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    Taiwan's Feng Chia University has succeeded in boosting the production of hydrogen from biomass to 15 liters per hour, one of the world's highest biohydrogen production rates, a researcher at the university said Friday. The research team managed to produce hydrogen and carbon dioxide (which can be captured and stored) from the fermentation of different strains of anaerobes in a sugar cane-based liquefied mixture. The highest yield was obtained by the Clostridium bacterium. Taiwan News - November 14, 2008.

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Saturday, April 14, 2007

Two doctoral theses look at carbon capture and storage options

Two Dutch researchers recently defended their doctoral thesis on the subject of carbon capture and storage (CCS) (for a typical set-up, see image, click to enlarge). Dr Kay Damen (Copernicus Institute for Sustainable Development and Innovation, Utrecht University), analysed the potential for CO2 storage in the Netherlands, the costs involved and the need for a coordinated international planning effort. His thesis, entitled ‘System analyses of transition routes to advanced fossil fuel utilisation with CO2 capture and storage’ was part of the programme ‘Transition to sustainable use of fossil fuels’ that was funded by the Netherlands organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) and the €5.45 million SenterNovem Stimulation Programme Energy Research. This programme aims to develop knowledge in the natural and social sciences for the transition to a sustainable energy supply.

As part of the same program, Dr Saikat Mazumder defended his thesis at the Delft University of Technology on how to better predict routes of the 'underground highways' along which gasses like carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) will move during storage operations. He found coal to be highly suitable for filtering carbon dioxide out of waste gasses and storing it.

Both works are highly interesting additions to the growing body of research into CCS, which we track because the technology promises the creation of carbon netgative energy systems based on the utilisation of biomass (socalled 'Bio-Energy with Carbon Storage').

'Major potential'
According to Dr Damen, CO2 capture and storage can make a major contribution to CO2 reduction in the Netherlands. By the mid-21st century 80 to 110 million tonnes of CO2 per year could be avoided in the sectors energy, industry and transport. This is half of the current CO2 emission. Moreover, this can be realised against acceptable costs, the researcher concluded.

To realise such reductions in CO2 emission, a clear and internationally-oriented vision and bridging strategy is necessary, so that the storage capacity that is released over the next few decennia can actually be used for CO2 storage says Damen. He investigated the technical possibilities, costs and risks of CO2 capture, transport and underground storage:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Electricity greatest potential
In 2020 15 million tonnes of CO2 per year could be avoided by capturing CO2 in the new coal-fired power stations yet to be constructed. Moreover, existing pulverised coal-fired power stations may also be equipped with CO2 capture installations, although the costs of this are relatively high. In 2050 the reduction potential is estimated to be 60 to 84 million tonnes of CO2 per year, for a scenario in which the electricity production is doubled.

By capturing CO2 in industrial processes a further 16 million tonnes of CO2 per year can be avoided. Further if cars are run on hydrogen or synthetic diesel produced from fossil fuels combined with CO2 capture then this could eventually lead to a difference of more than 10 million tonnes of CO2 emission per year. For the production of hydrogen in the transport sector, Damen investigated the thermodynamic performance and costs of decentralised membrane reformers. This new technology makes it possible to capture CO2 against relatively low costs.
CO2 transport and storage

Damen calculated the costs of the pipelines necessary to transport the captured CO2 to underground storage reservoirs. Gas fields are, in addition to deep saline aquifers and coal seams, the most suitable reservoirs for CO2 storage in the Netherlands. The capacity that becomes available for CO2 storage can, however, be limited by a series of geological factors, including the risk of CO2 leakage via wells and faults. Although the mechanisms of CO2 leakage are known, quantifying the risks is still a challenge. Additionally CO2 storage could compete with the underground storage of natural gas, especially if the Netherlands develops into an international gas 'roundabout'. If the Netherlands has to maximise its efforts on CO2 capture and storage then eventually one of the 'mega storage reservoirs’ will have to be released, for example, the Groningen gas field or large structures in the British or Norwegian part of the North Sea.

CO2 storage in coal can be predicted better
Saikat Mazumder for his part made it possible to better predict routes of the 'underground highways' along which gasses like carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) will move. Moreover, he found that coal might be highly suitable for filtering carbon dioxide out of waste gasses and storing it.

The ‘Enhanced Coalbed Methane process’ kills two birds with one stone: carbon dioxide (CO2) is stored in coal seams in the ground and at the same time methane (CH4) is obtained from the process. To optimise this process it is important to know how coal retains and stores some fluids and gasses whilst allowing others through. The network of cracks is essential for this. Mazumder developed a measuring technique using CT scans that led to an improved understanding of the patterns of cracks. He also did experiments with waste gas and pure CO2 to determine the uptake capacity of single and multi-component gasses. In both wet and dry experiments, CO2 was strongly absorbed and CH4 was released. This methane production in a coal seam can vary over the course of time. Mazumder developed two estimating methods to gain a better understanding of this. When used together these could generate good predictions.

Problems due to swelling
The research revealed that a considerable quantity of CO2 could be removed from waste gas by allowing it to be adsorbed onto coal under high-pressure. According to Mazumder this means that the injection of waste gas into coal seams can be applied to filter out CO2 on an industrial scale and to retain it. Mazumder also carried out a preliminary study into the decrease in porosity and permeability as a consequence of coal swelling due to the injection of CO2. The decrease in the permeability can give rise to serious injection problems in the area of the well into which CO2 is injected.

More information:

NWO: CO2 storage in coal can be predicted better - April 10, 2007.
NWO: Prepare CO2 capture and storage now for greater environmental benefit later - April 10, 2007.

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Petrobras may buy ethanol tankers from Sermetal shipyard

As Brazil steps up its ethanol output and is becoming a global supplier of biofuels, it needs investments in infrastructures to create a smooth logistical chain. A network of dedicated ethanol pipelines is already under construction and now Petroleo Brasileiro SA, Brazil's state-controlled oil company, says it may purchase tankers from Brazilian shipyards to export ethanol as the company moves to quadruple foreign sales of the biofuel.

The ships would expand a plan to build 42 vessels for Rio de Janeiro-based Petrobras's fleet of tankers as increased oil, gas and biofuels production transforms Brazil from an energy importer into an energy exporter, said Sergio Machado, head of Transpetro, the company's transportation unit.

A tropical Saudi Arabia
"We have the land, the sun and the water to become the Saudi Arabia of ethanol," Machado said in an interview at Rio de Janeiro's Sermetal shipyard. "We need to have our own ships to export our output too."

Machado expects the first such ethanol tanker, which would likely be a 75,000 metric-ton, Panamax-class fuel tanker treated to resist the biofuel's corrosive effect on steel, to be built by 2011. Each Panamax-size ethanol tanker would cost about US$130 million to build, the same price as a normal gasoline or general-fuels tanker, he said:
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Reviving ship building
Petrobras is in the middle of a US$2.5 billion plan to build 26 tankers for oil, natural gas and other fuels with the first deliveries scheduled for 2009. The plan is part of Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's plan to revive the country's shipbuilding industry, which in the early 1980s was the world's second largest.

Transpetro expects to complete contract negotiations with Brazilian shipyards and Brazil's state development bank, BNDES, for 16 more ships by the end of May. The bank is supplying subsidized loans for up to 90 percent of the costs for the domestically built ships.

Petrobras, which is building ethanol pipelines for export, is also considering plans to ship ethanol on barges using the country's river systems, Sillas Oliva Filho, Petrobras' ethanol sales chief, said in an interview March 27.

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Venezuela to increase ethanol production, despite criticism of US-Brazil deal

Both Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro heavily criticized the ethanol deal between the US and Brazil for, it seems, purely political reasons. Venezuela and Cuba had already signed an ethanol cooperation agreement amongst themselves before the US and Brazil did the same, and Chavez had even begun to invest considerably in domestic biofuel production. Castro's critique was mainly aimed at corn ethanol, which, he says, takes up so much land and yields so little energy that it will push up prices of food and threaten the poor. On this, the Cuban leader certainly has a point. The issue has opened a lively discussion amongst leaders from the left on what kind of development pathway Latin America should follow (earlier post).

But apparently, biofuels as such are not the real issue because Venezuela's ambassador to Cuba announced his country will step up its own ethanol output even further, despite its earlier criticism. Ambassador Ali Rodriguez said the initiative will produce additives to the gasoline it exports to the US as well as a substitute for gasoline sold domestically.

Rodriguez said the reason behind the increase is the fact that oil-rich Venezuela aims to reduce its dependence on biofuel from Brazil — but not to participate in US efforts to ramp up production of ethanol for cars. Venezuela sees the American-Brazilian initiative as a symbolic attack against Hugo Chavez's attempts to become South America's undisputed leader, with oil as his weapon. The real geopolitical consequences of the US-Brazilian biofuel initiative will be small, though:
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Assessments by the Inter-American Development Bank show that Latin America can replace only around 30% of the world's gasoline demand over the long term, so Venezuela would not have to fear that much and will remain a crucial oil supplier for the US.

Brushing away the projected potential, Rodriguez told reporters in Havana that the increased output is "simply to meet an already existing demand, not participate in (the U.S.) plan, which I would call fantasy, which would try to substitute supplies of gasoline from oil with bio-gasoline".

In February, Cuba and Venezuela announced plans to increase sugarcane ethanol production to make cleaner-burning gasoline for cars, by jointly constructing 11 ethanol plants. Cuba had supported ethanol production from sugarcane before the United States and Brazil signed an agreement last month to promote international ethanol use and production. The two countries are the world's leading producers of the alternative fuel, though the US primarily makes corn ethanol.

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New company called 'Biohydrogen' to make H2 from sugar

The problem with hydrogen is that it is merely an energy carrier and needs a primary energy source from which the gas can be obtained. If this first source is a fossil fuel, then hydrogen isn't really a clean energy carrier. If the gas is made from the electrolysis of water, which is a rather energy-intensive process, then electricity is needed, and the dilemma remains: where do we get the electricity from? And can't we use this electricity directly in less costly batteries instead of making the detour via fuel cells? Using nuclear energy to split water is very expensive, as are solar and wind power, so these options to make hydrogen are cancelled too. For a well-to-wheel analysis of these different H2 production paths and their costs, see our earlier discussion and the graph (click to enlarge). Two thorough critiques of the costly push towards a 'hydrogen economy' that might not be that feasible at all, were presented here and here.

Biohydrogen is probably the most competitive of the non-fossil fuel production routes. There are roughly three main ways of obtaining the gas from biological sources: (1) biochemical conversion (diagram, click to enlarge): chemotrophic or phototrophic micro-organisms are allowed to ferment sugars, under anaerobic or aerobic conditions (depending on the micro-organism) during which hydrogenase or nitrogenase enzymes produce hydrogen directly (on H2 production from cyanobacteria and micro-algae see the last section of our post on biofuels from algae), (2) thermochemical conversion: biomass in solid form (wood, straw, etc) is transformed through gasification into a hydrogen-rich gas, from which the H2 is then separated, or (3) indirectly from biogas: biomass is anaerobically fermented into biogas, the methane of which is further converted into hydrogen (similar to H2 production from natural gas); combinations between biohydrogen and biomethane production are being researched as well.

Biofusion, a British company specialising in the commercialisation of university intellectual property, has now launched [*pdf] a new company to develop such methods of producing commercial quantities of hydrogen from biogenic sources. The company, called BioHydrogen, will focus initially on a metabolically engineered microbial production method capable of producing hydrogen from fermentable sugars.

According to Biofusion, the future of the technology is promising, with initial research results looking positive. "The concept of a hydrogen based energy economy, where hydrogen is produced economically on an industrial scale through a non greenhouse gas generating, renewable process is of significant interest to both governments and the world's major energy providers," commented Biofusion's chief executive David Baynes.

We call this scientific adventure part of the carbohydrate economy, because the original source for the H2 is sugar or starch which can just as well be fermented into liquid biofuels or biomethane, fuels that can already be used in fuel cells (direct alcohol fuel cells and molten carbonate fuel cells operating on biogas):
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But David Baynes of Biofusion thinks making the detour via hydrogen is still worth investigating. He added that "if the initial impressive results can be built upon to deliver a commercially viable production model for hydrogen, then it could be a radical alternative for the production of hydrogen in a future energy economy."

The new company will receive an initial £200,000 from Biofusion to aid research, with Biofusion retaining a 60 per cent stake in the company.

Biofusion was established in 2002 to commercialise university-generated IP. Biofusion has signed long term agreements with two of the UK’s top ten research intensive universities (University of Sheffield and Cardiff University) giving a combined R&D spend attributable to Biofusion of approximately £114 million a year.

Biofusion’s first agreement was a ten-year exclusive arrangement with the University of Sheffield for the commercialisation of IP owned by the University in the area of medical life sciences. Biofusion has shareholdings in a portfolio of 16 Sheffield University spin-out companies including Asterion, Axordia, Celltran, Lifestyle Choices, Diurnal and Phase Focus. The University of Sheffield was ranked 5th in the UK for the quality of its life sciences research and will be spending an estimated £0.5bn of research funding over the lifetime over the life of the Sheffield Agreement.

In January 2007, Biofusion completed a long-term exclusive agreement with Cardiff University, to commercialise 100% of all Cardiff University’s research-generated IP. Biofusion has shareholdings in a portfolio of seven Cardiff University spin-out companies including Abcellute, Q-Chip and Cardiff Protides. Cardiff University was ranked 7th in the UK in the most recent research rankings and will be spending over £1.0bn of research funding over the lifetime over the life of the Cardiff Agreement.

More information:
H2Daily: "Hydrogen From Sugar- A Sweet Idea" - April 13, 2007.

Biofusion: Biofusion Launches BioHydrogen Ltd to develop a radical new process of producing commercial quantities of hydrogen from sugar [*.pdf] - April 2, 2007.

There is a lot of research going on in biohydrogen, so these are just some pointers:
The BBC has a good overview of the basics of H2 production from micro-organisms, at its H2G2 website.

Iowa State University, Office of Biorenewables Programs: Biological Hydrogen Production from Renewable Organic Wastes.

European biohydrogen projects presented by the Biohydrogen Network.

To stress our love for sweet potatoes and the concept of 'carbohydrate economy' which we randomly linked to this crop - but which was originally thougth out by sci-fi authors - see this article:
Yokoi Haruhiko, Saitsu Akio, et al, "Microbial hydrogen production from sweet potato starch residue" [*abstract], Journal of bioscience and bioengineering, 2001, vol. 91, no1, pp. 58-63.

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ESA satellite images aid implementation of agricultural reforms

Brazilian ethanol production is highly efficient and sustainable, in part thanks to the utilisation of earth observation (EO) techniques that allow sugarcane farmers and researchers to plan each plot carefully, to monitor productivity, pests and diseases and a host of other agronomic parameters. From the European Space Agency now comes another interesting example of how satellite images can assist in thorough monitoring and planning of land use. In this case, EO is used to the check the application of so-called cross compliance measures – a set of environmental and animal welfare standards that farmers have to respect to receive full funding from the European Union – included in the 2003 reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy.

The ever increasing number of highly finetuned EO-based land use monitoring techniques must make it possible in the future to organise a form of planetary biomass management, that allows us to analyse the optimal distribution of where what types of crop can be grown best, and what kinds of environmental standards should be applied in order to ensure long term sustainability - on a truly planetary scale.

ESA's example demonstrates how very high resolution (VHR) satellite images can monitor whether land is safeguarded in 'Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition' (GAEC) - this information consequently ensures EU subsidies are distributed in a fair and timely manner and helps farmers complete subsidy applications more accurately. One of those subsidies involves energy crops, that must be grown on set-aside land.

High resolution satellites as well as aerial photography have been used for some time to monitor areas where subsidies are provided. VHR EO satellites, however, offer more detail compared with HR satellites and are capable of identifying various landscape features and detecting potential erosion, tillage practices and maintenance of pastures:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Under the GAEC standards implemented in some countries, farmers cannot remove certain landscape features, including hedges, tree rows, water ponds, walls and single trees, without authorisation of national administration in order to preserve habitats for different organisms and species.

By using special classification procedures on VHR satellite images, identification of these landscape features is possible. In combination with digital aerial images, even single trees can be delineated. By comparing older and recent images of these same areas with the processed ‘reference landscape feature’ layer, the removal of these features can be detected.

To protect soils against erosion risks and improve soil structure, the GAEC as applied in some countries, states farmers must establish an ‘environmental cover’ for a buffer width, stipulated by the country itself (e.g. 5 metres), around waterways on all parcels adjacent to waterways to restrict diffuse pollution in waters and soils.

Pastures, permanent crops, woods, hedges and paths are considered ‘environmental cover’, while mainly arable land and crops are not. Because satellite images allow for the interpretation of agricultural parcels, compliancy can be easily detected. Photo interpretation by remote sensing speeds up the process and allows many parcels to be checked in one time.

Tillage practices are also important for reducing erosion as they can reduce the runoff of water across the land surface. The GAEC stipulates that farmers have to plough or plant parallel to contour lines to avoid erosion on slopes more than or equal to a certain percentage defined by the country (e.g. slope of 10 percent).

By detecting parcels within this slope range, detecting the slope direction and the ploughing or planting direction, it is possible to calculate the angle between the slope and ploughing direction, taking into account the soil-sensitivity to erosion, and determine whether the farmer is compliant.

In order to receive subsidies for permanent crops, the GAEC requires that farmers properly maintain them. Using VHR images, the distinction between crops that are ‘maintained good’ and crops that are ‘possibly maintained badly’ can be detected, allowing authorities to visit the fields in question to detect whether they are abandoned or neglected.

This project was funded by ESA’s Earth Observation Market Development (EOMD) programme, aimed at fostering the development of EO data within business practices, and carried out by EUROSENSE, a company that specialises in remote sensing.

Movie: By using special classification procedures on very high resolution (VHR) satellite images, identification of landscape features, including hedges, tree rows, water ponds, walls and single trees, is possible. By comparing older and recent images of these same areas with the processed ‘reference landscape feature’ layer, the removal of these features can be detected. Credits: EUROSENSE.

More information:

European Space Agency: "Satellite images aid implementation of agricultural reforms" - April 13, 2007.

EU Commission: "Renewable energy: Commission welcomes Council agreement on extension of energy crop aid scheme to all Member States" - 19 December 2006

European Commission, Agriculture and Rural Development: CAP reform.

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Friday, April 13, 2007

Scientists reveal quantum secrets of photosynthesis - may lead to clean energy

While astrobiologists speculate on what plants on planets in other solar systems might look like (not green) and reveal clues on how to make photosynthesis more efficient, science is still trying to unravel some of the long-standing mysteries of how the mechanism works here on Earth. Researchers with the the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and the University of California (UC) at Berkeley, have now come a step closer to understanding it. Speed is the key to the transfer of sunlight energy to molecular reaction centers for conversion into chemical energy with nearly 100-percent efficiency. The transfer of the solar energy takes place almost instantaneously, so little energy is wasted as heat. But how photosynthesis actually achieves this near instantaneous energy transfer has remained a secret.

The team of researchers reports that the answer lies in quantum mechanical effects. Results of its study are presented in the April 12, 2007 issue of the journal Nature. Their discovery may ultimately lead to the creation of artificial photosynthesis that would allow us to tap into the sun as a clean, efficient, sustainable and carbon-neutral source of energy.
“We have obtained the first direct evidence that remarkably long-lived wavelike electronic quantum coherence plays an important part in energy transfer processes during photosynthesis. This wavelike characteristic can explain the extreme efficiency of the energy transfer because it enables the system to simultaneously sample all the potential energy pathways and choose the most efficient one.” - Graham Fleming, Deputy Director of Berkeley Lab, a professor of chemistry at UC Berkeley.
Graham Fleming is the lead author of the study and an internationally acclaimed leader in spectroscopic studies of the photosynthetic process. In a paper entitled "Evidence for wavelike energy transfer through quantum coherence in photosynthetic systems", he and his collaborators report the detection of “quantum beating” signals, coherent electronic oscillations in both donor and acceptor molecules, generated by light-induced energy excitations, like the ripples formed when stones are tossed into a pond (image, click to enlarge).

Electronic spectroscopy measurements made on a femtosecond (millionths of a billionth of a second) time-scale showed these oscillations meeting and interfering constructively, forming wavelike motions of energy ('superposition states') that can explore all potential energy pathways simultaneously and reversibly, meaning they can retreat from wrong pathways with no penalty. This finding contradicts the classical description of the photosynthetic energy transfer process as one in which excitation energy hops from light-capturing pigment molecules to reaction center molecules step-by-step down the molecular energy ladder.

“The classical hopping description of the energy transfer process is both inadequate and inaccurate,” said Fleming. “It gives the wrong picture of how the process actually works, and misses a crucial aspect of the reason for the wonderful efficiency", the professor added:
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The photosynthetic technique for transferring energy from one molecular system to another should make any short-list of Mother Nature’s spectacular accomplishments. If we can learn enough to emulate this process, we might be able to create artificial versions of photosynthesis that would help us effectively tap into the sun as a clean, efficient, sustainable and carbon-neutral source of energy.

Towards this end, Fleming and his research group have developed a technique called two-dimensional electronic spectroscopy that enables them to follow the flow of light-induced excitation energy through molecular complexes with femtosecond temporal resolution. The technique involves sequentially flashing a sample with femtosecond pulses of light from three laser beams. A fourth beam is used as a local oscillator to amplify and detect the resulting spectroscopic signals as the excitation energy from the laser lights is transferred from one molecule to the next. (The excitation energy changes the way each molecule absorbs and emits light.)

Fleming has compared 2-D electronic spectroscopy to the technique used in the early super-heterodyne radios, where an incoming high frequency radio signal was converted by an oscillator to a lower frequency for more controllable amplification and better reception (image, click to enlarge). In the case of 2-D electronic spectroscopy, scientists can track the transfer of energy between molecules that are coupled (connected) through their electronic and vibrational states in any photoactive system, macromolecular assembly or nanostructure.

Fleming and his group first described 2-D electronic spectroscopy in a 2005 Nature paper, when they used the technique to observe electronic couplings in the Fenna-Matthews-Olson (FMO) photosynthetic light-harvesting protein, a molecular complex in green sulphur bacteria.

Gregory Engel, first author of the study said: “The 2005 paper was the first biological application of this technique, now we have used 2-D electronic spectroscopy to discover a new phenomenon in photosynthetic systems. While the possibility that photosynthetic energy transfer might involve quantum oscillations was first suggested more than 70 years ago, the wavelike motion of excitation energy had never been observed until now.”

As in the 2005 paper, the FMO protein was again the target. FMO is considered a model system for studying photosynthetic energy transfer because it consists of only seven pigment molecules and its chemistry has been well characterized.

“To observe the quantum beats, 2-D spectra were taken at 33 population times, ranging from 0 to 660 femtoseconds,” said Engel. “In these spectra, the lowest-energy exciton (a bound electron-hole pair formed when an incoming photon boosts an electron out of the valence energy band into the conduction band) gives rise to a diagonal peak near 825 nanometers that clearly oscillates. The associated cross-peak amplitude also appears to oscillate. Surprisingly, this quantum beating lasted the entire 660 femtoseconds.”

Engel said the duration of the quantum beating signals was unexpected because the general scientific assumption had been that the electronic coherences responsible for such oscillations are rapidly destroyed.

“For this reason, the transfer of electronic coherence between excitons during relaxation has usually been ignored,” Engel said. “By demonstrating that the energy transfer process does involve electronic coherence and that this coherence is much stronger than we would ever have expected, we have shown that the process can be much more efficient than the classical view could explain. However, we still don’t know to what degree photosynthesis benefits from these quantum effects.”

Engel said one of the next steps for the Fleming group in this line of research will be to look at the effects of temperature changes on the photosynthetic energy transfer process. The results for this latest paper in Nature were obtained from FMO complexes kept at 77 Kelvin. The group will also be looking at broader bandwidths of energy using different colors of light pulses to map out everything that is going on, not just energy transfer. Ultimately, the idea is to gain a much better understanding how nature not only transfers energy from one molecular system to another, but is also able to convert it into useful forms.

“Nature has had about 2.7 billion years to perfect photosynthesis, so there are huge lessons that remain for us to learn,” Engel said. “The results we’re reporting in this latest paper, however, at least give us a new way to think about the design of future artificial photosynthesis systems.”

This research was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and by the Miller Institute for Basic Research in Sciences.

Co-authoring the Nature paper with Fleming were Gregory Engel, who was first author, Tessa Calhoun, Elizabeth Read, Tae-Kyu Ahn, Tomáš Mančal and Yuan-Chung Cheng, all of whom held joint appointments with Berkeley Lab’s Physical Biosciences Division and the UC Berkeley Chemistry Department at the time of the study, plus Robert Blankenship, from the Washington University in St. Louis.

More information:

Nature, Editor's Summary: Making photosynthesis tick - 12 April 2007

Tobias Brixner, Jens Stenger, Harsha M. Vaswani, Minhaeng Cho, Robert E. Blankenship and Graham R. Fleming, "Two-dimensional spectroscopy of electronic couplings in photosynthesis" [*abstract], Nature 434, 625-628 (31 March 2005) | doi:10.1038/nature03429

Gregory S. Engel, Tessa R. Calhoun, Elizabeth L. Read, Tae-Kyu Ahn, Tomás caron Manc caronal, Yuan-Chung Cheng, Robert E. Blankenship & Graham R. Fleming, "Evidence for wavelike energy transfer through quantum coherence in photosynthetic systems", [*abstract], Nature, 446 Number 7137 pp701-830434, 625-628 (12 April 2007) | doi:10.1038/446740a

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Fertilizers boost crop production amongst smallholders in Zimbabwe

A dangerous myth thriving amongst some NGOs and environmentalists is that Africa can not feed itself because it is overpopulated, its agricultural potential has been completely tapped and it faces water shortages. The contrary is true: Africa has a staggering abundance of land and potential to produce rainfed crops, so much in fact that in theory it can feed the entire continent's rapidly growing population and have enough potential left to produce an amount of sustainably produced biofuels equal to the world's total current energy consumption (400EJ) (earlier post).

What Africa lacks is not land or water or agricultural potential (on the contrary), it is investments in land, in knowledge, in very basic farming inputs and in access to these inputs. Last year, the African Fertilizer Summit, which united some of the world's leading agronomists, made the point: if African farmers were to use the most simple of agricultural techniques (such as using micro-doses of fertilizers), the continent could double and, some estimate, even triple its current output at once. To those with an understanding of the realities of sub-Saharan African agriculture, this is stating the obvious.

People who are concerned with the environment should be staunch advocates of fertilizers: even very modest applications of the nuntrients increase crop productivity considerably and hence allow farmers to get more out of a plot of land. If African farmers - especially the millions of smallholders - are not encouraged or enabled to use such classic farming techniques, the socio-economic and environmental effects will be disastrous: land expansion, threats to pristine ecosystems, biodiversity loss, nutrient depletion, ever lower yields, more land expansion and ever deeper poverty. With deeper poverty comes higher fertility, more population pressure, increased food needs and more land expansion... This is an extremely dangerous cycle, but luckily, fertilizers are a major tool that can help turn this situation 180 degrees.

After four years of careful research, Dutch-sponsored agronomist Bongani Ncube demonstrated this simple idea, as it applies to the many smallholder farms in the semi-arid regions of her home country Zimbabwe. Neither water stress nor lack of crop rotations, but nitrogen availability was found to be the single factor that most limited farmers’ efforts to increase cereal yields. The application of micro-doses showed an increase in grain yields of not less than 100% during a normal rainy season.

With funds from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) Ncube studied smallholder farms in the southwest of Zimbabwe. She mapped resource flows and carried out field experiments. The Zimbabwean semi-arid regions are dry and farmers face food shortages every season. Yet not water management but the supply of fertilizer, especially nitrogen, was found to be the most important factor in increasing cereal yields. Zimbabwean farmers in the semi-arid regions hardly use fertilizer and manure at present. Chemical fertilizer is expensive and manure is not readily available. Moreover, little is known about the correct use of these nutrient sources in dry climates:
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The main issue when cultivating soil is the nitrogen balance. Continually cultivating the same crop disrupts this balance. With field experiments, Ncube demonstrated that a little bit of basal manure, and nitrogen fertilizer added as top dressing improved the maize yield by about one-hundred percent in a good rainy season and by up to fifty percent in drier seasons.

Crop rotation
Crop rotation is another option that could provide a lot of benefit according to Ncube. This is the cultivation of different crops alternately in successive years. Leguminous crops, for example, fix nitrogen. This nitrogen remains in the soil and is taken up during the next season by sorghum, a type of grain that grows well in dry areas. Ncube proved that grain legumes can be grown successfully under the semi-arid conditions in Zimbabwe. These legumes were able to leave enough nitrogen in the ground, which doubled yields of sorghum the following season compared to sorghum-sorghum rotations.

With a simulation model Ncube was once again able to show that nitrogen availability was more important in the rotation. These types of treatments often have a negative impact on water availability, yet here nitrogen was shown to be more important.

In short, Africa's agricultural potential is enormous, but socio-economic, and not environmental or ecological factors limit the concrete realisation of this potential. Policies must be focused on taking down the barriers that prevent African farmers from increasing their productivity: investments in extension services must be encouraged and the creation of fertiliser markets and access to those must be kickstarted. If these simple interventions succeed, the African continent could begin to hope to end the vicious cycle of low agricultural productivity that leads to increased environmental and population-related pressures on the continent's natural resources.

Image: A genuine smile: the application of micro-doses of NPK fertilizer doubled the yields on this woman's farm and consequently strengthened her family's income and food security. Courtesy: African Fertilizer Summit.

More information:
Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research: Fertilizers help Zimbabwean farmers to increase crop yields - April 10, 2007.

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Chemists design the least dense crystals known to man - applications in gas storage

The race to find new gas storage technologies is on, as they promise the much wider use of efficient and climate friendly gaseous fuels, such as biogas and (bio)hydrogen, or to capture and store greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. Earlier, we reported on a team of French scientists who succeeded in creating nanoporous materials that breathe like lungs, and that might indeed be used to trap and release gases efficiently (previous post). Now chemists at the UCLA have designed a new form of organic structures for the storage of voluminous amounts of gases.

The research was published in the journal Science today, and demonstrates how the design principles of reticular chemistry have been used to create three-dimensional covalent organic frameworks, which are entirely constructed from strong covalent bonds and have high thermal stability, high surface areas and extremely low densities. The team of researchers comprises chemists from the Center for Reticular Chemistry at UCLA's California NanoSystems Institute and the departments of chemistry and biochemistry at UCLA.

Led by Omar Yaghi, UCLA professor of chemistry and biochemistry, the team has developed a class of materials in which components can be changed nearly at will. Reticular chemistry, the brainchild of Yaghi, is the chemistry of linking molecular building blocks by strong bonds into predetermined structures. The principles of reticular chemistry and the ability to construct chemical structures from these molecular building blocks has led to the creation of new classes of materials of exceptional variety.

The covalent organic frameworks, or COFs (pronounced "coffs"), one of these new classes of materials, are the first crystalline porous organic networks. A member of this series, COF-108 (image, click to enlarge), has the lowest density reported of any crystalline material.
"These are the first materials ever made in which the organic building blocks are linked by strong bonds to make covalent organic frameworks," Yaghi said. "The key is that COFs are composed of light elements, such as boron, carbon and oxygen, which provide thermal stability and great functionality."
COF-108, the latest advance in reticular chemistry development, has a high surface area, with more than 4,500 meters per gram. "One gram, unraveled, could cover the surface area of approximately 30 tennis courts," Yaghi says.

In the push to develop methods to control greenhouse gas emissions, some of the biggest challenges have been finding ways to store hydrogen for use as a fuel, to use methane as an alternative fuel, and to capture and store carbon dioxide from power plant smokestacks before it reaches the atmosphere. Yaghi and his colleagues believe COFs are uniquely suited for all these applications because of their functional flexibility and their extremely light weight and high porosity:
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Through reticular chemistry, Yaghi has developed a process whereby it is possible to utilize the arsenal of organic building blocks to construct a large number of new COF structures whose components can be easily designed to suit a particular application. The pore size and pore functionality of these materials can be varied at will.

Yaghi, whose research overlaps chemistry, materials science and engineering, is a member of the California NanoSystems Institute (CNSI) at UCLA, which encourages cross-disciplinary collaboration to solve problems in nanoscience and nanotechnology. Yaghi is also the director of the Center for Reticular Chemistry at the CNSI.

"I have long been interested in making materials in a rational way," Yaghi said. "At the beginning of my career, I always thought it should be possible to create a predetermined chemical structure by linking together well-defined molecules as building blocks, just as an architect creates a blueprint prior to construction on buildings."

A year ago, Yaghi made national headlines when he and his team at UCLA, along with colleagues at the University of Michigan, conducted research that could lead to a hydrogen fuel that powers not only cars but laptop computers, cellular phones, digital cameras and other electronic devices. The findings were reported in the Journal of the American Chemical Society in March 2006.

The materials used in that research, invented by Yaghi in the early 1990s, are called metal-organic frameworks, or MOFs, which have been described as crystal sponges. These frameworks have nanoscale-size openings, or pores, in which Yaghi and his colleagues can store gases — such as hydrogen and methane — that are generally difficult to store and transport.

BASF, a global chemical company based in Germany, has licensed the technology and is moving forward on commercialization of MOFs.

In the fall of 2006, Yaghi was named one of the "Brilliant 10" by Popular Science magazine, which described him as a "hydrogen nano-architect" whose "research papers rank among the most influential in his field." At the age of 42, Yaghi is already ranked No. 22 on the list of the Top 100 most-cited chemists by Thomson Scientific.

The California NanoSystems Institute (CNSI) is a multidisciplinary research center at UCLA whose mission is to encourage university–industry collaboration and to enable the rapid commercialization of discoveries in nanosystems. CNSI members include some of the world's preeminent scientists, and the work conducted at the institute represents world-class expertise in five targeted areas of nanosystems-related research: renewable energy, environmental nanotechnology and nanotoxicology, nanobiotechnology and biomaterials, nanomechanical and nanofluidic systems, and nanoelectronics, photonics and architectonics. The institute is home to eight core facilities that will serve both academic and industry collaborations.

Image: The image shows the crystal structure of COF-108. Synthesized only from light elements (H,B,C,O) COF-108 is the lowest-density crystal ever produced (0.17 g/cm3). Courtesy: UCLA News.

More information:
UCLA News: "Chemists at UCLA Design the Least Dense Crystals Known to Man for Applications in Clean Energy" - April 13, 2007.

Hani M. El-Kaderi, Omar M. Yaghi, et al. "Designed Synthesis of 3D Covalent Organic Frameworks" [*abstract], Science 13 April 2007: Vol. 316. no. 5822, pp. 268 - 272 DOI: 10.1126/science.1139915

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Energy Biosciences Institute to focus on socio-economic impacts of bioenergy

The global transition towards biofuels and bioenergy is much more than a mere agricultural revolution. It is a complex process of change with impacts on a large number of socio-economic factors. In this respect, we have stressed many times that biofuels and bioenergy projects can go different ways: if implemented in a bad way, they can perpetuate existing economic patterns that lead towards more inequality, environmental degradation and poverty (earlier post). But if done well, they offer a unique opportunity to boost the livelihoods of some of the world's poorest people (e.g. 70% of sub-Saharan Africans are dependent on agriculture) and create a whole new development paradigm in the South, centered around energy security, access to mobility, energy independence, environmental sustainability, strengthened income and food security and more equitable socio-economic relations.

The University of Berkeley's Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI), like the Biopact, understands that bioenergy is fully embedded not only in the socio-economic fabric of the communities and nations where it is produced, but in a globalised market. The future of biofuels therefor depends on a deep understanding of their impacts on this fabric, and on our capacity to monitor and project these changes.

The EBI has identified five broad areas of inquiry into socio-economic drivers of the bioenergy future:
Global Socio-economic Impacts
The development of world trade in biofuels is expected to impact nations in many different ways. The EBI would interested in understanding the possible effects of various scenarios on socio-economic questions of food availability, social equity, and trade from a global perspective.

Next-Generation Assessment

The introduction of a large-scale biofuels industry will have a significant impact on energy, agricultural and food systems, and the environment. To understand these challenges, a new framework for assessing the social and environmental implications of biofuels is needed, one that uses the best available tools and methods from life-cycle assessment (LCA), fuel-cycle analysis, computer-based systems analysis, cost estimation, multicriteria decision-making, sustainability science, and environmental-impact assessment.

Biofuels Evaluation and Adoption
If biofuels are to make a substantial contribution to the world’s energy needs, new crops, new cropping practices, and new fuel production technologies will have to be adopted by a wide range of economic actors. … Projects in this area would seek to understand the energy, agricultural, and environmental impacts of current and potential biofuels, including potential costs and environmental implications of different production pathways and barriers that could prevent deployment of each pathway.

Biofuels Markets and Networks

The productivity, cost effectiveness, land use, environmental impacts, and transportation requirements of bio-energy crops needs to be integrated and modeled in a regional context, linking local, national, and global dimensions of supply and demand. This would include analysis of the allocation of land and other resources among competing alternatives to meet various levels of demand for biofuels.

Social Interactions and Risks

Development of a large-scale international biofuels industry will create changes at many levels in producer nations and may, therefore, create social concerns about biofuels. … Insights into the design of processes and policies concerning the public understanding of biofuel technologies and the modeling of social adoption in different political contexts on a global scale will be valuable
With these research areas, the EBI follows in the footsteps of those who see both the risks and the major opportunities brought by biofuels, especially for the developing countries:
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Dan Kammen, professor of energy and resources and of public policy, and director of Berkeley's Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory, says "biofuels, unlike solar energy or gas-powered plants, affect land use directly, which means they affect the lives of the rich and poor directly. They affect fundamental things like the status of women, public health, and even how many calories kids in Kenya will eat. If we orient and oversee this biofuel initiative right, we can benefit all of those things."

Kammen, a member of the EBI executive committee, said that in many parts of the world, plants raised for biofuels are grown as subsistence crops, which are mainly farmed by women. "Biofuel technology can become either a problem or an opportunity for these women," he says.

How can we grow biofuel crops that do not supplant food crops? Kammen notes that the perennial grass miscanthus, for example, is a popular biofuel choice because of its rapid growth and high yield, but it can only be used for biofuel. Other crops, such as sweet sorghum, may be more appropriate biofuel sources in economically poor regions where fertile land is scarce; it is both a food and an energy crop, and needs little water and fertilizer (see our discussion about the ICRISAT's 'Pro-poor biofuels initiative' based on sweet sorghum).

Recognizing that the success of biofuel technology involves more than developing a plant stock that can yield more biofuel, such as ethanol, the EBI proposal specifically includes a socio-economic research component to address such issues.

Implicit in EBI's research agenda is the understanding that neglecting the socio-economic considerations of a biofuel economy likely will lead to a technology that primarily benefits affluent farmers, while leaving low-income, subsistence farmers behind.

"What's happening now is that land is being taken out of production for food as different countries move to biofuel," said David Zilberman, professor and chair of agricultural and resource economics and co-director of Berkeley's Center for Sustainable Resource Development.

"Sixteen percent of the corn acreage in the United States is going to ethanol, and it will rise to 35 percent in the near future as processing capacity expands," says Zilberman.

What's exciting about EBI, adds Zilberman, is that researchers can look into ways to resolve this food-fuel tradeoff. "We have to find ways to move to plants that are more efficient, to answer the call of biofuel without necessitating this land grab," he said.

Many similar think tanks and research institutes have taken initiatives to study the socio-economic impacts and key-drivers of the emerging bioenergy paradigm. To mind come the International Energy Agency's Bioenergy Task 29, which studies the 'Socio-Economic Drivers in Implementing Bioenergy Projects', the United Nations Foundation's Biofuels Initiative or the Food and Agriculture Organisation's International Bioenergy Platform.

Some civil society organisations have very swiftly taken an unnuanced stance against bioenergy in general, and thereby made themselves part of the research on how to overcome problems relating to the social acceptance of biofuels, with all their complexity. It would be a grave mistake for these organisations to limit their views and actions to an ideologically narrowminded agenda that may end up by destroying one of the developing world's biggest chances to open a new era of prosperity. Biofuels in themselves are value-free; it is the way they are produced, used and traded, that needs scrutinity. And the analysis of potential socio-economic benefits and risks therefor requires an unprejudiced, openminded and scientific attitude.

More information:
University of Berkeley: Shifting to a biofueled world - Research aims for wide social and economic benefits - April 12, 2007.
IEA Bioenergy Task 40 website.

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Malaysian government approves 90 licences for biofuel plants

Quicknote bioenergy policy
The Malaysian government announces it has approved 90 licences for the establishment of biofuel plants, of which six with a capacity of 352,000 tonnes (117 million gallons) are already operational.

Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister Datuk Peter Chin said that from last August till February, 52,654 tonnes (16 million gallons) of biodiesel had been exported to the United States, the European Union and Japan, generating 132 million ringgit (€28.3/US$38.3)in revenue.

"Some of the plants are in various stages of construction and between 7 and 10 of them are expected to be up and running by year-end," he told the lower house of parliament when tabling the Biofuel Industry Bill 2006.

Chin said that the proposed legislation would enable a closer monitoring of biofuel production activity besides ensuring that only genuine players were involved in the industry. The Biofuel Industry Bill was then passed.

The legislation does not contain any reference to social or environmental sustainability criteria for biofuel production, nor any indication as to whether policy initiatives will be undertaken towards the establishment of such criteria at a later date [entry ends here].
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Thursday, April 12, 2007

Bioenergy to feature prominently in IPCC report on mitigating climate change

A draft UN report on the economics of global warming outlines the potential for big curbs in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. The study, by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is due for release in Bangkok on May 4 after approval by scientists and more than 100 governments. It will be the result of the IPCC's Working Group III, following up on the previous reports (by Working Group I - which studied the fundamental scientific evidence for climate change, and Working Group II - which looked at the impacts on natural and human ecosystems). This third part will complete the IPCC's Fourth Assessment Report on Climate Change.

The draft recognises the potential bioenergy can play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Total emissions from human activities on this planet, mainly from burning fossil fuels, amounted to about 40 billion tonnes in 2000. The table (click to enlarge) outlines the potential cuts that can be made per economic sector under a low and a high investment scenario. It assumes that prices for emitting carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, stay below €74/US$100 a tonne (current price in Europe: €0.79).

The sneak preview lists some approaches to curbing emissions per sector, and the contribution of both current and future technologies (bioenergy's contribution in italics).

Curbs from existing technologies:
  • Energy supply: more efficient supply and distribution, combined heat and power, switching from high-polluting coal to cleaner gas, nuclear power and renewable energies such as hydropower, solar, wind, geothermal and bioenergy. Can also include some early applications of carbon capture and storage, including bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, which is a carbon negative energy system.
  • Transport: more fuel-efficient vehicles, hybrids, cleaner diesel, better public transport, bicycles.
  • Buildings: efficient lighting, more effective insulation and ventilation, passive solar design for heating, cooling and ventilation, more efficient electrical appliances and heating and cooling devices, alternative refrigerants, better recycling.
  • Industry: efficient electrical equipment, heat and power reuse, material recycling, control of non carbon dioxide gases.
  • Agriculture: Improved management of crop and grazing land to improve soil carbon storage, restoration of degraded lands, better rice cultivation. Improved management of livestock and manure to reduce methane emissions. Better use of fertilisers, bioenergy crops to replace fossil fuels.
  • Forestry: planting more trees, slowing rates of deforestation and land degradation, use of wood for bioenergy to replace fossil fuels.
  • Waste: tapping methane from landfills, incineration of waste with use of the energy, composting of organic waste, recycling and minimising waste.
Curbs from future technologies:
  • Energy supply: carbon capture and storage for gas, biomass or coal-fired power plants, advanced nuclear power and renewable energies. Note, carbon capture and storage applied to biomass results in a carbon negative energy system.
  • Transport: hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles, second generation biofuels, more efficient aircraft, advanced electric and hybrid vehicles with better batteries.
  • Buildings: integrated solar photovoltaic electricity supplies, smart metering and intelligent control.
  • Industry: advanced energy efficiency, carbon capture and storage for cement, ammonia, fertiliser and steel production, inert electrodes for aluminium manufacture.
  • Agriculture: genetic technologies to improve energy crops.
  • Waste: biocovers and biofilters to improve methane oxidation
Clearly, there is very much we can do to curb greenhouse gas emissions, in all sectors of the economy; some interventions can be fairly simple and straightforward, others require significant technological breakthroughs. The draft does not list how much each of the technological interventions can contribute to the curbing scenarios [entry ends here].
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IMF calls for US/EU to lift tariffs on biofuels from the South

Economists, development thinkers, energy experts, and environmentalists alike have all been calling for the US and the EU to lift their tariffs on biofuels produced in the Global South. Likewise, many are demanding these wealthy countries abandon their subsidies for unsustainable and inefficient biofuels like corn ethanol and rapeseed biodiesel - these subsidies benefit large wealthy farmers, at the expense of millions of small peasants and the environment.

Now the International Monetary Fund, in its Spring 2007 World Economic Forecast, repeats this call. In the report 's segment on "Recent Developments in Commodity Markets" there is a sub-section titled "Food and Biofuels."

It notes that food prices (as measured by its own food price index) rose by 10% in 2006, driven partly by a poor wheat crop in certain countries and high energy prices (see below), but also by (mandated) demand for heavily subsidised and tariff protected biofuels in the US and Europe.

The forecast states that prices of crops like corn and soybeans, which are the main feedstocks for ethanol (US) and biodiesel (Europe), respectively, should: (1) continue to rise and (2) begin moving in line with the price of crude oil, which is currently the case with sugar because of its role in the Brazilian ethanol industry.

But it is the sub-section's final paragraph that best captures IMF's view of current US and European biofuels policy. It reads as follows:
Many energy market analysts also question the rationality of large subsidies that benefit farmers more than the environment. While new technology is being developed, a more efficient solution from a global perspective would be to reduce tariffs on imports from developing countries (for example, Brazil) where biofuels production is cheaper and more energy efficient.
This way, the IMF joins the ranks of the most senior energy analysts of the International Energy Agency - whose General Chief and Chief Economist both came to the same conclusion - , of the researchers at International Food Policy Research Institute, of the Global Subsidies Initiative and of the World Bank's bank chief, who have all noticed the detrimental effects of US/EU subsidies and tariffs, and who understand the opportunity for the Global South to produce biofuels that make more sense because they are far more efficient (up to 8 times more efficient than corn ethanol), beneficial to the environment, can fuel local economies and effectively contribute to the fight against climate change.

In this context it is time to repeat some basics:
  • The way the US and the EU are proceeding with their approach to ethanol and biodiesel will inevitably place inflationary pressures on domestic and global food prices, which will result in tensions at home and abroad.
  • The main reasons for pursuing ethanol in the manner that it is being pursued in the US/EU right now are: (1) to placate the farming lobbies and earn valuable political support; (2) to placate the wean-America-off-foreign-oil lobby; (3) to placate the soft domestic environmentalist lobby which doesn't look further than its own backyard
  • Not letting emerging markets export ethanol tariff-free to the US/EU is bad economically for a lot of people, from poor Brazilians, Africans and Asians to poor and middle-class Americans and Europeans for who mobility and cheap fuels are very important socially and economically
High energy costs push food prices up
To add complexity, the IMF report also points at the effects of rising crude oil and natural gas prices on agricultural production as such. It shows (table, click to enlarge) that, in the US, energy costs make up between 9.0 and 23.1% of total production costs of grains like wheat, corn and soybeans. Corn is most energy intensive (because it requires vast amounts of nitrogen fertiliser) and if used as a biofuel feedstock, the costs of this inefficient fuel will likewise rise with crude oil/natural gas prices. Importantly, this aspect also shows why biofuel production in developing countries, where green fuels can be made from crops that require far lower energy inputs (like sugarcane, cassava, jatropha or palm oil), can play a great role in lowering food production costs.

If farmers in the Global South, where food insecurity is rampant, were to produce biofuels en masse that would be used in agriculture itself (in tractors, harvesters, trucks, irrigation engines...), they could partially offset the effects of high energy prices on food production. This logic is a bit of a taboo amongst some, who refuse to see that agriculture and food production require many energy related inputs. Without low-cost energy, there is no low-cost food. In short, it makes sense to consider biofuel production in the South in light of boosting food production:
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But back to corn ethanol. About the recent news that US farmers are planning to plant more corn acreage next year, the IMF has this to say:
For 2007, the United States Department of Agriculture is estimating a record corn crop, as planting areas increase by 10 percent from 2006 at the expense of soybeans and cotton. Still, demand fueled by the increase in domestic ethanol production capacity is expected to outpace the production rise.
IMF economists also point out that the price of "partial substitutes" such as wheat and rice, as well as the price of meat and poultry, should trend upwards as a result of higher corn and soybean prices.

It is time for all of us - consumers, producers, investors and analysts - to be more open about the truly global effects of rising energy costs on food prices, and about the way biofuel production is currently organised. It makes no sense to subsidize and protect a small group of farmers at the detriment of not only millions of poor people in the South but of ordinary middle class consumers in the North.

Biofuels should be produced there where they can be produced in an efficient way, that is in sub-Saharan Africa, South America and South East Asia. We need to kickstart an industry there, because these fuels can help mitigate climate change, relieve poverty and - as indicated by the effects of energy prices on food production - increase the food security of poor people by lowering agriculture's dependence on costly fossil fuels.

In the South, biofuels production should start on two fronts simultaneously with two aims that do not contradict each other: (1) locally, in order to offset high energy costs in food production and to make basic mobility more affordable to the poor, and (2) with the aim of exporting to markets in the North, as a way to mitigate climate change and energy insecurity. These two simultaneous initiatives are synergetic and result in a win win situation for consumers in the West, and for the millions of people who face food shortages and poverty in the South. For this reason, biofuels investors should dare to think of their global responsibilities and dare to venture into Africa, Latin America and South East Asia, instead of digging themselves in behind the subsidy and tariff walls of fortress America and Europe.

More information:
The still highly relevant FAO publication on the energy costs of agriculture in Africa: Future energy requirements for Africa's agriculture - Rome, 1995.

IEA: World Energy Outlook 2004 Edition [*.pdf] - see Chapter 9 on "Energy and Development" for an overview of how biofuels could offset some of the impacts of high fossil fuel prices that are detrimental to the economies of developing countries.

IMF: World Economic Outlook - Spillovers and Cycles in the Global Economy [*.pdf] - April 2007.

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Germans research sorghum varieties for biogas production

Earlier we reported about British researchers who went on an expedition in Asia to collect different varieties of miscanthus, in order to analyse their potential for use as a bioenergy feedstock (previous post). Now German collegues are doing the same for sorghum, a genus of many different tropical grass species, often associated with semi-arid regions. Their aim: to study the plant as a dedicated energy crop for the production of biogas. (On the rising importance of large-scale biogas production in Europe, see here).

Researchers from the University of Applied Sciences in Bingen (South-West Germany), have collected and planted [*German] 160 different sorghum varieties from Africa and Asia in two test fields. Already in 2005, the agricultural extension services of the state of Rheinland-Pfalz did the same with two promising varieties and in Bingen, Emmelshausen and Herxheim near Landau, another 20 different sorghum species were grown in experimental plots.

The goal of this research is to study whether the drought tolerant crop can be made to adapt to the dry but relatively warm climate of South-West Germany. In the tropics, sorghums (mainly Sorghum bicolor) are grown for a variety of purposes: their grains are destined for human consumption, in some varieties the stalks yield large amounts of sugar (almost as much as sugarcane which does need far more water), and the residues are often burned by households as a source of energy for cooking. Some sorghums show a high total biomass productivity, which makes them an interesting energy crop: yields of up to 120 tons/hectare are not uncommon.

In Germany as well as in other parts of Europe, the production of biogas from dedicated energy crops has become routine. Most often, silage maize or purpose bred energy maize is used. But the search is on for crops that thrive in places where maize doesn't do well. Sorghums are candidates, as researchers from the North-Sea Bioenergy Partnership already found out:
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Rheinland-Pfalz's Agriculture Minister Hendrik Hering announced the state has invested €40,000 into the small sorghum project as part of an initiative to step up biogas production as a way to mitigate climate change. The research results should be available in 2009.

The different crops will be analysed for different qualities: their adaptability to the local climate, their biogas yield, the retention time they need in the anaerobic digester, their gas yield when they are used as a co-substrate with other feedstocks (such as manure) and their over-all yield potential under different growing circumstances. Likewise, their cold-tolerance will be studied as well as their role in rotations with other crops.

The state of Rheinland-Pfalz has hot and dry summers, when traditionally grown crops (like maize) require vast amounts of water (irrigation) to grow. If the tropical sorghum could step in during this season, land would become more productive and a large amount of water would be saved.

Images: grain sorghum grown in Sudan, a man pulls a cart of dried sorghum stalks to his home, where it will be used as an energy source. Courtesy: Südwest Rundfunk.

More information:
Südwest Rundfunk: "Tropen-Hirse als Energiequelle" - April 10, 2007.
Biopact: "North Sea Bioenergy partnership plants sorghum and sudangrass for biogas" - October 25, 2006.
Biopact: "France develops 'super maize' for biogas" - October 04, 2006.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Acciona to build 15MW biomass power plant in Castilla y León

Quicknote bioenergy investments
Madrid-based Acciona Energía, one of Europe's leading renewable energy companies, has announced [*Spanish] it is to build a 15MW biomass power plant that will produce electricity from agricultural residues. The company collaborates on the project with the Ente Regional de la Energía de Castilla y León (EREN).

The basic project data look as follows:
  • a 15MW plant that will burn herbaceous biomass recovered from local waste streams
  • the renewable energy generated will amount to 120 million kWh, equivalent to the energy consumption of 50,000 households in the Catilla y León region
  • the project will see an investment of €40 million
  • construction of the plant will begin in October this year; commercial exploitation will follow in the second semester of 2009
  • Acciona Energía is the majority shareholder in the company that has been created for the project, with the EREN and other regional institutions and companies sharing the remainder
The plant is to be located in Briviesca, in Burgos. This is the first power plant in the region that utilises 100% biomass as its energy source. When operating at full capacity, the biomass plant will require some 100,000 tons of herbaceous biomass per year.

Biomass supplies will be secured from the provinces of Burgos and Palencia, and in particular from the county of Bureba, where farmers will benefit from the added value of what is currently a waste stream. Acciona Energía is to sign large supply contracts directly with local farmers and cooperatives [entry ends here].
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'Bigger roads are good for the environment' - study

A study by an independent Norwegian research organisation, the SINTEF Group, shows that, contrary to common perceptions, bigger roads are 'good for the environment'. The issue of expanding road infrastructures is a major point of debate in the EU's drive towards a sustainable and low-carbon economy. Biofuels for (personal) transport are set to play a major role in this transition. But according to green groups who take a broader point of view, other forms of mobility - most notably rail and mass transit - are cleaner, more efficient and have lower carbon footprints.

The report was commissioned by the EU Road Federation (ERF) following criticism from green civil society organisations who call for the Union to curb the growth in road transport in favour of more sustainable transport systems, notably by spending larger chunks of EU money on rail and public transport, which emit three times less carbon dioxide than cars. The exchange was based on the recently published "Sustainable Roads - Discussion Paper" [*.pdf].

Drawing on the results of the SINTEF research, bundled in a report titled "Environmental Consequences of Better Roads" [*.pdf], the ERF now writes in its follow-up paper titled "Better roads good for the environment":
"More investment in road infrastructure is needed to remove bottlenecks, avoid city centres and complete missing links which together cost billions every year in lost fuel and undoubtedly contribute to the transport sector’s environmental footprint."
Using a traffic micro-simulation, SINTEF researchers showed, for example, that upgrading narrow, winding roads with modern ones or adding a lane to a congested motorway can yield decreases of up to 38% in CO2 emissions, 67% in CO emissions and 75% in NOx emissions, without generating substantially more car trips.

"Cases where road authorities and municipalities have deliberately restrained capacity to jugulate demand have been found to be environmentally counterproductive," concludes the ERF.

But the debate is far from over. There clearly is a clash between perspectives, with the green organisations taking the long view, whereas the ERF seems to focus on the current situation that it thinks needs immediate improvement:
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Magda Stoczkiewicz of the CEE Bankwatch Network said: "The EU should spend less on roads and more on alternatives to cars...Building road infrastructure inflates transport demand just as printing money creates inflation, and already the Czech Republic and Lithuania have more cars per person than rich Denmark."

The ten central and eastern European member states are planning to invest more than half of the €50 billion they will receive over the next seven years in EU aid for transport, under structural and cohesion funds, in new roads and motorways, while only 30% will be spent on railways and 10% on public transport.

Green NGO Friends of the Earth (FoEE) says that this will “generate more traffic and greenhouse emissions” and has urged the Commission to “take firm steps to prevent seven years and billions of euros being lost to energy-intensive development”.

But the ERF says that more money for roads is particularly needed in countries like Poland, where just 3% of roads are to Western standard, thereby resulting in higher emissions from car traffic and in a larger number of accidents on the roads.

More information:
SINTEF Technology and Society: Environmental consequences of better roads [*.pdf] March 30, 2007.
The European Union Road Federation (ERF): Better roads good for the environment [*.pdf] - April 10, 2007
The European Union Road Federation (ERF): Sustainable Roads - Discussion Paper [*.pdf]- (s.d.) April 2007
Friends of the Earth Europe and CEE Bankwatch Network: EU funding plans in clash with climate [*.pdf] April 11, 2007
Friends of the Earth Europe and CEE Bankwatch Network: "EU cash in climate clash" [*.pdf] (s.d.) April 2007
EurActiv: "Roads 'good for the environment', says study" - April 11, 2007.

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German company invests €57 million in biofuels in Ethiopia, to boost rural livelihoods

The biofuel opportunity is reaching some of the least accessible and poorest regions of the planet, namely the Oromia region in central Ethiopia. German company Flora Eco Power is investing what local people see as an 'enormous' 671 million birr (€57/US$77 million) in the Oromia Regional State to stimulate food and biofuel production in the region. Flora Eco Power will join four other firms in Ethiopia, a country rich with potential for growth in the sector. In light of high fossil fuel prices for which an alternative will become available, new employment opportunities and guaranteed incomes, excitement amongst local farmers is great.

Oromia is one of Ethiopia's nine ethnic divisions. 76% of the region's 24 million inhabitants depend on agriculture. Lack of market access and new market opportunities, poor agricultural skills, weak infrastructures and institutions, and high energy costs keep the region in abject poverty. Coffee production is the main source of income, but keeps farmers dependent on volatile world prices. The German biofuel venture opens new perspectives for crop diversification and increased income security.

The investment consists of the following objectives and numbers:
  • in first instance to produce biodiesel from castor seeds in the Oromia Regional State; castor is a hardy, drought tolerant shrub that thrives in degraded lands
  • to introduce new crop varieties of sorghum, maize, and sunflower specially bred for biofuel production
  • to reduce the region's dependency on foreign food aid and strengthening the food security of rural communities
  • the company has been granted 8,000 hectares of land by the Oromia Investment Commission
  • an additional 2,500 hectares for community farming in the Fadis and Miks woredas of the East Hararge zone were secured after a Memorandum of Understanding with the regional farmers' association was signed. The agreement contains a 5-year community farming contract. 700 farmers have already joined the project, providing 2 hectares of land each.
Flora EcoPower also signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Ethiopian Train Authority to have access to Dira Dawa railway station’s facilities, for storage and transportation to the Djibouti seaport.

The nursery that will grow the plants to be distributed amongst the farmers has meanwhile been established and is yielding its first results. The german entrepreneurs have also been granted an additional 15 hectares in Fadis worerda for the construction of the biofuel processing plant. The company has set aside a budget of 33 million birr (€2.8/US$3.8) to erect the plant and is importing farming equipment from India.

The biofuel project is set to create 4,000 farming jobs for poor farmers and 150 workers will be employed in the logistics and processing sector. Mohammed Ibrahim, aftercare and compensation execution coordinator at the Oromia Investment Commission said "Such a project has not been witnessed in the region before":
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He said that the company started operation before it had signed a contract with the region; it was also the first company that went there to invest in biofuel production. The plots were promised to the company, after which it proceeded to bring in construction machineries without waiting for contract. Following his initial activities, the entrepreneurs signed the contract with the region's authorities.

The company will distribute seeds to the farmers, who will plant them on the 2,500 hectares designated for community farming, and sell their produce to it. It has also promised to establish a school, clinic, and dig water wells. Yusuf Bedri, a resident in Fedis woreda, told a local newspaper that the company is already supplying water to the local communities using eight tanker trucks.

Ethiopia has been attracting bio-fuel investments since last year. The Ministry of Trade and Industry (MoTI) is presently coordinating experts from the Ministry of Mines and Energy, Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MoARD) and Ethiopian Oil Enterprise to study the kinds of incentives that could be provided for bio-fuel investors. There are now five biofuel companies in Ethiopia, including Sun BioFuel Ethiopia Plc, Becco and Green Power.

Flora EcoPower is also active in Israel and China where it is collaborating on the establishment of a 200,000 hectare jatropha plantation.

More information:

Fortune (Addis Abeba) (via AllAfrica): Ethiopia: German Co Invests Half Bln Birr Plus on Bio-Fuel - April 9, 2007.

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Greater Mekong Subregion endorses agro-energy plan that aims to help rural poor

Farmers, especially smallholders, and the rural poor of six nations stand to benefit from a new program that aims to foster cross-border trade and investment in agriculture, contribute to food security and poverty reduction, and promote environmental protection and sustainable use of natural resources in the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS).

The Core Agriculture Support Program (CASP) was endorsed by the agriculture ministers of Cambodia, the People’s Republic of China (Yunnan Province and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region), the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Myanmar, Thailand, and Viet Nam, which make up the Greater Mekong Subregion.

A major thrust of the CASP is to ensure that the benefits from new opportunities opening up in agriculture through biofuel crops and the attendant new technologies, and the opening of borders among GMS nations will be spread out equitably.

The Joint Statement of GMS Agriculture Ministers' Meeting states:
Our countries will have to deal with the challenges of increasing and sustaining productivity in traditional commodities, and transforming family farms into competitive agribusinesses through technological and institutional innovations to participate in production and export of high-value products, non-traditional crops, and value-added commodities. Furthermore, the landless poor, smallholder farmers and Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) should be strongly assisted to participate in the subregional value-chains on selected priority crops for food and biofuel.
This was the first time that the agriculture ministers of the six countries have come together. The meeting was hosted by the Government of the People’s Republic of China.

The program is the centerpiece of the Strategic Framework for Subregional Cooperation in Agriculture, which the agriculture ministers have approved. It is the latest in a series of cooperative strategies and programs among the six countries, which have been working together for their mutual benefit under the Greater Mekong Subregion Economic Cooperation Program since 1992 (earlier post - see under 'Regional integration and international cooperation').

A number of local and global developments present opportunities and challenges for the sector. In recent years the region has been marked by deregulation, opening of borders, and increasing trade, especially along economic corridors that crisscross the region:
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On the global scale the region is proving susceptible to increasing risks of transboundary animal and crop diseases, and vulnerable to the potential effects of climate change. World hydrocarbon prices are spurring interest in biofuels. Against such a backdrop, agriculture is now viewed not just as a source of food, but clean energy as well. While these developments present new opportunities for the sector, it has also resulted in serious concerns over the future food security in the subregion.

Small producers will need to adapt in this rapidly changing environment, and will need access to market information to be competitive. To assist them, the Beijing participants launched the Agriculture Information Network Service – part of a larger project on gathering, managing, and sharing agricultural information using innovative means of communication. The project, in which partnerships between public and private sector organizations will be a prominent feature, will also provide technology to farmers.

“The service is a landmark in providing agricultural information. It can benefit all the farmers in the subregion as well as development partners, managers, policy makers, traders, and the general public,” said China’s Agriculture Minister Sun Zhengcai, whose department is hosting the Agriculture Information Network Service.

Image: satellite image of forest cover in the Greater Mekong Subregion, as it can be found in the interesting "Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) Atlas of the Environment" produced by the Asian Development Bank for the GMS.

More information:
People's Daily: Joint Statement of GMS Agriculture Ministers' Meeting - April 10, 2007.
Earth Times: Asia to step up agriculture cooperation - April 9, 2007.

China Daily: GMS plan will help rural poor - April 11, 2007.

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AB Enzymes releases new enzyme for improved vegetable oil extraction

Germany based AB Enzymes has released a new addition, Rohalase OS, to its range of enzymes for processing vegetable oils. According to the company Rohalase OS now makes it possible to extract oil from seeds such as canola, sunflower and soy with reduced need for chemicals, while delivering a higher yield.

Enzymes are found in all living organisms - in microbes, plants and animals and of course also in human bodies. However, enzyme molecules are not living things themselves. They are biocatalysts which enable metabolic processes in the cells. Enzymes decrease the so-called activation energy for chemical reactions - the minimum energy required to enable a reaction to take place at all. They may speed up reactions by a factor of several millions. Enzymes are widely used in the food, feed and paper industry.

The biofuels industry makes use of the biocatalysts for the conversion of biomass into liquid or gaseous fuels. But enzymes are highly specific and will only react with a small number, sometimes only one, substance (called 'substrate specificity'). For this reason, biotechnological research is focused on identifying ever better enzymes for specific conversions of biological components (such as cellulose or vegetable oils). Contrary to harsh chemicals enzymes operate at mild conditions (temperature, pH, pressure), and because of their specificity they generate no harmful side-products. As natural proteins, enzymes are fully biodegradable. Enzymes are coded by genes within living cells and they consist of chains of 20 different amino acids. For the biological activity, the amino acid chain folds to form a complex, three-dimensional molecular structure (image).

Joerg Koehler, Business Unit Manager, Food and Specialties at AB Enzymes says the new enzymatic method for oil extraction enables higher yields and reducing energy consumption, and leads to cost savings for the vegetable oil and biodiesel industry:
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Rohalase OS can be applied at room temperature and simply be sprayed on to the seeds. The formulation of Rohalase OS is tailored for use 'as such', so no dilution or formulation steps need to be taken. Heat stable up to 80-85° C the use of Rohalase OS results in higher yields, reduced amount of oil in press cake, lower temperature at the press head and reduced energy costs. Also, using this method, oil degumming with Rohalase MPL becomes more effective due to higher removal of phospholipids.

Aryan Moelker, CEO of AB Enzymes said the new product fits well with the company's strategic focus on biofuels. In addition to oil based fuels, Moelker says the technology is ideally suited for biomass to ethanol conversion.

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Introducing the European Biomass Exchange

Several companies have contacted us lately with requests on where to secure biomass supplies or whether we own plantations ourselves (!) or sell seeds of particular crops. Needless to say, the Biopact is not a commercial enterprise so we do not trade any feedstocks, neither is it our intention to act as an intermediary. We do not sell any bioconversion technologies or agricultural inputs. And 'owning' or acquiring energy plantations is the last thing on our mind - we are a tiny volunteer organisation that merely wants to discuss the complexities of biofuels and highlight some of the chances the sector offers to the developing world...

A good thing about the requests we have received is that they do offer some interesing insights into how the nascent bioenergy sector is developing. From them, we retain the following points:
(1) there are no established global markets or trading floors for biomass, volumes are small and instruments like futures markets don't exist since the resource isn't a genuine commodity yet
(2) there are no standardised protocols for describing the chemical properties of tradeable biomass feedstocks (the sheer diversity of potential feedstocks would make some kind of database of properties come in handy)
(3) there are no clear criteria on the social and environmental sustainability of biofuels that would allow importers to assess the quality of their feedstocks with these important factors in mind
(4) formal certification of biofuels is only being considered in a few countries, even though the companies that contacted us understand the need for such rules and expect them to be introduced sooner rather than later (we hope so indeed),
(5) confusion about the classification of bioenergy feedstocks as 'commodities' is rampant, as is
(6) the question of duties and taxes on different types of imported biofuels; intermediaries and trading experts are not very visible in this sector
(7) similarly, there are very few dedicated bioenergy consulting firms or independent experts who can assist start-ups or help farmers diversify into the sector (if they are out there, they are not very visible)
(8) there are unrealistic expectations about the current size of the market, especially when it comes to solid biofuels in the form of agricultural residues from the South (such as oil palm kernels, coconut husks or olive press cakes), and of the logistics and trade mechanisms involved.

One example of a company's request illustrates how these factors come together and result in problems. The company in question is a bioenergy start-up in an EU member-state that is utilising solid biomass in a small district-heating system. Because it has not been able to secure enough local supplies, it wants to import miscanthus/wood chips/or cheap tropical residues with a particular heating value (cocoa/coconut husks) in bulk - at once, from anywhere, no questions asked, only a quote needed. Local biomass prices there apparently have skyrocketed, so the company searches 'globally'. This detail shows that business is rushing ahead of policy frameworks with regards to sustainability rules (in the case of miscanthus, the problem is probably not that outspoken). In the meantime, the capital cost of the venture is mounting; the investment has been made and must deliver on its potential today, and we quote: "but until this country is up and running in terms of production I will need to import". We have received numerous similar requests, showing similar difficulties.

At the same time, we receive many more questions from what we assume to be small producers from Africa, South East Asia and Latin America. Without being too prejudiced, upon reading these mails we had the feeling that some of these producers are working with very limited means, and are overly excited about "exporting biofuels"; our reply can only be that the market is very young, and that, in most cases, there are no infrastructures, procedures or logistical operations that make this kind of small scale exports competitive or feasible. Replies and further exchanges often confirm this basic assessment. We have advised some of these small producers to look into cooperating with local competitors, in order to achieve a bigger scale and synergies. A Nigerian farmers' association wants to know whether there is a market for low quality cassava chips in Europe, hoping there are ethanol producers here who would be interested - the offer is 50 tons. A Ghanese company wants to know how much it costs to pelletise forestry residues and whether shipping them unprocessed is cost-efficient, etc...

We are going to analyse these cases more in-depth and maybe organise a small survey questioning both the companies in the West, and the smaller potential suppliers in the South, to get a grip on what kind of very concrete challenges these parties are facing today.

For the time being, though, we can and have only recommended one source that may link these two different worlds: the European Biomass Exchange. This is a recently created EU-sponsored online trading floor that facilitates the trade in bioenergy feedstocks (such as forest wood and residues, biomass pellets and briquettes, bio-coal, and other types of solid and liquid biomass). We hope our correspondents find opportunities there.

To conlude: want to stress again that 'Biopact' does not sell or trade biomass, doesn't own 'energy plantations', does not sell any agricultural inputs like seeds, nor manufactures or sells pelletisers, biogas digesters or any other bioconversion technology. We appreciate the many questions we receive in this context, but when it comes to trade or actual production, we would advise correspondents to utilise more appropriate channels. It will save them time and energy. Finally, we can offer help with basic research on matters relating to biofuel policies in developing countries, broad analyses of local and regional potentials, basic agronomic analyses and social & environmental impact assessments of smaller projects, questions about access to European markets and overviews of global and regional trends in the market. In case we are not able to help, we forward requests to experts more knowledgeable about specific aspects of the bioenergy sector [entry ends here].
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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Snowy forests increase warming, while tropical forests cool the planet

Planting trees which trap and absorb carbon dioxide as they grow can help to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But a new study suggests that, as a way to fight global warming, the effectiveness of this strategy depends heavily on where these trees are planted. In particular, forests in the tropics are very efficient at keeping the Earth at a cool temperature, because not only do they store carbon, they also produce clouds that act like a mirror, reflecting sunlight back into the atmosphere. Planting trees in snowy areas on the other hand may worsen global warming as their canopies absorb sunlight which would otherwise be reflected by the snow, the study suggests. However, while the forests of Europe, Siberia and Canada may contribute to warming, the authors stress they are not advocating chopping down trees.

The researchers, including Ken Caldeira of Carnegie's Department of Global Ecology and Govindasamy Bala at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, report their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers' work simulates the effects of large-scale deforestation, and accounts for the positive and negative climate effects of tree cover at different latitudes. Protecting, reforesting and afforesting the tropics is strongly advocated:
Latitude-specific deforestation experiments indicate that afforestation projects in the tropics would be clearly beneficial in mitigating global-scale warming, but would be counterproductive if implemented at high latitudes and would offer only marginal benefits in temperate regions. Although these results question the efficacy of mid- and high-latitude afforestation projects for climate mitigation, forests remain environmentally valuable resources for many reasons unrelated to climate.
This is interesting news, because it may obliquely strengthen the case for bioenergy production based on energy trees planted in the tropics. Here's our take: a recent EU-report showed that both tropical Africa and Brazil have more than 92 million hectares of land that can be afforested and reforested with eucalyptus. Couple this potential to the concept of carbon-negative bioenergy ('Bio-Energy with Carbon Storage'), and we may have an extremely effective option to mitigate climate change. The advantages of such a system look as follows:
  • afforestation/reforestation with fast-growing trees in the tropics captures carbon from the atmosphere
  • as they grow, the trees produce dense tropical clouds that reflect the sunlight back into the atmosphere - this is called the 'albedo effect', the importance of which is stressed in the new study; we use the trees as temporary mirrors
  • once they are harvested, the trees are used as a solid biofuel for the production of energy, while the carbon dioxide captured from the atmosphere that would be released during the combustion is stored underground, in so-called carbon capture and storage (CCS) systems
  • the result is a highly efficient carbon-negative energy system that can power our societies while at the same time taking our 'historic' CO2 emissions - all the carbon dioxide from fossil fuels we pumped into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution - out of the carbon cycle; such a system cleans up the past
  • scientists have found that this kind of carbon-negative bioenergy concepts can take us back to pre-industrial CO2 levels by mid-century
Of course, much more research is needed into the actual albedo effect produced by fast-growing tropical energy trees that are harvested in (long) cycles; plantation trees may not produce the same effect as new forests that are left to stand permanently, as higher soil respiration fluxes resulting from decomposing organic material after crop rotation may offset the benefits:
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So far, we found very few studies focusing on the albedo effect of tropical energy plantations (there are several studies on this effect in extra-tropical plantations). One reference does suggests the following, though:
[on the micro-climate of plantations] There are also situations in which the forests are located in hilly regions along the coast and are subjected to a constant fog, which condenses on the canopy and falls to the forest soil adding to the rainfall level (Lima 1993). This effect also has been observed in some native eucalypt forests of Australia (Costin and Winbush 1961). This could indicate that Brazil's eucalypt plantations may have the same effects on the climate as a native forest located in the same region. Thus, the effect of planting a large area with eucalypts is likely to be the same as if other vegetation of similar structure and albedo were planted. In summary, certain research studies have shown that differences in the microclimate within eucalypt plantations may exist compared with those of other species and native forests, but the data are not conclusive (Poore and Fries 1985). - From a report by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Bioenergy Dept. [only accesible via *cache]: "Short-rotation eucalypt plantations in Brazil: environmental issues", s.d., s.l.
In any case, the author of the present study says this on the albedo effect of tropical trees in general: "When it comes to rehabilitating forests to fight global warming, carbon dioxide might be only half of the story; we also have to account for whether they help to reflect sunlight by producing clouds, or help to absorb it by shading snowy tundra."

Forests in colder, sub-polar latitudes evaporate less water and are less effective at producing clouds. As a result, the main climate effect of these forests is to increase the absorption of sunlight, which can overwhelm the cooling effect of carbon storage.

However, Caldeira believes it would be counterproductive to cut down forests in snowy areas, even if it could help to combat global warming. "A primary reason we are trying to slow global warming is to protect nature," he explains. "It just makes no sense to destroy natural ecosystems in the name of saving natural ecosystems."

More information:
G. Bala, K. Caldeira, et al, "Combined climate and carbon-cycle effects of large-scale deforestation" [*abstract], Published online before print April 9, 2007, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 10.1073/pnas.0608998104

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Environmentalist: palm oil not necessarily a failure as a biofuel, ban would be disastrous for the environment

Here at the Biopact, we were surprised to find an in-depth and very nuanced essay on why promoting sustainably produced palm oil based biofuel is wiser than calling for a simplistic 'moratorium'. Such a hypothetical import ban by the West on fuels made from the most productive energy crop would be far more disastrous for the environment than stimulating the production of eco-friendlier palm oil, even if it means expanding the sector. The main reasons: (1) palm oil employs millions of small farmers; taking away their livelihoods without providing realistic alternatives results in far more environmental destruction; (2) Asian demand is growing rapidly and only a sustainability offensive launched by the EU can bring a counter-weight; in order to kickstart this drive towards eco-friendlier production, more investments are needed in the sector, not less.

The essay was written by Rhett A. Butler, chief editor and researcher for Mongabay, a publication with a very strong record of promoting environmental sustainability, biodiversity and conservation, especially in the tropics. Butler develops a kind of reasoning we fully appreciate and understand. It is based on a pragmatic and realist vision, on strong knowledge of the social realities in the South, and on a deep analysis of the complex environmental economics of palm oil.

In particular, Butler argues against Marcel Silvius, a renowned climate expert at Wetlands International in the Netherlands, who recently said palm oil is 'a failure' as a biofuel because the deforestation it drives is responsible for greenhouse gas emissions. Butler sees this "not only as a misleading statement, more problematically, it doesn't help efforts to devise a workable solution to the multitude of issues surrounding the use of palm oil."

Let us summarise this battle between these two types of environmentalists - the idealist with irrealistic expectations and the pragmatic environmentalist who knows the field. We add some notes of our own.

Some basics and a taboo
Let us first describe some of the well known disadvantages and benefits of palm oil as a biofuel:
  • palm oil drives deforestation, illegal logging and biodiversity loss, but provides jobs to many of the world's poorest who have very few alternatives (around half of the world's palm fruit is produced by smallholders); on the other hand, biodiversity loss is irreversible, people losing their livelihoods (in case of a hypothetical ban on palm oil biofuels) is not; loss of income to the smallholder will however fuel a vicious socio-economic cycle that typically drives environmental degradation further (poverty, lack of investment in efficient agriculture leading to extensive forms of agriculture and ultimately to far more deforestation, etc...)
  • deforestation based on burning campaigns results in greenhouse gas emissions; there is however a strong taboo amongst some environmentalists that is not often discussed, namely the fact that oil palm trees, as they grow, recapture the carbon dioxide previously released and store more of it during their life-cycle than the original forest (up to twice as much); palm trees are more effective carbon sinks than pristine rainforests (the carbon dioxide released by the destruction of peatlands is another matter, though)
  • the carbon sink argument should not be misinterpreted; obviously nobody in his sane mind would advocate burning rainforests for the sole purpose of replacing them by a monoculture that happens to be more efficient at storing carbon; the point is that, there where forests have been cleared for non-palm related purposes, planting palm trees is a good idea
  • as Butler points out, a major benefit of palm oil, compared to other plants, is the fact that it is the most efficient energy crop known to man; it yields unsurpassed amounts of biomass feedstocks for biofuels (see table 1, click to enlarge); this means comparatively far less land is required for the production of a given amount of energy (compared with corn, this can be 10 times less); in a resource-constrained world, this is obviously an important factor
  • with the advent of second-generation biofuels, the vast amount of biomass produced by a palm plantation, but that is currently considered to be 'waste', becomes available for energy production; however, for these technologies and the production processes required to become commercially viable, more investments in the sector are needed, not less (see table 2, click to enlarge)
  • there is a great potential to intensify palm production (replacing old plantations with new high-yielding varieties, bringing better practises and skills to smallholder communities), to increase processing efficiencies and to create new markets and new value added products (such as bioplastics and second-generation biofuels from the vast stream of biomass residues); again, this requires more investments in the sector, not less; maintaining the current status quo would be disastrous for the environment, as it would fuel more extensive instead of intensive forms of production (more conversion of forest land instead of increasing yields on existing plantations)
Drawing on these basics, Butler writes:
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"Palm oil is quite obviously not a failure as a biofuel—it is derived from perhaps the most productive energy crop on the planet. A single hectare of oil palm may yield nearly 6,000 liters of crude biodiesel. In comparison, soybeans and corn generate only 446 and 172 liters per hectare, respectively. The problem with palm oil is not its yield, but how it is produced."
Presently much of the world's palm oil is coming out of the forests of Southeast Asia—increasingly in the biodiverse rainforests of Indonesia. Oil-palm cultivation has expanded in Indonesia from 600,000 hectares in 1985 to more than 6 million hectares by early 2007, and is expected to reach 10 million hectares by 2010. With such rapid growth—and room for expansion—Indonesia is expected to displace Malaysia as the world's largest producer of palm oil within a few years. Environmental groups say that clearing for oil-palm plantations is directly threatening key habitat for such endangered species as the orangutan, the Bornean Clouded Leopard, and the Sumatran Rhino as well as exacerbating illegal logging already rampant across the region. There is no dispute about this, these are facts.

Beyond forest-clearing for oil palm, palm-oil production often employs large amounts of fertilizer and generates hefty amounts of waste, which can pollute local waterways. An added threat comes from the conversion of carbon-rich peatlands for cultivation. Merely draining peatlands releases massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere—Silvius's own Wetlands International estimates that destruction of these ecosystems and forests in Indonesia alone releases some 2 billion tons of CO2 per year or 8 percent of total anthropogenic emissions of the greenhouse gas.

"So yes, as currently practiced, palm-oil production often has a significantly negative impact on the environment, but it's unlikely that oil-palm plantation development will slow anytime soon. Its continuing growth is due to (1) lack of economic alternatives in many areas where the renewable energy source is grown and (2) rising biofuel demand from China."
People under pressure
After large-scale deforestation in the lowlands and the importation of millions of people through poorly-executed transmigration programs, there are few economic options in most of Borneo and Sumatra, two islands where much of the current land conversion for oil palm is occurring. Having lost jobs in the forestry sector, many villages are faced with having to decide whether to give up the remaining forest for oil palm or continue with subsistence living. Oil-palm plantations are often viewed as offering the best economic potential, especially given rapidly expanding demand from China.

While policymakers debate in Brussels the impact of biofuels, it seems clear that in the future China is going consume far greater amounts of biodiesel than Europe. With demand for cars surging and the country facing energy supply constraints and pollution problems, China appears to be ramping up for a massive expansion of diesel car production. Where is the diesel fuel to power these vehicles going to come from? Smart bets are on oil palm in southeast Asia and soybeans in the Amazon. Why else would state-backed Chinese firms be bankrolling oil-palm development in Indonesia and infrastructure projects linking coastal South America to the heart of the Amazon? The potential of close-to-home oil-palm plantations is simply too alluring.

Butler calls upon Europe to take the lead in a drive towards more sustainable palm oil production. This will require huge investments, but the dark alternative is a shift of markets, away from the very EU that could push for sustainability, and towards East Asia.

Offering palm oil producers a carrot
Since demand for palm oil isn't going to go away, Butler says:
"Europe's best approach is to convince Indonesian oil-palm producers to cultivate their crop in a manner that's less damaging to the environment, as exemplified by the Roundtable on ustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). This won't be done by hand-holding or Kumbaya circles; it will be done through financial incentives—if no one is demanding "green" palm oil, no one will produce it. Europe should inform producers that it is willing to buy a set amount of palm oil (in billions of liters per year), provided that it is independently certified as having been produced in an environmentally friendly and socially equitable way. Europe may even want to offer a minimum price guarantee to satisfy producers that it intends to hold up its side of the bargain."
With scaled-up production and reduced government subsidies (see below), it may turn out that sustainable palm-oil production isn't as costly as we've been led to believe. Further, a guaranteed market for eco-friendly palm oil will provide opportunities for innovation that could further reduce costs.

Europe should engage the Indonesian government as well. It should urge Indonesia to eliminate subsidies for oil-palm plantations grown on natural forest lands, ban development of peatlands, and set aside primary forests for conservation in exchange for funds reflecting the value of the carbon emissions avoided.

Europe's sustainability initiative should be comprehensive:
"Since neither the United States nor China is going to take the lead on this issue, Europe should not miss the opportunity to do so. In a place where there are few economic opportunities for large numbers of rural people living in a degraded landscape, green biofuels could go a long way toward addressing poverty, the environment, and global climate change. Figuring out a way to plant oil palm across the vast stretches of deforested wasteland in Indonesia could be immensely beneficial to local populations as well as the environment—palm-oil plantations sequester more carbon and support vastly more species of wildlife than barren land. Now's the time to act. Almost everyone will be better off from greener palm oil."
Butler hints at current initiatives that are worth supporting, like the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and the attempts by firms like Golden Hope Plantations Berhad, a Malaysian palm-oil producer, to cultivate the crop in a manner that helps mitigate climate change, preserves biodiversity, and brings economic opportunities to desperately poor rural populations.

What would be the basics of such an initiative aimed at radically greening palm oil production? Butler lists several of them:

Conserving natural forests
The most important step in reducing the environmental impact of palm oil is banning the establishment of oil-palm plantations in natural forest areas and peatlands. Oil-palm cultivation in both these areas does more harm than good, either through the reduction of biodiversity and ecological services (natural forests) or through the release of massive amounts of carbon dioxide (peatland conversion). Oil-palm plantations should be encouraged on existing agricultural lands and areas that have been heavily degraded and deforested.

Retaining natural forest cover is particularly important near oil-palm plantations where forest serves as a refuge for predators of oil-palm pests and can help reduce soil erosion on hillsides and water catchment areas, while slowing and reducing water runoff.

Minimizing haze
Every year a choking haze spreads across large parts of Southeast Asia. While most of this results from peatland and forest fires, some of the pollution is produced by vegetation burning on oil-palm plantations. This impact can be reduced using "zero burning replanting" techniques pioneered by Golden Hope Plantations.

Instead of burning stands of unproductive oil palm, Golden Hope cuts and shreds them and lets them decompose. This helps fertilize the soil for future crops—shortening the fallow period and lessening the need for chemical fertilizers—and reduces both "haze" and greenhouse-gas emissions. Further, under zero-burning techniques, land-clearing is cheaper ($300-400 per hectare saved in replanting costs) and independent of weather conditions. Concerns over increased risk of beetle infestation can be abated by using leguminous cover crops, which also fix nitrogen and enhance the soil.

Pest control
Monocultures in tropical climates often suffer from pest problems—oil-palm plantations are no exception. Generally, plantation owners are heavy users of pesticides that pollute waterways and affect local wildlife.

Golden Hope has taken a different approach. It has reduced its use of chemicals by focusing on biological control, including the use of beetles, birds, and fungi to deal with common oil-palm pathogens. Golden Hope builds owl boxes to attract rodent-eating barn owls and plants native tree species to draw bats and other insectivores. When pesticides are determined absolutely necessary, the company employs highly selective application of insecticides to control the worst outbreaks. Because it relies on early detection of pests, large-scale applications are rarely needed.

Palm-Oil Mill Effluent (POME)
Waste generated by the pressing of palm fruit during crude palm-oil production is a general problem for processors. While these compounds are non-toxic, they can't safely by discharged into local waterways due to their high acidity. Golden Hope addresses this issue by treating raw POME with anaerobic bacteria that break the effluent into methane (which can be recaptured as fuel), carbon dioxide, and water. The company holds the treated POME for longer than average and uses it as a substitute for inorganic fertilizer. Golden Hope also composts empty fruit bunches and other wastes from the production process, further diminishing the need for petroleum-based fertilizers.

Other techniques
In many parts of Indonesia, where plantation expansion is the fastest, there are serious concerns over the impact of oil palm on the water table. Golden Hope tries to minimize this risk by carefully managing water use through reservoirs and irrigations systems. To cut erosion, the company uses terracing and creeping leguminous covers, which also improve soil biodiversity and fertility.

Golden Hope encourages reforestation in forested reserves, on steep slopes, and on land near catchment areas, using native species—especially those with commercial, medicinal, culinary, and ecological value. Regarding these planted areas, the company says it aims to "enhance their attractiveness and ability to sustain fauna diversity by planting food tree species already endemic in the areas" and "encouraging resting by migrating birds by building perches and retaining dead tall trees."

Their effort seem to be paying off: surveys have recorded 268 species of flora and fauna, including 87 birds and 11 mammals, in oil-palm plantations. While this is lower than those found in primary or even secondary forest areas, it represents an improvement over barren land or other monocultures.

Expanding on these concepts for concessions in other parts of Malaysia and Indonesia, governments should encourage the recovery of developed secondary forests for recreation, biodiversity, and carbon value. Through some sort of carbon-trading or "avoided deforestation" mechanism, it may be possible to compensate these firms for forest conservation efforts. Beyond this direct monetary incentive, secondary forests can yield sustainable forest products and other ecological services for plantation workers and local communities.

Social Justice
Some of the biggest problems associated with palm oil production are social. While there is no doubt that oil-palm plantations provide much-needed employment opportunities in Indonesia—especially Borneo, which is used as an example in the next paragraphs—there are questions on the fairness of the existing system, which appears to sometimes lock small plantation owners into conditions akin to slavery.

Given the scarcity of timber in parts of Borneo, much of its population has few economic options at present. Oil palm seems to be the best alternative for communities that are just eking a living off rubber cultivation, subsistence rice farming, and fruit gardens. When a large agricultural firm enters an area, some community members are often eager to become part of an oil-palm plantation. Since these people lack legal title to their land, deals are often structured so that they acquire 2-3 hectares (508 acres) of land for oil-palm cultivation. They typically borrow some $3,000-6,000 (at 30 percent interest per year) from the parent firm for the seedlings, fertilizers, and other supplies. Because oil palm takes roughly seven years to bear fruit, the community members work as day laborers at $2.50 per day on mature plantations, according to Dr. Lisa Curran, a biologist who has spent more than 20 years in Borneo. In a series of papers, she has documented the emergence of oil-palm plantations on the island. While the community members are working in established plantations, their own plots generate no income but require fertilizers and pesticides, which are purchased from the oil-palm company. Once a plantation becomes productive, the average income for a two-hectare allotment is $682-900 per month. In the past, rubber and wood generated $350-1000 month, according to Curran. The low level of income, combined with large start-up costs and relatively high interest payments, virtually ensures that small holders will be perpetually indebted to the oil-palm company.

Curran said this debt, combined with almost total dependence on entities they barely trust, has a psychological impact on communities. Because there are no ways to contest actions by the company, conflicts invariably arise within communities, especially when a large part of the community has opposed the plantation. (Dayaks often oppose oil-palm schemes.) At times under-the-table means are used to sway a community. For example, a gift of a motorbike can win over influential community leaders. Once the oil-palm firm gets the approval, it may negotiate on a one-on-one basis with each household, eliminating any sort of bargaining power of the greater community.

Surveys by Curran suggest that communities in West Kalimantan are deeply concerned about flooding after the establishment of oil-palm plantations. They also worry about loss of forest resources and culture—older community members don't always like the idea of women and children working on plantations. Oil-palm cultivation also makes local people more dependent on agricultural firms, since they no longer grow their own food. Finally, some communities have expressed dissatisfaction about working for Malaysians. They would rather be working independently, according to Curran. While they have a litany of complaints, few see other alternatives.

Meanwhile oil-palm firms are making a fortune. By Curran's calculations, some firms in West Kalimantan are seeing a 26 percent annual internal rate of return over a 25-year period, an astounding number. Because of booming demand for biofuels, they have little downside risk.

Butler concludes by saying that:
"Given this situation, it is critical that sustainable oil-palm production include social justice for local people. Governments should work to ensure that there are standard contracts to guarantee basic legal rights to land and universal codes that prevent unfair lending practices. In especially remote areas, large oil-palm firms should be asked to pay some of the costs for health care and education of workers and their families.

These steps can help make oil-palm production more equitable and environmentally friendly. Done right, the world's most productive biofuel can go a long way towards improving the quality of life for millions of rural poor."

Image 1, credit: Mongabay.
Image 2: cc, Biopact, 2007.

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Malaysian company thinks it can produce 6.48 billion liters of ethanol from Nipah

Fresh news about that 'mysterious' energy crop called Nypa fruticans (also known as 'nipah' or 'mangrove palm'): Pioneer Bio Industries Corp Sdn Bhd (PBIC) claims it will be able to produce a startling 6.48 billion litres (1.7 billion gallons) of nipah palm ethanol per year when its planned refineries in Malaysia's North-Western Perak State begin operations in 2009. This amount is roughly equal to 780,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day.

Earlier, the same company had announced a far lower projected output of around 1 billion liters (previous post and here).

At the Biopact we understand the potential of nipah, a very robust palm that thrives in most tropical mangrove systems, because we are cooperating with a small NGO in Nigeria, where the plant has invaded vast tracts of the Niger Delta. The aim of the small project is to alleviate the rampant poverty that plagues the mangrove communities, by building a 'cottage' ethanol industry around the palm and to link it up with larger production facilities (earlier post).

Ethanol can be obtained from fermenting the sugar-rich sap that can be tapped continuously from the trees' inflorescence. Nipah has a very high sugar-rich sap yield. According to one study (earlier post), the palm can produce 6,480-15,600 liters of ethanol per hectare, compared to 3,350-6,700 liters/hectare from sugarcane. Others go so far as to estimate potential ethanol yields to be as high as 20,000 liters once plantation management is optimised. However, the tapping technique is labor-intensive and it remains a question whether production can be scaled up that easily.

Apparently, the malaysian company thinks it is possible. Speaking at a media briefing titled ambitiously "National Biofuel Project based on Ethanol from Nypa Palm - Industrial Project Investment and Solution for Solving Global Warming", Chairman Md Badrul Shah Mohd Noor put the venture into a larger perspective:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

He indicated that ethanol demand of the United States alone stood at 22 billion litres last year, and that the biofuel is forecast to provide 30% of global energy by 2020, up significantly from only two per cent last year.

Giving details about the nipah project, Mr Badrul Shah said the Perak state government has awarded the company the rights to harvest nipah sap on 10,000 hectares of land, for which it has to pay 324 million ringgits (€70/US$94 million) per year. (A quick calculation shows that this would only result in 200 million liters of ethanol, maximum. The question is: where will the other 6.28 billion liters come from? Earlier, the company said it would establish dedicated plantations, besides tapping sap from wild stands. This matter remains very vague.)

PBIC, a subsidiary of Pioneer Vaccination Biotech Corp Sdn Bhd, holds the patent to produce ethanol from nipah palm sap. Md Badrul Shah said the company will sign a multi-billion dollar contract with a major international company in July to supply nipah-based ethanol over a five-year period.

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Researchers look at key drivers of China's bioenergy strategy

Researchers from the East-West Center, a leading research organization promoting relations and understanding among the peoples and nations of Asia, the Pacific, and the United States, analysed China's motivations for investing massively in bioenergy. Kang Wu, a senior fellow at the East-West Center, and Caleb O’Kray, an EWC degree fellow and Ph.D. candidate in agricultural and resource economics at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, looked at how Chinese officials are trying to increase the efficiency and economy of renewable energy production, especially liquid biofuels and biomass.

China has huge potential to develop renewable energy such as small hydropower, commercial biomass, biofuels, wind power, solar energy, and other sources, but the researchers say Beijing is facing big challenges. Their findings are the result of a year-long study of the situation and extensive interviews with Chinese policy makers.

China's bioenergy plan is part of the latest Five Year programme and is aimed at replacing 12 million tons of oil by liquid biofuels by 2020. When it comes to solid biofuels, no targets have been set, but co-firing with coal is being studied intensively and supported by the EU. According to first estimates, biomass from agricultural residues can replace 100 million tons of coal per annum.

According to Wu and O'Kray, the Chinese are pursuing biofuels for three main reasons:
  • They want to alleviate poverty in rural areas; bioenergy production can be a driver to close the growing income gap between the urban rich and the rural poor that has led to serious social tensions
  • They want to decrease energy dependence on imported fossil fuels and thus improve energy security
  • They want to reduce carbon emissions; because China is mainly a coal-fired country, it is rapidly becoming the world's largest emissions contributor; bioenergy offers part of a cleaner solution
To a certain extent, Beijing has been successful. O’Kray in particular points out that “China has already solidified itself as a major player in biofuels, trailing only Brazil and the United States in net biofuel production and consumption.”

Oil price uncertainty
But, according to the researchers, despite the promising future China still faces tremendous challenges, the biggest among them being “uncertainty of oil prices, feedstock supply, and government policies.” Liquid biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel are married to the price of oil:
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Wu and O’Kray point out that while oil prices are high, “history suggests that they may drop at times, which (would) render some biofuel investment projects uneconomical,” slowing down development. Feedstock supply will be greatly effected by land limitations and food security issues, the researchers note. “With their unique history, Chinese desire secure food supplies,” and despite the many variables involved, “arable land availability and regional water supply issues (may) pressure officials into thinking twice before unilaterally expanding feedstock and biofuel production.”

“The biofuels industry,” O’Kray and Wu also point out, “is currently married to government subsidies and official support.” And despite a tilt toward the biofuel sector at the expense of other renewable energy sources, “government policies have delivered contradicting messages leaving many investors and developers at odds.”

Bioenergy to correct failed rural policies
The two point out that China is serious in increasing its renewable energy sources, especially biofuels, but they say other factors beyond energy may also be at play. A push toward biofuels could “help the State recover from failed agricultural planning policies by drawing down the large supplies of decaying feedstock and crops in the countryside".
And, they add, “A reduction in energy dependence on fossil fuels could also improve China’s energy supply structure, and biofuel development could help Beijing earn a needed improvement in its reputation in the international community by showing a willingness to reduce global carbon emissions.”

Whatever the reasoning behind the move into renewable energy, Wu and O’Kray foresee a bright future for China. But they caution that “while there are many budding industries and sources of biomass energy in China, in the long-term economic feasibility will be the determining factor,” and that “market and scientific uncertainty (still) enshrouds China’s biofuels future."

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Monday, April 09, 2007

The bioeconomy at work: heat conducting bioplastic for electronic devices that performs better than stainless steel

The goal of bioplastics researchers is not only to develop cleaner and renewable clones of petroleum-based products, but even to surpass them and give them superior qualities. NEC Corporation has announced it succeeded in such a feat by developing a completely new kind of bioplastic composed of plant-based material and carbon fiber, which realizes heat conductivity higher than that of stainless steel. The innovative bioplastic is expected to make electronic products more environmentally sound, while solving conventional heat release issues.

The new bioplastic follows NEC's development of a kenaf fiber-reinforced PLA composite that realizes high heat resistance and strength (this composite is already being used in a biodegradable mobile phone commercialized by NEC - see image). In addition, NEC has also discovered how to add flame retardancy - without using toxic flame retardants - and shape memory to polylactic acid (PLA), the feedstock for bioplastics which is obtained from starch.

The features of the new bioplastic are as follows:
  • Creation of a cross-linked structure of carbon fiber through use of a unique binder in the PLA resin achieves high heat diffusion (with carbon fiber of 10% and 30% the heat diffusion ability of the new bioplastic composite is comparable to and double that of stainless steel respectively). This enables good heat conductivity in the plane direction of the PLA resin board, which is a characteristic conventionally difficult to attain in metal boards.
  • The composite is extremely environmentally friendly as it is mainly composed of biomass-based components including the binder (the biomass ratio exceeds 90%, excluding inorganic components such as the carbon fiber).
  • The strength and moldability of the composite have been fundamentally verified for use in electronic products.
NEC's newly developed bioplastic composite in the housings of electronic products easily releases the heat generated from electronic parts with high temperatures through whole housing surfaces, while slowing up an increase in the temperature of the housings near parts.

Recently, small-sized electronic products such as mobile phones and personal computers have suffered heat-release issues due to an increase in the amount of heat being generated from electronic parts. However, conventional heat-release devices such as fans and sheets are difficult to incorporate as products become smaller and slimmer:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

In electronic product housings, the use of heat-conductive metals is considered to be one alternative to plastic for improving heat release, however, heat conductivities in the thickness direction of metal boards are too high and can cause partial or rapid increase in the temperatures of housings near electronic parts that have high temperatures, causing unnecessary anxiety to the user.

Attempts have been made to increase heat release from whole parts of housings by using heat-conductive plastics. However, previous heat-conductive plastics have had the disadvantages of low moldability, as well as high densities and costs, as they contain large amounts (more than 50%) of heat-conductive fillers such as fibers or particles made from carbon and metals. Therefore, a new kind of heat-conductive material has been long sought after to solve these issues.

On the other hand, however, recent bioplastics made from renewable plant resources, including PLA, have been enjoying increasing attention as new environmentally friendly materials and are now starting to be used in electronic products. But, PLA has low heat conductivity like current petroleum-based plastics and many of its practical characteristics are also lower than those of petroleum-based plastics.

The new bioplastic that achieves high heat conductivity has been enabled by new technology for carbon-fiber cross-linking with a unique biomass-based binder, which were both realized at NEC's fundamental and environmental research laboratories.

NEC will continue to develop these technologies toward realization of mass production of the bioplastic composite by the end of the fiscal year ending March, 2009, after which it will start to use the composite in housings of electronic products and seek out new applications.

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Thai ethanol producers stuck with surplus

From Thailand comes an interesting story on how the new green fuel paradigm that is conquering the world is going through birth pains. Lack of planning, weak policy frameworks, and a steep learning curve to understand market drivers are typical for emerging industries. Local ethanol producers in Thailand, for example, have failed [*cache] to persuade the South East Asian nation's Energy Ministry to replace all octane 95 gasoline with E10 (locally called 'gasohol 95'), a 10% ethanol-mixed gasoline, even though they claim that ethanol supply exceeds demand by 200%. The reason for the Ministry's refusal is the fact that car manufacturers have not yet given guarantees that the blend does not harm older car engines. Flex-fuel cars, which make up 75% of all cars in biofuel leader Brazil, have not yet penetrated the Thai market either.

This fact, in combination with other factors such as the lack of export mechanisms, makes Thai ethanol producers face surpluses. Thailand has seven ethanol plants with a combined capacity of 955,000 litres per day. Actual production is 905,000 litres per day, according to Phichai Tinsuntisook, chairman of the Federation of Thai Industries' renewable energy industry club. Overall capacity would grow to 2.17 million litres per day while actual production would increase to 1.95 million litres by the end of 2007 once eight new ethanol producers begin operating.

However, domestic demand for ethanol is currently only about 350,000 litres per day, based on E10 consumption of 3.5 million litres. Mr Phichai said: "Motorists consume 4.5 million litres per day of octane 95 gasoline. So, if the fuel is taken off the market, E10 consumption will increase to eight million litres per day, which would increase ethanol demand to 800,000 litres per day."

The ousted Thaksin Shinawatra government - popular amongst rural classes and the poor - actively encouraged investment in ethanol plants and feedstock production, telling the industry it intended to stop sales of the premium gasoline, which would result in much higher demand for E10. However, after the military coup last year, the interim government said octane 95 gasoline would remain on the market as long as there were cars that could not use E10:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Only Thai Alcohol Co Ltd is licensed to sell its products in the liquor market so most alcohol plants have no alternative sales channels. In addition, they cannot yet export their products because larger and very well established Brazilian producers offer lower ethanol prices, made possible by smooth logistical and trade chains.

At present, Brazilian prices are used as the reference for ethanol trades between oil companies and Thai ethanol producers. From April to June this year, the reference price is 18.62 baht per litre, compared with 19.33 baht during the first three months of the year, said Mr Phichai. "The government should help ethanol producers. They have tried their best to reduce production costs to meet the reference price level, which dropped 36% from 25.30 baht in October last year," he said.

However, Pornchai Rujiprapha, the Energy Ministry's permanent secretary, disagreed. He said that ethanol producers took advantage when ethanol supply was insufficient near the end of last year to raise the price to 28 baht per litre, doubling their price at the time. As a result, oil companies chose to import cheaper ethanol. He also said that the government continued to promote E10 consumption even though octane 95 gasoline was not eliminated from the local market.

"I don't think local ethanol producers should request any subsidy at the moment," said Mr Pornchai. Energy Minister Piyasvasti Amranand said ethanol producers should persuade car manufacturers to offer warranty coverage against problems arising from older vehicles that use gasohol.

"I will take octane 95 gasoline off the market immediately if car manufacturers offer warranties on old cars," he said. "But, if they refuse, is it fair to let hundreds of thousands of car owners suffer from the elimination of premium gasoline while a small number of ethanol producers enjoy benefits of the ban?" Boonsong Kerdklang, deputy director-general of the Energy Policy and Planning Office, added that local ethanol producers are free to export surplus output if they can find customers willing to pay.

Thailand's ethanol is primarily made from cassava and sugarcane.

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Eco-Tec and Apollo Environmental Systems join forces to market biogas purification technology

Eco-Tec announces it has created a new sales and marketing division, Eco-Tec Gas Processing, in conjunction with its exclusive licensing rights of Apollo Environmental Systems Limited's proprietary gas cleaning technology.

Eco-Tec has acquired rights for a biogas scrubbing technology developed by Apollo Environmental Systems, which is focused on removing hydrogen sulfide (H2S) from biogas. The agreement includes multiple patents for and acquired knowledge of specific applications to purify methane and other gases. The recovery and purification process allows biogas produced through anaerobic digestion to be used more cost-effectively for power, steam, or heat generation. This energy recovery results in dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

The news is interesting in the context of the rising interest in feeding purified biogas into natural gas grids, where the removal of trace gases like H2S is a precondition (see earlier).

Biogas is a mixture of methane (CH4) and carbon dioxide (CO2) and is often contaminated with toxic quantities of hydrogen sulfide (H2S). Reducing H2S levels in biogas reduces sulfur dioxide emissions, reduces equipment corrosion and fouling, offers cost savings associated with lower maintenance requirements, and results in greater energy recovery. Removal of hydrogen sulfide can improve the economic feasibility of energy recovery by reducing maintenance and operating cost for equipment handling the biogas.

The technology acquired by Eco-Tec is a biogas scrubbing process for the removal of H2S and particulate matter from biogas as it is produced: a high efficiency gas-liquid contactor that has as its basis an impeller-shroud mixing device. The scrubber removes H2S from a gas stream using a regenerating scrubbing solution in a dual-tank system. Gases containing up to or over 20,000ppmv H2S and at a flow rate of 100 to 5000 ACFM, are routed through a scrubbing vessel where more than 98% of the H2S is extracted with an aqueous scrubbing solution which uses well known iron redox chemistry. The regeneration vessel uses atmospheric oxygen to convert H2S from the scrubbing solution to elemental sulfur that is non-hazardous and can be disposed of safely with biosolids, as a fertilizer or in a landfill. The regenerated scrubbing solution is returned to the scrubbing vessel (see diagram, click to enlarge):
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Anaerobic digestion processes take place in facilities such as municipal waste treatment plants, landfills, food processing facilities, and livestock farms. More and more often, though, biogas is produced in large plants that use dedicated energy crops as feedstocks. Each facility type has various levels of H2S, and all can be easily and economically removed from the produced biogas with Eco-Tec's new system.

The innovative biogas scrubbing technology was invented by researchers from the University of Toronto's Department of Chemical Engineering & Applied Chemistry. All of Eco-Tec's products offer high purification and recovery in a simple package with proven reliability. The key characteristics of the newly acquired technology provide a synergistic addition to the product line, offering economical solutions to address industrial operating needs and sustainable development.

For over 30 years, Eco-Tec has addressed environmental preservation through its many recovery and purification products. Eco-Tec is an award- winning, globally recognized manufacturer of water purification and chemical recovery systems for industrial operations. Eco-Tec provides proven integrated technologies that offer significant cost reduction and superior process efficiency. Eco-Tec's products have been installed in more than 1500 systems worldwide.

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Pakistan launches study of biomass residues and conversion technologies

To diversify its energy basket and lessen dependency on costly imported fuels, Pakistan's national Planning Commission has approved a research project worth 295 million rupiah (€3.6/US$4.8 million) to explore new sources of biofuels.

Besides determining key parameters about energy crops and bioconversion technologies, the public-private project, part of the Energy Security Action Plan, would also work on the production of ethanol and methane gas from lingocellulosic biomass over the next three years. Pakistan has abundant sources of biomass in the form of agricultural residues such as wheat straw, rice straw, cotton sticks, bagasse, corn stover, corn cobs and various other crops.

According to an FAO study, the country has a total agricultural residue base of around 84 million tons of biomass (field based and processing based), not taking into account residues from forestry (see table, click to enlarge). Taking a rough average of 15GJ of energy per air dry ton, the total amount of energy contained in this resource is around 1.26 Exajoules or 206 million barrels of oil equivalent energy. If all this biomass were to be collected and converted using current bioconversion technologies (with a total efficiency of around 20%), Pakistan could generate around 252 Petajoules of clean and renewable energy each year (for more info on residue-to-product ratios of different residue streams and their energy content, see earlier post).

In short, Pakistan's agriculture generates a lot of energy that is currently not used for the production of biofuels and bioenergy; most of it is burned in the open air, resulting in CO2 emissions, or left to waste. Looking at the crop residues as a renewable and green energy source with a market value is set to increase the profitability of Pakistan's farming sector. But to make such a paradigm shift a reality, a lot of work remains to be done, as stated in the project file, which lists the research objectives:
  • production of thermostable and high specific activity celluloses at a minimum cost
  • pretreatment of plant biomass including kallar grass, bagasse, corn cobs for saccharification by enzymes
  • utilization of sugar in fermentation process to produce alcohol by action of improved yeasts
  • development of microbial consortia for economic conversion of the pentose rich residual matter to produce methane gas
  • undertaking study the possibility of using the nitrogen-rich residual mater obtained from methanogenesis as a fertilizer
  • scaling up the processes of pretreatment, enzyme production, saccharification, alcohol fermentation and methanogenic fermentation for ultimate large scale operation;
  • development of feasibility for large-scale application on the basis of the results obtained from implementation of this project for perspective entrepreneurs
Four leading laboratories cooperate in the study: the National Institute for Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering (NIBGE) in Faisalabad, the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Punjab in Lahore, the Institute of Industrial Biotechnology in Lahore, and PCSIR laboratories in Lahore. Shakarganj Sugar Mills Ltd in Jhang would also take part in the research process:
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The Economic Coordination Committee (ECC) of the cabinet has meanwhile approved E10 fuel (90 per cent gasoline and 10 per cent ethanol) on an experimental basis in the cities of Islamabad and Karachi a few months ago. Several sugar mills are already producing ethanol from molasses.

Biogas and CNG

The country is also looking specifically into biogas technologies: millions of small-scale plants have been installed in India, China and other countries in the region like Nepal, and Sri Lanka, but Pakistan, which could produce more than one billion gallons of ethanol annually from molasses, would also develop a process from laboratory to pilot-scale for the conversion of this resource into biogas.

The use of biogas is helpful in improving the quality of household life further by providing a clean burning gas that can replace firewood. It can also be utilised in internal combustion engines for water pumping, small industries like floor mills, saw mills, oil mills and in CNG-capable cars.

Pakistan is an example of how government policies can create a new car fleet and fuel paradigm in a very short time: in less than 2 years time the country has replaced 15% of its entire car fleet with CNG-capable cars (15% of a volume that has been growing very rapidly - making the achievement even more noteworthy). In absolute numbers: it has hit the 1 million mark. Vehicle conversions to CNG are clipping along at the rate of more than 40,000 per month. And the country now has 930 CNG stations operational with another 200 under construction (earlier post).

More information:
Pakistan Government: Home Planning Commission.

Daily Times: Bio-energy production: Govt plans to use biomass plants - March 24, 2007.

FAO, Auke Koopmans and Jaap Koppejan: "Agricultural and forest residues - generation, utilization and availability" [*.pdf], Paper presented at the Regional Consultation on Modern Applications of Biomass Energy, 6-10 January 1997, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, FAO, 1998, - see Annex II.

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Ethanol eases pain of EU sugar reform for African, Caribbean and Pacific countries

The European Union has been subsidizing sugar farmers in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific (so-called ACP countries) for decades. Under the ACP/EU Sugar Protocol, signed in 1975, nineteen countries receive guaranteed access to the EU market for fixed quantities of ACP sugar at preferential prices.

The Sugar Protocol has been hailed the world over as a model for development cooperation, as it has brought significant benefits to the economies of small and vulnerable ACP countries. But it has also been criticised because it was based on enormous subsidies that distorted markets. Guaranteed sugar prices have consistently been above twice the market price.

Calls for reform of the EU's Common Agriculture Policy, and specifically of the sugar sector, resulted in a drastic restructuration: a 36 percent cut in the guaranteed minimum sugar price spread over the next 4 years, generous compensation for farmers and, crucially, a Restructuring Fund as a carrot to encourage uncompetitive sugar producers to leave the industry. Intervention buying of surplus production will be phased out after four years as well. Developing countries will continue to enjoy preferential access to the EU market at attractive prices, but those ACP countries which need it will be eligible for an assistance plan worth millions of Euros.

Many of the developing countries that enjoyed the preferential, subsidised price do fear that Sugar Reform will push them out of business. Thousands of their farmers are preparing to abandon production alltogether. A large number of jobs is expected to be lost in the sector.

Ethanol to the rescue?
But the global ethanol boom has given the complex problem a whole new perspective. Suddenly, developing countries that were expected not to survive in the open market are now optimistic once again. An example comes from Jamaica, where the depressing phrase "sugar is dead" is gradually disappearing from the vocabulary of globalisation. What is more, the Jamaican government now even sees a "promising future" in the production of sugarcane-based ethanol and its potential to revitalize agriculture in this Caribbean nation.

Donovan Stanberry, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture and Lands, in a recent statement: "The world is seeing that ethanol is a big thing and ... the prospect of what we can earn from ethanol is simply going to be mind-blowing." He is now actively encouraging farmers who planned to step out of the industry to make a U-turn:
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Stanberry says sugarcane ethanol, which fuels cars and residues of which (bagasse) can be used to generate renewable electricity, would also help the Caribbean country cope with high global oil prices.

In 2005, the Jamaican government announced a plan to restructure the island's ailing sugar industry to focus production more on ethanol, raw sugar, and molasses. But the majority of the Caribbean nation's cane fields remain focused on sugar and Jamaica was been squeezed by the recent reductions in sugar subsidies by the European Union for producers in the Caribbean, Africa and the Pacific.

Addressing farmers at a recent meeting in Morant Bay, St. Thomas, the Permanent Secretary said "the world is seeing that ethanol is a big thing and as we ready ourselves for privatisation, the prospect of what we can earn from ethanol is simply going to be mind blowing," he said. The Secretary added that overseas conglomerates were constantly making requests for parcels of land in excess of 15,000 hectares to plant sugar cane.

Mr. Stanberry told the farmers that even if Jamaica did not go into ethanol production, the fact that Brazil, one of the largest sugar cane growers, was moving out of sugar production and into ethanol, meant that Jamaica would have an opportunity to fill the gap for sugar on the world market created by Brazil's withdrawal.

"The prices for sugar are going to rise to such an extent, that they will reduce the negative impact of the European Union's impending 36 per cent reduction," he said.

With St. Kitts announcing that it was coming out of sugar production and its quota to the European Union being allocated to CARICOM, Mr. Stanberry said it was unfortunate that Jamaica might not be able to capitalise on that opportunity, because the sector's production capacity was not enough.

"What we need in Jamaica's sugar industry is the planting of more cane for whatever reason, sugar or ethanol, and to plant it in a very efficient way, so that we can increase our yields. Despite claims that sugar is dead, this is not so; in fact I can safely say that sugar has a bright prospect," he said.

More information:
Jamaica Information System: Permanent Secretary Urges Farmers to Plant More Sugar Cane - April 5, 2007.

BusinessWeek: Jamaica promotes sugarcane-based ethanol - April 7, 2007.

BBC: EU sugar reform splits exporters - June 25, 2005

APC Sugar: African, Caribbean and Pacific Sugar Group website.

European Commission, Agriculture / CAP reform: Reform of the Sugar Sector website.

Sucre Éthique / Ethical Sugar: organisation working towards sustainable and socially responsible sugar, website.

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Sunday, April 08, 2007

EU research project looks at feeding biogas into the main natural gas grid

The biogas sector is undergoing a rapid transformation in Europe. Whereas green gas production used to be an activity associated with individual farms and community waste management programs, it has been scaled up to become an industry that produces quantities large enough to be fed into the main natural gas grid. More and more, dedicated biogas crops (such as specially bred biogas maize, exotic grass species such as Sudan grass and sorghum, or new hybrid grass types) are being utilized as single substrate feedstocks for large digester complexes, and biogas upgrading to natural gas standards is becoming more common.

Research indicates that the potential for biogas to replace natural gas is very large in Europe. Some studies in fact estimate that by 2020 the EU could replace all gas imports from Russia and produce some 500 billion cubic meters (17.6 trillion cubic feet) of gas equivalent biogas per year. The idea is to build 'biogas corridors': energy farms, biogas plants and purification installations would be established close to Europe's central gas pipelines (map, click to enlarge) so that the energy crops can be digested locally and injected into the grid without going through complex logistical chains (earlier post). Because biogas made from energy crops is a highly efficient biofuel (it yields far more energy per hectare than liquid biofuels) and has very low lifecycle CO2 emissions it is receiving substantial political support.

In this context the natural gas industry in Europe knows it must prepare for the advent of an era in which it will have to partner with many different biogas producers. After all, there is already a European legal framework (Directive 2003/55/EC *.pdf) which aims to open the existing grid for gas from sources other than natural gas, including biogas. It states:
"Member states should ensure that, taking into account the necessary quality requirements, biogas and gas from biomass or other types of gas are granted non-discriminatory access to the gas-system, provided that such access is permanently compatible with the relevant technical rules and safety standards. These rules and standards should ensure, that these gases can technically and safely be injected into, and transported through the natural gas system and should also address the chemical characteristics of these gases" - European Directive 2003/55/EC
A European research project led by the European Gas Research Group (GREG), a pan-European consortium of major natural gas organisations and universities (see below), and GasUnie Engineering & Research, a division of the Nederlandse Gasunie, one of Europe's leading gas infrastructure companies, is now examining this future and aims to assess the challenges ahead. 'BONGO' as the project is called ('Biogas and Others in Natural Gas Operations') is a proposition filed under the 7th European Framework Program (FP7) and will run for 5 years. The motivation behind the project can be summarised as follows:
As the initial composition, and consequently the physical and chemical properties, of biogas differ significantly from those of natural gas, the organizations involved in the chain of transmission-distribution-end user should be prepared to cope with biogas. In order to be able to use biogas widely in domestic, residential and industrial applications, the technical consequences and, in particular, the safety and pipeline integrity aspects related with the addition of biogas to natural gas need to be addressed. As biogas will be an increasingly important fact of life in Europe in the near future, and as the potential problems associated with it are very complex and broad, it is in the interest of the European natural gas industry that this issue be tackled jointly and in strong collaboration with all stakeholders.
With networks becoming increasingly interconnected, a pan-European approach and a common position on the definition of technical rules and safety standards for biogas injection is required.

Upgrading biogas to NG quality
A key technology for injection of biogas into the natural gas grid is upgrading of the biogas to natural gas quality after which it can be compressed to transport grid pressure. Biogas consists of around 50 to 65% of methane, small fractions of other compounds and 50 to 35% of carbon dioxide, which has to be removed before injection. (Earlier we pointed out why this large CO2 fraction makes pre-combustion carbon capture from biogas an interesting option in the context of carbon capture and storage, which results in the concept of a radical carbon negative energy system - previous post).

Four main technologies are currently in use to separate the methane from the CO2:
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Membrane separation technology: commonly used in the petrochemical industry, membranes can separate methane and carbon dioxide because of the different sizes of the molecules of both compounds. However, because the difference is rather small, the separation is not absolute and part of the methane contained in the raw biogas is lost.

Pressure Swing Adsorption (PSA)
: this technique makes use of the different adsorption capacity of methane and carbon dioxide in fluids. Under pressure raw biogas is pushed through an adsorber which captures the carbon dioxide but allows the methane to pass through. Once the adsorber is saturated, carbon dioxide begins to pass through, a moment at which the adsorber's operation is halted and the carbon dioxide removed under a vacuum. This vacuum pushes the methane simultaneously through another adsorber (hence the 'swing'), after which the cycle starts again. PSA is very effective at separating both compounds completely.

Cryogenic separation: a promising technology that is based on the different boiling points of methane and carbon dioxide. By cooling raw biogas, its carbon dioxide becomes solid (through sublimation) and methane of a high purity is obtained. The byproduct of the cryogenic operation - solid carbon dioxide, also called 'dry ice' - has useful applications in industry and a value as a commodity. However, the cryogenic separation technique is currently in a demonstration phase and not applied to biogas on a large scale yet.

Gas scrubbing systems or absorption: based on the way gas compounds phase change into a liquid, which is dependent on their solubility in the fluid. By adding chemical compounds to the washing fluid, the solubility of the gases to be separated can be enhanced. Carbon dioxide can be scrubbed by water, while methane can be washed by methanol or monoethanolamine (MEA).

Upgrading on digestion gas has been practiced since 1935 and, in Germany, there was large scale injection into the gas grid between 1982 and 1999. Since 1992 there has also been injection into the gas grid in Sweden, Switzerland and the Netherlands. Injection currently only occurs in local distribution gas grids, though. In these cases, relatively small volumes are added, at low pressures, mostly for domestic end-users. As far as is known, no major problems have been reported related to the addition of biogas to natural gas.

However, biogas has never been injected in the main transmission grid. Since working pressures are much higher, the types of pipeline materials are different and the variety of end-users is much bigger; consequently the requirements on the composition of the biogas must be much more stringent.

BONGO will therefor address questions that are of major importance for industrial end-users, such as:
  • what happens with the microbiological components in the biogas when the gas is not burned?
  • how do these components affect the pipeline integrity?
  • how are flame temperature and combustion influenced by different components?
The further goals of the BONGO project are to define quality specifications for biogas access to the gas transport system. This is done by performing risk assessments in order to fill the gaps in knowledge concerning the addition of large volumes of biogas in the existing natural gas system, in order to ensure that:
- the system entry;
- the storage;
- the transmission and distribution;
- the utilization; can be performed safely and with acceptable consequences for:
- the integrity of the existing natural gas grid;
- operational, safety, health and technical consequences for the end user (systems);
- the value of the product as a feedstock;

Meanwhile, since the FP7 program will not start until 2007, preliminary ‘short-term’ studies will support activities. In particular, gas distribution companies find themselves faced with solving urgent problems regarding the injection of biogas. These studies will be performed under the name of BINGO, 'Biogas In Natural Gas Operations'. The focus will be on anaerobic digestion gases and end-use applications, not on pipeline integrity. There will be a strong connection with state-of-theart injection sites in distribution grids in Sweden, Switzerland and the Netherlands to learn from their experiences, to perform measurements, study requirements, etc. These actions are to be supported by national grants.

The project will be managed by the Gasunie, which leads a consortium from representatives from the European natural gas industry, research institutes and universities, Marcogaz and GERG. The partners of this consortium include Advantica (UK), European Environmental Consortium (Belgium) North Energy (UK), DEPA S.A. (Estonia), GasNatural (Spain), National Technological University of Athens, DGC (Denmark), Gasunie (Netherlands), SVGW (Switzerland), DVGW (Germany), Gaz de France (France), Synergrid (Belgium), Enagas (Spain) GERG (EU), TAGUS Gas (Portugal), EnergieNed (Netherlands), (Portugal), University of Warwick (UK), E.ON-Ruhrgas (D), Marcogaz (EU).

In the same context, the Dutch research organisation SenterNovem recently published a study on the potential to feed biogas into the natural gas mains of the Netherlands. It indicates that by 2020, the natural gas producing country can replace 10% of its gas consumption by green gas.

Image: freshly harvested energy crops await their entry into the large biogas digesters seen in the background. Credit: Der Standard, Austria.

More information:

Van Burgel, M., O. Florisson, D. Pinchbeck, Biogas and Others in Natural Gas Operations (Bongo), [*.pdf] presented at the 23rd World Gas Conference, Amsterdam.

SenterNovem: Groen Gas: Gas van aardgaskwaliteit uit biomassa ('Green Gas: Gas of Natural Gas Quality From Biomass') [*Dutch, .pdf], January, 2007.

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Strong bioethanol growth in the EU: 71% production increase in 2006

The European Bioethanol Fuel Association (eBIO) has released data [*.pdf] about ethanol production in 2006. They show a strong growth: total production was around 1.56 billion litres (412 million gallons), an increase of 71% compared to 2005 production.

This is good news for countries in the Global South who are thinking of establishing export-oriented biofuel industries. For such trade to succeed, the creation of a working bioethanol market and appropriate infrastructures in the EU is of course a precondition. Compared to the market for biodiesel - where Europe is the global leader - the market for ethanol was relatively small. But this is now changing.

eBIO reports that highest production (see table, click to enlarge) was achieved in Germany (431 million litres) where production has tripled, followed by Spain (402 million litres). France too has seen a strong growth because of additional government support measures. Strong increases also in Poland and Italy. The latter is almost exclusively because of wine alcohol processing. There was no change in the number of Member States producing bioethanol fuel. However, in Finland there was no bioethanol fuel production in 2006 and for the Czech Republic there was production for the first time. The total number of ethanol producing countries therefore stays at 11:
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This year and certainly in 2008 eBIO expects an increase in the number of member states where production of bioethanol fuel will take place. EU consumption of bioethanol fuel in 2006 is estimated at just over 1.7 billion litres. Imports from Brazil are estimated at just over 230 million litres. Countries of destination were Sweden, the UK and Finland. In the latter this was for the production of ETBE.

eBIO is a non-profit European industry association under Belgium law. It is
fostering bioethanol fuel production and use in the EU as well as advocating the
proper legal and regulatory framework. eBIO was Founded in May 2005 and
has 33 members.

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