) still rely on a 'top down' and ethnocentric vision when they assess the effects of the projects they (are planning to) implement. Despite their attempts to include as many 'stake-holders' into their sustainability analyses, such assessments seldom reflect the deeper social and cultural realities of the people in question. This is one of the reasons why so many development projects ultimately fail, provoke resistance or end up being damaging.

For this reason we need analysts, like anthropologists and ethnographers, who can 'translate' the way cultural systems deal with social and economic change. This is especially true in the field of large-scale bioenergy projects in the South, which affect a complex set of interacting socio-cultural factors: from views on land ownership and patterns of local power, to migration and labor dynamics. No company, government or development agency can afford to side-step a thorough anthropological analysis of these interacting factors.

Picture: Farmers buying cotton seeds at a shop in Warangal. Visible behind them are a few of the many hybrid seeds available at the shop. The man in the middle is paying 1600 rupiah a pack of RCH2-Bt (4 times the cost of conventional seed). When asked why he had chosen RCH2-Bt, he said it was what other farmers were buying. Courtesy Glenn Davis Stone.

More information:
Glenn Davis Stone, "Agricultural Deskilling and the Spread of Genetically Modified Cotton in Warangal", Current Anthropology, Volume 48, Number 1, February 2007 - abstract.

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New process design improves energy balance of ethanol production considerably

Using the sheer power of mathematical programming, chemical engineers from the Carnegie Mellon University in the U.S. have devised a new process that considerably improves the efficiency of ethanol production, a major component in making biofuels a significant part of the world's energy supply.

The researchers have used advanced process design methods combined with mathematical optimization techniques to reduce the operating costs of corn-based bioethanol plants by more than 60 percent. The key to the new strategy involves redesigning the distillation process by using a multi-column system together with a network for energy recovery that ultimately reduces the consumption of steam, a major energy component in the production of corn-based ethanol.

For a long time, corn-based ethanol was considered a questionable energy resource, and doubts still remain over its final energy balance (for more on this concept, see the excellent overview of the principles behind the notion of 'net energy' at the Encyclopedia of Earth, and a new lifecycle assessment of corn ethanol's energy efficiency). Today, 46 percent of all U.S. gasoline contains some percentage of ethanol. Until now, demand was driven by a federal mandate that 5 percent of the American gasoline supply – roughly 7.5 billion gallons – contain some ethanol by 2012.

But since President Bush held his State of the Union address, the biofuel has received a far bigger boost. The new U.S. energy agenda aims to replace not less than 20% of all gasoline consumption (roughly 2 million barrels per day) with renewables, mainly ethanol, in 10 years time ("20 in 10") (earlier post). This will require a gigantic investment in finite resources, and so each increase in processing efficiencies is more than welcome.
"This new design reduces the manufacturing cost for producing ethanol by 11 percent, from $1.61 a gallon to $1.43 a gallon. This research also is an important step in making the production of ethanol more energy efficient and economical." Chemical Engineering Professor Ignacio E. Grossmann, who completed the research with graduate students Ramkumar Karuppiah, Andreas Peschel and Mariano Martin.
In the U.S., corn is the main feedstock used to produce ethanol, but the biofuel can be made from a wide variety of starch and sugar rich crops. The increased efficiency derived from the enhanced energy recovery model can in principle be applied to most other processing facilities:
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The research was conducted through the Chemical Engineering Department's Center of Advanced Process Decision-Making in collaboration with Minneapolis-based Cargill, an international provider of food, agricultural and risk management services and products. More particularly, it drew on the work of Professor Grossman's team, which is united in a research group, whose main aim is the development of discrete-continuous optimization models and methods for problems in process systems engineering.

Grossman's group addresses "problems in the areas of process synthesis, planning and scheduling of process systems, through novel mathematical programming approaches, which rely on linear and nonlinear models with discrete and continuous variables. These include mixed-integer programming (MILP and MINLP), General Disjunctive Programming (GDP) and global optimizationand multiperiod optimization. Both deterministic models as well as models with uncertainty are considered."

Luca C. Zullo, technical director of Cargill Emissions Reduction Services, said about the cooperation: "As a result of the explosive growth of the U.S. fuel ethanol industry, we decided to collaborate with Professor Grossmann's team to verify how process synthesis tools could be applied to improve the production of ethanol from corn. The work done at Carnegie Mellon demonstrated the potential for considerable capital and energy cost savings in the corn to ethanol process. We look forward to the time when the tools developed by Carnegie Mellon researchers will become part of industry's new toolkit for making the process even more economical and sustainable."

Efficiency increases in biofuel processing are one of the areas in which tremendous progress remains to be made. An example of what is possible is offered by Brazil's experience. There, in less than 25 years time, ethanol producers succeeded in reducing costs by up to 75%, mainly through increases in processing efficiency. This trend is set to continue, making the energy balance of the biofuel better than it already is.

Without wanting to be be too deterministic (or assuming the existence of some hidden finality within scientific evolution), the exponential increase in scientific and technological breakthroughs allows us to assume that in the field of biofuels production too, large efficiency increases will be made in the not so distant future (in plant biology, agronomy, engineering, biochemistry and process engineering).

More information:
Barttfeld, M., Aguirre, P.A. and Grossmann, I.E. "A Decomposition Method for Synthesizing Complex Column Configurations Using Tray-by-Tray GDP Models," [*.pdf], sine dato, submitted for publication.

Barttfeld M., Aguirre P.A. and Grossmann I.E. "Alternative Representations and Formulations for the Economic Optimization of Multicomponent Distillation Columns." [*.pdf] To appear in Computers & Chemical Engineering.

Cleveland, Cutler; Peter Saundry, 2007. "Ten fundamental principles of net energy." In: Encyclopedia of Earth. Eds. Cutler J. Cleveland (Washington, D.C.: Environmental Information Coalition, National Council for Science and the Environment).

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