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    Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and his Chilean counterpart Michelle Bachelet on Thursday signed a biofuel cooperation agreement designed to share Brazil's experience in ethanol production and help Chile develop biofuels and fuel which Lula seeks to promote in other countries. More info to follow. People's Daily Online - April 27, 2007.

    Italy's Benetton plans to build a €61 million wood processing and biomass pellet production factory Nagyatád (southwest Hungary). The plant will be powered by biogas. Budapest Sun - April 27, 2007.

    Cargill is to build an ethanol plant in the Magdeburger Börde, located on the river Elbe, Germany. The facility, which will be integrated into existing starch processing plant, will have an annual capacity of 100,000 cubic meters and use grain as its feedstock. FIF - April 26, 2007.

    Wärtsilä Corporation was awarded a contract by the Belgian independent power producer Renogen S.A. to supply a second biomass-fuelled combined heat and power plant in the municipality of Amel in the Ardennes, Belgium. The new plant will have a net electrical power output of 3.29 MWe, and a thermal output of up to 10 MWth for district heating. The electrical output in condensing operation is 5.3 MWe. Kauppalehti - April 25, 2007.

    A Scania OmniCity double-decker bus to be deployed by Transport for London (TfL) will be powered by ethanol made from Brazilian sugar cane, TfL Coordinator Helen Woolston told a bioethanol conference in London. The bus will join a fleet of seven hybrid diesel-electric buses currently running in London, where TfL plans to introduce 50 more hybrid buses by the end of 2008. EEMS Online - April 24, 2007.

    Virgin Atlantic plans to fly a 747 jumbojet on a mix of 60% biofuel and 40% kerosene in 2008. Sir Richard Branson is collaborating with Boeing to achieve this milestone in aviation history. He already hinted at the fact that the biofuels "it was possible the crops could be grown in Africa, thereby helping to alleviate poverty on the continent at the same time as safeguarding the environment." More details to be announced soon. Telegraph - April 24, 2007.

    A top executive of General Motors, vice-chairman Bob Lutz, says the US should launch a 'Manhattan Project' for biofuels to make a 'wholesale switch' within five years. Kentucky.com - April 24, 2007.

    Canada's new government launches a C$200 million 'Ecoagriculture Biofuels Capital Initiative' aimed at helping agricultural producers construct or expand transportation biofuel production facilities. Government of Canada - April 24, 2007.

    Russian oil company Lukoil reportedly installed production facilities for obtaining biofuels in its refinery Neftochim in the coastal city of Bourgas. Lukoil has over 2500 oil stations in Europe, the largest number of which are located in Bulgaria, which joined the EU this year. Sofia Echo - April 22, 2007.

    The government of the Indian state of Haryana approves three small-scale (1MW) biomass gasification projects, while the Haryana Renewable Energy Development Agency (HAREDA) identifies seven industrial sectors it will help to adopt the biomass gasification technology to meet their captive thermal and electrical requirements. Economic Times - April 21, 2007.

    The Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA) is planning to build a coconut oil biodiesel plant in Ivisan, Capiz (a province in the Western Visayas region) by the middle of this year in response to the growing demand for biodiesel. News Today (Iloilo City) - April 20, 2007.

    Scientists working for Royal Nedalco (involved in cellulosic ethanol production), the Delft University of Technology and a firm called Bird Engineering have found a fungus in elephant dung that helped them produce a yeast strain which can efficiently ferment xylose into ethanol. The researchers consider this to be a breakthrough and see widespread application of the yeast within 5 years. More info to follow as details emerge. Scientific American - April 19, 2007.

    As part of its 'Le dessous des cartes' magazine, Europe's culture TV channel ARTE airs a documentary about the geopolitics of sustainable transport tonight, at 10.20 pm CET. Readers outside of Europe can catch it here. ARTE - April 18, 2007.

    Spain's diversified company the Ferry Group is investing €50 million into a biomass plantation in new EU-memberstate Bulgaria. The project will see the establishment of a 8000ha plantation of hybrid paulownia trees that will be used for the production of fuel pellets. Dnevnik, Bulgaria - April 18, 2007.

    Bioprocess Control signs agreement with Svensk Biogas and forms closer ties with Swedish Biogas International. Bioprocess Control develops high-tech applications that optimise the commercial production of biogas. It won Sweden's prestigious national clean-tech innovations competition MiljöInnovation 2007 for its 'Biogas Optimizer' that accelerates the biogas production process and ensures greater process stability. NewsDesk Sweden - April 17, 2007.

    A joint Bioenergy project of Purdue University and Archer Daniels Midland Company has been selected to receive funding by the U.S. Department of Energy to further the commercialization of highly-efficient yeast which converts cellulosic materials into ethanol through fermentation. ADM - April 17, 2007.

    Researchers at Iowa State University and the US Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Services (ARS) have found that glycerin, a biodiesel by-product, is as effective as conventional corn-soymeal diets for pigs. AllAboutFeed - April 16, 2007.

    U.S. demand for uranium may surge by a third amid a revival in atomic power projects, increasing concern that imports will increase and that limited supplies may push prices higher, the Nuclear Energy Institute says. Prices touched all time highs of US$113 a pound in an auction last week by a U.S producer amid plans by China and India to expand their nuclear power capacity. International Herald Tribune - April 16, 2007.

    Taiwan mandates a 1% biodiesel and ethanol blend for all diesel and gasoline sold in the country, to become effective next year. By 2010, the ratio will be increased to 2%. WisconsinAg Connection - April 16, 2007.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Friday, April 27, 2007

EU to study and support Guyana's biofuels sector

A two-member delegation from the European Union (EU) is in the South American country of Guyana to identify possible areas where the EU may be able to support the country’s biofuel plans, which have gained momentum over the last few weeks.

The two officials are traveling to the six regions in the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries, who enjoy a special relationship with the EU when it comes to sugar exports. Guyana was identified as the first country for study within the Caribbean. The two experts determined that Guyana has a very interesting set of biofuel projects and policies, and that in the coming years, there will be plenty of efforts globally to develop bioenergy. They related that the information gathered will be used to advise policy makers in the EU. The Union may then assist Guyana in acquiring biofuel technologies and in the creation of export markets and appropriate policy frameworks.

Bernard Duhamel and Jean Raux, the two experts from France, met with Agriculture Minister Robert Persaud to discuss the core elements of Guyana’s biofuel plans. Persaud told the EU officials that Guyana prefers to look at sugarcane production for ethanol and utilise coconut as a potential for biodiesel.

Persaud gave assurances that Guyana intends to use land that is currently uncultivated. He said that Guyana is currently examining five investment proposals and has identified 50,000 hectares of land in Canje, Region Six, for cane cultivation. He said that the investor will have to bear the cost of development of the land within the cost model, adding that there is an existing infrastructure for shipping. "Primarily we see this as private sector investment and, at the end of the day, it is the investor that will have to come and run the numbers," Persaud stated.

He pointed to the recent biofuel study conducted by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), entitled "Biofuel Potential in Guyana" (earlier post). The report concluded that present conditions of the energy and agro-industrial sector of Guyana provide an excellent opportunity for the production and use of ethanol as a source of fuel in the country:
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The report stated that when considering costs, available technology and energy productivity, sugar cane, directly as juice or as molasses, presents the most attractive option. In time, other possibilities may be considered.

In the most conservative scenario, using final molasses, producing 8.8 litres of ethanol per tonne of processed sugar cane, the report estimated that 30.8 million litres of ethanol may be obtained annually from the sugar cane industry in Guyana. This would be nearly 3 times the anticipated demand of 11.5 million litres, if a mixture of gasoline with 10 percent ethanol was to be used in Guyana’s vehicles.

Guyana's President Bharrat Jagdeo has established an Inter-Ministry/Agency Working Group on Biofuels/Agro-energy.

The ECLAC report advised that the promotion of ethanol as a source of fuel in Guyana requires the collaboration of all institutions and stakeholders arriving at an operational mechanism for the introduction of ethanol within the energy sector.

For such an initiative to be successful, the report stated, clear timelines should be established and commitments obtained. There should also be the component of building public awareness as well as involvement of the local science and technology community.

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UK bioenergy consortium receives £6.4 million to continue to lead SUPERGEN Bioenergy

Aston University led a successful, multi-million pound bid to continue the UK’s largest Bioenergy R&D consortium, SUPERGEN Bioenergy, for a further four years. The project is funded by the country's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), which grants £6.4 (€9.4/US$12.8) million to allow the constortium to build on the findings of the first four years of the project and extend the work into promising new areas of bioenergy including renewable transport fuels and biorefineries.

Research and development under SUPERGEN Bioenergy focuses on nine themes that span the entire bioenergy chain: biomass resources including characterisation and pretreatment; nitrogen; thermal conversion; power and heat; transport fuels and biorefinery; ammonia; and system analysis, complemented by a dissemination and collaboration theme (image, click to enlarge).

“We decided to continue to concentrate on our core strengths in thermal processing of biomass, especially since this is the clear direction bioenergy is taking in Europe, rather than diluting resources to focus on new areas,” said SUPERGEN Bioenergy manager Tony Bridgwater of Aston University.

Work developed in the first four years of the project will be expanded. SUPERGEN II will devote more attention to lower cost and more varied sources of biomass, like rape straw and bark, because growing competition for high quality biomass is expected to drive up the price in future.

SUPERGEN Bioenergy II welcomes three new academic partners – Forest Research, Imperial College and Policy Studies Institute – to total ten organisations. Jenny Jones of Leeds University will oversee the financial management. Industrial partners are set to increase from six to eleven companies. One or more industry mentors will support each of the theme leaders to manage and direct activities.

“Biomass is unique because it is the only source of renewable fixed carbon and thus the world’s only renewable source of conventional transport hydrocarbon fuels and renewable chemicals. SUPERGEN Bioenergy II aims to optimise the use of the UK’s limited biomass and support UK industry to develop competitive technology for home use and export,” said Tony Bridgwater:
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“It takes about one per cent of the agricultural land to supply one per cent of the electricity demand, so a real impact from bioenergy is achievable, and SUPERGEN Bioenergy’s research will help to make it possible,” said Jenny Jones.

SUPERGEN publishes British Bioenergy News, a biannual newsletter on the latest bioenergy developments in the UK.

SUPERGEN also runs the Bioenergy Research Forum where industry and researchers meet every 6-8 months to discuss and exchange information on bioenergy. Anyone interested in bioenergy can join the meetings and apply to become an associate member of SUPERGEN free of charge.

The new Consortium has been expanded to a total of 10 academic members as follows:

- Aston University (Management)
- University of Leeds (Finance)
- Cranfield University
- Forest Research
- Institute for Grassland and Environmental Studies
- University of Manchester
- Imperial College
- Policy Studies Institute
- Rothamsted Research
- University of Sheffield

The group will be supported by 12 industrial partners to ensure relevance and provide direction. This will include 6 current industrial partners (E.ON UK Ltd, Alstom, Rural Generation, Biomass Engineering, Coppice Resources Limited & Bical) plus 6 new industrial partners, to be announced at a later date.

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Researchers discover structural changes in pretreated biomass that may boost cellulosic ethanol production

Researchers from Purdue University have discovered that particles from cornstalks undergo previously unknown structural changes when processed to produce ethanol, an insight they say will help establish a viable method for large-scale production of ethanol from cellulosic biomass - so-called 'second generation' biofuels.

Their research demonstrates that pretreating corn plant tissue with hot water - an accepted practice that increases ethanol yields 3 to 4 times - works by exposing minute pores of the plant's cell walls, thus increasing surface area for additional reactions that help break down the cell wall.

Using high-resolution imaging and chemical analyses, the researchers determined that pretreatment opens reactive areas within the cells of the corn stover - another name for postharvest corn remnants, like leaves and stalks - that were previously overlooked. In the next step of processing, these enlarged pores are more easily attacked by enzymes that convert cellulose into glucose, which is in turn fermented into ethanol by yeast.

The research, further described in a study published April 26 in the journal Biotechnology and Bioengineering, applies to cellulosic ethanol in general, regardless of the feedstock.

Plant's cell walls are rigid structures made up of a variety of polymers, including cellulose and hemicellulose, which can be converted into sugars that are then made into ethanol. However, cellulose and hemicellulose are held in place by a variety of compounds like lignin, a strong cellular glue that resists treatment and protects cellulose from being broken down. The scientists found that after pretreatment opens corn's tiny pores, enzymes not only removed more cellulose and hemicellulose from the cell wall, but also removed it at a faster rate:
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"This brings together the tools that link the processing technology to the plant tissue physiology," says Nathan Mosier, assistant professor of agricultural and biological engineering at Purdue University. "It helps us understand, on a fundamental level, what the processing is doing and how we can improve it."

Producing ethanol from cellulose would be advantageous over existing industrial processes in several ways, said Michael Ladisch, the study's co-author and a professor of agricultural and biological engineering. Currently, almost all industrial ethanol derives from either starch found in corn grain or from sugar cane. This limits U.S. ethanol production, which is almost entirely from corn grain, to a grain supply that already is in demand for a variety of uses.

"Cellulosic ethanol would allow industry to expand beyond the limits brought about by corn's other uses, like sweetener production, animal feed and grain exports," Ladisch said. For these reasons, cellulosic ethanol also would likely put less pressure on food prices.

The new process has the potential to become more efficient, with a larger potential supply of plants that can be grown more economically than traditional row crops. What's more, research in plant science has yielded - and will likely continue to yield - new types of energy crops with larger pools of usable cellulose.

However, the catch is that cellulose is not easily freed from the cell wall's complex, rigid structure, and, to date, cellulosic ethanol has not been commercially viable. Ladisch said this study should help change that. "This study will help us translate science from the lab to an industrial setting and will help produce cellulosic ethanol economically," he said.

Cellulosic ethanol comes from plant biomass, another term for the tissue of recently dead plants, or plants that grow and die annually. This distinguishes the current supply of plant biomass - to be used for cellulosic ethanol - from plant matter that died eons ago and through time created our current supply of carbon fuels, namely coal and oil. This is why plant biomass is often labeled as renewable, since it can be grown each year, and why petroleum is referred to as non-renewable - once it's gone, it cannot be replaced.

Mosier and Ladisch are currently at work on a variety of projects related to ethanol production, such as how to best scale up from laboratory operations.

They have conducted research in this area for years. The hot liquid water pretreatment process used in this study was originally developed in the Laboratory of Renewable Resources Engineering at Purdue, which Ladisch directs.

Image (click to enlarge): A magnified image of a cornstalk particle shows the many tiny pores that pretreatment - a phase of the ethanol production process - opens up. These pores create more surface area for subsequent reactions to take place and give enzymes better access to cellulose, the source for cellulosic ethanol. Researchers said this information could help in establishing an economic method for industrial production of cellulosic ethanol. (Purdue University photo/Meijuan Zeng)

More information:
Meijuan Zeng, Nathan S. Mosier, Chia-Ping Huang, Debra M. Sherman, Michael R. Ladisch, "Microscopic Examination of Changes of Plant Cell Structure in Corn Stover Due to Hot Water Pretreatment and Enzymatic Hydrolysis" [*abstract], Biotechnology and Bioengineering, Volume 97, Issue 2 , Pages 265 - 278.

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Credibility of Stanford University ethanol research tainted by ExxonMobil Ties?

A week ago, a Stanford University researcher surprised the academic world by claiming that the use of ethanol increases health risks, compared to gasoline. These findings went against a large body of earlier independent research.

For this reason, the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights (FTCR), a leading non-partisan, non-profit consumer watchdog group, decided to have a look into the matter and found that the research credibility of the scientist is seriously undercut by the school's ties to oil major ExxonMobil Corp.

In his study (earlier post) Mark Z. Jacobson, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, found that "a blend of ethanol poses an equal or greater [environmental health] risk than gasoline, which already causes significant health damage." His paper published in the online edition of Environmental Science and Technology said the research, based on computer models, was partly funded by NASA. The model is controversial because it assumes full conversion to ethanol use rather than partial.

ExxonMobil has given US$100 million to fund Stanford's Global Climate and Energy Program (GCEP). Though the ethanol study was not funded by that program, Jacobson had a three-year grant from GCEP to study the impact of replacing fossil-fuel motor vehicles and electric power plants with hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and power plants. He is featured throughout a brochure about the Global Climate and Energy Program.

"It's difficult to accept a controversial study throwing cold water on the accepted idea that blended ethanol is a good solution to our energy problems when the university well that produced the study has been poisoned by Big Oil's money," said John M. Simpson, an FTCR advocate:
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The science behind Jacobson's ethanol study could well be valid, FTCR said. However, the public cannot accept the results at face value when ExxonMobil has funded a major energy research program at the university and research results are in line with the giant oil firm's corporate goals, FTCR said.

ExxonMobil Chairman Rex Tillerson is dismissive of ethanol's prospects, recently telling Fortune Magazine, "I don't have a lot of technology to add to moonshine."

Jacobson said his ethanol work was not influenced by the corporate funding to the GCEP. "I completely oppose ExxonMobil and what it stands for," he said. He added that the results for the hydrogen research funded by GCEP, "resulted in me showing how unhealthful gasoline was relative to hydrogen, so it is certainly not a benefit to the oil companies."

Under the GCEP agreement ExxonMobil could control any patented results of hydrogen research, FTCR noted.

"That's the problem when a university's administration takes Big Oil's cash and becomes part of Big Oil U.," said Simpson. "Even the very best work by its faculty members is greeted with justifiable skepticism from the public. It's in the best interests of faculty and students alike to resist this corporatization of higher education."

The GCEP is managed and controlled by its corporate sponsors, not the university, FTCR noted.

ExxonMobil has given $100 million to the GCEP. Other sponsors are Schlumberger, Toyota and General Electric. ExxonMobil, along with the other partners, receives five-year exclusive rights to any discoveries resulting from the research, meaning they can bury promising discoveries if they wish. The program is overseen by a management committee comprised of the corporate sponsors. The university has no vote on the committee, meaning that the research agenda can be set by the sponsoring firms. The committee can decide what patents will be sought.

BP has proposed a similar $500 million deal with UC Berkeley that would create the Energy Biosciences Institute. That deal would bring 50 BP scientists to campus to do proprietary research and is under fire by many faculty members and students. The Berkeley administration hopes to sign the deal this summer.

At Stanford, ExxonMobil -- known for undermining scientists who linked greenhouse gases to global warming -- is touting its relationship with the university in a major advertising campaign. Objecting to ExxonMobil's greenwashing campaign, movie producer Steve Bing, who attended Stanford and had donated $22.5 million to the school, protested recently by canceling a $2.5 million pledge and any future donations.

The fact that private oil companies are trying to discredit or downplay the role of biofuels in our future energy mix, is not new. Independent analysts estimate that the green fuels can replace between 50 and 100% of all petroleum used, by 2050. So it does not come as a surprise to see oil majors fearing for their future. From the Philippines to Venezuela, from Australia to the Netherlands, everywhere Big Oil is funding marketing and lobbying campaigns against biofuels.

The situation looks very different when state-run oil companies are involved. The best example comes from Brazil, where PetroBras has helped launch a successful biofuels industry that now benefits the company. The same is true in China, where state-run CNOOC is investing heavily in the fuels.

On the other hand, big agribusiness tends to operate the same way as Big Oil: it pushes overly optimistic research on biofuels, creating unrealistic expectations.

Given the enormously hight stakes and the huge flows of money and profit that is involved in this sector, we urge all readers to be sceptical about research that is either too blindly in favor or against biofuels.

The Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights (FTCR) is a leading non-profit, non-partisan consumer watchdog group. It also has a dedicated segment focusing on energy issues.

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The EU's SustainPack project: where nanotech, biotech and communication converge

Environmentally conscious shoppers may soon be able to cross non-recyclable packaging off their list as European researchers work towards reducing the carbon emissions caused by our throwaway society - with modified natural fibre based, intelligent packaging. Some of the plastics and materials they are developing combine rather exotic materials: a molecule found in the exoskeletons of crabs and crustaceans, clay-particles engineered on a nano-scale, DNA footprints to identify materials or photosensitive nano-particles that form organic screens to be used for communication capabilities.

Being the biggest project of its kind, the EU's 'SustainPack' research effort is a four year research programme with a budget of €36/US$49.2 million aimed at developing radically sustainable packaging. The SustainPack project is comprised of a consortium of 35 partners from 13 EU memberstates, representing packaging research associations, academia and industry. Its purpose is to establish fibre-based packaging as the dominant player in the packaging area within a decade. It will achieve this by applying nanotechnology and biotechnology solutions to deliver lean and added value fibre-based packaging options for users and consumers.

Burying everyday items such as plastic drinks bottles, carrier bags and other overwrapped goodies in the ground may seem innocent enough, but each plastic bottle will take 450 years to degrade. A country like the UK landfills around 28 million tons of waste every year and this amount is destined to double over the next twenty years if we don’t change our ways. In fact the amount of CO2 gases emitted during the manufacture of packaging waste in 2006 was estimated to be about the same as the amount produced by seven million petrol cars.

This environmental burden is no longer acceptable. With SustainPack, the EU wants to move away from the petro-based waste economy towards a bright green and intelligen bioeconomy, by focusing research on six areas: market needs and sustainability research, materials and degradable coatings development to enhance product uses, and 3D and interactive packaging in an intelligent communication environment:
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The demands on packaging are continually changing, influenced by a variety of factors ranging from increases in functionality, to improvements in economics and meeting environmental and legislative measures. In a changing and expanding market-place, the potential for fibre based packaging is massive, but in order to capture this potential to its full fibre based packaging materials need to perform better with less fibres have built in barrier properties, be active and interactive, and provide new structural design opportunities.

Let us have a look at one of the projects under SustainPack, a potentially worldchanging effort. Materials experts at Sheffield Hallam University are developing nano-clay particles (image, click to enlarge) that will act as additives to increase the strength of the natural fibre based packaging.

Professor Chris Breen from the university’s Materials and Engineering Research Institute explains:

“The typical consumer in Europe uses ten to twenty pieces of packaging everyday, so where the waste packaging ends up should be at the forefront of our minds. It is expected that Britain will run out of approved space for landfill sites in five to ten years time and as the Government struggles to reduce CO2 emissions, renewable packaging stands out as an attractive proposition.

“Developing sustainable packaging that can compete effectively with packaging derived from petrochemical-based polymers is extremely challenging. Sustainpack is addressing this challenge by creating a European research community focused on sustainable packaging which will pressure retailers to accept natural packaging as the way forward.

“Sheffield Hallam’s expertise is being used to develop nanoclay particles which will significantly improve the barrier properties and mechanical strength of the new biopolymer films and coatings. One of the more unusual modifiers that we are using to make the nanoclays more compatible with, and disperse throughout the biopolymer films, to effectively repel water molecules is a molecule called chitosan which is derived from the shells of crustaceans, such as crabs and lobsters."

Companies such as Sainsbury's and Smurfit-Kappa, one of Europe's largest manufacturers of packaging products, are already actively participating in the project. Sheffield Hallam is now collaborating with SustainPack's partners to develop sample packages which can be used to demonstrate the capabilities of the new materials.

Image: 3D molecular structure of an exfoliated nanoclay-polymer composite.

More information:

Sheffield Hallam University: Europe to 'pack in' more fibre - April 16, 2007.

SustainPack project page.

EU Commission DG of Research: Nanosciences, Nanotechnologies, Materials and New Production Techniques, website.

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