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    Vietnam has won the prestigious EU-sponsored Energy Globe award for 2006 for a community biogas program, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development announced. ThanhNien News - April 13, 2007.

    Given unstable fossil fuel prices and their negative effects on the economy, Tanzania envisages large-scale agriculture of energy crops Deputy Minister for Agriculture, Food Security and Cooperatives, Mr Christopher Chiza has said. A 600 hectare jatropha seed production effort is underway, with the seeds expected to be distributed to farmers during the 2009/2010 growing season. Daily News (Dar es Salaam) - April 12, 2007.

    Renault has announced it will launch a flex-fuel version of its Logan in Brazil in July. Brazilian autosales rose 28% to 1,834,581 in 2006 from 2004. GreenCarCongress - April 12, 2007.

    Chevron and Weyerhouser, one of the largest forest products companies, are joining forces to research next generation biofuels. The companies will focus on developing technology that can transform wood fiber and other nonfood sources of cellulose into economical, clean-burning biofuels for cars and trucks. PRNewswire - April 12, 2007.

    BioConversion Blog's C. Scott Miller discusses the publication of 'The BioTown Source Book', which offers a very accessible introduction to the many different bioconversion technologies currently driving the bioenergy sector. BioConversion Blog - April 11, 2007.

    China's State Forestry Administration (SFA) and the China National Cereals, Oils and Foodstuffs Import & Export Corp., Ltd. (COFCO) have signed a framework agreement over plans to cooperatively develop forest bioenergy resources, COFCO announced on its web site. Interfax China - April 11, 2007.

    The Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock of El Salvador is speeding up writing the country's biofuels law in order to take advantage of the US-Brazil cooperation agreement which identified the country as one where projects can be launched fairly quickly. The bill is expected to be presented to parliament in the coming weeks. El Porvenir - April 11, 2007.

    ConocoPhillips will establish an eight-year, $22.5 million research program at Iowa State University dedicated to developing technologies that produce biofuels. The grant is part of ConocoPhillips' plan to create joint research programs with major universities to produce viable solutions to diversify America's energy sources. Iowa State University - April 11, 2007.

    Interstate Power and Light has decided to utilize super-critical pulverized coal boiler technology at its large (600MW) new generation facility planned for Marshalltown, Iowa. The plant is designed to co-fire biomass and has a cogeneration component. The investment tops US$1billion. PRNewswire - April 10, 2007.

    One of India's largest sugar companies, the Birla group will invest 8 billion rupees (US$187 million) to expand sugar and biofuel ethanol output and produce renewable electricity from bagasse, to generate more revenue streams from its sugar business. Reuters India - April 9, 2007.

    An Iranian firm, Mashal Khazar Darya, is to build a cellulosic ethanol plant that will utilise switchgrass as its feedstock at a site it owns in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The investment is estimated to be worth €112/US$150 million. The plant's capacity will be 378 million liters (100 million gallons), supplied by switchgrass grown on 4400 hectares of land. PressTv (Iran) - April 9, 2007.

    The Africa Power & Electricity Congress and Exhibition, to take place from 16 - 20 April 2007, in the Sandton Convention Centre, Johannesburg, South Africa, will focus on bioenergy and biofuels. The Statesman - April 7, 2007.

    Petrobras and Petroecuador have signed a joint performance MOU for a technical, economic and legal viability study to develop joint projects in biofuel production and distribution in Ecuador. The project includes possible joint Petroecuador and Petrobras investments, in addition to qualifying the Ecuadorian staff that is directly involved in biofuel-related activities with the exchange of professionals and technical training. PetroBras - April 5, 2007.

    The Société de Transport de Montréal is to buy 8 biodiesel-electric hybrid buses that will use 20% less fuel and cut 330 tons of GHG emissions per annum. Courrier Ahuntsic - April 3, 2007.

    Thailand mandates B2, a mixture of 2% biodiesel and 98% diesel. According to Energy Minister Piyasvasti Amranand, the mandate comes into effect by April next year. Bangkok Post - April 3, 2007.

    In what is described as a defeat for the Bush administration, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled [*.pdf] today that environmental officials have the power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions that spur global warming. By a 5-4 vote, the nation's highest court told the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to reconsider its refusal to regulate carbon dioxide and other emissions from new cars and trucks that contribute to climate change. Reuters - April 2, 2007.

    Goldman Sachs estimates that, in the absence of current trade barriers, Latin America could supply all the ethanol required in the US and Europe at a cost of $45 per barrel – just over half the cost of US-made ethanol. EuroToday - April 2, 2007.

    The Kauai Island Utility Cooperative signed a long-term purchase power agreement last week with Green Energy Team, LLC. The 20-year agreement enables KIUC to purchase power from Green Energy's proposed 6.4 megawatt biomass-to-energy facility, which will use agricultural waste to generate power. Honolulu Advertiser - April 2, 2007.

    The market trend to heavier, more powerful hybrids is eroding the fuel consumption advantage of hybrid technology, according to a study done by researchers at the University of British Columbia. GreenCarCongress - March 30, 2007.

    Hungarian privately-owned bio-ethanol project firm Mabio is planning to complete an €80-85 million ethanol plant in Southeast Hungary's Csabacsud by end-2008. Onet/Interfax - March 29, 2007.

    Energy and engineering group Abengoa announces it has applied for planning permission to build a bioethanol plant in north-east England with a capacity of about 400,000 tonnes a year. Reuters - March 29, 2007.

    The second European Summer School on Renewable Motor Fuels will be held in Warsaw, Poland, from 29 to 31 August 2007. The goal of the event is to disseminate the knowledge generated within the EU-funded RENEW (Renewable Fuels for Advanced Powertrains) project and present it to the European academic audience and stakeholders. Topics on the agenda include generation of synthetic gas from biomass and gas cleaning; transport fuel synthesis from synthetic gas; biofuel use in different motors; biomass potentials, supply and logistics, and technology, cost and life-cycle assessment of BtL pathways. Cordis News - March 27, 2007.

    Green Swedes want even more renewables, according to a study from Gothenburg University. Support for hydroelectricity and biofuels has increased, whereas three-quarters of people want Sweden to concentrate more on wind and solar too. Swedes still back the nuclear phase-out plans. The country is Europe's largest ethanol user. It imports 75% of the biofuel from Brazil. Sveriges Radio International - March 27, 2007.

    Fiat will launch its Brazilian-built flex-fuel Uno in South Africa later this year. The flex-fuel Uno, which can run on gasoline, ethanol or any combination of the two fuels, was displayed at the Durban Auto Show, and is set to become popular as South Africa enters the ethanol era. Automotive World - March 27, 2007.

    Siemens Power Generation (PG) is to supply two steam turbine gensets to a biomass-fired plant in Três Lagoas, 600 kilometers northwest of São Paulo. The order, valued at €22 million, was placed by the Brazilian company Pöyry Empreendimentos, part of VCP (Votorantim Celulose e Papel), one of the biggest cellulose producers in the Americas. PRDomain - March 25, 2007.

    Asia’s demand for oil will nearly double over the next 25 years and will account for 85% of the increased demand in 2007, Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) officials forecast yesterday at a Bangkok-hosted energy conference. Daily Times - March 24, 2007.

    Portugal's government expects total investment in biomass energy will reach €500 million in 2012, when its target of 250MW capacity is reached. By that date, biomass will reduce 700,000 tonnes of carbon emissions. By 2010, biomass will represent 5% of the country's energy production. Forbes - March 22, 2007.

    The Scottish Executive has announced a biomass action plan for Scotland, through which dozens of green energy projects across the region are set to benefit from an additional £3 million of funding. The plan includes greater use of the forestry and agriculture sectors, together with grant support to encourage greater use of biomass products. Energy Business Review Online - March 21, 2007.

    The U.S. Dep't of Agriculture's Forest Service has selected 26 small businesses and community groups to receive US$6.2 million in grants from for the development of innovative uses for woody biomass. American Agriculturalist - March 21, 2007.

    Three universities, a government laboratory, and several companies are joining forces in Colorado to create what organizers hope will be a major player in the emerging field of converting biomass into fuels and other products. The Colorado Center for Biorefining & Biofuels, or C2B2, combines the biofuels and biorefining expertise of the University of Colorado, Colorado State University, the Colorado School of Mines, and the Colorado-based National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). Founding corporate members include Dow Chemical, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Shell. C&EN - March 20, 2007.

    The city of Rome has announced plans to run its public bus fleet on a fuel mix of 20 per cent biodiesel. The city council has signed an accord that would see its 2800 buses switch to the blended fuel in order to cut greenhouse gas emissions and local air pollution. A trial of 200 buses, if successful, would see the entire fleet running on the biofuel mix by the end of 2008. Estimates put the annual emission savings at 40,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide. CarbonPositive - March 19, 2007.

    CODON (Dutch Biotech Study Association) organises a symposium on the 'Biobased Economy' in Wageningen, Netherlands, home of one of Europe's largest agricultural universities. In a biobased economy, chemistry companies and other non-food enterprises primarily use renewable materials and biomass as their resources, instead of petroleum. The Netherlands has the ambition to have 30% of all used materials biobased, by 2030. FoodHolland - March 19, 2007.

    Energy giants BP and China National Petroleum Corp, the PRC's biggest oil producer, are among the companies that are in talks with Guangxi Xintiande Energy Co about buying a stake in the southern China ethanol producer to expand output. Xintiande Energy currently produces ethanol from cassava. ChinaDaily - March 16, 2007.

    Researchers at eTEC Business Development Ltd., a biofuels research company based in Vienna, Austria, have devised mobile facilities that successfully convert the biodiesel by-product glycerin into electricity. The facilities, according to researchers, will provide substantial economic growth for biodiesel plants while turning glycerin into productive renewable energy. Biodiesel Magazine - March 16, 2007.

    Ethanol Africa, which plans to build eight biofuel plants in the maize belt, has secured funding of €83/US$110 million (825 million Rand) for the first facility in Bothaville, its principal shareholder announced. Business Report - March 16, 2007.

    A joint venture between Energias de Portugal SGPS and Altri SGPS will be awarded licences to build five 100 MW biomass power stations in Portugal's eastern Castelo Branco region. EDP's EDP Bioelectrica unit and Altri's Celulose de Caima plan to fuel the power stations with forestry waste material. Total investment on the programme is projected at €250/US$333 million with 800 jobs being created. Forbes - March 16, 2007.

    Indian bioprocess engineering firm Praj wins €11/US$14.5 million contract for the construction of the wheat and beet based bio-ethanol plant for Biowanze SA in Belgium, a subsidiary of CropEnergies AG (a Sudzucker Group Company). The plant has an ethanol production capacity of 300,000 tons per year. IndiaPRWire - March 15, 2007.

    Shimadzu Scientific Instruments announced the availability of its new white paper, “Overview of Biofuels and the Analytical Processes Used in their Manufacture.” The paper is available for free download at the company’s website. The paper offers an overview of the rapidly expanding global biofuel market with specific focus on ethanol and biodiesel used in auto transportation. It provides context for these products within the fuel market and explains raw materials and manufacturing. Most important, the paper describes the analytical processes and equipment used for QA testing of raw materials, in-process materials, and end products. BusinessWire - March 15, 2007.

    Côte d'Ivoire's agriculture minister Amadou Gon has visited the biofuels section of the Salon de l'Agriculture in Paris, one of the largest fairs of its kind. According to his communication office, the minister is looking into drafting a plan for the introduction of biofuels in the West African country. AllAfrica [*French] - March 13, 2007.

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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:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

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:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

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:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

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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