<body> --------------
Contact Us       Consulting       Projects       Our Goals       About Us
home / Archive
Nature Blog Network

    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.

Creative Commons License

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Pre-combustion CO2 capture from biogas - the way forward?

Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) systems are receiving a lot of attention nowadays. The system offers the potential to sequester the carbon dioxide - the most dangerous greenhouse gas - from fossil fuels into geological formations, so that the use of these primary energy sources contributes less to climate change. A lot of research is going on to study different techniques and sites to store the carbon dioxide safely so that it stays locked up for decades or centuries.

At the Biopact, we follow these developments, because CCS can be applied to biofuels as well. Whereas CCS applied to fossil fuels results in slightly positive or carbon neutral energy, 'Bio-energy with Carbon Storage' (BECS) systems are radically carbon negative. Scientists looked at BECS in the context of so-called 'Abrupt Climate Change' (ACC), which is basically an apocalyptic global warming scenario. In case ACC were to occur, BECS would be one of the only realistic mitigation options, because the system allows societies to reduce CO2 emissions radically while still using energy at the same time. BECS is the only carbon negative energy system in existence. But for BECS to work, CCS technologies must be reliable and commercially viable. And this is where a major problem arises.

CCS costs
The main obstacle to the commercial viability of CCS is the high cost of capturing the carbon dioxide gas. The other costs associated with integrated CCS-systems, such as geological assessments of potential storage sites, CO2 transport and injection, and monitoring and measuring stored carbon dioxide, are relatively low (see table, click to enlarge).

Several carbon capture technologies exist, only one of which stands out for being very simple, scaleable, tested and low-cost, namely CO2 capture from biogas fermenters. The Biopact will present this route, which is part of a broader concept, to the EU's public consultation on CCS.

Broadly speaking, there are two different stages at which the CO2 from fuels can be captured: either before the fuel is used in power plants (pre-combustion capture) or after burning it (post-combustion capture from flue gas).

The main problem with post-combustion capture is the low concentration of CO2 in the flue gas. Depending on which industry is concerned, this concentration can range between a few percent only to 15%. Other gases such as oxygen, water vapour or nitrogen also occur in flue gas. It would be out of the question to seek to compress them all for storage, from the standpoint of both the energy costs and the storage capacity. Separation methods are thus required so as to trap the CO2 preferentially, so that it can be compressed and make optimal use of the storage capacity of a sequestration site.

Within the post-combustion category the following CO2 capture techniques can be distinguished:
  • absorption with solvents (generally amines)
  • calcium cycle separation: quicklime-based capture that yields limestone, which is then heated, thereby releasing CO2 and producing quicklime again for recycling.
  • cryogenic separation: based on solidifying CO2 by frosting it to separate it out; the low concentration of CO2 in the flue gas makes this uneconomical
  • membrane separation: work is required on developing the membranes themselves, on their optimisation for large-scale generation conditions, and on minimising the energy required for separation
  • adsorption: the fixation of CO2 molecules on a surface. The adsorbing material (mostly zeolites) undergoes a series of pressure or temperature variations to store/release CO2 as required
  • Oxy-fuel combustion capture: not CO2 capture in the true sense of the term; the objective is to increase the CO2 fraction in the flue gas to 90% by performing combustion in the presence of pure oxygen. However, separating out the oxygen from air, performed mainly using the cryogenic principle, is both costly and energy-consuming.
The goal of pre-combustion capture techniques is to trap the carbon prior to combustion: the fuel is converted on entering the installation into synthesis gas – a mixture of carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrogen, through gasification, shift reaction or partial oxidation, after which the CO is separated mainly via:
  • steam reforming in the presence of water: the CO present in the mixture reacts with the water during the shift conversion stage to form CO2 and hydrogen. The CO2 is then separated from the hydrogen, which can be used to produce energy (electricity or heat) without giving off CO2
CO2 capture from biogas
All the above technologies are currently too costly to make CCS commercially viable (see table). The alternative suggested by the Biopact is significantly lower-cost and consists of pre-combustion CO2 capture from anaerobically fermented biogas:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The advantage of biogas is the fact that the fermentation of biomass results in a gas the CO2 fraction of which is much larger than that of flue gas. Depending on the feedstocks and the production process, biogas contains between 35 and 45% of CO2. The remainder is methane (CH4), with some trace gases and elements. This large CO2 fraction makes pre-combustion CO2 capture technologies commercially viable. Comparisons show that CO2 capture from biogas is between 4 and 6 times less costly than other pre- and post-combustion separation techniques.

To put it in simple terms: biogas can be purified, the CO2 stored and the resulting high quality methane used as an ultra-clean and carbon-negative biofuel. The biomethane can be used either in power plants, or in CNG-capable vehicles.

So what would the ideal system of 'biogas with carbon capture and storage' (BCS - see illustration, click to enlarge) look like? It consists of creating biogas production zones close to carbon sequestration sites (such as deep saline aquifers or depleted oil and gas fields), and preferrably in the subtropics and the tropics, where biomass yields are high.

Contrary to other CCS strategies, our system is independent of power-plants (because the CO2 capture occurs before the combustion of the methane) and thus independent of heavily urbanised or populated regions (where power plants are located). The system can be located close to the sequestration site, so that CO2 transport costs are reduced significantly too. On the other hand, the carbon-negative biomethane resulting from the process would then have to be shipped to power plants. This can be done by (existing) pipelines or by LNG tankers.

The Biopact is researching possible sites for this system - even though our expertise on this front is quite limited. The ideal-type system would look like this:

1. a sequestration site close to an existing LNG facility (possibly nearby depleted natural gas fields or oil fields where the CO2 can be stored while enhancing oil recovery)
2. dedicated energy crop plantations would be established nearby
3. the biomass - which sucks up atmospheric CO2 - is anaerobically fermented into biogas
4. the CO2 fraction is separated, transported (piped) and injected into the sequestration site (the gas field)
5. the pure biomethane (99% CH4) is liquefied at the existing LNG facility, and exported to world markets
6. as a carbon negative gas, it would fetch premium prices, provided a global market for CO2 comes into existence

Alternatively - but this obviously remains a concept that would require serious investments - we start from scratch and build a new LNG facility close to a near-shore/on-shore sequestration site where our biogas system would be located. The ultra-clean, carbon negative biomethane would then be liquefied and shipped to world markets.

Take into consideration that biogas made from dedicated energy crops in large-scale production facilities in the tropics is expected to be competitive with natural gas (if natural gas prices stay as high as they are today, there would even be a serious margin, making biogas considerably cheaper).

To fill the largest LNG tanker currently on the market - with a capacity of 250,000 tons of liquefied natural gas, equivalent to around 300 million cubic meters of natural gas - with pure biomethane, one would need between 450 and 650 million cubic meters of biogas. This amount can be obtained from around 60,000 hectares of cassava, or 40,000 hectares of sugarcane.

Comparing different 'BECS' systems
'Biogas with carbon storage' can be considered to be a BECS system that results in a biofuel that can be used in power plants as well as in automotive applications (CNG-capable vehicles, fuel cell vehicles). But overall, the carbon capture stage would be considerably lower-cost than BECS relying on solid biofuels (wood co-fired in coal plants, or in dedicated biomass power plants). Because with solid biofuels, only post-combustion CO2 capture is feasible or, alternatively, the expensive pre-combustion capture techniques based on gasification.

Similarly, an alternative clean carbon-negative automotive biofuel would be obtained from biomass-to-liquids, the CO2 of which is captured in the pre-combustion stage; biomass would be gasified, the CO from this syngas would be removed by steam reforming, after which the remaning hydrogen-rich gas is synthesised via the Fischer-Tropsch process into so-called 'synthetic biofuels'. The problem is that this pre-combustion CO2 separation is far more expensive than CO2 removal from biogas.

Finally, a word on the potential of biogas. According to a recent study by the Institut für Energetik und Umwelt, based in Leipzig, and by the Öko-Instituts Darmstadt, the gas can be produced on a very large scale. The study shows that the EU can produce 500 billion cubic meters of natural gas equivalent biogas per annum by 2020, enough to displace all imports of Russian natural gas (earlier post).

In the tropics and subtropics, production would be more cost-effective and energy efficient. By feeding biomethane produced in the South into existing LNG export hubs (such as those in Nigeria, Malaysia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea (planned), Brunei, Equatorial Guinea (planned), Venezuela, Bolivia (planned) or Angola (planned)), it can be shipped to LNG terminals in the North and fetch premium prices. Purification and liquefaction of biogas into renewable LNG is already a commercial reality in the US.

The system as we described it here, is only at the conceptual stage. One aspect of the carbon negative energy system, the cost-sensitive CO2 capture process, is relatively low-cost compared to other techniques associated with the use of fossil fuels or with solid biofuels. The Biopact is writing an introductory dossier on the concept, and will present it to the EU's public consultation on CCS.

More information:
On the low costs of geological assessments, see:
S. J. Friedmann, J. Dooley, H. Held, O. Edenhofer, "The low cost of geological assessment for underground CO2 storage: Policy and economic implications", [*.pdf] Lawrence Livermore National Lab, Energy & Conversion Management, February 15, 2005.

On the cost of different carbon capture techniques:
Mahasenan N, Brown DR. “Beyond the Big Picture: Characterization of CO2-laden Streams and Implications for Capture Technologies”. In: Proceedings of 7th International Conference on Greenhouse Gas Control Technologies. Volume 1: Peer-Reviewed Papers and Plenary Presentations, IEA Greenhouse Gas Programme, Cheltenham, UK, 2004

On CCS in general:
The IEA's CO2 Capture and Storage website, part of the IEA Greenhouse Gas R&D Programme.
UK Carbon Capture and Storage Consortium.
IEA's Clean Coal Center: Carbon Capture and Storage (Sequestration).
EurActiv dossier on CCS.

On the EU's public consultation round on CCS:
European Commission, DG Environment: "Capturing and storing CO2 underground - Should we be concerned?" (public consultation website).

Article continues

Corn ethanol does not reduce greenhouse gas emissions - report

The Canadian federal government has invested massively in biofuels made from local crops, such as corn or rapeseed. But the effor will be of little benefit in cutting dependence on fossil fuels or reducing greenhouse emissions, suggests a study by the Canadian Library of Parliament.

The report casts doubt on one of the biggest green initiatives in the Conservative budget - a US$1.5-billion investment over seven years to promote renewable fuels such as corn-based ethanol. Ottawa has introduced a regulation requiring that Canadian gasoline consist of five per cent renewable content by 2010. It also intends to require that diesel fuel and heating oil contain two per cent renewable content by 2012.

However, a study by Frederic Forge of the library's science and technology division says regulations to promote biofuels will have "relatively minor impact" on reducing greenhouse emissions across Canada.

"In fact, if 10 per cent of the fuel used were corn-based ethanol (in other words, if the E-10 blend were used in all vehicles) Canada's greenhouse gas emissions would drop by approximately one per cent," says the report.

The findings once again show what other researchers have found before (here and here): both the energy balance and the greenhouse gas emissions balance of biofuels made from crops grown in the North, is mediocre.

As usual, we feel obliged to refer to the energy and GHG balance of ethanol produced in the South (see graph 1, click to enlarge). Brazilian sugarcane ethanol reduces CO2 emissions by 85% (low estimate) to 90% (high estimate) on a well-to-wheel (farm-to-tailpipe) basis. For corn ethanol, estimates differ, but some even suggest a negative GHG balance. Likewise, the energy balance of Brazilian ethanol is between 8 and 10, that of corn only between 1 and 1.2 (here too, some have found a negative balance) (see graph 2, click to enlarge). The picture remains largely the same with the introduction of cellulosic ethanol.

Transporting biofuels from the South to the North (in tankers), does not alter the energy and GHG balance in any significant way (earlier post). In short, if Canada really wants to help reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, it should import biofuels from the Global South instead. That is what the experts say (earlier post and here):
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The Canadian report also show that locally produced biofuels won't have much impact in reducing dependence on oil and gas: "Global production is still too small and the need for raw materials is still too high for biofuels to have a significant impact on the fuel market and be able to compete with fossil fuels."

It cites an article in New Scientist as concluding that Canada would have to use 36 per cent of its farmland to produce enough biofuels to replace 10 per cent of the fuels now used in transportation.

The drive to increase production of biofuels is also under way in the United States and other countries, leading to concern that global food prices could rise as farmland is diverted from food to energy production.

"Some observers believe that there is already competition between the two markets: according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the rising demand for ethanol derived from corn is the main reason for the decline in world grain stocks during the first half of 2006."

The study calls for greater focus on biodiesel, which in Canada is manufactured mainly from canola, and which brings a better payoff than ethanol in reduced emissions.

The author also underlines the potential of cellulosic ethanol, which is made of waste products like straw and wood chips, rather than from food crops. Iogen, an Ottawa-based company, is a world leader in this technology, and is currently negotiating to build its first commercial plant.

Asked about the study outside the House of Commons on Friday, Environment Minister John Baird said: "I think there's an issue between the tailpipe and the whole cycle and that's, I think, the substance of the report."

He said he is a supporter of ethanol and insisted that it cuts pollution: "If you look at the cycle base, the entire cycle, I think it does."

Baird said he is enthusiastic about cellulosic ethanol: "I'm very big on Iogen's technology. Because it doesn't just use the corn, it uses the entire stock, and it's a world leader."

The budget provides $500 million for "next generation" biofuels, and it is expected that this will be used in part to support the Iogen process.

More information:

Frederic Forge: Biofuels - An Energy, Environmental or Agricultural Policy? [*.hmtl, or *.pdf version], Science and Technology Division, Library of Parliament, Canada, 8 February 2007

Canada.com: Ethanol investments won't do much to cut greenhouse gas emissions: report - March 30, 2007.

Globe & Mail: Ottawa's biofuel plan will have 'minor impact,' study says.Increased use of renewable resources won't dramatically reduce emissions: report - March 30, 2007

Article continues

Friday, March 30, 2007

Scientists discover fungus to convert biomass into ethanol, and into biodegradable antibacterial and super-absorbent material

A research team at University College of Borås in Sweden, headed by Professor Mohammad Taherzadeh, in collaboration with scientists from Göteborg University has made a unique discovery. It consists of a fungus that converts biomass waste into ethanol in a highly efficient manner. Moreover, from the residual biomass resulting from the ethanol production the researchers were able to extract a powerful antibacterial and super-absorbent material that can be used in the hygiene industry (medical and sanitary napkins, etc...). The material is biodegradable, and promises to solve a significant waste problem.

Seven years ago Mohammad Taherzadeh and his team started their search for a fungus for ethanol production. They found a group of filament-producing fungi, so-called zygomycetes, that have proven to have interesting properties.

"Today baker's yeast is used for the production of ethanol, but we have found a fungus that is more effective than baker's yeast," says Mohammad Taherzadeh, professor of biotechnology at the School of Engineering, University College of Borås, and one of the world's leading ethanol researchers.

Within the order zygomycetes, more than 100 different fungi were tested, and in the end, the one with the best properties was singled out. The fungus, which is a saprophyte, is extremely easy to grow in waste and drainage.

"It is low maintenance, requiring hardly anything to start growing and degrading the waste. The temperature plays some role. We have tried to get it to grow in sulfite lye, but also in brush, forestry waste, and fruit rinds, and the results were equally good in all cases," reports Mohammad Taherzadeh.

Converts waste to raw material

Being able to convert sulfite lye for the production of ethanol is good news, in both economic and environmental terms. Sulfite lye, which is a byproduct of the production of paper and viscose pulp, is difficult for factories to dispose of since it contains chemicals that must not be casually released in nature. From being a highly undesirable byproduct for the paper industry, sulfite lye will now be an attractive raw material for the extraction of ethanol:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

"This is truly exciting. Zygomycetes in ethanol production represent an unknown area. We are the only scientists in the world to have presented them as ethanol-producing fungi, but we realize that the potential is huge," says Mohammad Taherzadeh, who relates a curious anecdote that the fungi have another use in Indonesia: they are a food fungus.

Super-absorbent bonus effect
Zygomycetes are not only highly effective in producing ethanol; the research team also found that the biomass that is left over in the production of ethanol can be used to extract a cell-wall material that is super-absorbent and antibacterial. What's more, it's a biological material that can be composted and recycled:

This discovery opens an entirely new dimension for research on the fungi, according to Mohammad Taherzadeh, whose project "Production of antimicrobial super-absorbent from sulfite lye using zygomycetes" was recently awarded more than 800,000 Swedish Crowns (€85,000/US$ 114,000) from the Knowledge Foundation to continue its research into this cell-wall material.

Reduces greenhouse effect
Super-absorbent material is used in diapers and feminine hygiene products, but also for bandages and other products for treating wounds. Today the super-absorbent in these types of products is polyacrylate, but polyacrylate is not biodegradable: it has to be burned. This combustion release carbon dioxide in the air, a compound that aggravates the greenhouse effect. On the other hand, if polyacrylate is replaced with this biological super-absorbent, diapers will not have to be incinerated, but instead can be composted, retted, and converted to biogas. This, in turn, entails a reduction in the emission of carbon dioxide into the air.

Kills bacteria and fungi
The antibacterial property of the biological super-absorbent is also advantageous in comparison with polyacrylate.

"Our cell-wall material absorbs about ten times its weight in liquid. It can also kill bacteria and fungi, which means that a diaper would not irritate the skin and would last longer before any unpleasant odors arise. We have experimented with adding e-coli bacteria as well, an aggressive sort of bacteria, and the cell-wall material manages to neutralize them," says Mohammad Taherzadeh. Equally good results are reported from experiments with other bacteria types, such as Klebsiella pneumonia and Staphylococcus aureus, as well as the fungus Candida albicans.

"The research will continue on ethanol production as well, but our focus is now on developing the cell-wall material further. Since this is an unknown field, a great deal of work will be needed for us to fully understand the potential of this material," says Mohammad Taherzadeh.

In stores soon?
This research is also tied to product development work, being carried out in close collaboration with Rexcell AB (formerly Duni) and Medical Equipment Development AB. "Together with these two companies we are trying to add this cell-wall material to paper in a process called 'airlaid non-woven'." The aim is to develop a commercial product that can be used in many industries, according to Mohammad Taherzadeh. "Our experiments have been promising thus far, and our collaborative partners are looking into the possibility of patenting the method."

More information:

European Research Headlines: Researchers discover link between fungus and ethanol - March 30, 2007.

Article continues

Capiz region to trial high yield sweet sorghum for ethanol

The Philippine Department of Agriculture (DA) announced it will conduct planting trials at its research center in Capiz - in the Western Visayas province - to study the adaptability of high yield sweet sorghum varieties to local conditions. The varieties were developed by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) (earlier post) and showed promising results (for basic data, see here).

The adaptability tests will be conducted at DA's 7-hectare Regional Integrated Agricultural Research Center (RIARC) located along the Panitan and Sigma boundary area at Timpas, Panitan and Malapad Cogon, Sigma.

Henry Tumlos, chief of the DA-RIARC Center in Capiz, said trials will be conducted upon the onset of the wet season this season this year. Tumlos said that at present he has five varieties of sweet sorghum ready for the trials. The RIARC here is one of four such centers that were established by DA in Western Visayas. The others are located in Iloilo, Negros Occidental and Antique.

Although devoted primarily for rootcrops research, the Capiz center can also be used for research studies involving other crops including sweet sorghum, which is being considered by the national government as one of the sources of biofuels, according to Tumlos.

So far, there has been no wide-scale production of any sorghum variety in Capiz, according to local authorities. Philipine President Arroyo has said she would promote the crop as an alternative feedstock to ethanol manufacturing and extracting processes.

The President made the move after the ICRISAT successfully produced ethanol from the high yield varieties in India - with the fuel having a strong energy balance. Later, tests conducted in Luzon showed the crop can be grown in the Philippines with impressive yields:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

ICRISAT, a non-government organization based in India, is headed by Filipino William Dar, former DA Secretary.

President Arroyo signed into law on January 17, 2007 Republic Act No. 9367 or the Biofuels Act of 2006 to promote the production and use of alternative energy sources to lessen the country's dependence on imported oil.

The use of biofuels has already been going on in the country, although on a limited scale as of now.

Article continues

President Lula's letter: "Our Partnership"

Brazil's President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva will be visiting with President Bush tomorrow in Camp David, to follow up on the biofuel partnership both nations created (previous post). In advance of the meeting, President Lula published an open letter in The Washington Post expressing his views on the partnership. The president also tackles some legitimate doubts about the sustainability of biofuels produced in the South, and the Brazilian way. Some highlights:

The partnership builds on Brazil's scientific achievements and technological innovations in biofuels production:
Thirty years of research and innovation have made my country self-sufficient in oil by replacing 40 percent of our gasoline consumption with ethanol. "Flex-fuel" engines, which run on any combination of biofuels, have transformed ethanol into a secure and reliable energy source. We look forward to similar technical breakthroughs as we further develop our domestic biodiesel market.
But the biofuels program goes further than energy security or than overcoming a 'dangerous "addiction" to fossil fuels':
We aim to set in motion a reassessment of the global strategy to protect our environment. As well as being renewable, biofuels in Brazil are clean and highly competitive; ethanol made from sugar cane leaves no residues, as everything is recycled and the byproducts of its production are used to enrich the soil. Equally important, sugar cane sequesters carbon from the atmosphere, helping to reduce greenhouse gases.
One of the main goals of the partnership is to make biofuels globally available and to create triangular alliances with other countries:
This is a recipe for increasing incomes, creating jobs and alleviating poverty among the many developing countries where biomass crops are abundant.
The creation of a global biofuels market however implies that tariffs and subsidies are reassessed (especially in the US and the EU) (earlier post):
For these proposals to gain traction, foundations for a worldwide market in these fuels must be put in place. Brazil and the United States joined India, China, South Africa and the European Union in launching the International Forum on Biofuels this month. Its goal is to ensure conditions for ethanol, and later biodiesel, to become globally marketed commodities. This will be achieved only if trade in biofuels is not hindered by protectionist policies. After all, the subsidies provided under America's corn-based ethanol program have spurred an increase in U.S. cereal prices of about 80 percent. This hurts meat and soy processors worldwide and threatens global food security.
Brazilian biofuels as they are being produced today, do not threaten the rainforest (see earlier), are largely sustainable (earlier post), and have much room to expand:
The success of Brazil's ethanol program has also helped to dispel certain myths. Ethanol is not a direct menace to tropical rain forests, as Amazonian soil is highly unsuitable for growing sugar cane. Moreover, under Brazil's unwavering commitment to environmental protection, deforestation has fallen by 52 percent over the past few years.

Nor does sugar cane threaten food production. Less than a fifth of the 340 million hectares of arable land in Brazil is used for crops. Only 1 percent, or 3 million hectares, is used to harvest cane for ethanol. By contrast, 200 million hectares are pasture, where the production of cane is beginning to expand. The real challenge in providing food security lies in overcoming the poverty of those who regularly go hungry. That is why we have launched a campaign, in Brazil and abroad, to guarantee to every man, woman and child the minimum income required to buy three square meals a day.
The social aspects of biofuel production remain a dilemma (earlier post): on the one hand, labor conditions must be improved, but on the other, low incomes for small farmers are often more to blame on subsidized agriculture in rich countries; if this situation were to change, much of the social problems associated with agriculture in the developing world, could be solved:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Yes, working conditions for sugar cane harvesters must be improved, and we are fully engaged in doing that. However, this issue hardly justifies harsh criticism of an economic activity that employs and offers hope to so many people in Brazil and throughout the world.

Agriculture provides not just foodstuffs but also a way of life for millions of small-scale farmers globally. The spread of sugar cane, soy and other oleaginous crops for biofuels will ensure that needy farming families have the financial means to feed themselves. A significant increase in the value of agricultural produce and in trade income could easily be achieved if developing countries that might cultivate these biomass crops did not face unfair competition from farmers who benefit from vast subsidies in rich countries.
Creating a genuine partnership, sharing technologies, and cooperating with poorer countries remains a unique recipe for spreading prosperity and peace:
We all know that the secret to energy security lies in diversifying our energy sources. Brazil and the United States represent more than 70 percent of world ethanol output. We are sharing markets and technical expertise to produce cleaner, more efficient and renewable energy.

Our two countries have always put their faith in the entrepreneurship of their citizens. Today, we have an opportunity to bolster confidence in our capabilities to respond to new challenges and global threats. By investing in biofuels, we can also join with developing countries in spreading peace, prosperity and the promise of a better future.
The President's vision for a greener world, in which the Global South enjoys the benefits of agro-energy is definitely ambitious. The Biopact can subscribe largely to these ideas, but serious challenges to their implementation obviously remain. It is now time to start to look at strategies and tactics to introduce biofuels in developing countries in such a way that they are genuinely sustainable, and deliver on the potential for poverty alleviation, energy security and the fight against climate change.

Finally, we are convinced that the EU should be equally ambitious and create a similar partnership, either directly with Africa, or trilaterally, with Brazil.

Article continues

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Lost in the forest of green energy concepts? Try the Bioenergy Wiki

Quicknote bioenergy resources
The advantage of bioenergy is that it offers a multitude of different energy products (gaseous, liquid, solid fuels), derived from a great variety of biomass resources that are transformed into finished products by a considerable and growing number of different technologies. The field of bioenergy deals with a range of interacting scientific disciplines, from biology and agronomy, to chemistry, physics and even the social sciences. No wonder this complexity results in a vocabulary of specific terms that can be quite overwhelming to those who are new to the subject. 'BTL', 'Fischer-tropsch', 'transesterification', 'short-rotation coppice', 'thermal depolymerisation', 'synthetic biofuels', 'bio-energy with carbon storage', 'biohydrogen', 'pyrolisis oil', 'biobutanol'... it is easy to lose your way in this dense jungle of concepts, technologies and terms.

But no worry, the BioenergyWiki is here to help you out. The encyclopedia not only explains bioenergy related terms in a succinct and scientifically correct manner, it also offers news resources and networking opportunities. A growing list of organisations and the latest events in the sector are listed and updated regularly. Like any wiki, the portal is a collaborative effort, meaning entries can be edited by anyone, provided some basic rules are followed.

The BioenergyWiki was developed in cooperation with the CURES network and an international Steering Committee, which makes sure that the quality of the resource remains high. It is currently being hosted by the National Wildlife Federation with support from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Heinrich Boell Foundation, the Biomass Coordinating Council of the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE) and the Worldwatch Institute.

BioenergyWiki is quickly becoming the most complete resource on the subject. So in case you have doubts about a concept, or want to learn more about a new biofuel technology, find out about it at the encyclopedia of green energy. Even better, if you know of interesting developments in the field, do not hesitate to contribute to the growing BioenergyWiki [entry ends here].
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Article continues

World Bank can facilitate Brazilian biofuel technology transfers

The World Bank can help Brazil export its expertise for making sugarcane ethanol to developing countries in Africa and elsewhere, the Bank's vice-president for Latin America thinks. "Brazil sees (sharing technology) as a way of helping to build an ethanol market in the world," Pamela Cox told Reuters in an interview. "As projects come up, we have a private sector arm that can help."

The International Finance Corporation (IFC), an arm of the World Bank that makes loans to private companies, would be the instrument used to stimulate firms into helping spread Brazilian expertise in other developing countries. Cox said Brazil's decades of experience could potentially benefit needy countries all over the world, and the bank could help make it happen. "We can facilitate the transfer of information because development is about knowledge," she said.

To many developing countries, high fossil fuel prices and dependence on foreign energy supplies are extremely damaging to their economies. Least developed countries tend to have a high energy intensity (meaning their economies use more energy to grow than highly developed countries), which makes them highly sensitive to price increases. For this reason, energy security and alternatives to fossil fuels have now become the kernel of new lines of thinking in development economics (for a vivid illustration, see Professor John Mathews' Biofuels Manifesto).

In this context, Brazil's biofuels success is seen by many as a potential model for other countries in the Global South. Its highly efficient technologies and scientific expertise have been generating worldwide excitement since gasoline prices spiked and evidence of global warming became more convincing a few years ago. Assisted by top-agronomists, scientists, and technology leaders, local farmers have been making ethanol from sugar cane in Brazil since the 1970s and their fuel is competitive with gasoline as long as crude prices are trading above US$35-40 per barrel - versus roughly US$65 today:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Cox said sugar and ethanol could become important exports for African countries such as Ghana, where Brazil's agriculture research agency Embrapa opened an Africa office last year (earlier post). The World Bank already gives extensive assistance to Ghana, she said.

Brazil has already agreed to develop ethanol projects with several countries including China and Japan, and this week state oil company Petrobras signed a joint venture with Italy's Eni to develop biofuel initiatives in Africa, possibly biodiesel projects in Angola and Mozambique.

Ethanol producers are counting on governments around the world to mandate more renewable energy use to create growing demand for the fuel. Cars can be made to run on ethanol mixed with gasoline or on pure ethanol, which is considered renewable because the crops used to make it can be planted again and again. It is also carbon-neutral because the CO2 emissions from cars running on ethanol, are taken back up by the biofuel crops as they grow.

Article continues

Ghana takes small steps to get biofuels off the ground

Late last year, Ghana hosted an UNCTAD-led international workshop on the development of a biofuels industry in West-Africa, which resulted in the establishment of a common fund, to which the Indian government contributed US$250 million (previous post). The initiative also saw the ECOWAS Bank for Investment and Development release US$35 million for biodiesel development in Ghana.

Aside from these committments by the UN and international organisations Ghana is stimulating the development of a local biofuels industry in its own right and through a series of small-scale initiatives. An example comes from the Ministry of Local Government, Rural Development and Environment, which recently organised a 'jatropha implementation workshop' in Mankessim. Metropolitan, municipal and district chief executives, officials of the Ministry of Food and Agriculture and bankers from 24 districts in the country attended it; news from this workshop offers us a glimpse into Ghana's own efforts to launch biofuels.

The Deputy Minister of Local Government, Rural Development and Environment, Mr Abraham Dwuma Odoom, announced that the country's government has created a 15 billion cedis (€1.2/US$1.6 million) fund for the development of Jatropha curcas plantations accross the country.

Mr. Odoom, who is also the Chairman of the Jatropha Implementation Committee, specified that out of that amount some three billion cedis had been released for the production of seeds and seedlings (image), while the remaining 12 billion was ready at the banks to be accessed by persons interested in the cultivation of the jatropha in the districts.

The Deputy Minister added that at the moment quality seeds were available for cultivation of about 2,500 hectares of land and gave the assurance that by next year there would be seeds to cultivate nearly 5,000 hectares of land. Mr. Odoom cautioned the banks not to sit on the money but to release the funds in time for successful implementation of jatropha projects.

National Co-ordinator of Community Based Rural Development Projects (CBRDP), Mr. Brown Matthew Oppong, highlighted the fact that a US$ 5 million fund managed by the Natural Resource Management Component of the CBRDP meant for the rehabilitation of degraded ecosystems could also be accessed by jatropha projects. This is so because the crop can help prevent soil erosion, and re-green degraded lands:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

At the same workshop, a concrete example of a biodiesel project was presented by Mr. Onua Amoah, a Ghanaian industrialist whose company Anuanom Industries, has installed a 500-ton capacity machine for processing jatropha seeds into biodiesel at Gomoa Pomadze in Ghana's Central region.

The company has also installed a 2000-ton capacity equipment for producing organic fertilizer from the by-product of the biodiesel.

Mr. Amoah said since the biodiesel project was to reduce cost of importing diesel into the country, every effort would be made to ensure that production was done at minimal cost. He assured farmers that there is a ready market for the crop, allaying fears that jatropha would suffer the ordeal farmers went through in marketing crops like coffee, sunflower and cashew.

Article continues

China launnches rapeseed biodiesel initiative

Chinese scientists are working on new technologies and breeding oil-rich rapeseed varieties to fuel the People's Republic fast-growing economy with biofuels.

Experts attending an ongoing international conference on rapeseed say that China, whose annual rape production is 30 percent of the world total, should use more farmland to manufacture biodiesel, an effort that will reduce its dependency on petroleum-based diesel and cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Earlier, we reported that Chinese scientists succeeded in breeding rapeseed with a record high oil content (54.72 percent), nearly two percentage points higher than the previously reported highest variety. The new strain, named Zhongyou-0361 and bred by the Institute of Oil Crops Research of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, is disease resistant, early maturing, can be grown at high altitudes and is genetically unmodified.

Encouraged by these developments, Wang Shoucong, an official with the Ministry of Agriculture says: "The development of the global biodiesel industry offers China new opportunities. The government should foster research work to nurture high-yield rapeseed species, develop new technologies to increase biodiesel output and expand rape production in south China in the slack season."

It is unclear however how this push towards an expansion of rapeseed production for fuels fits into the official Chinese policy of reducing the use of food and grain crops for biofuels.

China currently grows around 7 million hectares of rape, with an annual output of 13 million to 14 million tons. But because of "backward" technologies the country is making only 100,000 tons of biodiesel a year out of rapeseed, said Prof. Huang Fenghong at the oilseed research institute of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

As the world's third largest oil importer after the United States and Japan, China imported a record 36 million tons of refined oil last year, 15.7 percent up on 2005, to fuel its 10.7 percent economic growth.

Experts at the meeting say biofuels have become the fourth most important energy source after coal, oil and natural gas in China.

By 2020, China will be able to produce 12 million tons of liquid biofuels such as bioethanol and biodiesel, replacing some 10 million tons of refined oil products, predicted Han Wenke, deputy director of the Energy Research Institute of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC).

Article continues

England to boost biomass industry to tackle climate change

A plan to boost the supply of environment-friendly woodfuel to cut greenhouse gases and produce enough energy to power 250,000 homes was unveiled by Britain's Forestry Commission. The commission developed the strategy in response to last April's Biomass Task Force report, taking into account the recommendations of the Stern report.

The Forestry Commission’s Woodfuel Strategy for England, launched by Biodiversity Minister Barry Gardiner, aims to boost the woodfuel market with an extra two million tonnes of wood a year by 2020, saving 400,000 tonnes of carbon annually – the equivalent of taking 550,000 cars off the road.

Carbon released into the atmosphere by burning woodfuel is absorbed by growing more trees. As well as cutting carbon and producing renewable energy, woodfuel benefits biodiversity through sustainable management of neglected woodlands and boosts the rural economy.

Barry Gardiner visited a trailblazing woodfuel scheme in Bristol today. Blaise Plant Nursery's boiler uses clean recovered wood from Bristol’s parks to heat greenhouses, saving £19,000 a year on fuel bills and contributing to climate change targets.
Barry Gardiner said:
Using wood instead of fossil fuels means that sustainably managed woodland can be a significant resource for a low-carbon economy. Producing fuel from timber taken from well-managed woodlands benefits wildlife too.
Stimulating the woodfuel market is good for jobs too, and this new strategy gives people the tools to realise the broad range of benefits that woodfuel has to offer. Government, business, communities and local authorities can together make woodfuel work for everyone’s benefit.
- Biodiversity Minister Barry Gardiner.
Biomass such as woodfuel currently supplies only three per cent of total UK energy. The strategy recommends provision of capital investment and technical advice and support for the supply chain. It also highlights the need to find new ways to engage with owners of woodlands. There are an estimated 50-80,000 woodland owners in England:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Forestry Commission Chairman Lord Clark of Windermere said:
“Over half of England’s woodlands are currently under-managed. This is a significant and sustainable resource that we want to tap into.
This will also bring additional benefits including biodiversity. Bringing more woodland back into management will benefit a range of flora and fauna including species such as nightingales and woodland butterflies. Using wood to substitute for fossil fuels means that well managed woodland can help to combat climate change. So woodfuel is a winner on many counts.”
Paul Isbell, Bristol City Council Energy Manager, said:

“Bristol City Council is committed to reducing carbon emissions by 3% each year to 2020 and by 60% by 2050.
“The Blaise project is the first of its kind in Bristol and it has already encouraged two further biomass projects: at Florence Brown Special Needs School in Knowle and the Netham Sports Pavilion. Four new secondary schools to be built in Bristol will also be installing woodfuel boilers resulting in one of the largest biomass heat clusters in the UK.
Heating the plant nurseries with woodfuel will save more than 100 tonnes of CO2 per year, making the growing of bedding plants at Blaise virtually carbon neutral.”
The Forestry Commission will be working with delivery partners, including Regional Development Agencies, local authorities and private businesses, to produce a detailed implementation plan to support the strategy.

Article continues

After the tortilla crisis: Mexico to cooperate with Brazil on biofuels

Even though biofuels were in no way to blame for the 'tortilla crisis', which affected Mexico, mainstream media perceived it as such. The main causes of the increase in corn prices are (1) the protection by tariffs of inefficient corn-based ethanol in the U.S., (2) the subsidisation of this fuel, (3) the vast corn subsidies in the U.S. and (4) a free trade agreement that both put millions of Mexican maize farmers out of business since the mid-1990s and made the country dependent on imported corn (see earlier). This has resulted in the massive and irresponsible use of a crop to make a biofuel that is not worth the energy (corn ethanol has a very bad energy balance) and that is not beneficial to the environment.

Today, given record prices, Mexican farmers have picked up growing the maize again, and are making unprecedented profits. This stimulates Mexico's rural economy and somewhat levels out the effects of the tortilla crisis (previous post). However, if the massive U.S. subsidies for the corn lobby and the tariff on efficient tropical ethanol were to disappear, the situation in Mexico would normalise much faster and the country that was once a self-sufficient producer could compete once again.

Biofuels were not to blame. U.S. 'lobby ethanol' was to blame. It is important to make this distinction, because Brazilian and other biofuels are not as inefficient as corn ethanol. The best illustration of the difference between the two was given yesterday, when the foreign ministers of Brazil and Mexico agreed to expand cooperation in the development of 'Brazilian biofuels' and energy.

Celso Amorim of Brazil and Patricia Espinosa Cantellano of Mexico created a commission that increases energy cooperation between the two nations, often described as rivals for leadership in Latin America:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The ministers declined to give details about agreements the two countries could sign regarding petroleum and biofuels. They said only that Mexican oil giant Pemex and Brazil's Petroleo Brasileiro, or Petrobras, could expand a 2005 agreement to search for oil in deep offshore waters.

Those topics could be the subject of a memorandum of understanding when Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva visits Mexico in August, Amorim said.

Mexico "is interested in technological cooperation for deep-water exploration, and we are interested in more direct participation by Petrobras," Amorim said. "They also are very interested in ethanol and biofuels." Mexico no longer has doubts about the viability of biofuels, Amorim said:

"There's a very clear difference from times past," he said. "There was a certain skepticism (in Mexico) about biofuels, and now I no longer see this. On the contrary, I believe there is enthusiasm, so much so that we discussed cooperation not only between Brazil and Mexico, but also in third countries."

It seems Brazil cannot be stopped in its mission of bringing green energy cooperation to other countries. After creating a technology transfer cell in Africa, it closed agreements with France, the UK, Sweden, the EU, the US, Indonesia and most recently Italy, to cooperate on biofuel production and technology development, bilaterally and in so-called 'South-North-South' exchanges.

Mexico's interest in biofuels (an in deep-sea exploration) can be partly explained by the fact that output at its Cantarell oil field - the world's second largest by volume - has begun to decline rapidly after hitting its peak late last year.

Article continues

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Unique study analyses consumption and carrying capacity of ecosystems

How does the spatial distribution of human consumption of carbon (as embodied in food, fiber, and wood/biofuel products) compare to the ability of land-based ecosystems to produce it? This is an important question, the answer to which may yield insights into the bioenergy production potential of different regions of the planet. Ecosystems that can easily and sustainably meet the 'food-fiber-fuel' needs of their populations, can become bioenergy exporters, whereas others will be forced to import.

A unique study - titled 'Human Appropriation of Net Primary Productivity (HANPP)' - led by Marc Imhoff and Lahouari Bounoua of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) has attempted to answer this question by spatially allocating the amount of carbon required to derive food and fiber products consumed by humans. Columbia University's Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) puts a combination of the results - published between 2004 and 2006 - under the spotlight.

Carrying capacity
Using United Nations data on food and fiber consumption, the scientists allocated it on a per capita basis to SEDAC's Gridded Population of the World dataset. The scientists compared this to a remotely-sensed map of global net primary productivity (NPP) — the net amount of solar energy converted to plant organic matter through photosynthesis — in order to identify parts of the world where local NPP is oversubscribed. The map (click to enlarge) shows how, in some urban areas, the excess of consumption over local NPP production is more than 1,000% (areas in dark red). In others, the ecosystem's maximum sustainable carrying capacity is far from reached.

Human appropriation of net primary productivity (HANPP), through the consumption of food, paper, wood, fuel and fiber, alters the composition of the atmosphere, levels of biodiversity, energy flows within food webs and the provision of important ecosystem services. Importantly for us, it also determines the sustainability of bioenergy production, and the carrying capacity of ecosystems to yield biomass and biofuels for exports:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

A tabular database associated with the spatial data also describes human requirements for NPP by country and major product: vegetable calories, meat, eggs, milk, fiber, paper, and wood. Globally, meat consumption accounts for 47% of NPP requirements for human food and 17% of overall NPP requirements. But these percentages vary significantly by country. For instance, meat consumption in the United States accounts for 68% of NPP requirements for human food and 23% of overall NPP requirements as opposed to Bangladesh (the country consuming the least amount of meat) where the percentages are 8% and 3%, respectively.

The spatial data products plus the tabular data are available from the HANPP Web site, which is part of the SEDAC Environmental Sustainability mission area.

Bioenergy potential of regions

Researchers from the International Energy Agency's Bioenergy Task 40 used virtually similar methods to calculate the sustainable biofuel and export potential in different regions of the planet (earlier post). The results clearly match those of the NPP-study.

Two regions stand out with their vast capacity to produce biofuels without exceeding the carrying capacity of their ecosystems, which are also needed to provide food, fiber and fuel to (growing) local populations: Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa. Zones with limited potential are the Indian subcontinent, China and the Far East, Europe, Eastern North-America and the Middle East. Not surprisingly, some of these regions already are net bioenergy importers (Europe, China and especially Japan which has been linking up with Brazil for biofuel supplies), and will become so increasingly in the future.

The original work on these data was published in Nature and Journal of Geophysical Research.

More information:
Columbia University's SEDAC: Human Appropriation of Net Primary Productivity (HANPP) website.
Imhoff, Marc L., Lahouari Bounoua, Taylor Ricketts, Colby Loucks, Robert Harriss, and William T. Lawrence. 2004. Global patterns in human consumption of net primary production. Nature, 429, 24 June 2004: 870-873.
Imhoff, Marc L., and Lahouari Bounoua. 2006. Exploring global patterns of net primary production carbon supply and demand using satellite observations and statistical data. Journal of Geophysical Research, 111, D22S12, doi:10.1029/2006JD007377.

Article continues

Brazil's growing biofuels output does not threaten rainforest - expert

At the Biopact, we try to take a cautious position in the debate about the environmental and social impacts of biofuels (here for a closer look at criteria to measure these impacts). Large-scale production of such fuels presents important challenges which shouldn't be denied. But on the other hand, it would be wrong to perpetuate the unnuanced and often incorrect argument that 'biofuels destroy rainforests'.

When credible and independent scientists study the matter in-depth and conclude for example that Brazilian ethanol as it is currently produced is fundamentally 'sustainable' (earlier post), then we do not gloss over these findings. Instead we present them, and with reason: the potential social, environmental and economic benefits of efficiently produced biofuels may far outweigh the risks they present. The dangerous opportunity cost of not using efficient biofuels on a massive scale, is accelerated climate change, which may result in far bigger damages to the planet's (rain)forests and ecosystems. Global warming is set to lead to a mass extinction of species, not just in Brazil, but across the world (earlier post). What's more, it will cause the destabilisation of entire societies - with migrations, poverty, political conflict and economic decline as possible outcomes - factors that are not beneficial to good environmental governance either. In short, a full life-cycle analysis and environmental balance of biofuels must be made, taking into account the potential disasters arising from not using those fuels.

Roberto Rodrigues, Brazilian coordinator of the Inter-American Ethanol Commission, and former agriculture minister who currently heads the agronomy center of the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a green and social think-tank (previous post), fully engages in this important debate. According to Rodrigues, Brazil's planned biofuels expansion does not pose an immediate threat to the country's rainforests and biodiversity hotspots.

Speaking to a seminar on the environmental impact of biofuels, Rodrigues said Brazil has some 220 million hectares of livestock land, which includes 90 million ha of degraded pasture which could be used for crops. 20 million ha of this area is suitable for sugar cane. Rodrigues added that sugar cane currently only occupied 6 million ha of the 62 million ha of Brazil's cultivated farmland. Roughly half the cane area is used to produce ethanol and the rest for sugar:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Environmental groups are rightly concerned that a huge expansion in Brazilian sugar cane planting to produce ethanol would result in forests being cut down and savannah cleared. They are worried that rivers and water supplies will be contaminated by massive additional use of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. They also say it will increase air pollution due to the practice of burning cane fields before manual harvesting so as to clear undergrowth and pests.

But the practise of burning cane residues is being discouraged, not in the least because it makes for a viable biomass feedstock. More and more sugar mills and ethanol plants are using this biomass to produce power and feed renewable, green electricity to the grid (earlier post).

On the food versus fuel issue, Rodrigues added: "It's absolutely false to say that Brazilian food production will fall with an increase in ethanol output." As for the Amazon, he said the climate in the region was generally unsuitable for growing sugar cane.

But Rodrigues admitted that Brazil needed a strategic ethanol policy to cover issues such as zoning of agricultural farmland to ensure that sugar cane is planted in suitable areas. Currently, earth imaging is used to a great extent to study and monitor agronomic aspects of biofuel plantations, but no stringent zoning laws exist. The technology is there to make such policies and laws work in practise.

Cane burning, water supplies, ethanol credits, production mix, logistics, labor and social issues also needed to be examined, he said, noting that eight government ministries were involved with ethanol but only the agriculture ministry had drafted a national plan.

Brazil is the world's cheapest producer of ethanol and is competitive when oil is above $37 a barrel, he said. Oil is trading around US$64 a barrel. Brazil is the world's biggest producer and exporter of cane-based ethanol with output of 17.6 billion liters in 2006/07 (May/April). In Brazil, agroenergy covers the production of ethanol from sugar cane and from wood and plant cellulose. It also includes biodiesel from oilseeds.

Article continues

South African Industrial Development Corporation to invest US$437 million into biofuels projects

South Africa's biofuels developments are speeding ahead, even though criticism exists over the way the government crafted its bioenergy policy (earlier post). Environmentalists and other stakeholders felt they were left out of the discussions on the sustainability of the proposed biofuels program. This issue aside, South Africa's Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) and its partners have now announced they are looking to invest 3.2 billion Rand (€327/US$437) in two biofuels projects, with first production set for early 2009.

According to project leader Noel Kamrajh, the renewable fuel projects that are in the most advanced stage of analysis and technical study, will be near Cradock in the Eastern Cape and the other near Hoedspruit in Mpumalanga.

In total, the IDC and the Central Energy Fund (CEF) are looking to develop five such projects (see map, click to enlarge):
  • The Mpumalanga project is undergoing final engineering studies, expected to be finished by September. Construction of the plant is likely to start in January. The plant in Hoedspruit aims to make 100 million litres of fuel from sugar cane.
  • The project in the Eastern Cape too is at the detailed engineering study level, due for completion by September. Construction here too is to start in January. The plant will utilize sugar beets to produce about 90 million litres of biofuel each year.
  • The other projects are aiming to produce 150 million litres of biofuel made from sweet sorghum and sugar cane in Pondoland, which spans KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape.
'Empowerment' and community groups included
The funding parastatal is likely to take a 49 percent stake in both projects, whereas the CEF and outside parties will share 51 percent. 25 percent of the IDC's shares are warehoused for 'empowerment' and 'community groups':
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Virtually all of South Africa's biofuels projects adhere to 'black empowerment' and 'community involvement' standards, which most often come down to distributing some of the shareholding power to small farmers, families and their communities.

No data were released about the projected number of jobs the projects will bring, though.

Other initiatives
Earlier government-led biofuel ventures that mark South Africa's entrance into the biofuel era, are decision by the Eastern Cape province to invest 1 billion Rand (€107/US$140.6 million) into a large biodiesel and ethanol project in the Transkei region that could result in 70,000 hectares of canola (rapeseed) and sugar beet being planted. The crops will be planted on communal land. Some 21,000 direct and indirect jobs are expected from the project (earlier post).

Biofuels are a priority sector of South Africa's Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative (Asgisa), which aims to stimulate economic growth, create a large number of new jobs and halve poverty by 2014.

Besides public-private projects, the private sector has big plans in South Africa's bioenergy sector: Ethanol Africa launched its investment into South Africa’s first large-scale bioethanol production plant in Bothaville, in the Free State, late last year. The planned R700 million (€80 million/US$ 120 million) plant is the first of eight the company intends building in South Africa (previous post).

The Coega Development Corportation in Port Elizabeth, for its part, launched 70 million Rand (€7.5/US$9.75 million) biomass pellet production project. 'Eastern Cape Biomass Fuel Pellets' will create some 100 jobs during the construction of the plant, which is currently underway, and an additional 3000 jobs for poor rural communities who will help supply the biomass. The company's aim is to supply 10000MT per month of the biofuel pellets to European countries including Scandinavian countries who already have a large domestic forest and wood products industry (earlier post).

Article continues

U.S. announces $23 million in cellulose ethanol research

The U.S. Energy Department announced US$23 million in federal funds for five projects to convert biomass to ethanol. The funds follow the US$385 million awareded earlier to six biorefinery projects, three of which use biomass gasification as the main conversion technique (earlier post). The current funds are aimed at stimulating research into biochemical conversion of biomass.

These funds are important because they help spur innovations that can be transferred to the developing world. It is there that biomass production and conversion into liquid fuels makes most sense.

Recently, research into the biomass productivity of switchgrass grown in the U.S., seen as the most promising energy crop, showed disappointing results. The crop yielded below three times what is needed for commercial production (earlier post). Moreover, the logistics of harvesting, transporting and storing cellulosic waste streams, like corn cobs, remains a serious challenge.

In the Global South, energy crops, like sugarcane, sweet potatoes, cassava or sweet sorghum, are far more productive and more easily manageable. Today, these crops are used as 'first generation' crops only, with their easily extractible sugars and starches used as feedstocks, but a vast waste-stream of ligno-cellulosic biomass being left aside. If this waste-stream were to be converted into liquid fuel, the already impressive energy balance of Southern biofuels (for sugarcane it currently stands at between 1 to 8 - 1 to 10) will increase even further.

For this reason, it is important that research organisations - no matter their national affiliation - develop new thermochemical, physicochemical or biochemical conversion techniques. Technology transfers to the South of these techniques are in the interest of all of us, because they imply the production of efficient biofuels that effectively reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Speaking about the U.S. research funds, Alexander Karsner, assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy, said:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

"These projects will play a critical role in furthering our knowledge of how we can produce cellulosic ethanol cost-effectively. Ultimately, success in producing cost-competitive cellulosic ethanol could be a key to breaking our nation's addiction to oil. By relying on American farmers and ingenuity for fuel, we will enhance our nation's energy and economic security."

Commercialization of fermentative organisms is crucial to the success of integrated biorefineries. Fermentative organisms speed refining by converting lignocellulosic biomass material to ethanol. Today’s selections build upon the announcement of six biorefinery projects announced earlier this year. Commercialized fermentative organisms will be crucial to achieving commercial scale in cellulosic ethanol refining.

Projects were selected for the organism’s capacity to convert lignocellulosic biomass to ethanol in process-relevant conditions that would be economical in the commercial market. Additionally, the organism must be able to survive a wide range of environmental conditions and remain stable from adverse mutation. Selectees must have the ability to produce at commercial scale in the future and have a sound business strategy to market the organism.

Combined with the industry cost share, more than $37 million could be invested in these five projects. Negotiations between the selected companies and DOE will begin immediately to determine final project plans and funding levels. Funding will begin this fiscal year and run through FY 2010, subject to congressional appropriations.

Projects submitted by these five applicants were selected:
  • Cargill Incorporated to receive up to $4.4 million
  • Celunol Corporation to receive up to $5.3 million
  • E.I. Dupont de Nemours & Company to receive up to $3.7 million
  • Mascoma Corporation to receive up to $4.9 million
  • Purdue University to receive up to $5.0 million

Cellulosic ethanol is an alternative fuel made from a wide variety of non-food plant materials (or feedstocks), including agricultural wastes such as corn stover and cereal straws, industrial plant waste like saw dust and paper pulp, and energy crops grown specifically for fuel production like switchgrass.

By using a variety of regional feedstocks for refining cellulosic ethanol, fuel can be produced in nearly every region of the country. Though it requires a more complex refining process, cellulosic ethanol contains more net energy and results in lower greenhouse emissions than traditional corn-based ethanol. E-85, an ethanol-fuel blend comprised of 85-percent ethanol, is already available in more than 1,000 fueling stations nationwide and can power millions of flexible fuel vehicles already on the roads.

: the bacterium C. thermocellum, whose enzymes are being investigated as candidates for cellulosic ethanol.

Article continues

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Bioplastics developed that degrade in seawater, boon to cruise industry

Earlier we referred to so-called "mermaid's tears" (picture), fine petroleum-based plastic particles that pollute our oceans and enter the food chain (earlier post). So what about bioplastics that degrade in seawater and become food instead of poison for marine life? Scientists from the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) announce that they have developed such plastics.

Large volumes of plastic waste generated aboard military, merchant and cruise ships must be stored onboard, often for prolonged periods, until they make port. In the future, the new type of environmentally friendly plastic may make it safe and practical to toss plastic waste overboard, freeing-up valuable storage space.

The biodegradable plastics could replace conventional plastics that are used to make stretch wrap for large cargo items, food containers, eating utensils and other plastics used at sea, the researchers say. The biodegradable plastic has not yet been tested in freshwater. The development was described today at the 233rd national meeting of the American Chemical Society.

“There are many groups working on biodegradable plastics, but we’re one of a few working on plastics that degrade in seawater,” says study leader Robson F. Storey, Ph.D., a professor of Polymer Science and Engineering at USM, located in Hattiesburg, Miss. “We’re moving toward making plastics more sustainable, especially those that are used at sea.”

Conventional plastics can take years to break down and may result in byproducts that are harmful to the environment and toxic to marine organisms, conditions that make their disposal at sea hazardous. The new plastics are capable of degrading in as few as 20 days and result in natural byproducts that are nontoxic, Storey and his associates say. Their study is funded by the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), which is supporting a number of ongoing research projects aimed at reducing the environmental impact of marine waste.

The new plastics are made of polyurethane that has been modified by the incorporation of PLGA [poly (D,L-lactide-co-glycolide)], a known degradable polymer used in surgical sutures and controlled drug-delivery applications. Through variations in the chemical composition of the plastic, the researchers have achieved a wide range of mechanical properties ranging from soft, rubber-like plastics to hard, rigid structures, depending on their intended use:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

When exposed to seawater, the plastics degrade via hydrolysis into nontoxic products, according to the scientists. Depending on the composition of the plastics, these compounds may include water, carbon dioxide, lactic acid, glycolic acid, succinic acid, caproic acid and L-lysine, all of which can be found in nature, they add.

Because the new plastics are denser than saltwater, they have a tendency to sink instead of float, Storey says. That feature also could prevent them from washing up on shore and polluting beaches, he notes.

The plastics are undergoing degradation testing at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development, and Engineering Center in Natick, Mass., and in the Gulf of Mexico at the USM Gulf Coast Research Laboratory in Ocean Springs, Miss. Initial results have been favorable, Storey says.

The plastics are not quite ready for commercialization. More studies are needed to optimize the plastics for various environmental conditions they might encounter, including changes in temperature, humidity and seawater composition, Storey says. There also are legal hurdles to overcome, since international maritime law currently forbids disposal of plastics at sea.

: BBC correspondent Tom Heap shows examples of "mermaids' tears".

Article continues

Environmental Power announces first delivery of pipeline-quality biogas

Already practised in Europe on a relatively large scale (overview), feeding biogas into the natural gas grid is now a fact in the US too. Environmental Power Corporation today announced that its subsidiary, Microgy Holdings, LLC, has achieved the initial delivery of pipeline quality renewable natural gas from the Huckabay Ridge facility in Stephenville, Texas (picture).

The facility is able to generate biogas from manure and other agricultural waste streams, condition the biogas to natural gas standards and distribute it via a commercial pipeline. Microgy's has branded, the renewable, pipeline-quality biomethane product as 'Renewable Natural Gas'.

At full build out, Huckabay Ridge may be the largest biogas production facility in the world, with annual output of approximately 650,000 MMbtus of RNG per year - the equivalent of over 4.6 million gallons (17.4 million liters) of heating oil.

In addition to energy production, Huckabay Ridge is also expected to generate approximately 200,000 tons of carbon offset credits annually, based on existing Chicago Climate Exchange protocols. Greenhouse gas capture is a rapidly growing environmental concern that is being supported by numerous State initiatives, including California and the Northeast, and is attracting significant attention among federal legislators pursuing restrictions that limit carbon output and create a market for trading carbon capture "credits". The carbon credits, which have a value of approximately $4.00 per metric ton in today's voluntary carbon credit market, are expected to increase in value as a binding cap and trade system evolves in the U.S.

Currently six of Huckabay Ridge's eight digesters are producing biogas, and are in varying stages of start-up and operation, with the remaining two digesters beginning start-up:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Biogas has now been processed through the on- site gas-conditioning and compression equipment and, once the commissioning process is finalized, Huckabay Ridge is expected to be generating RNG(TM) at full capacity later this spring. The RNG(TM) produced by the facility has been purchased by the Lower Colorado River Authority pursuant to a previously announced long-term purchase agreement through September 2008.

"While making initial deliveries of gas into the pipeline is not the conclusion of the startup process, it is a critical first milestone. Now the process shifts to demonstrating fully reliable operation. I am very confident in the Microgy team and their consultants and fully expect that they will be able to achieve this important objective in time to meet our projected commercial operation date."

"The experience of the start-up of Huckabay will be invaluable in our project rollout at the other large-scale facilities under development in Texas, California and other key markets," continued Mr. Kessel. "Our standardized modular plants will enable us to implement numerous large-scale RNG facilities rapidly and in a cost-effective manner."

To date, there are no projections on the overall potential of biogas in the US. In Europe, a recent estimate indicates that by 2020, the continent can replace all natural gas imports from Russia (earlier post).

Article continues

Biodiesel in Haïti supporting sustainable agriculture

In a courageous effort, a French group has started producing biodiesel in Haïti, one of the poorest countries in the Western hemisphere. Years of mismanagement, political instability, and economic decline have led the hilly island state to the brink of environmental collapse. Haïti is plagued by degradation on an unprecedented scale, with virtually all forest gone, and with devastating floods, heavy soil erosion and declining agricultural yields as a result (a good overview of this dramatic situation can be found in Jared Diamond's book Collapse, part three of which has a chapter on the causes of Haïti's environmental disaster.)

Biodiesel Haïti is now trying [*French] to restore the damaged landscape by planting Jatropha curcas shrubs, the oil-rich seeds of which can be used for the production of biodiesel. The perennial crop is easy to establish, requires relatively few inputs and its roots keep soil and water together, preventing erosion. The shrub also makes for a good support in intercropping systems: Jatropha provides shade to legumes which fix nitrogen.

For six months, the French group has been operating in the country. Rachel Noël, one of its managers explains that biodiesel can contribute to sustainable development in Haïti, a country plagued by high fuel prices which limit its economic recovery.

Speaking to Radio Métropole, Mme Noël indicates that the tropical island has an ideal climate for the production of biofuel crops, but that the public at large is not well informed about the potential yet.

Jatropha is known locally as "gro medsiyin" [note: 'medsiyin' is creole for 'medicine', referring to the beneficial properties traditionally ascribed to the nuts of the tree]. The crop can restore damaged soils, Mme Noël explains, adding that her company includes expert agronomists.

The company has recently launched a sensibilisation and information campaign, aimed at convincing smallholders as well as large land holders to grow jatropha.

Biodiesel Haïti stresses that its future biodiesel plants will be implanted in provincial towns, in order to provide jobs and stay close to locally produced crops. "We want to build small local industries around biodiesel, because the fuel's production results in byproducts that can be used in the local economy, such as glycerine". Glycerine can be used for a variety of products, but its first application will be the production of soap. The press cake from the jatropha seeds makes for a fertiliser or a feedstock for combustion or biogas production:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Mme Noël further notes that other perennials, like ricin or coconut can be utilised for biodiesel, but Jatropha remains the favorite because production costs are low and it thrives in poor soils.

According to the spokesperson, Biodiesel Haïti can currently produce 480,000 gallons of biodiesel per year. The group hopes to convince the government to craft legislation promoting the use of biofuels in the country.

According to the GTZ data on international fuel prices, Haïti's retail fuel prices are not excessively high, and, using the 'egg index', local purchasing power levels make fuels relatively affordable (earlier post - see 2005 report). However, the country's energy intensity is high and therefor its economy is relatively sensible to increases in the price of fossil fuels. This is why locally produced biofuels make particular sense in the island state.

Image: Haïti's landscape; once covered in lush tropical rainforest - as it can still be seen in the Dominican Republic, which is part of the same island of Hispaniola - it has now changed beyond recognition. Restoration efforts are underway, but local pressures on the environment are still very high, with Haïti's people stripping the last bits of forest for energy.

Article continues

Grow it yourself: the biodegradable, plant-based car is here

Quicknote bioeconomy
Several projects are underway to build genuinely green cars that not only run on biofuels, but that are made from plant-based parts as well. Who needs oil when you can go 'bio' all the way? A 'Biocar' project was launched recently in Canada, whereas in the US a conglomerate of research organisations is working on a similar 'AgriCar', which will be made out of bio-based products for 90%. Bioplastics, biopolymers, biocomposites, biolubricants, biofuel-cells, and biofuels are coming together in the cars of the future (earlier post).

Or of the present. Researchers at the University of Warwick recently presented their first environmentally-friendly racing car with tyres made from potatoes and brake pads from cashew nut shells.

'Eco One' is the idea of WMG, a provider of innovative solutions to industry based at the University of Warwick. Mind you, it's not the sexiest car yet, but it does impress when it comes to speed. The biocar will take you to 125mph (201km/h). And the plant-based components handle it well.

Besides being made from biodegradable parts, the racing car also runs entirely on biofuels and bio-lubricants.

Project manager Ben Wood said he has tweaked the original engine and claims he can achieve up to 150mph (241km/h) given a long straight and a tailwind. He said: "Almost everything on the car can be made out of biodegradable or recyclable materials. All the plastic components can be made from plants and, although the chassis has to be made from steel for strength, steel is a very recyclable material."

Wood added: "we already have the shell, brake pads, fuel and tyres sorted. My aim is to end up with a race car that's 95 per cent biodegradable or recyclable. If we can build a high-performance car that can virtually be grown from seed, just imagine what's possible for the average family car."

The cars of the future will be grown on farms, and be recycled into biofuels, or put back into the soil after their useful life, when they become fertilisers for new cars. That's the 'cradle-to-cradle' vision behind the projects [entry ends here].
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Article continues

Brazilian biofuels update

Yesterday's announcement of a 30 year ethanol supply agreement between Brazilian producer Sao Martinho and Japan's Mitsubishi Corporation (earlier post), was echoed today by a cooperation agreement between a major northeast Brazil sugarcane group, Farias, who signed a protocol of intentions with a handful of Chinese investors to build ethanol mills that could process up to 10 million metric tons of sugarcane per harvest. Meanwhile, more details have emerged on the partnership between Italy and Brazil, in which both countries plan to kickstart a biofuel industry in Africa, starting with Angola and Mozambique, two countries with a very large bioenergy potential. Finally, during his visit with President Bush later this weekend, President Lula will urge the US to reform its tariff and subsidy rules on biofuels. Like Prodi, the two leaders will discuss collaboration on biofuel projects in Africa.

China enters Brazil
According to a report referred to in Valor Economico, the investments could hit 1.2 billion Brazilian reals (€436/US$582 million), with two greenfield projects currently being analyzed in the northeast state of Maranhao.

The Chinese companies interested in investing in Brazilian ethanol mills reportedly are Jilin Fuel Ethanol - a joint venture between the China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC), China Resources Enterprises Ltd and Jilin Grain Group -, Henan Tianguan, Anhui Fengyuan Bio-Chemical, and Heilongjiang China Resources Jinyu, who together produce 1 billion liters of ethanol per year.

The Farias group - with headquarters in the key northeast cane state of Pernambuco - currently has five operational mills, and a new Goias mill expected to enter operation for the 2007-08 harvest. The group crushed roughly six million metric tons of cane last season.

By 2010, the Farias group plans to hit a crush capacity of just under 15 million metric tons, and by 2015, it expects to process 32 million ton of cane.

Italy to cooperate, focus on African countries
Meanwhile, Italian Premier Romano Prodi is visiting with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and both will try to strike a partnership on producing ethanol and biodiesel. Details about the deal which also includes cooperation on biofuels in Africa (earlier post), have now emerged.

After meeting with the powerful Sao Paulo Federation of Industries on Monday, Prodi announced that Brazilian and Italian energy companies will likely build four biodiesel plants in Brazil at a cost of €360/US$480 million.

The premier, who will meet with Silva in the capital of Brasilia today, did not mention any possible ethanol projects, but the Brazilian president said on his biweekly radio program that "Italy is willing to engage in a partnership with Brazil in the area of ethanol and biodiesel production to help African countries."

Prodi also said he thought a deal would be reached to name Angola as the first African country where the nations will team up on biodiesel. Angola has a very large sustainable bioenergy potential (earlier post). Petrobras downstream director Roberto Costa said Eni officials also showed interest in the construction of biodiesel and ethanol plants in Mozambique, an equally promising country (earlier post):
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

European Union leaders have agreed to produce 20 percent of their energy from renewable sources such as cane ethanol by 2020, and Italy does not have the capacity to do that alone, Prodi said.

Italy's move to renewable fuels requires structural changes, making Brazil an obvious ally, Prodi said. The partnership between Brazil's state-run oil company Petroleo Brasileiro SA and Italian energy company Eni SpA will focus on biodiesel plants in Brazil and Africa to export the fuel to Italy, a Petrobras executive said last week.

The Italian government has a stake of about 30 percent in Eni, while the Brazilian government owns 60 percent of Petrobras.

US - Brazil cooperation in Africa, tariffs
Brazilian President Lula da Silva is visiting the US this weekend, and plans to talk with Bush about the possibility of a joint Brazil-U.S. effort to help poor African countries start producing biodiesel and ethanol. Brazil already has a dedicated task-force in Accra, Ghana, to promote the biofuel industry on the African continent (earlier post)

The Brazilian leader will meet with Bush Saturday, less than a month after the American president visited Silva in Brazil, where the two forged an ethanol alliance aimed at promoting the fuel and reducing international dependance on fossil fuels.

Bush and Silva argued earlier this month that alternative fuels lead to more jobs, a cleaner environment and greater independence from the oil market. In Brazil, nearly eight in 10 new cars already run on fuel made from sugar cane. Ethanol in the United States is made from corn.

The U.S. and Brazil also want to create global ethanol quality standards so the fuel can be traded as a commodity, like oil.

But Brazil and the U.S. remain at odds over the 54-cent-a-gallon U.S. tariff on imports of Brazilian ethanol. Lula da Silva didn't mention the tariff during his bi-weekly radio interview at home, but he expected to bring it up during his visit.

The tariff discussion is part of a larger debate on World Trade issues, in particular the attempts to revive the stalled Doha Round.

Article continues

US and EU to partner on commoditisation, standardisation of biofuels

Concerns over energy security and climate protection have positioned biofuels at the forefront of political agendas worldwide. Produced from organic matter such as wood by-products and agricultural crops, biofuels are renewable energy products that can be converted into gas for use as fuel. Large-scale commoditization of biofuels could diversify the energy infrastructure, improve energy security and bring about a host of economic, social and environmental benefits.

The United States and the European Union have expressed strong interest in making biofuels a commodity for trade. Compatible standards will be among the chief topics of discussion at the upcoming EU-US Summit in Washington, DC, which intends to launch a new trans-Atlantic economic partnership aimed at harmonizing regulations, technical standards, environmental protection and trade security.

Last week an EU delegation led by the Commissioner for External Relations and European Neighbourhood Policy, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, alongside German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier representing the current EU Presidency, and High Representative Javier Solana attended a meeting bringing together US and European scientists, financiers and entrepreneurs to launch a US-EU Energy Tech CEO Forum to intensify Trans-Atlantic energy technology development (earlier post).

In advance of the upcoming Washington Summit, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have invited key U.S. stakeholders to participate in a March 28 meeting to develop input related to biodiesel and bioethanol standardization issues. Input developed will be used to inform the U.S. delegation to the EU-US Summit, as requested by the U.S. Department of State. Participation in this pivotal event is free and open to all stakeholders with an interest in biofuels:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The meeting agenda will open with a brief overview of recent events that have helped to propel biofuels-related issues to the top of domestic and international trade discussions, including the International Conference on Biofuels Standards, the launch of the new U.S.-Brazil agreement on biofuels, and the formation of the International Biofuels Forum—a six-party initiative between the United States, Brazil, China, South Africa, India and the European Union (earlier post). Participants will then engage in an open discussion of key issues leading to the formulation of formal action items and next steps.

Article continues

Monday, March 26, 2007

Scientists develop biodegradable fuel cell that runs on sugar and has higher energy density than lithium ion batteries

A very exciting bit of news for those of us who track the rapid developments in the bioeconomy: researchers at Saint Louis University in the U.S. have developed a fuel cell battery that runs on virtually any sugar source - from soft drinks to tree sap - and has the potential to operate three to four times longer on a single charge than conventional lithium ion batteries.

For consumers, the 'biobattery' could mean significantly longer time to talk and play music on their iPods, cell phones and laptops. For the world's farmers, this means the carbohydrate economy gets another boost. Our post-petroleum economy is becoming an ever sweeter one...

Like other biofuel cells, the sugar battery contains enzymes that convert fuel - in this case, sugar - into electricity, leaving behind water as a main byproduct. But unlike other fuel cells, all of the materials used to build the sugar battery are biodegradable. This gives it a huge advantage over the millions of common batteries used in electronics, which are becoming a big waste problem.

The new battery could eventually replace lithium ion batteries in many portable electronic applications, including computers, the scientists say. Their findings were described today at the 233rd national meeting of the American Chemical Society in Chicago.

"This study shows that renewable fuels can be directly employed in batteries at room temperature to lead to more energy-efficient battery technology than metal-based approaches," said study leader Shelley Minteer, Ph.D., an electrochemist at Saint Louis University (picture). "It demonstrates that by bridging biology and chemistry, we can build a better battery that's also cleaner for the environment."

Using sugar for fuel is not a new concept: sugar in the form of glucose supplies the energy needs of all living things. While nature has figured out how to harness this energy efficiently, scientists only recently have learned how to unleash the energy-dense power of sugar to produce electricity, Minteer said.

A few other researchers also have developed fuel cell batteries that run on sugar, but Minteer claims that her version is the longest-lasting and most powerful of its type to date. As proof of concept, she has used a small prototype of the battery (about the size of a postage stamp) to successfully run a handheld calculator. If the battery continues to show promise during further testing and refinement, it could be ready for commercialization in three to five years, she estimates:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Consumers aren't the only ones who stand to benefit from this new technology. The military is interested in using the sugar battery to charge portable electronic equipment on the battlefield and in emergency situations where access to electricity is limited. These devices include remote sensors for detecting biological and chemical weapons. Devices could be instantly recharged by adding virtually any convenient sugar source, including plant sap, Minteer said.

So far, Minteer has run the batteries on glucose, flat sodas, sweetened drink mixes and tree sap, with promising results. She also tested carbonated beverages, but carbonation appears to weaken the fuel cell. The best fuel source tested so far is ordinary table sugar (sucrose) dissolved in water, she said.

One of the first applications Minteer envisions for the sugar fuel cell is using it as a portable cell phone recharger, similar to the quick rechargers already on the market that allow users to instantly charge their cell phones while 'on the go.' Ideally, these rechargers would contain special cartridges that are pre-filled with a sugar solution.

These cartridges then could be replaced when they're used up. Ultimately, she hopes that the sugar battery can be used as a stand-alone battery replacement in a wide range of portable electronic devices.

Future work includes modifying the battery's performance for varying environmental conditions, including high temperatures, and extending the life of the battery, Minteer said. Funding for this study was provided by the U.S. Department of Defense.

A chemistry professor at Saint Louis University, Minteer already has invented a biobattery than can run on alcohol and natural enzymes. She formed a start-up company with a former graduate student to develop commercial applications for the invention. The company has secured millions of dollars in venture capital and other investments.

The Saint Louis University scientist says her long-term goal is to create a rechargeable battery that not only lasts longer, but also is also friendly to the environment.

For her groundbreaking research, Minteer earned the 2005 Innovation Award from the Academy of Science of St. Louis. From freshmen to graduate assistants, Saint Louis University students at all levels work in her lab.

Article continues

Microfossils unravel climate history of tropical Africa, offer clues for future

Scientists from the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research obtained for the first time a detailed temperature record for tropical central Africa over the past 25,000 years. They did this in cooperation with a German colleague from the University of Bremen. The scientists developed an entirely new method to reconstruct the history of land temperatures based on the molecular fossils of soil bacteria.

They applied the method to a marine sediment core taken in the outflow of the Congo River (picture, click to enlarge). This core contained eroded land material and microfossils from marine algae. The results show that the land environment of tropical Africa was cooled more than the adjacent Atlantic Ocean during the last ice-age. This large temperature difference between land and ocean surface resulted in drier conditions compared to the current situation, which favours the growth of a lush rainforest.

These findings provide further insight in natural variations in climate and the possible consequences of a warming earth on precipitation in central Africa. The results [*abstract] were published in this week's issue of Science.

One of the techniques currently used to estimate past sea surface temperatures, is based on organic molecules from algae growing in the surface layer of the Ocean. These organisms adapt the molecular composition of their cell membranes to ambient temperature to maintain constant physiological properties. When such molecules sink to the sea floor and are buried in sediments where oxygen does not penetrate, they can be preserved for thousands of years. The ratios between the different molecules from the algal cell membrane can be used to approximate the past temperature of the sea surface. These techniques are therefore called 'proxies'.

New method to measure soil temperatures
Reconstructing continental temperature history is more difficult than for the oceans, because soils on the continent do not form a continuous archive but are often eroded. The researchers developed an entirely new proxy for the annual mean air temperature on land, based on molecules from the cell membrane of soil inhabiting bacteria. They analysed eroded soil material in a sediment core in the outflow area of the river Congo in the South Atlantic Ocean at a depth of almost 1000m. Since the Congo River drains a large part of tropical central Africa, the land derived material gives an integrated signal for a very large area.

Cool tropical Africa
The new proxy was used in this sediment core to obtain both a continental and a sea surface temperature record. A comparison of both records shows that ocean surface and land temperatures behaved differently during the past 25,000 years:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

During the last ice age, temperatures over tropical Africa were 21°C, about 4°C lower than today, whereas the tropical Atlantic Ocean was only about 2.5°C colder. By comparing this temperature difference with existing records of continental rainfall variability, lead author Johan Weijers and his colleagues concluded that the land-sea temperature difference has by far the largest influence on continental rainfall.

This can be explained by the strong relationship of air pressure to temperature. When the temperature of the sea surface is higher than that of the continent, stronger offshore winds reduce the flow of moist sea air onto the African continent. This occurred during the last ice age and, as a consequence, the land climate in tropical Africa was drier than it is in today's world, where it favours the growth of a lush rainforest. These results provide further insight into the natural variation of climate and the possible consequences of a warming earth on precipitation in central Africa.

This research project was funded by the division of Earth and Life Sciences of the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO-ALW).

Image: Overview of the drainage area of the river Congo in central Africa (area within the white outline) and the geographical postion of sediment core GeoB 6518, which was taken at a depth of 962m. A: Digitalelevation map (source: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Inst. of Technol.); B: map with current annual mean air temperatures in Africa. Courtesy:
Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research.

More information:
Johan W. H. Weijers, Enno Schefuß, Stefan Schouten, Jaap S. Sinninghe Damsté, Coupled Thermal and Hydrological Evolution of Tropical Africa over the Last Deglaciation [*abstract], Science 23 March 2007: Vol. 315. no. 5819, pp. 1701 - 1704, DOI: 10.1126/science.1138131

Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research: Microfossils unravel Africa’s climate history - March 22, 2007.

Article continues

Sao Martinho announces 30 year ethanol export contract with the Mitsubishi Corporation

Sao Martinho S.A. through its subsidiary Usina Boa Vista S.A., today announced the execution of an Ethanol Purchase and Sale Agreement with Japan's largest trade group, the Mitsubishi Corporation, by means of which Usina Boa Vista S.A., which will be initially crushing up to 3.0 million tonnes of sugarcane per year, producing around 286,000 cubic meters of ethanol, agrees to sell Mitsubishi 30% of its total output in the form of industrial ethanol.

The contract will last for 30 years and envisages tracking the productive process in order to ascertain details of production from cane planting through to the final distillation of ethanol. Supply will begin in the 2008/09 harvest. Japan is the main market, but other external markets may be considered should the opportunity arise. Prices will be based on prevailing market conditions during the supply period.

Brazil and Japan are closely working together on export agreements, which, according to some estimates, will attract investments of between US$6 to 8 billion over the coming years. Japanese investors want to acquire minority stakes in 40 ethanol plants across Brazil. Earlier, Japan's Mitsui & Co Ltd signed supply agreements with state-run oil firm Petrobras, and is collaborating on building a dedicated ethanol pipeline from Brazil's sugarcane producing regions in the Center-South of the country to Atlantic ports (earlier post), whereas Japan's National Development Bank announced it will invest in distilleries (earlier post). The Japan Bank for International Cooperation too has signed a biofuel cooperation agreement with Brazilian ministeries, to collaborate on exporting the green fuels (earlier post).

Of all regions, the Japanese islands have the lowest bioenergy production potential (earlier post). However, the Japanese government has mandated an ethanol blend of 3%, which is expected to be increased to 10% from 2008-2010 onwards (earlier post). Anticipating this decision, the nation is looking to Brazil and South East Asia for biofuel supplies:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Back to the agreement between Sao Martinho and Mitshubishi: the Brazilian company also signed a Share Purchase Agreement, by means of which it agreed to sell 10% of its holdings in Usina Boa Vista S.A., whose capital currently comprises 71,726,267 Reais, to the Mitsubishi Corporation of Japan. The aim of the sale is to strengthen relations between the Company and Mitsubishi, given the long-term ethanol supply contract entered into by both parties.

Joao Carvalho do Val, Sao Martinho's CFO and IRO, declared, "Mitsubishi already acquires our Ribonucleic Acid Sodium Salt output and this new contract strengthens our long-term ties even further, as well as reinforcing Sao Martinho's determination to continue investing in the growth of its activities."

Sao Martinho S.A. is one of the largest producers of sugar and ethanol in Brazil. The company purchases, cultivates, harvest and crushes sugarcane - the main raw material used in its sugar and ethanol operations. The company's current crushing capacity is 10.3 million tonnes/year.

Article continues

Crisis in European biodiesel industry, as Brazil and Argentina produce at full capacity

The European biodiesel industry is going through a deep crisis. In several countries, including in biodiesel leader Germany, generous tax exemptions are being lifted and the green fuel now has to compete on the free market with petro-diesel. None of the major biodiesel producers on the continent succeeds in producing an affordable fuel. The result: demand has dropped considerably and plants are operating well below their capacity. Some are warning the industry faces collapse.

At the same time, Brazil and Argentina are going full steam ahead in producing plant-based diesel substitutes that are cheaper than the fossil fuel variant. And obviously much less costly to make than European biodiesel. Argentina can make biodiesel for US$0.22 a liter, according to Argentine agribusiness consulting firm Abaceb. Petro-diesel before taxes currently costs around US$0.42 per liter in Europe. Biodiesel made from rapeseed - the most commonly used feedstock - before taxes but with agricultural subsidies comes at around US$0.70.

In Europe, many new biodiesel plants have been built in recent years, but many of them have hardly any markets in which to sell, as several countries have been slow to implement promises to increase biofuel use. "We have been promised a market but it is not yet there," said Raffaello Garofalo, secretary general of the European Biodiesel Board, an industry association. "It will come, but in the short term we have to go through a desert."

Much of the European biodiesel industry is working under its capacity, Garofalo said, although no precise figures are available. Biodiesel sales in the biggest consuming country, Germany, have fallen dramatically this year after Berlin actually started taxing biofuels at a time when the EU wants to promote green fuel consumption. An overview of the crisis as it affects producers across Europe:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Medium-term prospects appeared excellent following the decision by EU leaders on March 9 for a strategic cut in greenhouse gases by using more renewable energy.

But several important countries including Britain, Italy and Spain have not fully implemented past promises to raise biofuel use, Garofalo said. Germany's biofuel tax showed the country was putting financial considerations above the environment, he added.

"Biodiesel is suffering from overcapacity because it is much easier to build production plants than it is to pass legislation," Garofalo said. "If there is no legislative support on taxation or binding targets, there is no real market for biodiesel."

In Europe, biodiesel is more expensive to produce than diesel from fossil fuels, and it needs tax breaks or a legal requirement to blend it with fossil fuels at oil refineries to encourage its use.

Germany's biodiesel industry is facing a crisis, with sales at gas pumps down by about 30 to 40 percent compared with last December, said Petra Sprick, chief executive of the biofuels industry association Verband Deutscher Betoningenieure, or VDB. "Sales in the petrol station market have collapsed this year," she said. "Our price attraction has gone."

Germany is the EU's largest biodiesel producer, with production capacity rising to 3.2 million tons in 2006 from 2 million tons in 2005.

But the German government said it could not afford the loss of revenues as drivers switched from regular diesel, which is heavily taxed, and Berlin started taxing biodiesel in August 2006. For a time, high fossil fuel prices cushioned the effect of the new tax, but falling fossil fuel prices mean drivers now have no incentive to buy biodiesel.

Because vehicles consume more biodiesel than fossil fuels and need more engine overhauls, biodiesel must be cheaper, she said. "If the government further raises taxes on biodiesel in 2008 as it plans, the whole industry will close down," she said. "This would be a tragedy at a time we need biofuels to cut greenhouse gas."

High prices for rapeseed oil, the main component of biodiesel in Germany, mean that biodiesel is being produced at a loss, she said. Germany had introduced compulsory blending of biodiesel with fossil fuels from January, but this is only expected to generate demand for 1.5 million tons annually.

German production is being cut and the first biodiesel refinery in the country, BioWerk Kleisthohe, has actually stopped production at its 6,500-ton-a- year plant.

"We just cannot sell any biodiesel this year," said BioWerk's chief executive, Thomas Vahle. "The new tax means it is just not competitive." "I just do not understand the politicians," he added. "They say it is so important to stop global warming and then introduce a tax to stop me selling my biodiesel, which protects the environment."

Shares in German biodiesel companies have fallen this year as the problems became apparent. One producer, Verbio, issued a profit warning on Monday because of low sales and high costs, causing its share price to fall 40 percent at one point.

On Thursday, Verbio's shares closed up 12 cents, or 1.7 percent, at €7.04, or $9.38. The shares were issued in October at €14.50.

Biodiesel producers in Britain also have problems. The largest British producer, Biofuels, announced this month that due to unfavorable market conditions it had restricted production to 25 percent of capacity in January and February and output would remain low for the immediate future.

The company, which operates a 250,000-ton-a-year plant in north England, has seen its stock price fall to around 15 pence, or $.30, compared with more than 200 pence in May last year.

Another key producer, D1 Oils, has also said it is operating below capacity due to difficult market conditions.

Many in the sector were disappointed that Gordon Brown, the British chancellor of the Exchequer, did not improve incentives in a budget introduced Wednesday.

Britain is phasing in a rule mandating that from April 2008, biofuels must make up at least 2.5 percent of oil company sales.

Brazil and Argentina
On the other side of the Atlantic, a crisis is in the making on tax and trade barriers as well, between Argentina and Brazil. But here it is precisely because biodiesel can be produced in a competitive way.

Brazil soy oil is the number one ingredient used in making biodiesel. Soy oil companies think Argentina's cheaper costs will cut them out of the market, especially the export markets.

"We're going to convince the government that they have to gun for Argentina on this issue, play tough," said Carlo Lovatelli, president of the Brazilian Vegetable Oils Industry Association, or Abiove.

"Biodiesel investments are heading to Argentina and not Brazil because it makes more sense to produce it there than here because of tax and trade incentives. We can be importing biodiesel from Argentina very soon," Lovatelli said.

Brazil wants to become the world's hub for biofuels. It's already the world's leading sugarcane ethanol producer and just entered into a partnership with the U.S. to promote world ethanol use. Brazil President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has said repeatedly that Brazil's agricultural revolution depends on a future where "we plant and harvest fuel."

While Brazil's ethanol program is mature and growing, the biodiesel segment is "crawling," Lovatelli said, adding that major companies such as Bunge prefer to invest in Argentina and are leaving Brazil behind. Miguel Biegai, a biodiesel analyst for Safras & Mercado, an agribusiness consulting firm, said Lovatelli has a point.
"Brazil can import from Argentina. I'm sure they can make biodiesel for less," Biegai said.

Brazil produces biodiesel at roughly $0.50 a liter, or 1.40 Brazilian reals on the low end, according to Safras & Mercado. Production costs can be as high as BLR1.60 a liter. Argentina can make it for $0.22 a liter, according to Argentine agribusiness consulting firm Abaceb.

In early February, Argentine President Nestor Kirchner signed an executive order to create a national biofuel law designed to make Argentina a biodiesel exporter. Kirchner put a low 5% export tax on biofuels, compared with a 24% export tax on soyoil. That makes it more beneficial for soyoil companies to sell their soyoil to fuel refineries for export than it does to export pure soybean oil for human consumption, Lovatelli said.

Domestic demand is also assured as Argentina's Biofuels Act mandates a 5% content of biodiesel or ethanol in the nation's fuel by 2010. The measure also provides tax breaks for companies investing in the sector. Santa Fe Province, which dominates soybean production and processing, has also offered a host of tax breaks to stimulate biofuel production.

But analysts here say Argentina is much more interested in exporting. Argentina wants to export biodiesel to the European and U.S. biofuels market, while its rival to the north is worried that Argentina's cheaper product will simply cut Brazil out of the export market and surely make investing difficult.

"We are only now realizing that there are a lot of opportunities to export biodiesel, but this is not ethanol. This is a very young segment and investments are being made contrary to what competing interests say," said Oswaldo Oliva Neto, chief of the Strategic Planning Department of the Presidential Palace.

Archer Daniels Midland is building a biodiesel plant in Mato Grosso state and state oil firm Petrobras is investing millions in a fuel called H-Bio, which is a blend of refined soyoil with diesel (earlier post).

Lovatelli, who also has ties to Brazil-based oilseed and biodiesel giant, Bunge, said Abiove would be lobbying Lula's office and the Foreign Relations Ministry on making biodiesel more attractive for corporate investors. Current investments aren't enough.
Brazil's current biodiesel program was designed as a social program. It gives benefits to biodiesel makers who buy raw materials from poor family farmers from the north east. The benefits of this 'Social Fuel Seal' policy include complete tax exemption on all biodiesel made from oilseeds purchased on family farms in that region (earlier post).

Brazil law will require a 2% mixture of biofuels in all diesel by 2008, or 850 million liters. Most of that biodiesel will be made from soyoil, a product Brazil and Argentina have in abundance.

"As a biodiesel producer, Argentina simply has the benefits of better logistics, better policies, and increased capacity," said Biegai.

Other market players suggest that some companies contracted by Brazil's National Petroleum Agency, or ANP, to produce and sell biodiesel will be unable to supply the tax-free oils to make biodiesel. Companies that participate in the ANP biodiesel auctions are required to sell biodiesel made from oilseeds purchased from family farmers.

If companies have to declare they are making the fuel from soyoil, most of it produced on large commercial farms, they'd have to pay a tax, raising their costs. Those costs would be passed on to the consumer and could make biodiesel as expensive as diesel fuel.

Should those companies be unable to meet the ANP requirements, Argentina would likely be called in to fill in the gaps.

Nevertheless, Brazil is expected to supply the 850 million liters required by 2008. The years beyond are anybody's guess.

Neto said the government has no plans on changing the current tax structure for biodiesel production. Whether the industry can convince Brasilia to go after Argentina, however, will be known in the months ahead.

Given the Argentine strategy to become a biofuels exporter, it is unlikely Brasilia negotiators will get very far with Kirchner.

More information:

International Herald Tribune (Paris): EU biodiesel firms blame politicians as demand falls - Politicians blamed for not delivering promised tax relief - March 22, 2007.

Market Watch: Brazil soy industryprepares for biodiesel war with Argentina - March 25, 2007.

Biopact: Brazil to quadruple biodiesel output by 2008, aiming to reduce rural poverty - August 16, 2006

Biopact: An in-depth look at Brazil's "Social Fuel Seal" - March 23, 2007

Article continues

Orang utan faces extinction in five years - illegal logging, palm oil blamed

Global demand for tropical hardwood and palm oil, illegal hunting and the trade in exotic animals are driving the Orang utan to the brink of extinction. In a session titled 'Globalization and Great Apes' the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) earlier last month presented the report The Last Stand of the Orangutan - State of emergency: illegal logging, fire and palm oil in Indonesia's national parks.

The report says that natural rainforests of Sumatra and Borneo are being cleared so rapidly (map, click to enlarge) that up to 98% may be destroyed by 2022 without urgent action. The rate of loss, which has accelerated in the past five years, outstrips a previous UNEP report released in 2002 at the World Summit for Sustainable Development (WSSD). Back then, experts estimated that most of the suitable orangutan habitat would be lost by 2032.

Forest fire and deforestation in Indonesia are also resulting in substantial emissions of carbon dioxide, in addition to the decrease in habitat for Orangutan and other keystone species of the rain forests of Borneo and Sumatra. The smoke from the burning forests are spreading over Southeast Asia in the summers. As burnt forest areas are left open, they are commonly claimed for rubber and palm oil plantations, thus permanently reducing the available habitat.

Illegal logging has recently taken place in 37 of 41 surveyed national parks in Indonesia, with some also seriously affected by mining and oil palm plantation development. The use of bribery or armed force by logging companies is commonly reported. Timber from the Indonesian rain forests are exported to the international markets, primarily other locations in Asia, such as China and Japan, but also Europe and North America (map, click to enlarge).

In the export process, the illegal timber often undergoes re-labeling, in a way similar to money-laundering - the point of origin is changed and also the species - to avoid export restrictions. A cubic metre of prime hardwoods can amass over USD$ 1000 on the international markets:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

New satellite imagery reveals that the illegal logging is now entering a new critical phase: As the demands grow, the industry and international market are running out of cheap illegal timber and are now entering the national parks where the only remaining timber available in commercial amounts is found.

Satellite images confirm, together with data from the Indonesian Government, that illegal logging is now taking place in 37 out of 41 national parks, and likely growing. “At current rates of intrusions, it is likely that some parks may become severely degraded in as little as three to five years, that is by 2012”, says the new study “The last stand of the orangutan: State of emergency.”

Overall the report is concluding that loss of orangutan habitat is happening at a rate up to 30% higher than previously thought. The report, compiled by a wide range of experts, is being launched at UNEP’s 24th Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum. Here, close to 100 environmental ministers and state secretaries are meeting under the theme of globalization – environmental risks and opportunities

Indonesia is active in fighting illegal logging and has worked with a series of international programmes and initiatives to reduce the logging. However, says the report, while many of these initiatives are valuable, they require the assistance of the international community to stop the demands for illegal timber, and they are also mainly long/term in effect. In response, the Indonesian government has on several occasions in recent years directly used support from the Navy and Army to arrest, confiscate timber and drive companies out of the parks.

Recently, the Indonesian government has launched perhaps one of the most promising initiatives in recent years, namely the training of specially equipped ranger units (SPORC) to protect the parks.

Achim Steiner, UN Under Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, said: “Globalization is generating unprecedented wealth and lifting millions out of poverty. But in this case, the illegal logging is destroying the livelihoods of many local people dependent upon the forests while it is also draining the natural wealth of Indonesian forest resources by unsustainable practices. The logging at these scales is not done by individual impoverished people, but by well-organized elusive commercial networks“.

“National Parks form a cornerstone in the 2010 target to reduce the rate of biodiversity loss and are also so valuable for eco-tourism and in generating new livelihoods. Their protection is vital to these international goals and to the entire concept of protected areas”.

He called on governments and the international community to assist the Indonesian authorities with the equipment, training and particularly funding needed to enforce and patrol their national parks from illegal loggers.

H. E. Rachmat Witoelar, Indonesia’s environment minister and outgoing president of UNEP’s Governing Council, said; “We are currently in an unequal struggle over illegal logging, which in the medium to long-term could be won through certification processes. Such processes can help global consumers choose between sustainably produced wood and palm-oil products and those produced illegally and unsustainably”.

He said that the government was acting in the short term with counter measures including through the development of Ranger Quick response Units to counter illegal forest destruction. “However, the challenge of policing and enforcing Indonesia’s vast parks is immense and rangers have currently little access to ground vehicles, boats, arms, communications or aerial surveillance such as planes or helicopters. In 35 of our national parks we have over 2000 rangers but they have to patrol an area of over 100,000 km2”

The scale of illegal logging, including into national parks is likely to increase not only in Indonesia, but also in other parts of Asia, Africa and Latin-America. “The situation is now acute”, says Christian Nellemann, leader of the Response team. “The recent Indonesian initiatives on law enforcement will require the necessary scale, financial and logistical support in order to stop the extent of this illegal logging. If successful, the Indonesian experiences gained in the coming years may substantially improve our ability to protect national parks and fight illegal logging in other parts of the World“.

The authors conclude that the enforcement regime for protected areas on Borneo and Sumatra needs to be strengthened to curb these illegal activities. The Indonesian initiative of better training and equipment of park rangers, including the development of Ranger Quick Response Units (SPORC – Satuan Khusus Polisi Kehutanan Reaksi Cepat) is a promising countermeasure, but requires substantial strengthening to deal with the scale of the immediate problem.

The Last Stand of the Orangutan was prepared by a Rapid Response Team headed by Christian Nellemann of UNEP/GRID-Arendal. The team consisted of experts from UNEP/GRID-Arendal and UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre as a broad collaborative effort, involving contributors from the Ministry of Environment and Ministry of Forestry, Indonesia, and partners of the Great Apes Survival Project (GRASP).

Image 1: The distribution of Orangutan on Borneo is rapidly decreasing, as mankind is reducing the available habitat for the apes. The loss of forest, through logging, clearing and burning, means reduced opportunities for hiding and food collection. In addition, orangutans are hunted for food and to be held in captivity. Orangutan distribution on Borneo (Indonesia, Malaysia) The distribution of Orangutan on Borneo is rapidly decreasing, as mankind is reducing the available habitat for the apes. The loss of forest, through logging, clearing and burning, means reduced opportunities for hiding and food collection. In addition, orangutans are hunted for food and to be held in captivity. Source: Radday, M. 2007. 'Borneo Maps'. Cartographer/Designer, Hugo Ahlenius, UNEP/GRID-Arendal.

Image 2: Exports of wood products from Indonesia, with final destinations such as China, Japan and North America. Almost three quarters of the wood end in destinations in Asia. In the black market, with illegal timber, the products are known to change country of origin and their labeling and classification as they are smuggled. Schroeder-Wildberg, E. Carius A. 2003. Illegal Logging, Conflict and the Business Sector in Indonesia. InWEnt-Capcity Building International. Cartographer/Designer Hugo Ahlenius, UNEP/GRID-Arendal.

More information:
UNEP: Nellemann, C. Miles, L. Kaltenborn, B. P. Virtue, M. Ahlenius, H. (eds) (2007) The Last Stand of the Orangutan - State of emergency: illegal logging, fire and palm oil in Indonesia's national parks[*.pdf], UNEP/GRID-Arendal, Arendal, Norway.

The GLOBIO programme on biodiversity and human impacts (contributed with biodiversity scenario maps for Borneo and Sumatra) - this web-site also features the 2002 report Great Apes - the road head.

Great Apes Survival Project (GRASP) - a joint project with UNEP and UNESCO

World Atlas of Great Apes (from UNEP-WCMC)

Great Apes at UNEP-WCMC

Article continues

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Max Planck and Fraunhofer Institute launch project to research biomass gasification, fuel cells

Divisions of two of Germany's largest research organisations, the Max-Planck Institute and the Fraunhofer Institute, have launched 'ProBio' [*German], a €4.2 (US$5.6) million program to research the efficient production of gases from biomass, for use in different types of fuel cells.

Fuel cells are most often associated with hydrogen gas. But the production of the clean gas is problematic: hydrogen is merely an energy carrier and its production requires the use of a primary energy source. If this primary energy source is a fossil fuel, then the gas of course loses its green appeal. Utilizing nuclear power for hydrogen production is expensive, as are reliance on renewables like solar or wind.

With the ProBio project, the scientists from Magdeburg and Dresden confirm that biomass is one of the most promising primary energy sources for the production of renewable hydrogen-rich gases that can be used in efficient fuel cells.

Prof. Dr.-Ing. Kai Sundmacher, director of the Max-Planck-Institut, outlines the goals of the project: to design process and production steps that result in efficient biomass gasification to tap the hydrogen that is contained in the resource, and to analyse the optimal use of the different products from gasified biomass for the production of bio-electricity. The hydrogen-carbon rich gas mixture obtained from such gasification processes must be upgraded and purified first before it can be utilized in fuel cells. Optimisation of this process is a new terrain that is only beginning to be researched. Gasification of a great variety of biomass types results in different gas mixtures, the properties of which will be analysed. Three institutes are joining forces to achieve these goals:
The first phase of the ProBio project then brings together the results of the experiments of the partners to look at process integration. The core of the project is the gasification pilot plant, the subject of a sub-project that focuses on simulations to optimize plant and process design:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

If the first phase is evaluated positively, a second, three-year phase will start, in which the theoretical and experimental results are applied to the construction of an industrial scale plant. This plant will be located in Magdeburg, where the three institutes will further cooperate.

Prof. Dr.-Ing. habil. Michael Schenk, Director of the Fraunhofer-Institute für Fabrikbetrieb und -automatisierung: "the German process industry urgently needs this kind of integrated energy plants, because the renewable energy sector is evolving very rapidly."

His collegue, Prof. Dr.-Ing. Alexander Michaelis, from the Fraunhofer-Institut für Keramische Technologien und Systeme, stresses the fact that "our research capacities will be applied to concrete, practical solutions for new energy production processes."

The ProBio project is part of an effort of the two prestigious research organisations to join forces and to cooperate more intensively. By collaborating on this kind of projects, the fundamental research will be translated faster into innovations with practical use.

The ProBio project is one of Germany's first country-wide collaborations between the two organisations.

Image 1: Different types of biomass and the gas composition that results from their gasification will be analysed. Foto: V.Kühne/Fraunhofer IFF. Courtesty:
Fraunhofer-Institute für Fabrikbetrieb und -automatisierung

Image 2
: Prof. Dr.-Ing. Kai Sundmacher, ProBio spokesperson and Director of the Magdeburg division of the Max-Planck-Institut shows a stack of PEM fuel cells that are currently used with hydrogen produced from fossil fuels. Foto: P. Förster. Courtesy: Max Planck Institute.

Article continues

Biofuels can free Africa of its 'oil curse' - expert

For the African continent, oil is a real curse: it spurs corruption, civil conflict and resource wars, it displaces local populations, fuels social inequality and has a terrible environmental record. The ongoing civil conflicts in the Niger Delta, the destabilisation in Chad, the war in Sudan or mass-corruption in Angola are just some illustrations of the disruptive effects of the oil industry in Africa.

Senegal's president Abdoulaye Wade recently told oil companies in no uncertain terms to radically change their impact on the societies in which they do business, or leave the continent alltogether (earlier post).

Biofuels offer a radically different paradigm, says Dr Keith Myers, an expert on African oil and gas production at London's Chatham House. (Earlier we presented the differences between the two paradimgs in an ideal-type binary way - see graph, click to enlarge). Myers thinks the alliance between the US and Brazil to promote ethanol and other biofuels as an alternative to petrol could offer African countries with a much needed new export opportunity.

"Many African countries need to diversify their economies and they would welcome a demand for new products such as biofuel," Myers told Adnkronos International (AKI).

Myers cited major oil producer Nigeria as a prime example of an African nation that could benefit from an increased demand for biofuels by the likes of the United States.

"Oil has come to dominate Nigeria's economy to such an extent that the country's once prosperous agricultural sector has been neglected. International demand for bio-fuels could revive the country's agriculture, help diversify its economy and provide a new export opportunity," Myers explained:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Bush's "greening", as the president's sudden interest in environment friendly energy sources has been dubbed, is seen as an attempt to make the United States depend less on the troubled Middle East region from where it derives much of its oil supplies.

The extension of such policies to Africa can be interpreted as an attempt by Washington to curb energy-hungry China's influence in the continent where it is expanding its investments.

With African nations having in China a ready-made export market for their current production in oil and gas, doubts have been cast on the continent's willingness to break lucrative ties with Beijing in favour of unexplored bio-fuel arrangements with the United States and Europe.

But according to Myers, who points out that only 10 percent of Africa's energy exports go to China, the extent of Beijing's business links with Africa has been overstated.

"African nations still export most of their energy products to other markets, and a demand in those markets for new products such as bio-fuels for which Africa has a great potential represents a much-needed opportunity to generate income from new exports," he concluded.

Article continues

Swiss lawmakers make biogas for transport tax-free

The Swiss Gas Association reports that the national and regional parliaments of the country have voted in favor of lifting the fossil fuel tax on biogas that is fed into the natural gas grid, whereas natural gas has received a tax reduction of 40 cent per liter of gasoline equivalent.

The motion on the tax exemption and reduction was filed more than five years ago. Now that it has been passed, the Swiss biogas industry hopes it gets ratified and implemented fast so that the law can stimulate the development of industry, whose ultimate aim is to provide climate-neutral gas for transport on a large scale.

In Switzerland, biogas and natural gas are mixed and made available at several gas stations where they are used by CNG-vehicles, sales of which are steadily increasing Prices for this mixture of NG and the clean gaseous biofuel are now set to cost 30% less than gasoline at the pump. A major incentive for the expansion of the biogas industry.

Compared with diesel and gasoline, natural gas emits far less CO2 (10% less than diesel, 20% less than gasoline), 70-90% less soot and around 60 to 90% less smog-forming pollution. Biogas is even entirely CO2-neutral:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The number of CNG-vehicles in Switzerland has meanwhile reached 3500. A network of 85 biogas-NG tank stations services them, and it is set to grow to 100 by the end of this year. Filling up a CNG-vehicle is just as easy and comfortable as with liquid fuels.

Worldwide, there are now some 5 million NG-capable vehicles on the road, especially in Pakistan (earlier post) and Argentina, where large-scale projects have succeeded in radically changing the fleet in a very short time. Biogas makes for an interesting biofuel in developing countries where car fleets are only beginning to be build.

At the recent Auto Show in Geneva, biogas and natural gas as an automotive fuel was the main theme of the show, with a wide variety of CNG-vehicles being presented.

Biogas is obtained from the anaerobic fermentation of biomass - either from waste or from dedicated energy crops. On a well-to-wheel basis, is the cleanest of more than 70 possible transport fuels (including hydrogen, methanol, or synthetic biofuels) (earlier post).

Experts see 2007 as the year biogas makes its breakthrough as a very attractive biofuel (earlier post).

Image: the Opel Corsa D 1.6 CNG 16 V, presented at the Geneva Auto Show. A full natural gas tank allows the car to travel for 500 kilometers. Courtesty: Swiss Gas Association.

Article continues