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    Taiwan's Feng Chia University has succeeded in boosting the production of hydrogen from biomass to 15 liters per hour, one of the world's highest biohydrogen production rates, a researcher at the university said Friday. The research team managed to produce hydrogen and carbon dioxide (which can be captured and stored) from the fermentation of different strains of anaerobes in a sugar cane-based liquefied mixture. The highest yield was obtained by the Clostridium bacterium. Taiwan News - November 14, 2008.

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Saturday, May 26, 2007

Back to black: hydrothermal carbonisation of biomass to clean up CO2 emissions from the past

Anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions keep rising and threaten to strengthen climate change in such a way that it may destroy ecosystems, disrupt social and economic structures and destabilise entire countries and populations (see the recent Fourth Assessment Report on climate change by the IPCC's working group II, dealing with the impacts of global warming). Traditional discussions about mitigation options consist of investing in energy efficiency, in reducing consumption, and in carbon-neutral energy technologies such as nuclear, biomass or solar and wind power (see the IPCC's working group III report). But these technologies can only lower future increases in CO2 emissions, and cannot compensate for past and currently emitted CO2 from fossil resources.

Cleaning up the past: going carbon-negative
A growing number of scientists however is looking at ways to clean up our emissions from the past. In order to avert 'catastrophic' climate change, it has become desirable to invert the current development by sequestering the atmospheric CO2 of the past 200 years of industrialization. Some have suggested the rapid implementation of geo-engineering options, such as building vast forests of artificial trees that can suck CO2 out of the atmosphere and store it in geological formations (such as depleted coal or gas fields or saline aquifers). Such 'synthetic trees' would however be quite costly and will not deliver energy as they do their work (earlier post).

Gradually, a new, 'low-tech' geosequestration option is attracting the attention of more and more scientists. It is based on converting biomass into an inert form of bio-coal or charcoal, that can be stored in soils. Earlier we referred to carbon-negative energy systems that rely on gasification and biochar sequestration: biomass is gasified which results in a carbon monoxide and hydrogen rich gas that can be used for energy or transformed into ultra-clean synthetic biofuels via the Fischer-Tropsch process, whereas a fraction becomes bio-char that can be stored in soils (using a technique known as 'terra preta'). Similar techniques can be build around pyrolysis processes (earlier post). In such systems, soil fertility would be gradually enhanced, 'historic' CO2 would be sequestered and clean biofuels could be used to power our societies.

Only biomass can be used for the creation of such carbon-negative energy systems that clean up our emissions from the past. Other renewables are carbon-neutral at best, meaning they can only reduce future CO2 emissions - something many scientists think is not enough to avert dangerous climate change.

Maria-Magdalena Titirici, Arne Thomas and Markus Antonietti of the Department of Colloid Chemistry at the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces, now describe a new, highly efficient though 'low-tech' way to use biomass as a tool to clean up past emissions. Their research appears in an open access article in the New Journal of Chemistry, in which they suggest creating "turbo-rainforests" based on fast-growing energy crops that are grown, turned into bio-coal via a process known as hydrothermal carbonization (HTC), and then stored into 'carbon landfills', while deriving energy from the process. The technique can be practised on an ultra-large scale, and can thus be described as a geo-engineering option - one that is actually technically and economically feasible.

Importantly, in contrast to other biomass carbonisation techniques that require dry biomass, the hydrothermal carbonisation process is a highly efficient 'wet' process that avoids complicated drying schemes and costly isolation procedures. The resulting carbonaceous materials also open a new field of chemistry, full of novel possibilities and challenges that may lead to the development of new (nano)materials:
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Biomass as a carbon converter
The biggest carbon converter, with the highest efficiency to bind CO2 from the atmosphere, is certainly biomass, the scientists write. A rough estimate of terrestrial biomass growth amounts to 118 × 109 tons per year, when calculated as dry matter. Biomass, however, is just a short term, temporary carbon sink, as microbial decomposition liberates exactly the amount of CO2 formerly bound in the plant material:
Nevertheless, as biomass contains about 0.4 mass equivalents of carbon, removal of 8.5% of the freshly produced biomass from the active geosystem would indeed compensate for the complete CO2 liberation from oil, all numbers calculated per year.
To make biomass effective as a carbon sink, the carbon in it has to be fixed by low-tech operations. Coal formation is certainly one of the natural sinks that has been active in the past on the largest scale. Natural coalification of biomass takes place on a timescale of hundred million years. Due to its slowness, it is usually not considered in renewable energy exploitation schemes or as an active sink in CO2 cycles. Nevertheless, it is obvious that carbon fixation into coal is a lasting effort, as brown or black coal (on the contrary to peat) are obviously practically not biodegradable. The question of coalified carbon destabilization is, however, currently accessed in more detail. Sufficient condensation of the carbon scaffold is, in any case, mandatory for the purposes of carbon fixation.

It is therefore the purpose of this contribution to discuss the feasibility of turning coal formation into an active element of carbon sequestration schemes, simply by accelerating the underlying coalification processes by chemical means. The natural process of peat or coal formation is presumably not biological but chemical in its nature. As coaling is a rather elemental experiment, coals and tars have been made and used by mankind since the Stone Age, and one can find trials to imitate carbon formation from carbohydrates with faster chemical processes in the modern scientific literature. In this context, it is an exciting observation of soil research that the Indians of the Amazon basin used locally generated charcoal for the improvement of soil quality for hundreds of years (i.e. improving the water and ion binding of rich black soil) and that this carbon fraction was not easily decomposed.

Hydrothermal carbonisation
Besides charcoal formation, which is performed with high quality, dry biomass only, hydrothermal carbonization (HTC) is an especially promising process. The first experiments were carried out by Bergius, who, in 1913, had already described the hydrothermal transformation of cellulose into coal-like materials.9 More systematic investigations were performed by Berl and Schmidt in 1932, which varied the biomass source and treated the different samples, in the presence of water, at temperatures between 150 and 350 °C.10 The latter authors summarized, via a series of papers in 1932, the knowledge of those days about the emergence of coal. Later, Schuhmacher et al. analyzed the influence of pH on the outcome of the HTC reaction and found serious differences in the decomposition schemes, as identified by the C/H/O composition.

A renaissance in such experiments was started with reports on the low temperature hydrothermal synthesis of carbon spheres (highter than or equal to 200°C), and gave exciting nanostructures. It was also revealed that the presence of ternary components in complex biomass (such as orange peel or oak leaves) seriously alters decomposition schemes. Unexpectedly, an improvement in properties of the carbonaceous structures for certain applications was found, i.e. smaller structural size of carbon dispersions and porous networks, higher hydrophilicity of the surfaces, and higher capillarity.

For completeness, it must also be mentioned that, beyond coalification, the conversion of biomass under hydrothermal conditions is a widely examined process. These approaches aim for the recovery of liquid or gaseous fuel intermediates (like glucose, 5-hydroxymethylfurfural, methane, hydrogen etc.) from biomass, while the solid residues were, up until now, mostly treated as undesirable side products.

However, the described acceleration of HTC for coalification by a factor of 106–109 under rather soft conditions, down to a scale of hours, also makes it a considerable, technically-attractive alternative for the sequestration of carbon from biomass on large and ultra-large scales. Finally, to summarize the outcome of the optimization trials, catalyzed HTC required only the heating of a biomass dispersion under weakly acidic conditions in a closed reaction vessel for 4–24 h to temperatures of around 200 °C. This is indeed an extremely simple, cheap and easily scalable process. Besides that, HTC has a number of other practical advantages. HTC inherently requires wet starting products or biomass, as effective dehydration only occurs in the presence of water, plus the final carbon can be easily filtered from the reaction solution. This way, complicated drying schemes and costly isolation procedures can be conceptually avoided. In addition, under acidic conditions and below 200 °C, most of the original carbon stays bound to the final structure. Carbon structures produced by this route—either for deposit or materials use—are therefore the most CO2-efficient.

Once activated, HTC is a spontaneous, exothermic process. It liberates up to a third of the combustion energy stored in the carbohydrate throughout dehydration (due to the high thermodynamic stability of water). A schematic comparison of the energy and mass streams of HTC with those of the more common biomass processes of fermentation and anaerobic digestion is shown in Figure 1 (click to enlarge). It is seen that HTC is the most exothermic of the three transformation processes, explaining the ease with which it is performed chemically. It is also the most efficient for carbon fixation, as expressed by a carbon efficiency of close to 1.24.

Carbon storage
Therefore, we strongly believe that the carbonization of fast growing plants is currently the most efficient process for removing atmospheric CO2, binding it into depositable carbon or even as useful solids.

For a negative atmospheric CO2 balance, the generated carbonaceous materials have to be deposited on a large scale, and potential carbon landfills may lay the foundations for chemical starting materials of the next century.

Another quite attractive application with immediate impact is their use as water- and ion-binding components to improve soil quality. This is a chemical process that is also found in nature, and carbonaceous soil is presumably the largest active carbon sink on earth. The proposed terra preta, i.e. artificial coal-enriched soil as a potential carbon sink of global dimensions, has already been mentioned in soil research, improving soil quality and plant growth at the same time. Instead of clearing the rainforest for questionable palm oil production, such a carbon-reinforced "turbo-rainforest" would produce at least 10 times the energy, but stored in carbon, whilst also being CO2-negative for the climate and supporting biodiversity at the same time.

Spending just 10% of our oil expenses on global CO2 sequestration would compensate for carbon fixation costs of US$44 per ton, a target which can, in the researchers' opinion, be quite easily met (HTC is essentially just heating an aqueous dispersion, where even the energy is generated by the process itself) and does not even consider the added value for the geosystem or agriculture.

Even in industrial countries such as Germany, only the treatment of highly defined waste biomass, such as from sugar-beet (4.3 Mt sugar per year), rapeseed production (3.5 Mt oil per year), or clarification sludge (3.0 Mt per year), has the potential to lower German CO2 output by about 10%. The low-tech processing of fast growing plants into non- or weakly-degradable peat-type carbon scaffolds by hydrothermal reaction cascades is therefore, in our opinion, a realistic artificial instrument for reducing atmospheric CO2.

New chemistry
For final material use, e.g. as a fertilizing soil additive, the carbonaceous material has to not only have a distinct chemical structure (at a molecular level) but also have a specific structural texture, i.e. nanoarchitecture and surface chemistry. For soil- or sorption use—besides being free of toxic or carcinogenic compounds—the carbonaceous product has to be water-wettable and highly porous. This is an attractive task for hydrothermal carbon chemistry, involving a mindset where carbonization is nothing but a polycondensation procedure (the "chimie douce" of carbon) that is still full of novel possibilities and tasks. Figure 2 shows, for illustration, the HTC product obtained from oak leaves, which exhibits an almost perfect sponge-like cubic mesoporosity with a highly functional surface, ideal for water sorption, ion binding, or as a catalyst support. In that sense, HTC can be seen as much more than just a technique for making carbon-rich substances.

More information:
Maria-Magdalena Titirici, Arne Thomas and Markus Antonietti, "Back in the black: hydrothermal carbonization of plant material as an efficient chemical process to treat the CO2 problem?", New J. Chem., 8th March 2007, DOI: 10.1039/b616045j

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Friday, May 25, 2007

Researchers study effectiveness of glycerin as cattle feed

Global biodiesel production is increasing rapidly. The consequence is that a byproduct obtained from making the biofuel, glycerin (glycerol), is beginning to flood the market. As vegetable oils are transesterified into biodiesel, some 10% of the resulting product consists of glycerin. In short, it is an important co-product. Finding new applications for it is crucial to make biodiesel production more competitive with fossil fuels. Researchers are making progress: so far they found that glycerin can either be used as a biofuel in itself, as a feedstock for the production of biogas, or for green specialty chemicals (such as propylene glycol). Other scientists tested glycerin as a poultry feed and found positive results. A recent EU-study showed that if used as a feed component, the massive influx of the byproduct may even result in lower meat prices for consumers.

Along the same lines, researchers from the University of Missouri-Columbia are now studying whether glycerin can be used to feed cattle. In a study that began this month, Monty Kerley, professor of ruminant nutrition in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, is examining the effectiveness of glycerin as component in cattle diets. Through November, the MU researcher will monitor the growth habits of 60 calves from various breeds to determine if the leftovers provide a healthy main course to cattle. The study has two main priorities: first, to determine if glycerin has a positive or negative effect on calves' growth performance, and second, to assess its impact, if any, on meat quality.

The cows have been separated into groups of three, each consuming differing amounts of glycerin during their daily diet. The amounts are 0, 5, 10 and 20 percent. In addition to monitoring feeding limits and growth patterns, Kerley also is analyzing how cattle metabolize the varying amounts of glycerin. Unlike the dry feeds they are accustomed to eating, Kerley said the glycerin is liquid based and comes mostly from the processing of soybean oil. He also said it meets stringent Food and Drug Administration regulations:
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"We're really looking at the energy value and how it compares to corn," Kerley said. "When the animal consumes glycerin, it's absorbed, and the glycerin is used to make glucose. Actually, it's like feeding sugar to a cow. Because it's liquid, there are two things we worry about - one, how much can be used in the diet before it changes the form of the diet; and two, is there a limit to how much glycerin can be processed by the animal? We'll feed it to them for a period of 160 to 180 days."

Kerley said developing usages for glycerin necessitates this type of research. In recent years, academic scientists and private-sector companies have been racing to find solutions and applications for the byproduct. An alternative food source for cattle is but one possibility. However, it's likely only a short-term option for the cattle industry.

"We probably have a three- to five-year window to use this for animal feed at a reduced cost," Kerley said. "This glycerin is a wonderful starting compound for building other compounds that can be applied to numerous industrial purposes. After three to five years, you'll see industrial applications utilizing this glycerin, and that may price it out of the animal feed industry."

He said economics are another factor because glycerin is currently less expensive than corn, which is most commonly used as cattle feed. Glycerin is about 4 cents per pound; corn costs around 8 cents a pound.

"Originally, the biodiesel plants were concerned with just getting rid of this material, but data shows that glycerin has energy feed value equal to corn," Kerley said. "If you can get glycerin for less than corn, that's obviously a sizeable savings."

Image: biodiesel production is achieved by transesterifying vegetable oils. Glycerin settling at the bottom of a batch of biodiesel. Biodiesel production results in a fraction of 10% glycerol, making it an important byproduct.

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Father of bio-jet fuel launches biofuel cooperatives in Brazil to reduce poverty

Thanks to his fame, professor Expedito Parente, the father of biodiesel and bio-jet fuel, is now on the brink of launching a vast agro-industrial project in Brazil's Nordeste region based on cooperatives that will be serving as a model for reducing extreme rural poverty in tropical countries. And surprisingly, the professor is looking at a relatively unknown palm tree for the production of vast quantities of biofuel, namely the Babassu palm (earlier post and here).

At 66 of age, doutor Expedito has never been so requested. His 'bioquerosene' (biokerosene) should be a way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in aviation and to prepare for a gradual substitution of jet fuel. Parente's fuel was courted by both NASA and Boeing. Tests have been performed since mid-2006 and are believed to soon enter a decisive stage at Boeing’s facilities in Seattle. Contrary to bioethanol and biodiesel already established in road transportation worldwide, biojet fuel is a vegetable product which has still not been in commercial use.

For a long time, Expedito Parente (left in the pic) was a professor at Ceara Federal University in Fortaleza, a large city in Brazil’s Nordeste region. When he retired, this hyperactive academic wanted to continue to do something useful. In 2001, he thus founded Tecbio, a small engineering firm developing biodiesel refineries. It was nicely timed. Tecbio has now a staff of eighty and is growing exponentially. But Dr. Parente nourishes a double obsession: to be the first to make airlines adopt bio-jet fuel, an important technological step ahead of ordinary biodiesel, and producing this biofuel in Brazil in a socially correct way.

Babassu palms
In 2005, professor Parente won the Blue Sky Award for his aircraft fuel project, "a kind of Nobel prize given by the UN for innovations in the field of renewable energies", he comments.

Interest for the invention was confirmed at the beginning of this year at a Washington D.C. seminar organized by the Transportation Research Board, a government agency. Participants were confronted with an apparently absurd question: "May Babassu already be a renewable source to serve as substitute for jet fuel?"

This palm tree, unknown to most people in the West, grows in the wild on 18 million hectares (45 million acres) in Brazil's forest in the North East. Such size corresponds to six times Maryland or roughly half the size of Switzerland. It was Expedito Parente who discovered that the nuts of the babassu - or more precisely the kernels within - can be turned into an oil that possesses energetic properties which make it an ideal feedstock for bio-jet fuel.

There are certainly social and ecological arguments in favor of the babassu palm: its use does not compete with land for food production, nor does it imply deforestation as the palm grows in the wild and can thus be integrated in sustainable agro-forestry systems (earlier post):

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Professor's comeback
In reality the discovery is not all that recent and babassu has been growing in Brazil for ages. But Professor Parente himself is making a spectacular comeback. In the 1980s he was the first in the world to patent biodiesel as an industrial process. He was acclaimed as the “Father of Biodiesel”. This brilliant academic was then asked to find a vegetable substitute for aircraft fuel. The product resulting from this research made a turboprop transportation airplane fly a distance of some 600 miles in 1984. So why did not aviation worldwide adopt his biokerosene? Parente explains:
At the time, petroleum prices went down dramatically. And we must understand that a fuel to be acceptable for modern jetliners has to be extremely reliable and resistant at very low temperatures, it is a complex product.
There is a new dimension to what is at stake. To fly from London to Rio, and back, provokes individually as much CO2 emissions as those generated during fifteen months of sedentary life in a European capital, heating and local transportation included, if we are to believe comparative studies of environmental impacts. Already, air transportation operators supply travelers with different service contributions to buy, in compensation for greenhouse effect emissions.

Globally, airlines gulp down 26 billion gallons of fuel per year, and this figure may double in twenty years. 20 per cent of their operational costs correspond to fuel. For the first time in 2006, the fuel bill exceeded costs for staff in the sector. Sir Richard Branson, British business mogul, scorching supporter of many environmental causes, but mainly founder and president of the Virgin group which counts several air transportation carriers, said in a recent interview that "immediate solutions" should be found (earlier post).

Could the babassu palm make the difference? A Brazilian law grants the local population the right to collect babassu nuts freely, independently of who owns the land. A situation of ecological balance totally opposed to the one to be observed in Malaysia or Indonesia, known to shelter the largest palm tree plantations in the world, but also encouraging deforestation and boosting the greenhouse effect as the original jungle is frequently permited to be burnt down.

Today, biojet fuel does not seem to be entirely competitive though, as jet fuel derived from petroleum is sold free from taxes at 1,5 USD per gallon, which is still very cheap.
Soon there will be eco-taxes on aviation fuel. And I am pretty sure that authorities will make it mandatory to blend conventional fuel with biojet when available. Costs will also shrink significantly when industrial production is started.
But won't the land areas needed be gigantic? Doutor Expedito has a ready answer:
If 20 per cent of aviation fuel were to be produced in form of green fuel for blending, such volumes would correspond to some 30 million acres land. It’s a huge territory, I agree, but it is less than the existing Babassu forests.
Tecbio and its involuntarily hype boss have furthermore a very clear social vision. This is important to emphasize, as bioethanol mills using sugar cane as raw material has not reduced poverty in the Brazilian countryside. Seasonal plantation workers called boias frias (“cold billies”) have a hard time. Because of piece-work, a Brazilian cane cutter will only ‘last’ twelve years, less than a slave in ancient times, according to a recent study.

Professor Parente gets upset:
Such conditions are intolerable. We have our own model which pretends to reconcile social development and industrial dynamics. At present date, Tecbio is leading two pilot projects in collaboration with federal authorities. The idea is to create cooperative units, in association with the local population, for a socially correct production of biodiesel derived from Babassu kernel oil. Respecting the environment, this model should be replicated in other regions, for examples in deforested areas of the Amazon and in Africa.
But is it not utopian wanting to assemble two operational methods which are normally dissociated: the small-scale traditional way versus output through high-tech plants ? Expedito Parente holds out his arms. He makes one think of a talented film maker who, after years of prospecting, has just received unlimited funds to shoot an ambitious picture based on an art script:
One has to be pragmatic. We work with feasibility from an economic point of view. Running a cooperative does not mean that it should not be profitable. In a basic scheme, each cooperative shall produce three million liters [800,000 gallons] of biodiesel/biojet fuel per year, together with several other products originated from the nuts. There will be some agriculture. All the electricity consumed in the cooperative shall be generated organically on the spot. Each cooperative is giving part-time jobs to 3,000 peasants. On the other hand we study also ecologically run Babassu plantations.
To produce one billion liters of biojet fuel, [270 million gallons] at least 300 such cooperatives are needed. This is certainly a time-consuming project. Plans are allowed to be extensive though, changeover seems to be secured. Of four children, Doutor Expedito has one son working at Tecbio. At age 26 and a chemical engineer as his father, he already takes part in management. His name is premonitory : Expedito Parente Junior...

Copyright, Agoravox, 2007.

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EU's BioSynergy project aims to make biobased fuels and products competitive with fossil fuels

Developing and designing innovative biorefinery concepts to make biomass-derived products cost-competitive with fossil fuels is the goal of the EU's newly launched BIOSYNERGY project.

One of the main energy policy targets of the EU is to accelerate the use of biofuels - any fuel that is derived from biomass (plant or animal waste) in order to transit towards a low-carbon economy. Candidates for producing domestic biofuels include feedstocks such as sugar, wheat and corn. Unlike other natural resources such as petroleum, coal and nuclear fuels, biofuels are renewable energy sources. However, using biomass grown in the EU to produce transportation fuels, and to a lesser extent energy, is still more expensive than using these traditional resources.

For this reason, the four year, €13 million BIOSYNERGY project will work towards establishing a large scale biorefinery that can produce a number of high value chemicals, as well as large volumes of liquid transport fuels, and use the leftover energy to heat and power the plant. The project is funded under the EU's 7th Framework Programme - Energy.

The project aims to integrate synthesis processes (to obtain transportation fuels and green platform chemicals), and energy production (power, CHP) by application of innovative synergetic biorefinery concepts, using advanced fractionation and conversion processes, and combining biochemical and thermochemical pathways.

In this way the project partners hope that the chemicals will boost profitability, whilst the transport fuels will replace some of the fossil fuels currently on the market. The reuse of excess heat and power will also cut carbon emissions.
"BIOSYNERGY aims to achieve sound techno-economic process development of integrated production of chemicals, transportation fuels and energy, from lab-scale to pilot plant. This project will be instrumental in the future establishment of biorefineries that can produce bulk quantities of chemicals, fuels and energy from a wide range of biomass feedstocks." - Hans Reith, from the Energy research Centre of the Netherlands (ECN), coordinator of the BIOSYNERGY project .
The researchers will use advanced fractionation and conversion processes for biomass. The combination of biochemical (enzymatic conversion, use of micro-organism) and thermochemical (gasification, pyrolysis) pathways must result in economical and environmentally sound solutions for large-scale bioenergy production:
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"We're developing concepts and carrying out supporting research to provide data to help implement a future biorefinery," said Tony Bridgwater, Head of Aston University's Bioenergy Research Group, a partner in the project.

BIOSYNERGY will set up pilot plants of the most promising technologies for a 'bioethanol side-streams' biorefinery, in close collaboration with a lignocellulose-to-bioethanol pilot plant currently under construction in Salamanca, Spain.

Aston University will also lead work to identify the optimum biorefinery based biomass-to-product chains for a future European bio-based economy, test and characterise biomass and lignin in its fast pyrolysis reactors, and produce a BIOSYNERGY Road Show to communicate results.

The project brings together a consortium of Europe's leading bioenergy research institutions. Amongst them are: the Energy research Centre of the Netherlands, Greencell S.A., Compania Espanola de Petroles S.A., DOW Benelux B.V., VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, Aston University, Agrotechnology & Food Sciences Group,
Agro Industrie Recherches et Developments, Institut Francais du Petrole, Centre for Renewable Energy Sources, Biomass Technology Group, Joanneum Research Forschungsgesellschaft, Biorefinery.de, Glowny Instytut Gornictwa, IE - Joint Research Centre, Chimar Hellas S.A., and Delft University of Technology.

More information:
Cordis News: EU project aims to make biomass derived products competitive with fossil fuels - May 25, 2007.

Biosynergy website.

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The poverty-reducing power of ethanol

A refreshing piece on how ethanol can reduce global poverty appeared recently in the New West Network. Granting countries from the South tariff-free access to the US and EU biofuel markets would reduce illegal immigration, benefit the environment, help the poor (in the South and in the North), make both fuel and food less costly, and reduce the West's dependence on imported oil, he says. This a line of argumentation that comes closes to that of the Biopact.

Ethanol expansion may boost prices for poor farmers in the developing world (in Africa, more than 50% of all people make a living in agriculture). The author gives the example of prices for coffee beans that have been low for years. Efforts like 'fair trade' coffee that guarantee smallholders a better price have been modestly successful but haven't changed the fundamental problem, namely that of overproduction and low world prices. By diversifying into energy crops, these prices may at last improve and lift small farmers out of poverty:
Expanding worldwide demand for ethanol has caused Brazil to rapidly increase ethanol production. Land previously used for coffee and other crops has been transferred to sugar cane to meet ethanol demand. As any socially conscious coffee drinker knows, coffee growers are often confined to poverty because of low coffee prices. The Economist has frequently pointed out that coffee prices are low because of a worldwide glut of coffee beans. Reduction in coffee bean supply in Brazil, which is the world’s largest coffee producer, would improve worldwide coffee prices, and with it, the lot of coffee growers.
The exercise could be repeated for a whole range of other cash crops, on which so many in the South are dependent.

Expanding ethanol supplies would impact worldwide petroleum prices as well. The Brazilian Government estimates that it can easily produce ethanol equivalent to about 10% of worldwide petroleum consumption. Some experts have even shown that the country could replace all global gasoline demand (earier post). In Africa, the potential is equally large, if not bigger (see projections). The effect would be lower fuel prices, which is of major benefit to the poor, because they spend a higher proportion of their small budgets on energy than wealthier people:
To put this in perspective, about 5% of the world’s petroleum comes from Iran. Oil and gasoline prices are profoundly sensitive to changes in supply and demand. This is why cartels from Standard Oil to OPEC and the Texas Railroad Commission have worked hard to limit worldwide oil production. A surge in worldwide fuel supply would likely reduce gas prices in the United States. High energy prices disproportionally hurt the poor, and lower in gasoline prices would be most helpful to the poor. This is true in the United States and other countries. The vast majority of the world’s poor countries are net oil importers. Money spent on oil is unavailable for food and other necessities.
Brazil is not the only Latin American country with the potential to produce ethanol. The vast majority of Latin American and sub-Saharan African countries are located in the (sub)tropics, which give them a natural competitive advantage for the production of biofuels. The creation of an ethanol industry there can curb the dramatic problem of illegal immigration, because such an industry is relatively labor intensive and may create a large number of jobs:
Countries from Peru to Mexico could eventually be major ethanol producers. The most painless and least controversial way to reduce illegal immigration is the creation of jobs in Latin America. In Brazil alone, it is estimated that 1 million people work in the ethanol industry.
For Europe, the same logic holds. If a biofuel industry were created in Africa, the massive and dramatic influx of illegal immigrants, who risk and often lose their lives in their attempts to reach the EU, could be reduced (Senegal's president, Abdoulaye Wade, has been promoting biofuels with this perspective in mind, see here).

Lifting tariffs on Latin American ethanol would offer a broad range of benefits, he thinks:
The poor in the U.S. and Latin America would benefit from lower corn prices, jobs, cheaper fuel and higher cash crop prices. Energy security would improve if fuel came from friendly countries like Colombia and Brazil instead of the Middle East, Russia and Venezuela. Lower oil prices would weaken defiant anti-American leaders in Iran, Venezuela and elsewhere.
This is not to say that ethanol production in Brazil is without problems. Sugar cane cutters are only required for a few months out of the year. Increased ethanol production may speed deforestation. However, the best defense against deforestation is prosperity. According to a Finnish study described in the Economist and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, forest density is increasing in every country with a gross domestic product per capita of over 4,600 dollars per year:
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But on the US tariff and subsidies to corn farmers in Iowa, the author is very clear: you can't win presidential elections:
The best explanation for the persistence of the ethanol tariff is that Iowa is a very important state in Presidential politics. Iowa receives more farm subsidies per capita than any other state. Conveniently, the Iowa State Caucus is the first binding contest in the race for the Presidential nomination. Iowa is also one of the tightest swing states in the general presidential election. In 2000, Al Gore carried Iowa. With the help of generous expansions in farm subsidies, George Bush carried Iowa in 2004. In each of these contests, the margin of victory was well under 1%. Anyone aspiring to become or be re-elected as President would be unwise to upset Iowans.
Tariff-free access to the U.S. market would be a carrot for reform throughout Latin America. Basic poverty-fighting measures like women’s rights, property rights for the poor and transparent, democratic government could all be prerequisites to dropping the current ethanol tariff. In Europe, the hope of access to the common market of the European Union helped democratic, transparent governments spread throughout former Communist states. Ethanol markets could have a similar impact on Latin America.

Brazil is a good US neighbor, the author says. Brazil’s center-left President, Lula da Silva has committed to paying Brazil’s international debt, helping the poor and being a responsible member of the international community. Brazil has contributed thousands of soldiers to the U.N. stabilization mission in Haiti. Other Latin American countries, including Colombia, Honduras, and El Salvador have been staunch U.S. allies in recent years.

Granting these countries tariff-free access to the U.S. ethanol market would reduce illegal immigration, benefit the environment, help the poor and reduce our dependence on imported oil. President Bush will never face another Presidential election or Iowa Caucus.

For all of these reasons, the author thinks, it is time to begin phasing out ethanol tariffs.

Image: a Rwandan coffee farmers, struggling against low prices for his product. A global switch to biofuels would allow farmers to diversify their crops and to access the new market, which would prop up prices for their cash-crops.

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Cuba quietly upgrading its ethanol plants to produce biofuels

Cuba is quietly modernizing its ethanol-producing facilities, despite Fidel Castro's repeated assertions that making more of the biofuel is a bad idea. Hypocrisy or not, the fact is simple: Cuba has the capacity to become a major ethanol producer, and it will not hesitate to take advantage of the opportunity. Earlier we reported on how the emerging biofuels market may revive the island's once thriving sugar industry (previous post), and the first concrete voices pointing in that direction can now indeed be heard in Havana.

During the Soviet Era, the Cubans systematically bartered and sold large quantities of sugar in exchange for Russian oil and fuels. This sugar-for-fuel relationship was the result of Castro's first formal deal with the Soviets, made in 1960. At the height of these exchanges, he enthusiastically launched an (infamous) plan which forced all Cubans to produce a 'Ten Million Tonne Harvest'. Even though that target wasn't reached, the campaign succeeded in turning the island state into a major exporter. Later on, Cuba did achieve an annual production of 10 million tonnes. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba suddenly lost its market and the sugar sector entirely disintegrated, with half of all mills halting their operations. In 2006, Cuba produced a meagre 1.5 million tons... With the demise of the USSR, the island also lost its access to a steady supply of cheap fuel.

Despite Castro's criticisms, Cubans now make the obvious connection: if sugar is fuel, and we don't have fuel but we do have the potential to produce massive quantities of sugar, then why don't we turn our sugar into fuel? Indeed, the new ethanol market will revive the sugar cane industry, boost Cuba's energy security and opens unprecedented export opportunities that bring in the scarcest of all goods - hard foreign currency. A first sign of the island's attempts to kickstart a biofuel industry was given earlier this year when it signed an agreement with Venezuela to jointly build 11 new ethanol plants (previous post).

And now Dr. Conrado Moreno, executive director of the Universidad Técnica de Energía Renovable de Cuba (UTER) and member of Cuba's Academy of Sciences, says the island plans to upgrade 11 of its 17 existing refineries with the aim to produce the green transport fuel. These plants currently produce up to 180 million liters (47 million gallons) of ethanol, but the alcohol is used in rum and other spirits, as well as for medical purposes and as a cooking fuel. Moreno said that the upgrading of the ethanol plants will give Cuba the capacity to produce fuel for cars "in four or five years". The scientist spoke at a conference on renewable energy organised by UTER in Havana.

In contrast to Castro, Dr. Moreno concedes ethanol produced from sugar cane could bring economic opportunity to some "isolated communities" in Cuba. A very careful statement, because quite frankly, anyone can see that the ethanol market will bring wealth to a considerable number of Cubans, 20% of whom are active in agriculture, and to urbanites alike who will enjoy less costly fuels (earlier post). But Moreno can obviously not contradict Fidel Castro too openly:
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Over the past months, Castro has vehemently criticized a U.S.-backed plan to produce ethanol from corn for cars in a series of editorials published in state-run newspapers, claiming it will cause prices of farm products of all kinds to spike and make food too expensive for poor families around the globe. He later said he didn't have any objections to Brazilian biofuels, which are made from sugar cane. Brazil is the world's leading producer of ethanol from sugar cane. In March, the country signed an agreement with the United States to promote biofuel production in Latin America and to create international quality standards to allow it to be traded as a commodity like oil.

That agreement helped spark the editorials from Castro, which have been read repeatedly on state television and radio. In them, Castro distinguishes between the cane ethanol Cuba produces and the corn-based biofuel common in the U.S.

The 80-year-old revolutionary released another signed opinion to foreign journalists Tuesday night, saying the damaging effects of producing ethanol from corn were not new. "The dangers to the environment and the human species are topics on which I have been mediating for years," Castro wrote. "What I never imagined was the immense risk."

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Japan's Oenon Holdings may produce bio-ETBE from rice

Japan largely relies on food from abroad as cheaper imports have driven many farmers out of business and into the cities. Given the fact that in modern societies, mobility is as important as cheap food, high oil prices are forcing some to dare to venture into turning a staple like rice into liquid fuel. Apparently there is no alternative (except for driving less, but for most people that is not an option - the low price elasticity of the demand for oil shows this).

Japan has been looking into importing biofuels from Brazil and South East Asia (previous post), but an alcoholic beverage maker, Oenon Holdings, may change this trend. The Tokyo-based company announced it wants to produce bio-ETBE derived from ethanol made from rice to mix with gasoline, a challenging plan in a country where costly farm produce has kept the usage of green fuels largely at bay. A five-year project to build and run a 15 million liter (3.96 million gallon) ethanol plant in Tomakomai city, located in the southern coast of the northern island of Hokkaido, is awaiting government approval.

The Ministry of Agriculture has set aside 8.5 billion yen (€52/US$70 million) from its annual budget to promote locally-made green fuels to supplement gasoline for auto use given hefty carbon emissions reduction targets to meet under the Kyoto protocol. 55 ethanol gas stations were opened last month on a trial basis in selected locations in Japan (earlier post). The plan is part of Japan's recently announced committment to slash 50% of its greenhouse gas emissions in the post-Kyoto era (that is from 2012 onwards).

"The fate of the project is yet to be known until the farm ministry makes a decision," said Hisako Kawakita, a spokeswoman at Oenon, which has its roots in 82-year old distiller of traditional spirit from potatoes in Asahikawa city, central Hokkaido.

Five other groups have submitted their ethanol plans, waiting for the ministry's decision to be taken with advice from an independent committee by the end of this month as to which project or projects will receive the subsidies, a farm ministry official said:
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Japan, the world's second largest gasoline consumer of some 60 billion liters (15.85 billion gallons) a year, is almost totally dependent on imported fuels, and in 2006 produced only 30,000 liters (8000 gallons) of ethanol at government-backed pilot plants.

Counting on 2.25 billion yen (€13.7/US$18.5 million) on subsidies, or a half of the planned spending, the project plans to build an ethanol plant with annual capacity of 15 million liters according to private research Hokkaido Intellect Tank, a member of the project together with the Hokkaido municipal government and other entities.

Oenon, named after Oeno, the goddess of wine in Greek mythology, is expected to contribute its existing distillation technology to the project. The plant's commercial production is expected to start in the year starting in April, 2009, and the product would be used to make green ethyl tertiary butyl ether (ETBE).

It was only late last month when gasoline blended with ETBE - a popular petrol additive for green-conscious drivers in Europe - started trial sale at 50 pump stations in Tokyo and surrounding areas.

Hokkaido Intellect Tank said in a statement that the project plans to use imported rice as feedstock initially to lower costs, which is later to be replaced with Hokkaido-grown rice. Large-sized farming is common in Hokkaido, where rice production per acreage for the 2005 crop was about 8 percent higher than the national average.

Oenon formed a holding company in 2003, with several regional alcoholic beverage firms under its umbrella.

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ESA presents sharpest ever map of Earth - boost to ecosystems, climate and land-use studies

The most detailed portraits ever of the Earth's land surface have been created with the European Space Agency's Envisat environmental satellite. The portraits are the first products produced as part of the ESA-initiated GlobCover project and are available online to all. The images are ten times sharper than any previous satellite maps. A small composite Earth map taken at 300 metre resolution between May and June 2005 can be viewed here [*.jpg/1MB].

Bimonthly global composites for May to June 2005 and March to April 2006 can be accessed through a newly developed map server tool on ESA’s GlobCover website. On 19 June, additional bimonthly global composites will be made available as well as the first part of a global land cover map over Eurasia. Around 40 terabytes of imagery – an amount of data equivalent to the content of 40 million books – were acquired between December 2004 and June 2006 and processed to generate the global composites.

Earth observation and ecology
We have previously drawn attention to the importance of earth observation (EO) tools and satellite maps in managing the nascent global biomass and bioenergy sector which is set to alter land-use change patterns around the world (here). ESA's new composites will support the international community further in modelling climate change extent and impacts (see EO's role in studying the carbon cycle), analysing ecosystems and plotting worldwide land-use trends.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), which is heavily involved in studying the potential effects of bioenergy production, will use GlobCover products to support many of its activities. "GlobCover products should constitute an important interpretation asset in support of more dynamic environmental parametres such as rainfall and vegetation condition for FAO's global and national food security early warning programmes on which ESA and FAO cooperate closely," FAO’s Dr. John Latham explained.

"It will also significantly contribute to the monitoring and assessment of global land cover and as such will support the contribution of FAO to the assessment of land degradation and the monitoring of global forest cover", Dr. Latham added:
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Ron Witt from the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP), also looking at biofuels and bioenergy, said: "The GlobCover data sets should allow UNEP to do frequent monitoring of environmentally-critical sites and known 'hot spots' in areas we have under examination around the globe, and to update our knowledge of such changing environmental conditions, in order to alert the global community to emerging problems before it is too late for decision-makers and civil society to take action in this regard."

Jean-Louis Weber highlighted the importance of the GlobCover products in the framework of the European Environmental Agency (EEA): "From the point of view of time scales, the contribution expected from GlobCover is of paramount importance. Combined with the Corine data on which the current accounts of land cover change at the European scale are based, a regularly updated GlobCover is expected to play a key role in the implementation of nowcasting procedures, necessary for delivering up-to-date data on land cover change at the European scale at a pace compatible with the main socio-economic indicators."

The products are based on Envisat's Medium Resolution Imaging Spectrometer (MERIS) instrument working in Full Resolution Mode to acquire images in polar orbit at an altitude of 800 km with a spatial resolution of 300 metres.

The global composites are produced by processing MERIS images together in a standardised way. Thirteen out of 15 MERIS spectral bands are processed with an upgraded algorithm including tools for ortho-rectification, cloud screening and full atmospheric correction, which accounts also for aerosol.

The global land cover map, which is ten times sharper than any previous global satellite map, is derived by an automatic and regionally adjusted classification of the MERIS global composites. The 22 land cover classes are defined according to the UN Land Cover Classification System (LCCS).

GlobCover is taking place as part of ESA’s Earth Observation Data User Element (DUE). An international network of partners is working with ESA on the project, including the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the European Commission's Joint Research Centre (JRC), the European Environmental Agency (EEA), the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) and the Global Observations of Forest Cover and Global Observations of Land Dynamics (GOFC-GOLD) Implementation Team Project Office.

"GlobCover is an excellent example of a successful inter-agency partnership, and we are especially pleased that the LCCS – a joint FAO/UNEP standard – is being used as the basis of the classification," Latham said.

The GlobCover processing chain has been developed by MEDIAS France, which is also operating the processing chain, together with Brockmann Consult, the Université catholique de Louvain and partners.

User consultation
The first GlobCover user consultation meeting will be held at JRC in Ispra, Italy, on 20 June 2007 where users will discuss the quality of the first products and how they will integrate them into their work.

Users are encouraged to provide feedback on data access and product quality by email to [email protected] by 1 June. Those interested in attending the user consultation meeting may apply by emailing the same address.

More information:
ESA: ESA presents the sharpest ever satellite map of Earth - May 11, 2007.

ESA's GlobCover website.

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

The bioeconomy at work: Toyota's i-Unit made from kenaf-reinforced bioplastic

As part of the Plasticity – 100 Years of Making Plastics exhibition, held at the Science Museum in London, bioplastics, biocomposites and biopolymers are presented as the future of plastics.

Full of revolutionary technology, Toyota's i-Unit concept is used as an example of a new form of green mobility. The exhibited vehicle uses plant-based materials instead of oil-based plastics and metals. Biopolymers and bioplastics made from sugarcane and maize used in the i-Unit are reinforced with plant fibers from the African kenaf plant. The fibers are held together by lignin, a natural polymer found in wood.

The car industry has been one of the biggest users of plant-based plastics (overview). These green alternatives can be made from a large variety of feedstocks, as long as they contain sugar, starch or oil. So far sugarcane, castor beans, maize, sago, cassava, palm oil, soy beans and sweet potatos have been used for the production of bioplastics (see our overview of research on tropical feedstocks for biopolymers). They often have properties that make them more performant and robust than their petroleum-based 'rivals' (earlier post, here and here). As well as using plastics made from plants, car designers are employing plant fibers to strengthen plastics, replacing conventional carbon fibre or glass reinforcement.

Plastics reinforced with plant fibers are much lighter than traditional composites, so the cars are much more energy efficient to drive. The carbon footprint of these materials is lower as well and they are renewable. Sometimes, they are fully biodegradable.

Toyota's i-Unit offers a radically green form of mobility. Its compact size enables the passenger to move among other people in an upright position in low speed mode, whereas a low center of gravity ensures stable handling when the vehicle reclines in high speed mode. The device is powered by li-ion batteries. If the electricity these batteries store were to be obtained from renewables such as biomass, the vehicle would become almost entirely green and carbon-neutral [entry ends here].
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UPM and Andritz/Carbona team up to develop synthetic biofuels

Global forestry company UPM, international technology group Andritz and its associated company Carbona intend to co-operate [*.pdf] on the development of the technology for biomass gasification and synthetic gas purification. Gasification technology is required for the production of so-called 'synthetic biofuels', also known as second-generation biodiesel, or biomass-to-liquid (BTL) fuels. To obtain such fuels, biomass is gasified after which the syngas is purified and fed to a Fischer-Tropsch liquefaction plant. During the Fischer-Tropsch process carbon monoxide and hydrogen are combined in a catalytic reaction which converts them into liquid hydrocarbons of various forms (diagram, click to enlarge).

The companies plan to start the joint BTL project based on Carbona's gasification technology at the Gas Technology Institute’s pilot plant located close to Chicago in the United States. Laboratory testing and modification of GTI's test plant would start in July. The institute has equipment which can be applied for synthetic gas production under conditions similar to commercial scale plants.

Estimated total costs of the piloting are €5 to 10/US$6.7 to 13.4 million. Pilot testing is expected to be finished by the end of 2008. The co-operation also covers the design and supply of a commercial scale biomass gasification plant. UPM announced in October 2006 that it will strongly increase its stake in second generation biodiesel in the next few years and prepares to become a significant producer of renewable biofuels. The main raw material used in UPM's biodiesel production will be wood based biomass:
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The company is already known for making efficient use of biomass in production of paper and wood products as well as in energy generation. Locating biodiesel production plants adjacent to existing UPM pulp or paper mills would further enhance the company's ability to utilise the wood raw material efficiently.

Andritz has a comprehensive product portfolio for biomass starting from wood handling equipment, dryers and pellet machines to fluid bed boilers and gasifiers for lime kilns. Recent addition of Carbona’s special gasification technology enables further gasification applications to complement the product family.

UPM is one of the world’s leading forest products groups. The Group's sales in 2006 were EUR 10 billion, and it has about 28,000 employees. UPM's main products include printing papers, self-adhesive label materials and wood products. The company has production plants in 15 countries and its main market areas are Europe and North America.

Andritz Group develops high-tech production systems and industrial process solutions for various standard and highly specialized products. The Group has approximately 10,400 employees and runs 35 production/service facilities and over 120 affiliates and distribution firms around the world. The Group focuses on five Business Areas: Pulp and Paper, Rolling Mills and Strip Processing Lines, Environment and Process, Feed and Biofuel and Hydro Power.

Carbona is a privately owned technology based company started in 1996. It is specialised in the development and commercialisation of biomass gasification processes. For the time being it has offices in Finland and USA. Carbona has worked in close co-operation with Gas Technology Institute throughout its existence.

The Gas Technology Institute (GTI) is a non-profit research & development organization with nearly 250-person staff based in Des Plaines, Illinois. The organization performs contract research, development and demonstration projects as well as plans and manages technology development programmes for the gas industry and other energy clients.

Image: Bundles of logging residues. During the last 10 years UPM invested more than €500 million on biomass based energy and energy efficiency. These bundles of logging residues are being incinerated for energy in one of UPM's many renewable biomass fired power plants. UPM sees biodiesel production as a natural continuation in making efficient use of the wood raw material.

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Biofuels, palm oil and youth empowerment in Nigeria's volatile Delta State

The socio-economic situation in Nigeria's volatile delta region is tragic: the abundance of oil and gas has brougth immense wealth to a small corrupt elite and Western energy companies, whereas the vast mass of ordinary citizens has become impoverished. An economic crisis fueled by demographic changes (rapid population growth, urbanisation, the abandonment of agriculture) has triggered an enviromental crisis which makes things worse. Especially the younger generation of Delta inhabitants has become totally disillusioned and tilts towards using violence to express its frustration over this state of affairs.

Felix Ayanruoh, writing for the Vanguard, thinks biofuels may offer an opportunity to turn this situation around, by involving the youth in their production. Biofuels can bring local employment, income security and local energy independence. Ayanruoh refers to Dr. Emmanuel Uduaghan, governor-elect, who recently said that his mission for Delta State is "To use our human and natural resources to launch an era of rapid and sustainable social and economic development that will transform us into the most peaceful and industrialized state in Nigeria...". Biofuels development is seen as one of the strongest opportunities to achieve the above stated mission, especially when they are based on palm oil, the industry of which has entirely collapsed. Green fuels could revive this once thriving agro-economic sector.

Ayanruoh makes some good points that are close to our own view on how biofuels may contribute to socio-economic development in the South. In a crisis region like the Niger Delta, local economic development is the absolute priority, and locally available natural resources, if kept in the hands of the communities who own them, can make an important contribution to this aim. With permission, we reprint parts of his essay:
The emerging market in biofuel is another opportunity to transform Delta State into a more peaceful and industrialized state. Delta State has one of the largest untapped palm oil potentials in the world. The export of palm kernels began in 1832 and by 1911, British West Africa alone exported 157,000 tonnes of which about 75 per cent came from Nigeria - the region encompassing Delta State being the major producer. As of today, palm oil production in our state has been ignored by the relentless focus on crude oil. The total output has fallen drastically, denying the state billions of dollars in potential revenue. Palm trees proliferate throughout the state with well known production centers in such towns as Ajagbodudu, Agbarho, and Otegbo, for example. The revitalization of this production sector is, therefore, well within reach.
One of the problems facing the Niger-Delta region today is youth restiveness, notes Ayanruoh:
It is therefore incumbent on the Uduaghan administration to address this problem by developing and improving palm oil production as a means of empowering our youths and at the same time, achieving his mission of transforming Delta State into a more peaceful and industrialized state.
At a symposium about youth restiveness organized by the Concerned Deltans, at the Petroleum Training Institute Effurun, in Delta State, the youth leaders in attendance stressed the need for vocational training in the area of farming among other trades. The past is clear enough and offers a framework for the future. There is the need for partnership among the state, business, labour, youth, and communal organizations, emphasizing human and technical development of palm oil production.
In conjunction with other vast natural resources of Delta State, the advancement of palm oil production will be of seminal importance to the overall development of the state, says Ayanruoh:
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He concludes that this initiative will drive revenue growth as a result of exports, increase employment for our youths, and generate electrical energy to power local industries and biofuels for transport.

Even though Ayanruoh is right about the potential palm oil holds for his State, there are a huge number of barriers that must be overcome: from the creation of a safe investment climate and the requirement for good governance to the question of ownership, labor rights and participation, to the need for investments in infrastructures and biofuel processing facilities. It is not enough to have a natural resource at hand. Its exploitation can just as well strengthen the injustices one is trying to overcome. The palm oil industry in this part of Africa has its roots in a colonial plantation system, and the risk exists that these old traditions based on a fundamental logic of inequality (producers/land owners versus powerless plantation laborers) are revived. Biofuel production based on palm oil can only succeed over the long term if smallholders are given enough means to participate in the sector.

With this in mind, the Biopact has been cooperating with a local NGO to study the feasibility of creating a cottage ethanol industry based on the exploitation of Nipah fruticans, a sugar rich palm that has colonised much of the Delta. Even though many problems arise that limit the potential of such a project, the small-scale approach to biofuel production based on local ownership is worth pursueing at the expense of potential profits, because the social advantages of employment creation, political stability and youth empowerment far outweigh mere commercial gain (earlier post).

The most important point to remember is that local farming communities in the South are becoming increasingly aware of the fact that biofuels offer them an unprecedented opportunity at diversifying their crop portfolio and to tap a new, lucrative and rapidly globalising market. Whether biofuels are used locally to replace fossil fuels or exported to bring in foreign currency is of lesser importance. The fact remains that the South has the social, economic and agronomic conditions that give it a competitive advantage over the North when it comes to green fuel production. The wealthy countries should look into strengthening this industry in the South, which offers a unique chance to alleviate poverty and to spur social development.

Image: armed Ijaw militants in the Niger Delta.

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Biofuels and renewables 'Country Attractiveness Indices' for Q1 2007

Ernst & Young recently released its Q1 2007 Renewable Energy Country Attractiveness Indices [*.pdf], a series of indices that rank countries on their commercial attractiveness with regards to alternative energy growth and development. These indices provide yardsticks for investors who want to know which markets offer the best near and long term alternative energy growth prospects.

The indices provide scores for national renewable energy markets, renewable energy infrastructures and their suitability for individual technologies. They take a generic view and different sponsor/financier requirements will clearly affect how countries are rated. Moreover, the indices were compiled from a purely commercial point of view, keeping in line with the current status quo of the globalised economy.

In the case of the Biofuels Country Attractiveness Indices, they say nothing about trade injustices or the politics of subsidies, which are so crucial for a debate about the potential drawbacks of biofuels. Neither do they keep in mind the efficiency of the biofuels in question or their effectiveness at mitigating climate change. The economy and its investors do not automatically mind the social and environmental sustainability of their ventures.
The Biofuels Country Attractiveness Indices rank the attractiveness of the top 15 global markets for investment in biologically derived renewable fuels incorporating both ethanol, and biodiesel. The Q1 2007 edition includes individual scores for bioethanol, biodiesel, and infrastructure, plus a combined score making up the All Biofuels Index.
As such, the Index may be handy for investors, but for policy makers, environmentalists or energy analysts they are of less use. The top 15 stack up as follows on the All Biofuels Index (click to enlarge):

Referring to the recent investment boom in biofuels, the report says that:
Growing optimism in the sector has not been lost on investors who are showing an appetite to take advantage of the growth potential and capital requirement of the market with over US$400m invested in 2006 and analysts predicting a compound annual growth rate for the industry of 30% in the medium term.
Germany tops the Biodiesel Index with a long history of governmental and financial support for the industry but its score would have been higher were it not for last year’s reduction in excise tax incentives, in favour of blending targets, leading to concerns that the market is reaching overcapacity.

France is in second place with an established biodiesel industry currently supported by excise tax exemptions, but with EU blending targets to be met in the future. For example, Diester has announced an expansion programme for four plants ranging from 100,000 to 250,000 tonnes per annum (ktpa) by 2008.

The United States and Brazil both benefit from high diesel demand and the necessary arable land to grow feedstocks such as soy. EU markets that are large fossil fuel consumers such as Spain, where Grupo Natura have just inaugurated a 105ktpa plant and the UK with AIM listed producers D1 Oils and Biofuels Corporation, benefit most in the Index. Below them are the smaller economies – Sweden with its attractive offtake regimes; Italy with established biodiesel production and Austria whose industry grew up very much in line with Germany’s. Canada has some regulatory support and is located next to the large US market:
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Biodiesel demand in China is expected to rise significantly in the future and ChinaAgri, who floated on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange this quarter, and CNOOC are both investing in capacity. However, regulatory support has been inconsistent and relatively little foreign investment has been attracted. Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia have strong listed plantation investors such as Golden Hope and PTAsianAgri who produce biodiesel, and the regulatory regimes are now recognising this potential. Ethical concerns continue over agronomy practises in the region however. India has the potential to grow the high yielding feedstock jatropha and a large domestic fuel market but little biodiesel production at present.

Brazil and the US are joint top of the Ethanol Index (click to enlarge). Brazil enjoys a high yielding feedstock, sugar cane, high blending targets, various tax incentives, and a large production capacity. This is attracting foreign investment such as from AIM listed vehicles Infinity Bio-energy and Clean Energy Brazil. The US produced more ethanol that Brazil for the first time during 2006. Investment in the US is flowing from developers such as NYSE listed Aventine Renewables as well as through global corporations entering the business such as Virgin Fuels with their investment in Cilion and joint venture with NTR’s Bioverda. In addition, the Federal grants for second generation, or cellulosic, ethanol have encouraged the market. High corn prices are expected to soften following record levels of planting this season by US farmers.

Europe continues to be a relatively modest producer of ethanol with its largest producer, Germany, producing just a fraction of the United States’ production during 2006. Belgium's score suffers due to its low gasoline consumption and Italy's as a result of its low installed capacity. Q1 2007 alone has seen the financial close of the 400 milllion liters per year Ensus plant in the UK, Raffinerie Tirlemontoise’s 300 million liters/year plant in Belgium and Abengoa’s 200 million liters per year French facility.

Australia sits in the top ten thanks to some state level mandatory blending legislation and availability of the high yielding feedstock sugarcane. China too is piloting cellulosic technology due to a lack of grain. Investment today is at both ends of the value chain from state-owned grain trader COFCO and the nation’s largest oil producer CNPC. India produces significant levels of ethanol and will need to satisfy high future oil demands. Other South East Asian economies, such as Thailand and the Philippines, are implementing blending targets and should benefit from their proximity to China, India, South Korea and Japan for export purposes.

Biofuels Infrastructure Index
The Biofuels Infrastructure Index is an assessment by country of the general regulatory infrastructure for biofuels. On a weighted basis, the index considers:
  • Market regulatory risk – 29%: The score in this category depends on how strongly the general regulatory, political and economic environment in the respective market encourages the production, distribution and use of biofuels
  • Supporting infrastructure – 42%: A market with sufficient arable land available to cultivate, an established and widespread distribution network and R&D activity will score well
  • Access to finance – 29%: Markets with a sound financial industry, proven financial track record of financing biofuels projects, listed companies operating in the biofuels sector and strong appetite by foreign and domestic investors score highly
Fuel Specific Indices
This comprises two indices providing fuel specific assessments for each country, namely ethanol and biodiesel. Some markets may appear in one of these Fuel Specific Indices but not in the All Biofuels Index since certain markets have a particular bias toward one fuel type but not the other (hence the combined score is reduced). Each of the indices consider, on a weighted basis, the following:
  • Offtake incentives – 25%: This includes the level of mandatory blending targets, tax breaks on fuel excise duty and tax credits awarded to biofuels producers
  • Tax climate – 8%: Countries that create a favourable tax climate such as enhanced capital allowances or corporation tax holidays will score highly
  • Grants and soft loans – 8%: Comprises grants and soft loans for investment in biofuels production
  • Current installed base – 11%: Existing production capacity installed in a country
  • Domestic market growth potential – 15%: Gasoline/petrol or diesel consumption of a country is used to determine the ultimate growth potential for alternative fuels
  • Export potential – 15%: A market’s score is determined by its geographical location and any free trade agreements it is a party to
  • Feedstock – 10%: Takes into account the energy yield, sustainability and price volatility of a country’s main biofuels feedstocks
  • Project size – 8%: Large projects provide economies of scale which facilitates project development
Wind, Solar, Biomass
The All Renewables Index which includes onshore and offshore wind, solar and biomass looks as follows (click to enlarge):

More information:
Ernst & Young, Renewable Energy Group: Q1 2007 Biofuels Country Attractiveness Indices [*.pdf] - May 2007.

Ernst & Young, Renewable Energy Group: Q1 2007 Renewable Energy Country Attractiveness Indices [*.pdf] - May 2007.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Engineers to burn manure as fuel to power an ethanol plant

To calculate the greenhouse gas balance of a biofuel, all the energy inputs of its entire production chain must be taken into account. If an ethanol plant uses coal or natural gas to power its operations (as is the case in the US and the EU), then the fuel will not be that clean. If however it uses renewable and climate friendly biomass (as is the case in Brazil where bagasse powers the refineries), then a much greener fuel can be obtained.

Engineers from the Texas Cooperative Extension have understood this and are now working with feedyard owners to help them look at the manure produced by their animals as a valuable biofuel that will be used to power an ethanol plant. Besides ethanol, the refinery will produce a byproduct known as distillers' dried grain, which is a prime feed for the cattle that produce the manure. If collected and treated well, the manure has a heating value almost similar to that of Texas lignite coal. The main difference is that the first fuel source has a low carbon dioxide footprint, whereas coal is extremely climate destructive.

Dr. Brent Auvermann, the expert developing the manure combustion process, recently hosted a seminar titled "Producing High-Value Manure for BioFuels and Fertilizer", in Hereford, where Panda Energy International will use the biomass in its ethanol facility. The meeting outlined work by Texas Agricultural Experiment Station researchers to determine best management practices for scraping manure from the feed pens.

"We're doing something that has never been done before," says Arles Graham, Panda Energy International's general manager for the Hereford plant, who spoke at the event. "We're using your manure as an energy source," he told feedyard owners. "It's a very complex process."

After starting up the plant with natural gas as the boiler fuel, Panda Energy will eventually use manure as a fuel source when producing ethanol for an E10 fuel blend, Graham said. The plant will initially process corn for ethanol, although the company is looking at alternative sources of starch to make the ethanol, and it will produce distiller's grains as a by-product. "But manure is our future," Graham said, estimating each plant will use 1,500 tons a day. Jim Adams, Panda Energy vice president-fuels, said the plant will begin asking yards in June to sign up for a percentage of their manure.

The past winter was a wake-up call, Adams said. Sometimes when the weather is too wet, manure can't be harvested from the pens. Manure will be used by this fall, so they have to start stockpiling now to ensure a steady supply. Adams said the plant will use manure on a six-day basis, requiring 70 to 80 truckloads per day. Panda's contractor will collect from the pens when they are dry enough, but will need to pull from stockpiles when pen surfaces are too wet.

Manure quality key
Quality is the biggest issue, Auvermann said. The manure needs to burn at a minimum rate of 2,758 British thermal units per pound of manure. That number changes according to the amount of pollutants – moisture and dirt – included when the pen is scraped:
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If all the water and contaminants were removed from the manure, the highest quality would be 8,500 Btu, "but we can't do that, because we can't take the ash out completely," he said.

Manure from soil-surfaced pens may not always meet the minimum heating value on an as-received basis, Auvermann said. Feedyard operators will have to take some steps to improve it. The timeliness of collection and depth of scraping will be key to keeping dirt content below 60 percent and moisture content below 20 percent, he said. "Paving the pens with a crushed ash or a fly-ash material (from coal-fired power plants) will end up returning to you in the form of heating value – big time," Auvermann said.

Partially composted manure from paved pens can have a heating value almost equivalent to that generated by burning Texas lignite coal, he said.

Feedyard owners should consider the process as "harvesting manure" rather than cleaning pens, Auvermann said. The ultimate goal is to have a hard, smooth, well-drained corral surface. Implementing good practices will pay at the bottom line, he said. Conscientious manure harvesting can result in higher fuel and fertilizer values, reduced feed requirements for cattle, improved pen drainage, and reduced odor, dust and flies.

Image 1: Dr. Brent Auvermann, Texas Cooperative Extension engineering specialist, advises feedyard operators to pay close attention to blade depth when harvesting manure from corral surfaces as a boiler fuel source. (Texas Cooperative Extension photo by Sharon Preece).

Image 2: Cleaning manure from feed pens is a common practice, but one that will have to be done more carefully in the future if the harvested product is to be used as a fuel source, according to Dr. Brent Auvermann, Texas Cooperative Extension engineering specialist. (Texas Cooperative Extension photo by Sharon Preece).

More information:

AgNews, Texas A&M University: Cleaner Manure Burns Hotter in Ethanol Processing - May 23, 2007.

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Boost to biohydrogen: high yield production from starch by synthetic enzymes

In what is a breakthrough for the hydrogen economy, scientists from Virginia Tech, Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), and the University of Georgia announce they have developed a biohydrogen production technique that tackles most of the problems traditionally associated with the production, storage and distribution of hydrogen. Their concept implies we may soon be filling our tanks with dry starch, the powdery stuff sold in grocery stores. Synthetic enzymes will do the rest.

This development gives new hope to the hydrogen economy. As part of what can be called the larger 'carbohydrate economy' the gas will be produced efficiently from starch and sugar-rich biomass instead of expensive and dirty alternatives like coal and natural gas. The new biohydrogen production method is also more efficient and cost-competitive than making the gas from water, which is based on using expensive electricity obtained from nuclear, wind or solar to power the electrolysis process.

According to experts, for hydrogen to penetrate the market for transportation, advances are needed in four areas: production, storage, distribution, and fuel cells. Most industrial hydrogen currently comes from natural gas, which has become expensive and contributes to climate change. Storing and moving the gas, whatever its source, is costly and cumbersome, and even dangerous. And there is little infrastructure for refueling a vehicle.

Synthetic enzymes

The researchers have now come up with a bioconversion process that overcomes these barriers (diagram, click to enlarge). Using synthetic biology approaches, Zhang and colleagues Barbara R. Evans and Jonathan R. Mielenz of ORNL, and Robert C. Hopkins and Michael W.W. Adams of the University of Georgia, are using a combination of 13 enzymes never found together in nature to completely convert polysaccharides (C6H10O5) and water into hydrogen when and where that form of energy is needed. This “synthetic enzymatic pathway” research appears in the May 23 issue of the open access journal Public Library of Science ONE.

Polysaccharides like starch and cellulose are used by plants for energy storage and building blocks and are very stable until exposed to enzymes. Just add enzymes to a mixture of starch and water and “the enzymes use the energy in the starch to break up water into only carbon dioxide and hydrogen,” says Y.H. Percival Zhang, assistant professor of biological systems engineering at Virginia Tech.

Starch in our tanks
A membrane bleeds off the carbon dioxide and the hydrogen is used by the fuel cell to create electricity. Water, a product of that fuel cell process, will be recycled for the starch-water reactor. Laboratory tests confirm that it all takes place at low temperature - about 86 degrees F - and atmospheric pressure.

The vision is for the ingredients to be mixed in the fuel tank of your car, for instance. A car with an approximately 12-gallon tank could hold 27 kilograms (kg) of starch, which is the equivalent of 4 kg of hydrogen. The range would be more than 300 miles, Zhang estimates. One kg of starch will produce the same energy output as 1.12 kg (0.38 gallons) of gasoline.

Since hydrogen is gaseous, hydrogen storage is the largest obstacle to large-scale use of hydrogen fuel. The American Department of Energy’s long-term goal for hydrogen storage was 12 mass percent, or 0.12 kg of hydrogen per one kg of container or storage material, but such technology is not available, said Zhang. Using polysaccharides as the hydrogen storage carrier, the research team achieved hydrogen storage capacity as high as 14.8 mass percent, they report in the PLOS article:
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The idea began as a theory. The research was based on Zhang’s previous work pertaining to cellulosic ethanol production and the ORNL and University of Georgia researchers’ work with enzymatic hydrogen production. UGA Distinguished Professor Adams is co-author of the first enzymatic hydrogen paper in Nature Biotechnology in 1996. The researchers were certain they could put the processes together in one pot. They tested the theory using Oak Ridge’s hydrogen detectors and documented that hydrogen is produced as they predicted.

Mielenz, who heads the Bioconversion Group in ORNL's Biosciences Division, attributed the successful research to a unique collaborative working relationship between scientists, lab divisions, and universities.

"Pairing our biomass conversion capabilities with facilities for studying renewable hydrogen production in the lab's Chemical Sciences Division was a key to this project," Mielenz said. "This also shows the value of partnerships with universities such as Virginia Tech and the University of Georgia."

It is a new process that aims to release hydrogen from water and carbohydrate by using multiple enzymes as a catalyst, Zhang said. “In nature, most hydrogen is produced from anaerobic fermentation. But hydrogen, along with acetic acid, is a co-product and the hydrogen yield is pretty low--only four molecules per molecule of glucose. In our process, hydrogen is the main product and hydrogen yields are three-times higher, and the likely production costs are low--about $1 per pound of hydrogen.

Over the years, many substances have been proposed as “hydrogen carriers,” such as methanol, ethanol, hydrocarbons, or ammonia - all of which require special storage and distribution. Also, the thermochemical reforming systems require high temperatures and are complicated and bulky. Starch, on the other hand, can be distributed by grocery stores, Zhang points out.

“So it is environmentally friendly, energy efficient, requires no special infrastructure, and is extremely safe. We have killed three birds with one stone,” he said. “We have hydrogen production with a mild reaction and low cost. We have hydrogen storage and transport in the form of starch or syrups. And no special infrastructure is needed.”

“The next R&D step will be to increase reaction rates and reduce enzyme costs,” Zhang said. “We envision that in the future we will drive vehicles powered by carbohydrate, or energy stored in solid carbohydrate form, with hydrogen production from carbohydrate and water, and electricity production via hydrogen-fuel cells.

“What is more important, the energy conversion efficiency from the sugar-hydrogen-fuel cell system is extremely high--greater than three times higher than a sugar-ethanol-internal combustion engine,” Zhang said. “It means that if about 30 percent of transportation fuel can be replaced by ethanol from biomass as the DOE proposed, the same amount of biomass will be sufficient to provide 100 percent of vehicle transportation fuel through this technology.”

In addition, the use of carbohydrates from biomass as transportation fuels will produce zero net carbon dioxide emissions and bring benefits to national energy security and the economy, Zhang said.

Interest to the South
The 'carbohydrate economy' is set to benefit those countries that can readily supply large quantities of industrial starch, sugar and cellulose. The developing world is a world leader in this respect and has a tremendous potential to grow.

If it ever becomes feasible to apply the technique developed by the researchers - just putting a starch and water solution in your tank - the main fuel will have to be processed starch. Theoretically it will be possible to extract the sugars from cellulose, but this would require additional processing steps.

Countries with the largest production potential for industrial starch can all be found in the tropics and the subtropics, where crops such as cassava, maize, sago and sweet potatoes grow that yield high quantities of the product (see our previous text, titled "Sweet potatoes and the carbohydrate economy").

Image: potato starch - soon powering our cars?

More information:
Zhang YP, Evans BR, Mielenz JR, Hopkins RC, Adams MW, High-Yield Hydrogen Production from Starch and Water by a Synthetic Enzymatic Pathway. PLoS ONE 2(5): e456, 2007, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0000456

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Expanding US ethanol market provokes food price surge - report

Citizens in the United States are paying a very heavy price for their locally produced, inefficient biofuels: first they spend billions on subsidies that are handed out to a select group of corn farmers and corn ethanol producers who produce a fuel that is energy inefficient and that does not help mitigate climate change. Then, to make things worse, they have to incur rising food prices because of the expansion of this industry.

All the while, they are being denied access to biofuels that are competitive and that effectively help reduce climate change. The US denies its citizens this access by imposing tariffs on efficiently produced imported ethanol. The question is: how much longer will Americans accept this state of affairs?

Maybe they will start to question things when they read that soaring corn prices due to the expanding US ethanol market have already driven US retail food prices up by US$14 billion over the last year. The Iowa State University Center for Agriculture and Rural Development calculated this in its study "Emerging Biofuels: Outlook of Effects on US Grain, Oilseed, and Livestock Markets" [*.pdf]. The report's outlook for US food prices is bleak. It confirms that greater US ethanol production will mean more competition for land and grain, and will subsequently cause long-run crop price increases.

The report suggests that this rise in US retail food prices is likely to get worse and that they could be pushed even higher - to an annual increase of US$20 billion. Crude oil prices could increase from US$65 to US$70 per barrel and US corn prices to US$4.42 per bushel, compared to US$2 per bushel in mid-August 2006. In response to higher feed costs, livestock farmgate prices and therefore retail prices for meat, eggs and dairy will also increase (graph, click to enlarge).

The magnitude of US ethanol market will depend on the price of oil - which is unlikely to decrease much from current levels - and the future makeup of the US automobile fleet. If Americans show sufficient demand for E-85 (a fuel that typically contains a mixture of up to 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline), corn-based ethanol production will increase to over 30 billion gallons per year, claims the study.

This would cause the US corn acreage to increase to more than 110 million acres, largely at the expense of soybean and wheat acres. Equilibrium corn prices would then rise to more than US$4.40 per bushel:
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The direct effect of higher feed costs would be to push up beef, pork and poultry prices by more than 4 percent, and to send egg prices rocketing by about 8 percent.

Corn will remain the primary raw material for biofuels in the Corn Belt, ahead of cellulosic ethanol from switchgrass and biodiesel from soybeans, because these crops are less economically viable, says the study.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) recently urged a full report into the effect the growing use of corn for biofuels could have on the US food industry.

"We support policies that will permit an increase in biofuels production without hampering the ability of the food industry to provide consumers - both in the US and around the world - with a reliable and affordable supply of food," said Cal Dooley, GMA president and chief executive officer.

US President George Bush earlier this month signed an executive order directing federal agencies to draw up regulations that will "cut gasoline consumption and greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles".

These regulations, which he wants in place by the end of 2008, are expected to boost domestic ethanol production and could cause food prices to rise even higher than current forecasts.

Americans need a 'biopact'

There is only one alternative to the dreadful evolution of the U.S. biofuel market: to demand lower subsidies for corn growers, and to reduce or lift the trade barriers imposed on imported ethanol.

Biofuels produced in the subtropics and the tropics - like sugarcane ethanol - have a much better energy balance as well as a stronger greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction balance. This means that their use is energy efficient and helps fight climate change. This cannot be said of corn based ethanol, which, some scientists found, takes almost as much energy to make, as you get out of it. Its GHG balance is very weak as well.

By allowing biofuels from the South to be imported, American citizens can both enjoy lower fuel prices (sugar cane ethanol is competitive with oil at around US$35-40 per barrel), as well as lower food prices. Moreover, they would be helping farmers in the South, and would indirectly help alleviate poverty in the developing world.

At the Biopact, we understand that such a scenario is wishful thinking, because the corn lobby in the U.S. is extremely powerful. But still, the message must be repeated, so that eventually change becomes possible. It's in the hands of the American electorate. But voters should not feel alone: they are being supported by a small but growing group of law makers and politicians with green credentials, who are in favor of the abandonment of the tariff. Amongst them are Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Senator Richard Lugar, and former Governor Jeb Bush.

More information:
Simla Tokgoz, et al., Emerging Biofuels: Outlook of Effects on U.S. Grain, Oilseed, and Livestock Markets, Staff Report 07-SR 101, Center for Agricultural and Rural Development Iowa State University, May 2007.

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Philippines in US$1.3 billion biofuel project with UK's NRG

The Philippines signed a US$1.3 billion (€966 million) deal with UK-based NRG Chemical Engineering today to build biofuel refineries and plantations, in one of the biggest foreign investments into the Southeast Asian country. The news comes at a time when another British biofuel company, D1 Oils, is expanding its plantation base in the Mindanao region.

State-owned Philippine National Oil Co. (PNOC) said its biofuels unit would form a joint venture with NRG, whose billion dollar investment, spread over five years, is a big boost for Manila's ambitions to become a major source of alternative fuels.

Chris de Lavigne, corporate adviser of NRG Chemical, said the company decided to invest in the Philippines because of its location, climate and the government's pro-active efforts in promoting biofuels. Peter Abaya, president of PNOC-Alternative Fuels (PNOC-AFC), told reporters he had been in negotiations with the company, which also has offices in Singapore, for 9 months.

The two groups have made the following plans:
  • to build a large 3.5 million metric tonne biorefinery, at a cost of around US$450 million, within three years. The refinery will initially use coconut and vegetable oil as feedstock until the planned jatropha plantation can start commercial production.
  • to create a jatropha plantation larger than 1 million hectares (2.471 million acres) to grow the biodiesel feedstock. The plantation will cost US$600 million (€446 million).
  • to build two 300,000 metric tonne bioethanol plants, at a cost of $200 million each; feedstock will be sweet sorghum.
The 3.5 million ton biorefinery would become one of South East Asia's largest plants. Jatropha, known locally as 'tuba tuba' yields anywhere between 1 and 2 tons of inedible oil seeds per hectare. At average processing efficiencies, from each ton around 200 liters of biodiesel can be extracted. A 1 million hectare plantation would thus represent a 'biofuel reserve' of between 1.25 and 2.5 million barrels of oil equivalent energy per annum (between 3440 - 6900 boe/day; the island state's daily oil consumption stands at 342,000 bpd, so the jatropha plantation could cover between 1 and 2% of this demand). The productive life of jatropha shrubs is between 30 and 50 years.

Interestingly, the ethanol plants will rely on sweet sorghum for their feedstock. It is not clear whether the joint venture will be planting or sourcing the new high yield and drought tolerant hybrids that contain higher levels of sugar in their stalks, as they were developed by the ICRISAT (earlier post). This is likely, since the Philippine government has expressed interest in these new varieties.

The joint venture between PNOC and NRG would be 70 percent owned by the latter:
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President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is determined to reduce the Philippines' dependence on imported crude oil in favour of alternative fuels produced from locally grown crops, such as sugar cane, coconut and jatropha.

A new law requiring a mandatory 1 percent coconut blend in diesel was introduced earlier this month and by 2009 gasoline will contain a 5 percent mix of ethanol to reduce the Philippines' US$6 billion plus oil import bill.

The government has courted foreign investment to boost biofuel local production and earlier this year signed agreements for five possible ethanol projects with China.

But NRG's investment is the biggest yet into the biofuels sector and a boost for the country's low levels of foreign direct investment, which have failed to match buoyant portfolio inflows from overseas amid high power costs and concerns over corruption. Manila is hoping its English-speaking workforce and abundant natural resources will attract more FDI.

D1 Oils expands
The news of the joint venture comes at a time when British AIM-listed D1 Oils expands its jatropha plantations in the Philippines. The company is going around Mindanao to entice farmers to cultivate tuba tuba with the hope to plant 10,000 hectares in the near term.

Recto Doctor, country agronomist of D1 Oils Asia Pacific Inc., a subsidiary of D1 Oils UK, said the company would provide planting materials, technical assistance and a marketing agreement to farmers willing to grow the crop.

"Farmers can pay us upon harvest," he said. Doctor said the firm is aggressive in its jatropha project now that the country is implementing the Biofuels Act, which was signed into law only last January 17.

He noted that the firm prefers unutilized lands than converting existing farmlands grown with crops like corn and rice to jatropha plantations. Jatropha, Doctor pointed out, would help alleviate poverty in the countryside and can help in the protection of the environment since it can prevent soil erosion.

The crop could be harvested seven months from planting and has a life span of 30 years, he said, adding that for the first year, a hectare could yield between P15,000 to P20,000 and grows bigger to P30,000 as the plant matures. D1 Oils Asia is working out a financing window for farmers through the Land Bank of the Philippines, he disclosed, details of which Doctor did not discussed.

The firm has plans to establish a refinery in the country but only after the desired number of hectares will be planted with jatropha, Doctor said. With 500 to 1,000 hectares, it would be enough to put up an extracting plant, he added.

More information:
Sun Star (Manila): British firm lures Minda farmers to grow jatropha - May 21, 2007
Sun Star (Manila): RP, NRG Chemical of Britain sign US$1.3 billion biodiesel project - May 22, 2007.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Climate change threatens wild relatives of key crops

Wild relatives of plants such as the potato and the peanut are at risk of extinction, threatening a valuable source of genes that are necessary to boost the ability of cultivated crops to resist pests and tolerate drought, according to a new study released today by scientists of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). The culprit is climate change, the researchers said.

Like many agricultural research organisations, CGIAR is worried about the effects of global warming on agriculture's capacity to provide food and fuel to growing populations. Because so many of the rural poor in developing countries depend on agriculture, the organisation has made the issue central to its research efforts, which include the development of new crops that can cope with climate change induced stresses (earlier post). But the irony is that in order to design and domesticate such climate resilient crops, plant breeders will be relying on wild relatives more than ever - that is, on the very species that are now found to face extinction.

According to the new CGIAR study, in the next 50 years as many as 61 percent of the 51 wild peanut species analyzed and 12 percent of the 108 wild potato species analyzed could become extinct as the result of climate change. Most of those that remained would be confined to much smaller areas, further eroding their capacity to survive. The study also examined wild relatives of cowpea, a nutritious legume farmed widely in Africa. It found that only two of 48 species might disappear. However, the authors predict that most wild cowpeas will decline in numbers because climatic changes will push them out of many areas they currently inhabit. The results of the study were announced on International Biodiversity Day, organized by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).
"Our results would indicate that the survival of many species of crop wild relatives, not just wild potato, peanuts and cowpea, are likely to be seriously threatened even with the most conservative estimates regarding the magnitude of climate change. There is an urgent need to collect and store the seeds of wild relatives in crop diversity collections before they disappear. At the moment, existing collections are conserving only a fraction of the diversity of wild species that are out there." - Andy Jarvis, agricultural geographer at the CGIAR-supported Colombia-based International Center for Tropical Agriculture and at Bioversity International.
Jarvis, the study's lead author, says the extinction of crop wild relatives threatens food production because they contain genes for traits such as pest resistance and drought tolerance, which plant breeders use to improve the performance of cultivated varieties. The reliance on wild relatives to improve their cultivated cousins on the farm is expected to intensify as climate change makes it too hot, too cold, too wet or too dry for many existing crop varieties to continue producing at their current levels:
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Jarvis and his colleagues looked specifically at the effects of climate change on the three crops in Africa and South America. The scientists focused on the two continents because this allowed them to consider how known populations of wild plants would fare in a wide variety of growing conditions. They found the impact of climate change is likely to be more pronounced in some species than in others but that, in general, all three groups of species would suffer.

Though not apparent to the average consumer, the wild relatives of crops play an important role in food production. All food crops originated from wild plants. But when they were domesticated, their genetic variation was narrowed significantly as farmers carefully selected plants with traits such as those related to taste and appearance as well as to yield. When trouble arises on the farm - attacks by pests or disease or, more recently, stressful growing conditions caused by climate change - breeders tend to dip back into the gene pool of the robust wild relatives in search of traits that will allow the domesticated variety to overcome the threat.

In recent years, genes available in wild relatives have helped breeders develop new types of domesticated potatoes that can fight devastating potato blight and new types of wheat more likely to survive drought conditions. Wild relatives of the peanut have helped breeders provide farmers with varieties that can survive a plant pest known as the root knot nematode, and resist a disease called early leaf spot. In fact, according to the report, more than half of new domesticated peanut varieties developed in the last five years have incorporated traits from wild relatives. Cowpea wild relatives are known to be a reservoir of genes that could confer resistance to major insect pests. In the US alone, the value of the improved yield and quality derived from wild species is estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

Jarvis said the vulnerability of a wild plant to climate change can depend on its ability to adapt by, for example, extending its range as warming in its native regions becomes too hot to handle. One reason wild peanut plants appear to be so vulnerable to climate change is they are largely found in flat lands and would have to migrate a long way to reach cooler climates, a predicament exacerbated by the fact that peanuts bury their seeds underground, a meter or less from the parent plant. That limits the speed at which seeds can move into more favorable climates. By contrast, plants in mountainous locations could theoretically survive by extending their range slightly up a slope, even by only a few meters, to find cooler weather. What scientists must do, Jarvis said, is identify which wild relatives are most likely to suffer from climate change and give them priority for conservation.

"The irony here is that plant breeders will be relying on wild relatives more than ever as they work to develop domesticated crops that can adapt to changing climate conditions," said Annie Lane, the coordinator of a global project on crop wild relatives led by Bioversity International. "Yet because of climate change, we could end up losing a significant amount of these critical genetic resources at precisely the time they are most needed to maintain agricultural production.

Research that identifies crop wild relatives threatened by climate change is part of a broader CGIAR effort to anticipate and blunt the effects of global warming on agriculture. In the local, national, and international policy arenas, CGIAR researchers are generating innovative options to foster adaptation to climate change. In addition, new research at CGIAR-supported centers focuses on understanding the impacts of shifting climate patterns on natural resources, such as water, fisheries, and forests, and on planning for improved management of these resources to meet the needs of growing populations as the climate changes.

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Two handy books answer FAQs on Brazilian ethanol

UNICA, the São Paulo Sugarcane Agroindustry Union, has produced two handy books answering some common questions about Brazil's sugarcane and ethanol industry. The publications are made available to larger audiences in the context of the upcoming Ethanol Summit 2007, to be held in São Paulo early next month.

In Production and use of fuel ethanol in Brazil - Answers to the most frequently asked questions Unica's consulting group takes the reader through all aspects of the production of sugarcane to its transformation into liquid biofuels and green power. For Sugar Cane's Energy, Twelve studies on Brazilian sugar cane agribusiness and its sustainability, Isaias de Carvalho Macedo condensed the insights of leading researchers and scientists, producers and officials related to Brazil's ethanol industry into a more in-depth panorama of the complex interactions between the biofuel sector and the environment, society and the economy.

It must be said, UNICA is the voice of the sugarcane agribusiness establishment. Its views on the social dimension of the sector can be safely called conservative, in that it mainly points to the employment opportunities it generates without dwelling on broader issues of the 'political economy' of modern agribusiness as such (ownership issues, struggles over land, social inequalities fuelled by a system that dates back to colonial times...). Other voices are far more critical in this regard. That said, the books offer a good introduction to the sector.

State of the industry: past, present and future

In a first part, the 'FAQ book' places Brazil's success story in the global context of the search for alternatives to petroleum. It discusses the energy balance of the fuel and the evolution of the volumes produced over the course of the years. The question which cars can use what kind of ethanol blend, and how the development of flex-fuel vehicles has changed the equation is answered.

An overview of the history of sugarcane growing and ethanol production in Brazil is provided, with an in-depth discussion of the National Alcohol Program (PROÁLCOOL) launched in the 1970s and how the State gradually withdrew from sugar-cane agribusiness activities. A quick look at whether the current regime for sugarcane, sugar and ethanol is compatible with the regulations of the World Trade Organization (WTO) is offered too. It shows which players use unfair trade practices, such as subsidies, trade barriers and dumping - and what Brazil's position is in this context.

Those interested in learning more about what it takes to set up an ethanol plant in the country are served: a section looks at the institutional and economic aspects of the industry, at its taxes, incentives and rules. Current land use and plans for expansion of sugarcane growing, with an eye on exports, are discussed as well, and include projections to 2012.

Environmental sustainability
In the second part of the book, the environmental and sustainability aspects of sugarcane and ethanol production are presented: soil and land use, the effects of expansion on food growing and protected areas, and the environmental laws dealing with the different steps and products in the production chain (burning residues, use of bagasse and vinasse, emissions and pollution regulations for bagasse powered boilers, and so on.)

An interesting section covers the questions on the conservation of soils and water resources, on the utilization of agrochemicals and fertilizers, agricultural practices, and the management of industrial waste streams.

A good overview of the greenhouse gas (GHG) balance of the fuel over its entire lifecycle as well as the direct emissions from using it in vehicles is provided. A comparison of the GHG balance of sugarcane based ethanol and the corn based variant shows the considerable difference between both fuels:
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Social sustainability
An important chapter is entirely devoted to the social impacts of the ethanol industry in Brazil. This is an issue that is receiving a lot of attention from both the government as well as civil society organisations.

Current labor legislation in the sugar-cane agribusiness is discussed in the book, as well as the role of unions and the mechanism in use in Collective Bargaining Instruments.

The Brazilian sugarcane and ethanol industry is not static, as relations between capital and labor change continuously. Some of these evolutions are highlighted in the book.

The sector now employs around 700,000 workers, with many more indirect jobs generated. An overview of Brazil's current labor market and the role of the biofuel sector in it is provided. The question as to how employment levels are expected to evolve in the face of increasing mechanization and automation is adressed.

Bioenergy technologies
The closing chapter of the handy book offers an basic look at current bioconversion technologies for the production of ethanol. Some scenarios on how these technologies may evolve are included.

We earlier pointed to the fact that Brazil succeeded in reducing ethanol production costs over the course of 30 years by up to 75%. The book looks at this trend and shows how it may continue.

In Sugar Cane's Energy, Twelve studies on Brazilian sugar cane agribusiness and its sustainability, twenty-three professionals from several fields have directly contributed texts either on the national or international context or, specifically, on aspects of the sugar cane agribusiness in Brazil. Isaias de Carvalho Macedo condensed their insights and bundled them into twelve chapters.

The author chose to group the topics by the type of impacts of the biofuel sector on different segments of society, as follows: the 'Impacts on the use of material resources' (energy and materials); the 'Impacts on the environment' (air quality, global climate, water supply, soil occupation, biodiversity, soil preservation, use of pesticides and fertilizers); the 'Sustainability of the agricultural production base', including resistance to pests and diseases; the 'Impacts on commercial actions', covering competitiveness and subsidies; and, in conclusion, some 'Socioeconomic impacts', with great emphasis on the creation of jobs and income.

More information:
Both publications can be downloaded for free at UNICA's website.

Isaias de Carvalho Macedo, Twelve studies on Brazilian sugar cane, agribusiness and its sustainability [*.zip/*.pdf format; in English and Portuguese], São Paulo Sugar Cane Agroindustry Union, São Paulo, 2005.

UNICA Consulting Group: Production and use of fuel ethanol in Brazil - Answers to the most frequently asked questions [*.pdf], São Paulo Sugar Cane Agroindustry Union, São Paulo, March 2007.

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U.S. House proposes US$4.5 billion for biomass research, biorefineries

The Washington Post reports that the U.S. government would underwrite up to US$2 billion in construction of biorefineries and bioproduct plants under a House Agriculture Committee plan being considered today. The bioenergy package would authorize a total of US$4.5 billion for biomass research and loan guarantees to biofacilities through fiscal 2012. The Subcommittee on Conservation, Credit, Energy, and Research is scheduled to discuss the package today.

The aim of biorefineries is to convert biomass into a range of products (biofuels, green chemicals and bio-based materials) in an integrated and efficient way, via thermochemical and biochemical conversion processes (chart, click to enlarge). Such facilities are part of the gradual transition towards the bioeconomy, in which petroleum products are systematically replaced or augmented by renewable and clean plant based products.

Under the loan guarantee program, at least 14 plants could be built. It would allow US$1 billion for projects costing up to US$100 million each and US$1 billion for projects costing US$100 million to US$250 million each.

Guarantees could cover up to 90 percent of the principal and interest on a loan for development and construction of biofacilities, said a draft prepared for the subcommittee. It says Congress would authorize the guarantees if lawmakers are unable to tap a reserve fund that requires offsets for all spending.

Major proposals in the package, along with the loan guarantee program, are:
  • US$1.5 billion for fiscal 2008-12 for bioenergy research into crops and cellulosic biomass, mill residues and agricultural and forest residue including used vegetable oils and animal waste;
  • US$500 million during fiscal 2008-12 for biomass research, mostly on less costly and more efficient ways to use cellulose in biofuels and bioproducts;
  • US$500 million in grants for development and use of renewable energy in rural areas during fiscal 2008-12.
Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, Minnesota Democrat, said the House vote early this year to repeal some tax breaks for oil companies should save enough money to pay for the committee's biomass initiatives:
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Like the loan guarantees, the three research and development programs would be financed by the reserve fund if possible. If not, Congress would be asked to appropriate the money.

Besides the funding proposed by Agriculture Committee leaders, the 2005 energy law calls for $200 million a year in research and development on biomass.

The funds come after a series of grants for bioenergy and biorefining programs made available by the U.S. Department of Energy earlier this year, which totalled US$385 million for six biorefinery projects over the next four years (previous post).

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Fourteen grants to spur bioenergy development in Alberta

Last month, the government of Canada's Alberta province approved fourteen renewable energy projects that will receive grant funding to support the development and expansion of bioenergy facilities and technology. The grant recipients will receive a total of C$5 (€3.4/US$4.6) million in the first phase of funding.

The grants are a part of Alberta's 'Nine-Point Bio-Energy Plan', which helps support the integration of liquid biofuels, biogas and and biomass generated power with Alberta's traditional energy sources. The province is Canada's largest producer of conventional crude oil, synthetic crude, natural gas and gas products. It is also home to the Athabasca Oil Sands which have estimated non-conventional oil reserves approximately equal to the conventional oil reserves of the rest of the world.

Last year, the Alberta government committed C$239 (€163/US$220) million over five years to the plan to help build a viable market for bioenergy in the province and encourage further private investment.

Under the 'Bio-refining Commercialization and Market Development Program', fourteen grants go to the following organisations and projects:
  • Infinite Energy (Vegreville): Feasibility study on construction of ethanol plant (Vegreville)
  • Canadian BioEnergy Corp.(Vancouver): Biodiesel production from 114 million litre bio-diesel facility (Sturgeon County)
  • Climate Change Central (Calgary): Multi-season, ultra-low sulphur diesel (ULSD) / biodiesel performance pilot study (Calgary)
  • ECB Enviro North America (Fort Macleod): Construction of a 3 megawatt green power biogas co-generation project (Lethbridge)
  • Highmark Renewables (Vegreville): Construction of a bio-based fertilizer commercialization facility (Vegreville)
  • Lignol Innovation Corp.(Vancouver): Completion of Lignol's proprietary bio-refining technology platform (Alberta site to be determined)
  • Olds College (Olds): Establish a split tank bio-diesel storage demonstration system. (Olds)
  • Rogers Sugar (Taber): Conduct a feasibility study on production of bio-ethanol facility (Taber)
  • Canadian BioEnergy Corp. (Vancouver): Conduct a study on diesel distribution infrastructure in western Canada and assess market for optimal integration of bio-diesel.
  • Kyoto Fuels Corp. (Lethbridge): Establish a 33 million litre bio-diesel processing facility based on vegetable oils and animals fats. (Lethbridge)
  • Western Biodiesel Inc. (Calgary): Establish a 19 million litre bio-diesel processing facility based on vegetable oils and animals fats. (Aldersyde)
  • West Coast Biodiesel Ltd. (Vancouver): Establish a 57 million litre bio-diesel processing facility based on vegetable oils and animals fats. (Calgary)
  • 1307350 Alberta Ltd. (Calgary): Market development to support a 378.5 million litre canola crush facility, a 378.5 million litre bio-diesel facility and a 378.5 million litre ethanol producing facility on a single site (Alberta site to be determined)
Five of those organisations receive further grants under the 'Bio-energy Infrastructure Development Program' (Western Biodiesel Inc., West Coast Biodiesel Ltd., Climate Change Central, ECB Enviro North America, Kyoto Fuels Corp). Highmark Disposals from Vegreville received a grant under this program from the construction of a Specific Risk Materials (SRM) destruction plant and dead stock-handling unit in Calgary:
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The funding will see the development of various facilities throughout the province producing various bio-fuels, including bio-diesel and ethanol, as well as launching studies to assess the long-term sustainability of the bio-energy marketplace in Alberta. The funding is drawn from the two programs' 2006-07 budget allocations.

The development of renewable energy, such as bio-fuels, supports Premier Ed Stelmach's plan to build a stronger Alberta. Other priorities for the government are to govern with integrity and transparency, manage growth pressures, improve Albertans' quality of life and promote safe and secure communities.

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U.S. ethanol imports down 33% in March

Quicknote ethanol trade
Monthly ethanol imports to the U.S. in March fell 33% to 629,000 barrels in 14 shipments, according to preliminary data supplied by the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Imports of the plant-derived gasoline additive averaged about 20,300 barrels a day for 31 days in March, or about 35% under the 31,300 barrels a day for 28 days in February - also in 14 shipments - for a total of 939,000 barrels.

Seven out of the 14 March shipments were bound for East Coast ports. This compares with 10 out of 14 shipments in February.

East Coast shipments:
  • four of the shipments or roughly 337,000 barrels, were received in New Jersey, which compares with 860,000 barrels to the region in February. Two of those shipments, totaling 81,000 barrels, came from El Salvador and two, totaling 256,000 barrels, were exported by Costa Rica.
  • New York took in 97,000 barrels in the only shipment from Trinidad, and the only two shipments from Jamaica, totaling 56,000 barrels, were sent to New Haven, Connecticut.
Canada exported four shipments:
  • Two, totaling 5,000 barrels, were sent to Blaine, Washington. Eastport, Idaho received one 7,000-barrels shipment, and Portal, N.D., took in 1,000 barrels.
Imports to Houston:
  • Imports here rose to 126,000 barrels, in three shipments, from none in the previous month. One 48,000-barrels shipment came from Brazil; two, for a total of 78,000 barrels, came from El Salvador.
Imports from Brazil declined by 524,000 barrels in March, to 48,000 barrels, and El Salvador's exports fell to 159,000 barrels compared to 212,000 barrels in February. Ethanol imports for March made up slightly more than 1% of total U.S. gasoline imports [entry ends here].
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World energy use to grow 57 percent between 2004 and 2030 - EIA

World marketed energy consumption is projected to grow by 57 percent between 2004 and 2030, according to the reference case projection from the International Energy Outlook 2007 (IEO2007) released today by the Energy Information Administration (EIA). The IEO2007 shows the most rapid growth in energy demand for nations outside the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), especially in non-OECD Asia, where strong projected economic growth drives the increase in energy use (Figure 1, click to enlarge).

Global energy demand grows despite the relatively high world oil and natural gas prices in the reference case. However, rising oil prices dampen growth in demand for petroleum and other liquids fuels after 2015 and, as a result, reducing their share of overall energy use from 38 percent in 2004 to a projected 34 percent in 2030. In contrast, the energy shares of natural gas, coal, and renewable energy sources are expected to grow over this period (Figure 2, click to enlarge). Liquids consumption is still expected to grow strongly, however, reaching 118 million barrels per day in 2030. The United States, China, and India together account for nearly half of the projected growth in world liquids use.

To meet the increment in world liquids demand in the IEO2007 reference case, supply in 2030 is projected to be 35 million barrels oil equivalent per day higher than the 2004 level of 83 million barrels per day. Conventional resources account for about 27 million barrels per day of this increase, with a projected 21 million barrels per day increase in production by members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and a 6 million barrels per day increase in non-OPEC countries.

Unconventional liquids on the rise

In 2004, world production from unconventional resources [*.pdf, chapter 3], including biofuels, coal-to-liquids, gas-to-liquids and heavy crudes, totaled only 2.6 million barrels per day. In 2030, in the reference case, production totals 10.5 million barrels per day, an increase by nearly 8 million barrels per day. Unconventional liquids account for 9 percent of total world liquids supply in 2030 (click to enlarge).

Other report highlights include:
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• Coal consumption, which grows an average annual rate of 2.2 percent, is the fastest-growing energy source worldwide in the IEO2007 reference case projection, which assumes that existing laws and policies remain in effect through 2030 notwithstanding concerns related to the rising level of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions. World coal consumption increased sharply from 2003 to 2004, largely because of a 17-percent increase—on a British thermal unit (Btu) basis—in non-OECD Asia (mainly China and India). With oil and natural gas prices expected to continue rising, coal is an attractive fuel for nations with access to ample coal resources, especially in coal-rich countries like China, India, and the United States. These three countries combined account for 86 percent of the increment in world coal demand by 2030 in the reference case projection.

• Higher fossil fuel prices, energy security concerns, improved reactor designs, and environmental considerations are expected to improve prospects for nuclear power capacity in many parts of the world, and a number of countries are expected to build new nuclear power plants. World nuclear capacity is projected to rise from 368 gigawatts in 2004 to 481 gigawatts in 2030. Declines in nuclear capacity are projected only in OECD Europe, where several countries (including Germany and Belgium) have either plans or mandates to phase out nuclear power, and where some old reactors are expected to be retired and not replaced.

In the IEO2007 reference case, which does not include specific policies to limit greenhouse gas emissions, energy-related carbon dioxide emissions are projected to rise from 26.9 billion metric tons in 2004 to 33.9 billion metric tons in 2015 and 42.9 billion metric tons in 2030. From 2003 to 2004, carbon dioxide emissions from the non-OECD countries grew by almost 10 percent, while emissions in the OECD countries grew by less than 2 percent. The result of the large increase in non-OECD emissions was that 2004 marked the first time in history that emissions from the non-OECD exceeded those from the OECD countries (Figure 3). Further, because of the expectation that non-OECD countries will rely on fossil fuels to supply much of their future energy demand growth, carbon dioxide emissions from the non-OECD countries in 2030 are projected to exceed those from the OECD by 57 percent.

The full report can be found on EIA’s web site, here.

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Monday, May 21, 2007

New interdisciplinary biofuels journal launched: "Biotechnology for Biofuels"

BioMed Central, the world's largest publisher of open access, peer-reviewed journals, announces the impending launch of Biotechnology for Biofuels. The new journal is the first of its kind to focus exclusively on understanding and advancing the application of biotechnology to improve plant and biological conversion systems for production of fuels from biomass. A peer-reviewed, open access journal, Biotechnology for Biofuels will begin accepting article submissions this summer.

The journal is being edited by some of the leaders in biofuels research including Charles Wyman, Ford Motor Company Chair in Environmental Engineering at the University of California at Riverdale; Chris Somerville, Professor of Biological Sciences at Stanford University; and Michael Himmel, Team Leader of the Biomolecular Sciences research staff at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
"Biofuels research is a multidisciplinary field with the potential to play an important role in addressing global climate change. An open access journal is urgently needed to ensure that researchers, policymakers and the public have access to the latest findings. I am delighted to be working with BioMed Central on Biotechnology for Biofuels - it is the right journal at the right time." - Chris Somerville, Professor of Biological Sciences at Stanford University
In recent years governments around the world have responded to the challenges posed by global warming by searching for new ways to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Many governments, research institutes and private enterprises are investing heavily in the development of improved technologies for production of biofuels as part of a solution to this problem. The biofuels currently in commercial production derive primarily from corn, sugar-cane and plant oils, each of which has its shortcomings. Much research effort is now focused on the development of biofuels from cellulosic biomass. Such cellulosic biofuels have the potential to offer significant economic and environmental benefits if techniques can be developed to produce them cost-effectively.

Biotechnology for Biofuels is being launched to provide a forum for publication of research focused on advances in the development of clean, efficient biofuels. Biotechnology for Biofuels will publish multi-disciplinary, high-calibre, peer-reviewed research, reviews and commentaries on all biotechnological aspects of biofuels research and any related economic, environmental and policy issues:
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The journal will publish research on a broad range of topics including production of cellulosic biomass, investigations of biomass composition and structure, plant deconstruction, pretreatments, enzymes, fermentations, integrated systems, process design and economics, life cycle studies and other related areas.

Like all of BioMed Central's journals, Biotechnology for Biofuels will make research immediately available without charge to any reader with Internet access. Articles accepted for publication by the journal will be included in PubMed, PubMed Central and other major indexing services.

BioMed Central is an independent online publishing house committed to providing immediate access without charge to the peer-reviewed biological and medical research it publishes. This commitment is based on the view that open access to research is essential to the rapid and efficient communication of science. In addition to open-access original research, BioMed Central also publishes reviews and other subscription-based content.

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Brazilian biofuels can meet world's total gasoline needs - expert

Quicknote bioenergy potential
The business of projecting the technical biofuels potential of a given region is extremely complex because it is dependent on so many uncertain factors and sub-projections (population growth, GDP, food, meat, wood and fuel demand projections, advances in technology, effects of climate change on agriculture, and so on). All these factors determine how much land will ultimately be available for energy cropping.

Still, a handful of experts study the matter in-depth and arrive at projections and scenarios that may differ considerably from those of their collegues. One of the new and highly optimistic estimates is made by professor Luis Cortez, Vice-Coordinator on a project for the expansion of ethanol production in Brazil and a professor at the State University of Campinas.

Currently, Brazil uses only 0.8% of its entire territory (8.5 million square kilometres) for the production of biofuels - an insignificant patch of land, so to speak. But if it were to cultivate energy crops for biofuels on a quarter of its territory (around 212 million hectares), the country could supply the entire world's current gasoline needs (which stand at around 24 million barrels per day).

This projection is based on the idea that second and third generation biofuels become viable. Such biofuels, based on the use of entire crops the lignocellulose of which is transformed via biochemical and/or thermochemical conversion techniques, would double the output per hectare of land for sugarcane. There are some indications that second generation biofuels may enter the market sooner than expected: Dedini SA, Brazil's main ethanol plant manufacturer recently announced a breakthrough in cellulosic ethanol production, which increased the output of a hectare of sugarcane by 30%. A doubling of the output is expected in the coming years (earlier post). Moreover, such a scenario would also entail the introduction of new, high yielding energy crops designed specifically for particular environments, as well as new forms of livestock production (no grazing on pastures).

Even though his projections are in line with some of the most optimistic scenarios made by researchers from the IEA's Bioenergy Task 40 (earlier post), Cortez stresses that they merely point to the technical potential for Brazil, and that "another question is if we’d really want to do it - and would it be politically possible". The scientist was speaking on a panel at Europe’s 500 “European Growth Summit: Growth is East and Green” [*.pdf] hosted at the Barcelona campus of IESE, one of the leading business schools. He criticized the production of ethanol from corn, a food crop with low yields, and called for responsible investments only, that is biofuel projects that limit environmental damage and promote social sustainability.

The map (click to enlarge) is a purely visual aid showing what an expansion of the hectarage to 212 million ha really means. It would be difficult to imagine that such an expansion could go without massive deforestation in the Amazon basin [entry ends here].
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World's largest chocolate factory switches to biofuels - palm stearin

Barry Callebaut, the world’s largest manufacturer of high-quality cocoa and chocolate products, will switch to biofuels to operate its largest chocolate factory in Wieze, in the Northwest of the country. The company has signed a contract with Belgium’s leading private renewable energy company, Electrawinds, for the installation of a 35 megawatt biofuel combined heat and power plant, which will power the production of more than 250,000 tonnes of chocolate a year.

The energy produced is equivalent to that consumed by 90,000 households. By switching to biofuel as an energy source, the production at the world’s largest chocolate factory will become CO2 neutral. This way Barry Callebaut hopes to make a significant contribution to achieving the Kyoto protocol, which seeks to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases to fight global warming.

The biofuel plant for the chocolate factory will use stearin, a by-product from palm oil, though care is being taken to ensure only sustainable supplies are utilized.
“Barry Callebaut’s objectives are to conserve resources and minimize the adverse impacts on the environment. Switching to green energy to power the world’s largest chocolate factory is a major step in this direction. The palm oil that will be used to produce energy will come from existing agricultural areas, meaning that the project will not cause additional de-forestation of the rain forest. With Electrawinds we have found a highly experienced partner to implement our switch to green energy” - Patrick De Maeseneire, CEO of Barry Callebaut.
The biofuel installation will combust stearin, one of the dozens of by-products created when refining palm oil. Palm stearin is the more solid fraction obtained by the fractionation of palm oil after crystallization at controlled temperatures. As such it is a coproduct of palm olein (see flow chart, click to enlarge). The product is always traded at a discount to palm oil and palm olein making it an cost effective ingredient in several applications. Palm stearin is a source of fully natural hard fat used in products such as soap, shortening and pastry and bakery margarines.

The physical characteristics of palm stearin differ significantly from those of palm oil and it is available in a wider range of melting points and iodine values. It is not suitable for the production of liquid biofuels, but can be combusted as a solid fuel.

The power generated by the installation will directly be delivered to the Barry Callebaut site, allowing the group to save the transport and distribution costs normally charged by the grid operator. The energy yield of the biofuel plant is up to 70 percent compared to only 35 percent for traditional energy plants because of the recuperation of heat:
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This will also allow the chocolate factory to lower its consumption of light fuel oil. Extra energy could also be supplied to households located in the proximity of the plant. Furthermore, the installation will create some additional jobs in Wieze as staff will be hired by Electrawinds to run the energy plant, which is expected to be operational in the summer 2008.

Barry Callebaut is the world’s leading manufacturer of high-quality cocoa, chocolate and confectionery products – from the cocoa bean to the finished product on the store shelf. Barry Callebaut is present in 24 countries, operates more than 30 production facilities and employs approximately 7,500 people. The company serves the entire food industry, from food manufacturers to professional users of chocolate (such as chocolatiers, pastry chefs or bakers), to global retailers. It also provides a comprehensive range of services in the fields of product development, processing, training and marketing.

Electrawinds is the leading private renewable energy company in Belgium with further operations in Italy. Since its formation in 1998, Electrawinds has invested a total of €100m in renewable energy projects. To help deliver these goals, the company has delivered several major projects. These include a biofuel installation in Ostend and a series of facilities near Bruges – including, at the time, the largest wind farm in Belgium. In total, Electrawinds now has 50 MW of installed capacity in wind and biomass energy, and has licenses for projects of 60 MW for next year.

Chart: different fractions of crude palm oil. Courtesy: Malaysian Palm Oil Board.

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U.S. scientists develop drought tolerant sorghum for biofuels

In order to diversify the portfolio of crops grown for the production of biomass and biofuels, scientists at the Texas A&M University's Agricultural Experiment Station (TAES) are breeding a drought tolerant sorghum that may yield between 37 and 50 tons of dry biomass per hectare (15 to 20 tons per acre).

The U.S. has the technical potential to produce about 1.3 billion tons of lignocellulosic biomass that could supply 30 percent or more of the U.S. transportation fuel requirements. But in order to turn this technical potential into real production, new crops are needed and so-called 'second generation' conversion technologies must become competitive. These technologies include the transformation of lignocellulosic biomass into liquids via biochemical and thermochemical processes. Such methods have the promise of converting all of the plant material - not just the grain as is the case with the first generation - into biofuels or directly into electricity.

A drought-tolerant sorghum cultivar is seen as one of the most promising biomass crops to this end. The United States currencly grows approximately 20 million acres of the plant which could provide 25 percent of the country's long-term goal for biofuels. The prospects for accelerated development of sorghum as a premier source of biofuels are excellent.

Sorghum is a highly diverse grass species originating from Africa and Asia, where it is grown on a large scale, often by subsistence farmers in semi-arid regions such as the Sahel. In the U.S. it is currently grown for grain and forage.

But a team of agricultural research centers, including the Institute for Plant Genomics, the USDA Agricultural Research Service and the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station is designing [*.pdf] a sorghum for high sugar and cellulosic biomass production for ethanol and other biofuels. The design of sorghum is being aided by the U.S. Department of Energy’s sorghum genome sequencing project and technology platforms developed by funding from the National Science Foundation. Acquiring fundamental knowledge about optimal sorghum biomass/biofuels design will aid in developing related biofuels crops such as corn, sugarcane, and switchgrass.

The research process adopted includes the following steps:
  • Sorghum genetic resources will be screened for sources of improved yield and biomass composition (sugar content, cellulose, hemicellulose, lignin) optimal for biofuels production.
  • Sorghum germplasm, traits and genes that improve biomass yield, bioenergy composition, and drought tolerance will be identified and pyramided into cultivars and elite hybrids.
  • Advanced material will be tested to identify cultivars that have optimal biomass-to-biofuels conversion properties and agronomic production parameters.
  • Logistical approaches will be optimized for the harvest and transport of sorghum to facilities for biofuels and bioenergy production.
  • Production of high yielding, drought-stress tolerant sorghum bioenergy cultivars and hybrids specifically engineered to meet the needs of the U.S. biofuels industry
  • Generate information and technology useful for improving corn, sugarcane, switchgrass, and other grass species for biofuels production
Rapid breeding
The breeding process of the new sorghum lines is part of a conventional breeding program and does not involve genetic engineering. In a conventional breeding program, parent plants are selected for specific traits, then cross-pollinated with other varieties to strengthen those desired traits. The process is repeated over several growing seasons until the plant with the desired traits breeds true:
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Agronomists have essentially used these same breeding techniques for centuries, and all modern cultivars, from improved landscape plants to row crops, have been developed this way. The process is painstaking, and the development of a new variety takes from 8 to 10 years or longer. Much of that time is spent just identifying which parent plants carry the gene that is responsible for the desired trait.

However, plant geneticists at the Norman E. Borlaug Center for Southern Crop Improvement are helping by applying the latest techniques to map the chromosomes of the sorghums. Using these genetic maps, the plant breeders hope to bypass many of the field trials to identify parent plants with the desired traits. With this technique, they expect they can cut the time it takes to further develop high-tonnage sorghum by more than half. As a result, it a drought-tolerant sorghum is expected to be ready for farmers in a few years rather than a decade.

The Texas Agricultural Experiment Station’s sorghum biofuels design team brings together expertise in production systems, breeding, genetics, and genomics that will accelerate developing advanced sorghum bioenergy cultivars for the Texas and U.S. biofuels industry.

Sorghum elsewhere
Outside the U.S., sorghum has been of interest to the bioenergy community for quite a while. In Europe the crop is being improved with the aim to use it as a dedicated feedstock for the production of biogas. German researchers from the University of Applied Sciences in Bingen (South-West Germany), have been collecting and planting 160 different sorghum varieties from Africa and Asia in two test fields. Already in 2005, the agricultural extension services of the state of Rheinland-Pfalz did the same with two promising varieties and in Bingen, Emmelshausen and Herxheim near Landau, another 20 different sorghum species were grown in experimental plots. The goal of this research is to study whether the crop can be made to adapt to the dry but relatively warm climate of South-West Germany, where it can be grown on land less suitable for maize, the major biogas crop in the country.

Likewise, the North Sea Bioenergy partnership, a project to stimulate the use of bioenergy in Belgium, the Netherlands, Scandinavia and the Eastern part of the UK, is experimenting with both sorghum and sudangrass hybrids for the production of biogas. Experiments involving co-digestion of the hybrids with manure in anaerobic fermenters have been encouraging (one hectare of the crop results in around 4000 liters of petro-diesel equivalent biogas).

Most importantly, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) has launched a pro-poor biofuels initiative, linking small farmers of drylands of the developing countries with the global biofuel revolution via a newly developed cultivar of sweet sorghum that yields unprecedented levels of ethanol. The crop meets the main needs of the dryland farmers - they do not require much water, can withstand environmental stress, are not that expensive to cultivate and allow a stream of products (grain, stalks, sugar) that makes it possible for farmers to combine food and fuel production (earlier post).

More information:
Texas Agricultural Experiment Station - Bioenergy Initiative: Designing Sorghum for the U.S. Biofuels Industry [*.pdf] May 21, 2007.

Bioenergy initiatives
at Texas A & M University.

Check Biotech: Texas A&M team to add a 'grain of common sense' to biofuel optimism - May 21, 2007.

Norman E. Borlaug Center for Southern Crop Improvement website.

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Sunday, May 20, 2007

Sweden and Netherlands ask OECD to study unfair biofuel subsidies

At a time when the EU threatens with a trade war over US biodiesel export subsidies, Dutch Secretary of Economic Affairs Frank Heemskerk and his Swedish counterpart have announced [*Dutch] they want the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to study unfair subsidies for biofuels and their economic effects.

Heemskerk filed the reques last tuesday at an OECD meeting in Paris. According to the Secretary, biofuels will be playing an important role in the future as substitutes for oil and gas. But policies to promote biofuels should not imply unfair subsidies, because they distort markets and can have perverse effects on food prices in certain countries.

The OECD, an organization that provides a setting where governments can compare policy experiences, seek answers to common problems, identify good practice and co-ordinate domestic and international policies in a globalised economy has a broad mandate as it covers all economic, environmental and social issues of the developed countries. Since the OECD has a tradition of studying this broad range of socio-economic phenomena, is the appropriate forum for an objective analysis of the issue biofuel subsidies, Heemskerk thinks.

As the Global Subsidies Initiative recently reported, both the EU and especially the US subsidize their own biofuel sector with billions of dollars each year. In 2006 U.S. taxpayers spent at least US$5.1 billion on subsidizing ethanol producers, whereas another US$400 million to US$500 million went to biodiesel subsidies (earlier post). In the EU, farmers receive a €45 subsidy per hectare of energy crops.

Recently, the US launched its so-called "B99" subsidy, which allows US exporters to undercut European rivals by at least a quarter, forcing many to cut production and sell at a loss. The US "B99" subsidy is controversial because it benefits exporters. In most of Europe, tax breaks are available only at the point of sale. Commodity traders are also exploiting a loophole in the subsidy system that is making its impact even more damaging. The perfectly legal trick - coined "splash and dash" by the industry - also makes a mockery of the purpose of biofuels, which is to reduce the use of fossil fuels and thereby cut carbon emissions. Traders are buying biodiesel on the European market in Rotterdam and shipping it to the US. There, conventional gasoline is added to the biodiesel blend - or "splashed with gas" - to qualify for the subsidy. Then the cargo is shipped back - or "dashes" - to Europe and resold at a lower price.

Heemskerk points out that biofuel subsidies in general and export subsidies in particular have perverse effects on viability of the production of biofuels that are genuinely competitive as well as on the global food system, as prices may go up in importing countries, whereas in others food production may decrease:
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The environment too may be affected when subsidies support one particular sector, like corn in the US, which limits biodiversity and promotes monocultures. Moreover, many developing countries would be able to produce competitive biofuels if the EU and the US were to reduce their subsidies (and remove their import barriers).

Both the Netherlands and Sweden are well placed to file a request for a study of biofuel subsidies. Sweden is Europe's biofuel leader and imports about 75% of its ethanol from Brazil, but it is investing massively in a domestic biofuel industry. The Netherlands for its part have a limited biofuel potential, and so are forced to import green fuels. For this reason, the country has a broad view on the global market. Recently, a Dutch commission drafted biofuels sustainability criteria, which must ensure that biofuel imports do not threaten the environment and social cohesion in the countries where they are produced.

More information:

De Financiële Telegraaf: OESO-onderzoek naar subsidie biobrandstoffen - May 15, 2007.

The Independent: Europe threatens trade war over US biodiesel subsidies - April 29, 2007.

Biopact: Subsidies for uncompetitive U.S. biofuels cost taxpayers billions - report, October 26, 2006

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Bosch and Siemens introduce biofuel cooking stove for developing world

Almost half of the world's population relies on fuel wood, charcoal, dung, or kerosene as fuels for cooking and heating. Most often, it is women and children who are burdened with the tasks of collecting the fuel and who prepare the food. Indoor smoke pollution from cooking on an open fire is a real killer in the kitchen. A recent analysis by the World Health Organisation shows around 1.5 million women and children die each year because of it (earlier post).

Introducing efficient and non-polluting cooking stoves therefor means a real revolution on the household level (earlier post). Biofuels such as ethanol gelfuel, biogas, biopropane and pure plant oil (PPO) may come to the rescue, and many initiatives are under way to promote their use.

Bosch and Siemens Home Appliances Group (BSH) is now testing a clean biofuel cooking stove called Protos. First experiments in around hundred Philippine households over the past year, were successful, prompting BSH to expand the project to at least ten thousand more homes. BSH has described the rollout as a “small-scale carbon project”, and is emphasizing the ability of the stove to be carbon-neutral, depending on fuel used.

The Protos plant oil cooker works as follows (image, click to enlarge): the tank is filled with PPO after which the burner is pre-heated with a small amount of alcohol or an other available fuel source. Through application of the pump, the tank is pressurized making the oil rise into the vaporizer where the heat of the flame converts the liquid into a gaseous mixture. The gas flux emits from a nozzle into a burning area, where it mixes with surrounding air and burns in a blue flame. The power output can be adjusted with a valve in the fuel line.

The stove's properties look as follows:
  • Power range: 1.6–3.8 kW
  • Usage: 2 liters oil per week for a family of 4-5 → 100 liters per year
  • Fuel: diverse plant oils, plant oil esters
  • Efficiency: 40-50%
  • Emissions: ten times lower than with high quality kerosene
  • CO2-balance: neutral
Protos was designed to work with a wide range of liquid fuel sources including the full range of both edible and inedible oils such as coconut oil, jatropha, sunflower oil, rapeseed oil, cottonseed oil or peanut oil. The fuel can be refined or unrefined. In addition to pure plant-oil it is also possible to burn used frying oil and plant oil esters (biodiesel):
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BSHG intends to introduce the stove in areas that can sustainably harvest the fuel it requires. It can also help cut down the use of wood in deforested areas; studies show that a typical family uses up to two tons of wood per year.

Protos is estimated to require about 100 liters of plant oils annually. BSH project leader Dr.-Ing. Elmar Stumpf noted “the plant oil stove is easy to operate and offers a very safe cooking environment since plant oils can neither burn nor explode.”

Vaporization and combustion of plant oils in a simple stove involve more than 10,000 different chemical reactions, which vary for each plant oil, depending on its origin, quality, and means of extraction. The Protos burner utilizes a combustion temperature of up to 1,400°C (2,550ºF) to ensure vaporization and low-emission combustion regardless of feedstock. With plant oil carbon residues forming at more than 100 times the rate of kerosene, the stove’s burner had to be designed to maintain a temperature profile which would minimize soot formation.

Trials with the cooker have been held in the Philippines and in Tanzania, with further projects planned in India, China, Madagascar, and Sri Lanka. The stove was developed and tested with support from the University of Hohenheim, the German Environmental Foundation, Leyte State University in the Philippines, and the European Environmental Heritage Fund, among others.

More information:
BSH: Protos Plant Oil Cooker - FAQ.

BSH: Plant Oil Cooker website.

Biofuel cooking stove mailing list.

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