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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 17, 2007

Portuguese-Angolan group launches biodiesel project in Angola

Not long ago, we outlined the bioenergy potential of Angola, and noted that the country is seeing a revival of its agricultural sector.

The vast and scarcely populated African country, which comes out of a decade-long civil war, is now seeing its first concrete biofuels project, despite the fact that Angola is a major petroleum producer. The Angolan-Portuguese group Afriagro announced [*Portuguese] plans to make an initial investment of €35 (US$46.6) million into a biodiesel plant that will be using oil from the African oil palm.

The project is to be located near the atlantic town of Ambriz, in the north-western Bengo province. It will consist of a new 5000 hectare palm plantation utilising high-yield hybrids that start yielding their first harvesteable oil-rich fruits after three years. From the fourth year onwards, they are mature and keep yielding for 20 years.

Work on the biodiesel plant is slated to begin in 2008.

The Portuguese Atlântica group holds a 45% stake in Afriagro, with the remainder divided under three Angolan firms: Nzogi Yetu, Coroa Gest and Lion.

Luís Farinha dos Santos, president of the Atlântica group, told the Jornal de Angola that the goal is to expand the plantation gradually to 20,000 hectares. Such an expansion implies the involvement of local farmers.

The Atlântica group has been operating in the Angolan market since 1997 as a diversified company [entry ends here].
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Friday, March 16, 2007

Global warming responsible for decline in global crop production - study

According to a new study by researchers at the Carnegie Institution and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, warming global temperatures have already caused annual losses of roughly US$5 billion for major food crops over the past two decades.

From 1981-2002, warming reduced the combined production of wheat, corn, and barley—cereal grains that form the foundation of much of the world’s diet—by 40 million metric tons per year. The diagram with scatter plots (click to enlarge) shows first-differences of yield (kg ha–1) and first-differences of average monthly minimum and maximum temperatures (°C) and precipitation (mm) during the growing season, along with best-fit trend lines (in grey). Each decade is shown with a different colour, indicating that the relationships do not appear to change through time.

The study, titled "Global scale climate–crop yield relationships and the impacts of recent warming" [*abstract], is published in the current online edition of the journal Environmental Research Letters, and demonstrates that this decline is due to human-caused increases in global temperatures. The article is freely accessible [*.html version / *.pdf version]. Do check it out, as the evidence is represented in a very straightforward way, and it offers a - scaringly clear - signal of the potential disaster climate change has in store for global agriculture.

"Most people tend to think of climate change as something that will impact the future,” says Christopher Field, co-author on the study and director of Carnegie’s Department of Global Ecology in Stanford, Calif. “But this study shows that warming over the past two decades has already had real effects on global food supply."

The study is the first to estimate how much global food production has already been affected by climate change. Field and David Lobell, lead author of the study and a researcher at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, compared yield figures from the Food and Agriculture Organization with average temperatures and precipitation in the major growing regions.

They found that, on average, global yields for several of the crops responded negatively to warmer temperatures, with yields dropping by about 3-5 percent for every 1 degree F increase. Average global temperatures increased by about 0.7 degrees F during the study period, with even larger changes in several regions:
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“Though the impacts are relatively small compared to the technological yield gains over the same period, the results demonstrate that negative impacts are already occurring,” said Lobell.

The researchers focused on the six most widely grown crops in the world: wheat, rice, maize (corn), soybeans, barley and sorghum—a genus of about 30 species of grass raised for grain. These crops occupy more than 40 percent of the world’s cropland, and account for at least 55 percent of non-meat calories consumed by humans. They also contribute more than 70 percent of the world’s animal feed.

The main value of this study, the authors said, was that it demonstrates a clear and simple correlation between temperature increases and crop yields at the global scale. However, Field and Lobell also used this information to further investigate the relationship between observed warming trends and agriculture.

"We assumed that farmers have not yet adapted to climate change—for example, by selecting new crop varieties to deal with climate change. If they have been adapting—something that is very difficult to measure—then the effects of warming may have been lower,” explained Lobell.

Most experts believe that adaptation would lag several years behind climate trends, because it can be difficult to distinguish climate trends from natural variability. “A key moving forward is how well cropping systems can adapt to a warmer world. Investments in this area could potentially save billions of dollars and millions of lives,” Lobell added.

More information:
Carnegie Institution: Crops feel the heat as the world warms - March 16, 2007
David B Lobell and Christopher B Field, "Global scale climate–crop yield relationships and the impacts of recent warming", Environ. Res. Lett. 2 (March 2007), 014002, doi:10.1088/1748-9326/2/1/014002

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A look at grass as a dedicated energy crop for biogas

The British Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) has released an interesting report on the potential of using common rye grass as a dedicated energy crop for the production of biogas. We report on it here, because the results offer clues for a future scenario of large-scale grass-based biogas production in the tropics, where biomass productivities are considerably higher. Below, we make a very rudimentary comparison based on the results of the DTI study.

In Europe, biogas is being made more and more often from energy crops that are used as a single substrate, instead of manure which is traditionally used. Several research efforts and trials are underway, analysing the potential of specially bred biogas maize, exotic grass species such as Sudan grass and sorghum, or new hybrid grass types.

Compared to making liquid biofuels, biogas has the advantage that the entire crop can be utilized and not merely the starch-, sugar- or oil-rich parts which is the case with first-generation ethanol or biodiesel production. A biomethane digester can ferment a much wider range of biomass sources. This is why the green gas has a large potential (as was recently illustrated by a report showing that biogas can replace all Russian gas imports in Europe - previous post).

Once the biogas is produced, it can be used either directly in gas engines and generators or in more efficient cogeneration plants for the production of power and heat. It can be purified to natural gas grade standards, after which it can be fed into the NG grid and utilized like ordinary fossil methane, by households, industries, or in cars and fuel cells (and here). As an automotive fuel, used in CNG-capable vehicles, biogas has the highest well-to-wheel efficiency and the lowest carbon dioxide footprint of all biofuels (earlier post).

The DTI report compares the energy balance of the most efficient ethanol and biodiesel production paths using UK crops, with that of biogas based on grass. Results of this comparison can be found in the table. The same ratios, we think, are roughly valid for tropical crops. Sugarcane ethanol's current energy balance is around 1 to 8. If the grass crop were to be used for the production of biogas, it would be more positive still.

This is why we see the large-scale production of biogas in the tropics and subtropics as a promising bioenergy sector, because the technology is well understood and already has a foot on the ground in most developing countries (on a micro-scale, at the household level); it yields more energy per hectare than liquid biofuels, which implies a better use of resources and less land needed; and the variety of suitable feedstocks is much larger.

The DTI report analysing rye grass as a dedicated energy crop set out the following set of basic objectives:
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  • to achieve a minimum yield of 4060 cubic meters of methane per hectare per year, which, when converted to electricity on a commercial scale would generate 14MWh per hectare per annum
  • to establish the relationship between the biogas yield and the harvesting cycle
  • to confirm that through storage of the grass, it is possible to achieve a constant yield of biomethane throughout the year
  • to assess the mass balance and energy balance of the entire process
  • to estimate th economics of a commercial grass-to-biogas plant
Several experimental plots were used to grow the rye grass, and different harvesting schemes were implemented (cutting the grass in cycles of two, three, four, six and eight weeks). After each harvest, the organic fertilizer - a byproduct from biogas production - was applied to the plots to measure the efficiency of this fertiliser.

Soil analyses were carried out to measure the effects of nutrient depletion, as well as the effect of different fertilizer regimes on grass productivity.

Analysis of the application of digestate - the 'biofertilizer' from the fermentation of the grass - showed positive results: the biogas digestate considerably increases biomass productivity of rye grass.

Grass yields
In the 2003 trials (see table), the grass showed a high average dry matter yield of 8.6MT per hectare (when the grass was cut at 50mm height) and a low average yield of 6.8 MT of dry matter per hectare (cut at 100mm). The highest yield in a single plot was 11.1MT.

In trials held a year later (see table), the results were lower, with averages of 6.7MT and 5.1MT respectively and a maximum yield of 12.7MT/dry matter/ha.

It is here that we can already draw an extremely basic point of comparison with the situation in the (humid) tropics. There, biomass productivity is much higher and the yield of grass species like sugarcane and sudan grass easily reaches 28MT/dry matter/ha per year on average (85MT/wet weight), or roughly three to four times the productivity of rye grass in the UK. Sheer biomass productivity is the single biggest factor determining the final biogas yield and energy balance of the biofuel production system.

Small digestion trials and methane yields
Two very basic and small (0.3 cubic meter and 1.5 cubic meter) anaerobic digesters were used to analyse the methane yield of the grass substrate. They were run continuously and fed daily.

Two types of feedstock were used: freshly cut grass and silaged grass. The overall average yield for silage was 342m³ of methane per ton of dry matter, whereas for fresh grass it was lower at 229m³.

There were large yield differences during the trials, with low monthly yields of 134m³ to maxima of 429m³.

The methane content of the biogas varied, with most months showing consistent CH4 contents of over 50%, while some dropped below that level and reached 40%.

An additional set of factors was analysed for their effects on methane yields, such as the retention time of the substrate, the effect of temperature changes and stabilisation rates (the time it takes for the biogas production to become 'consistent').

The most important conclusion of these trials was that ensiled grass clearly yields higher amounts of methane in the digester. This is good news, because it means more efficient management of feedstocks becomes possible. Grass can be harvested and stored, and then continuously feed a digester of a particular size, using optimal quantities of the feedstock for that size. This would be impossible if the digester (with its fixed scale) were to be fed fresh grass, the yield of which varies greatly per (bi-weekly or monthly) harvest.

Large-scale trials
In the second phase of the project, a large grass plot was established the biomass of which was used to feed a 20 cubic meter digester. Again, both silage and fresh gas was fed and methane yields compared.

The digester consisted of a reception tank for preparing the feedstock, a storage tank for the digestate and bell-over-water gas holder.

The feedstock was prepared as a liquid slurry using the recirculated digestate.

After first trials and modifications to the design of the digester, a very efficient plant was build that resulted in a consistent methane yield of 250 cubic meters per ton of dry matter.

Economic analysis and comparison with tropical feedstock
An economic analysis based on a system utilizing the biomass from 100 hectares of rye grass, showed that, despite promising biomass and methane yields, a large commercial biogas production system utilizing the grass as a single substrate would not be commercially viable.
Three scenarios were created each with different added value streams: (1) a system in which only the value of direct electricity production is taken into account (Case A1), (2) one in which biofertiliser as the byproduct from the digestion is given a commercial value (Case A2) and (3) one in which both the byproduct and useful excess heat is sold (Case A3).

None of these scenarios proved commercially viable. (It must be said that values for the electricity and heat are based on commercial prices as they stood at the time of the creation of the report - in late 2005 - meanwhile, they have increased considerably as all fossil fuel prices have risen.)

The basic table below shows costs versus income (some entries in the table reading '0' are the result of a later comparison of the pure rye grass system with one in which pig manure is added).

We want to re-write this table and include some guesstimated numbers for tropical biomass feedstocks, using sugarcane and its average yields (80 tons of dry matter per hectare per year) in Brazil as the grass substrate. Research on utilizing sugarcane as a single substrate for biogas is scarce. Some studies point to a considerably higher methane yield than that of rye grass (342m³/ton), but we limit it here to 350m³ of methane per ton.

For a more detailed calculation of these yields and ratios, see appendix 5 [*.pdf] of the DTI report.

Land prices in the developing world differ considerably from those in the UK (see our previous data on land prices in Africa), but we take an average of US$200/ha (£100 using the exchange rate at the time the study was produced) versus the £150/ha used in the DTI analysis.

We keep the production costs for both crops equal; labor costs are assumed to be half of those in the UK. Finally, costs for heating the digester (a factor falling under 'operating costs') reduced by a third because of higher and more consistent ambient temperatures in the tropics.

The table then looks as follows:
Concluding, we can say that biogas production from a single grass substrate in the UK will not be viable without subsidies. Given far higher biomass (and biogas and biofertiliser) yields of a tropical energy crop like sugarcane, large-scale biogas production based on such crops may be viable.

In Europe, a lot of research is being undertaken in this field, and in contrast with the rye grass study, some analyses do show that biogas from dedicated energy crops can be competitive at current market prices for energy. A recent PhD dissertation by Annimari Lehtomäki, which compared different potential biogas crops, showed that at least for specially bred maize varieties, large scale production is feasible and commercially viable.

Similar research on the potential of tropical energy crops as dedicated biogas feedstocks is scarce and would be very welcome.

More information:

DTI: Rye grass as an energy crop using biogas technology - page with links to the documents and appendices.
DTI: Rye grass as an energy crop using biogas technology - Main Report [*.pdf]
DTI: Rye grass as an energy crop using biogas technology - Appendix 5 [*.pdf]
Annimari Lehtomäki, Biogas production from energy crops and residues [*.pdf], Jyväskylä Studies in Biological and Environmental Science, PhD thesis, Jyväskylä University, Finland, 2006

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Nypa ethanol in the Niger Delta

The Biopact is currently co-operating with a small environmental NGO in Rivers State, Nigeria, to analyse the feasibility and social and environmental impact of ethanol production from the mangrove palm known as Nypa fruticans ('nipah', 'attap chee', 'nipa').

Nypa grows in tropical mangroves and yields copious amounts of a sugar-rich sap that can be tapped. Mangrove communities traditionally use the plant for a wide variety of purposes, such as thatching and to make vinegar and alcoholic beverages.

The palm is now receiving steady interest as a potential biofuel feedstock because trials show it yields unparalleled amounts of sugar. Theoretical ethanol yields based on actual juice harvests in Malaysia and Papua New Guinea are estimated to reach up to 15,000 to 20,000 liters per hectare (by comparison: sugarcane yields around 5000-8000 liters; corn, 2000 liters).

Prompted by these results, the world's first initiative to actually produce ethanol on a large scale from wild stands of the plant was launched in Malaysia last year (earlier post).

Nypa can be found in most tropical mangrove systems, but in the Niger Delta it has become an invasive species which is colonizing vast parts of this large mangrove system, rapidly. It propagates aggresively and replaces native species. Several eradication efforts have been implemented, but they have largely been unsuccessful. Some are now looking at turning the pest into profit, by utilizing its ethanol potential. The Nigerian mangrove system is the largest in Africa and the third largest in the world, covering an area of over 10,000 square kilometers of which over 504,000 hectares found in the Niger delta region. Nypa fruticans has become the third most dominant species, and now expands up to 45km from the sea shore to the interland.

The densely populated Niger Delta is plagued by civil unrest, mainly driven by the environmental, social and economic misery of the region, which is often said (and perceived) to be the result of the oil industry's predatory practises which disregard local communities. One of the goals of the Biopact's study is to analyse whether building a locally rooted ethanol industry around the abundant Nypa palms can contribute positively to poverty alleviation and provide alternative sources of income to the mangrove communities. Tapping Nypa is labor-intensive, which promises the creation of a considerable number of jobs, but skilled tappers can obtain enough ethanol feedstock to make commercial biofuel production viable while providing decent incomes that surpass official local minimum wages.

An important foundation in the same State, the Harold J. R. Dappa-Biriye Foundation, named after a legendary politician who fought for the liberation and independence of the delta states, recently analysed the potential of this kind of projects. O.C.J. Okocha, chief of the National Bar Association and erudite, delivered the foundation's annual memorial lecture titled "Nypa for ethanol production: the Niger Delta in the limelight", which was published in The Tide Online, a local newspaper. With permission, we reproduce this interesting lecture here in full:
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"Many thanks to the Trustees and Executive Officers of the Harold J R. Dappa-Biriye Foundation for their kind invitation to me to participate in are deliver a lecture at this and Annual Memorial Lecture of the Foundation holding here today. I have been requested to speak on the topic Nypa Palm, biologically called nypa fruticans, and its usefulness in the production of the biofuel ETHANOL, are topics that only scientists are researchers in those fields are qualified to discuss; but then Niger Delta in the Limelight? – a favourite topic for most of us. The dilemma post should be apparent to all of us, especially because the blaze of publicity that has engulfed the Niger Delta Reg1on of Nigeria in recent times, is manifestly significant, not because of the Nipa Palm, but for a variety of other reasons. In this latter regard, I can claim to be on familiar territory, as I am an indigene of Rivers State, from the Ikwerre Nation, and I have resided in Port Harcourt since the, year 1970.

It is indeed an honour to be standing her~ today, speaking at a forum the memorializes the late Chief Harold J. R. Dappa-Biriye, CON, Ph.D., JP, who was translated to eternity a few years ago. When as a young boy, I returned to Port Harcourt., in January, 1970, from, the enclave called Biafra, and entered the Government Comprehensive Secondary School, Borokiri, I came to know Chief Harold Dappa-Biriye, as one of the pioneer members of the Rivers State Executive Council, under the chairmanship of the inimitable

Commander Alfred Papapreye Diete-Spiff (as he then was), the first Military Governor of River State. I later came to knew that Chief Harold Dappa Biriye was one of the political icons of the old Rivers Province, who founded and headed his own Political Party, the Niger Delta Congress. I believe it was called, and that he had on several occasions represented the Rivers Province, and indeed the minority ethnic nationalities of the Niger

Delta, at several Constitutional Conference that were organized by the British Government prior to Nigeria’s attainment of Independence. I recall that when I had the honour to serve as the Attorney-General of Rivers State, from 1990 to 1992, I met with him on several occasions, to find a way forward on the vexed issue of Comey Subsidies, one of his favourite topics.

And a few years before his death, he came to seek my legal advice on a matter which had felt had been mishandled by another legal practitioner, for which he desired to proceed on appeal to the Court of Appeal. I felt quite gratified, that he accepted my legal opinion on the matter, and with deep satisfaction. And so I salute him, and his esteemed memory, for his loyal and dedicated services to our people, and for all he did to forward the interests of Rivers State, and indeed the minority ethnic nationalities in the Niger Delta. May his soul continue to rest in perfect peace. AMEN.

May I also salute the Harold J. R. Dappa-Biriye Foundation, and also commend the Trustees and Executive Officers thereof, for institutionalizing the Memorial Lecture Series in honour of late Chief Harold J. R. Dappa-Biriye. It seems to me that Lecture Series such as this should be seen as veritable platforms for us to discuss topical issues of the day, and hope that, by so doing, we can send a clear message to those who claim that they are politicians (I call them the “so-called elected representatives of the people”), but who in actual fact have unlawfully hijacked the instruments of government from their own selfish purposes, and who have used their privileged positions to block truly patriotic Nigerian from finding accommodation within the political space of our beloved country, so that those patriots can actualize our hopes and aspirations for a better tomorrow.

And so, let us cheerfully embrace the opportunity to speak, and many all those who, have ears listen and hear; for we too must have our say.

The Nipa Palm
From literature made available to me by the Foundation and from what I have personally read, I gathered that the Nipa Palm was originally from the mangrove forests of southeast Asia, i.e. India, Malaysia,’ Indonesia. The Philippines and Bangladesh. It was, introduced into the Niger Delta at the beginning of the 20th century, i.e. in or about the year 1901, and it was brought by foreigners from Europe, who planted the Nipa Palm as a decorative plant, which was also believed to be capable of checking coastal erosion. It is also known as and called the mangrove palm, as it thrives in the brackish waters of the mangrove forest. It is seen as an invasive species of plant life, as it actually does suppress other plant life, particularly the mangrove tree (Rhisophora), which we call “angala”, and which has been found to be particularly useful for a great variety of purposes. In areas where the Nipa Palm thrives, it has virtually eradicated the angala mangrove tree, and this phenomenon has in turn resulted in the depiction of other aquatic life, SUCN as fish, crayfish, crabs, periwinkles, etc. which thrive in our mangrove swamps and actually depend on the angula mangrove tree for breeding and sustenance.

While the Nipa Palm is virtually of no beneficial us~ to the communities of the Niger Delta and this is perhaps because we lack the resources and the technology to carry out detailed research into the plant, and it ascertain whether it can be put to beneficial use, some mangrove swamp dwellers in south-east Asia have been able to devise ways and means of tapping the Nipa Palm. In the process, they have been able to extract vast quantities of its sugar-rich sap, which is used to make wine and vinegar, while the leaves, fruits, stems and fibre derived from the Nipa Palm are used for a variety of other useful purposes.

Recent research into the sugar-rich sap of the Nipa Palm, and the relatively high yield which it produces, has shown that ethanol can be produced relatively cheaply from a fermentation process, such that 15,000 to 20,000 liters of ethanol can be produced from the plant on an area of one hectare compared with sugarcane, which yields 5,000 to 8,000 liters per hactare, or corn, which yields 2,000 liters per hectare. this is quite a remarkable discovery, As Rsli Ghazali, a municipal chief in Perak, Malaysia, has stated, the production from ethano1 from 110,000 hectares of Nipa palm, would be enough to satisfy the world’s current ethanol demand.

Ethanol is one of the biofuels now in use for the propulsion of automobile and other engines, which ordinarily use petrol, diesel and other fuels produced from crude oil. Ethanol is said to be an environmentally-friendly fuel, as it does not emit the gases and other chemical products which produce the Green House effect that has contributed to global warming, as does petrol. Ethanol is also said to be cheaper than petrol, and so its economic potential is considered to be quite high.

Nipa palm for the production of ethanol
It is curious that one of the aims and objectives of the Harold J, R. Dappa-Biriye Foundation is to embark on Scientific Research that would draw attention to the peculiar problems of the wetlands of the Niger Delta with particular emphasis on the threats to the mangrove, by the colonization of the same by the Nipa Palm. As a matter of fact, the Foundation appears to have already embarked on a mission to tackle the Nipa Palm, and, halt its advance, and, if possible, to weed out the Nipa Palm from our Maters and swamp forests. Now, an issue of interesting dimensions has been raised, and that is whether the Nipa Palm can be put to beneficial use, e.g. for the production of ethanol? It seems to me that this new position appeal’s to admit the futility of the effort to eradicate the Nipa Palm in the Niger Delta. It is always good to face reality, but can we truly say that we have exhausted our research into the matter? Is it truly possible to eradicate the Nipa Palm from the Niger Della?

If not, should we now embark on the mass cultivation of the Nipa Palm and utilize the sap thereof in the production of ethanol? Are we really satisfied that ethanol will be that viable as an alternative to petrol and petroleum products? Can we produce enough ethanol to replace petrol and other petroleum products as the fuel for the propulsion of our automobile and other engines?

These are very serious issues, and it seems to me that they call more detailed research, study and analysis. All too often, we tend to adopt the results of research work done by others, which research work did not take into any account our own peculiar circumstances, needs and wants; but the peculiar circumstances of the researchers and their own environments, needs and wants. May I therefore say that the matter should be referred to appropriate quarters, and I believe that the Ministry of Science and Technology, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Energy, and the relevant research agencies and institutions of Government should take the same up. And need I add, that government should take the necessary provisions for such research work to be meaningfully carried on.

Niger Delta still in the limelight
It is commendable that the Harold J. R. Dappa-Biriye Foundation has; again identified the fact, the truism, that the Niger Delta, with its abundant natural resources, will forever continue to remain in the limelight. The discussion now taking place about the Nipa Palm again underscores the point that the Niger Delta is truly blessed, and that all efforts must be geared towards the proper harnessing and utilization of the abundant natural resources in the area. The theme of this Second Memorial Lecture is HARNESSING EMERGING Ethno-political trends in Nigeria’s democracy, and this is quite apt and topical, especially because of what we have seen in recent times. As 1 have asked at several other fora, why is it that the Niger Delta, with all its abundant natural resources, still remains the least developed area of Nigeria. The answer, to me, and indeed to most of us, is that the Government and Peoples of Nigeria have continued to neglect the area, in terms of its development needs, while at the same time they have continued to concentrate their efforts on tapping the natural resources of the area, the proceeds of which ends up partly in the Federation account, and partly in the vaults of foreign banks which keep accounts for some greedy Nigerians and their collaborators.

I am satisfied that most Nigerians have become fully sensitized about the plight of the Niger Delta, and are prepared to join the struggle for a better deal for the peoples of the area, but then, those who hold the instruments of Government have failed to deliver on their promises. I say again that problems of the Niger Delta can only be solved by Good Governance”, from the Federal Government the governments of the Niger Delta States and the Local Governments of the States in the Niger Delta And I must refer them to Chapter II of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999, which deals with Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy.

I am sure that most of you read THIS DAY of Tuesday, February, 20, 2007, which bore the screaming headline: Niger Delta Governments have failed. In the story, credited to the British High Commissioner, H.E. Richard Grozney, the lingering crisis in the Niger Delta was a reflection of the lack of confidence which the people of the region/area had in their leaders, and the failure of Government to address their needs. As stated by the High Commissioner, the Local and States Governments ill the four core Niger Delta Sates of Rivers, Delta, Bayelsa and Akwa Iborn, have not been able to convince the people that Government meant well for them, in spite of derivation fund to them. Mr Grozney, it was said, stressed that so much money was being derived from the Niger Delta areas, and opined that the people should feel the impact. He therefore charged Local and States’ Governments in the core Niger Delta region to convince the people that they will gain from, democracy. When this confidence is restored, he further opined, the bad boys will be squeezed out. POINT as we used to say at Students’ Parliament in my days at Great Ife.

May I also recall the debacle that arose, during the National Political Forum

Conference of 2006, when some of our fellow countrymen from the Northern States of Nigeria, in answer to the demand of the South-South States for 50% Derivation Allocation, that the Governors of the South-South States should show what they had done with the funds previously allocated to them under the 13% Derivation formula. While we all rose in stout defence of our Governors, mostly because we felt that their detractors had no locus standi on the matter, my further reflections convinced me that they indeed had a point. And so, it is the responsibility for all of us, as citizens of Nigeria and indigents of the Niger Delta States, to ask the pertinent question - WHAT HAVE OUR GOVERNMENTS DONE WITH OUR MONEY?

It seems that we have been too complacent, too negligent in the entire circumstances of the matter. It is not only our right, but also our entitlement, to ensure that the funds allocated to our States and 1.09al Governments, and indeed the funds internally generated by our States and Local Governments, are judiciously utilized and applied for the good of all of us. We must all say NO! and NEVEER, AGAIN!, if we see that our common patrimony is being squandered in projects’ that have no positive impact in the good and welfare of our peoples, or on useless and futile pursuits of self-aggrandizing political power. As the cliche goes, MAN NO GO DEY FOR WATER, SOAP DE ENTER HIM EYE.

And so, as we approach the forthcoming General Elections, may we do all that we humanly can to ensure that the persons whom we elect into political offices, at all levels, are those who truly love their people and their States and Local Government, those who have honest and genuine intentions to serve their people, and those who accepted that the development of the Niger Delta is our primary responsibility as indigenes of the area.

May I again thank the Harold J. R. Dappa-Briye Foundation for this opportunity to speak. My message is that in our participation in the political development of Nigeria, and the States and Loral Governments thereof, we must also look at the matter of harnessing the abundant natural resources of our lands and waters, and for us in the Niger Delta, let us do all that can to ensure that we truly derive the of the abundant natural of our area of the federation of Nigeria, and that we utilize the same for the common good of all of us. This we can do, by ensuring that our States and Local Government Areas, and indeed our peoples, are developed, not only for our own benefit, but also for the benefit of our succeeding generations.

Thank you for your kind attention, and may God bless us all. Amen"

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Leading investors create major biofuel company in Brazil, as bagasse-based cellulosic ethanol advances

A while ago we referred to a small note published in a Brazilian newspaper, saying that a conglomerate of American and Brazilian investors will be creating the country's largest bio-ethanol company with an expected investment of not less than US$2 billion and a goal to produce 3.8 billion liters (1 billion gallons) of sugarcane based ethanol per year. One of the financiers of the new company supposedly was Vinod Khosla, founder of Sun Microsystems and investor in cellulosic ethanol in the U.S (previous post).

We can now confirm that this enterprise is indeed in the making. What's more, not only Khosla is involved, but some of the world's most successful entrepreneurs are so as well: supermarket magnate Ron Burkle, ex-World Bank President James Wolfensohn, and the co-founder of AOL, Steve Case, are investors. The firm will be managed by Philippe Reichstul, the ex-president of Brazil's state-owned oil company Petrobras SA.

The new Brazil-focused ethanol company is called 'Brazilian Renewable Energy Company Ltd.', or 'Brenco', and raised US$200 million in a first private placement of its common shares this week. Goldman Sachs is the exclusive placement agent for the new company. "This US$200 million that was raised is just an initial placement; US$2 billion is the target," said a source, adding that the placement was very well received.

Brenco's goal over the next 10 years is to reach an annual output of 3.8 billion liters (1 billion gallons), or the equivalent of around 46,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day. This would make it the world's largest biofuel company. By comparison, the country's largest miller to date, Cosan SA, which accounts for under 10% of Brazil's total ethanol output, produced 1.27 billion liters in the 2006-07 season.

Samir Kaul, a general partner of Khosla Ventures, the venture fund founded by Vinod Khosla, indicates that corn ethanol is out of the loop because it is inefficient and can never compete with its sugarcane based rival:
"We are obviously very bullish on biofuels and using sugarcane to make ethanol. It's a cheaper process, it's more favorable for the environment, and they have their costs well below a dollar a gallon in Brazil. So it makes it much more competitive given that corn is high."
Progress on bagasse-based cellulosic ethanol
Sugarcane based ethanol of the 'first generation' currently has an average energy balance of around 1-to-8 up to 1-to-10 (earlier post), meaning that for each unit of energy invested in producing the fuel (growing, harvesting and processing the crops), 8 to 10 units of net energy are obtained. This makes it the most efficient biofuel currently available. By comparison, ethanol made from corn has a marginal energy balance, slightly higher than 1, while some scientists say it can even be negative (earlier post). Biodiesel made from rapeseed has a balance of around 1.5 to 2, whereas cellulosic ethanol based on crops grown in temperate climates is expected to have a balance of 2 to 4.

When sugarcane stems are crushed, a fibrous biomass residue known as bagasse is left over. In Brazil's bioenergy industry, this abundant resource is currently burned for the production of power and heat, which is used by mills and ethanol processing plants, whereas excess electricity is fed into the grid. But the residue can also be converted efficiently into next-generation green fuels, such as synthetic biofuels via a biomass-to-liquids process based on gasification and Fischer-Tropsch synthesis (earlier post), or into cellulosic ethanol via a biochemical conversion process (using enzymes to break down the biomass). If this effort is pursued on a large scale, the energy balance of sugarcane based biofuels would become extremely high and may reach a ratio of around 1-to-12. This comes close to the energy balance of petroleum-based fuels.

The news of the creation of Brenco comes precisely at a time when Brazilian biofuel companies are beginning to achieve their first positive results in the utilisation of this biomass for the production of next-generation fuels.

Dedini SA announced it has already begun producing cellulose ethanol in small amounts from the fibrous waste stream. Operations Vice-President Jose Luiz Oliverio said Dedini is making 100 liters per day of cellulose ethanol from bagasse in a pilot plant, for about 25 cents per liter, the same as ethanol made from cane juice. The company aims to start building commercial cellulose mills with a capacity of 50,000 liters per day in five years.

Likewise, Petrobras today announced it is investing in a pilot cellulosic ethanol plant at its headquarters in Rio de Janeiro, where the same resource, bagasse, will be converted into liquid fuel using the biochemical pathway:
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Similar energy yields and cost scenarios may be expected for biofuels made from other tropical crops, such as sweet sorghum, cassava or sweet potatoes. One thing is clear, though, biofuels produced in temperate climates can never compete with 'tropical biofuels', giving the developing world an inalienable competitive advantage over the North.

It is because of these facts that Brenco was founded. Other key investors in the new company include film producer Steven Bing, and local investors Tarpon All Equities LLC and Grupo Semco. Brenco is incorporated in Bermuda, but has headquarters in Sao Paulo, according to sources.

Brazil is the world's leading sugar producer and exporter. It is also the world's leading ethanol exporter and shipped out a record 3.4 billion liters of ethanol in 2006, or about a fifth of the country's total production of some 17 billion liters. Global interest in Brazil's cheap cane-based ethanol has boomed in recent months due to high world oil prices and growing climate change concerns among other factors.

An influx of private equity money into the Brazilian sugarcane sector has followed, including U.S. investment company Kidd & Co., which helped finance young, bioenergy company Infinity Bio-Energy.

Infinity Bio-Energy, which listed on the London stock exchange's junior market, or AIM, last May, now owns four operational Brazilian sugarcane mills that are set to crush 5.5 million tons of cane in the 2007-08 season.

In addition, there is the Cayman Island-incorporated Bioenergy Development Fund, which has financing from France's third-largest bank, Societe Generale, but has yet to announce any acquisitions in the sector.

Another recently formed company, Clean Energy Brazil, which raised GBP100 million on AIM in December, is planning to invest in three mills in Parana in coming months. Local press reports had originally put Brenco's capital holdings as $2 billion.

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GALP Energia invests €225 million in 'H-biodiesel'

Portuguese oil company Galp Energia has outlined [*Portuguese] its biofuels strategy for the coming years and announced a €225/US$300 million investment in the production of 500,000 tons of an innovative, second-generation type of biodiesel, known as 'H-biodiesel'.

By 2010, the oil refiner wants to replace 10% of the petroleum products it sells by biofuels, in line with national goals. In order to achieve this, Galp Energia plans to adapt its existing refinery in Porto to accomodate the biodiesel refining infrastructure. From 2008 onwards, it wants to initiate its program by producing 100,000 tons of the new type of biodiesel per year, which will increase to 200,000 tons in 2010. An entirely new plant will be built at its refinery in Sines, where 300,000 tons will be produced. The total capacity of 500,000 tons per year amounts to a production of around 8600 barrels of oil equivalent per day.

The second generation biodiesel is made by hydrogenating and isomerising vegetable oils, in a process similar to the 'H-Biodiesel' developed by Brazil's Petrobras (earlier post and see image, click to enlarge) and by the Italian oil company ENI (see Galp Energia's presentation *.pdf, page 5). Isomerisation is a process in which molecules with a particular chain structure are transformed via a catalyst into isomers with a different chain structure. Hydrogenation involves the direct addition of hydrogen under pressure in the presence of catalysts. It is a process used commonly in the petrochemical industry to convert unsaturated organic compounds into saturated compounds (hydrocarbons). Oil refiners use it to upgrade fossil fuels. The advantage of applying the process, is that the production can be integrated in existing refinery infrastructures and that it can use any type of vegetable oil, including oils that would result in biodiesel of poor quality if traditional transesterification processes were to be used.

The ultra-clean H-biodiesel resulting from the process reduces greenhouse gas emissions by up to 75%, contains lower amounts of aromatic hydrocarbons and its use results in less NOx emissions than petro-diesel. The biodiesel also has a higher calorific value and cetane number. Contrary to first-generation biodiesel, of which only B5 to B10 blends can be handled by unadapted engines, the clean biodiesel can be used in existing engines:
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Galp Energia's biofuel strategy amounts to a total of €225 million, of which €50 million will be invested in the Porto refinery, where existing facilities will be adapted. The remainder goes to the refinery in Sines, where a new plant will be build. The investment in the renewable fuel is part of an overall investment of €1.645 billion, which Galp Energia plans to inject over the coming years (until 2010).

The project is supported by INETI, the Instituto Nacional de Engenharia, Tecnologia e Inovação, a public laboratory which falls under Portugal's Ministery of Economic Affairs.

More information:
Galp Energia: Biocombustíveis: Estratégia e Compromisso da Galp Energia [*.pdf]- March 14, 2007.

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Indonesia and Brazil sign agreement to cooperate on biofuels

During a visit to Indonesia, Brazil's agriculture minister Luís Carlos Guedes Pinto signed [*Portuguese] an agreement aimed at intensifying cooperation on biofuels. The pact is based on tech transfers of Brazilian ethanol and biodiesel technologies.

Meeting with his counter-part Anton Apriyantono, both countries signed a memoradum for the creation of a Brazil-Indonesia Consultative Committee on Biofuels.

With its 245 million inhabitants Indonesia is the world's fourth most populous country. It wants to revitalise its agricultural sector and increase its energy security by investing massively in bioenergy. The Indonesian government has so far invested US$1.42 billion in the sector, with more than 67 projects for the production of liquid biofuels signed so far, and with 114 biomass power plants under construction across the archipelago (earlier post). The country plans to inject a total of US$ 12.4 billion over the coming 3 years (earlier post).

The program is seen as a way to alleviate poverty and to generate employment, as some 2.5 million jobs will be created in the sector (earlier post).

Indonesia mainly produces biodiesel, with more than 11 government-supported biodiesel plants under construction (earlier post), but the country wants to replace gasoline with ethanol as well. Its ethanol program is based on sugarcane and cassava. To achieve its goals, Indonesia will be planting 2.25 million hectares to grow the crops, out of a total of 6 million that have been allotted for energy crops (earlier post). Under the new agreement, it will draw on Brazil's extensive technological and scientific experience.

Brazil is rapidly building South-South relations aimed at creating a global market for biofuels. Recently, it opened a special office in Accra, Ghana, to strengthen links with African countries (earlier post) [entry ends here].
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Stora Enso and Nesto Oil partner on biomass-to-liquids production

Finland-based wood processing firm Stora Enso has signed an agreement with Neste Oil to join forces to develop technology for producing next-generation biofuels from wood residues to replace fossil fuels in transportation and thus cut greenhouse gases. The first step will be to design and build a demonstration plant at Stora Enso's Varkaus Mill in Finland. The demonstration plant, which will be owned on a 50/50 basis by the parties, is expected to start up in 2008.

Stora Enso is pioneering the production of synthetic biofuels for transportation. Expertise from Stora Enso, Neste Oil and VTT (the Technical Research Centre of Finland) will be utilised to implement the development phase and commercialise the renewable fuels.

Synthetic biofuels are obtained from gasifying biomass, in this case wood residues from Stora Enso's mill, which results in a carbon dioxide and hydrogen rich gas. This syngas is then liquefied via a Fischer-Tropsch process.

The €14 million demonstration plant will be integrated into the energy infrastructure of the Stora Enso's Varkaus Mill, where the gas produced will equal the energy needed to heat 4300 homes and cut carbon dioxide emissions significantly.

Stora Enso's Varkaus Mill currently produces fine paper, directory paper, newsprint, coreboard and sawn timber on three paper machines and one board machine with a total annual capacity of about 620 000 tonnes of paper and board, and 345 000 m3 of sawn wood products. The mill's annual wood consumption is approximately 2.3 million m3. The mill employs about 980 people:
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Following the development phase, the joint venture will build a fullscale commercial production plant at one of Stora Enso's mills, once the technical solutions are ready and the JV partners have gained enough experience from the demonstration plant. This facility will be owned on a 50/50 basis between the JV partners. In the jointventure, Stora Enso will be responsible for supplying the wood biomass and utilising the heat generated at its pulp and paper mill.

Stora Enso's wood biomass is supplied from forests according to ecological criteria. Neste Oil will be responsible for final refining and marketing of the biofuels produced.

The European Union has set a target of replacing 5.75% (18 million tonnes) of the fossil fuels consumed by transportation with biofuels by 2010 and 10% by 2020. This would mean replacing 30 million tonnes of fossil fuels and would require significant increases in biofuel production. Emissions from biofuels are considered to be carbon-neutral because the carbon dioxide is recycled through the atmosphere and stored by growing forests as part of the natural carbon cycle, whereas combustion of fossil fuels introduces "new" sources of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

This new enterprise supports Stora Enso's sustainability policies and the Group's efforts to mitigate climate change. Stora Enso is focused on reducing greenhouse gases by improving energy efficiency, increasing usage of biofuels and other renewable energy sources, and maximising the use of combined heat and power in energy production.

Image: logs at Stora Enso's Varkaus Mill. Courtesty: Stora Enso.

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Thursday, March 15, 2007

Brazilian biofuels update

We continue our weekly update on what's happening in Brazil's bioenergy market. Two important stories dominated the headlines, namely the signing of Brazil's ethanol pact with the U.S., and the speed with which a Brazilian agricultural office in Ghana is building South-South cooperation and tech transfer links with African countries. We covered both stories earlier (here and here).

This week saw news about the biofuels mandate in Brazil, about ambitious export goals and trade with Japan, and about a massive €181/US$240 million investment by foreign investors into a Brazilian sugar and ethanol joint-venture that will be building 4 new facilities with a total crushing capacity of 20 million tons per year.

Boosting the ethanol mandate

In Brazil itself, the government is looking at boosting the ethanol mandate to 25%, up from 23% today.

Angelo Bressan, head of the Agriculture Ministry's sugarcane and biofuels department, expects the change to be implemented by May, when Brazil's ethanol mills will be running at full capacity.

Brazil's sugarcane farmers are expected to harvest a record crop this year. Ethanol output may rise to as much as 20 billion liters (5 billion gallons) from about 18 billion liters in the previous crop, Bressan told reporters in Sao Paulo.

Use of the biofuel in Brazil may rise to as much as 15 billion liters this year, from about 14 billion liters last year, he said. The amount may jump to 30 billion liters as early as 2013, Bressan said.

Tripling ethanol exports

Brazil's Agriculture Minister Luis Carlos Guedes Pinto said the country plans to almost triple ethanol exports in the next seven years and will need investments of about €10.1/US$13.4 billion to boost output.

Brazil plans to more than double production of ethanol to 35 billion liters, Guedes said via a translator in an interview with Bloomberg News in Tokyo. Exports may account for as much as 10 billion liters, he said.

According to the minister, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's government is boosting exports of biofuels not only to help the nation expand crops output but also to discourage poor farmers from migrating to cities

Guedes added that Brazil expects to build 89 new ethanol production plants in the next seven years. The nation's sugar cane output may rise to 627 million tons from 427 million tons as a consequence:
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Ethanol for Japan

Japan, under pressure to set out decisive measures and cut emissions of greenhouse gases, will expand use of environmentally friendly fuel and has signed import agreements with Brazil.

In a meeting with Japanese business leaders in Brasilia on March 7, the same minister, Louis Carlos Guedes Pinto, said that the South American nation can ensure supply to Japan should the Asian country mandate gasoline containing 3 percent of the biofuel.

Nippon Oil Corp., Japan's biggest oil refiner, and domestic rivals plan next month to start test-sales of gasoline blended with ethyl tertiary butyl ether, a fuel additive made from crop- produced ethanol and the chemical isobutylene.

Brazil needs to sign medium- and long-term supply contracts with Japan, in order for the South American nation to export ethanol to the Asian country, Guedes said. Before starting exports of the fuel, an ethanol plant project requires a three- year lead time to grow sugarcane for the new plant.

Guedes stressed Japan and Brazil should cooperate and help Southeast Asian countries embark on projects to produce ethanol for automotive fuel, and diversify supply sources of the biofuel in the global market.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government plans to boost the country's ethanol use to 500,000 kiloliters (3.1 million barrels) in 2010, as part of efforts to achieve an emissions reductions target set under the Kyoto Protocol. Under the accord, Japan pledged to cut greenhouse gases 6 percent by 2012 from 1990 levels to help combat climate change.

In fiscal year ended March 31, 2006, Japan emitted 8.1 percent more greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide than it did in 1990, according to the environment ministry.

Guedes then made a three-day visit to Tokyo and met with executives of Itochu Corp., Japan's fourth-largest trading company, to exchange views on ethanol businesses, he said at a press conference after the interview with Bloomberg News, without elaborating.

Itochu and Indonesian partner PT Molindo Raya may start producing ethanol from two proposed plants in the Southeast Asian nation in the second half of next year. The plants in Lampung at the northern tip of Sumatra and Pacitan in East Java province will start production in the third and fourth quarters of 2008, Alhilal Hamdi, head of a government team promoting biofuel, said by telephone yesterday.

Itochu will complete a feasibility study to build ethanol plants in Indonesia and Thailand by the year-end before deciding to go ahead with the projects, spokesman Masahide Kitagawa said on March 12.

Guedes is due to leave Tokyo today, and heads for Jakarta to hold a seminar on biofuel, he said. Earlier this week, the minister had a meeting with Japan's Agriculture Minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka and discussed issues related to bioethanol and livestock trade.

Group invests US$240 million
Private equity firm Carlyle Group and a group of investors agreed on Wednesday to invest €181/US$240 million in a Brazilian ethanol and sugar producer, betting on growing demand for biofuels.

The group, led by Carlyle and private equity firm Riverstone Holdings LLC, will put the funds into Companhia Nacional de Acucar e Alcool (CNAA), a joint venture between sugar and ethanol producer Santa Elisa and Global Foods holding.

Global Foods said in a statement that the Carlyle /Riverstone Renewable Energy Infrastructure Fund pledged $187 million of the total funding. Funding was coordinated by the Dutch ING Bank.

CNAA plans to build at least four sugar and ethanol mills in Minas Gerais and Goias states in Brazil's center-south, Brazil's main sugar-cane producing region. Total cane crushing capacity will be 20 million tonnes a year from 120,000 hectares of plantations.

"It is CNAA's intention to take Santa Elisa's strength as an industry pioneer for the past 70 years to the newer cane-growing areas of Brazil where efficiency gains are still available...," Allan Kahane, a co-founder of Global Foods, said in the statement.

Kahane, a Brazilian, said that CNAA would be supported by Crystalsev, one of Brazil's biggest sugar and ethanol distributors in which Santa Elisa is the main shareholder.

Santa Elisa, controlled by the Biaggi family, owns three mills and was the first to produce fuel ethanol in Brazil in 1975. It is in merger talks with Companhia Vale do Rosario, which was the target of a recent takeover bid by Brazil largest sugar and ethanol producer Cosan.

Global Foods specialises in global preferential trade access for sugar and ethanol.

The Carlyle Group manages $54 billion and Riverstone, a New York-based $8.1 billion, including $800 million in its renewable energy infrastructure fund.

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EU forges energy partnership with Africa

The development ministers of the 27 EU member states concluded their informal meeting at the Petersberg near Bonn earlier this week. It focused on energy cooperation between Europe and the 78 ACP (Africa, Caribbean, Pacific) countries. Afterwards, the EU development ministers met about 30 colleagues from ACP countries for an informal dialogue on Economic Partnership Agreements (EPA's) – the first time a meeting has been held between these two groups.

Ministers and representatives of the European Commission also adopted the “Petersberg Communiqué on European Development Policy”. Based on the EU’s objective to eradicate poverty in the context of sustainable development and in line with the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the communiqué reiterates the objectives, values and principles of European development cooperation.

In a joint press conference with EU Development Commissioner Louis Michel and Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson, the German Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul announced the forging of an energy partnership between Europe and Africa.

She emphasized that without sustainable access to energy, there can be no development: "Rising costs for fossil energy are jeopardizing development achievements in Africa. We in the European Union therefore want to support Africa in expanding the use of renewable energy and improving energy efficiency."

The Minister also drew attention to the impact of climate change in Africa: "It is obvious that Africa is not to blame for anthropogenic climate change, but Africa is hit particularly hard by the consequences of climate change." The Minister noted that, in the proposal to be presented by the European Commission for a Europe-Africa energy partnership later this year, adaptation to climate change would therefore play a central role:
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With regard to the meeting of EU ministers with some 30 ministers from the ACP countries, Wieczorek-Zeul said: "There is vast agreement within the EU that the main purpose of Economic Partnership Agreements with the ACP countries is to achieve progress on development. Europe does not have any aggressive trade interests in the developing countries."

Peter Mandelson, European Commissioner for Trade and EU chief negotiator for the Economic Partnership Agreements, confirmed that "they [EPAs] are a genuine development instrument. At their heart is a determination by us to put trade at the service of development."

EU Development Commissioner Louis Michel drew attention to the fact that the ACP countries' share in global trade had been stagnating for the past 30 years, pointing out that the European Union was already making available one billion euros per year to support the ACP countries in developing their trade (aid for trade). After the conclusion of the Economic Partnership Agreements, he said, this assistance would be doubled to 2 billion euros.

At the end of the meeting of EU development ministers, Wieczorek-Zeul presented the Petersberg Communiqúe on Development Policy. The Minister noted that the declaration documented the broad consensus existing among EU member states and was impressive evidence of the European process of convergence on development policy.

More information:
German Presidency press release on the energy partnership - March 13, 2007.
Petersberg Communiqué on European Development Policy [*pdf] - March 13, 2007
Joint statement of the EU Development Ministers: “The European Consensus on Development” [*pdf] - December 20, 2005
EU Commission website: Economic Partnership Agreements [*pdf]
EU Commission website: trade relations with ACP countries

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ICRISAT launches pro-poor biofuels initiative in drylands

The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) is linking poor and marginal farmers of drylands of the developing countries with the global biofuel revolution while strengthening their food and income security.

The Andhra-Pradesh based scientific institute, which is a partner of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, is working with governments and industry leaders to develop partnerships that can result in economic benefits for the poor and marginal farmers of the semi-arid tropics, even while retaining the strong economic competitiveness for the industry. The idea is to develop partnerships that link ICRISAT's innovative research directly with farmers and markets.

ICRISAT's unique research on ethanol for biofuel from sweet sorghum (Sorghum bicolor (L.) Moench) (earlier post) and biodiesel from pongamia and jatropha crops, is not only ensuring energy, livelihood and food security to the dryland farmers, but also reducing the use of fossil fuel, which in turn can help in mitigating climate change. These crops meet the main needs of the dryland farmers - they do not require much water, can withstand environmental stress and are not that expensive to cultivate.
"We call this our pro-poor biofuels initiative for the dryland farmers where food security is not compromised. With the fuel prices increasing globally, there is a demand for ethanol from sweet sorghum and biodiesel from pongamia and jatropha. We believe that this provides a wonderful opportunity for dryland farmers to get more money from their farms and wastelands." - William Dar, director general of ICRISAT.
ICRISAT scientists have succeeded in breeding sorghum varieties and hybrids in partnership with national agricultural research partners that yield higher amounts of sugar-rich juice from the stems. Conventionally ethanol is produced from sugarcane. The new sweet sorghum scores better than sugarcane on that elusive but crucial goal called 'social sustainability' in that it is a crop of the drylands and the semi-arid tropics, and thus its cultivation can directly benefit the millions of poor and marginal farmers who live there, far away from where any multinational dares to go.

Dr Belum VS Reddy, ICRISAT's Principal Sorghum Breeder, sums up the three main advantages of the sweet sorghum hybrids:
  • Food, feed, fiber, fuel: the improved sorghum provides the dryland farmer with grain for food, fodder for livestock and an additional source of income through bioethanol, obtained from the sugar in the canes.
  • Water requirements: Sweet sorghum requires only one seventh of the water that is used up by sugarcane.
  • Land use: it has the advantage over other biofuel crops that it yields grain as well as ethanol. Rather than replacing land grown to food, the cultivation can stimulate increased yield of grain and stalk, and also fodder from bagasse, the byproduct of the crushes canes. This allows for an integration of farming practises and the environmental benefits that come with this.
Normal grain sorghum is already grown on 11.7 million hectares in dryland Asia and on 23.4 million hectares in Africa.

Even though the ethanol yield per unit weight of feedstock is lower for sweet sorghum, the much lower production cost for this crop more than compensates for this loss, and sweet sorghum has a competitive cost advantage:
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According to provisional numbers based on field trials with the new hybrids, it costs around US$0.29 (Rs 12.79) to produce one liter of ethanol from sweet sorghum, while it costs US$0.33 (Rs 14.55) to produce ethanol from sugarcane.

In addition to the Rusni Distelleries project in India, ICRISAT has signed agreements with five private companies in the Philippines to form a sweet sorghum for ethanol consortium. Further, ICRISAT and Rusni are in the initial stages of exploring such consortia in Uganda, Nigeria, Mozambique and South Africa.

Meanwhile, ICRISAT is promoting the cultivation of pongamia and jatropha crops, from which biodiesel can be extracted. "We have partnered with the Andhra Pradesh Government to permit poor villagers, especially women's groups, to grow pongamia and jatropha on wastelands and collect the fruits," says SP Wani, Regional Theme Leader on Watershed Development, ICRISAT. Once the trees mature, the women can collect the seeds and press out the oil in their villages or sell them to large-scale processors to earn hard cash, he added.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

German scientists find method to predict and increase biomass yield of energy crops

Scientists from the Max-Planck Institut für molekulare Pflanzenphysiologie and the University of Potsdam have discovered [*.pdf/German] important clues for the development of a new plant breeding method that could revolutionise the creation of energy crops that produce high amounts of biomass. The energy contained in this plant matter can be converted into useable liquid, gaseous and solid biofuels.

Traditional plant breeding methods consist of cumbersome process of deliberate interbreeding of closely or distantly related species to produce new crops with desirable properties. Plants are crossbred to introduce traits and genes from one species into a new genetic background. The result is analysed after the new plant type has been grown and if unsatisfactory, the process begins all over again.

By looking at the fundamental growth processes of Arabidopsis thaliana and by identifying the chemical building blocks ('metabolites', see diagram) and their interaction, which drive its growth mechanism, the plant biologists from Germany found clues that make it possible to predict at an early stage which plant will yield most biomass later on. The method, called 'metabolic profiling', offers vast posibilities for the development of a new plant breeding paradigm.

The scientists think the concept of metabolic profiling can be applied to most plants, and will allow researchers to select the most promising ones in an early stage. Since the method makes it possible to predict the sheer biomass productivity of plants, it is especially important for selecting energy crops, where biomass productivity matters most:
"It is in this field that the concept will yield its most immediate results. This method will revolutionize the selection and breeding of dedicated energy crops, that can be used for biomass production." - Rhonda Meyer, Max-Planck Institute for Molecular Plant Physiology
The researchers published their findings in the March 13 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It is an open access article.

The method
Through photosynthesis, plants convert sunlight into the production of organic compounds they use to grow. The increase in biomass in plants depends on a multitude of environmental factors (sunlight, the availability of water and nutrients, pests, and so on) and on the plant's capacity to use its biochemical processes and its own internal 'energy reserves' in an optimal manner to bridge periods of environmental stress. This results in a very strict and rigid economy of resources that characterises a plant's metabolism:
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But until now, it was unclear which set of factors and which metabolites precisely determine the growth mechanism of plants. The Max Plack researchers tackled the question by analysing a line of Arabidopsis thaliana (image, click to enlarge), the genetic profile of which is well known. Plant biologists already knew that an important carbohydrate like glucose gives out signals to increase growth and continue cell division. Looking further, the scientists used gaschromatography on the individual parts of the plant, and mass-spectrometry on its invidual chemical substances, such as sugars, acids and proteins.

They then isolated the substances which could be analysed in 85% of the samples. Finally, these selected chemical building blocks were then correlated to the biomass yields of the different samples in the Arabidopsis line. Rhonda Meyer, lead author of the article, says the correlation was so strong that it has now become possible to develop the method that accurately predicts the biomass growth potential of a series of plants, merely by looking at the composition, the amount and ratio of its chemical building blocks.

Image: In crossing different lines of Arabidopsis thaliana researchers observe diferences in biomass yields. The new, crossed generation of plants (upper line) are bigger than their parents (lower line). Using the results from this 'recombinant inbred line' and matching them with the metabolic analysis, it becomes possible to predict the biomass yield of the next generation of crossed plants. Courtesy: Max-Planck Institut für molekulare Pflanzenphysiologie

Diagram: Representation of the most important metabolites known by structure according to CCA on biochemical pathways. This representation of metabolism indicates all known metabolites we analyzed by using GC/MS that could be annotated in MapMan (28). Red color visualizes metabolites which are high ranked in CCA (positions 1–44), with ranking according to the color-coded scale bar.

More information:

Max-Planck Institut fur molekulare Pflanzenphysiologie: Wege aus der Energiekrise: Pflanzen mit mehr Biomasse. Max-Planck-Forscher und ihre Kollegen von der Universität Potsdam finden Hinweise auf eine Methode zur effektiveren Züchtung von "Energiepflanzen" [*.pdf] - March 8, 2007.

Rhonda C. Meyer, Matthias Steinfath, Jan Lisec, Martina Becher, Hanna Witucka-Wall, Ottó Törjék, Oliver Fiehn, Änne Eckhardt, Lothar Willmitzer, Joachim Selbig, Thomas Altmann, "The metabolic signature related to high plant growth rate in Arabidospsis thaliana" [*abstract or full article], PNAS, 5. März 2007

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EU Energy Commissioner: biofuels make feed and meat cheaper

According to EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs animal feed and meat products will become cheaper when bioenergy is implemented on a large scale over the coming years.

For his analysis Piebalgs draws on a number of studies carried out by European Commission to investigate the expansion of biofuel production in the EU, in particular the recently released Biofuels Progress Report - Report on the progress made in the use of biofuels and other renewable fuels in the Member States of the European Union [*.pdf].

Until now, some assumed that the biofuel industry only consumes large amounts of biomass which would normally be used as animal feed. However, the valuable by-products from both bio-ethanol and biodiesel make for good animal feed ingredients themselves. Residual oils, glycerine, oil cakes and different types of distillers grains all have good nutritional qualities. Large-scale production of biofuels will therefor be beneficial for the feed industry, as more and more synergies between fuel and feed production emerge.

According to the EU Commissioner, the trend will result in a price decrease of animal feed and consequently meat products. Piebalgs did not specify how much the prices will decrease in the future, but saw a generally positive evolution [entry ends here].
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Hydrogen infusion could boost synthetic biofuel yields

Seeking ways to improve biofuel production, researchers at the University of Purdue predict that an infusion of hydrogen during the gasification of biomass may increase final fuel yields by up to 30%.

Gasification involves the partial combustion of the biomass material, converting it into biofuel, as well as the byproducts of hydrogen, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. The synthetic gas can then be liquefied via a Fischer-Tropsch process to yield 'synthetic' biofuels (this production path is often described as 'biomass-to-liquids'). In current gasification processes (diagram, click to enlarge), approximately two thirds of the carbon energy in the biomass is lost in the form of CO2 and CO (earlier post).

Professor of Chemical Engineering Rakesh Agrawal and his team now postulate that additional hydrogen introduced in the gasification process would combine with the carbon dioxide to produce more carbon monoxide. That CO would then react with extra hydrogen, creating more biofuel and water.

The ability to make three liters of fuel from the same amount of biomass that currently produces only two liters would be an impressive feat. It would considerably reduce the amount of biomass feedstocks needed and the land required to grow them. However, the Purdue team's plan is only feasible if a plentiful source of relatively inexpensive hydrogen can be secured:
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To solve that problem, Agrawal is working with fellow Purdue Professor Hugh Hillhouse, an expert in developing nanomaterials for photovoltaics and thermoelectric energy production. in a recent interview with New Scientist Magazine, Agrawal said that he and Hillhouse are developing low-cost "spray-on" solar cells that could provide a cheap source of energy for making hydrogen.

Last month, the team successfully tested the spray-on nanomaterial, which produced an electric charge when exposed to light. Details of the Purdue team's findings are due to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

An apparent contradiction then opens up: if the energy carrier known as hydrogen can be produced efficiently using clean energy sources, then why would biofuels be needed at all? The contradiction is solved by the fact that liquid biofuels have the advantage that they can be used directly in existing fuel distribution infrastructures and automotive technologies, whereas hydrogen needs trillions worth of investment in this regard.

Likewise, using the hydrogen generated by the efficient solar cells, to produce electricity that would then be distributed over the grid to power battery driven cars, is a detour that makes little sense. It would obviously be easier to use the electricity generated from such solars cells directly.

But instead of representing the two different fuel paradigms - liquid biofuels and hydrogen - as opposites or rivals, it is more interesting to look for synergies between them. The researchers at Purdue are doing exactly that.

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Japanese researchers develop membrane for more efficient ethanol production

Increasing the efficiency of biofuels production is an important challenge to improve the energy balance of green fuels, but from Brazil comes the proof that much can be achieved. Agronomists and engineers there succeeded in increasing processing efficiencies and reducing production costs by 75% over 3 decades (earlier post). The trend is set to continue and may once again double the ethanol yield for a hectare of sugarcane (earlier post).

Recently, process engineers in the U.S. used the sheer power of mathematics and of advanced modelling to optimise the way biomass feedstocks are transformed into ethanol in production plants. The result: a reduction of 60% of the ethanol plant operating costs (earlier post). Many different aspects of the biofuel production chain are still open to similar efficiency increases.

Researchers from Japan’s National Food Research Institute and the University of Tokyo have now made an interesting contribution by developing a membrane that supports a more energy-efficient production of high-concentration bioethanol.

Conventional ethanol production typically uses a two-stage distillation process to deliver the final ethanol output at a concentration of nearly 100%. The process can consume the equivalent of 55% of the energy that the bioethanol provides as a fuel.

The new membrane uses less than 70% of the energy normally required. The material has a two-layer structure. The underlying membrane allows ethanol to pass like a selective filter, while the upper membrane acts like a gatekeeper, only allowing the ethanol to pass when it is present in a sufficiently high concentration. As a result, the distillation process only needs to be conducted once.

The gatekeeper membrane is made from a sheet of polyethylene with tiny holes that are coated with a special polymer. The polymer blocks the holes until the ethanol reaches sufficient concentration. At that point, the polymer contracts and allows the ethanol to pass. Use of the membrane can produce ethanol at 90% concentration [entry ends here].
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World Bank chief calls on U.S. to remove ethanol tariffs

Despite a biofuels cooperation agreement signed between Brazil and the U.S. last week, the world's largest fuel consumer rejected the idea of removing its tariff on imported ethanol.

According to a recent analysis by the Global Subsidies Initiative, American biofuel producers are supported by billions of subsidies each year and by a US$0.54 per gallon tariff (earlier post). This encourages the production of biofuels that are hardly sustainable or energy efficient - such as corn ethanol - , and it blocks supplies of fuels that have a far better energy balance, reduce greenhouse gas emissions in a much stronger way, and thus contribute far more to tackling climate change. These corn subsidies and tariffs on corn ethanol were responsible for the recent Tortilla crisis in Mexico (earlier post), and they protect a select group of farmers in America, while denying poor farmers in the South to tap into an important economic opportunity and an emerging market in which they would be competitive if tariffs and susbsidies were removed.

Resistance to this situation is growing in circles of energy analysts such as the IEA (earlier post), economists (earlier post), international aid organisations and think tanks (earlier post) and in the developing world itself (earlier post) which stands to become a large biofuel exporter.

Joining those who call for a removal of the U.S. ethanol tariff is an important figure on the international political and economic stage, namely Paul Wolfowitz, the president of the World Bank. Wolfowitz's statement came at a conference in London on financing low-carbon energy, and it will increase the pressure on President George W. Bush to take action.

Wolfowitz, a former influential member of the Bush administration, also called for "a global framework" on cutting greenhouse gas emissions and for more aid to the poor for adapting to climate change.

In a departure from his prepared text on encouraging investment in cutting carbon, Mr Wolfowitz said: "Barriers to the international trade in ethanol need to be examined." Asked by the Financial Times afterwards whether this meant the US should lower or remove its import tariff of 54 cents per gallon on ethanol from Brazil, he said: "That's what I said. Weren't you listening?"

Mr Bush wants to increase the US use of biofuels in order to reduce dependence on imported oil. However, in spite of research from the US government's Energy Information Administration showing his target of reducing US consumption of petrol by 20 per cent in 10 years cannot be met from US farms alone, he has refused to countenance tariff changes that might be unpopular with US farmers:
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Mr Wolfowitz, an ally of Mr Bush as the former US secretary of defence, also put pressure on the administration over climate change by calling for "a long-term equitable global regulatory framework to reduce greenhouse gas emissions".

He stopped short of calling for a global mandatory cap on emissions but said he wanted "a framework that allows carbon markets to thrive and bring financial flows to developing countries to the tune of US$100bn within a few decades".

Such flows have been predicted for the carbon trade under the Kyoto protocol, which Mr Bush has rejected.

The Bush administration has also consistently rejected calls for a "global regulatory framework" on emissions, insisting instead on signing bilateral and some multilateral deals with countries such as China, India and Japan.

In his strongest remarks yet on climate change since taking over at the World Bank in June 2005, Mr Wolfowitz said: "Today, we are faced with compelling evidence that our consumption of fossil fuels is seriously hurting the environment – and the longer we delay action, the more costly it will be to try to correct it. Business as usual is not an option."

Jean Lemierre, president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which hosted the conference, added that energy efficiency developments in eastern Europe would substantially help reduce emissions.

He told the FT: "If eastern Europe was as efficient in its use of energy as western Europe, global energy use would be reduced by 7 per cent."

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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Canadian universities receive C$6 million to build plant-based 'BioCars'

The energy needed to manufacture a car is around a tenth of the energy used by that same car during its life on the road. Similarly, around ten percent of the total amount of carbon dioxide emissions produced over the entire life-cycle of an average passenger car comes from manufacturing the vehicle. No wonder then that car makers are trying to increase the efficiency of the production process and to lower its carbon footprint.

Established auto manufacturers go through this process step-by-step, gradually and slowly. Academia offers a more interesting hunting ground for more radical approaches. Just recently we reported about a conglomerate of U.S. universities who are investing in building an 'AgriCar' - a vehicle with the bulk of its components made from biodegradable, plant-based composites (earlier post). During their life-cycle, such renewable biopolymers, resins and bioplastics emit far less greenhouse gases than similar components made from petroleum. And with rising oil prices, these components begin to make economic sense, since the raw materials from which they are made - starches, sugars, vegetable oils, natural fibers - are becoming competitive with crude oil.

Now a group of Canadian universities has received a C$6 (€3.9/US$5.1) million fund from the Ontario government to invest in the development of a similar car. The project envisions a fusion between biotechnology and nanotechnology, resulting in high-tech, plant-based materials.

Announcing the project - the Ontario BioCar Initiative - Ontario's Premier and Minister of Research and Innovation Dalton McGuinty said "These initiatives will help make Ontario a world leader in bio-based automotive manufacturing and help us protect our environment for generations to come." Ontario's agriculture will tap into this new market, by converting its harvest — such as wheat, corn, soybeans and forest biomass — into viable materials for the auto industry.

The same government is also investing $255,000 in the "Ontario BioAuto Council" to help move these emerging technologies into the marketplace and attract jobs and investment.

The BioCar Initiative is a multi-university project led by the University of Guelph. It involves 16 scientists at Guelph and the universities of Toronto, Waterloo and Windsor. They are combining their research strengths and efforts to improve the development and delivery capacity of biomaterials for the automotive industry:
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“The BioCar initiative aligns some of the most distinctive innovation capacity in Ontario,” said Alan Wildeman, vice-president (research). “It involves a consortium of universities working with two of the largest industries in Ontario, the automotive industry and the agricultural industry. This combination provides an unprecedented opportunity for the province to be seen as a major contributor to the global biobased industrial revolution that is occurring.”

Guelph’s role will include creating new industrial crops that can be turned into composite materials used to make interior automobile components.

“It’s a whole new way of looking at agriculture and a whole new relationship between the sector and Ontario’s economy,” said plant agriculture professor Larry Erickson, one of the lead researchers. “It opens the door for a lot more approaches and utilization of crops. Now, agriculture is more than meat and potatoes; it’s car parts, building materials, fuel and more.”

It’s been known for years that plant material can be used to make components in the manufacturing process, but it’s only recently that society recognized the need to do this commercially.

For the past 100 years, research efforts and resources have not been focused on using crops in this way because there’s been an abundant supply of low-cost petroleum, said Erickson. “All of that has changed now. We have to catch up and make up for lost time and develop alternative technology.”

The BioCar project literally starts in the field, with Guelph looking at the raw agricultural materials and studying crop genetics. It then moves to processing and separating the biological feedstock in collaboration with the University of Toronto, to engineering composite resins and polymers for application to automotive parts at Waterloo, to finally incorporating the new products into automobiles at Windsor.

“Talk about a value-added chain of research,” said Erickson. “The BioCar Initiative is a continual stream of research and development with incremental improvements made at each point in the value chain. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

He added that research into bioproducts has often been challenging because these new materials are currently not economically competitive with synthetic products. But the four universities joining together and creating an integrated scientific team changes things, he said.

Mohini Sain, professor of forestry and applied chemistry, with considerable achievements in the development of biopolymers and nanostructured biomaterials at the University of Toronto, and head of the Center for Biocomposites at the same university
will lead the BioCar project at the University of Guelph where he is an associate prof. He says that the key to success is how fast and how economically these materials can be made to match the performance of the existing plastics, composites and metals. Sain has already developed basic biocomposites for the automotive industry made from natural fibers such as flax, hemp, jute or kenaf.

Ontario BioAuto Council Executive Director Terry Daynard adds that the projects may make position Ontario to capture a substantial share of what is projected to be a $50-billion global market for bioplastics by the year 2015.

"Ontario farmers are among the most creative and innovative in the world," adds Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Leona Dombrowsky. "By supporting bio-based research, we can help farmers pursue exciting new markets, create jobs and build prosperity in our rural communities."

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French nuclear energy giant AREVA to build 6 biomass power plants in Thailand and Brazil

France-based multinational industrial conglomerate AREVA announces [*French] that it has been awarded contracts to build six biomass power stations - four in Brazil and two in Thailand - worth more than €70 (US$92) million.

AREVA is the world's leading nuclear power company offering CO2-free energy and being the only enterprise with a presence in each industrial activity linked to nuclear energy: from mining to enrichment and engineering nuclear reactors to stabilization and dismantling. It has recently begun to diversify into renewables.

The contracts for the biomass cogeneration plants were signed with German company CCC Machinery and with the Bua Sommai Electricity Generating Company in Thailand.

The power plants have a capacity of between 10 and 12MW each and will be fuelled by wood waste and agro-forestry residues in the case of the Brazilian plants, and by rice hulls, an abundant biomass resource in Thailand (see our earlier post on highly dedicated and optimized fluidized bed combustors for rice hulls, and on the energy potential of this resource).

The bioenergy plants will deliver electricity at competitive prices in the rural regions where they are to be established. The operators will receive carbon credits valid and tradeable under the Kyoto Protocol.

The Brazilian contract represents the largest order of AREVA's activities in the sector of renewable energy.

These activities, mainly concentrated around wind, biomass and hydrogen, were grouped into one business unit in november 2006. The group sees them as a natural complement to its nuclear activities, which it is promoting under the motto of delivering 'CO2-free' electricity [entry ends here].
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Brazil in Africa: South-South cooperation on bioenergy speeding up

Brazil is taking its role as biofuels leader and its representation as a model for the Global South to follow, very seriously. Earlier we reported on the country's first exchanges last year with countries like Senegal, Nigeria and Sudan, and on how scientists are studying models to replicate Brazil's green energy success abroad (earlier post).

Late last year, however, the country gave a much stronger sign of its intentions, when the Brazilian government created a dedicated Africa cell for the Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agrícola (Embrapa - Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation) in Accra, Ghana's capital. Embrapa is a leading government-supported biotech and agricultural research organisation with a long history of involvement in Brazil's biofuels success (e.g. Embrapa helped decode the genome of sugarcane).

Earlier this month, diplomats of 18 African embassies gathered in the Brazilian capital Brasília, to attend the announcement of the objectives of the organization's new office in Africa. Its aims are to promote South-South exchanges of expertise and technology transfers from Brazil to Africa, in order to speed up the transition towards bioenergy and biofuels in the developing world. African countries have a vast untapped sustainable bioenergy potential (earlier post), and Brazil thinks that investing in it offers a powerful set of tools for economic development and poverty alleviation, for the fight against social inequality and for the revitalisation of rural communities.

Brazil is effectively giving birth to a new development paradigm, based on South-South exchanges, in which access to energy, energy security and social development are key.

A quick overview of Embrapa's actions on the continent during the first months of the existence of its Africa cell:
  • Morocco becomes the first North African country to establish a partnership with the office. Two weeks ago, the coordinator of Embrapa Africa, Cláudio Bragantini, visited the agronomic research institute of the federal Hasan II Academy. According to Bragantini the partnership will be concentrated mainly in the production of biodiesel, which may be obtained from castor seeds and pine seeds, drought tolerant plants of the region. "The Moroccans are very interested in participating in trainings in the area of biotechnology and also in the development of agricultural projects with the private sector," stated Bragantini.
  • Libya is another Arab country that has shown interest to make use of the Embrapa office in Africa. According to the Bragantini, the Libyan embassy in Ghana is keen on a partnership in the area of irrigated agriculture. "Libya finances many agricultural projects in Ghana and in other countries in the region," he said. According to Bragantini, the idea behind this specific project is to pipe a large volume of water discovered when drilling in the search of oil and use the product in irrigated agriculture. "There (in Libya) we have a great advantage. The government has financial assets and great interest in the project and Embrapa has the necessary technology. This is an opportunity that may generate a fabulous partnership. We promised to move ahead with this project and to send a letter of intention to the Libyan embassy in Ghana," he explained.
  • Tunisia: with regard to Tunisia, Bragantini says that a delegation of four Embrapa Forestry representatives, from the southern Brazilian state of Paraná, travelled to the country to develop a project in the area of management of eucalyptus for the extraction of energy. The Brazilian embassy in Ghana has received a further note of interest from Tunisia to develop other projects related to bioenergy in arid environments.
  • Angola - a country with a large bioenergy potential (earlier post) - has demanded help for expertise on developing a soybean industry for biofuels.
  • In Mozambique, Embprapa is looking into to strengthening the research capacities of the Institute for Agrarian Research of Mozambique (Iiam), which requested such help.
  • Across sub-Saharan Africa there is great demand for knowledge and expertise on the post-harvest processing technologies for cassava, one of the most abundantly grown crops on the continent. "We have already trained technicians in Ghana for this activity," explains Bragantini. Cassava is being researched as a feedstock for biofuel production.
  • Researchers from Embrapa's Africa cell have further visited Kenya, Benin and Togo (no details yet).
Embrapa's mission in the South
Bragantini explains that "it is worth pointing out that the office does not only represent Embrapa, but Brazil as a whole. The office works as an agent to facilitate the link between financial organizations and governments and we will have our doors opened to private companies in agribusiness that may be interested in participating in this revolution":
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"We have a work agenda that is geared at transferring technology that worked in Brazil. We offer them our work and, if necessary, will work based on the demand of each country," pointed out Bragantini. The requests reach the office through the Foreign Relations Department at the Embrapa, through the Brazilian Cooperation Agency (ABC), directly to the office or even through international organizations interested in partnerships.

According to Bragantini, the greatest demand from governments is related to small farmers. "We have large volumes of technology developed in the northeast of Brazil and in the semi-arid regions of the country that may adapt well to the climate and soil in Africa," stated Bragantini.

According to him, the great demand is for direct planting and minimum cultivation (a system that requires some superficial soil work), for projects that promote integration between crops and livestock farming. "In savannas a large part of the soil is degraded and needs recovery," he said.

Social development, poverty alleviation
Long neglected by international development agencies, governments and NGOs alike, basic agriculture is back into the spotlight of policy makers and development economists. Brazil's left-leaning government, which has vowed to fight social inequality, poverty and hunger domestically - and achieved modest success so far - with programs in which rural development are key, now wants to export the same discourse on development to Africa. It feels international agencies like the World Bank, the IMF, or individual governments have not achieved any substantial success on this front, because these agents mainly rely on purely neo-liberal economic policies (symbolised by the now defunct 'structural adjustment' ideology) which tend to increase social inequalities.

By putting rural and sustainable development, and concrete tech transfers central to its own assistance program for Africa, Brazil makes a shift in current thinking on development. "We want to associate ourselves with the African countries. We want to make agreements for cooperation in the area of technology transfer for tropical agriculture," stated the acting head of international relations at Embrapa, Washington Silva, at the diplomatic meeting in Brasília. "The African countries need Brazilian help in the area of research and technology transfer to help in the development of the continent."

According to Silva, there is already sufficient demand in the African countries for cooperation agreements to be developed. "The ambassadors showed interest and inquired about how to proceed to have Embrapa services," he said. The meeting also served to schedule the beginning of dialogue to establish strategies for the strengthening of relations between Brazil and the African countries.

More information:
BrazzilMag: A Whole Lot Going on in Africa Courtesy of Brazil - March 13, 2007.
ANBA: Morocco wants to produce biodiesel with Brazilian technology - March 12, 2007.
BrazzilMag: Brazil Uses Agriculture to Fight Poverty in Africa - March 5, 2007.

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Inter-American Development Bank launches energy and climate change initiative

The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) has approved its 'Sustainable Energy and Climate Change Initiative'. The plan aims to help the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean to expand the use of renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies, increase their access to international carbon finance, and support efforts to adapt to climate change.

The initiative calls for action in four key areas:
  1. Renewables: the IDB will help countries to assess their potential for renewable energy and energy efficiency to meet their energy needs. It will also work to minimize regulatory, institutional, and financial barriers to making investments in these areas while increasing incentives. In addition, the IDB will finance renewable energy and energy efficiency projects.
  2. Biofuels: the initiative also calls for the IDB to help countries assess their potential as producers of biofuels, promote policies that support biofuel development, and finance biofuel projects and the adaptation of new biofuel technologies.
  3. Greenhouse gas emissions: the Bank will develop so-called Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) projects in which entities in industrialized countries receive credit in exchange for financing projects in developing countries that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The IDB will work to lower transaction costs and risks for such operations as well as strengthen the capacity of the region’s countries to participate in the international carbon market.
  4. Climate risk assessments: the IDB will consider the risk of climate change in operations in its borrowing countries, particularly to reduce the vulnerability of urban and regional infrastructure and rural communities.
In the past year the IDB approved financing for a number of projects to promote sustainable energy and climate change mitigation. The included the following:
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  • Support for creating business models for energy efficiency services
  • An analysis of the role and potential for biofuels in Central America.
  • An assessment of the potential for biofuel production from sugar cane in Guyana, Jamaica and Barbados and the possibilities for these countries to obtain carbon credits through the CDM specialized market.
  • An assessment study of biofuels for transport in Mexico.
  • An operation to improve energy efficiency in water pumping systems in El Salvador.
  • A study of opportunities to increase efficiency in residential, service and commercial sectors in Central America.
  • The development of a renewable energy tool kit tailored for Latin America.
  • Assistance to countries in preparing CDM documentation.
In June of this year the IDB will present an action plan that establishes targets, milestones, timeframes, responsibilities for priority actions and a budget for activities included in the initiative. The plan will also include activities for raising awareness and providing technical support to IDB staff and the Bank’s clients. In addition, the Bank will meet with donor agencies to establish financial contributions for the initiative.

The new initiative and action plan follow a series of studies and events that the Bank has undertaken to identify opportunities and needs for renewable energy, energy efficiency and climate change mitigation and adaptation. Last November the IDB held a regional conference, “Sustainable Energy and Climate Change Investment in Latin American and the Caribbean” in which decision-makers from the public and private sectors discussed how to increase investments in sustainable energy in the priority areas of energy production, housing, transportation and industry, as well as opportunities for climate change mitigation and adaptation.

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UK scientists hunt for biomass grass types in Asia

Scientists of the UK's Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research (IGER) have collected novel types of the giant grass Miscanthus giganteus x from China, Taiwan and Japan in order to boost the development of biomass from energy crops. A plant-breeding process is now underway with the samples.

Biomass crops are becoming increasingly important as concerns grow about climate change and the need to replace carbon dioxide producing fossil fuels – oil ,coal and gas – with carbon-neutral renewable sources of energy. Energy crops like Miscanthus form the basis of a series of possible end products, either in gaseous (biogas), liquid (ethanol, bio-oil, synthetic biofuels) or solid form (combustion for power and electricity generation).

To succeed in this role, a crop has to grow rapidly and yield a reliable, regular harvest. A prime candidate for the UK is Miscanthus, also known as elephant grass, a perennial species native to Asia that can grow more than 4 metres of bamboo-like stems in a year.
“A number of trials across Europe have confirmed the potential of this highly impressive grass from East Asia. But existing varieties haven't been bred specifically for high yields, and we know that we can make major gains through scientifically-based plant breeding.” - Dr John Clifton-Brown, leads the breeding programme of Miscanthus at the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research.
The UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) funded the collecting trip to seek out new specimens suitable for incorporation into his breeding programme. Planning of the trip in conjunction with counterparts in Asia took months to put together, but was helped enormously by the presence in IGER of Lin Huang, from Taiwan , who is a biological data analyst at the Institute. Lin Huang also joined the expedition, which took place in October, as interpreter and recorder.

A key aim was to find plants with characters such as extreme height, thick stems and dense growth. The team found some extraordinary material:
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“We found plants with superb agronomic potential, some growing as much as 4-5metres in a year,” said Dr Clifton-Brown. “And in Taiwan, even at 1800 metres above sea level, we found plants as tall as 3-4 metres.” In total they brought back some 250 samples for the IGER breeding programme. Samples have been shared with donor countries and agreements to share any commercial benefits have been made with each country. Where possible, seed was collected but otherwise rhizomes had to be dug up. Collected samples are held in strict quarantine to avoid any risk of the introduction of new pests or diseases. At present, in contrast to willow, another prospective energy crop, Miscanthus is surprisingly immune to pest and disease attack.

Miscanthus grows across a wide geographical area, so the journey took in Japan and Taiwan , as well as some remote parts of central China , where few westerners go. “It was an amazing experience,” Dr Clifton-Brown said. “In China we saw bargefuls of Miscanthus being collected for paper-making, in Taiwan we drove along perilous mountain passes above the clouds in ‘Miscanthus heaven' and in Japan we had close encounters with some particularly vicious looking spiders!

Work will now begin on breeding new Miscanthus varieties suitable for conditions in the UK. Armed with the new material from Asia, the researchers aim to increase yield, and improve other traits associated with chemical composition while retaining tolerance to the stresses such as long dry summers.

By increasing genetic diversity, breeding of improved Miscanthus will also reduce genetic vulnerability of Miscanthus. Cultivation is currently based on a single clone. “Although Miscanthus is a tough plant, genetic variety will offer protection against unexpected pests and diseases.” said Dr Clifton-Brown.

In contrast to arable crops such as wheat, which have also been proposed as energy crops, miscanthus has lower fertiliser requirements, less requirement for ploughing, positive effects on biodiversity and therefore has a less adverse environmental impact. Biomass crops are beginning to make a significant impact on the UK agricultural sector, and the new breeding programme looks set to secure the future of Asian elephant grass as an option for farmers.

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Monday, March 12, 2007

Biomass-to-liquids in Brazil

There's a steady competition of ideas between biofuel producers in the North, and those in the South. First generation biofuels - such as sugarcane ethanol - are far more efficient than comparable fuels made from crops grown in temperate climates, such as corn ethanol, which has a very weak energy balance. For this reason, the South and energy analysts from energy institutes like the IEA are calling for the creation of a regime promoting global biofuel trade, in which the developing world supplies world markets and generates export revenues from it (earlier post). Brazil's efforts on this front, which resulted in a cooperation agreement with the US, clearly make this point.

But the North is investing heavily in so-called 'second generation' biofuels, which utilize a far wider variety of biomass feedstocks, such as wood chips and agro-forestry residues. These ligno-cellulosic feedstocks can be converted into liquid fuels via a biochemical conversion process, using special enzymes, or via a thermochemical process based on biomass gasification and Fischer-Tropsch synthesis ('biomass-to-liquids'), which results in 'synthetic' biofuels (earlier post). The North hopes these technologies will ultimately surpass the efficiency of biofuels produced in the South.

Obviously, this will not be the case if countries in the tropics and subtropics utilize the very same processes. The basic fact remains that biomass productivity in the South is naturally higher than that in temperate climates, resulting in competitive advantages that cannot be changed fundamentally. Consequently, the entire discussion about trade barriers and biofuel subsidies will not become obsolete with the arrival of second generation biofuels. (For a good and frequently updated overview of the Brazilian perspective on biofuel trade discussions, check Henrique Oliveira's Ethablog).

After decades of investments in an ultimately highly successful first generation biofuel - sugarcane ethanol - Brazil now is waking up to the potential of these next-generation biofuels. Proof is an interesting overview written for the Energy Tribune by Fernando B. de Oliveira, a process engineer, and Sirlei S. A. de Sousa, is a senior gas-to-liquids consultant at the Petrobras R&D Center in Rio de Janeiro. We replicate their 'opinion piece' here integrally, for future reference. The authors make the case as to why second-generation biofuels produced in the South will be far more competitive than those produced in the US or the EU.

The following is their analysis of the potential to generate liquid hydrocarbons through gasification and Fischer-Tropsch synthesis from two abundantly available biomass streams in Brazil, namely wood and bagasse. The wood stream would come from dedicated energy plantations in which trees like Eucalyptus and Acacia would be grown in short-rotation cycles. A recent analysis by a consortium of European academic institutions put Brazil's explicitly sustainable long-term wood plantation potential at 46 million hectares (earlier post). Bagasse, the other biomass resource, is a byproduct from first generation sugarcane ethanol production:
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Biomass to Liquid process (Fischer-Tropsch synthesis)

The synthesis of hydrocarbons from carbon monoxide, CO hydrogenation over transition metal catalysts, was discovered in 1902. Collectively, the process of converting CO and H2 mixtures to liquid hydrocarbons over a transition metal catalyst has become known as the Fischer-Tropsch synthesis. Two main characteristics of FTS are the unavoidable production of a wide range of hydrocarbon products and the liberation of a large amount of heat from the highly exothermic synthesis reactions.

Consequently, reactor design and process development has focused heavily on heat removal and temperature control. The focus of catalyst development is on improved catalyst lifetimes, activity, and selectivity. Product distributions are influenced by temperature, feed gas composition (H2/CO), pressure, and catalyst type and composition. There are four main steps to producing FT products: syngas generation, gas purification, FT synthesis, and product upgrading.

When the feedstock is biomass, its conversion to a suitable feed gas for FTS, containing H2 and CO, takes place through gasification. But in this case, a pre-treatment prior to gasification is required, and generally consists of screening, size reduction, magnetic separation, “wet” storage, drying, and “dry” storage. Gasification can take place at different pressures, either directly or indirectly heated (lower temperatures), and with oxygen or air. Direct heating occurs by partial oxidation of the feedstock, while indirect heating occurs through a heat exchange mechanism. Upgrading usually means a combination of hydrotreating, hydrocracking, and hydroisomerization in addition to product separation. Unlike conventional fuels, FT fuels contain no sulfur and low aromatics. These properties, along with a high cetane number, result in superior combustion characteristics.

From the information available in the literature, our studies suggest the use of a process, based on the FTS, aiming at the best use of wood and sugarcane byproducts (bagasse/trash) for the production of high-quality liquid byproducts, such as diesel, naphtha, base oils, and paraffin, and also the concomitant generation of electricity.

The scheme of the chosen process involves the following steps: biomass pre-treatment section, generation of syngas through the gasification process (atmospheric fluidized bed air blown gasifier), and adjustment of the ratio of the H2/CO to be fed to the Fischer-Tropsch reactor (cobalt-based catalyst) through a shift reactor. In Tables 1 and 2, the elementary and immediate analyses of biomass can be found in percentage weight adopted in this study.

Table 3 shows the results of biomass consumption for their two feedstocks, aiming at the production of high-quality liquid byproducts as well as electric power generation.

The results listed in Table 3 show a decrease of around 13 percent in the consumption of biomass when wood is used to supply the process. The advantages and disadvantages of this scheme need to be studied further, considering, for example, the availability and cost of the raw materials.

Using entirely the syngas generated in the gasification stage, this study also estimated (Table 4) the potential for electric power generation considering a Combined Cycle – CC – and a Condensing Extraction Steam Turbine – CEST.

Electricity Generation
It is important to point out that FTS produces a residual gas stream that may be used to generate electric power through a combined cycle. This allows the sugarcane bagasse to be directed towards plant BTL, thus increasing the production of liquid byproducts and keeping the electric power generation for use by the plant and/or neighborhoods. Various studies are currently trying to perfect the generation of electric power and the production of liquid byproducts with or without power generation via FTS.

All start from the most diversified generators of biomass, aiming to increase the use of this kind of raw material for the world’s energy sources, thus decreasing dependence on non-renewables. Currently, most efforts are concentrated on the development of adequate gasification processes for each type of biomass.

In the case of Brazil, some studies have already demonstrated the viability of bagasse and trash from sugarcane processing as a feedstock in ethanol fuel mills.

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QuestAir to supply biogas purification systems to Swiss company

Biogas holds a large potential to replace natural gas, both in Europe (earlier post), as well as in the developing world.

The green, climate-neutral gas can be made efficiently from the anaerobic fermentation of a wide variety of organic feedstocks, either derived from dedicated bioenergy crops (earlier post on biogas maize, grasses and grass hybrids)or from waste streams from agriculture, municipalities or industry.

An interesting development in the field of large-scale biogas production is that of feeding the gas into the natural gas grid. In Europe, several companies are already doing this (earlier post). In the same context, the concept of 'biogas corridors' is gaining attention (earlier post). It consists of the simple idea of establishing energy plantations and biogas plants close to existing natural gas pipelines, which can then be supplied with the green gas.

But for the idea to work, efficient biogas purification technologies must be developed. Depending on the biomass feedstock, raw biogas has methane concentrations of around 55 to 70%, with the remainder being carbon dioxide, water, hydrogen sulfide and particulates. For it to be fed into the natural gas grid, the biomethane must be scrubbed and reach methane concentrations of more than 96%. Once the purified green gas is mixed into the grid, end consumers of course do not note the difference, biogas can be used just like its fossil counterpart: in power plants, by households, in fuel cells or as a fuel for CNG-capable vehicles.

Several biogas purification technologies currently exist, with some interesting innovations being made. One of the innovators is Canadian company QuestAir Technologies Inc., which announced that it has received an order for its compact M-3200 'Pressure Swing Adsorption' system to recover pipeline grade methane from biogas generated by an anaerobic digester in Lavigny, Switzerland.

This system, using an optimised pressure swing adsorption (PSA) process and a proprietary rotary valve technology delivers a higher efficiency than conventional PSA systems in a more compact, cost effective package. QuestAir’s M-3200 system can upgrade up to 300,000 cubic feet (8500 cubic meters) of biogas per day.

PSA is a commonly used technology for purifying gases. The technology was introduced commercially in the 1960's and today PSA is used extensively in the production and purification of oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen for industrial uses. PSA is based on the capacity of certain materials, such as activated carbon and zeolites, to adsorb and desorb particular gases as the gas pressure is raised and lowered. PSA can be used to separate a single gas from a mixture of gases. A typical PSA system involves a cyclic process where a number of connected vessels containing adsorbent material undergo successive pressurization and depressurization steps in order to produce a continuous stream of purified product gas.

The operation of a simplified PSA process to separate methane from a feedstock gas containing impurities, such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide or water is illustrated in the diagram (see diagram, click to enlarge).

Conventional PSA systems used today in industry are made up of four to 16 large vessels, connected by a complex network of piping and valves to switch the gas flows between the vessels. Despite their widespread use in industry, QuestAir believes that large scale PSA systems suffer from a number of inherent disadvantages. These PSA systems typically operate at slow cycle speeds of 0.05-0.5 cycles/minute since faster cycle speeds would cause the adsorbent beads to float or "fluidize" in the vessel, causing the beads to wear and ultimately fail. To meet customer demands for capacity, conventional PSA systems must utilize large vessels to compensate for the slow cycle speeds, leading to higher costs and a large equipment footprint. The use of large vessels also means that these PSA systems are typically erected in the field, increasing installation costs. The network of piping and valves used in large scale PSA systems, with the associated instrumentation and process control equipment, also adds cost to the overall system. QuestAir's simplified PSA system is far more compact, modular and cost effective.

We focus on this technology, as it opens up very interesting opportunities for decentralised bioenergy production in the developing world, even though they are not to be realised in the immediate future:
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Many countries in the tropics and the subtropics have a large potential both to recover biomethane from organic waste streams, especially in large cities, as for its productio based on energy crops and agro-forestry residues.

A compact biogas purification system like that of QuestAir, allows for a decentralised production scenario that results in high quality gas, capable of fuelling CNG-vehicles.

Compared to other 'first generation' liquid biofuels, biogas production is more energy efficient, it yields a greater amount of energy on a per hectare basis. With a modular, portable purification system now available, decentralised motor fuel production centres can be established in areas previously unreachable by ordinary fossil fuels (such as oil and natural gas).

Such a decentralised system would side-step the need to extend natural gas and oil pipeline grids, and instead could be established locally. CNG-capable fleets can be introduced in remote locations, and bought off the shelf without the need for modifications, as they would run on highly purified biogas.

Alternatively, a scenario of biogas exports is not unthinkable. Several liquefied natural gas (LNG) facilities are being build in the South (notably in Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria and Angola) wich, just like the existing ones (in Malaysia and Indonesia), could be supplied by purified biogas. This green gas would then be fed into the LNG plant and be shipped to world markets, where it would fetch premium prices because it is CO2 neutral and renewable.

Currently, the production costs implied under these scenarios are prohibitive, but the concept as such is feasible. With technological advances being made in the sector, which will result in steady decreases in production costs, these scenarios will become practicable. Not in the least given a future of 'peak oil and gas' and price-tags being put on carbon dioxide.

It will be interesting to follow up on the Swiss case first, and see how it develops. If successful, there is no reason for developing countries not to adopt similar technologies.

QuestAir's purification system has been purchased by Verdesis Suisse SA as part of a new plant that will recover methane from biogas generated by the anaerobic digestion of organic wastes at the Lavigny site. The methane recovery plant will be owned and operated Cosvegaz S.A., a Swiss gas utility, and product methane from the plant will be injected into the local natural gas distribution grid operated by Cosvegaz.

Jonathan Wilkinson, President and CEO of QuestAir said: “We are extremely pleased to secure our first sale into the European biogas market, which represents an exciting growth opportunity for QuestAir. We have seen growing interest across the EU in the use of renewable sources of methane to supplement or replace imported natural gas. In addition, government programs in several EU countries are promoting the use of biogas as a carbon neutral source of compressed natural gas (CNG) transportation fuel for busses and cars.”

“QuestAir’s methane recovery systems offer a compact solution for cost-effectively removing carbon dioxide and other impurities from biogas, recovering high purity methane for high value end-uses,” Wilkinson said.

Meanwhile, German scientists are developing bio-based biogas purification systems. They are looking into using micro-organisms and algae that feed on the CO2 contained in biomethane. Pilot trials show this concept to hold some promise (earlier post).

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Japanese oil firm estimates cassava ethanol production costs to be around US$33/BOE

The Philippine province of Bohol (picture, click to enlarge) is bullish about Japanese and Chinese investors who are indicating their interest to invest heavily in the country's nascent biofuels sector. President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has invited foreign investors to enter the sector, for which new legislation has recently been created.

Gov. Erico Aumentado said that the call of the President was a result of various factors including favorable business climate, peace and order in the province, and special tax incentives for biofuel companies.

Japanese firm Cosmo Oil Company Ltd. (COCL), a Fortune-500 company which has started investing in the production and utilization of alternative but renewable and environment-friendly fuels, expressed keen interest in establishing in a cassava based ethanol plant in Bohol. A delegation of six company executives recently visited the province and held a briefing on their plans based on a feasibility study it made. It includes a very optimistic calculus on the production costs of cassava-based ethanol:
  • according to the feasibility study, the company needs 555,000 tons per year of cassava to feed its 185,000 ton per year ethanol plant
  • this will require 18,000 hectares of cassava plantation based on an average yield of 30 tons/year/ha
  • farm to refinery production costs for the bioethanol are estimated based on a price of 1,500 pesos per ton for cassava, which, after bioconversion, results in a price of around US$33 per barrel of oil equivalent at the refinery gate
In a briefing they conducted at Provincial Planning and Development Office (PPDO) at the Capitol, the company's representatives, led by its manager Yoshihiko Sako for Strategic Planning Division concluded from the report that Bohol has the "ideal business climate" for their investment, also because of logistical advantages:
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The company's spokesperson added that, from a logistical and infrastructural point of view, Bohol is a strategic site compared to other places they have been to, including Davao City and Cagayan de Oro City, because the province is located centrally in the country, both accessible from the south and from the neighboring islands of the western and eastern provinces where they may source raw materials for future projects.

COCL is also looking into marketing liquid biofuels such as biodiesel and ethanol based on oil palm, coconut, waste vegetables and sugarcane.

The Philippines recently introduced a landmark Biofuel Act, which contains a mandate for 10% ethanol in the country's overall gasoline consumption, to be reached by 2010 (earlier post).

The country has meanwhile attracted large investors, mainly from Japan and China, with funds poured into the sector worth 240.1 billion pesos (€3.8/US$4.9 billion) so far - investments that will be made over the next five to seven years (earlier post).

Crops of interest in the island state are coconut and oil palm for the production of biodiesel, and sugarcane, cassava and especially sweet sorghum for ethanol. A recently developed sorghum variety with a high sugar content, looks very promising. During field trials, it yielded more ethanol per hectare than sugarcane, which is widely considered to be the most viable ethanol crop (earlier post).

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China's National Petroleum Corporation signs jatropha plantation deal with Yunnan province

Quicknote bioenergy investments
The China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC), the parent of PetroChina Co Ltd, has signed a strategic cooperation agreement with southern China's Yunnan provincial government on biofuel, the China News Service reports.

Under the agreement, CNPC will invest five million yuan (€490,000/US$645,000) to establish a first jatropha plantation base in the southwestern province.

Oil can be extracted from the seed of the Jatropha plant for processing into biodiesel. No further details were provided.

Earlier this month, the largest oil and gas producer also signed a deal with the government of eastern Shandong province to produce fuel ethanol and biodiesel, using non-grain crops such as cassava as the feedstock.

Initially, CNPC would produce 200,000 tons of fuel ethanol and 100,000 tons of biodiesel a year in Shandong. The company and the provincial government will cooperate in building supplementary raw material bases in Shandong.

Finally, CNP is also a partner in the large project announced earlier this year which consists of the establishment of a vast plantation of energy trees covering 13 million hectares in Southern China (earlier post) [entry ends here].
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Sunday, March 11, 2007

Notes on biopolymers in the Global South

The gradual transition towards the biobased economy brings opportunities for 'developing' countries to leapfrog beyond the petroleum era and into a cleaner, greener and more renewable future based on biotechnology. One field in which they are already enjoying late-comer as well as agro-ecological advantages is that of biodegradable plastics and polymers. An overview.

Brazil: biopolymers from cassava, sugarcane, soy
Unlike their petroleum rivals, plant-based plastics and polymers can be developed around locally available biomass feedstocks. A detailed evaluation of this principle and its effects on the competitiveness of such materials was recently published by the Sao Paulo based Institute of Technology Research (IPT). The study was produced on behalf of the Brazilian Ministry of Science and Technology, in order to be used in the development of biotechnology policies and federal grant programs, which have since come forth (earlier post on Brazil's massive injection of funds into the nascent bioeconomy).

The study [*.pdf/Portuguese] shows that the most important starch and sugar-rich crops suitable for biopolymer development in Brazil are cassava, sugarcane and soy. The report compares Brazilian feedstock costs with those of the US:
  • the production cost of industrial starch from cassava in Brazil is around US$262/ton compared to production costs of US$478/ton for corn starch in the U.S.
  • the production cost of sugars for the production of biopolymers, derived from sugarcane is between $150-$200/ton, while the cost of comparably useful glucose from corn starch in the United States is about $450/ton
As a consequence, the production cost for polylactic acid (PLA) and polyhydroxybutyrate (PHB) based biopolymers in Brazil is estimated to be about one half (for PLA) to one third (for PHB) of that in the United States. The competitiveness of biopolymers produced in Brazil with those produced in the U.S. depends on freight costs and import taxes at the destination country. Biopolymers produced in Brazil and the U.S. have significant cost advantages when compared to those (currently) produced in Europe or Japan. The study also evaluates the probability of technical and commercial success in the development of different biopolymers in Brazil.

The country can not only produce biopolymers at low cost, but is also well positioned to develop the necessary technology based on ten years of local experience in PHB research, and current pilot-scale production of this material. The future of large scale production of biopolymers in Brazil (in order to supply European and U.S. markets), is currently restricted by limited investment capital and lack of well developed government incentives.

Malaysia: PLA from sago starch
In Malaysia, an international team of scientists from Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia and the UK succeeded in developing an efficient polylactic acid production process based on starch derived from the sago palm:
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Sago starch (earlier post) is obtained directly from the palm tree's trunks, in which it grows in great quantities (see picture). It is easily fermentable by most microorganisms and easily hydrolysed into glucose. This sugar can be further converted into lactate by bacteria. The group has succeeded in maximizing the production of lactic acid from sago starch by utilizing a continuous fermentation system coupled with a cell recycling system which minimized the possibility of wash-out even at high dilution rates.

Recently, the scientists also accomplished the purification of the lactic acid from the fermentation system by electrodialysis. Current research indicates that the purity of lactic acid can be affected by the storage parameters, such as pH, temperature, ionic strength and degree of purification.

The research may be extended into methods in polymerizing the pure lactate in the formation of a biofilm for bioplastic synthesis. Also, processing of solid waste separated from sago mill effluents (known as in Malaysia as 'hampas') is viable for the production of marketable compost.

The research is encouraging because it points to a new viable product stream for sago. Raw starch production based on sago urgently needs new added value, to make the most of this plantation crop that is only beginning to be used on an industrial scale.

The scientists illustrated the importance of this added value: the total amount of sago starch exported in 2000 from the state of Sarawak was 61,000 tons procuring a total income of US$9.15 million. Assuming that only 50% of the total export tonnage is hydrolysed into sugars, a 98% recovery of hydrolysis from 30,500 tons of sago starch would have produced 29,890 tons of glucose. A fermentation capacity of 96% would have generated 28,694.4 tons of lactate. Valued at US$28.694 million, this is more than three times the income from the total export of pure sago starch in 2000.

Colombia: biopolymer from cassava
In Colombia, Professor Hector Villada from the Universidad del Cauca and researchers of the Universidad del Valle en Colombia (grouped under the umbrella of the research group CYTIBIA - Ciencia y Tecnologia de Biomoleculas de Interes Industrial), have developed [*no direct link, scroll down] a bioplastic based on cassava starch.

The scientists fermented cassava root (locally known as 'yuca root') for a 20-day period, mixed it with water and “plasticizers of natural origin”. They then successfully formed resin pellets by a traditional extrusion process.

The scientists also indicated that the cassava polymer has "shape memory" capabilities, or, in other words, a shape shift can be obtained when the material's temperature is changed. There now is a Colombian patent pending application for this bioplastic material and its associated production process.

Malaysia: PLA and PHB from oil palm residues
Finally, back in Malaysia, Professor M. Hassan from the University Putra introduced the challenges and opportunities of biomass research in Malaysia during the Biomass-Asia Forum in 2006.

The major contributor to the biomass industry in Malaysia is the palm oil industry (85% of all available biomass). Palm oil production is rising as a consequence of biodiesel demand around the world. Earlier we also reported on efforts to utilize the vast waste-streams from this industry, for the production of a diversified range of plant-based products (earlier post).

Professor Hassan has contributed to this effort by focusing on the development of biopolymers like PLA and PHB from palm oil mill effluents and palm fruit residues [*.pdf].

MIT and University of Putra researchers worked together between 2000 and 2002 on a project that pursued transgenic palm capable of synthesizing PHB at a commercial scale capacity. The project was successful, but there have not been commercial developments associated with its conclusions.

Thailand: bioplastics from cassava - program
In another development, the Thai Ministry of Science and Technology announced last year that it is going to promote the production and use of cassava starch-based bioplastics [*.pdf], as part of a National Biotechnology Policy Framework [*.pdf]. Under this framework, an investment was announced of about US$26 million (until 2009) to encourage production and application of bioplastics, which will be utilizing local agricultural resources.

The recently created Thai National Innovation Agency (NIA), which manages the funds, indicates on its web page that it is focusing efforts on three strategic areas:

1) the development of a bio-based industrial sector 2) bioenergy and the environment and 3) design and branding.

The NIA and the Federation of Thai industries are the organizers of InnoBioplast, an international conference and exhibition on bioplastics.

United Nations: bioplastics for the developing world

Finally, the United Nations's International Center for Science and High Technology (ICS), part of the UNIDO, recently launched a program [*.pdf] focusing on the development of biodegradable materials with special attention for the opportunities in developing countries.

Focus of this large program is on disposal of plastic waste created by various sectors of human activity. Expanding global production and consumption of polymer materials together with increasing public awareness of environmental issues have created serious concern about the problems related to disposal of plastic waste. In addition to today's options of recycling, reuse, incineration and composting, new technological developments of environmentally degradable plastics are making a highly efficient contribution to the environmental issue in a number of sectors. Novel products and materials coming onto the market, that meet consumer demand and concern for proper disposal, are important targets for basic and applied research.

Rather than end-of-pipe solutions, industrial processes for production of environmentally degradable plastics are being promoted and proposed to technologists in developing countries.

The general approach consists of strengthening national expertise in selected countries to master, use and further develop biodegradable plastics technologies for local application and adaptation; to activate international cooperation programmes on biodegradable plastic applications relevant to priority needs and specific industrial demands of developing countries; to create at the ICS a service capable of providing technologists and researchers in developing countries with information, expertise and ad hoc services for developmental applications in the field of biodegradable plastics.

This snapshot of developments in the sector of plant-based plastics and polymers hints at the opportunity for the Global South to develop biotechnology policies and research routes based on locally available biomass resources.

Even though the international market for bioplastics and polymers is only in its infancy, environmental considerations (such as the carbon footprint of plastics), waste-management and pollution issues, and the prospect of 'peak oil' and higher prices for petrochemical feedstocks, makes it reasonable to assume that the sector has a bright future.

And once again, the South will enjoy both late-comer advantages as well as competitive advantages based on the potential of its agriculture.

Picture: sago palm logs ready to be processed at a large mill in Sarawak, Borneo, Malaysia. Courtesy: Pelita, Malaysian Land Custody and Development Authority, Sago Development website.

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Biofuels to the rescue of distressed farmers in Andhra Pradesh

The Statesman reports that farmers in India's state of Andhra Pradesh who have been through crises for years, are looking to turn the corner thanks to the unprecedented emphasis on biofuels by the the state's government. With the aid of the Andhra Pradesh based Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), a partner of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), Governor Rajashekar Reddy has launched a biofuel program adapted to local agro-ecological conditions and which includes guaranteed minimum prices for biofuel feedstocks, resulting in new and secure incomes for the rural poor. Smallholders, and not agro-industrial giants, make up the vast bulk of producers who stand to benefit.

High fuel prices are having a direct negative effect on all sectors of life in the state, from industry to mobility and agriculture. Replacing fossil fuels with biofuels reduces this impact. Under the program, two types of biofuel feedstocks are being focused on: maize for the production of ethanol and pongamia seeds for biodiesel.

In Andhra Pradesh, the area under maize has doubled in the last three years and the government procured around 400,000 tonnes last year. Though this amount is currently meant to meet fodder needs for the poultry industry, the government is using this stream to lay a networking and marketing base for exploiting the feedstock for future biofuel production. Andhra Pradesh is aiming to begin ethanol extraction by mid-2008.

The manner in which government is promoting maize is impacting the farmers directly. Before the program, they would sell maize for 4000 rupiah (US$90) per ton or even less. The government has fixed a minimum support price of 5400 rupiah (US$122) per ton last year. "Now no farmer can say he is getting less than that. In fact they are selling at 6000-7000 rupiah (US$135-158) per ton on average”, the agriculture minister says.

Persistent drought in the state has made agriculture for food increasingly difficult, which is why drought-tolerant biofuel crops are being introduced as well, offering new opportunities for often desperate farmers.

The pongamia program relies on a system of guaranteed prices too. Pongamia pinnata (see profile in the Handbook of Energy Crops) is a widely grown drought tolerant tree that yields seeds the oil of which makes for a good biodiesel feedstock. It's water requirements are even lower than that of Jatropha curcas. The ICRISAT has been running a promising pilot project with the crop, which is benefiting the livelihoods of poor rural women by strengthening their incomes and by allowing them to diversify crops.

"We started work [with pongamia] in early 2006 and now 130,000 acres (52,610 hectares) are under plantation. This is national record. We prepared a scheme where the government pays 10,800 rupiah (US$244) for each acre of pongamia plantation managed by a smallholder. That is the amount needed for digging pits, planting saplings, watering and finally grafting”, he said.

The farmer would begin realising harvestable yields from the fourth year onwards. Now the government has announced that it offers a guaranteed minimum price of 10 rupiah per kilo. Each acre holds around 200 plants and each plant, in the worst case scenario, yields 2.5 kilos of seed. In other words, the smallholder is reaping 5,000 rupiah (US$113) worth of harvest per acre without any upfront investment:
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“In the tenth year an acre would yield between 12,000 to 15,000 rupiah of income (US$271 - 339). After the third year the plant needs no water support. This is a drought resistant variety and can survive even if there is no rain for four years. Biofuels are turning out to be a huge boom for our farmers”.

Agriculture minister Mr N Raghuveera Reddy adds that "no state has a road map for biofuel plantations and extraction comparable to Andhra Pradesh's. We are aiming to bring 5 million acres [2 million hectares] under cultivation exclusively for biofuel crops. That would be one fifth’s of the state’s total cultivable area,”

The government has tied up with companies to set up plants to extract petrol and diesel from maize and jethropa respectively. These units are coming up at Kakinda, Nandyal, Guntur and Hyderabad.

Image: poor women tending a pongamia nursery, courtesy ICRISAT.

More information:
Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics: Biofuel Crops: Power to the Poor - Sept. 2006.

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Greening Ho Chi Minh City

In 1998, the city of Nantan, Japan, decided to launch a project to green the town by utilizing its biomass resources and waste streams to generate clean and renewable energy. The Yagi Bio-ecology Centre (YBEC) became the kernel of the project and processes biomass generated in the community, mostly from animal manure, food waste and the local tofu industry. It uses carbon-neutral methane gas generated in the waste treatment process to produce electricity and heat, which are in turn used to run its waste treatment facilities (see picture, click to enlarge).

In an effort to build an entire recycling-oriented community, scientists reviewed the lifestyles of inhabitants and the economic activities within the community. Now the town is trying to save energy and reduce environmental pressure by promoting recycling of organic resources and controlling waste generation.

Scientist Yoshiteru Nakagawa, a driving force behind the eco-city, shared his experience with 40 collegues from Vietnam, Thailand and Japan last week, at a seminar held in Ho Chi Minh City on urban bioenergy, on community level recycling and workable biomass projects, and on collaboration strategies between various stakeholders like policy makers, scientists, and the community.

Phan Minh Tan, director of Ho Chi Minh City’s Science and Technology Department, announced the city will become an 'eco-twin' of Nantan, drawing on its experience.

Biomass-based energy and recovery of unused resources will be encouraged to fill the shortage of fossil fuels and preservation of the environment, he explained. Ho Chi Minh City - a nascent mega-city of of 6.5 million - is located near the Mekong Delta, one of the world's richest and most productive agricultural zones. Vast amounts of waste biomass can be recovered from this local agriculture, for the production of fuels and power (earlier post).

Programmes for renewable energy, energy saving, and expanding the use of biodiesel, bioethanol and biogas have already been launched for application in daily life in Ho Chi Minh City's satellite towns, and will be expanded to other towns in the Mekong River Delta, the seminar said.

Dr. Phan Dinh Tuan from Ho Chi Minh City’s University of Technology spoke about ongoing research into manufacturing cellulosic ethanol from rice straw - an abundant resource that is often burned and wasted:
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His colleague, Dr. Nguyen Huu Luong, heads a team trying to produce biodiesel from waste cooking oil.

Dr. Bui Xuan An of the Agricultural and Forestry university is trying to produce biogas from animal manure and waste.

On the second day of the workshop, participants visited rice fields and rice and cassava mills in an outlying Ho Chi Minh City’s Cu Chi district and the neighbouring province of Tay Ninh to get an impression on the availability of biomass resources and current waste management practises at the community level.

Scientists from Vietnam are also partnering with one of Europe's top science institutions, the German Fraunhofer Institute, to develop highly efficient biomass burners specially designed for rice straw (earlier post).

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