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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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Sunday, February 18, 2007

The bioeconomy at work: methane storage tanks for cars made from corn cobs

The bio-based economy has yet another innovation on its conto that may soon make it possible to manufacture cars entirely from plant-based materials (earlier post). Researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia (MU) and Midwest Research Institute (MRI) are testing a methane storage technology made from an abundant biomass waste stream, namely corn cobs. The innovation allows methane to be stored at an unprecedented density of 180 times its own volume and at one-seventh the pressure of conventional natural gas tanks. For this reason, the technology may revolutionize the capacity of methane to power vehicles. And the good thing is: methane itself can be obtained from biogas, the cleanest and most efficient of all automotive biofuels.

Current natural gas vehicles are equipped with bulky, high-pressure tanks that take up premium cargo space, such as the trunk of a car. This new technology, however, enables natural gas to be stored in a smaller, low-pressure tank that can be shaped into a rectangular form and mounted under the floor of a car.

What makes this possible is an MU discovery that fractal pore spaces (spaces created by the repetition of similar patterns at different levels of magnitude) are remarkably efficient at storing methane. The scientists found a way to "bake" corn cobs into carbon briquettes that contain fractal pore spaces and then use the briquettes to store natural gas in a low-pressure tank (see picture, click to enlarge).
  • Corn cob is an abundant, low-cost, renewable raw material, allowing for production of ANG tanks from domestic sources. The state of Missouri alone could supply the raw material for ANG tanks of 10 million cars per year. Corn could thus serve the alternative fuel economy in two distinct ways - corn kernels for bioethanol production, and corncob for natural-gas tanks.
  • The MU-MRI low-pressure natural gas tank uses carbon briquettes made from corncobs to store natural gas. The walls of the nanoporous carbon adsorb methane molecules as a high-density fluid. The strong attractive force in the narrow pores lowers the energy of the molecules so that they can be packed much more closely than in the absence of the carbon. Such a tank is called an adsorbed natural gas (ANG) tank.
  • The carbon briquettes can store 180 times their own volume of natural gas, or 118 g of methane per liter of carbon, at 500 pounds per square inch (psi). The best previous carbon could only store 142 times its own volume at 500 psi pressure. The target set by the U.S. Department of Energy is 180 times the storage a material's own volume. The MU-MRI carbon reaches this target for the first time.
  • A conventional high-pressure natural gas tank operates at 3600 pounds per square inch (psi), whereas this low-pressure tank operates at 500 psi. This enables flexibility in tank design because high-pressure tanks require bulky, cylindrical walls, whereas the low-pressure tank can use thinner walls in a variety of shapes. The pressure of 500 psi equals the pressure in natural gas pipelines, which eliminates costly compression of natural gas from 500 psi to 3600 psi in CNG tanks.
  • The technology being tested in this tank would enable car manufacturers to design long, slim, low-pressure tanks to replace the bulky high-pressure tanks in current natural gas vehicles. This would enable them to place the tank underneath the body of the car, whereas the high-pressure tanks are usually placed in a car's trunk, reducing vehicle cargo space.
MU and MRI researchers are now testing a prototype of this tank in a owned and operated by the Kansas City Office of Environmental Quality. They hope this will lead to the design of low-pressure tanks that solve the cargo space problem posed by high-pressure tanks:
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The test pickup has been on the road since mid-October. Researchers are monitoring the technology's performance by collecting data to evaluate the mileage range per fill-up; pressure and temperature of the tank during charging/discharging; charging/discharging rates under various fueling/driving conditions; and longevity of the carbon briquettes.

In the U.S. Kansas City has been a leader in natural-gas-powered vehicles, ranging from utility trucks to shuttles at the Kansas City Airport. The city operates more than 200 natural-gas vehicles under the supervision of Central Fleet Manager Sam Swearngin, who has been instrumental in forging this venture between Kansas City and the MU-MRI team.

In the EU, however, biogas instead of natural gas is already being used as an alternative car fuel, with major companies feeding the plant-based gas into the natural gas grid (earlier post). Some estimate that Europe can produce enough biogas to replace all imported Russian natural gas by 2020 (earlier post).

The MU-MRI methane storage project was funded by a $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation's program Partnerships for Innovation, which has the goal of stimulating the transformation of knowledge created by universities into innovations that create new wealth, build strong local, regional and national economies and improve the national well-being. Additional funds totaling more than $400,000 came from MU, MRI, the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Department of Education.

A secondary goal of the Partnership for Innovation is to meet the broad workforce needs of the national innovation enterprise. The collaborative effort between MU and MRI has afforded a number of university students the opportunity to receive hands-on training for a career in research and development. As a result of the exchange, MRI recently hired an MU graduate and a Lincoln University graduate associated with the project team. The MU-MRI collaborative is part of a larger cooperative effort called the Alliance for Collaborative Research in Alternative Fuel Technology (ALL-CRAFT), which includes as partners Lincoln University; DBHORNE, LLC; Renewable Alternatives, LLC; the Missouri Biotechnology Association; the Clean Vehicle Education Foundation; the Missouri Department of Natural Resources; and the City of Columbia, Mo. ALL-CRAFT also worked in cooperation with the Kansas City Regional Clean Cities Coalition (KCRCCC).

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