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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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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Cassava as a 'strategic starch reserve': why the US is sequencing the plant's genome

Cassava or manioc is a root crop grown all over the tropics and the sub-tropics by subsistence farmers. After rice, it is the second most-widely used crop in the developing world, where billions consider it to be their staple food. In a country such as Congo, cassava makes up more than half the entire daily calorie intake of the Congolese (see the FAO's Food Balance Sheets).

Despite the fact that such a large segment of the world's population relies on the crop to meet its dietary needs, the plant is typically understudied and underutilized. Few international research organisations, multinationals or biotech companies are interested in funding cassava research. This also means virtually no efforts are made aimed at increasing the productivity of the plant or at utilizing it in innovative ways to add value, with which to boost the incomes and the food security of the subsistence farmers who make a living from it. The main reason for this lack of interest: cassava is not consumed by people in the West, and those who do eat it are poor people.

But recently, this situation has changed. Earlier we reported on how a U.S. biotech research center received a US$15 million grant from Monsanto to create a transgenic variety of the crop (earlier post), while cassava has also been chosen by the U.S. Department of Energy's Joint Genome Institute to have its genome sequenced (earlier post).

Strategic starch reserves
There can be only one reason for this sudden interest into a plant that was previously seen as being of 'marginal' importance: to create 'strategic starch reserves' around the world to supply the carbohydrate economy of the future.

Cassava roots are very rich in starch (with a starch content of up to 35%), but poor in protein and other nutrients. This starch can be easily transformed into sugars, which are the building blocks of a bioeconomy in which petrochemical products will be replaced by sugar-based products (from plastics to fuels).

The high-profile research interest into cassava gives a clear indication that even the US will be looking abroad for future reserves of cheap starch. After all, cassava yields far more of it than corn, the main source currently used for the production of ethanol in the US. Contrary to the North America or Europe, vast parts of the Global South have plenty of land available for the sustainable production of energy crops. Here, they can be grown competitively and cheaply.

Even though the R&D efforts into cassava may have a finality that ultimately goes beyond improved food production, in the shorter term they may benefit the billions of subsistence farmers who depend on the root crop:
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The University of Arizona, which played a major role in sequencing the genome of rice, offers us a better view of the rationale behind the Joint Genome Institute's interest in cassava. It is providing one of the multi-institutional team's main researchers, Steven Rounsley, associate research professor of the BIO5 Institute and of the Department of Plant Sciences.

"The cassava is a very important crop for subsistence farmers in Africa, and to obtain more information that farmers can use will help them build better crops for the poorest people," says Vicki Chandler, director of the BIO5 Institute.

The cassava, which is second to rice in the developing world as a main source of food, has a unique potential for conversion into ethanol because of its high percentage of starch, Rounsley said.

Interest in the cassava from the science community is still small, Rounsley said, but since the U.S. Department of Energy's Bioenergy Initiative, the government has taken interest in bioenergy and turning things like corn or other starchy material into ethanol fuel. "The cassava is not generally an interesting crop for the scientific community, but the recent energy proposal kicked it all together and there is a reality for a potential energy use," Rounsley said.

From a humanitarian perspective, the cassava genome sequencing project will benefit those people who eat it on a daily basis. "The problem with the cassava is that it's so full of starch. There is very little in nutrition," Rounsley said. "Protein is missing and there is a cyanide compound in raw cassava that makes it poisonous to eat."

In sequencing the cassava genome, there are hopes to make it more nutritious and safer to consume, and to protect the root from disease. "Plant diseases can wipe out entire crops, and if this happens to a farmer in Africa he not only loses his source of income, but also his food source and the food source of the community," Rounsley said.

Africa and South America are one of the largest producers of cassava because the root can survive draught conditions and can grow in poor soil, Rounsley said. "The cassava is a major crop in Latin America, and the cassava is not a trivial crop, and the genome sequence of the cassava will be helpful in identifying ways to improve the crop," said Robert Leonard, head of the plant sciences department.

The sequencing project is still in the pilot phase, said Rounsley, meaning the DOE is still evaluating the data to pick the next step. After the DOE has completed evaluating the data, the information will be passed on to researchers such as Rounsley to interpret and evaluate the data and find a meaning.

"Sequencing a genome is like reorganizing a textbook where the chapters, words and sentences are all mixed up," Rounsley said. "I try to define a beginning and end to come to a meaning." It takes about a year to generate a DNA sequence, and the resulting genome can have a DNA sequence 800 million letters long, which is the same amount as a grain of rice, Rounsley said.

"In terms of getting useful information to breeders, farmers and scientists, we will try to get it to them as quickly as possible, but it may take one to three years," Rounsley said.

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Inter-American Development Bank to promote biofuel projects in Central America

Quicknote bioenergy finance
Within the context of its 'sustainable energy and climate change' initiative for Central America, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), at a meeting with finance ministers and central bank presidents from Central America and the Dominican Republic, announced to step up its efforts to promote alternative energy sources, biofuel production and the competitiveness of small and medium-size enterprises.

The proposals were made during talks held with the IDB governors for Belize, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama, who met with IDB President Luis Alberto Moreno, managers and specialists.

The Board of Governors is the IDB’s top decision-making body, comprising representatives from all 47 member countries. The talks with Central American governors were held in preparation for the Board’s annual meeting, which is to take place in March in Guatemala.

During their first day in San Jose governors and the IDB delegation discussed the outlook of the global economy and its implications for the Central American region.

Financing for private sector projects, an initiative to create opportunities for economic advancement for the poor, the development of renewable energy sources to reduce the region’s oil imports, and the application of science and technology to improve competitiveness were also discussed:
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The IDB’s Inter-American Investment Corporation made a presentation to the governors of FINPYME, a new program to expand small and medium-size businesses’ access to financing.

FINPYME, which is being carried out with a South Korean grant, consists of a new methodology to diagnose the strengths and weaknesses of SMEs and help them design plans to improve their operations and increase their possibilities of obtaining financing either from the IIC or commercial banks. FINPYME is being launched this month in Central America and the Dominican Republic.

During the second day participants discussed issues of regional interest such as cooperation to take greater advantage of trade agreements signed with industrialized nations and other Latin American countries. Governors also analyzed the IDB’s own process of realignment, which is aimed at making the Bank more agile and responsive to the needs and priorities of its clients.

Moreno later held bilateral meetings with the governors from Belize, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama. The session with Costa Rica was held on Thursday and ended with a visit to President Oscar Arias.

The IDB is the leading source of multilateral financing for economic and social development projects in Latin America and the Caribbean.

More information:
IADB: A Biofuels Approach for the IDB[.*pdf]

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Diversified Energy develops cold-weather and aviation biofuels

Aviation biofuels are the last frontier for green energy development. Fuels for aircraft need to have a high energy density and properties that allow them to be used at high altitudes and under very cold conditions. Advances in Brazil, where a biofuel company is cooperating with Boeing and NASA (earlier post) and Argentina (earlier post) have resulted in 'bio-kerosene' or 'bio-jet fuel' made from plant oils, whereas the U.S. Air Force has been testing synthetic fuels, which can be made from biomass (earlier post). The University of North Dakota recently received a US$5 million grant to develop military bio-jet fuels (earlier post). Some airline moghuls, like Sir Richard Branson, have repeatedly hinted at a future in which aviation biofuels will become viable on a large scale (earlier post).

Diversified Energy Corporation is now adding to this growing body of research. It announced it has agreed to the terms of an exclusive worldwide license with North Carolina State University for an innovative and breakthrough biofuels technology that will result in the production of aviation biofuels. The patent-pending process based on freeing up the free fatty acids contained in triglycerides from glycerol and passing them through a catalyst after which a resulting gas is synthesized into a liquid (see picture, click to enlarge), termed Centia, provides several key advantages when compared with other biofuel processes like biodiesel, ethanol and others, including:
  • Delivers a more advanced and complex hydrocarbon fuel, suitable for demanding applications like jet fuel and as a biodiesel additive for cold-weather operations.
  • Provides up to a 50% reduction in external energy required in the process.
  • Utilizes any renewable lipid-based oil compound (soybean, canola, animal fats, algae, etc), thus avoiding being beholden to the price and availability of any one supply source.
  • Produces an aviation fuel competitively priced with petroleum-derived fuel, before considering the additional financial incentives available from the government.
  • Offers a "100% green" biofuel product containing no fossil fuel components.
  • Fuels with an end-to-end energy efficiency in excess of 85%, a key metric in determining the eventual affordability of the biofuel generated.
Centia, a name derived from Crudus Potentia (meaning "green power" in Latin), can utilize feedstock oils from edible and inedible animal fats, waste oils, agriculture crops like soybean, algae, newly proposed energy crops, or any other lipid-based feedstock:
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This provides the owner of a Centia biofuels plant the flexibility to use the most attractive feedstock at any given time or location. Centia is initially being positioned to produce commercial and military jet fuel and a cold-weather biodiesel additive - both of which are challenging and complex hydrocarbon fuels and heretofore have received little attention by the biofuels industry.

The overall process flexibility will allow for broad marketplace acceptance and unprecedented options for Centia biofuel plants to adapt to the ever-changing feedstock and fuels market.

North Carolina State University, a research and academic leader in engineering, agriculture, and bioenergy sciences, has been developing the pieces to Centia over the last decade. Recent results have proven the fundamental science and defined a path forward to an integrated demonstration and pilot-scale plant.

The process is expected to deliver an end-to-end energy efficiency in excess of 85%, a key metric in determining the eventual affordability of the biofuel generated. This high efficiency is a result of the process requiring less than one-half the external energy to operate than other traditional biofuels techniques. The fuel will also be compliant to aviation fuel specifications, including energy density and cold flow properties. The process is "100% green," not relying on the use of any petroleum-derived products as components in the biofuel produced.

Diversified Energy Corporation has been supporting the university in systems integration, scaleup, and the overall commercialization of the technology. Phillip Brown, President and CEO of Diversified Energy, commented, "Centia represents an absolute breakthrough and we couldn't be more excited to be working with North Carolina State University to bring it to market. A highly efficient, enormously flexible technology has finally arrived that mitigates the many challenges associated with feedstock availability and pricing, process efficiency, and biofuel affordability."

"Diversified Energy represents the capable and experienced partner the university needs to take this technology to the next step. The university is committed to the biofuels market area and is eagerly awaiting the introduction of Centia biofuel plants," remarked Dr. John Gilligan, Vice-Chancellor for Research and Graduate Studies at North Carolina State University.

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