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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 21, 2007

Shell and Powerfuel sign agreement for coal gasification and carbon capture

Coal company Powerfuel announced that it has signed a licence agreement with Shell which entitles it to use Shell’s proprietary gasification technology in its proposed 900MW IGCC coal fired power station at Hatfield, South Yorkshire. The purpose of this approach is to enable carbon capture and storage (CCS) to take place at the lowest cost using pre-combustion capture techniques applied to gasified coal.

We report on this development, because it confirms our finding that of call carbon capture methods, pre-combustion carbon capture from gas is the most feasible and low-cost technology currently available. This technology can not only be applied to fossil fuels (gasified coal, natural gas) but just as well to gasified biomass or, even more interestingly, to biogas.

CCS applied to bioenergy results in a the world's only carbon negative energy system - so-called 'Bio-Energy with Carbon Storage' (BECS). Scientists think that if BECS were to be applied on a massive scale, the concept can take us back to pre-industrial CO2 levels within a few decades only. BECS effectively negates our 'historic' CO2 emissions; no other energy concept is carbon negative - renewables like solar or wind are carbon-neutral at best, whereas CCS applied to fossil fuels is slightly carbon-positive. BECS however is radically carbon-negative. Moreover, the concept is also far safer and cost-effective than risky and costly geo-engineering concepts aimed at mitigating global warming (like seeding the oceans with iron to cause artificial algae blooms, pumping sulphur into the atmosphere to create a cooling blanket, or launching millions of mirrors into space to reflect sunlight).

Finally of all CCS routes, those based on using carbon-neutral biomass are the safest; there are still considerable risks involved in storing CO2 under ground, leakage being the most problematic one. Now if the CO2 that is sequestered were to come from carbon-neutral biomass and it were to leak, there would be no net increase in the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. If sequestered CO2 derived from fossil fuels would begin to leak, the contrary would be true.

In short, for all these reasons, developments in CCS technologies are of interest to bioenergy advocates who understand the major advantages of BECS. In an earlier piece, we looked at applying carbon capture options to biomass and concluded that pre-combustion capture of CO2 from biogas is probably the most feasible path. The agreement between Shell UK and Powerfuel Plc roughly confirms this finding:
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From the press release:

"Coal gasification [read 'biomass gasification'] is the cleanest method for converting coal’s [biomass's] energy potential into electricity. The process takes coal and turns it into a hydrogen-rich synthesis gas, which, in this case, will facilitate the separation of the carbon dioxide pre-combustion in the turbine generators. It is this factor which offers a lower cost approach to carbon capture. The hydrogen rich stream could also potentially be used in clean transportation and in substitution of natural gas, as well as electricity production on site."

Other, more costly carbon capture techniques are either based on trapping CO2 after combusiton of the fuel, or during the combustion.

Richard Budge, Chief Executive of Powerfuel Plc, said “We are delighted to be working with Shell in our vision to be the first commercial-scale coal fired power generator with carbon capture in the world. Success in this project would be enormously significant for UK and EU energy policy as it offers the benefits of a local, inexpensive fuel, improved security of electricity supply and very low carbon emissions. This agreement maintains our leading position in the development of carbon capture from coal fired electricity generation in the UK.”

Peter de Wit, Shell Gas & Power Executive Vice President, Global Businesses, said: “Shell is at the forefront of developments in clean coal and our leading-edge technology is clean, efficient and reliable. Today’s agreement with Powerfuel is the second we have signed in Europe in less than a year and is the first in this region for a project incorporating carbon capture and storage from the outset. The deal signals a further expansion of our clean coal business outside of China, where we have sold 15 gasification licences over the past five years.”

Powerfuel Plc has already received section 36 government consent for a part of this project. Engineering work will now proceed to the conclusion of a full FEED (front end engineering design) package, following which construction is expected to take 3 – 4 years. Discussions are continuing with third parties with a view to the construction of a pipeline to transport CO2 from Humberside, an area with very large carbon dioxide emitters, to secure storage sites in the North Sea.

Mr Budge further commented “We await the design and publication of the government’s competition to support one or more CCS projects because we believe that our project represents the lowest cost approach to the important challenges that face the electricity industry in this country and overseas.”

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UN environment chief backs EU's biofuels plan, urges environmentalists to drop 'simplistic' views

The UN’s top environment official has backed an ambitious European Union plan to require the blending of plant-based biofuels into road fuels despite what he calls "simplistic" critiques by some environmentalists that this will automatically lead to increased deforestation in south-east Asia and Brazil.

Achim Steiner, head of the UN Environment Prog­ramme (UNEP), said on Thursday that biofuels were needed to reduce global dependence on fossil fuels. Increased consumer awareness, he said, would eventually force producers of palm oil and soya used in biofuels to adopt more sustainable production methods, while other biofuel feedstocks with a far lower environmental footprint [sorghum, cassava, jatropha, sweet potatoes, sugarcane and second generation biofuels] will be adopted more widely in the future.

The top expert said curbing greenhouse gas emissions by using biofuels is one of the most effective means to fight climate change and to reduce poverty in the South. Not investing in green fuels may result in far bigger ecological damages than some of the environmentalists think. Dependence on fossil fuels is detrimental to the economy of poor countries and fuels poverty, which results in increased pressures on the environment. Biofuels can turn this situation around.

The top environment chief of the UN, who attended a meeting on business and the environment in Singapore on Thursday, suggested these environmentalists' efforts to curb biofuel development reflected a “sledgehammer” approach and were based on “simplistic” views:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

One of the returning points of critique made by some environmentalist groups is that the production of some biofuel feedstocks (palm oil, soya) leads to deforestation. But Mr Steiner said there were multiple causes for the burning of forest land, including clearing space for agriculture, and that biofuels should not be solely blamed for the problem.

Plant-based biofuels have been promoted to help fight global warming, and south-east Asian countries, particularly Indonesia and Malaysia, are expanding production of palm oil as a main ingredient in their production.

Palm oil plantation companies have been blamed for burning down forests in Indonesian Sumatra and Borneo and so contributing to a growing annual smog problem in the region. A recent UK-funded report found Indonesia was the world’s third-largest carbon emitter behind the US and China, largely because of the forest fires.

Even though these findings are scientifically incorrect, because they do not take into account the carbon sequestered in palm oil plantations which neutralise the carbon emitted by forest clearance, Mr Steiner acknowledged Indonesia could do more to protect forests and promote sustainable development. But he said biofuel consumers in Europe and elsewhere were becoming aware of the problem and would demand that biofuel producers be certified as engaging in sustainable production.

The UN Environment Chief predicted that biofuel producers and governments would co-operate in establishing international standards to certify sustainable production. A group of palm oil producers recently formed the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil to set up a certification process, while palm oil producers in south-east Asia and soya producers in Brazil have established partnerships with environmental groups to develop sustainable criteria.

More information:
Financial Times: UN backs biofuel despite fears of deforestation - April 20, 2007.

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Air liquide acquires Lurgi to speed up biofuels and hydrogen production

French group Air Liquide, the leading producer of industrial gas technologies, has announced [*French] the acquisition of German engineering company Lurgi, owned by the Global Engineering Alliance (GEA Group AG). The acquisition is worth around €550/US$749 million. The operation is currently being screened by the European and American competition authorities.

With nearly 1,300 employees and total sales of around €850 million in 2006, Lurgi has a particularly large portfolio of technologies, from producing hydrogen and synthesis gas to first generation (bioethanol, biodiesel) and second generation biofuels based on biomass-to-liquids (BtL) and gas-to-liquids (GtL) conversion technologies. Lurgi is one of the world leaders in these fields, processes which consume large quantities of oxygen, one of Air Liquide's areas of expertise. Lurgi's main engineering centers are situated in Germany, Poland, the United States, India and South Africa.

According to Air Liquide this acquisition is an important step to achieve the new objectives recently announced by the group. Notably, it will enable the acceleration of growth in the Large Industries World Business Line, strengthening the company's resources in hydrogen markets and giving it access to the Coal-to-Liquids (CtL) and Coal-to-Chemicals (CtC) sectors, besides developing biomass based liquid fuels:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Air Liquide today has a great depth of expertise with five engineering and construction centers in the major markets around the world (France, United States, Japan, China and India) with a total of 1,500 employees. With these resources, Air Liquide designs, develops and builds its own gas production units. Gas production units are also designed and manufactured for external customers, generating total third party sales in 2006 of €380 million. In this regard, Air Liquide has been a regular partner with Lurgi for many years, with the most recent jointly-developed projects undertaken in Saudi Arabia and Malaysia.

The acquisition of Lurgi is going to boost the group's capacity to grow and enlarge its technological competences. Because of the complementarity of the locations where both companies are present and their technology portfolios, their engineers will be able to streamline the design of ultra-large production plants, which is needed in order to compete on new and rapidly developing markets. By doubling its number of leading experts, Air Liquide considerably strengthens its capacity to innovate.

More information:
Air Liquide: Acquisition de la société Lurgi - April 17, 2007.
GEA Group AG: GEA Group Aktiengesellschaft sells Lurgi Group - April 17, 2007.
Caradisiac: Air Liquide achète Lurgi : un coup d'accélérateur pour les biocarburants et l'hydrogène - April 19, 2007.

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Friday, April 20, 2007

Extremophile's genome sequenced, may improve biohydrogen production

The bacterium Syntrophus aciditrophicus, one of the most extreme-survival organisms ever discovered, has had its genome sequenced. Microbiologists think the findings on the extremophile's unique metabolism may be used in the production of biohydrogen.

Syntrophus lives on a diet so austere that it exists on the brink of energetic death. The genes now discovered making up its genome are providing clues as to how it survives, and might even improve the efficiency by which we can make hydrogen from waste materials, the researchers say. They published the results of their study [*abstract] in the April 18 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Robert Gunsalus at the University of California, Los Angeles, and colleagues (image), identified 3169 genes in Syntrophus. The bacterium performs a key part of the global carbon cycle by breaking down fatty acids in organic matter – a very limited diet consumed by almost no other organisms. To do this it needs genes that can participate in thermodynamically unfavourable reactions known as reverse electron transport.

Most organisms use oxygen to help breakdown organic compounds for energy use. In this process, organic compounds are chemically oxidised, and the electrons produced in the reaction are used to drive the production of the energy-storage compound ATP.

Syntrophus lives in an anaerobic (non-oxygen) environment, where such a key reaction is impossible. Instead, the flow of electrons occurs in the opposite direction – reverse electron transport – through a reaction that produces hydrogen and formate, which actually requires energy. Without the "help" of other types of bacteria, which consume the hydrogen and formate and provide energy in return, Syntrophus could not survive:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Gunsalus's team found several genes that appear to participate in this process, and they hope to gain a better understanding of the mechanism. “If we can understand such 'syntrophic metabolism', we may be able to increase the amount of hydrogen that can be made from waste materials, and hopefully make biohydrogen production a reality,” says Gunsalus.

Biohydrogen is the most competitve way to produce the gas without relying on fossil fuels (earlier post).

There are roughly three main ways of obtaining the gas from biological sources: (1) biochemical conversion: 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.

The unique metabolic pathways used by Syntrophus makes the scientist think it can play a role in anaerobic hydrogen production from biomass.

More information:
Robert P. Gunsalus, et al., "The genome of Syntrophus aciditrophicus: Life at the thermodynamic limit of microbial growth" [*abstract], Published online before print April 18, 2007, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 10.1073/pnas.0610456104.

New Scientist: Extreme-living bacteria has genome sequenced - April 16, 2007.

Kegg pathway maps for Syntrophus aciditrophicus.

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Fuel testing shows biobutanol performance similar to unleaded gasoline

New fuel testing results shared today by DuPont and BP indicate that biobutanol has proven to perform similarly to unleaded gasoline on key parameters, based on ongoing laboratory- based engine testing and limited fleet testing.

At the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) world congress in Detroit, BP Biofuels program manager Frank Gerry and DuPont Biofuels venture manager David Anton told automotive industry value chain participants about the opportunities for biofuels to provide sustainable mobility solutions. They also addressed the science behind biobutanol, an advanced biofuel being jointly developed by BP and DuPont.

In 2006, the companies announced their joint strategy to deliver advanced biofuels that help meet increasing global demand for renewable transportation fuels, leveraging DuPont's advanced biotechnology capabilities and BP's fuel marketing and technology expertise. The first product targeted for introduction will be biobutanol (earlier post).
"Biobutanol addresses market demand for fuels that can be produced from domestic renewable resources in high volume and at reasonable cost; fuels that can be used in existing vehicles and existing infrastructure; fuels that offer good value to consumers; and fuels that meet the evolving demands of vehicles." - Frank Gerry, BP Biofuels program manager
Gerry spoke about results of tests that confirm biobutanol is a desirable fuel component. According to Gerry, biobutanol formulations that meet key characteristics of a "good" fuel include high energy density, controlled volatility, sufficient octane and low levels of impurities. He described early phase testing data that indicate that biobutanol fuel blends at a nominal 10 volume percent level perform very similarly to unleaded gasoline fuel. Additionally, the energy density of biobutanol is closer to unleaded gasoline (table, click to enlarge):
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Fuel testing also has proven that biobutanol does not phase separate in the presence of water, and has no negative impact on elastomer swelling.

Anton spoke about DuPont's development of the new biobutanol technology. "Over 100 DuPont scientists and engineers are committed to making advanced biofuels and new energy-efficient biofuels processes a reality," he said. "Our researchers are working with BP scientists and are on track to deliver a higher yielding biobutanol technology." Anton outlined DuPont's three-pronged biofuels strategy which includes biobutanol, cellulosic fuels and seed/crop protection solutions.

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Biomass gasification to power rural India out of energy poverty

Energy experts and development economists understand the detrimental socio-economic effects of the lack of access to modern energy in the developing world. Half the world's population lives in rural areas, where more than 2 billion people are not connected to the grid. Taking electricity from the central power grid to bring it to these isolated communities is costly and unreliable because of heavy transmission losses and poor load demand.

The consequences of this situation perpetuate a disastrous cycle: lack of access to electricity sustains poverty, which in turn condemns people to rely on time-consuming and primitive forms of energy (dung, fuel wood), which results in environmental degradation, low economic (agricultura) productivity and further poverty; poverty is in turn correlated with increased fertility, which fuels a population increase that results in even more pressures on the environment, and ultimately to ever deeper poverty... Neither the State nor the private sector sees the poor as viable consumers worth the investments needed for rural electrification. And so the cycle perpetuates itself.

Amongst many organisations, the International Energy Agency and the World Energy Council studied the matter in depth and found a very strong positive correlation between underdevelopment and lack of access to energy (the UN's Human Development Index and the IEA's Energy Development Index neatly overlap). For this reason, addressing the question of rural energy poverty is crucial to achieve the Millenium Development Goals.

Even though there is no magic solution to the age-old development problem of bringing electricity to the rural poor, some elements and factors have been identified as key: decentralisation, reliance on locally available energy resources (water, wind, the sun or biomass) and, crucially, the need for low-cost systems.

Biomass gasification - the way out?
Experts from India think these principles and requirements converge in a technology known as biomass gasification, in an electrification concept that has become commercially feasible and reliable (in-depth discussion of the technology, here, or see the image showing a downdraft biomass gasifier, click to enlarge). The energy system may be applicable to rural areas in the developing world at large because it is the least costly of the common alternatives. Depending on local circumstances, it is estimated to be between 15 and 20 times less costly than photovoltaics.

Several community-operated experiments with decentralised biomass gasification and electrification are now underway in India, and it looks like the technology can literally turn marginalised communities into thriving and prosperous societies (see the case-study below). Drawing on this success, an ambitious initiative by science institutes and the private sector has been launched aimed at mass-producing efficient small to medium-scale gasifiers:
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India's rural settlements produce an abundance of agricultural waste streams, such as bagasse, rice and wheat straw. Indian researchers estimate that the energy contained in these resources is sufficient to meet all the energy needs of India's rural population with capacity left to grow.

According to the country's Ministry of Non-Conventional Energy Sources (MNES), there is more than 1,700 MW potential for producing gas from biomass, including agricultural residues, enough to power the 125,000 villages that are yet to be electrified.

Biomass gassification technology, which has been around for more than three decades, now has proved to be a cost effective, ecofriendly system to meet the rural energy requirements. In fact, biomass gasification, a process that results in 'producer gas' — a mixture of carbon monoxide, methane, hydrogen and carbon dioxide - is already picking up in India as a major alternative energy source.

Case study: cooperatives in the Sunderban area of West Bengal
Hitofumi Abe did fieldwork [*.pdf] for the Japan International Cooperation Agency, and research current biomass gasification projects in India. He was surprised to find very positive outcomes of the system. One of his case-studies focused on a pilot plant operated by a rural cooperative on Gosaba Island in the Sunderbans. The farmers' success was soon replicated by other communities.

About three million people inhabit the Delta Region of Sunderbans, West Bengal State. Two million of them do not have access to electricity. It is not economically feasible to extend grids to many islands wide spreaded in the Delta Region. The 500 kW (5 x 100 kW) biomass gasifier duel fuel power generation system (70% biomass + 30% diesel) was installed at Gosaba Island, Sunderbans in June, 1997. Gosaba Island located about 80 km south west of Kolkata. It takes 1.5 hours by boat from the nearest port of mainland. There were only 16 customers when the operation started because people did not believe the system really works. But the customer base increased very quickly and currently 1150 households are connected. The plant is operating 15 hours a day (10:00 am to 1:00 am next day).

The island developed dramatically since the power station was installed. There are many new commercial stores and more than 10 hotels, and people from near by islands come to Gosaba for shopping. A bank (State of India Bank) opened and supports economical activities. A telecommunication system has opened its doors, internet is now available and there is a PC training centre. The hospital can now conduct basic operations. The electricity is also used for public purposes such as street lights, school lighting, drinking water supply and irrigation.

The project is 100% funded by government since this is a pilot project but it is operated by the Gosaba Rural Energy Cooperative. The cooperative owns a 75 hectare energy plantation. Biomass fuel is supplied by both from farmers and the plantation.

Drawing on the success of this pilot program, another 500 kW biomass gasifier duel fuel power generation system was commissioned in the remote Island of Chhotomollakhali in the Sunderbans in June 2001. Since then, numerous smaller-scale biomass gasifier electrification units has been installed in West Bengal State.

New efficient gasifier systems of a slightly larger scale are under development that use the waste heat from the unit, resulting in efficient co-generation concepts. Co-generation is feasible in the sugar industry, rice mills as well as paper and textile mills. For instance, by upgrading the steam generation capacity of sugar mills, steam produced in excess of their process heat requirement can be utilised for power generation.

Mass production of gasifiers
Meanwhile, in a development of significance Cummins India and the Bangalore-based Indian Institute of Science (IISc) have gone in for commercial tieup aimed at promoting the biomass gassification system designed and developed by IISc. According to Prof P.J. Paul of IISc who is one of the architects of this biomass gasification system, “our technology package known as Open Top Reburn Downdraft biomass gasifier generates gas from a range of biomass that comprises forest residues and agricultural wastes" (earlier post). Indeed, as pointed by Paul, the cost of energy generated through biomass is reduced substantially through the gassification route.

Pampraveen Swaminathan, Vice-President of power generation business at Cummins India, drives home the point that the biomass gassification provides a significant life cycle cost advantage over hydrocarbon and ultimately leads to the development of a sustainable energy system.

It has been estimated that biomass gasification generates 1 MW of power at around 20 to 30 million rupiah (€353,000/US$481,000 to €530,000/US$721,000). Solar energy costs between 15 and 20 times more, at about 350 to 400 million rupiah (€6.2/US$8.4 to €7/US$9.6 million) per MW .

India’s first community based biomass gasifier power plant at Kabbigere, 30 km from Tumkur in the state of Karnataka, is generating 0.5 MW of power to feed the central power grid and ensure round the clock, reliable power supply to five villages for both irrigation and domestic purposes.

Vast potential
As pointed out by Anil K. Rajvanshi of Nimbalkar Agricultural Research Institute (NARI), which operates a biomass gassification plant working on agricultural residues such as sugarcane leaves and wheat straw, India produces an estimated 600 million tonnes of agricultural residue per year.

He points out that if all this waste were to be gasified in the latest generation of gasifiers, it can produce a total of 79,000 MW of power — about 60 per cent of the total power available in the country. Rajvanshi thinks “it is feasible to set up a biomass based power plant of 10-20 MW capacity to cater to the needs of about 100 villages. In this way rural energy needs in India can be fully well met.”

Image: 5 x 100 kW biomass gasifier at Gosaba Rural Energy Cooperative, West Bengal State. Courtesy: Hitofumi Abe.

More information:
Tribune India (Radhakrishna Rao): Biomass gasification - April 20, 2007.

World Energy Council: The challenge of rural energy poverty in developing countries - s.d., a basic introduction.

International Energy Agency: Energy and Development [*.pdf] (Chapter 10 of the IEA's World Energy Outlook 2004), which contains the Energy Development Index.

International Energy Agency: Biomass and the Millenium Development Goals - 2006.

Hitofumi Abe, Summary of Biomass Power Generation in India [*.pdf] - Ecosystem Research Group, University of Western Australia, October 2005.

Andreas Gantenbein, "Validation Report of a Greenhouse Gas Mitigation Biomass Gasifier Power Plant Project in the north-Indian State of Bihar" [*.pdf] - Centre for Energy Policies and Economics (CEPE), Department of Environmental Sciences (D-UWIS), Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), Zurich, October 2005.

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In case of total oil embargo, US military could remain operational thanks to synthetic (bio)fuels

For the military, fuel supplies are crucial to ensure its mobility and capacity to engage in conflicts in the global arena. If during a campaign fuel supplies are disrupted, the consequences are immediate and can impact the outcome of a campaign.

In order to understand what would happen in the worst case scenario - a total oil embargo against the US - the American Department of Defense funded a study by South African company Sasol Technology to research the potential of alternative liquid fuels. It found that in such circumstances, synthetic fuels made from biomass, coal and natural gas could keep the organisation's diesel-fuelled tanks, fighter jets and destroyers fully operational.

In a piece entitled "US military considers biofuelled fighters" New Scientist reporter Phil McKenna writes that such a feat wouldn’t be unprecedented. A method for producing synthetic fuel, known as the Fischer-Tropsch process, was first developed in petrol-starved but coal-rich Germany in the 1920s. By the height of the second world war in 1944, Germany was producing as many as 124,000 barrels of coal-derived vehicle fuel each day. More than 92% of Germany's aviation gasoline and half of its total petroleum during the war came from synthetic fuel plants.

To get liquid fuel from biomass such as wood ('biomass-to-liquids' /BTL), coal ('coal-to-liquids'/CTL) or natural gas or biogas ('gas-to-liquids' / GTL) the initial solid or gas is oxidised to produce carbon monoxide and hydrogen. This mixture, known as synthesis gas or syngas, can then be refined to produce a variety of synthetic fuels (also known as FT-fuel) (flowchart, click to enlarge).

The study [open access] by Delanie Lamprecht appears in Energy and Fuels. It lists the challenges ahead:
Technical, economic, and strategic challenges related to the introduction of FT fuels into the military fleet include the interchangeability of FT fuels with crude-oil-derived kerosene-type fuels, elastomer compatibility of fuel systems already conditioned in crude-oil-derived kerosene-type fuels with subsequent exposure to FT fuels containing no aromatics, demand and supply of FT fuels at a price comparable to crude-oil-derived kerosene-type fuels, and the modification of existing fuel specifications to allow for the general approval of FT kerosene-type fuel.
Lamprecht works for Sasol Technology, which used the process to help South Africa meet its energy needs during its isolation under Apartheid:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The study concludes that it would be feasible to use the Fischer-Tropsch process with current refining technology to produce a "Battlefield-Use Fuel of the Future" (BUFF) capable of powering the American military without any imported oil.

The implications of this study are interesting, because they indicate that under extreme circumstances, such as a rapid decline in global oil production ('Peak Oil'), crucial elements of societies could survive by relying on synthetic fuels based on locally available biomass resources, coal and natural gas, without facing total collapse.

More information:
Lamprecht, Delanie, "Fischer-Tropsch Fuel for Use by the U.S. Military as Battlefield-Use Fuel of the Future" [*.html, or *.pdf] Energy and Fuels, April 5, 2007, ASAP Article , DOI: 10.1021/ef060607m

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

France invites Indian talent to study bioenergy, part of Indo-French cooperation effort

According to the Bioenergy Network of Excellence, research and education in the field of bioenergy is speeding up in Europe, with major universities across the EU now offering 60 dedicated masters and PhD programs (earlier post). With this in mind, and as part of a wider Indo-French cooperation effort in bioenergy, France is encouraging Indian students and engineers to study the subject in the country and to exchange experiences with their young collegues.

Dominique Girard, the French Ambassador to India, disclosed the 'North-South' cooperation initiative at a seminar on Bio-Energy for a Secure and Sustainable Future: Prospects for an India - France Partnership organised by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and the powerful Mouvement des Enterprises de France (MEDEF) in New Delhi. The proposal was only one of many that were presented at the meeting.

The Indian students can now have their resident visa extended for six months after successful completion of a study in the field, to look for further bioenergy and biotech research opportunities in France. In 2007, the number of scholarships for Indian students will be increased by 50%, as an effort to enhance Indo-French relationships and increased cooperation in the area of bioenergy technology, Mr Girard added.

The seminar was organised under the aegis of Indo-French forum to explore potential areas of technology and R&D collaboration bilaterally. It was attended by high-level representatives from the bioenergy industry, government and academia from both countries. The gathering deliberated on the probable areas for technology and R&D tie-ups.

Research and technology cooperation
The Government of India has announced the establishment of a National Biodiesel mission to have an enterprise driven biodiesel production in the country and to test, develop and demonstrate the viability of the program, says Ms. Sujatha Singh, Joint Secretary of India's Department of External Affairs, adding that the EU also recognises the importance of bioenergy in India. An EU panel is currently being formed to address possible cooperation efforts between the two continents, she said. The panel is headed by External Affairs Ministry of Government of India. The issue of energy security is important in relation to the fast growing Indian economy and sustaining the growth, Ms. Singh added while emphasising that fossil fuel depletion, increasing energy prices and dependence on few nations for the supply of fuel has made it important to develop biofuels for the future. India and France have common interests to develop biofuels and French technology can assist India’s initiative to build up alternate fuel resources and capabilities, added Ms. Singh.

The threat of global warming is a threat to entire humanity and the onus of developing a cure is as much with developing countries as it is with developed nations, said Mr. M Rasgotra, India's former Foreign Secretary and co-chair of the Indo-French Forum. He suggested that technical collaboration with France should increase and drawing on French expertise, methodologies for the implementation of bioenergy projects should be taken up by India:
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The prospect for a true and timely Indo-French Forum is visible by the effort put by CII and MEDEF for last two years in the bioenergy and alternative fuel sector, said Mr. Dhruv M Sawhney, Coordinator, Indo-French Forum and Past President of the CII, and chairman and managing director of Triveni Engineering and Industries. The development of bioenergy is important for rural, economical and agricultural growth, while addressing the critical issue of global warming and carbon emissions which is a world-wide concern, he said. Bilateral cooperation between India and France in the area of biotechnology has many potential avenues, said Mr. Sawhney.

Specific needs
Mr. Debashish Majumdar, Managing Director, Indian Renewable Energy Development Agency Limited, stressed that India needs cost effective bioenergy technologies. He said that the country requires technology to develop engines running on 100% producer gas [wood gas, gasified biomass] and effective gas cleaning equipments. The technology to develop circulating fluidized bed boilers, producer gas based micro turbines and efficient fuel handling systems are the requirements to have effective implementation of bioenergy as alternate source, he added.

Elaborating on the Indian need for high-tech resources, Mr. Majumdar mentioned that optimum methods of fuel preparation and storage are required along with alternate applications for the agro-industry such as biomass gas vapour absorption chilling. On the long term prospects, he said that design and development of small to medium– scale fluidized bed biomass gasifiers and Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) technologies should be looked at. France is doing pioneering work in the development of such technologies.

Focusing on the establishment of an Indo-French R&D platform on bioenergy, Mr. Jean-Yves Dupré, Senior advisor on bioenergy at the French Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries mentioned that India is a huge market for French companies and can be a base from which to access the world market. India has accomplished technologies and powerful industrial strategies the production of ethanol, he added. Talking on the profitability of biodiesel, Mr. Dupré mentioned that production of jathropha seeds can be profitable depending on the yields and price and that modular biodiesel plants could be established close to plantations. It is possible to join the interests of farmers' cooperatives on the one hand, and Indian and French investors on the other, he added.

Finally, Mr. Guy De Panafieu, coordinator of the Indo-French Forum and Chairman of MEDEF International said that many of initiatives has already been taken by India and France in the bioenergy sector and that there are many similarities in the challenges faced by both countries concerning the production of biofuels. He also added that more coordination of technical assistance is a step towards establishing further relationships and that both countries will soon find common ground on a diverse range of bioenergy technologies.

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Finnish oil major is considering jatropha oil for next-generation biodiesel

Finnish oil major Neste Oil, in which the government of Finland holds a majority stake, is looking into using Jatropha curcas oil as a feedstock for its innovative second generation biodiesel. The announcement came as representatives of the company visited India.

Jatropha needs no introduction to our readers, but a quick reminder of some facts: the crop is a perennial shrub that thrives in semi-arid and poor soils, and requires relatively little water and fertiliser inputs. Yields vary but under optimal conditions may reach up to 1500kg/ha upon maturity (harvests commence after the third year). As they grow, the small trees become carbon sinks with a life of up to 30 to 50 years, after which their woody biomass can be used as a bioenergy feedstock. Many developing countries (from Senegal and Kenya to Ghana, Zambia, China, Burma and Indonesia) are studying the use of the shrub, the seeds of which contain around 35 to 40% oil, as a raw material to supply a global nascent biodiesel industry. However, jatropha is not an ideal crop, because seeds have to be harvested manually, which requires considerable inputs of labor (earlier post). Mechanisation efforts are under way though and consist of trials with and designing of equipment similar to olive harvesters (personal communication from a jatropha expert).

Neste Oil - Finland's third largest company - is looking into the crop because feedstocks from Europe (rapeseed, sunflower oil) are considerably more costly. During his visit to India, president and CEO Risto Rinne said the company is continuously looking for ways to expand its raw material base for NExBTL ["Next Generation Biomass-to-Liquid", the second-generation bio-diesel developed by Neste], and in this search the non-edible jatropha is very interesting, certainly given its potential to boost rural livelihoods since the crop will be cultivated mostly by smallholders.

Second generation biodiesel
In a first phase, Neste Oil will import jatropha oil from the developing world to feed its first full scale NExBTL plant that is slated to come on-stream next month in Porvoo, Finland. "More than 50 percent of new European Union (EU) cars are diesel cars and so we want to gear up to produce more diesel," says Osmo Kammonen, senior vice-president and chief of communications. With the NExBTL process, Neste Oil aims to emerge as the world's leading biodiesel company besides running its traditional oil refining business. Earlier this year, the company started cooperating with Stora Enso, one of Europe's largest forestry and biomass firms, to innovate towards 'third generation' biodiesel (earlier post and see below).

NExBTL is a biodiesel production process that differs from classic transesterification but also from second generation biomass-to-liquids processes used to obtain synthetic biodiesel (which is based on the gasification of biomass, with the gas being liquefied via the Fischer-Tropsch process). NExBTL is similar to the second generation biodiesel developed by Italy's ENI and Brazil's Petrobras ('H-Bio'): it consists of hydrogenating fatty acids under high-pressure. The process can use multiple plant oil feedstocks and results in a product with characteristics similar to ultra-clean synthetic biodiesel (see properties in the table, click to enlarge).

The advantage of NExBTL and the similar H-Bio technology is that it can be fully integrated in existing oil refineries. Such refineries already have hydrogenation facilities, which is why these biodiesel units can be smoothly bundled alongside them, without the need to build an entirely new, dedicated plant (earlier post).

After trials with the jatropha oil for the production of NExBTL biodiesel in Europe (there are plans to introduce the process at Neste Oil's Naantali refinery too, which, together with the facilities at Porvoo have a combined refining capacity of about 14 million tonnes a year), Neste Oil may look at establishing a presence in India:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The sub-continent, with its vast population and proactive bio-fuel targets, "is an attractive future market opportunity for Neste Oil's NExBTL renewable diesel," Kammonen told reporters. "India is a rather new thing for us but we can buy Jatropha curcas from India to begin with," he added.

"India has potential to be a market and for sourcing our raw material. I am sure that our people are looking at the Indian market. We need to find a good supplier. New diesel vehicles are better than gasoline ones. For producing bio-diesel we use animal fat and vegetable oil as feedstock and jatropha is a good option," Neste Oil's vice-president said.

On to the 'third generation'
"Neste Oil is involved in developing third generation bio-diesel technology. Though it does not significantly differ from NExBTL, the technology enables one to exploit the whole plant (biomass) and thereby widens the feedstock base since Finland is the most extensively forested country in Europe with 86 percent of its land area falling under forests," a Neste Oil official added during the delegation's visit.

In 2006, the company supplied 8.1 million tonnes of petroleum products to Finland and exported 6 million tonnes. It imports crude oil mainly from Russia (48 percent in 2006).

Neste Oil has some 900 Neste service stations, diesel fuel outlets and other sales points in Finland, and some 240 Neste stations and outlets and diesel fuel outlets in the Baltic states, Russia and Poland.

Jatropha's benefits
During the visit of the Neste Oil delegation, jatropha experts were questioned about the benefits and problems associated with jatropha cultivation in India. According to Abhishek Maharishi, CEO, Centre for Jatropha Promotion and Bio-diesel, Rajasthan, the crop can help to alleviate soil degradation, desertification and deforestation and can be used for bio-energy to replace petro-diesel besides for soap production and climatic protection.

Maharishi thinks that if the Indian government implements its policy on jatropha cultivation in right earnest the country could be a leading exporter.

"Since 2003, the policy has been adopted to promote the cultivation, yet there are hurdles. A bio-diesel board formed in Rajasthan is yet to function. We think that if at least 10 percent of the 33 million hectares of wastelands in India is made available for jatropha, it could turn the fortunes of the rural poor and work wonders," Maharishi told reporters.

More information:

Neste Oil: Overview of the NExBTL production process [*.pdf] and the qualities of the ultra-clean biodiesel, presented during the California Energy Commission's Workshop on Bioenergy, March 9, 2006.
On the problematic labor inputs currently associated with jatropha, see: Biopact: Jobs per joule: how much employment does each energy sector generate? - September 01, 2006

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A new fuel: MIT researchers develop biopropane, to be used in heating and transportation

MIT researchers say they have developed an efficient chemical process for making propane from corn or sugarcane. They are incorporating a startup this week to commercialize the biopropane process, which they hope will find a place in the existing US$21 billion U.S. market for the fuel. Propane is currently the third most widely used transportation fuel in the country. When sold as a liquid, it is commonly known as Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG). In the US, the fuel is used mostly for residential heating and some industrial processes, and to a limited extent as a liquid transportation fuel.

But it is in the developing world that this news may be welcomed in particular. There, propane is the fastest growing household fuel. Its use frees up the huge rural populations from time-consuming ancient chores such as wood gathering and allows them more time to pursue other activities, such as increased farming or educational opportunities. The fuel is sometimes referred to as "cooking gas", sold in bottles. As a clean burning source of energy, it is a major tool in the fight against indoor air pollution, which, according to the World Health Organisation, kills an estimated 2 million women and children in the South each year.

While much of the attention on biofuels has focused on ethanol, the process developed by the MIT researchers produces clean, renewable propane, says Andrew Peterson, one of the graduate students who demonstrated the reactions. "We're making a demonstrated fuel" for which a market and an infrastructure already exist, says Peterson, who works in the lab of chemical-engineering professor Jefferson Tester and has founded the startup C3 BioEnergy, based in Cambridge, MA, to commercialize the technology.

Propane, which is currently made from petroleum, has a higher energy density than ethanol, and although it is often used in its gaseous form, it is a cleaner burning liquid fuel.

The process
The C3 BioEnergy process depends on supercritical water - water at a very high temperature and pressure - which facilitates the reactions that turn a biological compound into propane. Peterson wouldn't reveal the starting compound, but he says that it is a product of the fermentation of the sugars found in corn or sugarcane.

The reaction is driven by heat, requiring no catalysts. At supercritical temperature and pressure, Peterson says, "water does bizarre things. It becomes like a nonpolar solvent" and mixes with the organic compounds. Once the reaction has taken place, the solution is kept under high pressure and cooled to room temperature so that the propane comes out of the solution and floats to the top. "We've demonstrated that we can make propane," says Peterson. "Now we're trying to optimize the reaction rate and get it to a scalable stage."

Peterson says the biopropane conversion has a good energy balance: not much fossil fuel needs to be burned during production. The reaction does not require the input of a large amount of energy because the heat that's key to the biopropane conversion is recoverable using a heat exchanger, a device that transfers heat in and out of a fluid:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

"All biofuel reactions involve removing oxygen from the starting compound," says George Huber, assistant professor of chemical engineering at the University of Massachusetts, in Amherst. There are a number of strategies for doing this, including reactions that rely on biological catalysts. But, says Huber, "supercritical fluids are a very promising way to make biofuels. You can do it in a very small reactor in a very short time, so you can do it very economically."

Other academic labs are developing processes that use high-temperature, high-pressure fluids to make biofuels. Douglas Elliott, at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, in Richland, WA, is using near-supercritical conditions in combination with a catalyst to treat wastewater and unprocessed biomass. Under these conditions, organic compounds can be made into a mixture of methane (the main component in natural gas) and carbon dioxide. "We've gone all the way from small-batch reactors to treating a few gallons of wastewater per hour," says Elliott, who is working with a company on commercializing the technology for water treatment. "We're still in the lab with biomass."

Huber and Elliott say the MIT biopropane process is novel. "I've never seen anyone make propane with supercritical fluids," says Huber.

In some countries, including Australia, propane is more widely used as a transportation fuel. In the United States, "you would have to modify engines to use it," says Huber. "Biopropane could be used where we already use propane."

Image: cart of an Indian propane salesman; in the third world, the fuel is increasingly used by households for cooking, especially in China, India and Africa.

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Euro-Indian joint venture to enter Brazilian biofuels industry

India's Praj Industries, an engineering and agriprocessing equipment provider and the Norwegian Aker Kvaerner Group, an engineering and construction services company with expertise in the oil and gas sector, are creating a joint venture to enter the biofuels industry in Brazil. While Praj will hold 60%, Aker Kvaerner will hold 40% of the shareholding in the new company.

The proposed joint venture will combine Aker Kvaerner's execution capabilities and extensive European market knowledge with the technological expertise of Praj. The cooperation will offer European customers access to the complete scope of services required for license, plant design and construction of biofuel facilities. In 2006, Praj and Aker Kvaerner entered into an alliance for strategic cooperation on bioethanol projects in Europe. Based on market interest in the alliance and the fact that Europe will follow a binding guideline of 10 per cent biofuels blending by 2020, thereby expanding the market opportunity for biofuel plants, the two companies commenced discussions to extend their association by forming a joint-venture.

Focus on biodiesel
With nearly 60% of the incremental growth in world transport fuels being diesel based and with almost all countries round the world being major diesel consumers, on and off the road, the Praj's management felt its was the right time to address the biodiesel technology market. With its engineering expertise and its understanding of agri-based processing, Praj is focusing on offering its multi-feedstock biodiesel plants. Praj will thus offer turnkey solutions including technology, engineering, plant & equipment and project management services for biodiesel projects.

The company is currently examining acquisition proposals to enter the Brazilian biofuels market, where both new biodiesel and bioethanol projects will be launched as well:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

"The board has given in-principle approval for an initial investment up to 40 crore to establish the JV in Europe, and commence operations in Brazil," the release said. The Company is currently examining certain acquisition proposals with a view to enter Brazilian biofuels technology, plant & equipment market and establish an operational base in the country.

Ethanol production in Brazil is poised to double by 2010. Today, Brazil is at a major turning point in terms of technology and plant designs, which is why Praj sees an opportunity to serve these changing requirements.

Praj Industries is becoming an important engineering firm in the biofuels sector. Earlier this year, it snapped up a major contract to design and equip a bioethanol plant as part of a €200 million biofuels project in Belgium (earlier post), and it is currently building five more such plants in Colombia. Three of those plants have a capacity of 250,000 liters/day, the others have a capacity of 100,000 and 300,000 liters per day, respectively - or a total annual production capacity of 420 million liters (111 million gallons).

Vinod Khosla, co-founder of Sun Microsystems and serial green entrepreneur, is holding a stake in the Indian company and acts as a facilitator.

Brazil's new biodiesel program aims to supply 2% of the biofuel to be mixed in all diesel fuel by 2010. A special 'Social Fuel Seal' policy that seems to be attractive to investors has been implemented. It ties small-scale feedstock producers, some of who belong to Brazil's poorest rural classes, to the projects, which results in increased food, energy and income security (earlier post).

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A closer look at China's biomass power plants

China is building a new coal-fired power plant each week. The country knows that, at this pace, it will become the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, surpassing the US earlier than expected (by 2010-2015). For this reason, the People's Republic tries to diversify away from fossil fuels and into renewables, even though energy demand is so high that the green initiatives do not seem to make much difference yet. Eighty percent of the country's electricity is currently generated from coal. Demand for the climate destructive fuel increases by around 4.2% per annum.

One of China's strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity and industrial sectors is to utilize the country's massive stream of agricultural and forestry residues as a source of renewable and sustainable biomass for energy. As part of a comprehensive bioenergy policy outlined under the '11th Five-year Period', the objective is to build up a biomass power generation capacity of 5.5 GW. Agricultural residues are either to be co-fired with coal (see earlier post on an EU-China biomass co-firing project), or used as a single energy source in dedicated biomass power plants.

As forecast by China's (bio)energy research centers, the country's coal demand is set to total over 2.5 billion tons of standard coal this year. Some estimate that if all the waste biomass resources generated in China were to be used efficiently, they can replace an equivalent of 100 million tons of standard coal (earlier post), whereas dedicated energy crops can replace another 400 million tons per annum. In short, around 20 percent of China's current energy consumption could be met with biomass. But to tap into this potential, several hurdles must be taken: collecting, storing and distributing the biomass streams from fields to power plants is a major logistical challenge, adapting coal-fired plants or building new dedicated biomass plants will require huge investments, and policies and financing mechanisms must be crafted.

However, utilising waste biomass streams also has major advantages: resources can be used locally and power plants can be built close to supply zones; the sector provides additional incomes to farmers who supply the biomass. Each rural household is now seen as an energy producer. This perspective is part of China's push to build what it calls a 'new socialist countryside', based on bioenergy. Finally, establishing a biomass power generation capacity today may be the first step towards a radical carbon negative energy system in the future (so-called Bio-energy with Carbon Storage).

China has meanwhile brought the first series of dedicated biomass plants online. We focus only on projects implemented by the National Bio Energy company, a subsidiary of the State Grid Corporation of China, which has so far connected five plants to the national grid, with another 9 under construction (interactive map). A total of 22 of the company's direct-biomass fired power plants have been approved by the National Development and Reform Commission (in total, more than 30 have been approved). Implementation occurs swiftly, with the average time to get the projects up and running being under 8 months. Some of the plants have been registered as Clean Development Mechanism projects, which allow producers from industrialised countries to receive certified emission reductions by investing in such projects. The capacity of the biomass plants ranges between 25 and 50MW.

We focus in on some of the basics of these projects, by looking at the parameters of some plants:

The Shanxian biomass power plant (Shandong Province):
  • fuel: 100% biomass - 160,000 to 200,000 tons of agricultural residues (straw and stalks) per year, sourced from local farming communities
  • capacity: 1 x 25MW generator, annual electricity output is around 137Gwh
  • coal replacement: the plant saves around 70,000 tons of standard coal per year
  • CO2 emission reductions: 10 million tons per year
  • biomass logistics: eight straw collecting, storing and buying stations have been set up to secure waste biomass resources from farmers
  • incomes for farmers: the project brings about 50 million yuan (€4.8/US$6.5 million) per year to the rural households who supply the biomass
  • direct jobs generated: 500
The other four biomass plants have a similar set of mechanisms to secure biomass supplies, and generate an equal amount of jobs and incomes to farmers:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Kenli biomass power plant (Shandong Province)
  • total investment: 270 million yuan
  • fuel: chopped cotton straw and coppice
  • capacity: one single-stage extraction condensing turbine power generator with an installed capacity of 1×25MW, together with one high-temperature and high-pressure special biomass boiler with capacity of 130T/h

Cheng’an biomass power plant
  • fuel: predominantly chopped cotton straw
  • capacity: 1×24MW single stage extraction steam turbine generator, which is equipped with a 130t/h water-cooled vibrating grate, high-temperature & high-pressure biomass boiler.
  • implementation time: work started on May 28, 2006 and was connected to the grid in January 2007.

Chifeng biomass power plant (Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region)
  • total investment: 490 million yuan
  • co-generation: the plant will deliver both heat and power
  • fuel: 327,000 tons of agricultural and forestry waste per annum
  • capacity: two 25MW extraction condensing heat supply units associated with two 130t/h vibrating grate high-temperature high-pressure boilers.

Writing for China Economic Net, Sun Benyao outlines the advantages and the context behind these projects.

It can be seen from such a case that biomass energy plays a vital role in improving China's sustainable development capacity. Industrial and agricultural wastes including straws and stalks are main raw materials for biomass power generation, in which biomass energy is made use of to act as a source of energy. As the society and the economy develop day by day, biomass power plant as a new pattern of power generation has presented its prominent advantages especially in China.

Firstly, a new source of energy will be provided for the sustainable development of China. Currently, fossil energy resources account for 90 percent of the annual total energy consumption all over the world. With the current level of energy consumption, major fossil energy resources can be hardly left by the mid-22nd Century. But biomass energy has become the most widely used renewable energy for the moment due to such characteristics as a wide distribution as a kind of energy resource, having little influence on the environment, and that it can be utilized in a sustainable manner.

Secondly, the environment can be protected and the greenhouse effect can be eased. Large-scale exploitation and use of fossil fuels have caused serious environmental problems such as ecological damage etc. and are posing direct threats to the sustainable development of the humankind, but biomass power generation is attracting attention in the world as it discharges no carbon dioxide. Considering the properties of biomass fuels per se like a low ash content and a low sulfur content and the zero discharge mechanism in the growth process and the combustion process of biomass, biomass power generation is an effective measure to cool the earth.

Thirdly, it could be conducive to the establishment of a resource-saving society and what the country calls a 'circular economy' (zero waste; the waste streams from one sector become inputs for other industrial processes). China is abundant in biomass energy resources. The annual output of crop straws and stalks alone is about 700 million tons. Except for the small part of crop straws and stalks used for cooking and heating purposes in rural areas, all the remaining crop straws and stalks can be provided as fuel for biomass power generation. It is understood that the total biomass energy resources that can be exploited in the near future in China may be equivalent to about 500 million tons of standard coal, it may be equivalent to 10 million tons of standard coal at a specified future date. If considering the situation comprehensively and planting various kinds of energy forest on barren hills and barren slopes, the biomass energy resources may be equivalent to over 1.5 billion tons of standard coal in the long-term.

Fourthly, the construction of a 'new socialist countryside' can be accelerated and promoted. One of the important measures for the construction of a new socialist countryside is to make efforts to develop a circular agriculture. As the economic revenues of farmers increase in China, the proportion of straws and stalks used as a kind of energy resource in daily life is gradually decreasing. The abandoned straws and stalks have become a major source of environmental pollution in rural areas that will affect the view of villages seriously. Biomass power generation does not only provide a new source of energy for the construction in China and protect the environment but also turns straws and stalks from wastes into a treasure, thus bringing forth an increment to farmers' incomes and creating job opportunities for them.

For the biomass power generation industry, the Chinese government has given its great supports. It has been pointed out clearly in the No. 1 Document of the CPC Central Committee issued this year that the biomass industry, which takes biomass energy resources, bio-based products and biomass raw materials as the main contents, is a sunrise industry expanding the functions of the agriculture and promoting the highly effective use of resources. In the 11th Five-Year Period Plan, it is also made clear an objective to build up an installation capacity of 5.5 million kilowatt for the development of biomass power generation. It is noteworthy that in case of a new industry, interdisciplinary, cross-sectional and cross-industry combination and cooperation and the reconciliation of contradictions between demands for fuels and the behind-lagging production patterns in rural areas are both problems to be urgently solved. With all those difficulties overcome, biomass power generation will play a more important role in the modernization construction.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

South America's leaders, including Chavez, agree to promote biofuels

South America's 11 heads of state closed ranks today at their first Energy Summit held in Venezuela, and agreed to promote biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel across the region. The landmark decision will help transform the Global South into a world less dependent on costly fossil fuels and en route to a new energy paradigm. "We have reached a consensus so that in the final declaration, the use of biofuels is encouraged," Chilean Energy Minister Marcelo Tokman told reporters in Porlamar. The full version of the 'Declaración de Margarita Construyendo la Integración Energética del Sur' [*Spanish] is now online. On biofuels, it reads:
We express our recognition of the potential of biofuels to help diversify South America's energy matrix. For this reason, we will streamline efforts to exchange experiences made in the region, in view of making the sector as efficient as possible. Biofuels will be promoted in such a way as to ensure social, technological and agricultural development. - Declaración de Margarita Construyendo la Integración Energética ldel Sur, April 17, Isla de Margarita, Venezuela.
President Hugo Chavez has clarified his position on the matter and now agrees that biofuels can boost rural development on the continent provided social and environmental sustainability is guaranteed. He does draw a line though between biofuels made from highly efficient energy crops as is being done in Brazil, and those made in the U.S. "We have always said that the bio-ethanol project ... that Brazil has had for more than 30 years is very different ... from the madness that the U.S. president has proposed. It's completely the opposite."

To illustrate where he stands, the Venezuelan leader announced he will build five more ethanol plants in his country and use sugarcane as feedstock. This brings the total number of biofuel plants in Venezuela at 22, not taking into account an extra 11 it plans to construct together with Cuba.

From the vast media coverage of the Summit, we retain the following comments:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::
  • Chavez insisted he has no objection to Brazilian ethanol produced from sugar cane, which is highly efficient. "We aren't against biofuels. In fact we want to import ethanol from Brazil." He said Venezuela needs some 200,000 barrels of ethanol a day to be used as a fuel additive. Chavez did stress that he does oppose U.S. plans to step up production of ethanol made from corn, which is far less efficient, calling "taking corn away from people and the food chain to feed automobiles - a terrible thing." He also urged the U.S. to lower tariffs on Brazilian ethanol made from sugar cane, a point that has been pressed with Washington by Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
  • The President of Brazil, where about 8 out of every 10 new cars are 'flex fuel' vehicles that can run on gasoline, ethanol or any combination of the two told reporters after the summit that "the truth is that biofuel is a way out for the poor countries of the world." Drawing on a basic finding of development economics he added that "the problem of food in the world now is not lack of production of food. It's a lack of income for people to buy food."
Brazil's logic in a nutshell: the world currently produces enough food to feed 9 billion people, but unequal distribution, lack of access to markets and lack of income amongst the poor are the single biggest factors determining food insecurity. Since the vast majority of undernourished people in a continent like Africa are rural households, biofuels produced by them may boost their incomes, and hence their food security. Moreover, since biofuels are set to increase access to low-cost energy, as has been the case in Brazil, where biofuels have democratised mobility, positive socio-economic effects will result from investments in the sector that help in the fight against poverty. Energy poverty and economic poverty are highly correlated. Both increased food security and energy security can be obtained synergetically from transiting towards biofuels. Finally, the burden of fossil fuel import bills on the least developed countries should not be underestimated: they drain the already scarce government budgets, and waste money that could otherwise be spent on social development and poverty alleviation.

The validity of this logic is largely confirmed by a broad consensus amongst development and energy economists.

The landmark agreement found at South America's first Energy Summit will have considerable impacts on how the Global South shifts towards a greener economy that is less dependent on costly fossil fuels, and that may improve the livelihoods of millions of the world's poorest. Both Brazil and Venezuela are increasingly building a presence in Africa, where South-South cooperation on biofuels tops the agenda.

Video fragment, courtesy of France 24.

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The bioeconomy at work: robust bioplastic used for off-shore oil riser pipes

Bioplastics are often discussed in the context of mass produced consumer products, like plastic bags, bottles or cell phones. Their biodegradability is a major advantage over petroleum-based plastics, but this property gives the bio-based alternatives an image of fragility. From a deep sea off-shore oil field located 135km off the coast of Angola now comes a very different image: that of durable, high strength, very robust polymers made from crops used in the very rough environment of deep-sea oil extraction.

Innovative French firm Arkema announces that its 100% plant based high performance Rilsan 11 plastic is being used for flexible pipes raising the oil from Dalia, the deep offshore field operated by Total. The pipes were designed and manufactured by Technip from the green polyamide because its temperature resistance, strength and chemical properties are superior to oil-based alternatives.

The vast Dalia oilfield, one of the biggest deep offshore developments and a new benchmark in technological innovation, is located 135 km off the Angolan coast, and covers an area in excess of 200 km2 at a depth of between 1200 and 1500 m (4000-5000ft). The development of the field, which has outstanding characteristics, has called upon specific know-how and technological innovation.

The only material to have proved reliable following 25 years’ service in offshore oil production, Arkema’s Rilsan 11 was chosen by Technip for the manufacture of these risers using new IPB (integrated production bundle) technology. These 1,650 m long flexible pipes bring up the fluid from the bottom to the production and storage floating unit on the surface (see image, click to enlarge). They include for the first time multiple functions for production, activation and safety of offshore production.

According to Total's Dalia project presentation "the eight flexible risers that take the fluid up to the surface facilities are the project’s key innovation. Their size pushes the envelope of integrated production bundle (IPB) technology. Gas lift tubes and trace heating cables are wound around the 12-inch flexible pipe core, which is protected by ten layers of insulation and overwrapped by carcasses to ensure the mechanical strength of the risers, which are 1,650 meters long and weigh 800 metric tons."

The remarkable properties of Rilsan 11 ensure unprecedended levels of performance for submarine pipes: temperature resistance greater by 10°C than for competitive materials, double lifetime in a given environment, and optimized mechanical properties.

Plant based polymer
What's more, the polymer is entirely made from renewable castor oil, derived from seeds of Ricin communis [see the Handbook of Energy crops], a crop grown widely in the subtropics and the tropics.

Arkema sources its castor oil from South America, India, South-East Asia and China, where the shrub is grown in semi-arid regions on wastelands. The castor oil plant is a fast-growing, suckering perennial shrub, part of the Euphorbiaceae family (to which Jatropha curcas belongs) which can reach the size of a small tree (around 12 m) and requires limited amounts of inputs. Castor oil plants yield some 1,200 to 2,000 liters of oil per hectare:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The oil derived from its seeds has over 1000 patented industrial applications and is used in the following industries: automobile, aviation, cosmetics, electrical, electronics, manufacturing, pharmaceutical, plastics, and telecommunications. The following is a brief list of castor oil uses in the above industries: adhesives, brake fluids, caulks, dyes, electrical liquid dielectrics, humectants, hydraulic fluids, inks, lacquers, leather treatments, lubricating greases, machining oils, paints, pigments, refrigeration lubricants, rubbers, sealants, textiles, washing powders, and waxes.

Castor oil's high lubricity is superior to petroleum-based lubricants; for instance, it really clings to metal, especially hot metal, and is used in racing and jet (turbine) engines. In addition, castor oil is non-toxic and quickly biodegrades; whereas, petroleum-based oils are potential health hazards, and take a very long time to biodegrade, thus can damage the environment when concentrate

Developed and improved by Arkema for two decades, the 100% renewable Rilsan 11 polymer has meanwhile found wide applications in a range of industries - automotive, oil & gas, pharmaceutical, consumer products, civil engineering and aviation - where it is used for fuel lines, fluid transfer lines (brake, clutch, cooling), quick connectors, fittings, fasteners and clips, pneumatic hoses, air lines, hydraulic hoses, electrical cable sheathing, oil tanks, air brake tubing for trucks, optical and copper cable sheathing, gas pipes and fittings, flexible liners and pipes for off- and onshore oil production (flow-lines, risers), and many more.

The bioplastic has excellent chemical properties and can also be used for fuel lines, storage tanks and pipelines to transport and store all biofuels (including the most corrosive like ethanol). It can be processed like any other plastic, via standard processes such as injection molding, extrusion, rotomolding or it can be fibre-reinforced.

More information:
Arkema: Arkema’s Rilsan 11 at the heart of technological innovation in deep offshore oil production - March 29, 2007.

Rilsan PA11 factsheet [*.pdf].

Total, benchmark projects: Deep offshore, the ultimate frontier [*.pdf], presentation of the Dalia and other deep-sea projects.

James A. Duke, "Ricinus communis L.", Handbook of Energy Crops.

CIRAD: Revitalizing the castor bean sector in Brazil - January 17, 2006.

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First comprehensive energy balance study reveals cassava is a highly efficient biofuel feedstock

While most of the world is scrambling after corn and sugar for answers to its renewable energy needs, many developing countries are focusing on a lesser known plant — cassava, also known as manioc. A new study for the first time calculates the net energy value ('NEV', 'energy balance') of cassava ethanol and finds that the tropical starchy tuber makes for a highly efficient source of renewable energy.

Cassava, a crop grown across the Global South, is a hardy plant that thrives in relatively poor soils and requires limited water and fertiliser inputs. It grows explicitly on land not associated with rainforests (see map, click to enlarge), and several hundred million hectares of unused non-forest land suitable for cassava are available in the tropics and the sub-tropics. Some of the world's leading biotech scientists, including two Nobel Laureates, Norman Borlaug (father of the Green Revolution) and S. Mohan Jain, are working on improving cassava as an energy crop.

Global land suitability for rainfed cassava (click to enlarge)
Studying the energy balance of biofuels is important because if they do not yield much net energy, the question is whether the resources they use up (land, water) can be used in a better way. There is some controversy surrounding the energy balance of ethanol made from corn, with some scientists finding that the fuel has a negative balance; in other words, more energy is invested in the production chain than is contained in the finished fuel product. Other researchers have found a slightly positive balance of around 1.5 - for each unit of energy invested in the production of corn ethanol, 1.5 units of energy are contained in the fuel once you pour it into the tank of a vehicle (earlier post). For sugarcane based ethanol, the energy balance is between 8 and 10 (earlier post).

Tropical crops have a significant advantage over biofuel crops grown in temperate climates: they convert sunlight more efficiently into biomass and yield far more of it. The result: the energy balance of biofuels made from such crops is considerably stronger. Or in other words, to produce one unit of energy in the form of a liquid fuel, tropical crops require far less land and resources than crops grown in temperate regions.

Thu Lan Thi Nguyen, Shabbir H. Gheewala, and Savitri Garivait from the Thonburi University of Technology have now determined that the same logic holds for cassava (Manihot esculenta), grown in a tropical country like Thailand. They published their findings in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. The results provide a "framework" for policy makers to evaluate whether ethanol from cassava is feasible and practical, says lead author Shabbir Gheewala.

Net renewable energy balance
Thailand already has a cassava-derived ethanol pilot plant, and the government is aiming to build 12 full-scale facilities by 2008, based on expanded cassava plantings that are set to benefit small farmers (earlier post). Using scaled-up data from this existing pilot plant, the authors calculate the NEV of cassava-based ethanol as 10.22 megajoules per liter (MJ/L), an overall positive yield. The most optimistic assessment for corn shows an NEV of around 4.51 MJ/L, meaning cassava is more than two times as efficient. NEV is a measure of the energy content of ethanol minus the net energy used in the production process. The usefulness of NEV in evaluating an ethanol source is debatable, but with well-defined boundaries and clearly stated assumptions, it can provide a measure of the energy consumption and yield of the ethanol production from a one particular source.

NEV may not be the best instrument to evaluate biofuels' contribution to energy security, the authors point out in the paper. 'Renewability' is equally important. This factor is determined by the amount of fossil fuels used in the ethanol-manufacturing process. Consequently, they used yet another tool, the "net renewable energy value", defined as the energy content of ethanol minus the total fossil-energy inputs. When fossil-fuel inputs (97.35% of the energy inputs) were taken into consideration, the NREV of cassava fell to 9.15 MJ/L - still strongly positive.

According to the authors, several features make cassava more advantageous than sugar cane or cane molasses:
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The tuber is already used as a starch source and for chip/pellet products. It can be grown in any season and can be a year-round source of ethanol. "In Thailand, cassava is the third most important cash crop after rice and sugar cane," says Gheewala. Sugarcane is a seasonal crop, and since ethanol cannot be stored during long periods of time, bridging the period between cane harvesting and the off-season is problematic.

"Over the past 20 to 30 years, cassava agronomy research has contributed significantly to the development of improved agricultural practices, such as time and method of planting, intercropping, soil erosion control, and especially, weed control and fertilizing." The result: Thailand uses less fertilizers and herbicides than China to grow cassava, yet it provides a comparable yield.

Importance for policy makers
The study "addresses a question that's of policy interest right now," says agricultural economist Satish Joshi of Michigan State University. Uwe Fritsch at the Institute for Applied Ecology (Germany) agrees. "Cassava is a feedstock that is not in the major debate so far," and yet it is a crop of "relevance for a lot of developing countries," he says. The findings also explain the "life-cycle implications of this kind of biofuel," he adds.

However, the authors' calculations will remain meaningless without an understanding of their economic relevance, says Fritsch. "We have a lot of solar energy, for example, but it's very expensive so it does not mean much." The authors agree. "A general idea about the market dynamics is useful to understand the overall situation," they report in the paper.

Fritsch also points out the absence of any reference to greenhouse-gas emissions. "Net energy balance is for scientists," he says. The real economic implications of any biofuel source remain unknown without an estimate of its greenhouse-gas emissions, because that is where "most of the current debate" lies, Fritch adds. For many biofuels made from different crops, such GHG-emissions balances have been carried out. For corn ethanol, for example, some researchers have found that it does not reduce GHG-emissions very much (earlier post); sugarcane ethanol does so far better (earlier post). For other tropical crops, this aspect still needs to be investigated.

Cassava biotech research
Some of the world's leading scientists are working on improving cassava. Amongst them Norman Borlaugh, father of the Green Revolution, who is sequencing the crop's genome in order to breed varieties for energy. His work is part of the bioenergy research at the U.S. Department of Energy's Joint Genome Institute (earlier post).

Earlier, we also pointed to research being undertaken by researchers from the International Atomic Energy Agency, who are using the latest plant breeding techniques to make cassava an even more interesting energy crop. The tools: nuclear techniques to induce mutagenesis and obtain mutant varieties, and space-breeding, which is based on a similar process but then relying on radiation from space that affects and transforms seeds into interesting varieties.

More information:

Thu Lan Thi Nguyen, Shabbir H. Gheewala, and Savitri Garivait, "Full Chain Energy Analysis of Fuel Ethanol from Cassava in Thailand" [*abstract], Environ. Sci. Technol.; 2007; ASAP Web Release Date: 11-Apr-2007; and article: DOI: 10.1021/es0620641

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Ethanol vehicles pose significant risk to human health - study

Ethanol is widely touted as an eco-friendly, clean-burning fuel that reduces carbon dioxide emissions and thus helps mitigate catastrophic climate change. But if every vehicle in the United States ran on fuel made primarily from ethanol instead of pure gasoline, a side-effect would be that the number of respiratory-related deaths and hospitalizations would likely increase, according to a new study by Stanford University atmospheric scientist Mark Z. Jacobson. His findings are published in the April 18 online edition of the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

"Ethanol is being promoted as a clean and renewable fuel that will reduce global warming and air pollution," says Jacobson, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. "But our results show that a high blend of ethanol poses an equal or greater risk to public health than gasoline, which already causes significant health damage."

Gasoline versus ethanol
For the study, Jacobson used a sophisticated computer model to simulate air quality in the year 2020, when ethanol-fueled vehicles are expected to be widely available in the United States.

The chemicals that come out of a tailpipe are affected by a variety of factors, including chemical reactions, temperatures, sunlight, clouds, wind and precipitation. In addition, overall health effects depend on exposure to these airborne chemicals, which varies from region to region. Jacobson's is the first ethanol study that takes into account population distribution and the complex environmental interactions.

In the experiment, Jacobson ran a series of computer tests simulating atmospheric conditions throughout the United States in 2020, with a special focus on Los Angeles:
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Since Los Angeles has historically been the most polluted airshed in the U.S., the testbed for nearly all U.S. air pollution regulation and home to about 6 percent of the U.S. population, it is also ideal for a more detailed study.

Jacobson programmed the computer to run air quality simulations comparing two future scenarios:
  • A vehicle fleet (that is, all cars, trucks, motorcycles, etc., in the United States) fueled by gasoline, versus
  • A fleet powered by E85, a popular blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline.
Deaths and hospitalizations
Jacobson found that E85 vehicles reduce atmospheric levels of two carcinogens, benzene and butadiene, but increase two others-formaldehyde and acetaldehyde. As a result, cancer rates for E85 are likely to be similar to those for gasoline. However, in some parts of the country, E85 significantly increased ozone, a prime ingredient of smog.

Inhaling ozone-even at low levels-can decrease lung capacity, inflame lung tissue, worsen asthma and impair the body's immune system, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The World Health Organization estimates that 800,000 people die each year from ozone and other chemicals in smog.

In our study, E85 increased ozone-related mortalities in the United States by about 200 deaths per year compared to gasoline, with about 120 of those deaths occurring in Los Angeles. These mortality rates represent an increase of about 4 percent in the U.S. and 9 percent in Los Angeles above the projected ozone-related death rates for gasoline-fueled vehicles in 2020.

The study showed that ozone increases in Los Angeles and the northeastern United States will be partially offset by decreases in the southeast. However, Jacobson found that nationwide, E85 is likely to increase the annual number of asthma-related emergency room visits by 770 and the number of respiratory-related hospitalizations by 990. Los Angeles can expect 650 more hospitalizations in 2020, along with 1,200 additional asthma-related emergency visits.

The deleterious health effects of E85 will be the same, whether the ethanol is made from corn, switchgrass or other plant products, Jacobson notes.

The researcher notes that there are alternatives, such as battery-electric, plug-in-hybrid and hydrogen-fuel cell vehicles, whose energy can be derived from renewables like wind and solar power. These vehicles produce virtually no toxic emissions or greenhouse gases and cause very little disruption to the land - unlike ethanol made from corn or switchgrass, which will require large tracts of farmland to mass-produce.

The problem is that the economics of wind or solar generated electricity are currently not impressive. Biofuels used directly in indirect combustion engines or biomass used to generate electricity are between 2 to 40 times less costly than solar or wind power (earlier post). Moreover, batteries have a highly problematic life-cycle. Either current battery technology is not competitive yet (in the case of li-ion batteries) and the batteries that are competitive pose a huge waste-problem because they include toxic metals such as cadmium, cobalt, copper, nickel and iron whose disposal poses health risks and threaten to pollute water resources. Moreover, many of these metals are mined in developing countries under environmentally unsound conditions that threaten the health of thousands of poor people.

Finally, hydrogen used in fuel cells is costly to produce. If made from nuclear, wind or solar power, the costs are several times higher than if the hydrogen were to be made from fossil primary energy sources (coal, natural gas) or biomass (earlier post).

All technologies come with their drawbacks, ethanol is no different. If consumers decide the relatively small health risks associated with ethanol outweigh the advantage of less costly mobility, they will start buying electric or hydrogen powered fuel cell vehicles.

More information:
The study, "Effects of Ethanol (E85) Versus Gasoline Vehicles on Cancer and Mortality in the United States," by Mark Z. Jacobson, will appear in the April 18 online edition of Environmental Science & Technology (not online at the time this article was written).

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Climate change is a national security issue - report

Political instability, failed states, wars over scarce resources and millions of climate refugees are some of the 'doom-and-gloom' scenarios in a report published by a leading US military think-tank.

The recently published analysis entitled "National Security and the Threat of Climate Change" [*.pdf] was written by a military advisory board of 11 retired admirals and generals. It focuses on how climate change may affect US national security and military operations over the next 30 to 40 years.

Some of its sobering findings are:
  • that, in the national and international security environment, climate change threatens to add new hostile and stressing factors. On the simplest level, it has the potential to create sustained natural and humanitarian disasters on a scale far beyond those we see today. The consequences will likely foster political instability where societal demands exceed the capacity of governments to cope.
  • climate change acts as a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world. Projected climate change will seriously exacerbate already marginal living standards in many Asian, African, and Middle Eastern nations, causing widespread political instability and the likelihood of failed states. Weakened and failing governments, with an already thin margin for survival, foster the conditions for internal conflicts, extremism, and movement toward increased authoritarianism and radical ideologies.
  • projected climate change will add to tensions even in stable regions of the world. The U.S. and Europe may experience mounting pressure to accept large numbers of immigrant and refugee populations as drought increases and food production declines in Latin America and Africa. Extreme weather events and natural disasters, as the U.S. experienced with Hurricane Katrina, may lead to increased missions for a number of U.S. agencies, including state and local governments, the Department of Homeland Security, and our already stretched military, including our Guard and Reserve forces.
  • climate change, national security, and energy dependence are a related set of global challenges. Dependence on foreign oil leaves the US more vulnerable to hostile regimes and terrorists, and clean domestic energy alternatives help us confront the serious challenge of global climate change. Because the issues are linked, solutions to one affect the other. Technologies that improve energy efficiency also reduce carbon intensity and carbon emissions.
In order to mitigate the multiple national security risks related to climate change, the senior military thinkers make a clear set of recommentations that need timely implementation:
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1. The national security consequences of climate change should be fully integrated into national security and national defense strategies.

2. The U.S. should commit to a stronger national and international role to help stabilize climate change at levels that will avoid significant disruption to global security and stability.

3. The U.S. should commit to global partnerships that help less developed nations build the capacity and resiliency to better manage climate impacts.

4. The Department of Defense should enhance its operational capability by accelerating the adoption of improved business processes and innovative technologies that result in improved U.S. combat power through energy efficiency.

5. The Department of Defense should conduct an assessment of the impact on U.S. military installations worldwide of rising sea levels, extreme weather events, and other projected climate change impacts over the next 30 to 40 years.

The report further underlines the growing awareness of political leaders that climate change is more than an environmental issue. On 17 April, the United Nations Security Council will deal with the same security dimension of global warming in its first debate on climate change. The UK government has written a special Energy, security and climate concept paper for the meeting.

More information:
The CNA Corporation: "National Security and the Threat of Climate Change" [*.pdf] - April 2007.
UK government: "Energy, security and climate" - March 2007

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Swiss technology institute launches ‘Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels'

With their potential to reduce carbon emissions, help solve global warming, and create economic opportunities for rural areas, biofuels can be an important part of the energy mix of the future. Governments worldwide are rapidly requiring oil companies to blend biofuels with fossil fuels, and the biofuels industry is booming from Guatemala to Mauritius to Thailand. But without safeguards, some biofuels can have negative impacts, including clearing valuable forests for cropland, using scarce water, and reducing the amount of land available for food production. Consumers, producers, governments, and environmental and social groups are calling for global rules to ensure that biofuels represent an environmental solution, not another problem.

The Energy Center at the École Polytechnique Féférale de Lausanne (EPFL), in Switzerland announced today a multi-stakeholder process, the 'Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels', to create draft global standards for sustainable biofuels production and processing.

Founding Steering Board members include, among others, the WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature), Toyota, BP, the Mali Folkecenter, the National Wildlife Federation, Shell, the Dutch and Swiss governments, the UN Foundation, Petrobras, the World Economic Forum, the University of California at Berkeley, Bunge, TERI India, and Amigos da Terra - Amazônia Brasileira (Friends of the Earth Brazil).

The roundatble's Steering Board will draft principles of sustainable biofuels production, which will then be open for public comment on its website. The criteria for measuring performance against these principles will be drafted by four Working Groups, open to any interested party:
  • GHG - greenhouse gas lifecycle efficiency analysis. This group will recommend methodologies to use to calculate the efficiency of particular production and processing techniques in terms of replacing greenhouse gas emissions as compared to fossil fuels.
  • ENV - environmental concerns. This group will draft minimum criteria for sustainable biofuels on their impact on biodiversity, soil and water resources, and other environmental issues.
  • SOC - social concerns. This group will outline the criteria for the labor rights, food security, poverty alleviation, and other social elements of sustainable biofuels production.
  • IMP - implementation. This group will review the recommendations of the other working groups to ensure that the standards are easy to implement and measure so that they are accessible by small-scale and other low-income farmers.
The Roundtable's multi-stakeholder Steering Board will be responsible for overseeing the standards drafting process, and uses the ISEAL 'Alliance Code of Good Practice for Standard Setting' to do so:
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"Many people are worried about biofuels contributing to deforestation and air pollution in the name of protecting the planet," said Claude Martin, former Director-General of WWF International and Chair of the Roundtable's Steering Board. "Companies and farmers want global rules that they can follow. The Roundtable will bring together all of these actors to start writing these rules together, to ensure that biofuels deliver on their promise of sustainability."

The Steering Board will invite affected parties to join working groups or otherwise participate in developing and commenting on principles and criteria related to biofuels' environmental and social impacts, as well as overall greenhouse gas benefits.

Areas of interest will include protecting biodiversity, water resources, and labor and land rights, as well as encouraging biofuels' contribution to economic development in rural areas. The Roundtable will gather opinions and feedback through online technology, conference calls, and regional meetings, to ensure that developing countries and disadvantaged groups have a meaningful opportunity to contribute to the elaboration of the standards.

"As Switzerland is not a major importer or exporter of biofuels, it represents a neutral platform to host these discussions," said Dr. Patrick Aebischer, President of the EPFL. "Our hope is that in an academic setting, companies, governments, and civil organizations will be able to come to consensus on how to ensure biofuels are produced sustainably."

The Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels aims to develop draft standards through a global feedback process by early 2008. Already over 80 organizations from the US to Argentina to Kenya to Malaysia have signed up to participate.

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Fortum to build €60 million biomass cogeneration plant in Järvenpää, Finland

Leading bioenergy firm Fortum is planning to invest about €60/US$81.3 million in a new power plant in the Ristinummi district of Järvenpää, southern Finland, where it will deliver both heat and power to households, commercial and municipal buildings. Thanks to the high proportion of biofuels that will be used in the combined heat and power plant, the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions will decrease by 50 percent compared to a fossil fuel powered plant of a similar capacity.

The cogeneration plant will use solid biofuels (80 percent) and peat (20 percent) as fuels, making emissions from the electricity production very low. The district heating capacity of the plant will be approximately 50 megawatts (MW) and electricity production capacity 25 MW. Furthermore, a new natural gas based reserve heat boiler (45 MW) will be build adjacent to the power plant. Heat from the cogeneration plant is transported in the form of hot water via pipelines.

The highly efficient biomass power facility is planned to be completed for production by 2010. Its capacity will cover the increasing need for district heating in Järvenpää and Tuusula, twin-cities experiencing solid economic growth. Järvenpää and Tuusula are located alongside the Helsinki-Riihimäki railway track, some 37 kilometers north of Helsinki:
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The biomass power plant will replace a number of heat boilers that operate on heavy fuel oil and natural gas, some of which will be decomissioned and a few left to serve as peak and reserve capacity. The intention is to build a connecting pipe between the district heating networks in the Järvenpää town centre and Hyrylä.

Fortum has filed an application for a town plan amendment to allow the construction of the power plant and started the preparations to apply for an environmental permit.

Image: district heating is highly efficient because it makes use of the heat generated in a cogeneration plant. This heat is transported from the biomass plant to households, commercial and municipal buildings, in the form of hot water that is distributed via pipelines.

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Netherlands okays €3.7 million to build 140,000 biogas plants in Vietnam

The Government of Netherlands has agreed to continue financing its highly successful rural biogas program, by releasing another €3.7/US$5 million. The funds will be used to build 140,000 more small biogas units for rural households nationwide.

Dutch Ambassador Andre Haspels announced his government's intentions in Hanoi at a ceremony to announce that Vietnam's Dutch-sponsored biogas project for animal husbandry won the Energy Globe Award, one of the world's prestigious environmental prizes.

The biogas for animal husbandry programme, part of a cooperative agreement between the governments of Vietnam and the Netherlands, helped build 27,000 household-based biogas units in 24 cities and provinces nationwide between 2003 and 2006. The biogas units convert animal waste into fuel that is immediately useable for cooking, heating, lighting and generating electricity. This way, the pressure to harvest wood fuel is reduced, and indoor air pollution - a true killer in the kitchen - is avoided.

Vietnam's Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Cao Duc Phat emphasised the project has helped boost rural development while at the same time dealt with environmental pollution issues to contribute to the improvement of the living conditions of rural people.

The awards, handed out to 10 projects from around the world, were selected from a short list of over 700 entries and were presented at a special gala event at the European Parliament in Brussels, on April 11 [entry ends here].
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Top FAO and UN experts to weigh benefits and perils of bioenergy

Amid growing debate over the possible consequences of large-scale bioenergy production, top international experts meet at Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) headquarters in Rome for three days to review present knowledge of the issue and suggest a road map for the way ahead.

Experts from various countries, as well as specialists in energy, climate and the environment from the FAO and other UN agencies will assess the overall potential for bioenergy and weigh the fast-growing industry’s possible effects on food security.

"Bioenergy holds out enormous opportunities for farmers, especially in the developing world" says Gustavo Best, FAO’s Senior Energy Coordinator. "But there are dangers too, and we want to be very clear about them". In the past, FAO experts have seen bioenergy production as key in the fight against hunger.

The FAO recently launched the International Bioenergy Platform (IBEP) as a mechanism for organizing and facilitating a multidisciplinary and global approach to study the benefits and problems associated with bioenergy. IBEP is expected to provide analysis and information for policy and decision-making support; to build and strengthen institutional capacity at all levels; to enhance access to energy services from sustainable bioenergy systems; and to facilitate opportunities for effective international exchange and collaboration.

Another initiative, the UN's Global Bioenergy Partnership, has a mandate to facilitate a global political forum to promote bioenergy and to encourage the production, marketing and use of green fuels, with particular focus on developing countries. Experts from this Partnership will attend the top-level meeting too.

Biofuels, currently made from feedstock such as sugar cane, palm oil and maize, promise to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as they substitute for fossil energy and to create new jobs and infrastructure in rural areas:
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But critics warn they could cause environmental damage and loss of biodiversity as vast tracts of land are cleared for monocultures. Concern is also being voiced about the wisdom of diverting food crops away from human or animal consumption to make fuel for cars and trucks.

To address these challenges, the FAO Bioenergy and Food Security project was launched in January 2007, which will work to mainstream food security concerns into assessments of bioenergy potential. Analysis and field activities will be targeted to support sustainable rural development and food security initiatives.

A core project team, a Task Force, and an inter-disciplinary group of FAO technical staff will provide expertise and guidance over the three-year life of the project in collaboration with a number of external partners.

Country selection criteria are currently under development based on country typology, food security context, biomass potential and farming systems, agro-ecological zones.

Work is also underway to to provide longer-term technical guidance, particularly in terms of land and resource use modelling, as well as incorporate inputs on commodity markets and trade from FAO experts. These will assist countries to assess their comparative advantage in the field of bioenergy.

The experts in Rome will be called on to assess potentials for bioenergy production and identify ways of producing biofuels that are sustainable in terms of the environment and food security.

The meeting is expected to issue a set of recommendations when it ends on Wednesday.

More information:
UN News Center: Experts gather for UN meeting to discuss benefits and perils of bioenergy - April 16, 2007

FAO: Top experts to weigh impact of bioenergy - April 17, 2007

FAO, Natural Resources Management and Environment Department: International Bioenergy Platform.

UN: Global Bioenergy Partnership.

FAO: Bioenergy and food security project - January 2007.

FAO: FAO sees major shift to bioenergy - April 25, 2006

FAO: Bioenergy, key to the fight against hunger - April 14, 2005.

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Monday, April 16, 2007

Nitrogen fertilizer makes up 48% of rapeseed energy balance

Studying the energy balance of biofuels is important, certainly when they are produced from low yield crops such as corn or rapeseed. One of the main energy inputs in the production of such crops is made up by fertilizers. Earlier, we pointed to in-depth research into the fertilizer requirements of tropical energy crops, and now a study prepared for the French Enviroment and Energy Management Agency (ADEME) and the Centre Technique Interprofessionel des Oléagineux Métropolitains (CETIOM - which unites oilseed and vegetable oil producers) looked at the fertilizer inputs of oilseed crops grown in temperate climates, most notably in France. It found [*French] that of all oil crops grown there, rapeseed ('colza', 'canola') utilises most nitrogen-based fertilizers.

Rapeseed oil is increasingly used as a pure plant oil (PPO) in diesel engines, as well as in commercial biodiesel production ('rapeseed methyl-ester', RME), especially in Europe. The study looked at the 'seed to oil' energy balance of different oil crops (sunflower, soy, rapeseed, linseed), and found that rapeseed energy balance is dominated by the input of nitrogen-based fertilizer. Not less than 48% of all the energy inputs used to cultivate the crop can be tracked back to nitrogen, one of the three basic plant nutrients.

Nitrogen-based fertilizers are commonly synthesized using the Haber-Bosch process, which produces ammonia by reacting natural gas-derived hydrogen and nitrogen. This ammonia is applied directly to the soil or used to produce other compounds, notably ammonium nitrate and urea, both dry, concentrated products that may be used as fertilizer materials or mixed with water to form a concentrated liquid nitrogen fertilizer. About 80% or more of the 110 million tonnes of ammonia produced annually is used for fertilizing agricultural crops. The cost of natural gas makes up about 90% of the cost of producing ammonia.

André Pouzet, chief of the CETIOM, puts the study in the context of biodiesel production. Given rapeseed's energy balance, and the fact that these energy costs make up 45% of the total energy inputs involved in biodiesel production, the share of nitrogen's energy inputs amounts to roughly 25% of the total energy inputs of the finished biofuel. This high proportion must prompt rapeseed producers to try to reduce nitrogen fertilizer inputs and ultimately to strengthen the energy balance of biodiesel.

However, there is a great regional and interannual variability in the amount of nitrogen fertilizer applications and their effects on rapeseed production, with some producers achieving much better results than others. Since 1999, the dosages used have steadily declined because of new fertilization technologies that make applications more targeted and efficient. On average, these technologies have resulted in a reduction, between 1999 and 2005, of 181 to 167 units for the spring season:
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"The importance of these technologies that allow for a finetuned fertilisation strategy is to reduce both over-fertilisation and under-fertilisation. We think it is possible to reduce total use of nitrogen by around 10 to 15 units", explains Pouzet.

Three main research areas have now been identified to make nitrogen fertilisation more efficient still.

First of all, fertilizer producers are and should be investing in reducing the energy costs of their production process. Secondly, more intense agronomic research and timing strategies must become more widespread amongst rapeseed farmers. A study by Agrricultural Chamber of the Eure-et-Loire region has shown that yield increases can be obtained by a better match of rapeseed varieties and fertiliser strategies, that result in a decrease of nitrogen needs. Third, Pouzet adds that fundamental research drawing on experiments with Arabidopsis (the 'fruit fly' for plant breeding research), has shown that new breeding techniques can result in non-genetically modified plants with lower nitrogen requirements.

The CETIOM chief streses that the energy balance of biodiesel made from rapeseed is positive, but that it can be strengthened by a range of efforts that spans all players in the field: agronomists, fertiliser producers, rapeseed growers and biodiesel producers.

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Fuel shortages in the heart of Africa - biofuels to the rescue?

Kisangani, a large city in the heart of Africa, is facing fuel shortages that have brought the town's economy to a standstill. Without fuel, no food reaches the city, no food can be exported to the capital, no trade takes place, people become immobile and social services break down.

The city, located where the Lualaba River becomes the mighty Congo River north of the Boyoma Falls (see map, click to enlarge), is home to around half a million people, whose only connection to the outside world is the waterway. Kisangani, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, is the farthest navigable point upstream from the capital city Kinshasa. Fuels are transported to the city in barges that take several weeks and 1800 kilometres to arrive at their point of destination. The other way around, Kisangani is a vital supplier of food for Kinshasa, Africa's second largest city, with around 8 million inhabitants.

The mythical central-African city, formerly known as Stanleyville and described by Nobel laureate V. S. Naipaul in his A Bend in the River, has always been highly sensitive to the political situation in the capital. Earlier this month, clashes in Kinshasa between the troops of recently elected President Joseph Kabila and his rival Jean-Pierre Bemba sent fuel prices in Kisangani skyrocketing. The city's inhabitants, impoverished by a decade of civil war, now pay 900 francs congolais per liter of gasoline, instead of the already high 600 francs before the troubles (US$6/gallon instead of US$4/gallon). When it is available, that is. The Agence Congolaise de Presse (ACP) reports that the city's people - most of who earn less than a dollar a day - have been cueing for fuel in long lines, for days.

As the ACP reports, the inhabitants perceive the price increases as 'the ultimate way to suffocate us'. Fuel is a basic commodity, fundamental to all aspects of modern live, to which the Congolese aspire in their own way. Fuel expenditures take a big bite out of the very small budget of the city's people, but, even here, in the heart of Africa, the price elasticity of fuel demand is extremely low - that is, even if prices are high, people need it and consider it to be an essential good.

Now if there is one place on the planet where the development of a local biofuels industry makes absolute sense, it is Kisangani. Importing fossil fuels via the Congo river a thousand miles upstream is very costly, whereas the region has some of the most suitable land to grow energy crops like palm oil, sugarcane or cassava that can be turned into liquid fuels efficiently. Local biofuels would be considerably less costly than imported fossil fuels. Biodiesel - or even pure palm oil [*French/thesis on using it in ICE's in the tropics] - could be used in the barges that export agricultural products to Kinshasa, whereas ethanol could replace the costly imports of gasoline. A local, independent and decentralised biofuels industry would have immediate and highly positive impacts on both the food and energy security of people in Kisangani and Kinshasa [entry ends here].
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Brazilian biofuels update

Brazil has seen several developments in its biofuels sector recently. First of all, there was the announcement by Petrobras that it may invest in a fleet of dedicated ethanol tankers to export its rapidly growing output (earlier post). Today, Latin American leaders convene for a regional energy summit hosted by Venezuela, in which biofuels will take center stage. In another development, Brazil's largest ethanol producer, Cosan, announced it will be investing a massive US$1.7 billion over the coming four years to expand production and to make it more efficient. Finally, of all new jobs created during the first semester of this year in the industrial sector in São Paulo state - which is home to the Southern hemisphere's largest and most industrialised city - 74% were generated by the biofuels sector.

Cosan steps up investments
Brazil's leading sugar and ethanol producer announces [*Portuguese] it will invest US$1.7 billion in the next four years in expanding its production, in diversifying biofuel related activities, and in optimising the entire production chain.

The company, whose 17 ethanol plants are all located in the São Paulo state, intends to start new acitivities in other regions, most notably in the central state of Goiás. "Cosan's growth strategy is not exclusively aimed at taking over existing plants", says Paulo Diniz, CFO, even though this is what the company had been doing most.

The US$1.7 billion can be broken down as follows:
  • new plants: an investment of US$ 650 million will result in the construction of three factories with a capacity to crush 3.3 million tons of cane, in the municipalities of Montividiu, Jataí and Paraúna, in Goiás. The first of these is expected to come online in 2009. Diniz further announced Cosan is looking at projects in the Centre-West and the poorer and more arid Nordeste, as well as into diversifying its activities and enter fuel mixing and trading of biofuels.
  • process optimisation: another focus of Cosan's investment is the optimisation of the production chain. The mechanisation of cane harvesting will recieve an investment of US$ 88 million; US$40 million will be dedicated to augmenting the productivity of sugarcane production by increased agronomic interventions and innovations, automatisation of harvesting, crushing and bioconversion processes. This will result in higher overall productivity and efficiency, that may save the company some US$ 177 million by 2010.
  • increasing capacity of existing plants: A total of US$ 501 million will go into expanding the capacity of Cosan's 17 sugar plants, the output of which will increase from 40 million tons per year, to 50.6 million tons by 2012.
  • co-generation: new co-generation technologies and capacity - based on utilising processing residues such as bagasse - receives a fresh input of US$448 million. This will boost Cosan's co-generation capacity to 390 megawatts, compared to Cosan's current 163MW. Electricity produced from bagasse is carbon neutral and renewable. This power is used to run the ethanol and sugar plants, but the excess is fed into the grid and sold. Cosan expects an additional return of US$174 million per year from the sales of this green electricity.
Ethanol and the Energy Summit
President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela is organising the first South American Energy Summit on la Isla Margarita today, where heads of state and energy ministers from Argentina, Brasil, Guyana, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Perú, Suriname and Uruguay gather to discuss energy security, biofuels, the integration of a region-wide natural gas grid, the creation of a 'gas OPEC', and the establishment of the Banco del Sur, a new development bank that should become an alternative to Washington-backed lenders such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank:
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Ahead of the summit, Marco Aurelio Garcia, a special aide to President Lula wrote in Venezuelan newspapers that "Brazil's energy options should not be converted into a platform for political-ideological discussion as though there were two opposing camps in the Americas." Chavez now denies any conflict with Lula and stresses his criticism is aimed at the US. Garcia in turn said the Brazilian leader is coming to the summit on Venezuela's Margarita Island "in peace and love," to promote ethanol "not as an ideological fuel, but simply a fuel." Meanwhile, the Brazilian government said in a statement that one key aim of this week's talks is to deepen dialogue toward regional integration begun at a January meeting of the Mercosur trade bloc in Rio de Janeiro. Those talks were marked by public spats over how best to move toward integration.

The South American leaders - most of who are situated on the political left - are all looking at biofuel production themselves. The question is not so much whether biofuels should be promoted, but rather in which kind of development context they should be placed.

Despite Chavez's criticisms of promoting ethanol as a substitute for gasoline, Venezuela still plans to expand its own ethanol production for use as a fuel additive. Venezuela's has launched a €665 million/US$900 million plan to this end, that envisions becoming self-sufficient in ethanol by 2012 by planting 300,000 hectares (740,000 acres) of sugar cane, cassava and rice and building up to 17 processing plants.

We keep an eye on the summit, and will report back as developments unfold.

Biofuels bring jobs - for low-skilled labor
According to the Federação das Indústrias do Estado do São Paulo (FIESP), the state of São Paulo generated [*Portuguese] some 57,000 new jobs in the industrial sector during the first semester of this year. The state is home to the city with the same name, a megalopolis of 20 million inhabitants, Brazil's largest and most industrialised city, and the larges megacity of the Southern Hemisphere.

Of these new jobs, 41,000 were directly generated by the biofuels sector, making it by far the fastest growing industrial segment. Without this sector, São Paulo's job growth amounted to 0.8%.

However, Paulo Francini, lead economist of the FIESP, notes that the growth in biofuels-related jobs is mainly due to increased demand for planting and harvesting cane. In short, most of the jobs are low-income, low-skill jobs for poor laborers, many of whom have no alternative employment opportunities.

This wraps up our Brazilian biofuels update.

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Schmack may invest in Turkey's biogas sector - green gas can meet 75% of natural gas demand

Germany-based Schmack Biogas AG, the leading and most innovative biogas company, has announced it may make investments in Turkey, a country with a large potential to make green, carbon-neutral gas from energy crops.

Suat Karakuz, Schmack's coordinator in the country says that if Turkey reserves 20 percent of its agricultural production areas, in other words 5.2 million hectares for energy agriculture, it can produce 75 percent of all its natural gas needs.

Turkey currently consumes around 22.6 billion cubic metres of natural gas per year and produces only enough of it domestically to meet 2.8% of this demand. It imports the remainder from Russia. Turkish natural gas demand is projected to increase dramatically in coming years, with the prime consumers expected to be industry and power plants. Turkey has chosen natural gas as the preferred fuel for the massive amount of new power plant capacity that is going to be added in coming years.

Since the infrastructures for natural gas are being built already, a timely switch to biogas could propel Turkey towards energy independence and away from being a mere 'transit country' for energy in a geopolitically volatile region:
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Suat Karakuz said Schmack held talks with several Turkish companies and reached an important phase in its negotiations with 10 institutions, most of which were municipalities. Noting that the important biogas potential in Turkey, Karakuz, on the other hand, pointed out that there were still many deficiencies in Turkish legislation regarding biogas investments. Karakuz emphasized that the legal infrastructure should be completed in order to be able to start industrial production.

Germany uses biogas production intensively as an alternative energy source said Karakuz. It is the fastest growing segment of the renewables industry in the country.

Biogas typically refers to a gaseous biofuel produced by the anaerobic digestion or fermentation of biomass. It is comprised primarily of methane and carbon dioxide. Biogas can be cleaned up sufficiently and efficiently to remove the carbon dioxide after which it has the same characteristics as natural gas and can be fed into the main gas grid. Depending on the location of the production plant, the producer can utilize local gas distribution networks, or pump the climate friendly gas into the large pipelines.

In future scenarios, biogas can be used in a carbon negative energy system and help reduce climate change in a way no other energy system can achieve: by capturing and storing the carbon dioxide from biogas into the ground, the climate neutral biogas becomes carbon negative, and scrubs our past CO2 emissions out of the atmosphere (earlier post).

Some have estimated that the EU can replace all natural gas imports from Russia, by 2020, if it were to invest in biogas (previous post). In Europe, biogas is increasingly produced from dedicated energy crops, such as specially bred maize or grass species. A large project analysing the barriers to and potential for feeding biogas into Europe's natural gas grids is currently underway.

Schmack Biogas AG is one of the companies in Europe who is taking biogas to industrial levels. In 2006 it started feeding the green gas into the natural gas grid.

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Sunday, April 15, 2007

US wood pellet industry eyes exports to EU

A North American wood pellet race has begun, with its eyes on exports to Europe. There regulations designed to combat global climate change have created incentives for power companies to boost their use of biomass. Europe already consumes nearly 8 million tons of wood pellets a year, to run factories and power plants (see the International Energy Agency's Bioenergy Task 32 on biomass co-firing with coal), and to heat entire neighborhoods (combined heat-and-power biomass systems with district heating). In 2005, the EU witnessed a 16% growth of electricity produced from biomass (earlier post). This continued growth is leading entrepreneurs in timber-growing regions from Florida to Maine and Canada to build or expand pellet mills.

Biofuel pellets are made by compressing sawdust and other dried wood waste, such as forest thinnings, into a dense, high-combustion fuel source. The fuel can then be used as an alternative to or in combination with coal in utility-scale power plants, as a dedicated fuel source in smaller but highly efficient CHP plants, or as an alternative to heating oil used by households who burn pellets in stoves. Woody biomass, converted into fuel briquettes or pellets, is rapidly becoming competitive with fossil fuels, even with coal. Some analysts have noticed that this type of solid biofuel is actually already less costly than coal in many places in Europe (earlier post). Even without the climate change incentives, the biofuel is set to capture an ever larger market share. But there are still several hurdles to be taken before a true transatlantic trade can emerge. Infrastructures must be build, logistical chains established, market instruments created.

However, the risks don't prevent America's most North-Eastern state, forest-rich Maine, to tap into the emerging opportunity. Developers there are planning and building manufacturing plants that together could produce 1 million tons or more of wood pellets a year. Maine mills in Corinth and Athens are part of the rush. State officials see pellet exports as a way to generate new jobs and create opportunities to revive a forest-products industry that's been losing its traditional manufacturing base:
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"It's just a perfect marriage," says John Richardson, the state's new economic development commissioner. As papermaking shrinks in Maine, officials are encouraging investment in innovative, niche enterprises, such as wood pellets.

Three weeks ago, Richardson and Gov. John Baldacci attended the grand opening of the Corinth mill, which is located in an area that qualifies for state tax subsidies.
But like other energy and trade ventures, wood pellets are a risky business.
A warm winter in Europe this year hurt sales for existing producers. And it's still too early to say whether Maine plants can make and transport the pellets economically, and who will develop the port-side storage and loading systems needed for export.

The larger Maine plant is Corinth Wood Pellets LLC. The venture represents $4 million in private investment. A dozen or so workers were ironing out some equipment kinks last week, to ramp up production. Corinth Wood Pellets has ambitious plans to become one of the nation's largest pellet makers, producing over 300,000 tons a year. Half the production will be sold domestically, the other half in Europe, according to Ken Eldredge, the company's president and co-owner.

Eldredge declined to discuss efforts to secure deals in Europe, but said he's working with Sprague Energy, which has cargo piers at Portland and Searsport. Corinth Wood Pellets will benefit by being located in a Pine Tree Development Zone. That makes it eligible for sales tax exemptions and refunds that lower the cost of business, in exchange for creating jobs in a rural area.

Another mill, Maine Wood Pellets Co., has been proposed at the site of former biomass power generator in Athens. It's a partnership between Linkletter & Sons, a local logging firm, and Maine Biomass Fuels of Belmont. The plant would process some of the waste wood generated by Linkletter & Sons. The partners want the Athens plant to be operating this summer, according to recent media reports, but say they need state and local grants to get going. It's not clear how many tons the plant would produce or the status of the project.

One way to consider the challenges facing Maine's nascent pellet industry is to look at some of its competition. Energex Pellet Fuel Inc. currently bills itself as North America's largest pellet fuel maker, producing 200,000 tons a year from plants in Quebec and Pennsylvania. That output will easily be exceeded by a $100 million plant in Jackson County, Fla. Green Circle Bio Energy, owned by a Swedish company, is building what it calls the largest wood pellet plant in the world, capable of producing 560,000 tons a year. Much of it will be sent to Europe.

Another venture that's also calling itself the world's largest pellet plant, Dixie Pellets LLC, is under way near Selma, Ala. European-bound pellets will be barged down the Alabama River and shipped out of Mobile.

Near Baxley, Ga., Fram Renewable Fuels is building a 145,000-ton- a-year pellet plant, called Appling County Pellets LLC. It's all headed to Europe, shipping through Savannah and Brunswick, Ga. "There aren't too many of us exporting wood pellets successfully, but a lot of us are trying," said John Colquitt, Fram's president.

Colquitt made European contacts while operating a pellet mill outside Halifax, N.S. The overseas market is poised to grow because of a directive in the European Union linked to the Kyoto Protocol, which requires participating countries to cut carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions. One strategy is to mix in wood pellets at coal-burning power plants.

But the market can be fickle. A warm winter in Europe cut demand for all heating fuels, which hurt sales. "There has been a real shaking out this spring," he said. "Some companies couldn't weather the storm."

Europeans are paying roughly $150 a ton wholesale for pellets landed there, Colquitt said. That's attractive, but exporters need to factor in the cost of wood supply, ocean freight, exchange rates and storage. Those issues are being studied carefully by Armand Demers, the forest products director at Sprague Energy. He's been working with Ken Eldredge at Corinth Wood Pellets.

Corinth isn't near a rail line, so pellets would have to be trucked to Portland or Searsport. Pellets must stay bone dry, so they need special storage. And they degrade with heavy handling, so a conveyor system must be installed. Moving and storing wood pellets will require a multimillion-dollar investment, Demers said. "The challenge is going to be how to get them from the mill to Europe and not make it uncompetitive," he said.

Charles Niebling hasn't been able to make the numbers add up. Niebling is the procurement and sales manager at New England Wood Pellets LLC in Jaffrey, N.H., which currently calls itself the nation's largest pellet maker. The nine-year old mill turns out 75,000 tons a year. The company also bags 80,000 tons a year of pellets shipped by rail from British Columbia, and is building a 100,000-ton plant in Schuyler, N.Y.

Niebling has been selling bagged pellets for home heating in Europe, but saw sales drop this winter. And he hasn't been able to figure out an economic way to send bulk shipments to Europe, noting that American pellet makers also are competing with established companies in Scandinavia, Germany and Russia.

Niebling laments that Americans don't burn more wood pellets. The only sizable commercial burner he's aware of in New England is a new manufacturing and office building in Hinesburg, Vt., owned by wind energy equipment maker NRG Systems. That pellet boiler burns roughly 30 tons a year, he said.

Increased demand for pellets in American homes and businesses might boost supply and cut prices, said Matt Boucher, store manager at Yerxa's Lawn & Garden in South Portland. The company has a subsidiary that sells the Harman Stove Co. pellet stoves. One popular model, which is thermostatically controlled and can keep an average house warm for 24 hours with 40 pounds of pellets, sells from $2,695. Boucher was charging $250 a ton for pellets this year, up from $190 the previous winter. More domestic supply could drive prices back into the $200-a-ton range, he said, and that would make pellets more competitive with oil heat.

By Niebling's estimate, if only 5 percent of the oil-fired boilers in New England were replaced by pellet burners, a 300,000-ton-a-year plant could sell all its output at home. But in the absence of aggressive policies to displace oil in the United States, it's not surprising that wood pellet developers see opportunity in Europe. "We're becoming a Third World nation, exporting our renewable resources," Niebling said.

More information:

Maine Today: Pellet power, April 15, 2007.
The US Pellet Heat Institute.
Biopact: Solid biomass production for energy in EU increases markedly - December 21, 2006
Biopact: Swedish group to build 550,000 ton biomass pellet plant in Florida for exports to Europe - February 04, 2007
Biopact: South African company to produce biomass pellets for exports to Europe - February 02, 2007
International Energy Agency, Bioenergy Tast 32 on Biomass Combustion and Co-firing.

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