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    A group of Spanish investors is building a new bioethanol plant in the western region of Extremadura that should be producing fuel from maize in 2009. Alcoholes Biocarburantes de Extremadura (Albiex) has already started work on the site near Badajoz and expects to spend €42/$59 million on the plant in the next two years. It will produce 110 million litres a year of bioethanol and 87 million kg of grain byproduct that can be used for animal feed. Europapress - September 28, 2007.

    Portuguese fuel company Prio SA and UK based FCL Biofuels have joined forces to launch the Portuguese consumer biodiesel brand, PrioBio, in the UK. PrioBio is scheduled to be available in the UK from 1st November. By the end of this year (2007), says FCL Biofuel, the partnership’s two biodiesel refineries will have a total capacity of 200,000 tonnes which will is set to grow to 400,000 tonnes by the end of 2010. Biofuel Review - September 27, 2007.

    According to Tarja Halonen, the Finnish president, one third of the value of all of Finland's exports consists of environmentally friendly technologies. Finland has invested in climate and energy technologies, particularly in combined heat and power production from biomass, bioenergy and wind power, the president said at the UN secretary-general's high-level event on climate change. Newroom Finland - September 25, 2007.

    Spanish engineering and energy company Abengoa says it had suspended bioethanol production at the biggest of its three Spanish plants because it was unprofitable. It cited high grain prices and uncertainty about the national market for ethanol. Earlier this year, the plant, located in Salamanca, ceased production for similar reasons. To Biopact this is yet another indication that biofuel production in the EU/US does not make sense and must be relocated to the Global South, where the biofuel can be produced competitively and sustainably, without relying on food crops. Reuters - September 24, 2007.

    The Midlands Consortium, comprised of the universities of Birmingham, Loughborough and Nottingham, is chosen to host Britain's new Energy Technologies Institute, a £1 billion national organisation which will aim to develop cleaner energies. University of Nottingham - September 21, 2007.

    The EGGER group, one of the leading European manufacturers of chipboard, MDF and OSB boards has begun work on installing a 50MW biomass boiler for its production site in Rion. The new furnace will recycle 60,000 tonnes of offcuts to be used in the new combined heat and power (CHP) station as an ecological fuel. The facility will reduce consumption of natural gas by 75%. IHB Network - September 21, 2007.

    Analysts fear that record oil prices will fuel general inflation in Kenya, particularly hitting the poorest hard. They call for the development of new policies and strategies to cope with sustained high oil prices. Such policies include alternative fuels like biofuels, conservation measures, and more investments in oil and gas exploration. The poor in Kenya are hit hardest by the sharp increase, because they spend most of their budget on fuel and transport. Furthermore, in oil intensive economies like Kenya, high oil prices push up prices for food and most other basic goods. All Africa - September 20, 2007.

    Finland's Metso Power has won an order to supply Kalmar Energi Värme AB with a biomass-fired power boiler for the company’s new combined heat and power plant in Kalmar on the east coast of Sweden. Start-up for the plant is scheduled for the end of 2009. The value of the order is approximately EUR 55 million. The power boiler (90 MWth) will utilize bubbling fluidized bed technology and will burn biomass replacing old district heating boilers and reducing the consumption of oil. The delivery will also include a flue gas condensing system to increase plant's district heat production. Metso Corporation - September 19, 2007.

    Jo-Carroll Energy announced today its plan to build an 80 megawatt, biomass-fueled, renewable energy center in Illinois. The US$ 140 million plant will be fueled by various types of renewable biomass, such as clean waste wood, corn stover and switchgrass. Jo-Carroll Energy - September 18, 2007.

    Beihai Gofar Marine Biological Industry Co Ltd, in China's southern region of Guangxi, plans to build a 100,000 tonne-per-year fuel ethanol plant using cassava as feedstock. The Shanghai-listed company plans to raise about 560 million yuan ($74.5 million) in a share placement to finance the project and boost its cash flow. Reuters - September 18, 2007.

    The oil-dependent island state of Fiji has requested US company Avalor Capital, LLC, to invest in biodiesel and ethanol. The Fiji government has urged the company to move its $250million 'Fiji Biofuels Project' forward at the earliest possible date. Fiji Live - September 18, 2007.

    The Bowen Group, one of Ireland's biggest construction groups has announced a strategic move into the biomass energy sector. It is planning a €25 million investment over the next five years to fund up to 100 projects that will create electricity from biomass. Its ambition is to install up to 135 megawatts of biomass-fuelled heat from local forestry sources, which is equal to 50 million litres or about €25m worth of imported oil. Irish Examiner - September 16, 2007.

    According to Dr Niphon Poapongsakorn, dean of Economics at Thammasat University in Thailand, cassava-based ethanol is competitive when oil is above $40 per barrel. Thailand is the world's largest producer and exporter of cassava for industrial use. Bangkok Post - September 14, 2007.

    German biogas and biodiesel developer BKN BioKraftstoff Nord AG has generated gross proceeds totaling €5.5 million as part of its capital increase from authorized capital. Ad Hoc News - September 13, 2007.

    NewGen Technologies, Inc. announced that it and Titan Global Holdings, Inc. completed a definitive Biofuels Supply Agreement which will become effective upon Titan’s acquisition of Appalachian Oil Company. Given APPCO’s current distribution of over 225 million gallons of fuel products per year, the initial expected ethanol supply to APPCO should exceed 1 million gallons a month. Charlotte dBusinessNews - September 13, 2007.

    Oil prices reach record highs as the U.S. Energy Information Agency releases a report that showed crude oil inventories fell by more than seven million barrels last week. The rise comes despite a decision by the international oil cartel, OPEC, to raise its output quota by 500,000 barrels. Reuters - September 12, 2007.

    OPEC decided today to increase the volume of crude supplied to the market by Member Countries (excluding Angola and Iraq) by 500,000 b/d, effective 1 November 2007. The decision comes after oil reached near record-highs and after Saudi Aramco announced that last year's crude oil production declined by 1.7 percent, while exports declined by 3.1 percent. OPEC - September 11, 2007.

    GreenField Ethanol and Monsanto Canada launch the 'Gro-ethanol' program which invites Ontario's farmers to grow corn seed containing Monsanto traits, specifically for the ethanol market. The corn hybrids eligible for the program include Monsanto traits that produce higher yielding corn for ethanol production. MarketWire - September 11, 2007.

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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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