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    Biopact's Laurens Rademakers is interviewed by Mongabay on the risks of large-scale bioenergy with carbon storage (BECS) proposals. Even though Biopact remains positive about BECS, because it offers one of the few safe systems to mitigate climate change in a drastic way, care must be take to avoid negative impacts on tropical forests. Mongabay - November 10, 2007.

    According to the latest annual ranking produced by The Scientist, Belgium is the world's best country for academic research, followed by the U.S. and Canada. Belgium's top position is especially relevant for plant, biology, biotechnology and bioenergy research, as these are amongst the science fields on which it scores best. The Scientist - November 8, 2007.

    Mascoma Corporation, a cellulosic ethanol company, today announced the acquisition of Celsys BioFuels, Inc. Celsys BioFuels was formed in 2006 to commercialize cellulosic ethanol production technology developed in the Laboratory of Renewable Resources Engineering at Purdue University. The Celsys technology is based on proprietary pretreatment processes for multiple biomass feedstocks, including corn fiber and distiller grains. The technology was developed by Dr. Michael Ladisch, an internationally known leader in the field of renewable fuels and cellulosic biofuels. He will be taking a two-year leave of absence from Purdue University to join Mascoma as the company’s Chief Technology Officer. Business Wire - November 7, 2007.

    Bemis Company, Inc. announced today that it will partner with Plantic Technologies Limited, an Australian company specializing in starch-based biopolymers, to develop and sell renewably resourced flexible films using patented Plantic technology. Bemis - November 7, 2007.

    Hungary's Kalocsa Hõerõmû Kft is to build a HUF 40 billion (€158.2 million) straw-fired biomass power plant with a maximum capacity of 49.9 megawatts near Kalocsa in southern Hungary. Portfolio Hungary - November 7, 2007.

    Canada's Gemini Corporation has received approval to proceed into the detailed engineering, fabrication and construction phases of a biogas cogeneration facility located in the Lethbridge, Alberta area, the first of its kind whereby biogas production is enhanced through the use of Thermal Hydrolysis technology, a high temperature, high pressure process for the safe destruction of SRM material from the beef industry. The technology enables a facility to redirect waste material, previously shipped to landfills, into a valuable feedstock for the generation of electricity and thermal energy. This eliminates the release of methane into the environment and the resultant solids are approved for use as a land amendment rather than re-entering the waste stream. In addition, it enhances the biogas production process by more than 25%. Market Wire - November 7, 2007.

    A new Agency to manage Britain's commitment to biofuels was established today by Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly. The Renewable Fuels Agency will be responsible for the day to day running of the Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation, coming into force in April next year. By 2010, the Obligation will mean that 5% of all the fuels sold in the UK should come from biofuels, which could save 2.6m to 3m tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. eGov Monitor - November 5, 2007.

    Prices for prompt loading South African coal cargoes reached a new record last week with a trade at $85.00 a tonne free-on-board (FOB) for a February cargo. Strong Indian demand and tight supply has pushed South African prices up to record levels from around $47.00 at the beginning of the year. European DES/CIF ARA coal prices have remained fairly stable over the past few days, having traded up to a record $130.00 a tonne DES ARA late last week. Fair value is probably just below $130.00 a tonne, traders said. At this price, some forms of biomass become directly competitive with coal. Reuters Africa - November 4, 2007.

    The government of India's Harayana state has decided to promote biomass power projects based on gasification in a move to help rural communities replace costly diesel and furnace oil. The news was announced during a meeting of the Haryana Renewable Energy Development Agency (HAREDA). Six pilot plants have demonstrated the efficiency and practicability of small-scale biomass gasification. Capital subsidies will now be made available to similar projects at the rate of Rs 2.5 lakh (€4400) per 100 KW for electrical applications and Rs 2 lakh (€3500) per 300 KW for thermal applications. New Kerala - November 1, 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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