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    Researchers from the Texas A&M University have presented a "giant" sorghum variety for the production of ethanol. The crop is drought-tolerant and yields high amounts of ethanol. Texas A & M - May 3, 2007.

    C-Tran, the public transportation system serving Southwest Washington and parts of Portland, has converted its 97-bus fleet and other diesel vehicles to run on a blend of 20% biodiesel beginning 1 May from its current fleet-wide use of B5. Automotive World - May 3, 2007.

    The Institut Français du Pétrole (IFP) and France's largest research organisation, the CNRS, have signed a framework-agreement to cooperate on the development of new energy technologies, including research into biomass based fuels and products, as well as carbon capture and storage technologies. CNRS - April 30, 2007.

    One of India's largest state-owned bus companies, the Andra Pradesh State Road Transport Corporation is to use biodiesel in one depot of each of the 23 districts of the state. The company operates some 22,000 buses that use 330 million liters of diesel per year. Times of India - April 30, 2007.

    Indian sugar producers face surpluses after a bumper harvest and low prices. Diverting excess sugar into the ethanol industry now becomes more attractive. India is the world's second largest sugar producer. NDTVProfit - April 30, 2007.

    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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Thursday, May 03, 2007

Scientists offer new view of photosynthesis, may improve design of organic solar cells

During the remarkable cascade of events of photosynthesis, plants approach the pinnacle of stinginess by scavenging nearly every photon of available light energy to produce food. Yet after many years of careful research into its exact mechanisms, some key questions remain about this fundamental biological process that supports all life on earth.

Now, a large research team led by Neal Woodbury, a scientist at ASU's Biodesign Institute, has come up with a new insight into the mechanism of photosynthesis, which involves the orchestrated movement of proteins on the timescale of a millionth of a millionth of a second. Their findings are described in "Protein Dynamics Control the Kinetics of Initial Electron Transfer in Photosynthesis," to be published in the May 4 issue of Science. The research comes after another team gained new fundamental insights into the process, presented last month in Nature (earlier post).

"The studies that led up to this work initiated 20 years ago when Jim Allen and I looked at one of our mutants and thought our spectrometer was broken," Woodbury said. "That mutant turned out to be the first of a long series of mutations that systematically altered the energy of the initial reaction." Since then, Woodbury and colleagues have managed to shed light on an amazing process that provides earth's primary power source.

To get a closer look at what was happening during photosynthesis, the team used a well studied purple photosynthetic bacterium called Rhodobacter sphaeroides. This type of organism was likely one of the earliest photosynthetic bacteria to evolve. The researchers focused their efforts by studying the center stage of photosynthesis, the reaction center, where light energy is funneled into specialized chlorophyll binding proteins.

The textbook picture of photosynthesis represents the reaction center proteins as a scaffold, holding chlorophyll molecules at a highly optimized distance and orientation so that electrons can hop from one chlorophyll to another. With the chlorophylls in just the right position, any systematic protein movement was thought to be merely a side product of electrons shuttling between chlorophyll molecules:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Woodbury and his colleagues tried to uncover more of the physical mechanism driving photosynthesis by creating mutants that would theoretically tweak the electron transfer relationships between molecules in the reaction center.

"After years of failure trying to break the system by changing the energetics, we were left with the nagging question of how it continued to work so well," said Woodbury, ASU professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry and director of Biodesign's Center for Bio-Optical Nanotechnology.

The researchers started to inch closer to an answer when Wang, a postdoctoral research associate in Woodbury's lab, noticed something in common with all of the different mutants. When using a new model based on reaction-diffusion kinetics, Wang saw that the curves representing how fast electrons moved in the reaction center had a similar shape. "He decided that there must be some sort of underlying physical principle involved," Woodbury said.

Not many research groups are equipped to measure the early events in photosynthesis because of the extremely short timescale - similar to the amount of time it takes a supercomputer to carry out a single flop. Wang was able to use the ultrafast laser facility (funded by the National Science Foundation), which acts like a high-speed motion picture camera that can capture data from these lightning-fast reactions.

"He tried a really hard experiment, and he was actually able to measure the protein motion and match it to electron transfer," Woodbury said. This discovery helped the researchers understand why changing the energetics didn't knock out photosynthesis.

The movement of the reaction center proteins during photosynthesis allows the plant or bacteria to harness light energy efficiently even if conditions aren't optimal. So, while Woodbury and colleagues made it difficult for photosynthesis to work, the proteins were able to compensate by moving and energetically guiding the electrons through their biological circuit.

According to Woodbury, the reaction center proteins work for electrons in a way similar to how a slow moving elevator with no doors would work for people. The electrons are able to get off at the spot that they need to because the protein motion adjusts the energetics until it is just right. Even if the elevator starts a little too high or low (initial energies are not optimal), the people (electrons) can still get off on the right floor.

This way of representing the electron transfer process successfully captured the contribution of the protein movements to the rate of the reaction. The scientists were then able to quantitatively model the effect of the mutations on the initial rate of photosynthetic electron transfer and answer questions that had been haunting them for 20 years.

The answers may be good news for the development of organic solar cells, which have been of commercial interest due to their relatively low cost compared to traditional silicon solar cells. "Some of the problems that you have with the organic photovoltaics arise from the fact that they don't work under all of the conditions you want them to," Woodbury said.

The robustness of the natural system may offer some useful lessons for engineers trying to improve on current technologies. Woodbury proposed that there might be a way to increase the flexibility of the system used in organic solar cells by incorporating solvents that move on a variety of time scales that could "tune" the molecules to work in a wider variety of conditions.

Woodbury also expects that this new research will help move the study of photosynthesis forward. "It's changed the way I look at how photosynthesis works and has opened up a whole set of new questions," he said.

"One of the areas that we're particularly interested in is how the absorption of light starts protein movement," Woodbury said. The researchers are also looking for future experiments to help explain what sort of protein movements may be occurring in the reaction center and then try to match these findings with current computer models of protein movement.

Image: The structure of the L and M subunits of the photosynthetic reaction center from Rhodobacter sphaeroides (based on PDB entry 1PCR). The protein is represented in purple, the cofactors are represented in red, blue, black and yellow. Credit: Professor Neal Woodbury, Biodesign Institute at ASU.

More information:
Eurekalert: Scientists offer new view of photosynthesis - May 3, 2007

Article continues

New Congo government identifies bioenergy as priority for industrialisation

Each continent has regional 'superpowers' whose political and economic state partly determines the course of development for the rest of the continent. In Africa, this is the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire), a vast country the size of Western Europe, with an enormous and so far largely unexploited wealth in natural resources. Precisely because of this wealth, Congo was dragged into the bloodiest and most underreported war since the Second World War, killing approximately 4.5 million people, in what has been called 'Africa's World War'.

After ten years of conflict and a transition phase between 2003 and 2006, Congo held its first democratic elections in 40 years. Dubbed a 'miracle', the 2006 elections - financed and monitored by the EU and the UN - were a great success, certainly if you consider the fact that the vast country has around 65 million inhabitants living spread out over 2.3 million square kilometres of land, serviced by only 300 kilometres of paved roads... The poll brought Joseph Kabila to power as president and Antoine Gizenga as prime minister.

The challenges Congo faces are enormous. Coming out of a situation of total state-collapse, basic infrastructures, social, educational and health services, political and economic institutions all have to be rebuild. If political stability reigns, the country's future does look bright, though. Last year, it achieved an impressive economic growth of around 7%, but per capita incomes remain the lowest in the world at US$120 per year. The EU has launched several initiatives to support the revival of Congo's economy. Amongst them, an Energy Partnership and a €5 billion infrastructure fund for Africa, of which Congo will receive a substantial share. Likewise, the World Bank has stepped in with credits and called upon the international community to support the country's fragile transition from conflict to peace.

Speaking to Kinshasa-based publication Le Potentiel, the country's new Minister of Industry, Simon Mboso Kiamputu, explains [*French] which areas he thinks need priority investments. He includes bioenergy and biofuels. The country's technical potential for sustainably produced green energy is in fact so large, that in theory it could easily rival the largest producers. Kiamputu explains that Congo is suffering under high fuel import bills which form a barrier to development. By becoming oil-independent, the country can leapfrog beyond the petroleum-era and into an energy future in which energy security, renewability and decentralisation are key.

Congo has some 170 million hectares of potential arable non-forest land, of which only a tiny percentage is currently cultivated. The country's climate allows for the most productive energy crops - eucalyptus, tropical grasses like sugar cane, starch crops like cassava (map, click to enlarge) and palms - to thrive. However, in order to produce and market these bioenergy feedstocks and biofuels, transport infrastructures, policies and investment instruments must be created.

Kiamputu: "together with my collegues from the Department of Hydrocarbons, I am preoccupied with the prospect of biofuels and bioenergy. Imported fossil fuels drain our treasury", and shortages are frequent (earlier post):
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

"I have recently visited the CINAT (Cimenterie Nationale - National Cement Producer) and the CILU (Ciments de LUKALA) in the Bas-Congo province. Fuels represent 50% of their production costs. This is a heavy burden."

"It would be good if we were to produce biofuels from palm oil and sugar cane in order to become energy independent. Likewise, bioenergy can be used to electrify the country-side [where 70% of Congolese live]. Despite all the efforts by the SNEL (National Electricity Company), the rural areas remain largely unelectrified."

"I am sending an expert to Hannover to attend a conference on the production of bio-energy on the basis of woody feedstocks. We are going to collaborate with a sugar producer in Kwilu-Ngongo which already makes ethanol."

"Most importantly, together with my collegue from the Department of Hydrocarbons, we have created a joint commission to draft legislation on biofuels which will allow the blending of green fuels like biodiesel and ethanol into fossil fuels. This will reduce our dependence on imported oil and lower the import bill."

Other priority areas
Simon Mboso Kiamputu sksetches four other key areas that need to be relaunched in order to bring Congo's economy back on track. The fields of agro-industry and the construction of transport infrastructures are amongst them and tightly linked to the establishment of a viable biofuels industry.

"The first disease that kills people in our country", the Minister says, "is not malaria, but hunger. Because those who don't have enough to eat are more susceptible to malaria and die more easily because of it. We are going to support the agro-food sector massively to integrate it with both agriculture and industry, in order to facilitate the processing of agricultural products into finished goods. The fishing and food industry is our absolute priority."

"We are going to support the creation of proximity industries that will process agricultural products there where they are produced. We produce a billion kilos of fish each year that go to waste because we lack the processing, storage, and distribution infrastructures needed to bring them to market."

"The third priority area is that of construction materials, industrial wood and iron bars. In order to achieve the goals set out by the president of the Republic, we must build infrastructures on a massive scale: roads, railroads, inland water ways, ports. This will allow us to relaunch the economy and it gives farmers the opportunity to produce for large markets and industries once again."

"Fourthly, the pharmaceutical industry requires support and investments. In order to make the Congolese healthy, we need a real pharmaceutical industry that deals with intellectual property in an appropriate way, and policies that combat those who distribute fake medicines. Today, the wide-spread use of fake medicines is a serious problem."

"Finally, we need to relaunch an industry of spare parts for all kinds of machines and equipment. We have no such industry, which limits the durability of machinery." Those spare parts have to be imported from abroad and are often of low quality.

Financing needs and instruments
Asked how the Minister of Industry will finance investments in all these different areas, he says money alone is not the problem. There is a general lack of management skills as well.

"I have recently visited the Bas-Congo province and found entire industries that are closed. The brewery of the Cataractes has not produced drinks for 10 years. All the equipment is there, so there is no need for new investments in machines, but the company lacks funds to restart operations and management skills."

"At the Ministry of Industry we have now established a program, with the aid of the Fund for the Promotion of Industry to revive this kind of plant. We will finance them because all they need is an initial infusion of money to kickstart operations again. We will proceed in the same way as the Central Bank, which succeeded in helping the commercial banks to get back on track, by interventions in magagement."

"Take the CINAT: this company only produces 100,000 tons while it has an installed capacity for 300,000 tons. This needs an initial boost and a restructuration program. In cooperation with my collegues at the planning department, we have developed urgency plans that allow such a factory to relaunch activities, create employment and flood the market with cement, a commodity that is very scarce at the moment."

Le Potentiel remarks that the banking sector in the Democratic Republic of Congo is very weak, and asks where the Minister will get the credits to finance all the projects.

"It is true that there is insufficient capacity in the banking sector to finance industries with medium and longterm credits. The banks basically finance over the short-term only. But obviously, industrial projects require a longer time horizon, the medium to long term.

"Replacing equipment in a steel-making factory like the Socider or a mining company like the MIBA requires large capital inputs because the return on the investment takes a relatively long time. But once such an industry is on track, the investment is very profitable."

"Short-term credits are meant for commerce and semi-industrial activities. Together with the FEC [Federation of Enterprises of Congo], we are pressuring the World Bank to open a credit-line for us. We have asked for US$ 120 million, but there is no agreement with the Bank yet. When the president of the World Bank visited Kinshasa [Paul Wolfowitz, who toured the country earlier this year], the government has once again attempted to get a committment. At the same time, we are sollicitating other lenders like the Belgian Investment Fund (BIO) and the Agence Française de Développement (AFD)."

"It must be said that with the collapse of the SOFIDE [Société Financière de Développement], we no longer have a robust financing mechanism adapted to funding industry."

"Today, the FPI [Fonds de promotion de l'industrie) limits it credit lines to US$1 million dollars maximum. Large industrial sectors need much larger funds than this. It is absolutely critical for us to relaunch heavy industries, because they drag smaller sectors along."

"We are an elected government, with legitimate executive powers. Once security and peace is entirely restored in the country, I think we will see financial instutions flooding the country which will allow us to revive Congo's economy over the next five years."

Adapted and translated by Jonas Van Den Berg

More information:
Le Potentiel [via AllAfrica]: "Cinq domaines prioritaires pour promouvoir l'industrialisation de la RD Congo" - April 24, 2007

Biopact: EU proposes €uro 5 billion aid for African infrastructure - July 16, 2006.

Biopact: EU forges energy partnership with Africa - March 15, 2007.

Article continues

Brazilian government allows field trials with genetically modified sugar cane

Brazilian authorities have given their fiat for field trials with genetically modified sugar cane plants. The Centro de Tecnologia Canavieira (Cane Technology Center - CTC), a research organisation based in the state of Sao Paulo, obtained approval to do so in February 2007. The move is part of an ambitious €3,5/US$5 billion biotechnology policy launched earlier this year by the Brazilian federal government (previous post).

The field trials will test three varieties of genetically modified cane. According to CTC, these GM plants have been modified to exhibit sucrose levels 15 % higher than those of ordinary sugar cane – for now, under laboratory conditions. However, if field trials are successful, the company may bring these plants to market by the end of the decade. Scientists and engineers think that the ethanol yield of sugar cane can be doubled from 6000liters/ha to more than 12,000l/ha within over the next 15 years (earlier post).

Sugar cane genome project
The development of CTC’s high-sucrose GM plants builds on the success of the Brazilian Sugar Cane EST Genome Project (SUCEST). This project was funded by FAPESP, the Sao Paulo State research agency, and was carried out by several Brazilian universities between 1998 and 2003. Scientists used project results to establish one of the most comprehensive databases integrating genome sequences for this crop. Subsequently, with cooperation of the Cane Technology Center (CTC), the Lucelia Central Alcohol Distillery, and various Brazilian universities, a new project was launched to analyse more than 2,000 genes of sugar cane. Researchers found and patented 200 target genes related to the accumulation of saccharose in the plant.

Other biotech companies also are interested in the potentially large market of GM sugar canes. The local company Allellyx is such an example, and still is awaiting approval from the Brazilian authorities to conduct field trials with several sugar cane varieties. Equally, the governmental linked agricultural research firm EMBRAPA has expressed interest in stepping up research in this area:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

New funding
In February 2007, the federal government announced plans to fuel Brazilian biotechnology by investing €3.5 billion in this area over the next decade. The budget will be used to fund biotechnological research, including the development of a new strain of sugar cane that is resistant to drought. By developing canes with this characteristic, Brazil may be able to expand crops into areas which are substantially drier than the south-central region, where currently almost 90 percent of Brazil’s sugar and ethanol are produced.

Brazil’s struggle with GMOs
Brazil has been the last major exporter to ban GMO food crops for a long time. The first GM plants in Brazil were Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybeans, imported illegally from Argentina. This crop was legalised only in 2005 – at which point already 30 percent of the soybean plants were genetically modified – and now comprise two-thirds of soy production.

The Bollgard Bt cottonseed is the only other biotech crop approved for cultivation. Although Brazilian authorities approved the planting under several safety prerequisites, the Ministry of the Environment, as well as NGOs, still oppose the planting due to the possibility of crossing with native cotton species.

New governmental funding, as well as scientific progress on the development of GM plants, have the potential to push forward the Brazilian biofuel production. However, since bureaucracy and popular opposition to GM products may slow down the progress, some experts say that the government may fall short of its goals.

More information:
GMO Compass: Are GMOs Fuelling the Brazilian Future? - March 8, 2007.

Unicamp: Sugar Cane EST Genome Project page.

Biopact: Brazil to invest $5 billion into the 'bioeconomy' - February 09, 2007.

Article continues

D1 Oils has planted over 156,000 hectares of jatropha

D1 Oils PLC has announced [*.pdf] it has planted over 156,000 hectares (385,500 acres) of Jatropha curcas in Africa, India and South East Asia, so far, adding 10,000 hectares planted in the last two weeks of the year's first quarter (table, click to enlarge). The biofuel company said the majority of this increase was accounted for by planting in Africa, "with planting under contract farming arrangements in Zambia continuing to make particularly good progress." With an expected yield of 2000 liters of biodiesel per hectare and a productive life of 50 years per tree, D1 Oils now owns a virtual biofuel reserve of around 94 million barrels of oil equivalent.

The company establishes jatropha plantations for the plant's seed oil, which yields more biofuel per hectare than corn and soya, can restore degraded, low-value lands and prevents erosion. Jatropha curcas takes some 3 years to grow before harvestable quantities of seed can be obtained. The biofuel company expects first supplies of jatropha oil from 2008 onwards. Jatropha trees have a productive life of between 30 and 50 years.

D1 Oils works with subsidiaries and joint ventures to control the flow of feedstocks and to manage the plantation activities. The level of investment costs and security of future oil supply from planting are proportional to the degree of direct involvement by D1 and its partners. Managed plantations are those farms where land and labour is controlled by D1, either through its subsidiaries or joint venture partners.

Under contract farming, the farmer plants his own trees on his own land. D1 and its partners assist with the provision of seedlings and the arrangement of bank finance for planting, and offer a buyback of harvested seeds with an offtake agreement. D1 provides support and advice during cultivation, and monitors the condition of the crops. Seed and oil supply agreements are arms-length supply contracts with third parties whereby D1, either directly or through joint venture partners, has offtake arrangements in place over future output from jatropha plantations which the third party is developing. D1 has limited involvement in this planting and relies on third parties to measure and manage the crop effectively.

Plant science
D1 Oils' plant science programme has gathered a wide range of jatropha material to support the first ever commercial breeding and product placement trials for this crop. The scientists have now collected more than 200 accessions of jatropha from three different continents and over twenty countries:
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Using field and laboratory data from this material, D1 Oils has established a breeding process and global trials network to identify which individual jatropha cultivars are best adapted to the different cultivation zones.

The first commercial outcome of the plant science programme is elite seed material dubbed 'E1', selected for higher yield and good biodiesel profile. D1 Oils expects this seed will deliver oil yields of 2.7 tonnes per hectare under properly managed conditions when the trees attain maturity. E1 seed multiplication is continuing in all three regions. The biofuel company expects to be able to plant 50,000 hectares with this material in 2008.

Refining and trading
Along with agronomy, the company also refines and trades biodiesel. In a first quarter business update, D1 said it delivered a fifth refinery unit to its producing refinery at Teeside, which will increase production capacity there to 42,000 tonnes per year. The company also said work on its second UK refinery site at Bromborough, which it bought in January, continues on track.

The company announced last month that it anticipates that the new site will add a further 100,000 tonnes of refining capacity by the end of 2007, although its plans to increase output to 320,000 tonnes per year have been pushed back by one year to the end of 2008, prompted by lower margins.

The company's principal revenues currently come from refining soya feedstock into biodiesel, and UK refining margins are being squeezed by lower diesel prices and higher feedstock costs.

D1 said last month that it ran its refineries below capacity in order to continue to benefit from 2006 hedged soya prices, but added it would be able to ramp up capacity if diesel prices rose or feedstock costs declined.

Ultimately the company is aiming to refine non-edible feedstock like jatropha because it expects prices of edible feedstock like corn and soya to continue to rise as the food and biodiesel markets compete for the product.

Chief executive Elliott Mannis said; 'The delivery of our fifth D1 20 refinery to Teesside and the expansion of capacity at Bromborough reaffirm our commitment to expand prudently our UK refining capacity in advance of the implementation of the UK RTFO in April 2008.'

The Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation is a government requirement on transport fuel suppliers to ensure that a certain percentage of their sales is made up of biofuels. It will come into effect in 2008, and the percentage requirements for renewable fuels sold on UK forecourts will increase each year to a maximum of 5 pct by 2010.

The obligation will be supported by a fuel duty incentive of 20 pence per litre as well as a 15 pence per litre 'buy-out price' (the penalty for those who are unable to supply enough biofuel).

D1 believes the introduction of the RTFO and its incentives will improve margins, and expects it will create an annual UK market for at least 1 mln tonnes of biodiesel by 2010.

More information:
Hemscott: D1 Oils lifts jatropha planting to 156,000 hectares by end Q1 - May 2, 2007.

D1 Oils: D1 Oils Q1 2007 Business Update - May 2, 2007.

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WHEB Biofuels to build 400,000 ton biodiesel plant in Rotterdam

A €70.2/US$95.4 million euro biodiesel plant is to be built by WHEB Biofuels in the Port of Rotterdam. The plant will be a multi-feedstock facility [*.pdf] with the capacity to convert up to 400,000 tonnes of vegetable oil to biodiesel per annum which will be supplied on long-term contracts to major oil companies.

Construction of the plant, which is subject to environmental permitting, is expected to start later this year with the plant commencing full scale commercial operations in 2009. Colin Horton, Managing Director of WHEB Biofuels said: “The Rotterdam plant will provide a much-needed resource to support the increasing demand for biofuels and so make an important contribution to the EU’s biofuels and greenhouse gas reduction targets.”

According to WHEB Biofuels the key advantages of the Rotterdam project are:
  • A location with good rail, road and sea access to the major global oil and vegetable oil markets;
  • Economies of scale in biodiesel production and operational flexibility of the plant;
  • Outsourcing of plant operations to an experienced facilities management company;
  • The ability to use a mix of vegetable oil feedstocks for biodiesel production which will significantly reduce feedstock costs, whilst still meeting quality requirements;
  • Long-term biodiesel offtake contracts with major oil companies and fuel oil distributors and a secure glycerine sales route.
The choice of the location fits in the strategy held by a cluster of ports in the Netherlands who are aiming to become a genuine 'bioport' to supply the EU. Rotterdam is competing with the nearby cluster of harbors in Belgium, mainly Antwerp and the Ghent Bioenergy Valley, who strive towards forming the leading logistical and industrial center for the nascent bioeconomy (earlier post).

The plant is to be located on a site within the Koole vegetable oil storage terminal at Pernis in the Port of Rotterdam. The Koole site is a bulk storage terminal in Rotterdam dedicated to the storage and handling of vegetable oils and oleo chemical products. As such, it has excellent berthing facilities for the receipt of vegetable oil cargoes and the redelivery of biodiesel to barge or ship:
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Horton: “As the plant will be in the Port of Rotterdam it is ideally located from both a commercial and logistics perspective. We are incredibly grateful for the help and support given by the Port of Rotterdam and Koole Tank Storage BV in facilitating this project.”

ED & F Man and ATMOS SpA, an Italian venture capital firm, have an equity investment in WHEB Biofuels with ED & F Man contracted to source and supply the plant’s feedstock requirements.

John Laing, Divisional Financial Director of ED & F Man Holdings, said: “We are delighted to be WHEB Biofuels’ strategic partner. The WHEB team has considerable experience of developing biodiesel projects, which complements our own experience in the purchasing and trading of quality vegetable oils and glycerine products.”

The vegetable oils used in the plant will be purchased from sustainable sources. ED & F Man are undertaking audits of its main suppliers to verify the sustainability of the vegetable oil purchases.

The Netherlands recently proposed a set of environmental sustainability criteria, to ascertain that biofuel feedstocks are sourced from sustainable producers. The implementation of such criteria will take time, as certification mechanisms have to be developed, and as criticism and scepticism about the rules is great (earlier post).

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Dupont outlines strategy for mass adoption of biofuels

Speaking at an investors' conference today, DuPont Biofuels Vice President and General Manager John Ranieri said the company's strategy to bring biobutanol and cellulosic ethanol technologies to market will help address the global need for alternative and more sustainable transportation fuels.

According to Ranieri oil remains the prime energy source for transportation fuels with increasing demand, particularly from China and India, placing additional pressure on current oil supplies. The need to diversify the fuel supply with more sustainable solutions is a large opportunity for agricultural-based alternatives.

The development of an Integrated Corn Based Biorefinery (ICBR) is the center-piece of Dupont's a systems-based approach aimed at converting cellulosic feedstocks into biofuels and other renewable products.

It's ICBR research program includes:
  1. Pretreatment of corn stover to separate the lignin from the plant's cellulose backbone to provide access to the cellulose for further processing;
  2. An enzymatic process called saccharification to convert the cellulosic materials to fermentable sugars; and,
  3. A novel technology developed to ferment the sugars to make high concentrations of cellulosic ethanol.
DuPont's research program is supported by a three-part biofuels strategy which consists of investing in the following fields: (1) improving existing ethanol production through differentiated agricultural seed products and crop protection chemicals; (2) developing and supplying new technologies to allow conversion of cellulose to biofuels; and (3) developing and supplying next generation biofuels with improved performance.
"An integrated approach to convert cellulosic biomass to biofuels is necessary to achieve the economics needed to be competitive. Capital investment and operating costs must be comparable with incumbent grain ethanol technologies. We are focused on feedstock collection systems, cost-effective pre-treatment and optimized fermentation technology that assures high yields and lower costs for biofuels derived from cellulosic feedstocks." - John Ranieri, DuPont Biofuels Vice President and General Manager
Biobutanol is the first advanced biofuel being developed by DuPont in partnership with BP:
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According to Dupont, 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.

Recent fuels testing has shown that biobutanol is an advanced biofuel because it is similar to gasoline, and performs exceptionally well in vehicles (earlier post).

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