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    Germany's Biogas Nord has been commissioned to construct a large multi-feed biogas plant with a capacity of 2.8 MW of electrical power in Romania. The value of the order is approximately €3.5 million. The plant will be built in the Transylvanian region close to the county town of Oradea. Interestingly, a synergy will be created by coupling the facility to the construction of a biodiesel plant. In so doing, the waste products resulting from the production of biodiesel, such as rapeseed pellets and glycerin, will be brought to the biogas plant as substrates. Ad-Hoc News - August 16, 2007.

    The University of Western Ontario's Research Park at Sarnia has received $10-million in funding for the development of biofuel technologies. The funds will be used for the creation of the 'Ontario Bioindustrial Innovation Centre' at the University, including the addition of a commercialization centre with incubator suites, laboratory equipment, pilot plant space and space for startup companies. The Observer - August 16, 2007.

    Philippine Bio-Sciences Co., Inc. (PhilBio) and its Clean Development Mechanism subsidiary in Cebu, has told the Central Negros Electric Cooperative (Ceneco) that it will soon open a 10 megawatt biogas plant in Cebu. According to the company, under current conditions electricity generated from biogas is around 20% less costly than that generated from fossil fuels. Philippine Bio-Sciences - August 15, 2007.

    Scientists, economists and policy experts representing government and public institutions from more than 40 countries will exchange the latest information on economic and technology opportunities at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's "Global Conference on Agricultural Biofuels: Research and Economics", to be held Aug. 20-21 in Minneapolis. USDA ARS - August 14, 2007.

    A company owned by the Chinese government has expressed interest in investing up to 500 million US dollars in a biofuel project in Indonesia. The company is planning to use jatropha as its raw material and is targeting an annual output of around 1 million tons. Forbes - August 13, 2007.

    Virgin Atlantic, Boeing and General Electric are within weeks of selecting the biofuel for a flight demonstration in the UK early next year. The conversion of biomass via the Fischer-Tropsch process is no longer amongst the biofuel candidates, because the process has already been demonstrated to work. Ground testing of the chosen fuel in a development engine at GE is expected to begin in October-November. The limited flight-test programme will involve burning biofuel in one GE CF6-80C2 engine on a Virgin Boeing 747-400. Flight Global - August 13, 2007.

    Japan's Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry said Saturday it plans to introduce a new preferential tax system in fiscal 2008 aimed at promoting a wider use of biofuel, which could help curtail greenhouse gas emissions. Under the envisaged plan, biofuel that has been mixed with gasoline will be exempt from the gasoline tax--currently 53.8 yen per liter--in proportion to the amount of biofuel included. If blended with diesel oil, biofuel will be free from the diesel oil delivery tax, currently 32.1 yen per liter. Daily Yomiuri - August 13, 2007.

    Japan's Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry said Saturday it plans to introduce a new preferential tax system in fiscal 2008 aimed at promoting a wider use of biofuel, which could help curtail greenhouse gas emissions. Under the envisaged plan, biofuel that has been mixed with gasoline will be exempt from the gasoline tax--currently 53.8 yen per liter--in proportion to the amount of biofuel included. If blended with diesel oil, biofuel will be free from the diesel oil delivery tax, currently 32.1 yen per liter. Daily Yomiuri - August 13, 2007.

    Buenos Aires based ABATEC SA announces the release of a line of small biodiesel plants with modular design, high temperature reaction for the best yield, to produce from 50 to 1000 gal/day (190 to 3785 liter/day) of high quality methylester and valuable glycerol. PRWeb - August 10, 2007.

    Vegetable growers in North Queensland are trying to solve the problem of disposing of polyethylene plastic mulch by using a biodegradable, bioplastic based alternative. Trials are a collaboration of the Queensland Department of Primary Industries with the Bowen District Growers Association. Queensland Country Life - August 8, 2007.

    Hawaii's predominant utility has won approval to build the state's first commercial biofuel plant. It is the first substantial new power generator that Hawaiian Electric Co. has added in 17 years. HECO will build the $142.3 million facility at Campbell Industrial Park on Oahu beginning early next year, and expects to begin commercial operation in mid-2009. It will run exclusively on fuels made from ethanol or biodiesel. Star Bulletin (Honolulu) - August 8, 2007.

    PetroSun Inc. announced today that it conducted its initial algae-to-biofuel program held at Auburn and Opelika, Alabama. The company intends to hold a series of these programs during August and September with biodiesel refiners and firms that are researching the use of algal oil as a potential feedstock for jet fuel production. MarketWire - August 8, 2007.

    To encourage Malaysia's private sector to generate energy from biomass resources, national electricity company Tenaga Nasional Bhd (TNB) has increased the purchase price of electricity produced from palm oil biomass waste to 21 sen per kilowatt hour from 19 sen now. According to Minister of Enegry, Water and Communications, Datuk Seri Dr Lim Keng Yaik the new price structure, under the Renewable Energy Power Purchase Agreement (REPPA), will be implemented immediately. Such projects are eligible for the Clean Development Mechanism. Under the 9th Malaysian Plan, the country's government aims to achieve the installation of 300MW and 50MW of grid-connected electric power from renewable energy sources in Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah, respectively. Bernama - August 7, 2007.

    Aspectrics, which develops encoded photometric infrared and near infrared spectroscopy, will be launching a new range of biofuels analyzers designed to meet the demands of scientists and analysts to carry out biodiesel quality control and analyze biodiesel blend percentages in real time. Bioresearch Online - August 7, 2007.

    Irish start-up Eirzyme has secured a €10m investment from Canadian company Micromill System. The new company will produce low-cost enzymes to convert biological materials such as brewers' grains into bioethanol and biogas. RTE - August 6, 2007.

    Imperium Renewables says it has a deal to provide Royal Caribbean Cruises with biodiesel. The Seattle-based biodiesel maker, which is scheduled to inaugurate its Grays Harbor plant this month, will sell the cruise line 15 million gallons of biodiesel in 2007 and 18 million gallons annually for four years after that. The Miami-based cruise line has four vessels that call in Seattle. It is believed to be the single-largest long-term biodiesel sales contract to an end user in the U.S. Seattle Times - August 5, 2007.

    The J. Craig Venter Institute, leading the synthetic biology revolution, is expanding its Bio-Energy Program, seeking a senior scientist to head the new dedicated department. With ongoing research in biohydrogen, cellulosic ethanol, microbial fuel cells, and bacterial nanowires, the Environmental Genomics and Plant Genomics groups within JCVI are working on active components related to bio-energy. NatureJobs - August 5, 2007.

    Polish power and heat firm Praterm has decided to invest 50 to 100 mln zloty (€13.2-26.4 /US$18.1-36.4 mln) by 2013 in biomass production. The company has already bought Bio-Energia, an operator of four biomass heating plants with a total capacity of 14 MW. Wirtualna Polska - August 5, 2007.

    Brazil and Mexico will sign a cooperation agreement to collaborate on the production of ethanol from sugarcane, Gonzalo Mourão of the Brazilian chancellory's Departamento do México, América Central e Caribe said. Brazil's President Lula is on a tour of Central America and is currently in Mexico, after which he will visit Honduras, Nicaragua, Jamaica and Panama. He is set to sign several bilateral agreements on energy and biofuels with these countries. Reuters Brasil - August 4, 2007.

    Evergreen Pulp Inc. announced that it and Diversified Energy Corp. have been selected by the state of California for a $500,000, 36-month renewable energy project that aims to dramatically reduce natural-gas-use residue and natural gas at its Samoa mill. The Public Interest Energy Research Natural Gas Program, a part of the California Energy Commission, awarded four contracts for research, development and demonstration of technologies to replace natural gas with renewable resources, to four applicants from among a pool of 25. The state’s focus for the contracts was for biomass-to-gas and/or hybrid projects specifically addressing industrial and commercial process heating or combined heat and power needs. Eureka Reporter - August 4, 2007.

    Greenline Industries, which designs and builds biodiesel production facilities, and ULEROM, one of Romania's largest agri-business corporations, today announced the formal opening of their largest facility in Vaslui, Romania. The plant will produce some 26.5 million liters (7 mio gallons) per year. The Romanian facility is the 17th example of Greenline's technology featuring waterless wash, computerized, continuous flow and modular construction. PRNewswire - August 1, 2007.

    US Renewables Holdings announced today that it has successfully closed on $475 million of third party capital commitments in its most recent private equity fund, USRG Power & Biofuels Fund II, LP and related vehicles (collectively, "Fund II"), ahead of the fund's original target of $250 million. PRNewswire - August 1, 2007.

    Malaysian palm oil company Kim Loong Resources Bhd has secured European energy trading group Vitol as buyer for all its carbon credits from its planned biogas plant in Kota Tinggi. The biogas facility generates methane from palm oil mill effluent, a waste product. The project is expected to generate over RM2 million (€423,000/US$579,000) of earnings annually. The methane capture and power generation project was registered and approved by the Clean Development Mechanism. The Edge Daily - July 31, 2007.

    GreenHunter Energy, Inc. announces that its wholly-owned subsidiary, GreenHunter BioFuels, Inc., located in Houston, Texas has successfully acquired Air Emission Permits from TCEQ (Texas Commission of Environmental Quality) under TCEQ's Permit by Rule (PBR) programs. These permits open the way for construction of a 105 million gallon per year (mgy) biodiesel facility including a separate but related methanol distillation facility. PRNewswire - July 30, 2007.

    Together with Chemical & Engineering News' Stephen K. Ritter, the journal Environmental Science & Technology sent Erika D. Engelhaupt to Brazil from where she wrote daily dispatches of news and observations about biofuels research. In particular she focuses on a bioenerrgy research partnership between the American Chemical Society, the Brazilian Chemical Society, and the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA). Check out her blog. Dipatches from Brazil - July 28, 2007.

    Consultation is under way on a £50 million (€74/US$101million) renewable energy plant planned for the South Wales Valleys. Anglo-Dutch company Express Power plans to build a wood-fuelled biomass plant on Rassau Industrial Estate in Blaenau Gwent. The plant will generate an annual 160,000 MWh (Mega Watt hours) of green electricity for Wales from forestry, recycled wood and wood derivatives. ICWales - July 27, 2007.

    The price of New York crude leapt to 77.24 dollar a barrel on Thursday, marking the highest level since August 9, 2006, as keen global demand and tight supplies fuelled speculative buying, traders said. On Wednesday, the US government had revealed that inventories of American crude fell by 1.1 million barrels last week. France24 - July 26, 2007.

    Arriva, one of Europe's largest transport groups is trialling B20 biodiesel for the first time on 75 of its buses. The company is aiming to reduce total carbon emissions by around 14 per cent by using biodiesel as a 20 per cent blend (predominantly be a mixture of sustainable soya products, along with used cooking oil and tallow). The 75 buses in the innovative trial will carry around 130,000 passengers every week. Minimal engineering changes will be required to the fleet as part of the scheme. Arriva - July 26, 2007.

    Marathon Oil Corporation announces that it has completed two more projects adding biodiesel blended fuel at its Robinson and Champaign terminals in Illinois. The terminals now feature in-line ratio blending in order to provide soy-based B-2 (two percent biodiesel) and B-11 (eleven percent biodiesel). Marathon Oil - July 25, 2007.

    Norway-based renewable energy firm Global Green One has agreed to set up a € 101.6 million bioethanol plant in Békéscsaba (southeast Hungary), with more facilities planned for Kalocsa, Szombathely and Kõszeg, the latter of which was already a target for a €25 million plant in May this year. The Békéscsaba plant would process 200,000 tonnes of maize per year, employing around 100 people. The logistics part of the facility would also create 100 jobs. The company expects the factory to generate €65 million in revenues each year. Portfolio - July 25, 2007.

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Scientists demonstrate first use of nanotechnology to enter plant cells

A team of plant scientists and material chemists have for the first time successfully used nanotechnology to penetrate plant cell walls and simultaneously deliver a gene and a chemical that triggers its expression with controlled precision. Their breakthrough brings nanotechnology to plant biology and agricultural biotechnology, creating a powerful new tool for targeted deliveries of DNA and drugs into plant cells. Experts think this kind of confluence of biotech and nanotech will find many applications in the bioenergy and biofuels sector (see our 'Quick look at nanotechnology in agriculture, food and bioenergy').

The research titled "Mesoporous Silica Nanoparticles Deliver DNA and Chemicals into Plants" [*abstract] is a highlighted article in the May issue of Nature Nanotechnology. The scientists are Kan Wang, professor of agronomy and director of the Center for Plant Transformation, Plant Sciences Institute; Victor Lin, professor of chemistry and senior scientist, U.S. Department of Energy's Ames Laboratory; Brian Trewyn, assistant scientist in chemistry; and Francois Torney, formerly a post-doctoral scientist in the Center for Plant Transformation and now a scientist with Biogemma, Clermond-Ferrand, France.

Currently, scientists can successfully introduce a gene into a plant cell. In a separate process, chemicals are used to activate the gene's function. But the process is imprecise and the chemicals could be toxic to the plant.

With mesoporous nanoparticles, the scientists succeeded in delivering two biogenic species at the same time. "We can bring in a gene and induce it in a controlled manner at the same time and at the same location. That's never been done before", says professor Wang. The controlled release will improve the ability to study gene function in plants. And in the future, scientists could use the new technology to deliver imaging agents or chemicals inside cell walls. This would provide plant biologists with a window into intracellular events:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The team from Iowa State University, which has been working on the research in plants for less than three years, started with a proprietary technology developed previously by Lin's research group. It is a porous, silica nanoparticle system. Spherical in shape, the particles have arrays of independent porous channels. The channels form a honeycomb-like structure that can be filled with chemicals or molecules.

"One gram of this kind of material can have a total surface area of a football field, making it possible to carry a large payload," Trewyn said. Lin's nanoparticle has a unique "capping" strategy that seals the chemical goods inside. In previous studies, his group successfully demonstrated that the caps can be chemically activated to pop open and release the cargo inside of animal cells. This unique feature provides total control for timing the delivery

The team's first attempt to use the porous silica nanoparticle to deliver DNA through the rigid wall of the plant cell was unsuccessful. The technology had worked more readily in animals cells because they don't have walls. The nanoparticles can enter animal cells through a process called endocytosis - the cell swallows or engulfs a molecule that is outside of it. The biologists attempted to mimic that process by removing the wall of the plant cell (called making protoplasts), forcing it to behave like an animal cell and swallow the nanoparticle. It didn't work.

They decided instead to modify the surface of the particle with a chemical coating. "The team found a chemical we could use that made the nanoparticle look yummy to the plant cells so they would swallow the particles," Torney said. It worked. The nanoparticles were swallowed by the plant protoplasts, which are a type of spherical plant cells without cell walls.

Most plant transformation, however, occurs with the use of a gene gun, not through endocytosis. In order to use the gene gun to introduce the nanoparticles to walled plant cells, the chemists made another clever modification on the particle surface. They synthesized even smaller gold particles to cap the nanoparticles. These "golden gates" not only prevented chemical leakage, but also added weight to the nanoparticles, enabling their delivery into the plant cell with the standard gene gun.

The biologists successfully used the technology to introduce DNA and chemicals to Arabidopsis, tobacco and corn plants. "The most tremendous advantage is that you can deliver several things into a plant cell at the same time and release them whenever you want," Torney said.

"Until now, you were at nature's mercy when you delivered a gene into a cell," Lin said. "There's been no precise control as to whether the cells will actually incorporate the gene and express the consequent protein. With this technology, we may be able to control the whole sequence in the future."

And once you get inside the plant cell wall, it opens up "whole new possibilities," Wang said. "We really don't know what's going on inside the cell. We're on the outside looking in. This gets us inside where we can study the biology per se," Wang said.

Image: mesoporous silica nanoparticles were used as the tool to break into the plant cells to deliver DNA and chemicals in a controlled manner.

More information:
François Torney, Brian G. Trewyn, Victor S.-Y. Lin and Kan Wang, "Mesoporous silica nanoparticles deliver DNA and chemicals into plants" [*abstract], Nature Nanotechnology 2, 295 - 300 (2007), published online: 29 April 2007 | doi:10.1038/nnano.2007.108

Iowa State University News Service: Iowa State scientists demonstrate first use of nanotechnology to enter plant cells - May 16, 2007.

Article continues

The bioeconomy at work: buildings made of biomass ash?

As the use of biomass in large power plants becomes more common, a problem arises: what to do with the large amount of ash that results from burning the renewable energy source? In Europe and the US (database of current co-firing projects, at the IEA Bioenergy Task 32 on Combustion and Cofiring) and China, biomass is being used more and more often to generate electricity and heat, either in dedicated power plants that exclusively burn the green resource (such as the Les Awirs plant in Belgium), or co-fired with coal in existing plants. This biomass can be divided into several categories, ranging from heavily contaminated wood (e.g. demolition wood that contains scraps of glass, steel, plastics, paint etc...) and agricultural residues (such as rice husks), to pure, clean biomass from dedicated energy crops.

Depending on the category, the resuling ash types contain different concentrations of heavy metals such as nickel, vanadium, arsenic, cadmium, barium, chromium, copper, molybdenum, zinc, lead, and selenium. Though these elements are found in extremely low concentrations, their presence warrants careful and often costly waste treatment procedures to prevent leaching into the soil.

For this reason, scientists have been searching for alternatives to landfill disposal. Amongst them is Jan Pels from the Energy Research Center of the Netherlands (ECN), who led a research team working on a project called 'BIOAS' [*.pdf/Dutch, English abstract]. While a group of scientists from the University of Leeds did similar work on rice husk ash [*.pdf] which has some importance for the developing world. Finally, scientists from the Brigham Young University in Utah worked on analysing whether biomass ash can replace cement [*.pdf] in concrete, like coal ash has been used for this purpose for quite a while now. All teams obtained encouraging results: biomass ash can be used to build houses and skyscrapers. What is more, the product can replace building materials that have a heavy CO2 footprint. Utilizing this waste stream from the combustion of biomass also boosts the sustainability of solid biofuels.

The Dutch team found a way to use biomass ash in combination with a heavy petroleum residue, the carbon of which can thus be fixed, whereas the British researchers looked at a combination of waste materials, including ash from burned rice husks, to make what they call a 'Bitublock'. They are also working on a concrete-like building material based on vegetable oil as a binder ('Vegeblock'). Finally the American team found that fly ash from pure wood and switchgrass matches the properties of coal ash, and can replace Portland cement in concrete:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The BIOAS Project
BIOAS started with the ideal scenario which says that ash from clean, uncontaminated biomass should be returned to the soil where the biomass grew so that nutrients and minerals are recycled.

However in many cases recycling is not possible, for example with ash from contaminated biomass (e.g. demolition wood), ash where the origins of the biomass cannot be traced (becoming common with increased trade of feedstocks), or in cases where the land owner does not want the ash returned (e.g. natural reserves or farm land).

In these cases, alternative forms of sustainable utilisation had to be found. ECN investigated the possibilities for the use of ash generated from clean biomass in power production and concluded that for nearly all biomass ash a technically acceptable solution can be found.

Construction materials
The largest potential lies in several kinds of construction material ranging from filler in concrete, to bricks, or even synthetic basalt. Particular kinds of ash can be used as raw material for fertilizers. Black, carbon-rich ash from gasification could even be used as fuel, to replace cokes, or as activated carbon in a multitude of applications.

However many of the solutions are more expensive than landfill disposal because of the small amounts produced and strong fluctuations in composition. Recycling ash to the soil where the clean biomass originated is already possible in Scandinavia and Austria, but in the Netherlands such specific regulations for recycling of biomass ash do not exist and are unlikely to be implemented soon. The situation could improve if large-scale imports of clean biomass begin. In this case, Dutch legislation needs updating to enable export of the ash back to the country (and soil) of origin. However, when long distance trade is involved (such as imports from dedicated energy plantations in Africa), returning the ash would become too expensive.

Fixing carbon while storing biomass ash
For the Netherlands, using biomass ash in building material is a more likely scenario. Bottom ash from biomass combustion is already used as a building material (granulate 0-40). But in the BIOAS Project, gasification ash was successfully tested as filler in a promising concrete-like building material with heavy petroleum residue as binder, called 'C-FIX'. The ECN is currently investigating other routes to produce innovative building materials from biomass ash.

C-FIX (derived from 'carbon fixation') is a product developed by Shell Global Solutions and marketed by subsidiary C-fix BV. The starting material is an extremely hard, carbon-rich residue obtained from petroleum refining. This residue is currently added to marine bunker fuels and heavy fuel oil used in power plants. Upon burning it, an extremely high amount of carbon dioxide is released, making it a very polluting fuel.

A more environmentally friendly way of using the material is to use it as a component in building materials. This way, the carbon is fixed during the lifecycle of the product and doesn't contribute to atmospheric CO2 pollution.

The properties of C-FIX range between those of cement concrete and asphalt. It is strong but flexible thermoplastic binder that resists acids and bases. Moreover, the binder can not only be combined with traditional aggregates such as sand and filler, but with other aggregates such as recycled asphalt, river sludge and waste granulates.

The BIOAS project studied the possibility of using biomass ash as an aggregate for C-FIX, and results were encouraging. The test material conformed to Dutch norms on leaching of macro and micro elements. Five different building blocks made from different types of biomass ash also showed excellent physical properties.

The conclusion of the project was that biomass ash can be used successfully as a building material composed of binders such as C-FIX.

Bitublock and Vegeblock
C-FIX relies on a heavy petroleum product, the carbon of which is fixed. However, in another development, researchers from the University of Leeds found that ash from rice husks can be used safely as a concrete filler, not unlike coal fly ash, which is already used for this purpose.

The team led by John Forth worked at developing a building block made almost entirely of recycled glass, metal slag, sewage sludge, incinerator ash, and pulverised fuel ash from power stations, including ash from rice husks.

Dr Forth, from the School of Engineering, believes his Bitublock has the potential to revolutionise the building industry by providing a sustainable, low-energy replacement for around 350 million concrete blocks manufactured in the UK each year. "Our aim is to completely replace concrete as a structural material", he explained.

Bitublocks use up to 100% waste materials and avoid sending them to landfill, which is quite unheard of in the building industry. What's more, less energy is required to manufacture the Bitublock than a traditional concrete block, and it's about six times as strong, so it's quite a high-performance product.

The secret ingredient is bitumen, a sticky substance used to bind the mixture of waste products together, before compacting it in a mould to form a solid block. Next the block is heat-cured, which oxidises the bitumen so it hardens like concrete.

This makes it possible to use a higher proportion of waste in the Bitublock than by using a cement or clay binder. The Bitublock could put to good use each year an estimated 400,000 tonnes of crushed glass and 500,000 tonnes of incinerator ash.

Meanwhile, a 'Vegeblock' is also under development, based on using vegetable oil as the binder. This would make for the greenest of all concrete-like building materials. The researchers found that waste vegetable oil can easily be mixed with recycled aggregates at ambient temperatures to produce a very workable, easily compactable product. Contrary to the Bitublock, he visual appearance of Vegeblocks is highly attractive in that the units reflect the colour of the aggregates used in the manufacturing process.

The Vegeblock's color changes according to the type of vegetable oil that is used during its manufacture

Curing is required to fully oxidise the vegetable oil and hence stabilise the block. However, due to totally different chemical composition of vegetable oils as opposed to bitumens (mineral oil derivatives), the curing regime is far shorter. Typically curing a Vegeblock only consists of heating for 12 to 24 hours at 120 to 160 °C. The properties of the Vegeblock are at least equivalent to concrete blocks.

Biomass ash as a replacement for cement in concrete
Shuangzhen Wang and Larry Baxter from the Department of Chemical Engineering at the Brigham Young University recently presented their "Comprehensive Investigation of Biomass Fly Ash in Concrete" at the Advanced Combustion Engineering Research Center's congress.

They first looked at the strength and microscopy of coal ash concrete, then at the strength and kinetics of concrete with a biomass fly ash filler, and finally at the durability of the material. The analysis looked at five different forms of concrete based on fly-ashes obtained from co-firing coal with respectively switchgrass and saw dust from pure wood, in different ratios.

Their conclusions on biomass fly ash look as follows:
  • Equal strength to that of pure cement concrete from 1 month to 1 year after mixing.
  • Significant pozzolanic reaction up to one year in concrete.
  • 3-6 times the strength of coal ash samples with Ca(OH)2.
  • Comparable strength with Ca(OH)2 even to pure cement.
  • Quantitative kinetics has been derived
  • Matches or outperforms coal ash in reducing ASR expansion
This means that biomass fly ash, in this case derived from pure wood and switchgrass, can potentially be used as a replacement for Portland cement in the production of concrete.

Without taking things too far, developments in using biomass ash for construction materials are very encouraging, which opens opportunities for the developing world. There, large streams of agricultural residues (such as rice husks) as well as the potential for dedicated biomass crops is available. If this renewable energy resource were to be combusted in dedicated and efficient biomass power plants there, an important component of affordable and reliable building materials would become available and the sustainability of solid biofuels would be enhanced.

Image: the Sears Tower in Chicago, long the tallest building in the US, was built from concrete containing coal fly ash. Will a green Sears Tower ever be built from concrete based on biomass fly ash?

More information:
ECN: Askwaliteit en toepassingsmogelijkheden bij verbranding van schone biomassa (BIOAS) [*.pdf] - April 2004.

BioEnergy Network of Excellence: "A House built of biomass ash" [*.pdf], Newsletter, Volume 1, Issue 3, July 2005.

John Forth, "Non-Traditional Binders for Construction Materials" [*.pdf], IABSE Henderson Colloquium, Cambridge, 10-12 July 2006 Engineering for Sustainable Cities.

Eurekalert: New homes rise from rubbish - April 2, 2007.

C-FIX website.

Shuangzhen Wang, Larry Baxter, Comprehensive Investigation of Biomass Fly Ash in Concrete: Strength, Microscopy, Quantitative Kinetics and Durability [*.pdf] - Brigham Young University ACERC annual conference, February 28, 2007.

Article continues

The bioeconomy at work: cellulose fibre-reinforced PLA bioplastic with improved heat resistance, rigidity and moldability

Toray Industries, Inc. today announced that it has successfully developed a plant fiber-reinforced polylactic acid (PLA) plastic with improved heat resistance, rigidity and moldability by compounding cellulose-based plant fibers with PLA.

Able to withstand heat up to 150°C, which is the highest level in the world for biomass plastics, the newly developed plastic has double the rigidity of existing PLA plastics and has achieved significant reduction in the time required for molding.

Furthermore, the company succeeded in radically improving the properties of biomass plastics by accomplishing superior exterior of plastic mixed with plant fiber. Toray intends to promote the product in wide-ranging applications including automobile parts, electrical and electronic parts, civil engineering and construction materials and furniture.

Until now, companies and research institutes have been focusing on development of technology that blends plant fiber as reinforcement material for improving the strength of PLA. However, there were limitations to deploy such plastics in practical applications due to reasons such as inferior exteriors of molded products caused by uneven mixing, tendency of PLA to decompose at molding, long molding cycle in injection molding and low heat resistance. However, with an injection molding method that is superior in mass production capability, the new technology will enable the manufacture of PLA plastic products possessing heat resistance and rigidity equivalent to or better than existing petroleum-based plastics:

The features of the new technology are as follows:
  1. Development of proprietary resin compounding technology: In addition to solving the problem of PLA’s tendency to breakup at the time of molding, the Company’s proprietary compounding technology to combine PLA and plant fiber enabled the improvement of exterior and rigidity of molded products. The technology also allows raising the ratio of plant fiber in the plastic to maximum 50% through uniform mixing and micro-dispersion of the fiber and enables the molding of foam products.
  2. Development of technology that accelerates crystallization of PLA: In pursuing the acceleration of crystallization to the maximum based on the interaction of PLA polymer and plant fiber, the Company succeeded in development of a revolutionary technology to accelerate the crystallization speed to 50 times that of plain PLA and 10 times the most recent improvements in technology. This high crystallization capability has not only significantly reduced the molding time but also enabled the realization of heat resistance of 150°C through the reinforcement effect from uniformly dispersed plant fiber and rigidity that is double the existing products.
This technology was developed in cooperation with Showa Marutsutsu Co., Ltd. (headquarters: Higashi-Osaka City, Osaka) and Showa Products Co., Ltd. (also based in Osaka) by combining Toray’s proprietary resin compounding technique with the newly developed technology that accelerates crystallization:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

PLA is a biomass polymer that is manufactured by polymerizing the lactic acid produced by fermenting starch contained in sweet corn and other plants. With its “carbon neutral” feature that helps conserve the depleting oil reserves and control amount of carbon dioxide emissions, PLA has great potential as a material with low environmental burden contributing to the prevention of global warming. While improvements in heat resistance and rigidity as well as in suitability for mass production have been the issues that held back the spread of PLA, the development of this technology is expected to significantly expand applications of PLA.

Under its corporate slogan “Innovation by Chemistry,” Toray has identified the four important segments of ‘information, telecommunications and electronics,’ ‘automobile and aircrafts,’ ‘life science’ and ‘environment, water and energy’ as important growth areas and aims to expand its advanced materials business with focus on these areas. In the environmental field, the Company is engaged in the development of products such as PLA that are based on non-petroleum raw materials. It also aims for business expansion of environment-friendly products such as Ecodear its universal brand for PLA products, by pursuing innovative research and development that employs its own advanced technologies.

Article continues

Senegal and Brazil sign biofuel agreement to make Africa a major supplier

Of all regions, the African continent has the largest long term sustainable biofuel production potential, with some estimates putting it at a maximum of 410 EJ per year by 2050. Consider that the planet in its entirety currently consumes around 400EJ of energy from all sources (coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear, renewables).

At the same time, high energy prices are disastrous for poor oil-importing African countries. The UN recently noted that some countries nowadays are forced to spend as much as 6 times as much on fuel as they do on health, twice the money on fuel as they do on poverty alleviation, and in still others, the foreign exchange drain from higher oil prices is five times the gain from recent debt relief. The threat of Peak Oil has the potential to ruin all development efforts in these countries. But biofuels may offer a way out.

One of the first African leaders to see both this potential catastrophe and its possible solution is Senegal's recently reelected president Abdoulaye Wade. Last year, this éminence grise of African politics announced the formation of a 'Green OPEC' aimed at making African countries less dependent on oil by replacing it with biofuels. This organisation, dubbed 'PANPP' ('Pays Africans Non-Producteurs de Pétrole'), unites 15 non-oil producing countries on the continent. The goal of the organisation is to stimulate the exchange of knowledge, skills and technologies for the development of a biofuels industry, as well as a mechanism to redistribute some of the oil wealth from other African countries to be invested in a fuel solidarity fund.

Stressting the urgency of a switch to biofuels Wade's administration meanwhile put its money where its mouth is, by launching a first biofuel production plan based on the cultivation of jatropha, of which 250 million seedlings were distributed amongst rural families. The project is part of an attempt to revive agriculture in the country, and to curb the massive flow of 'illegal' migrants from Senegal to Europe (earlier post).

In an perfect example of smart 'trilateral' South-South collaboration, Senegal also started implementing a larger bioenergy programme with direct albeit informal support of Brazil's president Lula, and carried out by entrepreneurs from India. Senegal wants to learn and offers land and labor; Brazil brings in scientific and technological know-how; and Indian business makes sure that enough capital is in place. This public-private partnership is hailed as a win-win situation for all partners involved (earlier post).

Broad initiative
Senegal and Brazil have now officially signed a biofuel cooperation agreement [*Portuguese] in Brasília, where President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and President Abdoulaye Wade consecrated their commitment to making Africa a major biofuel supplier.

During the signing of a series of accords, one of which was aimed specifically at strengthening Senegalese human resources in the bioenergy sector and at transferring technologies, the Brazilian leader stressed his country's willingness to share its world leading biodiesel and ethanol expertise with the countries of the 'Green OPEC': "Under the leadership of Senegal, we want to extend this initiative to other non-oil producing African countries." Lula stressed the initiative is part of a larger South-South strategy on biofuels that will eventually involve NEPAD.
His counterpart stated:
"Biofuels are going to provoke a revolution in Africa. The entire continent is set to become a major supplier of green fuels, because it has what is needed: abundant land, water, sunlight and creativity. Biofuels offer an extraordinary opportunity to generate employment and to make agriculture more sustainable. Therefor, we have decided to launch the production of biofuels not only in Senegal, but across Africa, by drawing on Brazilian knowledge, technology and expertise."
The Senegalese leader noted that his counterpart had explained to him the ideal model of Brazil's Pro-Biodiesel program, Lula's own project which differs considerably from the Pro-Alcool program that was created 30 years ago. Under this new model "the farmers remain owners of their land and work on their own soils, while at the same time producing feedstocks for larger investors with who they make win-win agreements within a clear legal framework". Brazil's "Social Fuel" policy is aimed at making this model work, so that it benefits small farmers:
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During a press conference after the meeting, Mr Wade added that his country would first focus on the production of biodiesel from oil-seed crops such as jatropha and ricin.

President Lula further elaborated on the need for South-South integration:
"It is much easier for a Brazilian businessman to go to Europe or to the United States to set up shop. He is not going to do business in Africa. The same is true for a Senegalese businessman. But we have to change this situation. We can only speak of genuine South-South integration when we establish a presence in a country of the South, each time we do so in the North."
A growing presence in Africa
Brazil is becoming very active on the African continent. Late last year, it established an Africa-cell of its leading agricultural research agency EMBRAPA in Accra, Ghana. From there, delegations have visited countries across the continent (including Mozambique, Angola and Morocco), to help assess the biofuel opportunity and to assist them with exploiting their untapped agricultural potential in a sustainable way. (See our article on "Brazil in Africa").

In another series of developments, Brazil is creating forms of trilateral 'South-North-South' cooperation with European countries who are willing to invest in Africa's bioenergy potential. An example is Brazil's agreement with Italy, or that with the UK and Sweden.

More information:
Agência Brasil: Brasil e Senegal assinam quatro acordos de cooperação - May 16, 2007.

Le Matin: Le Sénégal veut être une porte d'entrée des biocarburants - May 17, 2007.

Diário de Cuiabá: Brasil e Senagal assinam acordos de cooperação - May 16, 2007.

Lusa (Agência de Notícias de Portugal): Brasil assina acordo com Senegal na área de biocombustíveis - May 16, 2007.

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