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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 10, 2007

New perspective on Amazonian population theories and the deforestation debate

Deforestation and biodiversity loss in the tropics are issues of major importance in the biofuels debate. Both Brazil and South East Asian nations are expanding biofuel plantations, but they have vowed this expansion will not threaten rainforests. In fact, deforestation rates in Brazil have decreased by more than 20% over the past three years, even though agricultural and biofuels outputs have increased.

Despite this encouraging news, an old scholarly debate keeps fuelling arguments about the historic nature of 'pristine' rainforests like that of the Amazon basin. These discussions in turn are used actively by both conservationists, farmers and loggers alike to legitimize their visions on issues such as the urgency with which biodiversity must be defended or the need for the absolute protection of forests.

Artificial or pristine landscape?
In the community of environmental archaeologists and paleo-ecologists, there are two distinct theories on pre-Columbian Amazonian populations. One commonly held vision says that the Amazon rainforest as it exists today is not 'pristine' at all, but basically an 'artificial landscape', created in ancient times by millions of people, who farmed, slashed-and-burned, logged and used the forests extensively and for centuries. According to the other camp, there is scant evidence for this hypothesis, and instead one can assume that the Amazon was sparsely populated, and only by small, primitive groups, whose impacts on the ecosystem have always been marginal.

Obviously, those with an interest in exploiting the forest today, point to the first theory and shamelessly argue that, since the Amazon has always been man-made and was massively disturbed in the past, there is no reason to stop humans from using it in the present.

Eurekalert now reports that the 'artificial landscape' view has become fashionable among many archaeologists and anthropologists, but that it is being challenged in a recent paper from Dr. Mark Bush of the Florida Institute of Technology. The findings of Bush's research may rekindle this debate which has had major implications for land use and policy-setting in the rainforest.

"We don't contradict that there were major settlements in key areas flanking the Amazon Channel -- there could have been millions of people living there," says Mark Bush, a British-born paleo-ecologist who travels to extremely remote rain forest locations to collect core samples from ancient lakes. He then analyzes those samples for pollen and charcoal and thus is able to conclude with a high degree of accuracy the extent of human settlement in that region.

"What we do say is that when you start to look away from known settlements, you may see very long-term local use," he says. "These people didn't stray very far from home, or from local bodies of water for several thousands of years. We looked at clusters of lakes and landscapes where people lived, and asked, did they leave their homesite to farm around other nearby lakes? No they didn't. These findings argue for a very localized use of Amazonian forest resources outside the main, known, archaeological areas."

Bush says the evidence comes from a geographically diverse area: three districts, each with 3 (in two cases) or four lakes. "In each we have one lake occupied and used, and the others little used or not used at all," he says. "So this is a total of 10 lakes that provide three separate instances -- one in Brazil, one in Ecuador and one in Peru, where there is evidence of long, continuous occupation of more than 5,000 years that did not spread to the adjacent, 8 to 10 kilometer distant lakes."

The findings are published in a paper titled "Holocene fire and occupation in Amazonia: records from two lake districts" that appears in a recent issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, the February edition of which is themed around "Biodiversity hotspots through time: using the past to manage the future". A wide variety of very interesting articles can be found in the issue, including one by Bruno Glaser titled "Prehistorically modified soils of central Amazonia: a model for sustainable agriculture in the twenty-first century", [*abstract] which deals with the ancient carbon-sequestration and soil enhancement technique known as 'terra preta', to which we referred earlier.

Bush says his paper, and another forthcoming in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, may have important policy implications:
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That's because the hypothesis of human-manufactured landscapes has been made popular by Charles Mann's book - 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus - and could influence conservation policy in the Americas. That millions of people once populated the Americas, and that in Amazonia, at least, the rainforest is the product of long term human use, has been used as farmers and loggers as justification for clearcutting rainforests. Their argument, that the ecosystem already experienced vast landscape disturbance and proved resilient, relies on the ubiquitous influence of Pre-Columbian people, the suggestion that Bush's work rejects.

"These data are directly relevant to the resilience of Amazonian conservation, as they do not support the contention that all of Amazonia is a 'built landscape' and therefore a product of past human land use," Bush says. "Most archaeologists are buying into the argument that you had big populations that transformed the landscape en masse. Another group of archaeologists say that transformation was very much limited to river corridors, and if you went away from the river corridors there wasn't that much impact. That's what our findings tend to support."

Passionate debate
Bush doesn't expect that his new findings will settle the debate, however.

"There's just too much passion on this issue. People who are inclined to believe what we're talking about will say this is very strong evidence, and say 'let's have more.' The archaeologists will say this study only examines two districts."

Bush himself calls the paper, co-authored with Claudia Listopad, William D. Gosling, and Christopher Williams of Florida Tech, Paulo E. de Oliveira of Universidade do Guarulhos in Brazil, Miles R. Silman and Carolyn Krisel of Wake Forest and Mauro B. de Toledo of Florida Tech and Universidade Federal Fluminense in Brazil, an important first step in making the case, through core sampling and pollen and charcoal analysis of sediment from seven lake bottoms, three in one district, four in the other, that much of Amazonia has not been transformed by human actions, and ideally should be kept that way, to preserve species biodiversity.

"The way to see this is as a sneak peak," he says. "It's a new way to look at landscapes and it's a new tool. The study needs to be replicated in more places before people will be persuaded, but it's certainly a warning shot across the bow."

"While the majority of archaeologists argue the rivers were the major conduit for populations," he adds, "there is an increasing vocalization that there was much more widespread habitat transformation; that you still had a bulk of people along the river but their influence extended deep into the forest. It's still nebulous, and difficult to get people to map stuff, or put hard numbers on it, but there is a sentiment that the Amazonia has been disturbed and that the view of the Amazonian rainforest as a built landscape is gaining momentum. There are extremes at either ends, and the majority of people are in middle but there's a tendency of drifting toward the high end."

For example, he says 1950s population estimates were 1 million, in the 70s that estimate drifted up to 4 million; and in the 1990s drifted up to 10 million.

"We've now got a polarized community," he says.

At one end, he says, is Anna Roosevelt of the Field Museum in Chicago (she argues for large populations dispersed throughout Amazonia); at the other is Betty Meggers at Smithsonian (she argues these were very primitive people with low population).

Mark's studies are the first to apply core sampling methodology to determine through coal and pollen levels, how much human activity was going on.

More information:
Mark Bush's "Neotropical Paleoecology Research Group" at the Florida University of Technology.

Mark B. Bush, "Holocene fire and occupation in Amazonia: records from two lake districts" [*abstract], Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, Theme Issue ‘Biodiversity hotspots through time: using the past to manage the future’ compiled by Katherine J. Willis, Lindsey Gillson and Sandra Knapp, Volume 362, Number 1478 / February 28, 2007, Pages: 209 - 218.

Anna Curtenius Roosevelt's academic page.

Betty Jane Meggers' academic page at the Minnesota State University.

Intro to Charles C. Mann's, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, at Wikipedia.

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Japan helps build Vietnam's first ethanol plant - cassava feedstock

The Vietnamese Petroleum Services and Tourism Company (Petrosetco) and Japan's Itochu Co-operation will set up a joint venture to build a bio-ethanol plant, the first of its kind in Vietnam. The two partners signed a Memorandum of Understanding on the issue in Ho Chi Minh City on March 9.

The €76.2/US$100 million project will turn out 100 million litres (26.4 million gallons) of ethanol each year, from cassava chips, which will be sold in Vietnam to mix in petrol used in industrial production and transport activities.

The mixing of ethanol in petrol will help the country reduce its petrol imports as well as cut environmental pollution, said Tran Cong Tao, Petrosetco's chief of executive.

It is estimated that if a 10 percent ethanol ratio is introduced in the country's largest city, Ho Chi Minh City, some 100 to 150 million liters will be needed per year. This amount can be covered by the single plant.

The Itochu group has 30 years of experience handling ethanol projects and is willing share its knowledge with the Vietnamese partner to contribute to the first bio-ethanol project in Vietnam, according to Itochu's deputy executive director Toshio Shigemi.

Deputy Minister of Industry Do Huu Hao and Vice Chairman of the municipal People's Committee Nguyen Trung Tin spoke highly of the co-operation between Petrosetco and Itochu to create a new kind of energy for Vietnam. The two officials also pledged to assist the project and expressed hope that the plant will soon be operational:
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Construction of the plant, which will be located in the Hiep Phuoc industrial zone, is expected to be completed in the first quarter of 2009.

Cassava is being used accross South East Asia as a suitable feedstock for ethanol production. The starch-rich root crop is currently utilized in China and Thailand on an industrial scale.

Thailand recently launched a program involving smallholders who will be growing cassava for ethanol, in a push to alleviate poverty by diversifying their crop portfolio and open new markets (earlier post).

Likewise, in China, cassava is seen as an important crop to use for the production of biofuels instead of the grain crops many producers currently rely on. The fact that the plant requires low water and fertilizer inputs, and because it thrives on relatively poor soils, it is considered to be suitable for programs involving poor smallholders (earlier post).

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Friday, March 09, 2007

Lula: a new global energy paradigm that helps tackle poverty

The agreement between the U.S. and Brazil on advancing biofuels cooperation was lauded as a step towards a new paradigm that is set to transform the world's energy system in the 21st century.

Brazil's left-leaning President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva highlighted the benefits of the green energy pact. A selection of quotes both from Lula's speech as from his answers to the media:

On the global impact of the agreement
The accord signed today is not a mere economic deal, it opens the potential to democratise access to energy. The agreement on biofuels will help tackle global poverty, in countries in Latin America, Central America, the Caribbean and Africa.

The world is not always ready and prepared for major changes unless we have untiring debates and people are convinced that Planet Earth needs to be de-polluted. And it's in our hands, we who have polluted it, must de-pollute it.
On access to energy as a democratic principle and right
Our ethanol program is the result of 30 years of hard work. It has had a great social impact, with increased access to energy for all layers of the population.

Today the entire society is reaping the fruit of these efforts, and other countries want to share Brazil's experience. The memorandum is an important step in that direction. But it's not just an economic partnership between Brazil and the U.S.
A close relationship and cooperation between the two leaders in ethanol production will make it possible to democratize access to energy further. The growing use of biofuel will be an inestimable contribution to the generation of income, social inclusion and reduction of poverty in many poor countries of the world.
On the chance to alleviate poverty, redistribute wealth
Our biodiesel program has a major social impact. It is aimed at small farmers to family farmers. It will help create jobs and income in the poorest regions of our country, especially in the northeastern semi-arid region, where many of these crops are actually native.

The global switch to biofuels offers tremendous opportunities for companies to become cleaner and more efficient, for the redistribution of wealth, for the enhancement of social inclusion [of rural populations] and for the reduction of poverty in the poorest countries of the world.

In addition to doing good for humanity with biofuels, we will also be, for the first time, using biofuels as a way to distribute income and create jobs on an unprecedented scale in the history of humanity. Above all, if we analyze what can be done for countries in Africa, if we analyze what can be done in poorer countries of South America, and when we look at what we can do in Central America and the Caribbean, where the United States has a partnership with all those countries, then I believe that the partnership between the U.S. and Brazil can, beginning today, really be a new moment for the global car industry, a new moment for a new energy paradigm in the world, and possibly a new moment for humanity.
On energy independence, climate change and efficiency
Biofuels allow us to reduce our dependence of fossil fuels, at a moment when we feel a sense of urgency for global action against climate change and greenhouse gas emissions. Biofuels offer an economically and sustainable alternative.

We want to see biomass generating sustainable development, above all in South America, Central America, in the Caribbean and in Africa. Brazil and the United States should create alliances with other countries to achieve global diversification of the production of biofuels. To that end, we must lay the basis for a global market of biofuels.

We have more than tripled the yields of sugarcane plantations, which are the main source of ethanol. And we have demonstrated that it is possible to increase the production of biofuels without harming the production of food, and also reducing deforestation of the Amazon region.

I am convinced that this strategic alliance will allow the world to change its energy matrix for the future. We, who polluted this planet so much during the 20th century, can now make a start with cleaning it up during the 21st.
Quotes gathered from a range of sources. A translation of President Lula's speech can be found here. Other sources consulted:
Entry ends here.
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Brazil and U.S. sign biofuels cooperation agreement

The long-awaited agreement between the U.S. and Brazil to cooperate on biofuels, was signed today by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

The memorandum of understanding highlights the importance of biofuels as a transformative force in the region to diversify energy supplies, bolster economic prosperity, advance sustainable development, and protect the environment.

As the world's two largest producers of ethanol, the United States and Brazil intend to advance the research and development of new technologies to promote biofuels use. Reducing the cost of biofuels production, land use demands and price pressures on feedstocks, are key to increasing global adoption of biofuels.

The United States and Brazil already are working through existing mechanisms such as the U.S.-Brazil Commercial Dialogue launched in 2006, the U.S.-Brazil Consultative Committee on Agriculture established in 2003, the 1999 U.S.-Brazil Memorandum of Understanding on Energy, the U.S.-Brazil Common Agenda for the Environment established in 1995, and a 1984 Framework Agreement on Science and Technology.

  • Regionally, the two nations intend to help third countries, beginning in Central America and the Caribbean, to stimulate private investment for local production and consumption of biofuels. The United States and Brazil expect to support feasibility studies and technical assistance in partnership with the Inter-American Development Bank (earlier post), the United Nations Foundation, and the Organization of the American States.
  • Multilaterally, the United States and Brazil intend to work through the International Biofuels Forum (earlier post) to examine development of common biofuels standards and codes to facilitate commoditization of biofuels. Greater cooperation with Brazil is complementary to existing United States efforts in the Global Bio-Energy Partnership endorsed by the Group of Eight and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum's Biofuels Task Force (earlier post).
  • Bilateral cooperation on research, promotion of greater biofuels use in the region, and discussion of biofuels standards and codes advance energy security, reduce dependency on fossil fuels, lower greenhouse gases, and foster prosperity. Working together with Brazil to encourage greater adoption of biofuels has the potential to spur renewable energy investment, facilitate technology transfer, stimulate rural development, and boost job creation in countries around the world
The initiative does not include discussion of United States trade, tariffs or quotas. The U.S. currently has a US$0.54 per gallon tariff on imported ethanol, which Brazil would like to see lifted.

Ethanol, biodiesel and other biofuels are part of a larger strategy to address energy security, cleaner air, and climate change at home and in the region:
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Domestically, President Bush has set a goal of reducing America's projected annual gasoline use by 20 percent in 10 years by increasing alternative energy and improving energy efficiency. A key pillar of achieving the President's goal is diversification of supply, including the promotion of alternative fuels such as biofuels. The President's plan will help confront climate change by stopping the projected growth of carbon dioxide emissions from cars, light trucks, and SUVs within 10 years.

Internationally, the United States is working with governments, private sector, and multilateral organizations to advance energy security by encouraging market-led development, transparency, integration, and investment in the energy sector. The Mesoamerican Energy Initiative is a key example of regional energy integration that the United States supports through assistance from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Trade and Development Agency and the United States Agency for International Development.

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International project launched to study tropical peatlands

An international, EU-sponsored project has been launched to study the interactions between climate change and tropical peatlands which store up to 70 billion tonnes of carbon.

Dr Susan Page of Leicester University's Department of Geography will be leading the team and has been awarded €458,000 funding from the European Commission for the project involving partners from Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Holland, Finland and the UK.

The CARBOPEAT project will investigate the complex interactions between the carbon sinks, climate change and land use change. Dr Page describes the peatlands as carbon-dense ecosystems that are extremely vulnerable to destabilisation through human and climate induced changes.

Located mainly in Southeast Asia, they store 50-70 billion tonnes of carbon (3% global soil carbon) but poor land management practices and fire, mainly associated with plantation development and logging, are releasing some of this carbon and contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. The CARBOPEAT project will identify key issues and critical gaps in the understanding of tropical peatland carbon dynamics, analyse implications for policy, and formulate guidelines for optimizing the tropical peat carbon store that can be understood readily by policy makers and decision takers in both European and Southeast Asian countries.

It is an important undertaking in the context of biofuels, since some of the palm and sago (earlier post) plantations in the region are established on drained peatlands. The carbon dioxide that is released during the establishment of such plantations is only gradually taken up by the energy crop as it grows. However, some researchers have found that palm plantations in fact store more carbon and methane than peatland forests systems.

This controversial assessment is often taken up by palm oil sector in South East Asia to counter allegations over its contribution to climate change. The sector argues that biofuels from palm oil are only made from the oil in the palm fruits, which are harvested, whereas the standing trees act as strong carbon sinks and that the plantation soils store more methane than the original ecosystem. The CARBOPEAT project will now shed more light on this controversy:
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It is anticipated that the project will contribute to future UNFCCC (UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) discussions on reducing global carbon emissions.

At a kick-off meeting of the project partners held in the University of Leicester, Dr Page said: "I have been involved in several research projects investigating the ecology of tropical peat swamps, but with the CARBOPEAT project we now have the opportunity to present our findings to a wider audience.

"Tropical peatlands are a globally significant source of carbon emissions to the atmosphere. Hopefully, through this project, we can promote urgent international action to enable Southeast Asian countries to conserve their peat resources better".

Prof. Harri Vasander from the University of Helsinki, Finland agreed: "Now is the time to utilise our research data to demonstrate how globally important tropical peatland really is, especially in terms of its impact on the global climate. Over the last ten years many people have only been aware of this ecosystem when choking haze from peatland fires has engulfed Southeast Asia. We want to bring the value of tropical peatlands to the forefront of policy makers' thinking, even after the peatland fires have died down."

His colleague, Dr Jyrki Jauhiainen, also from the University of Helsinki, added: "The CARBOPEAT project can make an important contribution by informing land managers on the best ways to prevent further carbon losses".

Colleagues from Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam will be organising several major events at which the profile of tropical peatlands will be raised. Prof. Bostang Radjagukguk, a soil scientist from Universiti Gadjah Mada, in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, is preparing for the first project congress, which will be held at the end of August this year. "We have just received information that the congress may be attended by the Vice-President of Indonesia. This demonstrates the high level of commitment that the Government of Indonesia is paying to the environmental value of its natural resources, including peatlands."

In 2008, the CARBOPEAT project will be organising a second regional congress hosted by Universiti Malaysia Sarawak. Representing his university, Professor Wan Sulaiman said "We are engaged in a number of research and educational activities to raise the profile of our country's peatland resources. We look forward to hosting a major international event on the dynamics of the tropical peatland carbon-climate-human system at which we can investigate the opportunities for improved land management. Information disseminated through CARBOPEAT will not only provide valuable guidelines but also reinforce some of the initiatives undertaken by Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia and Indonesia in the rehabilitation and restoration of degraded peatlands. One exciting dimension is the commitment to increase stakeholder awareness on how wise use and restoration efforts contribute to increased carbon sequestration that in turn will have a positive effect on global climate. It also brings to the forefront information on current and future international conventions that can influence government policy directions on peatlands".

Dr Henk Wosten, from Wageningen University and Research Centre, said: "With CARBOPEAT we are in an excellent position to propel the necessary actions so that informed decisions on the management of tropical peatlands can be taken by policy makers".

Detailed studies carried out by Dr Page and others over more than 10 years have shown that tropical peat swamp forest has an abundance of plants and animals, including the endangered orang-utan, and that the peatlands perform a range of valuable services, such as water storage, flood prevention and carbon storage.

The forest contains a number of valuable timber-producing trees plus a range of other products of value to local communities, such as bark, resins and latex. Tropical peatlands are, however, being deforested and drained at a rapid rate. The problems that result from development of tropical peatland stem mainly from a lack of understanding of the complexities of this ecosystem and the fragility of the relationship between peat and forest. In its natural state tropical peatland is a vast, globally-important carbon sink which locks away the greenhouse gas CO2. But once the carbon allocation to the system is discontinued by forest removal and the peat is drained, the surface peat oxidises and loses stored carbon rapidly to the atmosphere. This results in progressive subsidence of the peat surface, leading to flooding, and contributes to climate change.

The CARBOPEAT project will play a critical role in bringing this information to a wider audience by providing sufficient information and insight on tropical peat and peatland to enable stakeholders to understand this ecosystem and its derivatives better, to anticipate problems before they arise and to put principles of wise use into effect. It will bring together international peatland scientists, policy makers and decision takers from the EU and DCs and other stakeholders in Southeast Asia to analyse the problems and potential of peat carbon globally, with an emphasis on Southeast Asia where most tropical peatland is located and the biggest problems are occurring.

Professor Jack Rieley of the University of Nottingham, who has studied the ecology and natural resource functions of tropical peatlands, commented that: "Peat swamp forests in Southeast Asia are one of the last wildernesses on this planet with a large reservoir of biodiversity and carbon, both of which are being destroyed needlessly without producing socio-economic benefits.

More information:
University of Leicester: Carbopeat Project, homepage.

CIRAD (Centre International de Recherche au Dévelopement): Oil palm, a candidate for carbon storage

More general, about the carbon sequestration capacity of tropical plantations, see: Olivier Roupsard, Yann Nouvellon, Christophe Jourdan, Laurent-Saint-André, Philippe Thaler, Emmanuelle Lamade, Recherches sur la séquestration de C dans les plantations de cocotiers & d’eucalyptus [*.pdf], CIRAD, - the text is in English.

Lulie Melling, Ryusuke Hatano, Kah Joo Goh, and Takashi Inoue, Greenhouse Gas Fluxes from Three Ecosystems in Tropical Peatland of Sarawak, Malaysia, 18th World Congress of Soil Science (July 9-15, 2006).

Lulie Melling, Ryusuke Hatano, Kah Joo Goh, Soil CO2 flux from three ecosystems in tropical peatland of Sarawak, Malaysia, Tellus B, Volume 57 Issue 1, page 1-11, February 2005.

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EU reaches historic deal on renewables, biofuels and carbon emissions

At the European Council Summit, hosted by Germany which holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, heads of state of EU member-states have reached a historic agreement to adopt targets for renewables, biofuels and cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

The Council has thus endorsed the EU Commission's ambitious climate and energy plan (earlier post) which is to put the Union in a world leadership position on climate change and which will make the block a low carbon economy.

The Summit resulted in the following outcomes [*.pdf]:
  1. renewables: a binding target on the use of renewable energy, such as biomass, wind and solar power. The 27 EU states will each decide how they contribute to meeting a 20% boost overall in renewable fuel use by 2020.
  2. greenhouse gas emissions: EU leaders agreed to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 20% from 1990 levels by the year 2020, and by 30% if other nations (mainly the US and China) put in a similar effort.
  3. biofuels: the EU member states have also agreed to set a 10% minimum target on the use of biofuels in transport by 2020.
Even though the targets are binding, the final text allayed the fears of Eastern European countries - whose energy intensive industries heavily rely on coal - and of nuclear power France - which obtains 70% of its energy from atomic sources - by stating that the targets for renewables are "differentiated national overall targets", set "with due regard to a fair and adequate allocation taking account of different national starting points".

In what is viewed as a concession to France, the text recognises the contribution of nuclear energy in "meeting the growing concerns about safety of energy supply and carbon dioxide emissions reductions". However, it also highlights safety concerns, stating that "nuclear safety and security" should be "paramount in the decision-making process".

Other points to note are the agreement to invest in so-called carbon capture and storage technologies, with 12 concrete projects being endorsed.

We will be following up on the reactions to this historic agreement as they pour in. But a comment by the president of the EU Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, already illustrates how policy makers see the deal as a revolutionary agreement with global dimensions: "These decisions are very important for the future of our planet, for the future generations, for the global community" [entry ends here].
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Malaysian palm oil industry launches charm offensive in the EU

The head of Malaysia’s palm oil industry has called for a closer working relationship between the EU and the producers of vegetable oils used in biofuels.

In a statement on March 9, Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) chief executive officer Tan Sri Yusof Basiron said: "Malaysia wants to pursue a continued dialogue on sustainability and biodiversity.

"We recognise the importance of standards to ensure sustainability, and believe that the best way to achieve them is to engage directly with those who have to implement and enforce them on the ground."

Yusof, speaking at the World Biofuels Market Congress taking place in Brussels, said he was keen for Malaysia’s 100-year experience of tropical agriculture to be used to help set sustainability benchmarks for the future.

The chairman's charm offensive comes at a time when Western NGOs have voiced concern about deforestation and the loss of biodiversity through an expanding palm oil sector. The orrganisations are lobbying the EU to take the entire life-cycle of biofuels into account, in order to ascertain that they are produced in a sustainable manner (earlier post).

Earlier, Europarliamentarians joined the criticism and said they would look into the true environmental impact of palm based biofuels (previous post).

Yusof: "We have learned many lessons about maintaining biodiversity and the balance between the needs of man and the needs of the environment, but we recognise that there is still more we can do. There is an unfounded fear that palm bio-diesel demand in the EU will prompt uncontrolled expansion of oil palm plantations in Malaysia, and thus further erode tropical forests. This is not the case."

"The country has a stringent land use policy backed by legislation, and in fact Malaysia does a huge service in reducing global warming by having 60% of its land under permanent forests, and keeping less than 20% for agriculture," he said.

Yusof added that Malaysia has its own code of Sustainable Forest Management, and that it helps drive the progressive work being done by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) which brings together growers, processors, investors, trades, retailers and NGOs to create an internationally-recognised certification scheme for sustainably-produced palm oil:
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He also addressed the economics of the fast-growing biofuels industry in Europe, and highlighted palm oil's role in the sector.

"The EU has set a 2010 target of 5.75% bio-diesel in its fuel mix to reduce over-dependence on fossil fuels. This target translates into some ten million tonnes of bio-diesel that will be needed by 2010."

"The availability of bio-diesel in the EU and other potential importing countries offers mutual benefits, including palm oil’s ability to deliver more carbon sequestration than other vegetable oils."

"Palm oil has an important role to play, but it is clear that palm oil on its own cannot solve the prevailing shortage of fuel supply and high petroleum prices, because of the limited availability of palm oil compared to the large volumes needed for fuel."

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German companies create joint venture for biogas production, to invest €50 million

Local energy player REWAG and the world's largest biogas firm Schmack Energie Holding's subsidiary Schmack Biogas AG have partnered to create [*German] a joint-venture that will supply the German region of Regensburg with renewable, carbon-neutral biogas. Through a new company, called RENION Biogas GmbH, both partners will invest up to €50 (US$65.7) million into new infrastructures, biogas plants and distribution chains.

The biogas will be produced from dedicated energy crops (such as special biogas maize, and purpose-bred grass species such as Sudan grass, Sorghum and their hybrids), and provide a feedstock for the production of electricity, heat, and fuel for cars. Part of the biogas stream will be used on-site, whereas another part will be fed into the natural gas grid of the region.

It is the largest investment of its kind.

"With this venture we stimulate the creation of added value for the local economy."says Norbert Breidenbach, CEO of REWAG. Ulrich Schmack, CEO of Schmack Biogas AG adds: "Moreover, this way we considerably reduce our dependence on gas imports from abroad."

Ulrich Schmack aqcuired some notoriety last year, when he, as an energy advisor to the German government, said the country could replace all natural gas imports from Russia, by investing in biogas (earlier post). Later, he was proven right by a report that indeed showed the enormous potential for biogas production in Europe: at current investment rates, by 2020 Europe could become entirely independent from Russian gas (earlier post). With the foundation of RENION, Schmack now indicates he's willing to back his own vision with the necessary funds.

Biogas blossoms
Biogas has seen a real boom in Germany: last year, some 3500 large biogas plants were online, producing more energy than the country's famed wind industry (earlier post). Of these biogas plants, Schmack operates 171 with a combined capacity of 41MW. The German government supports the renewable energy sector, and especially the segment based on the utilisation of biomass resources:
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The potential of the green gas is gradually being recognized outside Europe, with U.S. analysts predicting 2007 will be the year biogas makes its definte breakthrough accross the pond (earlier post).

"As a utility, we have the political duty to tap into new energy sources, in order to ensure our independence from fossil fuels, the supplies of which have become problematic, and to create a diversified energy mix," says Breidenbach. Both companies want to rely on each other's expertise and competences to create synergies with which it will become possible to market the heat from the biogas cogeneration plants in an efficient manner.

Schmack: "Through the joint-venture with REWAG, we speed up the creation of our own companies, a committment we made to our shareholders. REWAG is a strong partner in the region. Together, we can find suitable sites for biogas plants much easier, and tap the opportunities to feed biogas into the regional natural gas grid. Moreover, together we will be in a position to bring the generated heat to market in an efficient way. We are very pleased to have the local government on board, which fully backs this project."

Regional advantages
Up to two thirds of all productive activity carried out by the joint-venture will be located in the Regensburg region. This way, employment is generated and locally grounded chains of added value are created, as the activities, from the source to the consumer, are all anchored in and around Regensburg.

The local government's role is seen as crucial and beneficial. The institution has initiated information sessions for stakeholders and for the public at large - an important step towards the long-term success of this kind of projects, which often hinges on public acceptance and transparent information. The local government will also be directly involved in concrete planning steps for the establishment of the biogas plants.

Biogas - the most efficient of all biofuels
Both partners stress that biogas is the most efficient of all green fuels, as it yields the highest amount of energy when the entire farm-to-fuel chain is analysed (earlier post).

Crude, unnpurified biogas can be used directly, on-site in combined heat-and-power plants, but after scrubbing the CO2 out, it can be fed into the natural gas grid (earlier post). This way it reaches consumers without them noticing it.

REWAG has extensive experience with the transport and distribution of natural gas, and with contract models for the distribution of heat. The company also co-operates with the construction sector and offers efficient concepts for heat systems that are integrated in building plans from the start. Biogas plants neatly fit into this activity.

Biogas is used most efficiently in combined heat-and-power plants, with the generated heat distributed on a district level.

But the renewable gas also makes for a green fuel to be used in CNG-capable cars. German energy companies are marketing the green gas as such and are building dedicated highway fuel stations for it (earlier post). As such, biomethane has the highest energy efficiency and the lowest carbon footprint of all renewable transport fuels. Seen in this context, RENION's investment will result in an amount of energy capable of fueling 20,000 cars per year.

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Thursday, March 08, 2007

Plant size morphs dramatically as scientists tinker with outer layer

The 'third generation' of biofuels combines genetic impro- vements both on the level of feedstock production as on that of the conversion of biomass into useable fuels. Earlier we reported on how top-researchers have already succeeded in designing a hybrid poplar tree with lower amounts of lignin - the 'glue' that keeps cells together and makes wood so hard -, which makes it easier to break down the cell walls to release the sugars from which fuels can be made (previous post). Public acceptance aside, such transgenic crops, in combination with improved specialty enzymes that break down ligno-cellulosic biomass, are set to transform the future of bioenergy. The same logic holds for the future of the 'bioeconomy', in which virtually all petroleum-based products will be replaced by plant-based alternatives.

Researchers from the Plant Biology Laboratory at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies have now announced another important contribution to the field of fundamental plant biology by discovering which part of a plant both drives and curbs growth. The question has been occupying scientists for over a century. Is the mechanism to be found in a shoot's outer waxy layer? Its inner layer studded with chloroplasts? Or the vascular system that moves nutrients and water?

In the March 8 issue of the journal Nature the scientists provide the answer. They succeeded in making tiny plants big and big plants tiny by controlling growth signals emanating from the plant's outer layer, its epidermis (see picture, click to enlarge).

These findings could eventually be used by agronomists to manipulate plant growth pathways to maximize crop yield, or even reduce leaf size or leaf angle in plants that need to be spaced closely together, says the study's lead author, Joanne Chory, Ph.D., professor and director of the Plant Biology Laboratory and investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Chory and her laboratory team have spent years helping to define how a plant "knows" when to grow and when to stop – which is a "big question in developmental biology," she says. For their experiments, they rely on the model system Arabidopsis thaliana, a small plant related to cabbage and mustard whose genome has been decoded. Over the years, the researchers have built up a whole tool kit, learning how to add and subtract genes in order to determine form and function. Among their discoveries is a class of dwarf plants whose size is about one-tenth the size of a single leaf of the full-sized plant:
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Over the past decade, Chory's laboratory and others have shown that these dwarf plants are defective in making or responding to a steroid hormone called brassinolide. Among the genes identified was the plant steroid receptor, BRI1 ("bry-one") that is activated by the steroid. The dwarfed Arabidopsis doesn't express BRI1 at all, unlike normal Arabidopsis, which expresses BRI1 on both the outer waxy, protective epidermis (covering the whole leaf and shoot), and the inner sub-epidermal layer, which contains the chloroplasts that conduct photosynthesis.

In the current study, first author Sigal Savaldi-Goldstein, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher in the Plant Biology Laboratory, and Charles Peto, an electron microscopy specialist in the Laboratory of Neuronal Structure and Function, conducted a series of experiments that addressed an old debated question: what tissues of the leaf drive or restrict growth? The answer was simple: the epidermis is in control.

They found that when they drive the expression of the BRI1 receptor in the epidermis of a dwarf Arabidopsis, while leaving the sub-epidermal layer as it was (without BRI1 receptors), the tiny plant morphed into a full-sized plant. In the second set of experiments, they used an enzyme to break down the steroid hormones in the epidermis, and found that a normal sized plant shrunk into a dwarf. "These are simple experiments, but it took 10 years of work in order for us to be able to ask this question," Chory says.

"A second remarkable finding from the study is that "cells in the outer layer talk to the cells in the inner layers, telling them when to grow or to stop growing. This communication is very important to the life of a plant, which can't move and so must have a coordinated system to respond to a changing environment," explains Savaldi-Goldstein.

More information:
Sigal Savaldi-Goldstein, Charles Peto and Joanne Chory, "The epidermis both drives and restricts plant shoot growth", [*abstract], Nature, 446, 199-202 (8 March 2007).

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UK's largest coal user to co-fire 10% biomass, save 3 million tons of CO2

British power firm Drax, the country's single biggest source of CO2 emissions, announced today that profits more than doubled in 2006 and that it would free 67 million pounds (US$130 million) of investment to cut greenhouse gases.

The investment aims to help Drax's coal-fired power station in northern England - western Europe's biggest - to burn 10 percent biomass by 2009. It follows 100 million pounds of investment, announced in December, to upgrade the plant's six turbines.

The co-firing of biomass will save over three million tonnes of CO2 emissions each year, equalling the output of around 700 wind turbines, says Chief Executive Dorothy Thompson.

When the group earlier said it would consider using untested 'carbon capture and storage' technologies to sequester carbon underground, it faced protests by hundreds of environmental activists at its Yorkshire plant. Now it has decided to give up on the idea and use renewable and carbon-neutral biomass fuels instead.

Biomass for co-firing is obtained either from specially grown energy crops or from agro-forestry residues and is already used in small quantities at coal plants across Europe (database of current co-firing projects, at the IEA Bioenergy Task 32 on Combustion and Cofiring). Drax believes that if every plant in the UK were to use a similar amount of biomass, 21.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide would be saved each year.

European researchers are currently assessing the potential to source biomass feedstocks from the tropics and subtropics, where they can be grown competitively and sustainably:
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A recent project, undertaken by a consortium of 15 academic institutions, amongst them the leading french agency CIRAD, concluded that many countries both in Africa and Latin America can host dedicated energy plantations, because of their large potential for the sustainable production of biomass.

It was estimated that Brazil, would have around 46 million hectares available in 2050: more precisely, the zones concerned are the Brazilian states of Tocantins, Maranhão and Piaui, where the conditions are most suitable for forest plantations.

Central African countries equally had around 46 million hectares available for the sustainable production of biomass. The zones concerned are southern Congo, the western part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, northern and eastern Angola, western Zambia, western and southern Tanzania, northern Mozambique and the western and central parts of the Central African Republic.

These zones have more than 1000 mm of rainfall a year over more than a third of their area, and a population density of fewer than 80 inhabitants/km2. The pressure on this land is thus extremely low (earlier post).

These sustainably grown biomass fuels can be transported and exported efficiently to world markets (earlier post) where they are competitve with fossil fuels. In fact, over the medium to longer term, solid biomass for co-firing is predicted to be the most economic of all fuels and energy options (earlier post).

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"Why should Germans save the world alone?" - the press ahead of the EU summit

Germany currently holds the rotating EU presidency, and as such, the block's largest economy hosts the European Council (the 'Spring Summit'), where heads of state gather to take tough decisions on climate change and low carbon energy policies.

Ahead of today's summit, German media are asking some critical questions about Europe's role in fighting global warming. Even though former US vice-president Al Gore told reporters today that 'the European Union is absolutely key to helping the world make the change', German editorialists are asking the question "why should we Germans save the world alone?"

EU leaders meeting today and tomorrow are expected to commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions blamed for global warming by 20 percent by 2020 compared to 1990 levels and 30 percent if other industrialized and emerging nations join in.

But China and the US, the world's biggest polluters, are not likely to join in, which is why skepticism is growing in Europe, as can be read from the following quotes:
"The discussion lacks all sense of proportion. Germany contributes roughly 6 percent to CO2 production worldwide and the figure is declining. Roughly half of all emissions come from the USA and China, where the output continues to grow at double-digit rates." - The business daily Handelsblatt.
Mass circulation Bild in a front-page story headlined: "Are We Germans Supposed to Save the World on our own?" writes:
"We Germans are for environmental protection! We're also prepared to make sacrifices for the environment. But sometimes one gets the impression: We're supposed to save the earth ourselves!"
"What are the biggest polluters, the USA, Russia and China, doing to save the planet?"
The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, considered to be one of the most 'serious' German newspapers writes:
"The Christian Social Union wants to ban cars with combustion engines. The Social Democrats wants air travellers to pay a climate tax. The Greens want to slap a tax on air fuel and Greenpeace wants to ban all budget air travel."

"What's peculiar is that the so-called climate-protectors are punishing mobility and little else. Of course, the environmental costs of traffic are significant and the energy efficiency of travel has to be improved. But much more energy is being consumed by industry and private households."
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"Those in the wealthy western industrialized nations who insist on the right to disproportionately emit greenhouse gases are propagating global apartheid. It is almost grotesque to be continuously mentioning the increase in pollution being produced by China and India. What incentive is there for these or other countries to try to attain wealth and prosperity by other means, when not even the richest on earth are willing or able to do so? ...

"Climate change cannot be halted with small measures or without making any changes to consumer and lifestyle habits ... Embarking on the road whose destination is a CO2-free economy is simply too great a task. ... Politicians cannot just wait and hope that as many people as possible will start feeling guilty about their behavior. Instead, they have to create a basic framework which then applies to everyone. The more market-friendly the anti-climate change measures are, the better they will fit into the existing system."
Questioning Europe's solitary grandstanding is a futile exercise, as EU heads of state are committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions within the Union, and go it alone if necessary. The real problem that will emerge at today's Summit, is the question whether nuclear powers like France and Finland are willing to commit to targets on the use of non-nuclear renewables, and whether member-states are willing to accept mandatory, binding renewable energy targets instead of a voluntary set of aims.

On two topics - the launch of 'carbon capture and storage' projects and a mandate to introduce 10% biofuels for transport by 2020 - memberstates are more likely to agree. As the Summit unfolds, we will be reporting back [entry ends here].
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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

A closer look at sustainability criteria for biofuels

Global interest in biofuels and bioenergy has increased rapidly over the past few years. It would be no exaggeration to speak of a real biofuel boom: large investments into the sector are being announced on an almost daily basis. There are many factors leading to this green fuel fever - from high energy prices and doubts about the long term security of supplies, to the latest insights into the potentially devastating effects of climate change and the need for low carbon energy.

To many, these developments are going too quickly and they rightly caution against the potential dangers of a mass-adoption of biofuels. Environmental and social sustainability criteria should be put in place first, before a global trade in biofuels is allowed to emerge. But the creation and the controlled implementation of such a set of criteria is a slow process, whereas investors and their money move very fast... The nascent biofuels sector makes the conflict between narrow-minded, short-term economic interests and environmental sustainability very apparent.

Sadly, this somewhat simplistic dichotomy ('environment versus profit') has permeated the mainstream media. One type of media tends to focus on the mere commercial aspects of biofuels (announcing investment after investment), whereas another type dismisses all biofuels as an outright disaster without seeing the potential benefits for people, planet and profit. A more nuanced, scientifically sound perspective on the matter is very rare and urgently needed.

We try to offer such a view - hoping others will do so as well -, by presenting an in-depth look at some of the work being done by researchers into the rather complex matter of 'sustainability' as it relates to bioenergy and biofuels. We focus in on the analysis made by scientists from the Copernicus Institute for Sustainable Development and Innovation, at the Utrecht University's, Department of Science, Technology and Society.

Edward Smeets, André Faaij and Iris Lewandowski wrote "The impact of sustainability criteria on the costs and potentials of bioenergy production" for the International Energy Agency's Bioenergy Task 40, which analyses the potential for a global bioenergy trade.

Large potential
In the report, the authors begin by reminding us that many studies have been carried out that quantify the potential of the world to produce bioenergy. Results indicate that various world regions are in theory capable of producing significant amounts of bioenergy crops without endangering food supply or further deforestation. We earlier referred to some of this research (previous post).

The theoretical potential is huge: by 2050, the developing world can produce more than 800 Exajoules of exportable bioenergy, sustainably, whereas the global potential is around 1400Ej per year. Consider that today, the entire world uses around 420Ej worth of energy annually, from all sources (coal, oil, gas, nuclear, hydro and renewables). In short, there is a massive amount of energy that can be extracted from biomass.

The question is whether such large-scale production and trade of biomass can be undertaken in a way that is beneficial and balanced with respect to (1) the social well being of the people involved, (2) the ecosystem (planet) and (3) the economy (profit). The authors explore the impact of these different contrasting interests on the potential (quantity) and the costs (per unit) of bioenergy.

A spectrum of sets of sustainability criteria is developed - ranging from loose definitions to the most stringent - and applied to two case-studies, one for the Ukraine and one for Rio Grande do Sul, a region in South-Eastern Brazil. These regions were chosen because sufficient previous research is available, and because they have been identified as promising bioenergy producers and exporters. Poplar production in Ukraine and eucalyptus production in Brazil are used as the reference biomass feedstock. These feedstocks can be converted into liquid fuels (bio-oil or synthetic biofuels) or be used as solid biofuels for combustion (generating heat and electricity):
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For both regions cost calculations are included for a representative intensive commercial short rotation forestry management system. The year 2015 was chosen as a target, because this allows a 10-year period required to implement changes in land-use, establish plantations and develop a framework to implement criteria.

Overall, the results of the study indicate that:
  • In several key world regions, sustainable biomass production potentials can be very significant on foreseeable term (10-20 years from now). Feasible efficiency improvements in conventional agricultural management (up to moderate intensity in the case regions studied) can allow for production of large volumes of biomass for energy, without competing with food production, forest or nature conservation. The key pre-condition for such a development are improvements in the efficiency of agricultural management.
  • It seems feasible to produce biomass for energy purposes at reasonable cost levels and meeting strict sustainability criteria at the same time. Setting strict criteria that generally demand that socio-economic and ecological impacts should improve compared to the current situation will make biomass production more expensive and will limit potential production levels (both crop yield and land surface) compared to a situation that no criteria are set. However, the estimated impact on biomass production costs and potential is far from prohibitive. For the case studied (SE Brazil and Ukraine) estimated biomass production costs under strict conditions are still attractive and in the range of €2/GJ for the largest part of the identified potentials. (Compare with oil: at US$ 60 per barrel and at approximately 6.1GJ per barrel, petroleum currently costs US$9.8/GJ, which is around €7.4/GJ. Compare with "typical" butiminous coal: at prices between US$55 and US$80 and at approximately 27GJ/ton, the price per GJ is between US$2.0 and US$2.9 or between €1.5/GJ and €2.2/GJ. More on the competitiveness of biomass, see previous post.)
  • It should be noted that such improvements, when achieved, also represent an economic value, which could be considerable (e.g value of jobs, improvement of soil quality, and so on). Such ‘co-benefits’ could especially be relevant for the less productive, marginal lands. Such a valuation has however not been part of the study.
  • The results are indicative, based on a desktop approach (and not on field research) and pay limited attention to macro-effects such as indirect employment and both potential negative and positive impacts on conventional agriculture. More work to verify and refine the methodological framework developed is therefore needed, preferably involving specific regional studies and including regional/national stakeholders.

The researchers came to the above conclusions in the following way.

127 sustainability criteria
A list of 127 criteria relevant for sustainable biomass production and trade is composed based on an extensive analysis of existing certification systems on e.g. forestry and agriculture.

To be able to analyse the impact of these criteria on the cost and potential of bioenergy, the various criteria needed to be translated into a set of concrete (measurable) criteria and indicators that have an impact on the management system (costs) or the land availability (quantity). 12 criteria are included in this study, because not all criteria could reasonably be translated into practically measurable indicators and/or measures and many criteria are related and/or overlap.

Because there is no generally accepted definition of sustainability - except from very broad and often symbolic principles, such as those set out at the Earth Summit in 1992 - , two sets of criteria and indicators - a strict and a loose one - are defined, to represent the difference in individual perceptions of sustainability. The stricter set of criteria is more difficult to implement than the loose set, because the restrictions for production and other activities in the chain are more severe.

The twelve criteria in their loose and strict definition are presented in the table at the beginning of this article - click to enlarge.

Applying these two sets of criteria to the province of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil and to the Ukraine as a whole, results in changes in both the costs of producing biofuels, and their potential availability. A reference scenario is included showing the cost-supply curve as it would emerge if no criteria were implemented. This reference scenario comes close to the 'loose' set of criteria. Results for the factors related to employment and land use are excluded from this first analysis and described below.

Figure 1 (click to enlarge). Cost supply curve for bioenergy crop production in a loose and strict set of criteria in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, in 2015.

Figure 2 (click to enlarge). Cost supply curve for bioenergy crop production in a loose and strict set of criteria in Ukraine, in 2015.

Total costs for bioenergy crop production in Brazil and Ukraine are calculated at €1.5/GJ to €3.5/GJ and €1.7/GJ to €6.1/GJ dependant on the land suitability class (and respective yields), including the impact of basic levels for the various sustainability criteria.

These criteria can be further grouped into three clusters.

Land use, socio-economic factors, environment

Land use patterns
Land use patterns include criteria related to the avoidance of deforestation, competition with food production and protection of natural habitats. The theoretical potential to generate surplus agricultural land in 2015 was estimated, following the methodology of Smeets (earlier post). This methodology includes, among other variables, population growth, income growth and the efficiency of food production.

Results indicate that (in theory) large areas surplus agricultural land could be generated without further deforestation or endangering the food supply. However, additional investments in agricultural intensification may be required to realise these technical potentials.

Socio-economic criteria
Socio-economic criteria include criteria related to e.g. child labour, (minimum) wages, employment, health care and education. Compliance with the various criteria results in additional (non) wage labour costs, which are a separate cost item in the calculation of the production costs of biomass. The loose set of criteria does not influence the costs or quantity of bioenergy crop production. The strict criteria related to child labour, health care and education has a very limited impact on the costs of bioenergy crop production, between up to 8% in Ukraine and up to 14% in Brazil (see the tables).

The impact of the strict criterion related to wages is larger, which results in an increase of the costs of bioenergy crop production of up to 8% in Ukraine to up to 42% in Brazil. In general, the impact of the strict set of criteria is limited, because labour costs account for maximum two-fifth of the total production costs.

Another key socio-economic issue is the generation of direct and indirect employment. The direct impact of bioenergy crop production on employment is calculated based on the labour requirement for the various management activities.

The indirect impact of bioenergy crop production consists of two aspects. First, the employment effect of the increase in demand for agricultural machinery and other inputs due to bioenergy crop production and the intensification of food production. Second, the investments in agriculture require increasing the efficiency of food production, which may lead to more mechanisation and a loss of employment. Indirect (employment) effects of increased agricultural productivity and additional biomass production are very likely to be positive though. Due to a lack of data and suitable methodologies the indirect employment effects could not be calculated in the framework of this study, but these indirect effects could be significant and require further study.

Environmental criteria
Environmental criteria include criteria related to e.g. soil erosion, fresh water use, pollution from the use of fertilizers and agricultural chemicals. Compliance with various environmental criteria requires an adaptation of the bioenergy crop management system, e.g. an increase in mechanical and manual weeding to avoid the use of agricultural chemicals. For the loose set of criteria no additional costs were required.

The impact of the strict criteria related to soil erosion is limited to 15% and 4% maximum in Brazil and Ukraine, respectively. The impact of the strict set of criteria related to pollution from chemicals is up to 16% in Brazil and up to 6% in Ukraine.

The strict set of criteria related to nutrient leaching and soil depletion results in a cost decrease of up to –2% in Brazil and up to –4% in Ukraine, which is the combined effect of increasing labour and machinery costs and decreasing fertilizer costs.

For the protection of biodiversity protection, 10 to 20% of the surplus agricultural land could be set aside, although we acknowledge that this may be insufficient for the protection of biodiversity and that additional or other requirements for the plantation management may be required.

Due to a lack of data and suitable methodologies, indirect effects from the intensification of agriculture were not included, but these are potentially significant. A logical consequence would be that similar criteria should be in please for conventional agriculture as for biomass production.

The total costs increase by 35% to 88% in Brazil and 10% to 26% in Ukraine, dependant on the land suitability class (yield). The highest impact on costs (in €/oven dry ton) can be found on the lowest productive areas, because a large share of the costs are fixed, while the yield level depends on the land suitability class. For many of the areas of concern included in this study, data and methods used to quantify the impact of sustainability criteria on costs or potential are crude and therefore uncertain.

The ecological criteria require a more site-specific analysis with specific attention for e.g. soil type, slope gradient and rainfall. The social oriented criteria require more reliable and detailed data e.g. at a household level data and better methodologies to analyse indirect effects. Further research in this area is needed to provide more accurate estimates of the impact that various sustainability criteria may have on the costs and potential of bioenergy crop production.

The researchers propose an approach that provides an original and quantitative framework that can be used as a basis for designing sustainable biomass production systems and for monitoring existing ones.

They suggest that, besides more detailed and refined approaches, the framework may also be developed into a more simplified quickscan method to identify and monitor biomass production regions. Such a quickscan would be a useful tool for stakeholders - NGO's, governments, businesses, civil society organisations - to use as a guideline for discussions about particular projects or to craft policies.

The main conclusion of the report is that a very large amount of biomass for energy can be produced in the foreseeable future, especially in the developing world, and that this potential can be realised in a sustainable manner. Moreover, the biofuels thus produced, would be quite competitive with fossil fuels at current prices.

Finally, site-specific research remains crucial. A general, quantitative sustainability framework may offer a starting point, but it can never replace the particularities of actual projects that involve unique communities and eco-systems, all with their own histories and their visions on what the future should bring.

More information:
The International Energy Agency's Bioenergy website, with an overview of its different Bioenergy Task Forces.

The IEA's Bioenergy Task 40, which analyses all aspects of sustainable international bioenergy trade.

Fair Biotrade project (2001-2004): M. Juninger, "Overview of recent developments in sustainable biomass certification" [*.pdf] - a paper giving a comprehensive outline of initiatives on biomass certification from different viewpoints of stakeholders. The scope of this paper includes mainly new initiatives in the development of biomass certification system, though existing certification systems are also briefly described, as experiences from these systems provide valuable inputs. The study includes an inventory of initiatives in the field of biomass certification from the perspective of various stakeholder groups, such as NGOs, companies, national government and international bodies. A second objective of the paper is to identify opportunities and limitations in the development of biomass certification, and to present possible approaches onhow to introduce biomass certification systems. The paper finishes with some recommendations and conclusions.

IEA Bioenergy Task 40: Edward Smeets, André Faaij and Iris Lewandowski, "The impact of sustainability criteria on the costs and potentials of bioenergy production. An exploration of the impact of the implementation of sustainability criteria on the costs and potential of bioenergy production, applied for case studies in Brazil and Ukraine" [*.pdf], Utrecht University, Department of Science, Technology and Society, Copernicus Institute for Sustainable Development and Innovation, May, 2005.

Biopact: Brazilian ethanol is sustainable and has a very positive energy balance - IEA report, Oct. 8, 2006.

Biopact: A look at Africa's biofuels potential, July 30, 2007.

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Biomass-to-liquids seen as key to biofuels future

Different ways to make biofuels can be grouped in 'generations', according to the type of technology they rely on and the biomass feedstocks they convert into fuel.
  • 'first generation' biofuels, such as ethanol made from corn or sugarcane and biodiesel made from rapeseed, make use of the well established processes of starch and sugar fermentation (in the case of ethanol) and transesterification (in the case of biodiesel). For both types of fuel, easily extractible parts of plants are used, such as starch-rich corn kernels, grains or the sugar in canes; for biodiesel, oilseeds are used. The residues of the plants are not utilized.
  • 'second generation' biofuels can use a far wider range of feedstocks, including biomass waste streams that are rich in lignin and cellulose, such as wheat straw, grass, or wood. In order to breakdown this biomass, two different processes are currently used: (1) the first one, a biochemical conversion technique, consists of using specialty enzymes that succeed in breaking down the ligno-cellulose and release the sugars, which can then be fermented into alcohol. This technology is best known as 'cellulosic ethanol' and will become efficient and cost-effective over the coming years, many hope. (2) The second technique, a thermochemical process (often called 'biomass-to-liquids'), relies on gasification, and consists of using high temperatures to turn biomass into a synthetic gas ('syngas'), consisting mainly of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. This gas can further be processed into different types of liquid fuel via Fischer-Tropsch synthesis. Fuels from this route are then called 'synthetic biofuels'. Alternatively, the syngas can be converted into hydrogen.
  • 'third generation' biofuels rely on biotechnological interventions in the feedstocks themselves. Plants are engineered in such a way that the structural building blocks of their cells (lignin, cellulose, hemicellulose), can be managed according to a specific task they are required to perform. For example, plant scientists are working on developing trees that grow normally, but that can be triggered to change the strength of the cell walls so that breaking them down to release sugars is more easy. In third generation biofuels, a synergy between this kind of interventions and processing steps is then created: plants with special properties are broken down by functionally engineered enzymes.
The latter generation of biofuels is only gradually being explored. But the second one is receiving full attention and research funds. Of this type of biofuels, the biochemical conversion route - using specialty enzymes and micro-organisms - has received most attention. But the thermochemical route - biomass gasification and synthesis into liquid fuels - has become equally important (see picture, click to enlarge).

Testifying to this, is the U.S. government's US$385 million worth of grants announced last week (earlier post) and distributed amongst six companies. Mainstream media did not take not of the surprising fact that half of the six projects chosen will use this thermochemical process, which was first discovered almost a century ago to turn coal into a gas:
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Long hailed as a more environmentally friendly way to turn coal into electricity, the gasification process might provide a faster and eventually cheaper way to produce ethanol from a variety of renewable sources collectively known as biomass, some scientists say.

For corn-based ethanol plants, the process of producing ethanol is as simple as brewing beer: sugars are extracted from the corn kernels and then enzymes are added to ferment it into alcohol. But biomass feedstocks don't easily give up their starches, so more expensive steps are needed to ferment cellulose in high-pressure chambers that have limited amounts of oxygen, according to Lanny Schmidt, a University of Minnesota chemical engineer.

Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman pegged the current cost of gasification as being about twice as much as the average $1.10 per gallon cost at corn-based ethanol plants.

A gasifier turns plant material into a synthesis gas consisting mostly of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. The "syngas" then could be turned into a variety of fuels including ethanol, hydrogen and environmentally friendly versions of diesel or gasoline, Schmidt said.

"These gasifiers are some high-tech stuff with high pressures and some more complexities," he said. "But they're probably more versatile at the end of the day to modify them as the demand and supplies change."

Gasification is a fairly simple process, based on chemistry developed in the 1920s, said Robert Brown, an Iowa State University chemical engineering professor and director of the school's Office of Biorenewables Programs.

The syngas produced during gasification mixes more readily with chemical catalysts, so it could be more easily turned into other fuels, chemicals and materials. Just add steam and you could produce hydrogen to power a fuel-cell vehicle, Brown said.

Of the six companies awarded U.S. Department of Energy grants, three will use versions of fermentation technology. But two others will use gasification and one will use a hybrid of both technologies:

  • Alico Inc., a LaBelle, Fla.-based agribusiness company, would get up to $33 million to turn yard waste, wood waste and citrus peel into syngas, which would then be converted into ethanol, electricity and hydrogen.
  • Range Fuels Inc., of Broomfield, Colo., would get up to $76 million for a plant near Soperton, Ga., to convert timber scraps into syngas to make ethanol and methanol.
  • Abengoa Bioenergy, a St. Louis-based division of Spain's Abengoa SA, would receive up to $76 million for an 11.4 million gallons-per-year plant in Colwich, Kan., that would use both biochemical and thermochemical processes to convert corn stalks, wheat straw and switchgrass.

The Energy Department helped demonstrate the viability of gasification in the mid-1990s when it awarded Georgia-based FERCO $9.2 million to help build a power plant running on wood chips. By 2001, the $18 million plant in Burlington, Vt., was generating more than 200 megawatt-hours of electricity a day.

To compete in the marketplace, companies will have to make sure their feedstock supplies are consistent, do more research into catalysts that turn syngas into fuels, and develop better materials to contain the thermochemical reactions, according to the Energy Department.

The syngas would have to be cleaned and conditioned to remove contaminants, which is an expensive task. Energy officials say companies will have to bring down those costs if they're to compete in the market.

Mark Paster, a U.S. Department of Energy technology development manager who's studying ways to turn biomass into hydrogen, said both fermentation and gasification "are very viable and both routes continue to be researched and developed."

Paster said biomass helps reduce greenhouse gasses, so any method that can reach commercial viability will be better than one based on fossil fuel.

"There may not be a single winner, just like there's no winner in how we produce electricity," he said. "We do it in a variety of ways."

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NGO's want life cycle analysis of EU biofuels

Tomorrow, the important European Council meeting (Spring Summit) takes place in Berlin and will be entirely devoted to energy and climate change. At the Summit, European heads of state are expected to close a deal and agree on the Commission's energy policy proposal (earlier post), even though finding a consensus will not be easy (earlier post).

To have their voice heard, three NGO's, BirdLife International and the European Environmental Bureau and the European Federation for Transport & Environment (EEBTE), are appealing to the heads of state to reject a proposed mandatory biofuel target.

The three groups believe that they should instead adopt the recently proposed ‘lifecycle greenhouse gas emission reduction’ targets for transport fuel, which would differentiate between biofuels according to their environmental performance and would only support the best performing ones.

Despite repeated and consistent warnings about the potential a mandatory biofuels target has to harm the environment, in January the European Commission proposed a 10% mandatory target for biofuels as part of its energy package. This means that one-tenth of fuel used in the EU must be produced from plant material. The package recently received support from the Energy and Environment Councils.

To illustrate the threat of unconditional public support for biofuels, the NGOs cite the example of biofuels-driven projects which risk creating vast plantations by clearing tracts of tropical rainforest. Recent controversies have surrounded this kind of project in Indonesia and elsewhere.

“We call for a strong response from the European Council to the challenge of fighting climate change”, said John Hontelez of EEB. “The EU should set itself a binding target of 30% greenhouse gas reductions by 2020, compared with 1990. And it should also set ambitious binding targets for the introduction of renewables. But we don’t want this to include a target for biofuels that will result in major environmental and social problems. We should focus much more on energy efficiency and truly sustainable renewables, such as wind and solar power. The transport sector in particular should invest in energy efficiency and cleaner mobility alternatives", he added:
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“Europe's approach to alternative fuel sources like biofuels has been to promote them regardless of whether or not they’re good for the environment”, said Jos Dings of T&E. “EU leaders should scrap the biofuel target and instead go for the lifecycle greenhouse gas approach the Commission has proposed in its January review of the Fuel Quality Directive. If it’s designed right, this policy would ensure that only the cleanest biofuels are promoted and the fossil fuel production process also cleans up its act. This approach requires fuel suppliers actually to improve their climate performance, rather than just blending in a product with uncertain environmental consequences.”

Ariel Brunner of BirdLife International added: “As an absolute minimum, we urge Europe’s political leaders at the Spring Council strongly to support mandatory certification of biofuels, covering, beyond greenhouse gas balance, also their other environmental impacts such as on biodiversity and freshwater supplies.”

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Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The bioeconomy at work: new success in engineering plant oils, replacing petrochemicals

As we progressively move towards the post-petroleum, bio-based economy, new breakthroughs in biotechnology become more frequent. The vision behind advocates of the bioeconomy is that all products derived from oil can and should gradually be replaced by biodegradable, efficient, climate neutral plant-based alternatives.

Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory, collaborating with scientists from the Georg-August University of Göttingen (Germany), have made another contribution to achieving this goal: using genetic manipulation to modify the activity of a plant enzyme, they succeeded in converting an unsaturated oil in the seeds of a temperate plant to the more saturated kind usually found in tropical plants, such as palm oil. The technique may yield materials that can replace petrochemicals. Interestingly, the process works in reverse: tropical oil-bearing plants can be triggered to deliver oils with a higher ratio of unsaturated fatty acids.

Potentially, the technique allows for a finetuned 'economy' of engineered oils, in which the metabolism of the seeds of oil bearing plants and the biosynthesis of the enzymes they rely on, is managed in such a way that it yields the ideal type of oil suited for the production of a particular product, be it biofuels with specific properties (cold tolerance, cloud point, melting point), green lubricants and resins, or bioplastics and biopolymers.

The research has been published online by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS):
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While conversion of an unsaturated oil to an oil with increased saturated fatty acid levels may not sound like a boon to those conscious about consuming unsaturated fats, "the development of new plant seed oils has several potential biotechnological applications," says Brookhaven biochemist John Shanklin, lead author on the paper.

For one thing, the new tropical-like oil has properties more like margarine than do temperate oils, but without the trans fatty acids commonly found in margarine products. Furthermore, engineered oils could be used to produce feedstocks for industrial processes in place of those currently obtained from petrochemicals. Shanklin also suggests that the genetic manipulation could work in the reverse to allow scientists to engineer more heart-healthy food oils.

"Scientists have known for a long time that the ratio of saturated to unsaturated fatty acids plays a key role in plants' ability to adapt to different climates, but to change this ratio specifically in seed oils without changing the climate is an interesting challenge," remarked Shanklin. "Our group sought to gain a better understanding of the enzymes and metabolic pathways that produce these oils to find ways to manipulate the accumulation of fats using genetic techniques."

The researchers focused on an enzyme known as KASII that normally elongates fatty acid chains by adding two carbon atoms. The longer 18-carbon chains are more likely to be acted on by enzymes that desaturate the fat. So the scientists hypothesized that if they could prevent the chain lengthening by reducing the levels of KASII, they could decrease the likelihood of desaturation and increase the level of saturated fats in the plant seeds.

Their hypothesis was supported by the fact that scientists had previously identified a plant with a mutated KASII that showed reduced enzyme activity, and these plants were able to accumulate more saturated fats than was normal. So the Brookhaven team set out to reduce KASII activity with the use of RNA-interference (RNAi) to see if they could further increase the level of saturation in plant seed oils.

The Brookhaven scientists performed their experiments on Arabidopsis, a plant commonly used in research. Like other plants from temperate climates (e.g., canola, soybean, and sunflower), Arabidopsis contains predominantly 18-carbon unsaturated fatty acids in its seed oil. Tropical plants, in contrast (e.g. palm), contain higher proportions (approximately 50 percent) of 16-carbon saturated fatty acids.

The results were surprising. The genetic manipulations that reduced KASII activity resulted in a seven-fold increase in 16-carbon unsaturated fatty acids - up to an unprecedented 53 percent - in the temperate Arabidopsis plant seed oils.

"These results demonstrate that manipulation of a single enzyme's activity is sufficient to convert the seed oil composition of Arabidopsis from that of a typical temperate pant to that of a tropical palm-like oil," Shanklin said. "It is fascinating - and potentially very useful - to know that we can change the oil composition so drastically by simple specific changes in seed oil metabolism, and that this process can occur independently from the adaptation to either tropical or temperate climates."

For example, such a technique could lead to the engineering of temperate crop plants to produce saturated oils as renewable feedstocks for industrial processes. Such renewable resources could help reduce dependence on petroleum.

Conversely, methods to increase the activity of KASII, and therefore the production of 18-carbon desaturated plant oils, may provide a useful strategy to limit the accumulation of saturated fatty acids in edible oils, leading to more healthful nutrition.

Picture: Arabidopsis seeds viewed through a fluorescence microscope. Two show the fluorescent markers used to track inserted genes; the third is an unmodified, wild type seed, which appears dark. Courtesy: BNL Media & Communications Office

More information:

Mark S. Pidkowich, Huu Tam Nguyen, Ingo Heilmann, Till Ischebeck, and John Shanklin, Modulating seed {beta}-ketoacyl-acyl carrier protein synthase II level converts the composition of a temperate seed oil to that of a palm-like tropical oil, [*abstract] Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 10.1073/pnas.0611141104, March 5, 2007

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IEA chief economist: EU, US should scrap tariffs and subsidies, import biofuels from the South

President Bush visits Brazil this week and is expected to hear President Lula lobbying him to end American ethanol tariffs. Brazil's push is now receiving the support from an unlikely quarter - the authoritative International Energy Agency (IEA), the independent energy adviser to 26 of the most industrialized nations.

The IEA understands its case: it has been studying all aspects of biofuels and bioenergy in-depth for years now, with dedicated scientific Task Forces (see IEA Bioenergy), which unite top experts in the field. Bioenergy Task 40 - which analyses the potential for sustainable international trade in biofuels - has made the case very clearly: a large amount of green fuels can be produced in a sustainable manner, without threatening the food security of people and without threatening ecosystems and biodiversity, in the Global South and exported efficiently to world markets (earlier post). Other Bioenergy Task forces come to the same conclusion. Europe and America do not have this capacity.

Earlier we reported on how the IEA's very chief, Claude Mandil, knowing the science, called on Europe and the United States to end their trade distorting subsidies for biofuels that can not compete in the market. He also urged the large consumers to import green fuels from the developing world instead (earlier post).

Now the IEA's Chief Economist, Fatih Birol, is joining this position: biofuels made in the EU and the US, using food grains, make no economic sense. They are inefficient and cannot compete against biofuels made in the South, where good agro-ecological conditions and suitable crops result in efficient fuels. Moreover, inefficient biofuels made in the US and the EU do not really contribute to reducing greenhouse gases, whereas those made in the developing world do.

For all these reasons, Birol says "the U.S. and Europe should scrap import duties on developing countries and in the longer term reconsider all subsidies."

The case for a 'Biopact' of sorts (see our Biofuels Manifesto) is increasingly being strengthened by scientists, economists, and energy experts alike.

The recent dip in oil prices proves the point: the EU/US government policy-fuelled rush to produce biofuels is backfiring as it pushes up costs and makes their domestic biofuels far less competitive. A looming biofuels glut plus falling rival crude oil prices, down a fifth on last summer's highs, mean producers can less easily pass on their spiraling costs. The present dip will last until demand rebounds, perhaps as far off as the end of the decade. Falling oil prices are hurting sales of biofuel which was barely competitive before, pricking European and U.S. euphoria built on subsidies and ambitious targets.

Profits are still to be had but a continuing scramble for raw materials like corn, soy and wheat will knock margins as producers re-negotiate more pricey supply contracts.

Still thriving, however, is biofuels pioneer Brazil - the symbol for the fact that biofuels made in the South make sense -, which has a booming domestic market where more than two-thirds of all new cars can run on either gasoline or ethanol:
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Biofuels costs will likely fall and demand and prices rise in Europe and the U.S. as better infrastructure and economies of scale kick in over the next two to three years, analysts say.

U.S. Democrats last week proposed a $15 billion energy plan, including boosting the country's network of ethanol service stations, for example.

But biofuels future also depends on oil prices, and analysts cannot guarantee crude oil will stay above the $60-$65 where it is trading now and undercutting biofuels - excluding subsidies - outside Brazil, according to the IEA.

Another factor is input cost: but sugar, corn, grain and palm oil prices are all seen holding or rising in the near term.

A new generation of biofuels made from waste like straw and wood chips would ease input shortages, but is not expected to be commercially available before 2009 and possibly much later.

In the United States soaring demand is expected to beat farmers' efforts to keep up, with high corn prices likely in the near-term, not least after Bush in January asked Congress to back a near 5-fold increase in the use of biofuels by 2017.

The biofuels craze is risking a surplus in the United States and elsewhere.

Investors F&C, with 155 billion euros ($204.9 billion) under management, says it has exited investments including the second biggest U.S. ethanol producer VeraSun, because of the prospective over-supply and margin squeeze.

A glut is also expected in parts of Europe, where biofuels support is switching from tax credits to blending targets, and notably Germany where higher taxes have knocked sales by as much as a third this year so far.

"In the very short-term we have far too much production capacity," said the EBB's Garofalo.

Elsewhere, Spanish energy firm Abengoa is mulling suspending output at its biggest ethanol plant, partly on higher grain prices and partly because the domestic market is saturated under present blending labeling rules.

Oil major Total has put on hold a biodiesel project with Finnish refiner Neste Oil, while prospective British ethanol producer Ensus postponed last December plans to list on London's Alternative Investment Market.

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Chinese Academy of Sciences outlines alternative energy and conservation strategies

After compre- hensive studies, a panel of the Chinese Academy of Science's (CAS) Academic Divisions recently wrote a set of recommendations on the long- and medium-term development strategy for energy sources that can supplement or substitute petroleum in China. Some of the strategies conform with the country's bioenergy plan (earlier post).

The report gauges the future development trends of energy sources both in China and the world, making forecasts on the availability of petroleum resources, their demand, and production capacities from 2020 to 2050. The forecast consists of two parts, (1) on the supplementation and substitution of petroleum fuel and (2) on the improvement and substitution of the power systems of transport vehicles, respectively.

Regarding the development of petroleum substitutes, including fuels from non-conventional oil and coal, natural gas and biomass, the report makes the following proposals for action over the next five years:
  1. Vigorously promoting the prospecting and assessment of China's oil shale resources.
  2. Deepening the research and development of key technologies that are directly or indirectly associated with liquefaction; providing support to the construction of demonstration plants with an annual production capacity up to one million tons of substitute fuels using the two technological alternatives, with a view to gaining experiences for industrial application of the production technologies.
  3. A scientific verification on gasoline and diesel substitutes in an all-round manner should be completed as soon as possible. Also in need is the encouragement given to the technologies using cellulose and semi-cellulose as raw materials for ethanol production. Research should be conducted into the breeding of fast-growing energy-rich plants in desert and desolate areas that can provide biomass for bio-ethanol and biodiesel manufacturing. Furthermore, efforts should be made to develop mass production bases for those fuels without the occupation of farmlands.
  4. Continuously promoting industrialization of the production of bio-ethanol and biodiesel from biomass.
As the shortage of conventional petroleum becomes increasingly acute and crude oil prices keep soaring, the markets for non-conventional petroleum (referring only to extra-heavy oil, and the petroleum from oil sands and oil-shale) are expected to constantly expand, partly making up for the shortfall. Resources of coal and natural gas are relatively abundant in this country, and their conversion into the fuel driving transport vehicles is now technologically viable and could be competitive when prices of conventional fuels are at the high end of the range.

According to the CAS, during the period of the world's transition to a post-petroleum economy, increased use of coal and natural gas as a substitute of conventional fuel should be possible.

Other optional substitutes include biomass-based ethanol, carbinol (a methanol based alcohol), dimethyl ether, biodiesel, synthetic oil and hydrogen, which are also internationally seen as a direction for development. Equally significant are technological innovations with regard to transport vehicles. There is a need to develop energy-efficient vehicles, vehicles using substitute fuels or powered by electricity, as road transport is a most important part of the transport and communication industry. Rail transit systems are a major approach for public transportation and a main way of energy conservation:
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The following proposals are raised on energy conservation in the transport and communication industry:

First of all, positive efforts should be made to promote the adoption of new power systems for the automobiles, which are good at energy saving and diversified for energy sources. Priority should be given to electrified power systems with zero discharge of exhaustive gases. There is the need to vigorously carry out the research and development of highly efficient, low-cost systems of fuel cells and lithium ion batteries. The key issues in the application of electric vehicles and its early industrialization lie in the solution to the problems of electric power supply and hydrogen fuel storage on vehicles. To this end, resources should be pooled to remove the technological bottlenecks such as short service life, high production costs, poor reliability and performance of such systems. Meanwhile, feasibility studies and large-scale demonstration projects should be conducted on such infrastructure facilities as hydrogen fueling stations and electric vehicle charging stations so as to speed up the industrial development of fuel cells and lithium ion batteries.

Secondly, electrified rail transportation should be developed in a big way. Railway electrification and increased speed of passenger trains are the way of ensuring the dominant position of railways in the communication and transport industry. More efforts should be made to develop urban rail transit systems, with a view to effectively curbing the rapidly increasing number of automobiles used in cities and reduce the per vehicle consumption of oil.

The report notes that introduction of energy-efficient technologies is time consuming and has to be accomplished in well-planned phases. For work over the next five years, it suggests that support should be rendered to the research, development and pilot studies by various sectors in this regard. Initial work should be done on selective basis when putting such technologies to industrial application. Prudence should be the approach toward massive application of such technologies in industrial production in the current R&D phase, and only after a full verification will it be appropriate for the government to make a major decision to its large-scale industrialization. The report also proposes a key national research program in the field, which should be launched through coordination of the national authorities and implemented continuously under the centralized leadership and management.

More information:
Chinese Academy of Sciences: CAS scientists make suggestions on energy source development - March 6, 2007.

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Monday, March 05, 2007

Super-fermenting fungus genome sequenced, to be harnessed for biofuels

Earlier this week, researchers identified which genes a bacterium activates to select the enzymes for the breakdown of cellulose into sugars. The discovery is important for the future of cellulosic ethanol production (earlier post). Another group of scientists discovered similar cellulase genes in the guts of termites - creatures famed for their capacity to break down wood efficiently (earlier post).

Today, another major research step was announced by researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute (DOE JGI) (earlier post)and collaborators at the U.S. Forest Service, Forest Products Laboratory (FPL). They succeeded in characterising the genetic blueprint of the fungus Pichia stipitis and identified the numerous genes responsible for its fermenting and cellulose-bioconverting prowess. The research results, accompanied by an analysis of these metabolic pathways, is featured in the March 4 advanced online publication of Nature Biotechnology. Clearly, biotechnology and genomics are en route to make cellulosic ethanol production a reality.

P. stipitis is the most proficient microbial fermenter in nature of the ligno-cellulose abundant in hardwoods and agricultural leftovers, which represent a motherlode of bioenergy feedstocks.
"Increasing the capacity of P. stipitis to ferment xylose and using this knowledge for improving xylose metabolism in other microbes, such as Saccharomyces cerevisiae, brewer's yeast, offers a strategy for improved production of cellulosic ethanol. "In addition, this strategy could enhance the productivity and sustainability of agriculture and forestry by providing new outlets for agricultural and wood harvest residues." - Eddy Rubin, DOE JGI Director.
Ligno-cellulosic biomass, a complex of cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin, is derived from such plant-based feedstocks as agricultural waste, paper and pulp, wood chips, grasses, or trees such as poplar, recently sequenced by the U.S. Department of Energy's JGI. Under current strategies for generating lignocellulosic ethanol, these forms of biomass require expensive and energy-intensive pretreatment with chemicals and/or heat to loosen up this complex. Enzymes are then employed to break down complex carbohydrate into sugars, such as glucose and xylose, which can then be fermented to produce ethanol. Additional energy is required for the distillation process to achieve a fuel-grade product. Now, the power of genomics is being directed to optimize this age-old process:
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"The information embedded in the genome sequence of Pichia has helped us identify several gene targets to improve xylose metabolism," says paper lead author Thomas W. Jeffries of the Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin. "We are now engineering these genes to increase ethanol production." Jeffries said that yeast strains like Pichia have evolved to cope with the oxygen-limited environment rich in partially digested wood that is encountered in the gut of insects, from where the sequenced strain was originally isolated.

FPL has a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) in place with a New York City-based bioenergy company, Xethanol Corporation, which plans to integrate Dr. Jeffries' findings into its large-scale biofuels production processes.

Pichia joins white rot fungus in the growing portfolio of bioenergy-relevant fungus genomes sequenced by DOE JGI through its user programs and contributed freely to the worldwide scientific community.

More information:
Thomas W Jeffries, Igor V Grigoriev, Jane Grimwood, José M Laplaza, Andrea Aerts, Asaf Salamov, Jeremy Schmutz, Erika Lindquist, Paramvir Dehal, Harris Shapiro, Yong-Su Jin, Volkmar Passoth & Paul M Richardson, Genome sequence of the lignocellulose-bioconverting and xylose-fermenting yeast Pichia stipitis [*abstract], Published online: 04 March 2007 | doi:10.1038/nbt1290

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GTZ data on fuel prices in developing countries online

Since 2004, crude oil prices have repeatedly surged to all-time highs due to the rising demand in Asia and volatile situation in the Middle East. Accordingly, prices for transport, cooking and heating have increased in many countries, and have become an issue for public concern.

The high price of crude oil and taxation on petroleum products also affect the national budget of many countries. On the one hand, numerous countries earn revenues through taxation on petroleum products, which can be used for financing transport and providing social services such as schools and healthcare. On the other hand, fuel subsidies can devour a huge amount of a country's financial resources.

By providing extensive data on fuel taxation in developing countries since 1998, the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit GmbH - German Technical Cooperation (GTZ) - has been helping to advance public discourse. Decision-makers in partner countries now have access to relevant information on pricing within a regional context and on the potentials of fuel taxation.

The GTZ has been tracking fuel prices in the developing world for several years, and published its publicly accessible data on a dedicated website (internationalfuelprices.com). The new publication "International Fuel Prices 2007 – Data Preview" [*.pdf] is based on an international survey carried out in Mid-November 2006. The publication contains the following information: Diesel and gasoline Prices of about 170 countries and Time Series of Price Trends.

The more extensive and still relevant 2005 edition [*.pdf] includes information on:
  • diesel prices of 171 countries
  • gasoline prices of 172 countries
  • time series of price trends
  • fuel taxation for state financing
  • fuel subsidies
  • fuel prices and purchasing power
  • contraband of fuel worldwide
  • government tax calculation
The GTZ's reports are an important source of data in the context of the nascent biofuels sector. They allow governments, NGOs and business to assess whether investing in a local biofuel project makes sense from a commercial and economic perspective. In combination with data on local commodity prices (feedstocks for biofuels), the fuel price information reveals whether biofuels are potentially competitive.

The GTZ also invites the public from the developing world to participate in the ongoing survey. So if you live in the South, don't hesitate to add current fuel price data of your country to the International Fuel Price Survey's database [entry ends here].
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UN expert group demands carbon capture - report

The imminence and severity of the problems posed by the accelerating changes in the global climate are becoming increasingly evident. Heat waves are becoming more severe, droughts and downpours are becoming more intense, the Greenland Ice Sheet is shrinking and sea level is rising, and the increasing acidification of the oceans is threatening calcifying organisms. The environment and the world’s societies are facing increasing stress.

This evidence was established by the landmark Fourth Assessment Report from the IPCC on the scientific evidence for global warming (earlier post). Now comes another report to the UN which goes a step further – making specific recommendations to combat climate change.

The report lays down a roadmap emphasising immediate action including a specific call for regulations of all new coal-fired power plants.

“Confronting Climate Change: Avoiding the unmanageable and managing the unavoidable” [*pdf, 13MB] has been drafted by a panel of 18 scientists from 11 nations, commissioned by the private United Nations Foundation and the Sigma Xi Scientific Research Society.

The 166-page, two-year report says that, to avoid the impacts of global warming that humans would find “intolerable” and “unmanageable”, temperature rises should be limited to 2-2.5 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial levels of 1750. This is below the 3-degrees C rise outlined in the IPCC report as the best guess for what we can expect this century without significant emissions abatement.

“It is still possible to avoid an unmanageable degree of climate change, but the time for action is now,” said John Holdren, a report author, Harvard professor and chairman of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. This would require “very rapid success in reducing emissions of methane and black soot worldwide, global carbon dioxide emissions level off by 2015 or 2020 before beginning a decline to no more than a third of that level by 2100”.

The report calls for:
  • mandatory vehicle emissions standards and incentives for alternative fuel vehicles
  • laws to expand biofuels use and production
  • an overhaul of building codes for residential and commercial buildings to increase energy efficiency
  • accelerated negotiations toward a post-Kyoto global framework for cutting emissions
  • greater help to developing countries to adopt clean energy technology
Carbon capture and storage
But the most specific recommendation is that building new coal power stations from now on be only allowed if geared towards carbon capture and storage (CCS):
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“Beginning immediately, designing and deploying only coal-fired power plants that will be capable of cost-effective and environmentally-sound retrofits for capture and sequestration of their carbon emissions,” the report demands.

The report’s authors say global investment in clean energy technology needs to be tripled to US$45 billion.

According to the International Energy Agency, global coal use will rise by 60 per cent by 2030. A major amendment to the London Protocol has just come into force to allow carbon dioxide to be sequestered under the sea-bed.

Bio-Energy with Carbon Storage
CCS can be also used in so-called "Bio-Energy with Carbon Storage" (BECS) systems, a radical carbon negative energy concept. BECS relies on burning renewable and climate neutral biofuels instead of fossil fuels, after which the CO2 released is sequestered, making the over-all GHG balance negative.

BECS is the only system that can take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere while delivering energy at the same time. Scientists who proposed BECS in the context of so-called "abrupt climate change" think such a system can take us back to pre-industrial CO2 levels in a few decades (earlier post and a comparison between 'synthetic trees' and BECS).

A more detailed overview of the highlights of the UN Foundation's report:

• To avoid a entering a regime of sharply rising danger of intolerable impacts on humans, policy makers should limit temperature increases from global warming to 2-2.5°C above the 1750 pre-industrial level. It is still possible to avoid unmanageable changes in the future, but the time for action is now.

—Temperatures have already risen about 0.8°C[1] above pre-industrial levels and are projected to rise of approximately 3-5°C over pre-industrial levels by 2100.

—Avoiding temperature increases greater than 2-2.5°C would require very rapid success in reducing emissions of methane and black soot worldwide, and global carbon dioxide emissions must level off by 2015 or 2020 at not much above their current amount, before beginning a decline to no more than a third of that level by 2100.

• The technology exists to seize significant opportunities around the globe to reduce emissions and provide other economic, environmental and social benefits, including meeting the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals. To do so, policy makers must immediately act to reduce emissions by:

—Improving efficiency in the transportation sector through measures such as vehicle efficiency standards, fuel taxes, and registration fees/rebates that favor purchase of efficient and alternative fuel vehicles.

—Improving design and efficiency of commercial and residential buildings through building codes, standards for equipment and appliances, incentives for property developers and landlords to build and manage properties efficiently, and financing for energy-efficiency investments.

—Expanding the use of biofuels through energy portfolio standards and incentives to growers and consumers.

—Beginning immediately, designing and deploying only coal-fired power plants that will be capable of cost-effective and environmentally-sound retrofits for capture and sequestration of their carbon emissions.

• Some level of climate change and impacts from it is already unavoidable. Societies must do more to adapt to ongoing and unavoidable changes in the Earth’s climate system by:

—Improving preparedness/response strategies and management of natural resources to cope with future climatic conditions that will be. fundamentally different than those experienced for the last 100 years.

—Addressing the adaptation needs of the poorest and most vulnerable nations, which will bear the brunt of climate change impacts.

—Planning and building climate resilient cities.

—Strengthening international, national, and regional institutions to cope with weather-related disasters and an increasing number of climate change refugees.

• The international community, through the UN and related multilateral institutions, can play a crucial role in advancing action to manage the unavoidable and avoid the unmanageable by:

—Helping developing countries and countries with economies in transition to finance and deploy energy efficient and new energy technologies.

—Accelerating negotiations to develop a successor international framework for addressing climate change and sustainable development.

—Educating all about the opportunities to adopt mitigation and adaptation measures.

More information:
United Nations Foundation: Scientific Expert Group on Climate Change and Sustainable Development - March, 2007
United Nations Foundation: Confronting Climate Change: Avoiding the unmanageable and managing the unavoidable, Executive Summary [*.pdf]
United Nations Foundation: Confronting Climate Change: Avoiding the unmanageable and managing the unavoidable, Full report [*.pdf]

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Brazil-Japan ethanol investment worth US$8 billion

A project between Brazil and Japan to help supply Brazilian ethanol made from sugarcane to the Japanese market could require a massive €6/US$8 billion in investments, Brazil's largest newspaper reported.

The money would be used to take minority stakes in 40 ethanol distilleries across Latin America's largest nation, ensuring Japan with a stable supply as it prepares to mandate an obligatory mix of ethanol in gasoline, the Folha de S. Paulo [*Portuguese] newspaper reported last weekend.

Brazilian state-run oil company Petroleo Brasileiro SA had already confirmed it was negotiating a partnership with Japan's Mitsui & Co. Ltd. on the stakes, but the report quoting Petrobras executive Paulo Roberto Costa was the first time that an investment amount was disclosed. A Petrobras spokesman did not immediately respond to a telephone message left Saturday seeking comment.

Japan could require between 1.8 billion to 6 billion liters of ethanol per year, depending on the ethanol mix required — between 3 percent to 10 percent — according to Petrobras estimates. Brazil exported 3.4 billion liters abroad in 2006, of which less than 7 percent, or 225.4 million liters, went to Japan, according Brazil's Agriculture Ministry.

Japan's National Development Bank will help with financing the distilleries aimed exclusively for the Japanese market, which would be built or purchased, Folha reported:
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Costa told the newspaper that the investment in each distillery could total US$200 million (€150 million). Aiming to ensure long-term supply for 15 years, Petrobras and Mitsui would set up a Brazil-based subsidiary.

Costa told the newspaper that Japan is insisting on guaranteed long-term supply of ethanol, an increasingly popular fuel because of persistent high oil prices. Petrobras announced earlier this week that it signed a memorandum of interest with Mitsui and a Brazilian construction firm to study the construction of a pipeline in Brazil that would be used to help export ethanol to Japan. No amount was disclosed on how much the pipeline could cost.

The United States is the world's largest ethanol producer, but Brazil is in the No. 2 spot and is the planet's largest exporter, with more agricultural land available than in America to ramp up production. While Brazil makes ethanol from sugarcane, U.S. ethanol is produced more expensively from corn.

Brazil's ethanol industry is now making profits like never before amid heavy foreign investment. There is also huge domestic demand in Brazil, where eight out of every 10 new cars are "flex fuel" models that can run on gasoline, pure ethanol or any combination of the two. Most drivers choose ethanol, because it costs almost half as much as gas.

U.S. President George W. Bush will meet Friday in Sao Paulo with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to forge an ethanol "alliance" aimed at promoting use of the fuel internationally and setting quality standards so it can be traded as a commodity.

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Sunday, March 04, 2007

Brazilian biofuels update

Brazil's biofuels sector has had a busy week again, with the launch of the International Biofuels Forum (earlier post), an investment for the creation of the world's largest biodiesel plant, and news about a new biofuel pipeline aimed at transporting ethanol and biodiesel to export facilities on the Atlantic.

Largest biodiesel plant
First of all, recently falling oil prices are not scaring a group of Brazilian and U.S. ivestors who are planning to build the world's largest biodiesel plant in Sumare, a small town in the interior of Sao Paulo state. The new biofuel company behind the project is called Brasil Eco Energia. Brazil's Ministry of Foreign Relations has the following details:
  • Investors: David DeWind, two Brazilian businessmen and a couple of U.S. funds are involved in the 600 million reais (€214.6/US$273.9 million) investment to create Brasil Eco Energia. DeWind owns Brasil Bio Energia, a eucalpytus and reforestation company serving the paper and pulp industry, located in Piaui state in northern Brazil. One of the Brazilian investors - Jose Americo Ribeiro dos Santos - is a business owner of Latin America's largest grain storage facility, capable of storing 405,000 tons of grains.
  • Capacity: the biodiesel plant will be capable of producing 835 million liters of biofuel annually. This comes down to around 14,500 barrels per day of oil equivalent.
  • Feedstock: Brasil Eco Energia will use soybeans as its feedstock, with purchases of 3.5 million metric tons of soybeans expected annually, that will be crushed at its plant in Sumare.
  • Construction begins in the first quarter of 2007, with the facility fully operational by 2008.
In that year, Brazil's mandate to blend a 2% mix of biofuel in all diesel fuel will be implemented. The Brazil biodiesel market will consume some 800 million liters just to meet this 2% mix rule. But according to recent government estimates, the biodiesel share could be increase to 5% by 2010 (earlier post).

Demand from the local market will grow fastest because Brazil burns two and a half times more diesel than ethanol, currently Brazil's No. 1 renewable fuel source. Brazil's energy giant, Petroleo Brasileiro (PBR), or Petrobras, says Brazil imports about 30% of the diesel it consumes, adding to overhead costs in the country's agricultural sector.

Demand for cheaper diesel is what led Brazil to adopt the diesel mixture in the first place. Moreover, Petrobras is creating its own, innovative diesel mixture called H-Bio, to meet projected demand (earlier post). Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) is also planning to build a biodiesel plant in Mato Grosso, which will produce all of its fuel from soybeans.

Multi-fuel pipeline
Also this week, Petrobras - the country's state-owned oil & gas company, announced that the Brazilian southern state of Paraná will have a multi-fuel pipeline, which will transport ethanol from the midwestern states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul, and the northern region of the state of Paraná to the Atlantic Port of Paranaguá, where the fuel will be exported:
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With a capacity for 18 million liters per year, the work, which will have an investment of approximately 2 billion reais (€715.3/US$ 940.7 million), is part of the Growth Acceleration Program (PAC) of the Brazilian federal government, and was confirmed last Thursday, March 1st, Brazil's Ministry of Planning, Paulo Bernardo, in Curitiba, the capital of Paraná state.

The multi-pipeline, which will also be capable of transporting gasoline and diesel, is going to cross the city of Araucária, in the Greater Curitiba region, where the Presidente Getúlio Vargas Refinery is based. The plant has a processing capacity of 189,000 oil barrels per day.

The multi-pipeline is part of a set of infrastructure projects for the southern Brazilian region, which, according to federal government plans, will receive investments of up to 37.5 billion reais (€13.4/US$ 17.6 billion) by 2010. The funds will be invested in the construction of roads, ports and airports, in partnership with the private sector.

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Thailand expands cassava hectarage for ethanol - small farmers to benefit

To promote ethanol as an alternative automobile fuel and to spur rural development and boost food security amongst some of Thailand's poorest rural populations, the Agriculture and Cooperatives Ministry has joined with agricultural firms to encourage small farmers in six of the country's provinces in the north and northeast to grow more cassava, a senior ministry official said this the weekend.

Compared to sugarcane, the tuberous root crop is easily established, managed and maintained on relatively poor soils and requires few inputs. This has made it a preffered feedstock for ethanol programs in the tropics that want to rely on smallholder participation. At present, there are 1 million hectares devoted to cassava planting in Thailand producing annually 20 million tons of roots.

Since cassava roots contain a high starch content, but low quantities of impurities such as protein and lipid, they are recognized as an excellent source of pure starch suitable for a wide range of industrial applications.

Anan Phusitthikul, secretary general of the Ministry's Agricultural Land Reform Office, said his agency had signed agreements with three private firms to encourage smallholders in four northeastern and two northern provinces to grow the crop for the firms who will guarantee to buy it, and who will convert the starch-rich tubers into the biofuel.

'Contract farming' agreements covering more than 400,000 rai (64,000 hectares/158,000 acres) of farmland in six provinces are expected to initially join the program as well, Mr. Anan said.

Poverty alleviation
The Agriculture and Cooperatives Ministry estimates that each cassava smallholder would earn a net profit of at least 1,500 baht per ton (€33.8/US$44.5). With an average expected yield of around 22MT/hectare (not taking into account regional differences), this comes down to around €745/US$980 per hectare.

Under the contract farming programme, growers will be able to boost their income security and fight poverty because buyers are guaranteed. Moreover, the Agricultural Land Reform Office will provide low interest loans to farmers at a maximum of 150,000 baht (€3380/US$4450) per grower, which is seen as a considerable incentive:
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In the North and Northeastern provinces of Thailand, smallholders typically own less than 2 hectares of land to grow for cash crops. Average incomes are the lowest in the country in these regions, and, according to the Thai Food Insecurity and Vulnerability Mapping System, these same regions face the largest food and income insecurity. The scheme under which they are guaranteed buyers for their cassave crop and the high expected net profits offer a strategy to intervene in food insecurity.

Ethanol production by the three firms is expected to start in the first quarter of 2008, with a joint demand for not less than two million tons of cassava annually. Even though no exact ethanol production capacity was disclosed, we estimate the total for the three plants to be around 500,000 tons per year.

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