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    Taiwan's Feng Chia University has succeeded in boosting the production of hydrogen from biomass to 15 liters per hour, one of the world's highest biohydrogen production rates, a researcher at the university said Friday. The research team managed to produce hydrogen and carbon dioxide (which can be captured and stored) from the fermentation of different strains of anaerobes in a sugar cane-based liquefied mixture. The highest yield was obtained by the Clostridium bacterium. Taiwan News - November 14, 2008.

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Saturday, March 03, 2007

Genome sequencing reveals how bacterium selects enzymes for cellulase, key to viable ethanol production

As the push towards alternative energy sources heats up, researchers at the University of Rochester have for the first time identified how genes responsible for biomass breakdown are turned on in a microorganism that produces valuable ethanol from biomass sources such as grass and corn stalks.

Cellulose-rich waste products from agriculture and forestry, such as grass clippings and wood chips — once thought too difficult to turn into ethanol — may soon be fodder for hungry, gene-tweaked bacteria who convert the biomass into useful bio-products and fuels.

The findings in today's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences may empower scientists to engineer ethanol-producing 'super-organisms' that can make clean-burning fuel from the billions of tons of biomass that are produced each year and that remain unused.
"This is the first revelation of how a bacterium chooses from its more than 100 enzymes to break down a particular biomass. Once we know how a bacterium targets a particular type of biomass, we should be able to boost that process to draw ethanol from biomass far more efficiently that we can today." - David H. Wu, professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Rochester.
Ethanol holds the promise of a clean, renewable alternative to fossil fuels, but deriving it from ligno-cellulose is difficult. Producing it from corn is the easiest method, but doing so on a large scale would drive up the price of corn, corn starch, and even tangential foods like beef, since cows are fed on corn—not to mention all the energy spent fertilizing, maintaining, and harvesting a crop like corn. Conversely, deriving ethanol from plant materials such as the corn stalks and wood chips is challenging because the plants' cellulose is a very tough substance to break down, making for an inefficient process:
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Wu's technique may prove much more effective than traditional methods. Instead of using separate steps to break down biomass into glucose and ferment the glucose into ethanol, as is currently done, Wu is working on a way to make a bacterium break down and ferment plant biomass efficiently in just one step.

Wu investigated C. thermocellum, which is a microorganism that has that ability to turn biomass into ethanol in one step, but is not used at the industrial scale yet because the first step, breaking down the plant's cellulose, is much too inefficient. The key, Wu surmised, is to find out what enzymes the bacterium uses to accomplish its feat, and then boost its ability to produce those enzymes. The problem, however, lies in the fact that C. thermocellum uses more than 100 enzymes, and any of the millions of combinations of them may be the magic mixture to break down a particular biomass.

So, Wu decided to make the bacterium do the work for him.

"The bacteria know how to express just the right genes to break down any particular biomass substrate, and we wanted to know how they know to turn on and off just the right genes at the right time to do the trick," says Wu. "We found the bacterium essentially throws the whole bowl of spaghetti at the wall, sees what sticks, and then makes a lot of that particular noodle."

C. thermocelllum produces low levels of many of its enzymes at any one time. When the bacterium comes in contact with wood, for instance, a few of its enzymes break down some of that wood. A product of that tiny reaction is a sugar called laminaribiose that diffuses into the cell. There it deactivates a repressor for two genes, which wake up and start pumping out the two triggers the full production of wood-degrading enzymes CelC and LicA.

Wu's paper shows the first time the triggering pathway for enzyme production in this bacterium has been revealed, and it was only possible because C. thermocellum genome was just recently sequenced, thanks to Wu's collaboration with the U. S. Department of Energy. With its 100 busy enzymes, the entire genome had to be observed as a whole, since fiddling with combinations of two, three, or more enzymes at a time would have taken "more than our lifetime," Wu says.

Wu is now working to re-engineer C. thermocellum to express an abundance of particular genes so it can readily and efficiently produce ethanol from a particular biomass. He's also continuing the genome-wide search for enzyme combinations that will degrade and ferment grasses, corn stovers, and even food waste.

"I don't think this is the revolution that makes ethanol a mainstay," says Wu, "but I believe this is a part of what will lead to the revolution."

Image: The bacterium Clostridium thermocellum.

More information:
Michael Newcomb, Chun-Yu Chen, and J. H. David Wu, Induction of the celC operon of Clostridium thermocellum by laminaribiose, [*abstract], February 27, 2007 Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 10.1073/pnas.0700087104.

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Rationale behind the International Biofuels Forum - a new energy paradigm

The International Biofuels Forum, created by Brazil, the European Union, the United States, India and China to promote the use of biofuels, has officially been installed. Senior diplomats from participating countries gathered to launch the project at the United Nations which said that the forum will contribute to creating a world market for alternative fuels, resulting in economic, social and environmental benefits for developed and developing countries alike.

The forum will initially be established for one year and meet regularly to discuss ways to promote the sustained use and production of biofuels around the globe.

An overview of comments that capture the rationale behind the initiative:

On energy security and global development
Biofuels constitute a viable economic alternative for the partial substitution of fossil fuels and the diversification of the world’s energy mix. This initiative creates a mechanism to structure the dialogue among the biggest producers and consumers of biofuels.
The introduction of biofuels would benefit developed countries through increasing energy security by reducing the dependence on fossil fuels and contributing to lower greenhouse gas emissions. For developing countries, greater use of biofuels would significantly reduce dependence on imported oil, redressing trade imbalances and freeing up income for investments in health, education and social programmes. -Antonio Patriota, Ambassador of Brazil to the United States.

On the new energy paradigm
Access to affordable energy is fundamental to economic and social development. We understand the international biofuels forum and the efforts of all of our partners in addressing the issue of biofuels to be not just an issue of energy security, not just an environmental issue, but fundamental to how we are going to address basic economic and social development problems, and recognizing that by working together we will be able to identify ways to help countries with agricultural productive potential to be become major energy suppliers.
This a huge step forward in the development of a new international understanding of energy.
-Thomas A. Shannon, Jr., United States Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs.

On climate change and greenhouse gases
The development and sustained use of biofuels will contribute to social and economic development and improve the world’s energy structure, diversifying energy sources. It’s also important for the international efforts aimed at mitigating climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
-Liu Zhenmin, deputy Permanent Representative of China to the United Nations

On job creation, social and rural development

Another objective of the biofuels initiative is job creation. We want to ensure that previously disadvantaged people and people in rural communities will be close to where the biofuels initiative will take place, and they will receive the benefits of this initiative.
- Elsa du Toit, Director, Energy Efficiency, Department of Minerals and Energy of South Africa.
Asked whether the Forum would only be able to make recommendations or if it would have enforcement power, Mr. Patriota said he wished to clarify that the Forum was not a new international organization, but rather a mechanism for closer coordination among the field’s major players to establish common standards and work towards the commoditization of biofuels, so that they might eventually be traded like oil. The forum would continue to work in the six-party format for the time being, but, in the future, would bring in other players, he said:
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In response to questions about why the Forum did not include representation from the Middle East or the Russian Federation, and whether those countries would eventually be included in negotiations, Mr. Patriota said that Brazil and the Russian Federation were currently discussing the matter bilaterally and that Middle Eastern countries would be represented as part of Asia or Africa.

“This is not a closed club,” he added. “We would welcome very much contacts with other nations across the globe.”

In response to a question about how much of the fuel consumed in the world might eventually come from biofuels, Eduardo Pereira de Carvalho, the President of UNICA, a group representing 70 per cent of ethanol producers in Brazil, said that 2 or 3 per cent was most likely initially. That figure could someday rise to as high as 30 per cent, however. Given his expectation that oil prices would climb in the coming years, he said that biofuels were an “important participant of the new energy matrix of the twenty-first century”.

“What we are doing is much more than responding to high gasoline or oil prices,” he added, noting that the Biofuels Forum was aimed at addressing fuel supply security, global warming and the use of biofuels as an instrument for development.

Brazil's competitiveness
The establishment of the Forum comes a week before President Bush travels to Brazil for talks in which renewable biofuels will top the agenda. Bush and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva are expected to sign an agreement -- separate from the international forum -- to share scientific and technological research for an industry that has grown in both countries.

Brazil is the world's biggest ethanol exporter, using sugar cane to produce it. Eight out of 10 Brazilian cars run on ethanol, which emits far less greenhouse gases than fossil fuels. In the United States, where farmers use corn to make ethanol, production surpasses that in Brazil.

The promotion of ethanol could eventually help wean the U.S. off its need for foreign oil, officials say, lessening the energy dependence on volatile Middle Eastern nations and Venezuela -- whose President Hugo Chavez has long been a political thorn in the Bush administration's side.

But teaming up with Brazil on the promotion of ethanol hasn't pleased everyone: Corn farmers in the U.S. don't like the idea of the government helping Brazil's industry, which they see as a competitor. Lawmakers from corn-growing states have registered their complaints with Bush.

But Silva said the issue of moving the world off of fossil fuels was more important than any bickering over a Brazil-U.S. agreement.

"Biofuel cannot be promoted by just one country," Silva told journalists in Brazil on Thursday. "It is a global issue."

Brazil's method of producing ethanol is better than the American way, Silva suggested, noting that sugarcane-based ethanol is far cheaper to make than corn-based ethanol, and warm-weather climates like Brazil are the only places where sugar cane thrives.

But neither country produces enough ethanol to meet growing domestic demand. And while countries from Asia to Europe are pursuing biofuels as a way to reduce dependency on oil imports, international trade of alternative fuels is minimal.

A Brazilian industrial group estimates that current ethanol usage amounts to only two percent of world oil consumption. Brazil, with its vast land resources, is hoping to produce enough ethanol to satisfy 10 percent of the world's demand for gasoline within the next 20 years.

President Bush has set a goal for the United States to use 130 billion liters of alternative fuels a year by 2017. Current capacity is about 20 billion liters a year.

More information:
Biofuel Review: UN launches the International Biofuels Forum - March 2, 2007
Business Week: Forum to promote biofuels trade debuts - March 3, 2007
The Hindu: International forum to promote biofuel launched - March 3, 2007

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Friday, March 02, 2007

Spanish company Aurantia to invest in Congo's palm oil sector for biodiesel

According to CongoPlus and sources in Brazzaville, Spanish company Aurantia is investing in a cluster of palm plantations in the Republic of Congo with the aim to produce biodiesel from the oil. After a visit with president Denis Sassou-Nguesso, CEO Rafaël Naranjo Anegon announced that Aurantia will be building four oil palm mills to process fresh fruits from a plantation that will cover several thousand hectares.

Anegon said his group has acquired recent experience with the nascent biodiesel industry in Africa and with its potential, most notably in Mozambique, Senegal and Guinea. Feasibility studies are already underway, with the aim to analyse the different plantation and mill sites, and to assess the state of the existing logistical infrastructure in the country. The actual size of the investment was not disclosed.

Congo-Brazzaville is currently a minor producer of palm oil. The country is host to parts of the world's second largest rainforest, that of the Congo Basin (see picture, click to enlarge), which spans the Democratic Republic of Congo (Congo-Kinshasa), the Central African Republic, Congo-Brazzaville, Gabon, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea.

In Congo-Brazzaville, the dense tropical rainforest mainly stretches over the Northern part of the country, whereas in the center and the South, it is covered by mosaic, secondary forest and large savanna type vegetation. Even though the country has strict rules in place to regulate forestry and to make it more sustainable, illegal logging remains a major problem.

However Congo's sustainable bioenergy potential was recently highlighted in a study commissioned by the EU and carried out by the CIRAD, which showed that Congo has around 12 million hectares of land suitable for the establishment of woody energy crop plantations (such as eucalyptus and acacia). This potential was calculated by explicitly taking into account stringent sustainability criteria (earlier post):
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

A major Canadian company with a vast eucalyptus plantation in Congo recently invested in a 500,000 ton wood chipping plant, one of the world's largest, with the ultimate aim of supplying the rapidly growing global biomass market (earlier post).

Even though the Spanish company's project is expected to yield a significant number of employment opportunities for Congo's largely impoverished population, it did not offer any insights into how it sees itself within the context of sustainability and of the fragility of Congo's environment, neithor into how it would guarantee its palm oil is produced in an environmentally friendly manner. The company is not (yet) listed as a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, a multi-stakeholder organisation uniting NGOs, governments and the private sector with the aim of making palm oil production more sustainable.

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The bioeconomy at work: plant-based thermoset resins developed

Thermoset resins are some of the most commonly used materials in the construction, furniture and automotive industries. World demand currently stands at around 25 million tonnes per year for the product that is used to make a wide variety of composite materials from particleboard to glass fibre panels and fighter jet wings.

At present all the raw materials used in these resins are derived from petrochemicals, and the toxicity and volatility of starting materials such as formaldehyde require careful environmental, health and safety monitoring. But there will soon be a new, greener alternative on the market based on a new generation of ‘bio-resins’ – thermoset resins derived principally from vegetable oils.

Research supported by the UK's Sustainable Technologies Initiative [*.pdf] shows how the renewable polymers could offer a commercially viable alternative that would help manufacturers to meet tighter environmental regulations and reduce consumption of finite petrochemical resources. They would meet growing demand for more environmentally friendly resins that are competitive in price and performance and adaptable to existing composite manufacturing processes.

In the REPLANT project, a research team from the BioComposites Centre at the University of Wales, Bangor, who specialise in renewable plant technology, worked with industrial partners Cambridge Biopolymers, a contract manufacturer and a resin end-user. The project was supported by the DTI through the Sustainable Technologies Initiative, a programme to improve the sustainability of UK business. STI research aims to achieve economic growth and employment while safeguarding the environment and conserving natural resources.

"There is a clear place in the market right now for new, more environmentally friendly resins that are competitive in price and performance, and adaptable to existing processes for manufacturing composites," says project manager Dr Paul Fowler. "The growing interest reflects the demand for alternative, renewable sources of thermosetting resins that will begin to address the depletion of finite resources and reduce emissions."

A key goal of the project was to develop a thermosetting resin system derived from vegetable oils such as rapeseed oil, which is widely grown in the UK. As well as being based on renewable resources and offering new markets for UK producers, the new generation of bio-resins have other important attractions. Their use would avoid health and safety issues arising from the present reliance on phenol and formaldehyde in making conventional thermoset resins. Emissions of these volatile chemicals are regulated in the workplace and there are concerns over the slow release of formaldehyde from products such as particle board at the point of use. An added bonus of a switch to bio-resins would be a cut in carbon emissions as the growing crops absorb greenhouse gases:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

"Our clean and green chemical processing technologies make it possible to produce bio-resins from renewable resources," says Dr Fowler. "We’ve succeeded in developing a low effluent manufacturing procedure that’s based on the use of vegetable oil, water, air and electricity and yields formaldehyde-free products with excellent performance characteristics."

A key step was the development of a technique known as ozonisation to turn the vegetable oil into thermosetting resin. Patent applications have been made for the novel process technology, which is based on the use of ozone gas, and operates at ambient temperature. The clean, low effluent manufacturing process yields formaldehyde-free products with a high solids content of over 75%. Development of the new process is expected to appeal to thermoset manufacturers by making it easier for them to meet health and safety regulations in the workplace as well as demand from customers for greener products that are formaldehyde free.

In demonstration trials on factory production lines, the bio-resins performed well. Performance matched that of petrochemical resins. The trials demonstrated that the process is capable of working on an industrial scale and commercialisation is expected to follow. The first applications are likely to be in selected insulation products, with future potential in industries ranging from electronics to automotive, construction materials, furniture, foundry and engineered wood products.

"Our long-term aim is partial replacement with a bio-based alternative of the many hundreds of thousands of tonnes of petrochemical-derived thermoset resins that are currently used in the UK and rest of Europe every year," says Dr Fowler. "As well as helping us to develop the bio-resin technology, the STI project has demonstrated the sound economic, environmental and social gains that would accrue."

For rapeseed growers, the project could open up a valuable potential market outside the food and biodiesel industries. The outcome should provide a significant advance in the industrial usage of agricultural crops, with a market for tens of thousands of tonnes of oilseeds per year.

Substituting bio-resins could also help to meet UK government targets on environmental CO2 by reducing greenhouse gases. Growing rapeseed has the effect of sequestering carbon dioxide from the air. For every tonne of bio-resin produced approximately 2.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide would be fixed.

Energy savings could be an added benefit as rapeseed meal, left over when oil is extracted, can be used to generate electricity. By producing oil on the same site as bio-resins the recovered energy could be used to power the ozonisation process.

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France resists last-minute push for EU renewables target, as UK makes spectacular U-turn

The European Commission's ambitious proposal to increase the EU's share of renewable energies to a mandatory 20% of the bloc's overall consumption by 2020 (earlier post), which was endorsed by the Union's Environment ministers (earlier post) is being resisted by leading nuclear energy power France, despite last-minute efforts by Germany and a recent spectacular U-turn by Britain.

A spokesman for British Prime Minister Tony Blair confirmed on 1 March 2007 that the UK will support the proposal at the crucial EU summit on 8-9 March, in a move that effectively overrules British Industry Secretary Alistair Darling. This is seen as a great victory for the EU, which always has to try to overcome national interests, and Britain....

"We believe we have to be ambitious and therefore we have to support the proposal for a binding EU-wide 20% target for renewables," the spokesman said, adding that the EU needed to be ambitious if is to convince other countries, including the US and China, to take action on climate change.

At a meeting on 15 February, energy ministers backed the 20% share target but insisted that it be kept as a flexible objective "taking into account national circumstances".

Germany, currently holding the rotating Presidency of the European Union, will chair the March summit, also hopes to make progress on renewables as part of efforts on climate change that will culminate with a G8 summit it will host in the Baltic Sea resort Heiligendamm on 6-8 June. Denmark, Sweden, Spain, Slovenia and Italy are all said to be firmly in the camp of those supporting a binding EU target.

But France, backed by Poland and other reluctant EU members, said that it prefers keeping 'flexibility' on the matter - eurolingo for defending 'national interests':
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

"We are not in favour of fixing binding targets in renewable energy," said a French official after a meeting of EU ambassadors in preparation for the summit on 28 February. "It is up to each member state, in all flexibility and subsidiarity, to set its own objective. Our position has not changed."

France prefers that the summit limits itself to supporting a binding target on greenhouse gases, an objective that leaves it sufficient flexibility to bank on its strong nuclear industry, which is low in carbon intensity. France derives 880% of its own energy needs from its nuclear power plants - the largest national share in the world - and also exports much of this energy to neighboring countries.

However, French President Jacques Chirac may also decide to exit with a flourish, in what will be his last European summit before he steps down in May.

France and Poland's resistance versus the UK's decision to join Germany, the European Commission and other member states, has now raised the stakes of the crucial Spring Summit that will take place in Brussels on 8-9 March 2007.

Picture: President of the European Commission José Emannuel Barroso during the presentation of the Commission's new energy policy proposal.

More information:
EurActiv: France resists last-minute push for EU renewables target, March 2, 2007

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The bioeconomy at work: Italian farming association advocates EU-wide switch to biodegradable bags

Sergio Marini, the newly appointed president of the Italian farming industry association Coldiretti, Europe's largest, has met with EU agricultural commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel in Brussels, appealing to her for replacement of all non-biodegradable plastic bags in the EU by biodegradable ones by the year 2010.

Marini argued that 1.4 million tones of carbon dioxide emissions and 700,000 tonnes of petroleum can be saved in Europe each year through substitution of conventional plastic bags with bags made out of biodegradable plastics (earlier post).

According to Marini, the switch would require use of three million hectares of agricultural land, or 1.5 percent of the present cultivated area in the 27 countries of the EU, to produce the amount of maize and sunflower needed to support such a switch for all the 100 billion bags that are today mainly imported from China, Thailand and Malaysia.

Conventional plastic bags result in one million tonnes/year of waste in the environment that can take 200 years to decompose and they also pollute marine environments (earlier post). One quarter of all plastic bags used in the EU are consumed in Italy:
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Marini continued by saying that 0.5kg of maize and one kg of sunflower oil are sufficient to produce around 100 bioplastic shopping bags with an environmental effect justifying the present higher cost at eight cents for a biodegradable bag against five cents for one made in traditional plastic, with the biodegradable bag cost on a downward trend.

Coldiretti is involved in a bio-refinery project with bioplastics producer Novamont that has proposed using land set aside by the EU rules to grow the materials needed for bioplastics production.

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Cuba and Venezuela agree to build 11 ethanol plants, co-operate on biofuels

As part of a series of bilateral agreements on 'mutual development' towards the 'Bolivarian Alternative', Cuba and Venezuela have agreed [*Spanish] to co-operate on the construction of 11 ethanol plants that will use sugarcane as a feedstock and that, besides liquid transport fuel, will deliver renewable electricity to the grid, obtained from burning bagasse.

During the closing ceremony of the VIIth 'Reunión Mixta Cuba-Venezuela', Cuba's interim-president Raúl Castro, Venezolan Minister for Energy Rafael Ramírez and the Cuban Minister for Sugar, Ulises Rosales signed contracts that will provide funding for the Cuban ministry and that will initiate the construction of four ethanol plants.

A total of 11 plants will be build in both countries, even though their precise distribution and capacity was not disclosed. The basis for the agreement is a common will to preserve the environment, stimulate the rural economy, reduce the consumption of fossil fuels and develop a viable bioenergy industry:
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Cuba's Minister for Foreign Investments, Marta Lomas, said that ethanol would replace leaded gasoline. She added that bilateral co-operation between the two countries has been increasing steadily since the year 2000: in that year, 31 projects worth US$28.5 million were agreed on, whereas in 2007 some 355 projects were established, valued at US$1.5 billion. Direct Venezuelan aid to Cuba will amount to US$1 billion this year.

Cuba used to have a large sugar sector, which has gone into steady decline after the collapse of the Soviet Union, even though sugar exports remain one of the island state's largest earnings of foreign currency. The past two years has seen a resurgence of the sector, mainly driven by the ethanol opportunity, and experts predict Cuba to reap massive benefits from it because of the competitive advantage of sugarcane (earlier post).

Venezuela on the other hand has a very large unused agricultural potential and land base, which Hugo Chavez has offered earlier to foreign investors interested in establishing energy plantations (earlier post). The 'Bolivarian' state has already begun construction on 17 domestic ethanol plants (earlier post).

More information:
Agencia Bolivariana de Noticias: Venezuela y Cuba constituirán 11 plantas de etanol en el país - March 1, 2007
Laverdad: Cuba y Venezuela construirán 11 plantas de etanol - March 2, 2007
El Universal (Caracas): Cuba construirá once plantas de producción de etanol en Venezuela - March 2, 2007

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Chief of China National Centre for Biotechnology looks at common myths about biofuels

Wang Hongguang, Director-General of the China National Center for Biotechnology Development (CNCBD), recently published an informative piece on China's bioenergy plans. In the text, Hongguang feels he has to eliminate some commonly held myths about biofuels, and instead focuses on the advantages of the bio-economy. Some of the misunderstandings are deliberately perpetuated by those who oppose the transition to a climate-neutral, clean post-oil future.

Hongguang has identified four common myths surrounding the development of biomass energy, as they relate to the specific situation of the People's Republic:

Misunderstanding one: "biomass energy will use up a great deal of grains. In developing biomass energy, grains can be used as raw materials but sweet sorghum, sweet potato, cassava, straws, sugar canes can also be used as raw materials; both various kinds of waste oil and rapeseeds can be used to produce biochemical diesel oil.
China abounds in non-grain biomass resources with starch, grease, cellulose, hemicellulose and xylogen as the bases. For the moment, China's annual grain outputs amount to 500 million tons, while over 700 million tons of straw will be produced. In China, there is an area of about 100 million hectares that is not suitable for planting grain crops but can be used to plant special plants as energy resources; and the area of pieces of land on which man-made forests can grow add up to 46.67 million mu. If 20 percent of such an area were made use of, about 10 billion tons of biomass could be produced each year; with such biomass energy resources as cassava and sweet sorghum added, at lest about 100 million tons of alcohol and biochemical diesel oil could be produced each year and such an output is equivalent to twice the output of the Daqing Oilfield [China's largest]."

Misunderstanding two: "biomass energy will strive for land against the production of grains. The raw materials for biomass energy can be produced by making use of eroded and poor lands, sloping fields and ameliorated saline lands, and it is completely possible that it does not compete for land against the production of grains."

Misunderstanding three: "The cost for biomass energy is high. It is expected that biomass energy will become one of the energy resources with the lowest costs. The three major reasons are as follows: firstly, the raw materials for biomass energy are less expensive, easy to develop, and easy to transport; secondly, as biomass energy can be produced on the spot, production costs can be saved by a large scale; thirdly, as breakthroughs have been made in biomass energy technologies like biochemical diesel oil, production of hydrogen from biomass, and oil extraction from biomass, costs for energy production will be cut down by a large margin."

Misunderstanding four: "biomass energy technologies are not mature yet. Biomass energy, which mainly makes use of the Bio-fermentation technology, is a kind of comparatively mature technology. As a whole, China's biomass energy resource technology has evolved into a stage where studies and industrialization develop together with each other. The technological level of China's fuel ethanol has become leading internationally. If calculated according to the present price of petroleum, it is completely possible to realize the objective that a large-scale production can be realized without any subsidiary from the State."

Hongguang instead identifies two major reasons why China should be developing biomass energy on a large scale:

Firstly, "to improve the ecologic environment. Biomass energy will not produce much carbon dioxide when being used, and green plants will absorb a great deal of carbon dioxide when conducting photosynthesis instead. Therefore, the discharge of carbon dioxide will be cut down in a large scale by developing biomass energy."

Secondly, "to increase farmers' incomes. To develop biomass energy can create employment opportunities and bring more incomes to farmers. It is briefly estimated that to create a "green Daqing Oilfield" is equivalent to give RMB 120~150 billion yuan [€11.8-14.7/US15.5-19.4 billion] originally used to import petroleum to farmers and biomass energy enterprises while 12~15 million jobs could be thus created."

In a country where social inequalities and the rift between the farming class and the wealthy urban elites is growing rapidly, investments in bioenergy offer a step towards closing this gap (earlier post). This is one of the main reasons mentioned by senior Chinese officials: bioenergy holds the potential to redistribute wealth, to revitalise the rural economy and to elminate some of the social and economic push-factors that drive farmers towards the cities and into the migrant working class, which lives in dire circumstances. China's internal migration is the largest migration ever seen anywhere in peace time, and frankly, the phenomenon is a social tragedy of vast proportions.

As Amnesty International just recently reported, these migrants end up in a miserable situation, as they are being treated as an 'urban underclass' which is often denied rights to adequate health and education services, which is housed temporarily and poorly and which is vulnerable to exploitative working conditions:
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This is why it is crucial for China to develop strategies to revitalise the agricultural sector, which still employs the majority of the Chinese labor force. Bioenergy has been identified as one of the options, as it brings badly needed incomes, value to farmers' lives and of course mass employment.

Recently, China has made substantial progress in its development of biomass energy. The State Forestry Administration and PetroChina Company Limited (PetroChina) signed an agreement, which prescribes that since this year, both parties will jointly set up a series of forestry biomass energy resource bases in Yunnan and Sichuan; and at the initial stage, the scale of any base will not be smaller than that of a demonstrative base for Jatropha curcas L. forest that can provide raw materials to exploit 200,000 to 300,000 tons of biochemical diesel oil and the area of all those bases will add up to over 600,000 mu.

By the end of the Eleventh Five-Year Plan Period, PetroChina will build up a production capacity to produce over two million tons of alcohol made from raw materials other than grains, shape up a scale for commercial purposes that can produce 200,000 tons of forestry biochemical diesel oil, and provide supports to build up raw material bases of biomass energy resources with an area of over 400,000 hectares. As shown by survey statistics, it is found out that there are 154 tree species with their respective seeds having oil content above 40 percent in China and over a dozen of such tree species can be cultivated and exploited in a large scale. By 2020, over six million tons of oil would be produced if 200 million mu of energy resource forests were cultivated.

Although the price of petroleum in international markets has somehow decreased for the time being, the fact that mineral energy resources are gradually becoming deficient will remain unchanged. Biomass energy including fuel alcohol, biochemical diesel oil, marsh gas, biomass power generation, and production of hydrogen from biomass is publicly recognized as one of the most important alternate energy sources that are featured with cleanness, being highly effective, safety, and sustainability. Major technologies for biomass energy have already shown a trend of getting mature and large-scale production of biomass energy is being developed in many countries, thus biomass energy is playing an important role in increasing the amount of energy resources, adjusting the energy structure and ensuring energy security.

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North Carolina State University develops biofuels for jet airplanes

Biofuels for aviation have received a lot of attention lately, not in the least because the single biggest cost-factor for an airline consists of fuel costs. The airline industry is also a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

The search for alternatives for petroluem-based kerosene and jet-fuel has so far resulted in a breakthrough in Brazil, where a biofuel company is cooperating with Boeing and NASA (earlier post) and as well as in Argentina, where the airforce has been testing biofuels mixed with jet-fuel ('bio-kerosene') (earlier post), whereas the U.S. Air Force has been experimenting with 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). And an airline moghul, like Sir Richard Branson, has repeatedly hinted at a future in which aviation biofuels will become viable on a large scale (earlier post).

Serious research challenges remain, though, because aviation biofuels need to have special properties, such as a high energy density and properties that allow them to be used at high altitudes and under very cold conditions, and in jet engines. Ordinary biodiesel won't do.

North Carolina State University engineers have now announced they have developed a biofuel technology that has the potential to turn virtually any fat source into fuel to power jet airplanes.

The technology – called 'Centia', derived from the Latin 'crudus potentia' or 'green power' in Latin – is '100 percent green', as no petroleum-derived products are added to the process. Centia can also be used to make additives for cold-weather biodiesel fuels and holds the potential to fuel automobiles that currently run on gasoline.

The Centia process (see picture, click to enlarge) comprises the four following steps:
  1. high temperatures and high water pressure strips off the free fatty acids from the accumulated feedstock of oils and fats, or triglycerides.
  2. the free fatty acids are decarboxylated in a reactor to perform; that is, carbon dioxide is taken off the free fatty acids. The result consists of alkanes, or straight-chain hydrocarbons of either 15 or 17 carbon atoms, depending on the feedstock.
  3. the straight chains are boken down into molecules with branches, making them more compact and changing their chemical and physical characteristics. Jet fuel and biodiesel fuel require a mixture of molecules with between 10 and 14 carbon atoms, while gasoline requires only eight carbon atoms; this process can be controlled to elicit exactly the type of fuel desired.
  4. Finally, in a last step the crude fuel is refined further to obtain the desired properties, even though the basic building blocks of the particular fuel are not changed.
Interestingly, the process makes use of glycerol (or glycerine), a by-product from bio-diesel production and from the Centia process, which is burned off to provide heat and power for the various steps involved, making the refining operations efficient:
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NC State received provisional patents to use the process to convert fats into jet fuel or additives for cold-weather biodiesel fuels. The technology has been licensed by Diversified Energy Corp., a privately held Arizona company specializing in the development of advanced alternative and renewable energy technologies and projects.

Dr. William Roberts, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and director of the Applied Energy Research Laboratory at NC State, developed the biofuels process with NC State’s Dr. Henry Lamb, associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering; Dr. Larry Stikeleather, professor of biological and agricultural engineering; and Tim Turner of Turner Engineering in Carrboro, N.C.

Roberts says that besides being “100 percent green,” the new technology has some key advantages over other biofuel projects.

“We can take virtually any lipid-based feedstock, or raw material with a fat source – including what is perceived as low-quality feedstock like cooking grease – and turn it into virtually any fuel,” Roberts says. “Using low-quality feedstock is typically 30 percent less costly than using corn or canola oils to make fuel. And we’re not competing directly with the food supply, like ethanol-based fuels that are made from corn.”

The fuel created by the new process also burns cleaner, so it’s better for the environment, Roberts says. There is no soot or particulate matter associated with fuel from fats.

Further, Roberts says, the Centia process puts to use what other biodiesel processes throw away. Converting feedstock into fuel produces a low-value commodity – glycerol – as a by-product. Rather than discarding glycerol as waste like most biodiesel plants do, the NC State engineers’ process burns glycerol cleanly and efficiently to provide some of the process’ requisite high temperatures.

"Instead of composting the glycerol as waste, we use it as an integral part of the fuel-making process," Roberts said.

It really does take a rocket scientist to make jet fuel, especially out of oils or agricultural crops, Roberts says. The physical and chemical properties of traditional biodiesel fuels – their combustion characteristics and viscosity, for example – don’t match the stringent requirements required of jet fuels, making biodiesel unacceptable for the task.

"Jet fuel travels at 25,000 to 35,000 feet where temperatures can reach 70 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, so it needs to flow better in cold temperatures," Roberts says.

When it comes to the availability of feedstocks, Roberts adds that “We produce one-and-a-half billion gallons of animal fats annually, which is about half of the amount of vegetable oil produced yearly,” Roberts said. “Animal fats are harder to work with, but cheaper. Last year, for the first time ever, fuel costs in the aviation industry exceeded labor costs. We think the aviation industry is keen on finding alternatives to petroleum-based jet fuel.”

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Thursday, March 01, 2007

A note from the World Sustainable Energy Days: biomass pellets

The World Sustainable Energy Days - one of the largest gatherings of its kind - are currently underway in Wels, Austria. Energy experts from 61 countries convene to take part in three conferences (European Pellets Conference: 28 February - 1 March; the European Energy Efficiency Conference: 1 March; the Conference on the "Energy Future, 2030": 2 March) and a seminar on "Rural Development & Sustainable Energy" (1 March). The Energiesparmesse, running from 1 - 4 March, looks at the latest developments in energy conservation and efficiency.

Some notes [*German] on the European Pellets Conference [*.pdf, overview] as it relates to Austria have meanwhile been published. Biomass fuel pellets are a clean, CO2-neutral and conventient fuel with rapidly growing market shares in many European countries (statistical overview: earlier post) and showing a growing global trade (earlier post on a large Swedish-owned pellet plant based in the U.S. aiming to supply Europe, on pelletiser in the Republic of Congo that will be producing 500,000 tons for exports on a large South African plant with similar goals, and on the Port of Antwerp's activities of building infrastructures to accomodate this trade). Biomass pellets are most often made from wood chips and forestry residues or from woody energy crops grown on dedicated plantations, even though dedicated herbaceous feedstocks (fast growing grass species) are receiving more and more attention as well (earlier post and here).

The fact that biomass has become directly competitive with fossil fuels (earlier post), has sparked a real investment boom in Austria: over 28,000 small biomass burning installations have been built, 12,000 of which utilise pellets; 528 medium-scale, highly efficient combined heat-and-power (CHP) biomass plants have been established (235 of those being district-heating systems) and 9 large biomass cogeneration plants, which are considerably more efficient than traditional utility-scale power plants (earlier post), replace an increasing amount of coal and oil in the country.

Researchers are currently working on developing ultra-efficient micro-CHP systems suitable for home use. With such a system, the household would buy a stock of pellets once a year, and draw both electricity and heating needs from the micro power plant. An interesting concept is emerging around this technology: with a micro-CHP plant, the household not only becomes its own utility, it would also be enabled to strategize around selling green electricity to the grid, which currently relies on large, far less efficient fossil fuel powered plants (earlier post):
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Last year, Austria used more than 1 million tons of biomass pellets for the first time, saving over a million tons of CO2. This places the country second after Sweden.

At the opening of the European Pellet Conference, a quick ranking of pellet producing countries was presented:

1. Sweden leads with an annual production of 1.4 million tons
2. Canada, 1.2 million tons/year
3. United States, 1.1 million tons/year
4. Austria, 600,000 tons/year

Austria's production doubled between 2004 and 2006. When it comes to utilising the pellets, Austria ranks fifth after Sweden, the U.S., Denmark and Germany.

It was noted that since December last year, pellet prices have shown a downward trend, after highs of €199 per ton in November. A relatively stable price is seen as a crucial aspect for creating consumer acceptance of the biofuel.

For this reason, the Austrian state of Oberösterreich has taken a series of initiatives to prevent pellet prices to become too volatile. The most important of these are:

1. stronger price controls: there has been suspicion that a biomass pellet cartel was operating that kept prices artificially high and the matter was investigated, but there were no clear indications of the existence of such a cartel. The matter has prompted the state government to create more stringent price controls, executed by the 'Bundeswettbewerbsbehörde' (the institution that investigates the fairness of competition.)

2. incentives for production increases: during a round-table, the Agrar-Landesrat (regional minister of agriculture) and the pellet industry have agreed to quadruple pellet production provided the government works out tax incentives for the companies involved.

3. the establishment of a pellet reserve: in order to strengthen continuous supplies and to offset sudden shortages, the state has studied the possibility of creating pellet reserves; a proposal is on the table to force pellet producers to stock 30% of the quantity they're projecting to sell during the winter season. Under the scheme, stock building will be initiated from September onwards and reach their maximum at the end of November, after which the build-down follows until the end of January.

We will be reporting on other aspects of the conferences hosted by the World Sustainable Energy Days, as soon as more information becomes available.

More information:
OEJournal: OberÖsterreich ist neben Schweden das Biomasseland Europas - Feb. 28, 2007
Biopact: Swedish group to build 550,000 ton biomass pellet plant in Florida for exports to Europe - Feb. 4, 2007
Biopact: South African company to produce biomass pellets for exports to Europe - Feb. 2, 2007

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Harvesting algae blooms from the open ocean

Quicknote bioenergy technology
AlgoDyne Ethanol Energy, announces that it has developed a new process to harvest significant amounts of biomass from marine algal blooms. Massive marine algal blooms occur in almost all oceans of the world, often caused by man-made nutrient pollution, and are known to be harmful to the aquatic ecosystem. AlgoDyne believes that its harvesting technology could yield huge amounts of biomass usable for ethanol production at virtually no cost, and this harvesting of harmful algal blooms will ultimately protect the ocean’s marine ecosystem.

Mr. Richard Ritter Von Raffay, President of AlgoDyne states "To be able to use our harvesting technology to improve the quality of our oceans and remove harmful algal blooms is a significant accomplishment for the company and the environment."

AlgoDyne is a company that develops micro-algae technologies it thinks will provide a means to produce clean, renewable energy from the continual harvest of biomass from photo-bioreactors. The end result is the production of ethanol, methanol, biodiesel, electricity, coal and animal feed – all in a carbon dioxide neutral way.

Earlier, we had an in-depth look at biofuels from algae, and found that, despite the publicity, no company has ever achieved large-scale, efficient and affordable production. Photobioreactors are relatively expensive and require a large amount of materials, the production of which is energy intensive, whereas algae production in open ponds yields low and unnstable amounts of biomass. Large scale trials that took place in the 1980s yielded interesting results (earlier post).

From these trials, several insights into algae harvesting technologies have surfaced. Two basic techniques can be distinguished:
  • mechanical harvesting by means of strong membranes (in the late 1970s, at the height of the oil crisis when prices hit records that still stand, such membranes were deemed too costly; see the "Membrane Harvesting Project")
  • chemical and/or biological harvesting by means of flocculants; the technique works by introducing a chemical agent in the algae culture, after which the micro-organisms gather in a high concentration. Flocculation techniques only work on specific algae species; some of these species could be engineered to 'auto-flocculate'
AlgoDyne's concept of harvesting algae from the wild is not exactly new. Many similar ideas have been proposed in the past, most notably those of harvesting sea-weeds such as kelp on a large scale to utilize the biomass for energy. Several small companies have also been harvesting wild algae from lakes, with specially designed harvesting machines, for years. The process is energy intensive and cumbersome. It remains to be seen whether AlgoDyne's idea to actually collect phytoplankton from the open oceans is practicable. It basically remains an activity that can not be planned, scaled or rationalised, as algae blooms have the tendency to grow and disappear suddenly. The company gave no details on the innovation it claims it has made, nor in which way it differs from the many harvesting technologies that have been tried. We will be following up on this story when more information emerges [entry ends here].
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International Biofuels Forum to be launched by Brazil, EU, US, South Africa, India and China

On Friday, Brazil, the European Union, the United States, South Africa, China and India will formally establish the 'International Biofuels Forum'. The idea is to create common norms and standards for bioenergy products, especially ethanol, to consolidate and facilitate world trade in the rapidly growing sector. The initiative behind the new international organisation, the offices of which will be based at the United Nations (UN) in New York, was taken by Brazil, the world's largest biofuels producer.

Information supplied by the Brazilian Foreign Office and obtained by the ANBA shows that Brazil is ahead of this project, sponsoring the idea of making the main producers and consumers of biofuels join forces and create common technical norms for the sector as well as production, transport and storage standards, among other topics. With this, the countries participating hope to transform products like ethanol and biodiesel into 'energy products', instead of 'agricultural commodities', as they are currently labeled under WTO classifications. The Brazilian government has been analysing the consequences of this transformation for a while (earlier post).

To achieve this aim, the Forum, which will last one year, is going to establish two working groups: (1) a task force turned to the exchange of information about scientific and technological advances, and (2) a group to discuss standards and norms for the sector, including infrastructure, logistics and foreign trade. The groups, according to the Ministry, are going to operate in the organization of the International Biofuels Conference, scheduled to take place in Brazil in 2008:
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In the evaluation of the government of Brazil, the expansion of the use of biofuels is going to cause partial replacement of oil derivatives, reduce emissions of polluting gas, as well as attract investment to the productive chain.

According to the Ministry, clearer international norms, are going to provide incentives to the private sector in Brazil and in other countries. Apart from that, the diffusion and increase of production is going to generate clear economy of scale and, consequently, a reduction of cost.

To the government of Brazil, the production of biofuels is an important vector for development. In Brazil, the sugar and alcohol sector has a turnover of around 40 billion Reais (€14.2/US$18.8 billion) a year and generates 1 million direct jobs, according to the Ministry of Agriculture. Production of biodiesel in commercial scale is only beginning in the country and the government has crafted policies that ensure the biodiesel program will benefit more and more small producers of oleaginous plants, like castor seeds, for example (earlier post).

Brazil and the United States, which are the two main international producers of ethanol, have been mouthing their intention of transforming alcohol into a great international commodity. This will be the main theme of the meeting that presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and George W. Bush are going to have on March 09, in São Paulo. The Brazilian Ministry evaluates that the Forum and dialogue about the sector between Brazil and the US are not mutually excluding, but complementary initiatives.

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U.S. universities teaming up to build 90% biodegradable car

Earlier we reported that advances in biotech, materials sciences and biofuels may soon make it possible to manufacture cars entirely made out of bio-based products: durable bioplastic fuel lines, car seat foams, body panels, structural components, interior parts and tires have already been developed that consist almost exclusively of bio-degradable, renewable, plant-based materials and no longer of petroleum (earlier post, and here, here and here). Fill such a car up with biofuels and bio-lubricants (earlier post), and we have a genuinely environmentally friendly vehicle.

Even though the vision is ambitious, Ohio State University’s Ohio Agricultural Research and Development (OARDC) and the University of Akron’s Goodyear Polymer Center are teaming up to explore a potential research partnership for the development of such an "Agri-Car".

The concept was initially conceived by Seeds of Opportunity, a Wooster-area group of business and other community leaders concerned about economic development prospects for the region. "Agriculture and polymers represent Ohio’s two largest business sectors," OARDC Director Steve Slack said. "It makes sense for us to explore initiatives that leverage these strengths. Agri-Car is an exciting concept that has this capability." Other groups that have expressed interest in exploring this concept are Ohio State’s Center for Automotive Research (CAR), Tsinghua University in Beijing, and China’s Geely Automotive Group.

The idea is to create a diverse working group to leverage resources, knowledge and ongoing research projects that could help assemble the pieces required to turn the Agri-Car concept into a circulating reality. Such interaction, Slack said, is crucial to see beyond research and industry boundaries and realize that agriculture, biotechnology, polymers and the automotive world indeed have much to offer to each other.

The concept would broadly have the following characteristics:
  • a mid-size, lighter, safe, efficient, inexpensive car that would be 90 percent biodegradable
  • be approximately 1,000 pounds lighter that a vehicle its size
  • a fuel efficiency of at least 70-80 mpg
Plant-based components would include:
  • malleable carbon or bio-polymer for the body
  • bio-polymers, advanced sensors and displays for the dash
  • new carbon materials for the drive train
  • polymers and fabrics derived from renewable feedstocks for the interior and trim
  • alternative natural sources of rubber for the tires
  • crops and other biomass for lubricants and fuel, including ethanol and methane
OARDC currently has research programs and projects that could provide some of the feedstocks and energy sources the Agri-Car would need. Among them:
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—The Ohio BioProducts Innovation Center (OBIC): Established through an $11.5 million Third Frontier award, OBIC is linking agricultural technologies with chemical-conversion and advanced-materials technologies to create specialty industrial compounds like plastics, paints, lubricants and solvents from crops such as soybeans and corn.

—The Biomass-to-Energy Project: Also the recipient of a Third Frontier award, this project involves taking animal manure, food-processing leftovers, crops and other biomass resources and converting them to clean, renewable energy. This research brings together two different technologies — biodigesters, which turn waste into biogas, and fuel cells, which can use biogas and even vegetable oils to generate energy.

—Natural Rubber Research: This study aims to develop a species of dandelion from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan as an American-grown source of natural rubber.

Additional resources OARDC brings to the table include the Food and Agricultural Technology Commercialization and Economic Development Program (ATECH) and the proposed BioHio Research Park, which is expected to host startup companies partnering university research and entrepreneurial efforts.

Seeds of Opportunity chairman Harry Featherstone, retired CEO of worldwide pneumatic telescoping masts and lighting manufacturer Will-Burt Co., and former operations manager and head of materials for top U.S. automakers Ford and GM. says that "the development of this vehicle would not only be significant for the value of the car itself, and what it would mean to our societies and the world, but also for the progress and innovation sure to be realized in the development of products and processes necessary to produce the car."

Picture: Mercedez-Benz RECY concept, largely made of bio-degradable parts and fueled by biodiesel - presented at the Los Angeles Auto Show's Design Challenge.

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U.S. Dept. of Energy awards $385 million to 6 cellulosic ethanol plants, out of $1.2 billion

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced that it will invest up to €291.2/US$385 million in six biorefinery projects over the next four years. When fully operational, the biorefineries are expected to produce more than 130 million gallons (492 million liters) of cellulosic ethanol per year. This production will help further President Bush’s goal of making cellulosic ethanol cost-competitive with gasoline by 2012 and, along with increased automobile fuel efficiency, reduce America’s gasoline consumption by 20 percent in ten years. The funds are the government's share out of a total estimated investment in the biorefineries of more than €907million/US$1.2 billion.

Cellulosic ethanol is an alternative fuel made from a wide variety of (non-food) biomass feedstocks, including agricultural wastes such as corn stover and cereal straws, industrial plant waste like saw dust and paper pulp, and energy crops grown specifically for fuel production like switchgrass. By using a variety of regional feedstocks for refining cellulosic ethanol, the fuel can be produced in nearly every region of the U.S. Though it requires a more complex refining process, cellulosic ethanol contains more net energy and results in lower greenhouse emissions than traditional corn-based ethanol.
“These biorefineries will play a critical role in helping to bring cellulosic ethanol to market, and teaching us how we can produce it in a more cost effective manner,” Secretary Bodman said. “Ultimately, success in producing inexpensive cellulosic ethanol could be a key to eliminating our nation’s addiction to oil. By relying on American ingenuity and on American farmers for fuel, we will enhance our nation’s energy and economic security.” - U.S. Energy Sectretary Samuel Bodman
The announcement is one part of the Bush Administration’s comprehensive plan to support commercialization of scientific breakthroughs on biofuels. Specifically, these projects directly support the goals of President Bush’s Twenty in Ten Initiative, which aims to increase the use of renewable and alternative fuels in the transportation sector to the equivalent of 35 billion gallons of ethanol a year by 2017 (earlier post).

The following six projects were selected:
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  • Abengoa Bioenergy Biomass [*.pdf - project file]of Kansas, LLC of Chesterfield, Missouri, up to $76 million. The proposed plant will be located in the state of Kansas. The plant will produce 11.4 million gallons of ethanol annually and enough energy to power the facility, with any excess energy being used to power the adjacent corn dry grind mill. The plant will use 700 tons per day of corn stover, wheat straw, milo stubble, switchgrass, and other feedstocks. Abengoa Bioenergy Biomass investors/participants include: Abengoa Bioenergy R&D, Inc.; Abengoa Engineering and Construction, LLC; Antares Corp.; and Taylor Engineering.
  • ALICO, Inc. [*.pdf] of LaBelle, Florida, up to $33 million. The proposed plant will be in LaBelle (Hendry County), Florida. The plant will produce 13.9 million gallons of ethanol a year and 6,255 kilowatts of electric power, as well as 8.8 tons of hydrogen and 50 tons of ammonia per day. For feedstock, the plant will use 770 tons per day of yard, wood, and vegetative wastes and eventually energycane. ALICO, Inc. investors/participants include: Bioengineering Resources, Inc. of Fayetteville, Arkansas; Washington Group International of Boise, Idaho; GeoSyntec Consultants of Boca Raton, Florida; BG Katz Companies/JAKS, LLC of Parkland, Florida; and Emmaus Foundation, Inc.
  • BlueFire Ethanol, Inc. [*.pdf] of Irvine, California, up to $40 million. The proposed plant will be in Southern California. The plant will be sited on an existing landfill and produce about 19 million gallons of ethanol a year. As feedstock, the plant would use 700 tons per day of sorted green waste and wood waste from landfills. BlueFire Ethanol, Inc. investors/participants include: Waste Management, Inc.; JGC Corporation; MECS Inc.; NAES; and PetroDiamond.
  • Broin Companies [*.pdf] of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, up to $80 million. The plant is in Emmetsburg (Palo Alto County), Iowa, and after expansion, it will produce 125 million gallons of ethanol per year, of which roughly 25percent will be cellulosic ethanol. For feedstock in the production of cellulosic ethanol, the plant expects to use 842 tons per day of corn fiber, cobs, and stalks. Broin Companies participants include: E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company; Novozymes North America, Inc.; and DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
  • Iogen Biorefinery Partners [*.pdf] LLC, of Arlington, Virginia, up to $80 million. The proposed plant will be built in Shelley, Idaho, near Idaho Falls, and will produce 18 million gallons of ethanol annually. The plant will use 700 tons per day of agricultural residues including wheat straw, barley straw, corn stover, switchgrass, and rice straw as feedstocks. Iogen Biorefinery Partners, LLC investors/partners include: Iogen Energy Corporation; Iogen Corporation; Goldman Sachs; and The Royal Dutch/Shell Group.
  • Range Fuels [*.pdf] (formerly Kergy Inc.) of Broomfield, Colorado, up to $76 million. The proposed plant will be constructed in Soperton (Treutlen County), Georgia. The plant will produce about 40 million gallons of ethanol per year and 9 million gallons per year of methanol. As feedstock, the plant will use 1,200 tons per day of wood residues and wood based energy crops. Range Fuels investors/participants include: Merrick and Company; PRAJ Industries Ltd.; Western Research Institute; Georgia Forestry Commission; Yeomans Wood and Timber; Truetlen County Development Authority; BioConversion Technology; Khosla Ventures; CH2MHill; Gillis Ag and Timber (earlier post)
Combined with the industry cost share, more than €907million/US$1.2 billion will be invested in the six biorefineries. Negotiations between the selected companies and DOE will begin immediately to determine final project plans and funding levels. Funding will begin this fiscal year and run through FY 2010. EPAct authorized DOE to solicit and fund proposals for the commercial demonstration of advanced biorefineries that use cellulosic feedstocks to produce ethanol and co-produce bioproducts and electricity.

Funding for these projects is an integral part of the President’s Biofuels Initiative that will lead to the wide-scale use of non-food based biomass, such as agricultural waste, trees, forest residues, and perennial grasses in the production of transportation fuels, electricity, and other products. The solicitation, announced a year ago, was initially for three biorefineries and $160 million. However, in an effort to expedite the goals of President Bush’s Advanced Energy Initiative and help achieve the goals of his Twenty in Ten Initiative, within authority of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPAct 2005), Section 932, Secretary Bodman raised the funding ceiling.

“We had a number of very good proposals, but these six were considered ‘meritorious’ by a merit review panel made up of bioenergy experts. So I thought it would be best to front-end some more funding now, so that we could all reap the benefits of the President’s vision sooner,” Secretary Bodman said.

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Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Film: Towards the Bio-based Economy

The following short film offers a basic overview of what our post-oil future will look like. Towards the Bio-based Economy shows how most products we use on a daily basis - from fuels, medicines, and Euro banknotes, to washing powder and plastics - can be made from biomass. For almost all petroleum-based products, a plant-based variant has already been found.

'Green chemistry' and the concept of the 'biorefinery' are the key words for this future: through biotechnology, any given stream of biomass can be taken apart and converted into a range of efficient, climate-neutral, biodegradable and renewable products.

The bio-based economy is founded on the idea of a closed loop, a green cycle, the cradle-to-cradle philosophy: instead of polluting our environment and depleting scarce resources, we will be producing plant-based products that are food and fertiliser for new crops.

The (promo) film was produced for the Ghent Bioenergy Valley, an integrated science and research cluster based in Belgium, working on innovative biofuels and plant-based products.

If the film does not load in your browser, please find it here or at the Ghent Bio-Energy Valley's website (link will open in Windows media player) [entry ends here].
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Global warming fuels stronger Atlantic hurricanes - new evidence

Atmospheric scientists have uncovered fresh evidence to support the hotly debated theory that global warming has contributed to the emergence of stronger hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean.

The unsettling trend is confined to the Atlantic, however, and does not hold up in any of the world's other oceans, researchers have also found.

Scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported the finding in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. The work should help resolve some of the controversy that has swirled around two prominent studies that drew connections last year between global warming and the onset of increasingly intense hurricanes.

"The debate is not about scientific methods, but instead centers around the quality of hurricane data," says lead author James Kossin, a research scientist at UW-Madison's Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies. "So we thought, 'Lets take the first step toward resolving this debate.'"

The inconsistent nature of hurricane data has been a sore spot within the hurricane research community for decades. Before the advent of weather satellites, scientists were forced to rely on scattered ship reports and sailor logs to stay abreast of storm conditions. The advent of weather satellites during the 1960s dramatically improved the situation, but the technology has changed so rapidly that newer satellite records are barely consistent with older ones.

Kossin and his colleagues realized they needed to smooth out the data before exploring any interplay between warmer temperatures and hurricane activity. Working with an existing NCDC archive that holds global satellite information for the years 1983 through 2005, the researchers evened out the numbers by essentially simplifying newer satellite information to align it with older records:
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"This new dataset is unlike anything that's been done before," says Kossin. "It's going to serve a purpose as being the only globally consistent dataset around. The caveat of course, is that it only goes back to 1983."

Even so, it's a good start. Once the NCDC researchers recalibrated the hurricane figures, Kossin took a fresh look at how the new numbers on hurricane strength correlate with records on warming ocean temperatures, a side effect of global warming.

What he found both supported and contradicted previous findings. "The data says that the Atlantic has been trending upwards in hurricane intensity quite a bit," says Kossin. "But the trends appear to be inflated or spurious everywhere else, meaning that we still can't make any global statements."

Sea-surface temperatures may be one reason why greenhouse gases are exacting a unique toll on the Atlantic Ocean, says Kossin. Hurricanes need temperatures of around 27 degrees Celsius (81 degrees Fahrenheit) to gather steam. On average, the Atlantic's surface is slightly colder than that but other oceans, such as the Western Pacific, are naturally much warmer.

"The average conditions in the Atlantic at any given time are just on the cusp of what it takes for a hurricane to form," says Kossin. " So it might be that imposing only a small (man-made) change in conditions, creates a much better chance of having a hurricane."

The Atlantic is also unique in that all the physical variables that converge to form hurricanes — including wind speeds, wind directions and temperatures — mysteriously feed off each other in ways that only make conditions more ripe for a storm. But scientists don't really understand why, Kossin adds.

"While we can see a correlation between global warming and hurricane strength, we still need to understand exactly why the Atlantic is reacting to warmer temperatures in this way, and that is much more difficult to do," says Kossin. "We need to be creating models and simulations to understand what is really happening here. From here on, that is what we should be thinking about."

More information:
Kossin, J. P.; Knapp, K. R.; Vimont, D. J.; Murnane, R. J.; Harper, B. A. "A globally consistent reanalysis of hurricane variability and trends" [*abstract], Geophys. Res. Lett., Vol. 34, No. 4, 28 February 2007

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Global warming may lead to mass extinction of Brazil species - Brazilian biofuels to the rescue?

What can now be called 'the Brazilian dilemma' is becoming ever sharper. New studies show that global warming may make a far larger number of Brazil's enormously diverse plant and animal species go extinct, than previously thought. At the same time, Brazil is the leader in the production of climate-neutral biofuels the use of which does precisely what is needed: to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions responsible for global warming. However, large-scale biofuel production itself affects the biodiversity of ecosystems, because it is mostly based on monocultures.

The difficult question then becomes: would the potential biodiversity loss arising from a massive expansion of Brazil's biofuels sector be offset by the solution these fuels bring to reducing global warming, which threatens to cause a mass extinction of species? Or in other words, what would be the effects on the largest and most biodiverse ecosystem on the planet, if the world were not to use Brazilian biofuels on a large scale? There is no easy answer to that dilemma.

But some recent findings from Brazil's long experience with biofuels might help:
  • Scientists have found that ethanol production as it is currently undertaken in Brazil is largely environmentally "sustainable" (earlier post and Nature's take on the matter).
  • Sugarcane based ethanol made in Brazil has an excellent energy balance, compared to biofuels made from crops grown in temperate climates. The energy yield per hectare is many times that of corn or canola or even the grass and tree species many are hoping will feed the 'second generation' of cellulose-based biofuels (such as switchgrass or hybrid poplar) (earlier post). The same logic holds for other tropical crops such as sweet sorghum, sweet potatos or cassava.
  • Research indicates that (solid and liquid) biofuels produced in the Global South can be transported over large distances to industrial markets (North America, Europe, North-East Asia) efficiently, that is, without needing too much energy and without contributing too much carbon emissions (earlier post).
  • A rapid and large expansion of the sector in Brazil may indeed threaten the biodiversity of ecosystems, even though the country's Ministry for the Environment claims this will not be the case. EMBRAPA, the Environmental Agency of Brazil, has more than once said that future biofuel plantations will only rely on 'excess' pasture-land and that the expansion scheme will not result in added deforestation (earlier post, and here).
  • Finally, the past trend of technological and scientific breakthroughs that led to considerable efficiency increases in feedstock and fuel production, is set to continue. Analists have shown Brazil's biofuels industry reduced costs and increased efficiency by up to 75% in under 3 decades (earlier post). Following the trend and given advances cellulosic ethanol research, which can be obviously be applied to Brazil's energy efficient crops (earlier post), by 2025, a hectare of sugarcane may yield twice as much useable fuels than today, increasing the energy balance even further (earlier post).
Given these facts, it may be tempting to replicate Brazil's biofuels experience in other countries in the tropics and the subtropics. There, green fuels for transport and for power generation can be produced on a large scale, supply world markets, replace fossil fuels and reduce greenhouse gases substantially. Scientists are analysing the pros and cons of such a proposal (earlier post). But Brazil's biodiversity dilemma will hold in these countries too.

Sustainability criteria

The key element in the dilemma is the sustainability of the biofuels in question. Most stakeholders agree (earlier post) that it is crucial for governments to set clear criteria that correct the purely commercial rationale behind many current investments in and targets for biofuels. Some green fuels - such as solid biomass for the production of power - have already become cheaper than fossil fuels (earlier post), and with 'Peak Oil & Gas' becoming a reality, the trend is set to continue.

But obviously, if the production of biofuels results in more greenhouse gas emissions than their use offsets, they do not deserve a 'green' label and they become highly problematic. This would be the case if, for example, deforestation or the destruction of peatlands and wetlands is stimulated by the push to establish monoculture energy plantations:
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Careful sustainability criteria can be established to prevent this. Such rules would look at the total lifecycle of the biofuels - from farm to fuel - and analyse the greenhouse gas balance, the energy balance, the impact of their production on the environment and its biodiversity, and their social impacts.

Some individual governments (like the government of the Netherlands) are trying to establish such rules, even though they would only make a dent if they are applied on a regional (EU-wide) or a global scale. Different 'cultures of sustainability' exist, even though the basic principles of the concept have been agreed upon. Still, some countries that are large potential biofuel producers and exporters are making a hard case and are warning that such criteria should not act as a non-tariff trade barrier (earlier post and here).

Another possible option in the quest for sustainability consists of offering financial incentives to developing countries to halt further deforestation and biodiversity losses which result from agricultural expansion. A concept such as 'compensated reduction' (also known as 'avoided deforestation'), which couples the value of forests to the amount of carbon they store, is currently being studied both by governments, NGOs and international institutions such as the World Bank (earlier post). The problem with this idea, however, is that the real opportunity costs of forests are the biofuels they could potentially produce (earlier post).
Biofuels may represent a far greater economic value than the carbon value of forests. After all, both carbon and fossil fuel prices are driven by the free market, even though governments set the caps for carbon. The difference is that fossil fuels may become much scarcer far faster than affordable carbon emission credits, opening a gap favoring investments in biofuels. Moreover, the effects of a physical scarcity of fossil fuels - most notably petroleum - will have immediate and far reaching socio-economic impacts that have to be mitigated instantly or that can be heged by investments in biofuels. The threat of global warming is perceived to be much more abstract, less immediately threatening to particular interests and too distant.

Finally, thorough socio-economic analyses are urgently needed to study the changes brought by a massive switch to biofuels such as the ones produced in Brazil. Bioenergy production offers an opportunity to revive or reboot the agricultural sector, which, in the South, employs more people than any other sector. Depreciating world prices for agricultural commodities and unfair trade regimes have plagued millions of these farmers in the past, pushing them to the brink of poverty. From this poverty result further pressures on the environment, because poor farmers do not have the means to utilize the most basic of modern agricultural inputs. Instead of relying on intensive forms agriculture, they use techniques that result in extremely low productivities. The consequence: ever more land is needed to grow crops for basic needs.

Studies are needed to show how incomes generated from modern, well-invested export-oriented biofuel production - both on the level of the state as well as on the level of individual farming communities - can change this situation. After developing countries have first met their very modest demand for fuels themselves (most can easily replace all their fossil fuel imports with locally produced biofuels), they have a huge capacity left to supply world markets with competitive bioenergy (earlier post). This economic opportunity is set to transform the South and its millions of poor farmers.

The Brazilian dilemma
Let us now look at the studies on the threat global warming brings to Brazil's unique biodiversity, as they are reported by Scientific American. According to studies released on Tuesday, a vast number of animal and plant species in Brazil could die out as rising world temperatures cause more droughts, disease and rainstorms in areas like the Pantanal wetlands and Amazon rainforest.

"All our efforts to protect our biodiversity could be lost," Environment Minister Marina Silva said at an event to publicize the new research coordinated by the ministry and carried out by university, private and government scientists.

Brazil is believed to be home to roughly a fifth of all plant and animal species and the government has invested $142 million (300 million reais) since 2003 to preserve vast swathes of land in areas like the Amazon, Environmental Secretary Joao Capobianco said.

But rising global temperatures could undermine conservation efforts. The broadest study, conducted by Brazilian space agency INPE, found that temperatures in the Amazon -- the world's largest remaining tropical rainforest -- could rise as much 8 degrees Celsius (14 F) this century.

Other studies predicted fish species could die out if rising ocean levels flood southern islands and estuaries with salt water. Further inland, the Pantanal wetlands could dry up and turn to savannah as hotter temperatures affect rains.

Prime agricultural areas in southern and southeastern Brazil are already suffering more intense downpours after temperatures rose almost 1 degree Celsius (2 F) in the last century, the INPE study said.

Extreme weather events could increase in general, INPE said, citing the example of Hurricane Catarina. Catarina became the first hurricane to form off Brazil's coast in at least half a century -- more than a year before Katrina flooded the U.S. city of New Orleans.

Brazil's human population could also suffer if warmer weather accelerates mosquito breeding cycles, increasing the chances of disease outbreaks like malaria and dengue.

And while the south could be pounded by heavier rains, drier weather is likely to hit sensitive northern areas like the humid Amazon and the already drought-stricken northeast.

This month, IPCC climatologists released their latest report predicting average world temperatures could rise several degrees this century as heat-trapping carbon gases from burning fossil fuels clog the atmosphere (earlier post).

Brazil emits less carbon gas than most countries its size partly because of its rainforest cover and partly because nearly half its passenger car fleet runs on sugar-cane ethanol. President Bush will visit Brazil next week to discuss ethanol cooperation among other matters.

Bush is encouraging ethanol use to reduce U.S. dependency on oil and to lower its carbon emissions. The United States is the world's single largest producer of atmospheric carbon gas, and Bush was widely criticized for refusing to sign the global Kyoto protocol to cut emissions in 2001. "I haven't spoken to President Lula, but all of humanity needs President Bush to show more commitment to reducing greenhouse gases," Silva said.

Priorities and realism
Biofuels are not the silver bullet to fighting the human-induced warming of the planet, which may result in the tragic scenario of mass species extinctions. A whole range of efforts has to be combined, from reducing energy consumption in the wealthy West, to helping poor rural communities in the developing world to make the switch to renewables.

Consumers with the highest 'carbon-footprint' are beginning to feel responsible for the effects of their life-styles, as a recent report on the baby-boomer generation showed (earlier post). They are gradually becoming aware of the importance of energy conservation and want governments to act more thoroughly. But this transition process is occuring extremely slowly because of political inaction and a certain degree of hypocrisy (babyboomers, for example, are not willing to give up flying across the globe in GHG-emitting airplanes that bring them to sunny vacation spots).

Moreover, the issues at hand are quite complex and informing consumers on how to change their behavior in the right way, is not easy. Concepts, products and schemes such as 'food miles', 'organic food' or 'carbon offsets', which are used by many individuals in the West as a means to reduce one's personal carbon footprint, must be analysed far more thoroughly before being applied. Research clearly indicates that, sometimes, reliance on such concepts results in the opposite of what they're trying to achieve, that is, they may lead to higher carbon emissions, energy use and to more environmental damage (earlier post and here). Nuance and caution is needed, not trends and fashions.

Finally, rapidly growing economies, such as the ones of India and China are trapped by a modernistic concept of economic growth and the individualist, unsustainable consumer culture that goes with it. Millions of Chinese and Indian people are saving up to buy the ultimate symbol of bourgeois notions of sociality and 'freedom': the family car. Their desire to join the global army of mass consumers is unstoppable. And even though the governments of these countries are gradually recognising the threats their countries face by global warming (China's wake-up call) and by increased energy use, they are nonetheless massively investing in new fossil fuel infrastructures. They are not alone, even the U.S. is doing the same (earlier post).

Given all the above, a dose of realism is warranted. The time it takes to raise a global green conscience, especially in these 'transition economies' the people of which are understandably blinded by the new consumer culture that is opening up in front of them, may be too long. Energy consumption is going to increase massively over the coming decades (the IEA projects a 50% increase by 2030), as are greenhouse gas emissions, and in such a context, biofuels may offer one of the best compromises to intervene. If people are going to fill up millions more cars, it is best to have them filled up with biofuels, now. Brazil is the country that may contribute most to realising this important compromise.

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Spain's biofuels supply exceeds demand

Quicknote bioenergy economics
According to industry figures [*.pdf], biofuels supply in Spain far exceeds demand. While the supply of biofuels in the country is increasing rapidly, the amount currently being used remains minimal. Most of the excess is exported. The Spanish Ministry of Industry now considers making biofuels blending compulsory as part of its efforts to boost renewable energies and meet its target of 6 percent biofuel use in transport by 2010.

In 2006 Spanish plants produced the equivalent of 549,000 tonnes of oil equivalent grain-based bioethanol and oilseed-based biodiesel, Industry Ministry figures show.

For 2010 that needs to rise to 2.2 million tonnes and it has to be consumed internally, not exported, if Spain is to achieve the carbon dioxide emission targets it has set itself as part of its commitment to the Kyoto agreement to curb global warming.

Spain's Associatión de Productores de Energías Renovables (APPA) estimates biofuel usage was probably around 0.6 percent of the total, up from 0.44 percent in 2005. Even with uptake slow at home and in the face of falling oil prices and rising grain and soy costs, Spanish companies are piling into the sector.

Spain has a deficit in grain and produces little sunflower or rapeseed oil, so most companies depend on imported raw materials, mainly from Brazil, Colombia and Argentina [entry ends here].
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Entomologists discover cellulase genes in termite guts

As scientists search for alternatives to fossil fuel, producing chemical energy from wood fiber has become a big challenge. Several research organisations and biotech companies are trying to discover enzymes that break down cellulose into glucose in an efficient way (earlier post). However, termites have been working this alchemy for millions of years. A University of Florida (UF) study published last month in the journal Gene sheds new light on the mysterious and complex process that enables the insects to eat the cellulose, the main structural component of plant cells. For people and most animals, cellulose is indigestible, but termites break it down easily into glucose, a form of sugar most organisms need. These sugars can be fermented into bio-products, such as ethanol or bioplastics.

The study identifies four genes that produce enzymes responsible for taking cellulose molecules apart in a process called cellulase (picture, click to enlarge) insight that could lead to breakthroughs in energy production and pest control, said Michael Scharf, an assistant research scientist with UF’s entomology department and a co-author of the paper.

The scientists looked at the dominant termite species in the U.S. but they are sure they haven't identified all the genes involved in producing these enzymes yet. Only one of the genes actually belongs to the insect researchers studied, the eastern subterranean termite. The other three belong to microscopic organisms known as symbionts that live inside the termite’s digestive system:
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“The termites provide the symbionts with a home, and the symbionts pay the rent by producing enzymes,” says Sharf. Altogether, there may be hundreds of cellulose-digesting enzymes produced by the termites and their tiny tenants, Scharf said.

One potential payoff from the research is that scientists may be able to transfer specific enzyme-producing genes into bacteria, then culture them to produce large quantities of enzymes to make ethanol from wood scraps and other fibrous materials, he said.

Known as cellulosic ethanol, this fuel has gained worldwide attention because it doesn’t require edible material such as corn, used in conventional ethanol production.

The interaction of multiple genes makes cellulose digestion an efficient process in termites, but scientists want to pin down enzyme combinations that will digest cellulose affordably, Scharf said. Many genes remain undiscovered, and UF researchers have applied for funding to support a massive effort to identify all cellulose-digesting genes in the eastern subterranean termite and its common symbionts.

Greater genetic knowledge could also aid in termite control, an important issue in Florida, which accounts for about one-third of control efforts in the United States, said Phil Koehler, a UF entomology professor and co-author of the paper.

By identifying enzymes most crucial to termite digestion, scientists may be able to kill the insects by shutting down selected genes, he said.

Termite-control strategies, such as bait systems or treated lumber, would be environmentally friendly because they would have no effect on organisms that don’t eat cellulose, he said.

“Anything we do with this kind of work will reduce the need for conventional pesticides,” Koehler said.

Development of enzyme-blocking products could happen but will require attention to termite behavior, said Brian Forschler, an entomology professor at the University of Georgia in Athens.

Recent research shows that termites, which live in colonies that can number 1 million, often consume partially digested material excreted by their compatriots, he said. So it would be important that bait products not disrupt termites’ feeding behavior. If it did, termites might avoid an enzyme-stopping bait and instead share more partially digested food.

“You just have to remember that you’re dealing with an entire termite colony,” Forschler said. “This research holds a great deal of promise.”

Further termite genetics research could reveal effective methods of disrupting termite social behavior, perhaps in ways that cause the insects to die, said Faith Oi, an assistant extension scientist with UF’s entomology and nematology department.

“The model for exploiting the termite’s social behavior for control is not new,” said Oi, another co-author of the paper. “In terms of pest control, we can look to this area of science enhancing existing methods.”

Picture: different types of cellulase, relying on specific enzymes.

More information:

Xuguo Zhou, Joseph A. Smith, Faith M. Oi, Philip G. Koehler, Gary W. Bennett and Michael E. Scharf, Correlation of cellulase gene expression and cellulolytic activity throughout the gut of the termite Reticulitermes flavipes [*.pdf/subscription required], Gene, In Press, Accepted Manuscript, Available online 26 January 2007.

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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Top NASA scientist wants no more coal power - biomass to the rescue?

One of the world's top climate scientists, geoscientist James Hansen delivered an address to the National Press Club, in Washington, D.C., calling for the United States to end the building of new coal-fueled power plants and begin dismantling those in operation now that do not scrub high levels of carbon dioxide emissions. Hansen is the director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, in New York City, which conducts research on changes in the Earth's surface temperature.

In his briefing to leaders of the press corps, entitled "Global Warming: Connecting the Dots from Causes to Solutions", Hansen said that evidence in the international scientific community shows global warming is occurring at a much faster pace than earlier forecasts predicted and that the burning of coal is a leading cause of elevated levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which traps heat via the so-called greenhouse effect.
"There should be a moratorium on building any more coal-fired power plants until the technology to capture and sequester the (carbon dioxide emissions) is available. [...] This is a hard proposition that no politician is willing to stand up and say it's necessary. [...] all coal-burning power plants that don't capture the CO2 will have to be bulldozed." - James Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies.
Hansen criticized climate denialists by saying that "the assumption that it takes thousands years for ice sheets to change is very wrong. [...] Because of the melting of the ice sheet, the sea level is now rising at the rate of about 35cm per century. [...] But the concern is that it is a very non-linear process that can accelerate," he said. Such a non-linear process might result in what is known as 'Abrupt Climate Change' (ACC), in which case drastic 'geo-engineering' measures on a planetary scale will have to be implemented (earlier post).

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, coal-fueled power plants produce about half of the electricity consumed in America. Plans currently call for the construction of some 160 new coal-based facilities to meet future energy needs over the next decade.

Hansen said the U.S. Congress should pass legislation to scale back the construction of these plants, but if it does not, "citizens must accomplish this." The leading scientist, who has been an outspoken critic of the Bush administration's energy policy in the past, said that the offset in electric power could be compensated by increased efforts in producing energy more efficiently.

Carbon capture and storage
Mr Hansen said the technology to capture carbon dioxide "is probably five or 10 years away":
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Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a technique to sequester carbon emissions underground. Different options exist, such as storing the carbon in depleted natural gas and oil fields, in saline aquifers (earlier post) or in the form of a liquid (earlier post). Carbon leakage risks remain and are being studied further before the technology can be applied on a large scale (earlier post). However, several CCS pilot projects are currently already underway (earlier post).

Biomass to the rescue
CCS technologies can be applied to gas and coal power plants, but they can also be used on power plants that burn renewable and carbon-neutral biomass or biogas. Solid biofuels are currently the cheapest of all fuels (compared to coal, gas, nuclear, wind and solar) (earlier post), and they could be grown efficiently, sustainably and on a very large scale in the tropics and the sub-tropics (earlier post).

When CCS technologies are used in combination with the burning of carbon neutral biomass, this results in a system commonly known as 'Bio-Energy with Carbon Storage' (BECS). The concept is a radical carbon-negative energy system: as the biomass fuel grows in plantations, it takes CO2 out of the atmosphere and stores it in the plants; when burned as a fuel in the power plant, the released carbon is stored underground. The net effect is a reduction in atmospheric carbon. No other energy concept can achieve this (earlier post). Solar, wind, tidal, wave or nuclear power can be carbon-neutral at best.

Scientists came up with the idea of BECS in the context of 'Abrupt Climate Change', which Hansen is hinting at. They consider the concept to be the most feasible and cost-effective geo-engineering option. Other strategies, such as seeding the atmosphere with sulfur, or the oceans with fertiliser, are risky; using 'synthetic trees' or launching a gigantic mirror into space to reflect the Sun, are very costly (on these strategies, see our previous post).

In case ACC were to occur, scientists think BECS could take us back to pre-industrial CO2 levels within a matter of a few decades, and thus avert the worst catastrophes.

Coal mining sector reacts
Luke Popovich, a spokesperson for the National Mining Association, which represents the interests of U.S. coal producers, reacted to Hansen's lecture. He told the Associated Press that Hansen's comments "ought to be vetted by those who have an understanding of the energy demands placed on the U.S. economy." Popovich added that "When seen in light of those demands, then statements like that will appear unreasonable, to put it charitably."

Hansen's remarks in Washington coincide, unintentionally, with a transaction in the business world in which private financiers today announced that they will acquire one of the largest energy suppliers in the U.S. and cancel plans to develop several new coal-fueled power plants. A group led by equity specialists Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. said it has offered US$32 billion to assume ownership of TXU Corp., the largest supplier of electricity in Texas, and that the board of the energy giant has accepted the offer.

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Brazil increases biodiesel target to 5% by 2010 on rising production potential

State news agency Agência Brasil announces [*Portuguese] that the country's biodiesel production capacity will surpass the 1.3 billion liter per year mark by the middle of this year. This is around 60% above the total needed to reach a target put forward earlier by the government. This target - falling under the country's new 'Pro-biodiesel program' (earlier post) - aims to replace 2% of all fossil diesel with biodiesel, by 2013.

According to Arnoldo de Campos, the coordinator of the National Program for Biodiesel Production and Use, the increased capacity means the deadline can be brought forward by three years, to 2010, and the target increased to 5%.

There are currently 11 biodiesel factories in Brazil producing 640 million liters of biodiesel per year, but when a further 13 factories come online in the first half of this year, total production is expected to reach 1.3 billion liters a year.

“That is almost double what is needed to fulfil the 2 percent of biodiesel to be added to diesel, scheduled for January 2008. That is, a year early, and we have more than enough capacity to respect the deadlines and as production is increasing rapidly we can bring forward the 5 percent target, which was set for 2013, to 2010,” said de Campos.

Oil independence
As well as producing a less polluting fuel, the biodiesel program should also make it possible for Brazil to stop importing diesel alltogether. Brazil’s current diesel consumption stands at around 40 billion liters and 5 percent of that amount, or 2 billion liters, is imported.

"We are now close to importing half of what we used to import as it can be replaced with biodiesel and, soon, when we reach the level of 5 percent of biodiesel in diesel, we will stop importing diesel," says de Campos:
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With ethanol already supplying 70% of Brazil's gasoline needs, the country's added biodiesel program will allow total independence of foreign oil imports.

Diversity of biodiesel feedstocks
By the end of the year, 24 factories will thus be operational, the biodiesel feedstocks for which will be made up by soja (60%) and by castor beans (20%). Castor beans are harvested from the castor oil plant (Ricinus communis), belonging to the family of Euphorbiaceae, to which Jatropha curcas also belongs. The remainder is composed of a diverse range of primary feedstocks such as palm oil, canola, sunflower and waste vegetable oils.

"Castor and sunflower will be supplying the market on a massive scale before the end of the year, when the largest-ever sunflower harvest will occur - based on a large planting effort that began earlier this year - and the second-largest castor harvest."

According to Adriano Pires, economist at the Centro Brasileiro de Infra-estrutura (CBIE), a bioenergy consulting firm, soja is currently the most favorable biodiesel feedstock. He thinks other sources will remain marginal for the foreseeable future, though the potential to use them is large.

"Contrary to the ethanol program, which relies solely on sugarcane, the biodiesel program makes use of a wide variety of feedstocks, which allows for flexibility in the supply chain", adds Pires.

Picture: Castor oil plant.

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NanoDynamics licences biofuel technology based on nanotech process intensification

NanoDynamics, Inc., a diversified nanotechnology and manufacturing company, announced the signing of an exclusive license agreement with Global Technex Pty of Brisbane Australia. The agreement is part of a project that marries NanoDynamics’ new 'ND Fusion' process intensification technology with Global Technex’ strategic plan to bring new technologies into the Australian biofuels industry.

The ability to economically convert sugarcane process streams to ethanol creates a potentially sweet deal for Australia, which has an abundant sugarcane crop and a heavy reliance on imported oil. The ultimate goal of the project is to build a large-scale ethanol production facility in Queensland, Australia to provide ethanol to the Australian market.

NanoDynamics intervenes in biofuels 'process intensification'. Developed in the1970’s as a means to reduce production plant size and capital costs in the oil industry, the concept has more recently evolved into a pathway to ‘Green Chemistry’; the design of chemical processes that reduce or eliminate the use and generation of hazardous substances in an energy efficient manner. The company's 'ND Fusion' technology is based on a patent-pending rotating tube reactor that provides extremely high mixing, heat and mass transfer rates in thin, highly sheared films on the walls of the reactor to create chemical processes that are cleaner, smaller, safer, faster, cheaper, and more efficient.

It is kind of efficiency increases - the result of better process design (earlier post) and new fermentor technologies - that has allowed ethanol producers in Brazil to push back costs by 75% over the past 25 years (earlier post), a process that is expected to continue over the coming decades. Analists predict this trend could result in a doubling of the already impressive field-to-tank yield of sugarcane ethanol (earlier post).

There are many pathways to the production of ethanol but sugars are readily fermented through the use of yeasts, which consume the sugar and excrete ethanol as a by product. Still, the process is not without challenges:
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Yeasts are living organisms that can be fickle and require just the right combination of conditions and time to produce the maximum amount of ethanol and once the yeast produces ethanol, it must be purified and separated from the yeast, water and nutrient wort in which it was produced. All this can be time consuming and capital intensive. The ND Fusion technology provides for faster, higher, more efficient ethanol yields by boosting fermentation without damaging fragile yeast cells and generates higher purity ethanol with significantly lower energy and capital expenditures than traditional processing methods.

In Australia, Prime Minister John Howard recently reaffirmed government commitment to the development of an Australian biofuels industry including excise concessions for alternative fuels as well as a total of AUD$41.2 million in production grants to fuel ethanol. Given Australia’s healthy sugarcane crop, 80%+ of which is exported, and a growing dependence on imported oil, Global Technex and NDFusion are well-poised to provide solutions.

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Thai ethanol makers face large surplus

Quicknote bioenergy policies
In september 2006, a military coup removed Thailand's PM Thaksin Shinawatra from office and installed a provisional government. This new government has introduced several changes to key laws, amongst them a restriction of the Foreign Busines Act.

Similarly, the government decided to abandon the ousted Thaksin regime's plan to totally replace octane-95 with gasohol-95, a gasoline blend made with 10% ethanol.

The Thai Ethanol Manufacturing Association, led by Thai Sugar Miller Co, says the country is seeing a large surplus of ethanol, which is the result of the huge production capacity that emerged after Thaksin's policy. It is urging the new government to stop the sale of octane-95 petrol in March.

Association president Siriwut Siempakdi said there will be 15 ethanol plants producing 2.1 million litres a day (approximately 9000 barrels of oil equivalent per day) by year end. Another 30 plants with 8.9 million litres (48,000 barrels of oil equivalent) per day capacity are planned, he said, so with a current daily demand of 350,000 litres, a surplus of 11 million litres (48,000 barrels of oil equivalent) per day will be emerge [entry ends here].
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Transport crucial to meeting Kyoto targets, but EU policies failing - report

In the context of the Kyoto Protocol, the EU has committed to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by 8%, compared with 1990 levels, before 2012.

Transport is responsible for around one fifth of all GHG emissions in the EU.

In 2001, the EU set out a ten-year strategy to make its transport sector more sustainable, mainly by breaking the link between growth in transport and economic growth and by shifting towards more sustainable transport modes (intermodality), such as railways, water transport and public transport.

But according to a new report from the European Environment Agency, this strategy is not yielding strong results. The Commission's mid-term review of the White Paper, adopted in June 2006, makes no reference to curbing overall transport growth, instead advocating the "decoupling of transport growth from its negative effects". Recent proposals aimed at introducing cleaner fuels such as biofuels and imposing caps on CO2 emissions from cars and airplanes also appear to go in this direction.

The EEA report, "Transport and Environment: on the way to a new common transport policy" [*.pdf], says that despite the new measures, European transport policy must deal more strongly with spiralling demand for transport. Between 1990 and 2003, passenger transport volumes in the EEA countries grew by 20%. Air transport grew the most, 96%, during this period:
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While emissions from most other sectors (energy supply, industry, agriculture, waste management) dropped between 1990 and 2004, emissions from transport increased substantially driven by this increase in demand.

Transport is responsible for 21 % of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the EU-15 (excluding international aviation and maritime transport). Road transport contributes 93 % of the total of all transport emissions. However, emissions from international aviation are growing fastest with an increase of 86 % between 1990 and 2004.

GHG emissions (excluding marine and aviation) from transport grew the most in Luxembourg and Ireland between 1990 and 2004 with respective increases of 156 and 140 %. The average increase in the 32 EEA member countries was 25 %.

“By suggesting that we simply deal with the environmental impacts of transport, the mid term review of the 2001 White Paper on Transport could be interpreted as a softening of Europe’s line on the need to deal with transport volumes. This cannot be the case,” said Professor Jacqueline McGlade, Executive Director of the EEA.

“We cannot deal with the increasing GHG emissions, noise pollution and landscape fragmentation caused by transport without dealing with the increasing traffic across the spectrum: on our roads and railways, in the air and by sea. Technical advances, such as cleaner, more fuel efficient engines are very important but we cannot innovate our way out of the emissions problem from transport.” she said.

The report also highlights the significant role that transport subsidies play in terms of directing transport choices. Between €270 and €290 billion is spent annually in Europe in transport subsidies. Almost half of these subsidies go to road transport, one of the least environmentally friendly modes. The EEA will release a detailed study of transport subsidies in March 2007

Pollution from transport is also having a direct effect on our health. Almost 25% of the EU-25 population live less than 500 meters from a road carrying more than three million vehicles per year. Consequently, almost four million life-years are lost each year due to high pollution levels, the report says.

More information:

EEA: Transport and environment: on the way to a new common transport policy [*.pdf, 5071 KB]
EurActiv: Report: 'EU transport policies failing on climate' - Feb. 26, 2007

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Monday, February 26, 2007

Documentary about biofuels: "The Brazilian Revolution"

Tonight, Europe's leading cultural television channel and production house, ARTE, airs a documentary on biofuels in Brazil (presentation of the film in French and in German). The work titled "Biocarburants: la révolution brésilienne"/"Sprit aus Zucker!", made by Pierre-Olivier François en Christian Popp, asks whether the Brazilian example is to be followed by other countries.

The industrial-scale, technology and science-driven ethanol sector in Brazil is over 30 years old. Currently, more than 70% of all cars in the country use the fuel which is made primarily from sugarcane. The biofuel is both cheaper and considerably less polluting than gasoline. Moreover, contrary to its fossil counterpart, it is renewable and the expansion of its production can be planned.

The documentary follows José, a small sugarcane farmer in São Paulo state who has been growing the crop all his life to make sugar from it. Thirty years ago, he started supplying one of Brazil's first ethanol plants.

In Brazil, the production of ethanol benefits from optimal conditions: an abundance of land, sun and water, but also of a scientific effort supported by the government. In private and state-run laboratories and institutions, researchers are developing new crop varieties, new processing and logistical technologies with which to increase the productivity and efficiency of the sector. Car manufacturers in Brazil soon followed and today all of them have so-called 'flex-fuel' models on the market. Brazil's state-owned oil giant, Petrobras, is a major player in the sector and supporter of the industry.

But even in the case of a green, renewable, and sustainably produced energy source, the picture is not all that rosy. Until recently, the main beneficiaries of the industry have been the large agro-industrial firms who enjoy scale-advantages and rely on highly mechanised production. However, the situation is changing gradually in favor of smallholders. Brazil's landless people, united in Latin America's largest social movement, the 'Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra', are beginning to enjoy the benefits of the industry's expansion, because they have found a listening ear in Brazil's recently re-elected president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva.

The Lula government has created a set of policies that is explicitly aimed at pulling small farmers into the sector: large companies who source their feedstocks from smallholders, receive tax breaks. Several multinationals have already accepted the deal. Extension services have been created aimed at training and informing the smallholders about the biofuels program and its lucrative economic opportunities. And with a promising project in the northern province of Natal, Petrobras is setting the example by buying raw materials for the production of biodiesel from family-run farms only.

The documentary can be watched on ARTE, tonight at 10.20pm CET, and will be shown again on Friday, March 2 at 3.10pm. An online version is to follow later [entry ends here].
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The bioeconomy at work: nanotech process developed to make green lubricants from palm biodiesel by-product

The African oil palm is a crop that yields an enormous amount of biomass (earlier post) that can be used for the production a wide range of plant-based products. Currently, only the oils extracted from the fresh palm fruits are considered to be a commodity, but this situation is changing very rapidly. Waste-streams from plantations and from processing operations have become valuable biomass fuels in themselves, that are increasingly being used for power generation at the processing plants, instead of fossil fuels (earlier post). Liquid waste-streams from the oil extraction process are being used efficiently for the production of biogas (earlier post). Finally, ligno-cellulosic plantation and processing residues can be utilized either as a feedstock for next-generation ethanol (earlier post), or for the production of plant-based materials such as bioplastics [on bioplastics from oil palm residues, see this document *.pdf].

The most obvious of markets for palm oil is of course that of biodiesel. But to make palm based biodiesel useable in the cold climates of the Northern hemisphere, it has to be chemically transformed so that its cloud point is brought down. The Malaysian Palm Oil Board recently developed a patented process that achieves this transformation in a relatively efficient manner, while an Ecuadorian company did so too (earlier post).

However, the process aimed at increasing the cold tolerance of the fuel, is based on physically removing a fraction of the biodiesel, resulting in a by-product that may make up 15% of the primary feedstock. This reduces the overall energy balance of the fuel and negatively affects its economics.

Australian nanotechnology company Nano-Chemical Systems Holdings, however, announced today that it has developed a process that makes use of the waste fraction to make renewable automotive and aviation oils and lubricants with a high added value. The company's patent pending process is based on the immersion of nano-sized molybdenum metal ball bearings to produce the oils and lubricants:
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These enhanced oils and lubricants give the consumer the advantages of longer machine life from reduced ware and superior performance at high temperatures and pressures associated with "moly" lubricants. The oils and lubricants are highly biodegradable and have the promise of non-hazardous waste disposal. These new oils and lubricants also offer the promise of reduced crank case and other lubricant emissions to improve air quality.

The oils and lubricants are a solid marketing complement to ethanol-fueled automobiles. It only makes sense to use "Green", "Clean technology" oils and lubricants once the car owner has made the commitment to a renewable, environmentally friendly energy solution. There are a number of testing, process, specification, approval, supply channel and distribution channel issues that need to be overcome before these oils and lubricants can be offered for sale.

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Plant scientists develop new tool to protect crops from modified genes

In a development of major importance for the future of the biobased economy, plant biologists at the University of Connecticut have created a tool that may help alleviate public concerns surrounding genetically-modified plants. Controlling the flow of transgenic genes into the wild via pollen and seeds has been a huge concern to the public and a major challenge for scientists specializing in agricultural biotechnology.

The tool, called a “GM-gene-deletor,” could prevent genetically-modified gene flow into non-biotech crops or weeds. The invention may be particularly useful to confine genetically altered genes used in vegetatively propagated, undomesticated bioenergy crops, such as switchgrass, sugarcane, tropical grass species and energy trees such as poplar, willow, acacia or eucalyptus.

Most importantly, it overcomes the problems with so-called 'terminator seeds', which have made poor farmers in the developing world dependent on multinationals, from which they have to buy new seeds every season. Traditionally, farmers use the seeds from their harvested crops to grow new plants the next season. But 'terminator technology' used in GM-crops kills the fertility of these seeds, forcing the farmer to buy new ones over and over again, thus creating a total dependency. The GM-gene-deleter may now make it possible for farmers in the developing world to become full owners of high-yield, pest-, disease- and drought-tolerant energy crops, which do not spread their altered genes into the environment and the seeds of which can be used to grow new crops. This independence from large multinationals may overcome the devastating effects of the current situation, as it was recently outlined in an interesting anthropological study of farmers in Warangal, India (earlier post).

The technology, developed in the laboratory of Yi Li, associate professor of plant science, provides a successful method for eliminating all the transgenic genes from pollen and seeds if needed. The research is published in the March issue of Plant Biotechnology Journal [abstract].

According to Yi Li, the GM-gene-deletor technology could allow farmers to produce non-genetically modified consumer products, such as seeds, fruits, and flowers, from transgenic plants. Likewise, with the advent of the bioeconomy, useful elements of plants could be developed that do not carry the genetical alterations, but that can be used as feedstocks for the production of green specialty chemicals, plastics and fuels:
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“For example, herbicide-resistant genetically-modified traits are primarily needed to protect crops during growth prior to seed or fruit development. The GM-gene-deletor could initiate the gene deletion process immediately prior to seed or fruit development. That way, farmers would get the benefit of the added crop protection during a critical growth stage, without the unintended consequence of an uncontrolled spread of a herbicide-resistant gene, which some believe could create ‘super weeds.’”

The GM-gene-deletor also could be used in crops that are genetically modified for the production of pharmaceuticals to block the accidental transmission of these traits into food crops through seed or pollen.

Terminator seeds
The new technology also holds the potential to end a long-standing debate on so-called “terminator” gene or “terminator” seed technology that has pitted major agricultural biotechnology companies against poor farmers in developing countries.

The terminator technology inserts terminator or suicidal genes into genetically-modified seeds to ensure that no genes from genetically-modified crops contaminate non-genetically-modified crops.

This process protects the companies’ patents and could alleviate some of the same consumer concerns Li’s technology addresses, but at the expense of poor farmers in developing countries, who would have to buy fresh seeds every year because the terminator gene system renders the genetically modified plants sterile.

The terminator technology has yet to be commercialized because of the problems it poses for farmers in developing countries.

“With our technology,” says Hui Duan, one of Li’s former doctoral students and a co-author of the published research, “the seeds the farmers save will not have genetically-modified traits. The farmers would need to buy new seeds each year if they want the crops to have genetically-modified traits such as insect resistance or herbicide resistance. But if they did not want to do so or could not afford to do so, they would still be left with viable seeds to replant.”

Li’s group at UConn started this project in 2000 with funding from Connecticut Innovation Inc., the Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research / U.S. Department of Energy, and UConn.

The team, and collaborators in China and at the University of Tennessee, reported a novel use of two site-specific DNA recombination systems to assemble a highly efficient gene eliminator that specifically targets the foreign genes.

By incorporating these systems into the genome of the genetically-modified plants, the scientists found the undesirable genes were removed from the pollen and seeds of the plant with as much as 100 percent efficiency.

Because of the exceptionally high deletion efficiency observed in the experimental plants, Li and his collaborators anticipate enormous potential for the technology to be used in large-scale plantings of agricultural crops, as well as genetically improved trees and bio-energy/bio-fuel and pulp-generating plant species.

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Quick comparison of renewable energy and fossil fuel prices

China (earlier post), the United States (earlier post) and the European Union (earlier post) have all recently said they aim to increase their use of renewable energies like wind, solar and biofuels, to address global warming and energy security concerns. Much depends on the economics of such clean energy technologies, some of which are still much more expensive than conventional fossil fuels like coal and oil.

The following table is a comparison of 2005 and projected medium-term (2010-2020) costs per energy source, in U.S. cents per kilowatt hour, created by Imperial College London, as quoted by Reuters.

Some notes have to be added to this projection. First of all, the data are from a time when fossil fuel prices were only beginning their steep climb (at the beginning of 2005, a barrel of oil stood at US$45 and reached records in July and August of 2006, with prices at over US$75). With 'Peak Oil & Gas' being taken more and more seriously, prices may well rise far more quickly and steeply than Imperial College predicts, making alternatives much more competitive. Likewise, uranium oxide prices have skyrocketed over the past two years, now reaching 'precious metal' levels, at US$85/pound for U308. The medium term outlook is one of continuously increasing prices.

Secondly, even though biomass is currently the cheapest of all fuel sources, the researchers did not look at large-scale imports from the tropics. Meanwhile, we know that biofuels produced there are already considerably less costly. This is one of the reasons why the EU, for example, is looking at 90 million hectares in Africa and Latin America, to grow sustainable solid biofuels (basically fast-growing tropical short rotation trees), for use in energy intensive sectors such as the steel industry (earlier post). Large-scale biofuel production in the subtropics and the tropics will make it the most competitive of all fuels by far:
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Thirdly, the study does not look at biogas production. Again, recent research points out that Europe can replace all natural gas imports from Russia, by 2020, with biomethane that is considerably cheaper if scaled-up and made from dedicated energy crops (earlier post).

On another note, even though the table refers to Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technologies that can be applied to coal and gas power stations, it does not count in CCS used with the cheaper alternative, namely biomass. Using carbon dioxide storage technologies with biomass results in a system called 'Bio-Energy with Carbon Storage' - the only carbon negative energy system that can take us back to pre-industrial CO2 levels in a relatively short time (earlier post). Obviously, if biomass is cheaper than coal and gas, then CCS with biomass is cheaper than CCS with coal and gas. The BECS concept can of course also be based on gaseous biofuels, such as locally produced biomethane.

All in all, it looks like both wind power and biomass stand to become the most viable renewable energy sources for the future. Contrary to both wind, solar and tidal/wave power, biomass has the advantage that it can be traded globally and physically. It can be grown where it makes most sense to to so, and shipped to markets in an efficient manner, that is without losing too much energy in the process and without contributing too much greenhouse gas emissions (earlier post).

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Renault and Saab at the International Agricultural Show: biofuels most effective in cutting CO2

Two leading car manufacturers will be present at the International Agricultural Show in Paris (March 3-11, 2007), one of the largest fairs in its kind. French car maker Renault and Swedish manufacturer Saab will showcase their biofuel capable vehicles at fair's section on 'Cultures et filières végétales' [*.pdf French], where biofuels are highlighted.

Saab will present its 9-5 'Biopower', a car that has enjoyed a runaway success in Europe, responsible for the manufacturer's record sales in 2006 (earlier post). Saab has meanwhile developed a version of the Biopower capable of running on pure ethanol.

Renault's participation will highlight its active involvement in the development of biofuel-related technologies with the display of an E85 bioethanol Mégane (pictured) alongside one of its B30 biodiesel-compatible engines, the 1.5 dCi 85hp.

Renault considers biofuels to be the most realistic, effective and economical solution for curbing CO2 emissions in the medium term. Produced from vegetable matter, they represent a diversified renewable energy source capable of diminishing our dependence on fossil fuels.

Growing experience with biofuel technologies
This spring, Renault is poised to launch a Mégane powered by an E85 bioethanol fuelled 1.6 16V 110hp engine, the brand's first bioethanol vehicle in Europe. Derived from existing powerplants in the range, such bioethanol engines require specific development to permit them to run on different types of fuel (petrol or E85 ethanol).

The principal differences concern the fuel system as a whole and the injection system (injectors, sparkplugs, ECU), as well as the pistons, valves and valve seats. Based on experience acquired since 2004 in Brazil, where it sells models functioning on E100 bioethanol, Renault anticipates that "50 per cent of its petrol-engined vehicles on sale in Europe will be able to run on a blend of petrol and up to 85 per cent of ethanol by 2009."

Since late 2006, Renault has sold B30 biodiesel-compatible versions of Trafic 2.0 dCi and Master 2.5 dCi. Aimed principally at companies operating large fleets and equipped with a specific pump, these vehicles cost the same as the equivalent conventional diesel-powered versions. They are also the first concrete examples of the pledge incorporated in Renault Commitment 2009 that "all the diesel engines in the range will be capable of running with 30 per cent biodiesel by 2009." The diesel 1.5 dCi 85hp engine displayed on the stand illustrates how these developments can be carried over to the world of passenger cars.

One of the objectives set out in Renault's "Commitment 2009" is to go even further by selling 1 million vehicles by 2008 that emit less than 140g of CO2 per km, including one-third that emit less than 120g/km. This would fall within the aims of the European Commission's target (earlier post):
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An educational approach to the importance of global warming-related issues Informing the public and enhancing its awareness of the stakes associated with global warming are seen as primordial to Renault's eyes. This necessity is addressed by a bid to explain and communicate the advantages of automotive biofuels in the fight against CO2 emissions.

Visitors to Renault's stand will be informed about the advantages of biofuels and how the industry functions. The benchmark biofuel for petrol-powered cars is bioethanol which is produced from a variety of sources – ranging from corn (USA) and sugar cane (Brazil) to beetroot and wheat (Europe) – depending on the region of the world. Diesel vehicles are fuelled by biodiesel which is produced from oleaginous plants (rapeseed, sunflower, soya, jatropha, palm oil, etc.).

Well-to-wheel pedagogy
Visitors will also be told of the value of biofuels through the so-called 'well-to-wheel' analysis which assesses the CO2 performance of different fuel types across their entire life cycle. In the case of B30 biodiesel, CO2 emissions are 20 per cent lower compared with a conventional diesel fuel and can be as much as 70 per cent lower in the case of E85 bioethanol (derived from sugar cane) compared with petrol. These differences are the result of the process of photosynthesis. While growing, plants absorb a quantity of the CO2 present in the atmosphere, a factor which partially compensates for emissions released during the fuel's production and combustion. This phenomenon does not apply in the case of conventional fuels.

Moreover, just as it did during the 2006 Paris Motor Show, Renault will be giving away 20,000 free copies of its flash card-style 'Incollables' game. This educational tool was developed in association with France's Agence de l’environnement et de maîtrise de l’énergie (ADEME, or Agency for the Environment and Energy Management) and has been designed to inform and enhance awareness of environmental protection issues in the form of a quiz.

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Sunday, February 25, 2007

Biofuels and the presidential elections in Senegal

Senegal is the only country in West-Africa not to have suffered civil war or coup d'état since it became independent from France. Today, the Senegalese elect their new leader in a well organised democratic election. The incumbent, president Abdoulaye Wade, is widely expected to win in the first round, against 14 competitors.

Mr Wade made biofuels an issue during the campaign. At the eve of the elections, during a mass rally in the capital Dakar, Wade summarized his vision one more time and told supporters that "within two years, Senegal will have transformed agriculture into an energy sector capable of producing biofuels. We must escape the tyranny of petroleum." He added that "Senegal's farmers will supply the SENELEC (state-run utility company) with biofuels" and "our farmers will become oil sheiks." Finally, in what reportedly was a popular announcement, Wade told the crowd that "our country will begin to make cars 'made in Senegal' in collaboration with Peugeot."

Election promises aside, over the past year, Senegal's government has been one of the most outspoken supporters of biofuels in Africa, with arguments ranging from the capacity of biofuels to strengthen local economies by cutting oil dependence, the potential to bring jobs and reduce the huge and tragic problem of economic emigration towards Europe (earlier post), to reviving and diversifying the agricultural sector to make it less dependent on commodities for which world market prices have declined or become highly volatile.

Wade has been very active on this front, first by creating a 'Green OPEC' of sorts - dubbed the Pays Africains Non-Producteurs de Pétrole (PANPP) - uniting 15 non-oil producing countries (earlier post). The main goal of the PANPP is to exchange knowledge, technology and market opportunities for biofuels across Africa. The organisation is also working towards getting African oil producing countries to share some of their profits with the PANNP, to invest the funds in biofuel production. Trying to reach a Western audience, Wade published an open letter in The Washington Post, explaining the sense of urgency behind the initiative (earlier post):
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On more than one occasion, the Senegalese president also warned against the dangers of petro-politics and warned multinational oil companies to invest far more in the countries where they operate and to distribute wealth to their populations, because if they don't, the 'Niger Delta' scenario (where people have turned against oil companies) will become the rule throughout Africa (earlier post).

The Wade government has made the first concrete steps towards the realisation of a biofuel program: besides the creation of several institutions and 'agro-energy' programs, which include extension services and financing mechanisms (earlier post), the distribution of 250 million jatropha seedlings amongst the rural population was announced late last year (earlier post).

Finally, in an exemplary South-South exchange, Senegal has been co-operating with Brazil and India on analysing the best strategies to create a viable national bioenergy program (earlier post).

More information:
Rewmi (Dakar): Abdoulaye Wade se donne deux ans pour concrétiser ses projets - Feb. 24, 2007.
Nouvel Observateur: Abdoulaye Wade se veut le président de la jeunesse sénégalaise - Feb. 24, 2007.
L'Observateur Paalga (Ouagadougou), via AllAfrica: Sénégal: 14 contre Wade - Feb. 22, 2007.

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