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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, June 02, 2007

The bioeconomy at work: new additive strengthens biodegradable plastics

A new additive on the market can improve the performance of biodegradable polymers used for food packaging. Over the past five years packaging suppliers have been introducing various forms of biodegradable plastics. These are made from a variety of plants (mainly maize, but increasingly from sugarcane and other tropical crops) in response to projections that consumers and recycling regulations will drive demand for environmentally friendly packaging.

However, such plastics are not yet optimal for daily use, as they are slightly more fragile than their petroleum-based rivals. DuPont now announces the market introduction of Biomax Strong 120, a polymer additive that tackles the problem by improving the performance of bio-based polylactic acid (PLA) packaging.

The additive toughens PLA packaging materials while maintaining its compliance with food contact requirements in the US and in Europe. The company introduced a similar additive in August 2006 for non-food applications.

As a performance modifier in PLA, both grades of Biomax Strong enhance impact strength, flexibility and melt stability - especially important in rigid applications such as cast sheets for thermoforming and injection molding. When Biomax Strong is used at recommended levels (1-5 wt%) in PLA, packaging made with the additive outperforms traditional products with minimal impact on haze or transparency.

Some companies predict that the market for bio-based plastics will grow by about 20 percent a year as the products are an alternative to petroleum-based packaging such as the widely-used polyethylene terephthalate (PET). In Europe, the bio-based economy also enjoys strong support from citizens (earlier post) who are becoming increasingly environmentally conscious. The bioplastic shopping bag and the plant-based "PET-bottle" are the most obvious symbols of this transition to the bioeconomy:
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On the front of PLA-based bioplastics, NatureWorks is one of the main movers behind the biodegradable packaging trend. Companies like US-based Naturally Iowa have been using PLA for packaging products like organic milk. Retailers like Delhaize in Belgium and Auchan in France have also been testing PLA for various food packaging.

Demand for bioplastics in Europe experienced its first boom last year, according to a survey by the European Bioplastics Association, which has about 70 members (previous post). Currently bioplastics account for less than one percent of the European plastics market. But serious investments and research programs are underway, with the EU's SustainPack project, the largest of its kind, promising to bring radically new and highly competitive forms of bio-based packaging to market between 2010 and 2015 (earlier post).

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Tonga sees future in coconut biodiesel

Quicknote biofuel economics
Small island states often have the disadvantage of being entirely dependent on imported petroleum products. Most of these remote nations have energy intensive economies (often single sector economies, based on tourism, fisheries or agriculture), produce no oil themselves, have limited economic means with which to hedge against oil price fluctuations, which results in over-dependence and a state of permanent energy insecurity. Moreover, as we reported earlier, small island states are the first to experience the real impacts of climate change (in particular sea level changes).

Luckily, many of these islands have natural resources that allow for the production of competitive biofuels (see an overview of biofuels in the Pacific). Some even have the potential to meet their own fuel needs with an excess that can be exported. One such case comes from the Kingdom of Tonga, the Pacific island group that can be found some 2000 kilometres east of Australia. A team of chemical engineers from the Brigham Young University is there to show how oil from coconuts, fig trees or African palm can be transesterified into biodiesel.

As Tonga Now reports, demonstrations of the process are being carried out at local schools by a team of 26 from the Brigham Young University's Chemical Engineering school in Provo, Utah. According to the team leader, Dr. Randy Lewis, they wanted to share their expertise with Tongans, to make them less vulnerable to high oil prices.

Tonga could cut its dependence on petro-diesel by switching to locally produce biodiesel. All it takes is for the islands to stock up on sodium hydroxide and methanol, chemicals needed to transesterify vegetable oil into useable fuel.

A spokesperson for the ministry of Land, Survey and Natural Resources says the island state is considering the production of biodiesel as a source of income for the Kingdom, a potential export opportunity: “If it will be proven cheaper, then it can be produced locally, with a minimum import of methanol and hydroxide. It will be a form of employment, and can be exported to other countries that produce biodiesel, which in turn can boost the exportation level", the spokesperson said.

The island state consists of around 169 islands of which half are inhabited by 100,000 people who are mainly employed in agriculture (65%). The only major cash crops produced on the islands are vanilla, squash and especially copra and coconuts, key to Tonga's largely rural economy. The coconut industry has been plagued by depressed copra prices for years, which is why biodiesel made from coconut oil offers new hope. Moreover, plans to diversify the economy by investing into fisheries and the tourism industry will be facilitated if competitive biofuels can replace imported oil products.

The potential for coconut based biodiesel large enough for Tonga to consider exports. “With many countries and organisations such as the European Union, and the Pacific Islands Forum placing emphasis on renewable energy, the idea of biodiesel using coconut oil seem promising for Tonga,” the spokesperson concluded.

A similar example of the benefits of coconut biodiesel, this time on Vanuatu, is presented in an recent article by the UN's Small Island Nation's website. In Vanuatu, an entrepreneur helps small farmers make a better livelihood by involving them in cottage biodiesel industries. As in Tonga, they cannot count on a steady income and the local economy suffers because of global copra price fluctuations. Biofuels can change this situation [entry ends here].
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Friday, June 01, 2007

Research confirms biochar in soils boosts crop yields

New research confirms the huge and revolutionary potential of soils to reduce greenhouse gases on a large scale, increase agricultural production while at the same time delivering carbon-negative biofuels based on feedstocks that require less fertilizer and water. Trials at Australia's New South Wales Department of Primary Industries’ (DPI) Wollongbar Agricultural Institute show that crops grown on agrichar-improved soils received a major boost. The findings come at a time when carbon-negative bioenergy is becoming one of the most widely debated topics in the renewable energy and climate change community.

The Australian trials of 'agrichar' or 'biochar' have doubled and, in one case, tripled crop growth when applied at the rate of 10 tonnes per hectare. The technique of storing agrichar in soils is now seen as a potential saviour to restore fertility to depleted or nutrient-poor soils (especially in the tropics), and as a revolutionary technique to mitigate climate change. Moreover, agrichar storage in soils is a low-tech practise, meaning it can be implemented on a vast scale in the developing world, relatively quickly.

Agrichar is a black carbon byproduct of a process called pyrolysis, which involves heating biomass without oxygen to generate renewable energy. Pyrolysis of biomass results in the production of bio-oil, that can be further refined into liquid biofuels for transport (earlier post, on Dynamotive's trials). When the agrichar is consequently sequestered into soils, the biofuels become carbon-negative - that is, they take more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere than they release. This way, they can clean up our past emissions. No other renewable energy technology has both the advantages of being carbon-negative while at the same time being physically tradeable.

The biochar sequestration technique is now confirmed to boost soil fertility while storing carbon long-term. New South Wales Department of Primary Industries' senior research scientist Dr Lukas Van Zwieten said soils naturally turn over about 10 times more greenhouse gas on a global scale than the burning of fossil fuels.

“So it is not surprising there is so much interest in a technology to create clean energy that also locks up carbon in the soil for the long term and lifts agricultural production,” he said.

Multiple benefits
The trials at Wollongbar have focused on the benefits of agrichar to agricultural productivity: “When applied at 10t/ha, the biomass of wheat was tripled and of soybeans was more than doubled,” said Dr Van Zwieten. This percentage increase remained the same when applications of nitrogen fertiliser were added to both the agrichar and the control plots. For the wheat, agrichar alone was about as beneficial for yields as using nitrogen fertiliser only. And that is without considering the other benefits of agrichar.

Regarding soil chemistry, Dr Van Zwieten said agrichar raised soil pH at about one-third the rate of lime, lifted calcium levels and reduced aluminium toxicity on the red ferrosol soils of the trial. Soil biology improved, the need for added fertiliser reduced and water holding capacity was raised. The trials also measured gases given off from the soils and found significantly lower emissions of carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide (a greenhouse gas more than 300 times as potent as carbon dioxide):
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Long term carbon storage
NSW DPI environmental scientist Steve Kimber said an added benefit for both the farmer who applies agrichar and the environment is that the carbon in agrichar remains locked up in the soil for many years longer than, for example, carbon applied as compost, mulch or crop residue.

“We broadly categorise carbon in the soil as being labile (liable to change quickly) or stable – depending on how quickly they break down and convert into carbon dioxide,” he said. “Labile carbon like crop residue, mulch and compost is likely to last two or three years, while stable carbon like agrichar will last up to hundreds of years.

“This is significant for farmer costs because one application of agrichar may be the equivalent of compost applications of the same weight every year for decades. “For the environment, it means soil carbon emissions can be reduced because rapidly decomposing carbon forms are being replaced by stable ones in the form of agrichar.”

Unfortunately, agrichar is not widely available yet. BEST Energies Australia, a company involved with NSW DPI in the trials, has a pilot plant at Gosford which is producing minimal amounts for research purposes. “We are hoping the technology will take hold and pyrolysis plants will be built where there is a steady stream of green or other biomass waste providing clean energy that is carbon negative,” Dr Van Zwieten said. “But until pyrolysis plants are up and running, the availability of agrichar for farmers will be scarce.”

Agrichar mimics Amazon
The pyrolysis process which BEST Energies Australia is using seeks to emulate creation of the highly fertile Amazonian dark earths known as ‘terra preta’ (previous post).

Organic matter or biomass, including green or feedlot wastes, is converted to char during pyrolysis, a thermochemical process conducted in the absence of oxygen. Between 25 and 70 per cent of the dry feed material is converted during pyrolysis into a high-carbon char material which is far more stable than the original biomass.

In the Amazon today, these highly fertile soils are prized. Created by pre-Columbian populations thousands of years ago through the addition of charred organic matter, terra preta continues to be staggeringly productive despite being intensively cultivated.

BEST Energies Australia first began working on the pyrolysis process 10 years ago and now has a fully operational demonstration plant on the NSW Central Coast with the capacity to take 300 kilograms of biomass per hour.

NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) formed a research partnership with BEST to investigate the potential of agrichar products as soil amendments which could boost profitability while also sequestering carbon and reducing greenhouse emissions. Initial laboratory trials conducted by DPI found that by matching soil type to char from certain feedstocks and processing conditions, yields of some crops more than doubled.

NSW has a vast untapped biomass resource from a variety of waste streams, estimated to be about seven megatonnes of biomass a year.

Image: NSW DPI environmental scientist Steve Kimber shows one of the chambers used to monitor greenhouse gases emitted from the Wollongbar trial plot. Credit: NSW DPI.

More information:
Eurekalert: Soils offer new hope as carbon sink - May 31, 2007.

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Review of EU Emissions Trading Scheme finds it to be successful, key to climate change policy

Articles published in the first issue of the new journal, Review of Environmental Economics and Policy, describe the European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS) as by far the most significant accomplishment in climate policy to date, concluding that it will be central to future global climate negotiations. However since the EU accounts for only 20 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, the authors also conclude a global framework for managing climate policy is required in the long term.

The articles - by leading environmental economists - form a symposium, reviewing the performance of the EU ETS over the first two years of its three-year trial period between 2005 and 2007. Denny Ellerman, who coordinated the symposium, provides an introduction and overview to the EU ETS in The European Union Emissions Trading Scheme: Origins, Allocation, and Early Results [open access], co-authored with Barbara Buchner. The paper by Convery and Redmond, Market and Price Developments in the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, further looks at the market for allowances (graph, click to enlarge); the main features of the EU ETS; its institutional and legal context; and likely future developments. The third paper, by Kruger, Oates and Pizer: Decentralization in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme and Lessons for Global Policy, additionally discusses the unique decentralized structure of the EU ETS and its implications for both the functioning of the EU ETS and the prospects for a more global emissions-trading regime.

Viewed as one of the most important environmental policy developments of the past decade, the EU ETS is an ambitious effort by the EU to correct for the market failure that surrounds climate change, and to deliver the EU’s commitments to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions under the Kyoto Protocol. It aims to address the reduction of emissions of CO2 by allowing energy-intensive industrial plants and electric utilities to trade rights or allowances to emit CO2. Ellerman and Buchner focus on the allocation of the allowances. They note that, although there is evidence that some Member States and sectors received over-generous allowances, the main goal of limiting CO2 emissions was achieved. The EU has succeeded in placing a price on CO2 that starts to reflect the scarce capacity of the earth’s atmosphere to absorb more greenhouse gas emissions.

With coverage of about half the CO2 emissions originating from a region of the world that accounts for 20% of global GDP and 17% of the world’s energy-related CO2 emissions, the EU ETS is by far the largest emissions-trading scheme in the world. According to Convery and Redmond, the value of traded volume to date is estimated at €14.7 billion ($18.86 billion). More importantly, the price signal is a transnational one across European nations of significantly different economic circumstances and extending beyond Europe through the Clean Development Mechanism:
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The symposium discusses the key role played by the European Commission in successfully establishing the EU ETS. The Commission’s primary role was to enforce scarcity of the allowances to ensure that they were sufficiently valuable to be traded. Individual Member States made proposals to the Commission for the number of allowances to be distributed in each country. The Commission reduced the proposed number of allowances of 14 of the 25 Member States by a combined annual amount of almost 100 million tonnes of CO2.

Ellerman and Buchner review the release of emissions data for 2005 – the first year of the scheme – which showed allowances exceeded emissions by about 80 million tonnes of CO2, or about 4% of the EU’s intended maximum emissions. Emissions exceeded allowances in only 6 of the 25 EU countries: UK, Ireland, Spain, Italy, Austria and Greece. Installations may have reduced their emissions as a result of improvements and/or investments in energy efficiency or switching to less CO2-intensive fuel types. Ellerman and Buchner find that the excess of allowances over emissions can be attributed both to over-allocation in some countries and sectors and to emission reductions in response to the price of allowances in 2005.

Allowance prices over the course of the first official year of the EU ETS surpassed all expectations of market analysts and academics. Between July 2005 and April 2006, the allowance price consistently traded over the €21-€30 range. The persistently high price, in a market characterized by a large volume of trades between sophisticated players, is strong evidence that emissions abatement is taking place. Convery and Redmond’s analysis of the historical emissions data, and allowing for the growth in emissions that accompanies growth in GDP, suggests that abatement of about 7% may have been achieved. The Commission intends to encourage further abatement by making the 2008-12 allowance totals lower than the 2005-07 totals, and it has decided to reduce the allowance totals proposed by 10 Member States to a level that is more than 12% lower than their trial-period totals.

The symposium concludes that the EU ETS is important because of its size and the number of countries participating. It shows that emissions trading can be done, and will be hard to ignore in future climate negotiations. If CO2 emissions are to be significantly reduced globally then an emissions-reducing system would need to operate at the global level. One problem in achieving this is that there is no equivalent to the Commission at a global level to play the coordinating role. More will be needed to create the community of interest and practical advantage that would cause countries such as China and India to accept meaningful constraints. However, Ellerman and Buchner note that the East-West divide within the EU bears some similarity to the global North-South divide, and there are some positive indications that the EU ETS has set the groundwork for a global system.

The challenges of establishing a global system are likely to be formidable. On the enforcement and institution side, this suggests that broad-based emissions trading within developing countries may not be a realistic goal in the near term, and other avenues for engagement and trade need to be explored.

In the short term, other national programmes are unlikely to link to the EU ETS, but Kruger, Oates and Pizer suggest price harmonization is an alternative. Countries could set their domestic policies in ways that recognize and respond to the efforts in other countries in an effort to harmonize marginal costs, and there is some evidence that this is already happening based on proposals in countries including New Zealand, Canada and Japan.

The long-term future of the EU ETS looks promising, but it remains the case that the EU accounts for not much more than 20 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and this share is set to shrink over time. Convery and Redmond conclude that, to some extent, the EU ETS represents an act of faith that its leadership will result in a wider constituency for effective action in the longer term. Unless a global framework emerges out of the current discussions that is ‘incentive-compatible’ with key players, such optimism may prove to be misplaced.

Image: Weekly European Union Allowance price and traded volume development. Source: Point Carbon, cited in the paper by Convery and Redmond, "Market and Price Developments in the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme".

More information:
The first issue of Review of Environmental Economics and Policy is freely accessible [*.pdf, or table of contents with *.html references]. The journal is a publication of Oxford Journals, a Division of the Oxfor Publishing Group.

Eurekalert: Review of pilot phase of European Union Emissions Trading Scheme finds it to be successful - May 28, 2007.

EU ETS: Questions & Answers on Emissions Trading and National Allocation Plans.

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GM field trials 'underestimate potential for cross-pollination' - study

Field trials could be underestimating the potential for cross-pollination between genetically modified and conventional crops, according to new research by the University of Exeter. The research team recommends a new method for predicting the potential for cross-pollination, which takes account of wind speed and direction.

The findings are important in the context of biofuels, since interest in genetically altered energy crops is steadily growing (previous post, on transgenic switchgrass and on GM sugarcane). Some GM crops, like maize and canola are already being used for biofuels on a large scale. And even though such plants are currently not cultivated widely in the EU, pro-GM lobbies are more active than ever. The European Parliament recently voted in favor of national bans on GMOs, against the position taken by the EU Commission, which is in favor of the introduction of such crops in the Union (earlier post). What is more, GM energy crops could be introduced in the developing world first, where environmental and precautionary standards may be less strict. The new scientific findings may help craft more stringent field trial procedures.

The research [*abstract], funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and published today in the journal Ecological Applications, used records of wind speed and direction from weather stations across Europe to predict the movement of pollen in the air. The findings show huge variation in the amount of cross-pollination between GM and non-GM crops of maize, oilseed rape, rice and sugar beet. Levels vary according to whether the GM field is upwind or downwind of the non-GM field given the direction of the prevailing wind over the flowering period of the crop.

Field trials are regularly carried out to measure the potential for cross-pollination between GM and conventional crops. Current guidelines for minimum field-to-field distances are based on the results from these trials. However, if the GM field in a trial is downwind of the non-GM field, the trial will underestimate the potential for cross-pollination:
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'We were struck by the strong influence of wind direction on the amount of cross-pollination', said Martin Hoyle of the University of Exeter. 'Wind speed and direction are important factors outside of our control that have not previously been used to inform guidelines on minimum field-to-field distances. Recommended minimum distances between GM and conventional crops may need to be increased based on our findings.'

Field trials are time-consuming and expensive, so measuring the potential for cross-pollination across the full range of weather conditions is not feasible. This research resulted in the development of a theoretical computer model to analyse the effects of wind on pollen travel. The model, together with measurements of cross-pollination and wind speed and direction from field trials, can be used to predict cross-pollination at other times and sites.

'If the production of GM crops becomes widespread in Europe, it is essential that measures are taken to minimise cross-pollination from GM to conventional non-GM crops,' said Hoyle. 'The recommended minimum distances between GM and conventional crops should be informed by weather data, which is possible using our model of pollen dispersal in the wind.'

More information:
Martin Hoyle,a and James E. Cresswella, "The effect of wind direction on cross-pollination in wind-pollinated GM crops" [*abstract], Ecological Applications: Vol. 17, No. 4, pp. 1234–1243.

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Sweden looks to Indonesia for green fuels

An ambitious goal to halve Sweden's dependence on fossil fuels by 2020 has prompted it to actively seek out countries that can meet its rising demand for biofuels - an increasingly viable fuel alternative to pricey crude oil. Sweden already imports 75% of its ethanol from Brazil (earlier post). Now it is looking for biodiesel supplies from the South.

Indonesia is primed to benefit, as the tropical archipelago can be one of the leading contenders to meet Sweden's need for green fuel for motor vehicles, Swedish Minister for Foreign Trade Sten Tolgfors said during a tour of the country. The minister also called for the removal of trade barriers for biofuels.

The island state has launched a massive bioenergy plan, which it wants to use as a lever to revitalise its agricultural sector and increase its energy security. The country plans to inject a total of US$ 12.4 billion into the sector over the coming 3 years (overview), and so hopes to generate some 2.5 million jobs (earlier post). So far US$1.42 billion has been invested, with more than 67 projects for the production of liquid biofuels signed so far, and with 114 biomass power plants under construction across the archipelago (earlier post). More than 11 biodiesel plants are under construction. A considerable amount of the output is destined for exports.

Currently, in Sweden, biofuel accounts for 3% of the fuel used in motor vehicles, with ethanol from Brazil accounting for most of that. But the government aims to soon have cars and buses in the Scandinavian nation running on palm oil and jatropha curcas oil based biodiesel from Indonesia. Sweden also aims to decrease its use of fossil fuels in motor vehicles to 50% of current usage by 2020, to safeguard depleting global fossil fuel supplies and help stem climate change by lowering the country's carbon dioxide emissions.

Tolgfors, who was in Indonesia for a three-day visit to discuss trade relations between the two countries, said Sweden's demand for biofuel can only increase as its government has adopted aggressive measures to encourage the use of environmentally-friendly flex-fuel and biodiesel-capable cars. Sales of such cars now account for 13.5% of all newly registered vehicles in the country.

Jatropha investment
Along with palm oil, Sweden is also looking at other feedstocks to produce biofuel. Swedish company Scanoil is already in the process of acquiring vast tracts of land in Indonesia to grow jatropha. The investment, which is estimated in the millions, could be the single largest Swedish investment in Indonesia, according to Swedish officials:
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Increased investment in biofuels and the feedstock used to make it are a direct result of already soaring biofuels sales in the country.

Norway's Statoil, a company that produces E85 biofuel - containing 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline - and sells it through 170 of its service stations in Sweden, reported sales growth of 270% on year to 19.5 million liters in 2006 (earlier post).

Environmental and social concerns
Such strong sales figures reflect the results of an aggressive biofuel promotion program the Swedish government has launched in recent years.

The government offers owners of biofuel-powered vehicles special benefits such as lower excise duties, free parking spaces and exemption from city congestion charges.
In 2006, a total of 36,700 vehicles, or 13.5% of all newly registered vehicles in Sweden, were fitted with engines specially designed to run on biofuel, a 156% increase in biofuel-powered vehicle sales from 2005.

But growing biofuel demand presents its own risks that must be managed to ensure Sweden's emissions improvements don't take a heavy toll on the nations that produce its biofuel.

Tolgfors expressed concerns over the environmental and social repercussions associated with growing global demand for biofuel.

Indonesia and neighbor Malaysia together produce around 83% of the world's palm oil, and soaring demand for palm oil-based biofuel has fueled charges of excessive deforestation in the two countries to make way for palm oil plantations.
In Indonesia alone, environmental groups estimate that tens of millions of people derive their livelihood from the country's forests, which also provide a home for many rare plant and animal species.

Due in part to plantation expansion, Indonesia's forests are disappearing at an estimated 2.8 million hectares a year, one of the world's highest deforestation rates - and increasing demand for biofuel feedstocks could increase that rate.
Tolgfors raised such concerns Sunday during a meeting with Indonesia's Trade Minister, Mari Elka Pangestu, saying biofuel's potential environmental risks have to be addressed to prevent a backlash from consumers in the future.

"There needs to be a process of quality control that ensures each step, from the planting of trees, right up to biofuel production, has been carried out with minimal destruction to the environment," said Tolgfors. "Consumers want to be assured that the environmentally-friendly product they bought is indeed environmentally-friendly or they are likely to not buy it in future."

International coordination needed
Tolgfors also touched on how increased demand for biofuels has raised prices of certain staples, such as cooking oil in Indonesia. He said more dialogue is needed on an international level to address such issues.

At an annual OECD ministerial meeting in Paris two weeks ago, Tolgfors called for the creation of a world market for biofuels, and for the dissemination of better knowledge of the challenges facing biofuel trade.

"The goal (of the world market) should be to standardize, if not, lower tariffs on biofuel across countries, and this should eventually lead to a free market for biofuel," he elaborated.

Ending EU farm subsidies
In a related development Sweden on Tuesday urged the European Union to scrap farm subsidies in future reforms of the bloc's agricultural policy. Such subsidies distort global biofuel markets.

Export subsidies and production quotas should be eliminated in the long term to make European agricultural production more market-oriented, the government said in a letter to the European Commission. The EU should continue, however, to promote biodiversity and rural development, the center-right government said.

Agricultural spending accounts for about 40 percent of the EU's budget. Handouts to farmers will not change until at least 2009, when the long-term budget will be reviewed by member states.

France, the top recipient of EU farm subsidies, has been hesitant to consider cuts to agriculture payments until after 2013.

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Finland's Trade & Industry minister wants 30% biofuels by 2020

Mauri Pekkarinen, the Finnish Trade and Industry minister, says that the share of biofuels in transport should be raised to 30% by 2020, up from the current 10% target. Mr Pekkarinen spoke at the inauguration of Neste Oil's new diesel line and biodiesel factory in Kilpilahti, and said he regarded the current 10-per cent target as insufficient.

The new €100/US$134 million biodiesel plant is the first in the world to produce second-generation biodiesel based on Neste Oil’s proprietary NExBTL (Next Generation Biomass-to-Liquid) technology. The new plant will be capable of producing 170,000 tonnes per year of NExBTL diesel fuel from a flexible mix of vegetable oil and animal fat. Neste Oil is partly owned by the Finnish state.

Importantly, Neste Oil earlier said it is looking into sourcing Jatropha curcas oil from the developing world as its main feed stock, thus tying the production of its second-generation biodiesel inextricably to a kind of 'biopact' with the South (previous post).

With the potential for such abundant vegetable oil supplies in mind, Mr Pekkarinen said "The 10 percent target set for the use of transport biofuels is not in my opinion sufficient for Finland. I think it is perfectly feasible that by 2020 we will possess all the prerequisites to raise the share of biofuels to at least a third".

The minister calculated that raising the biofuel share to a third of all transport fuels would yield a reduction of almost 100 million euros in the country's emissions trading bill.

"Research carried out in Finland and results that are already on the horizon show that it is possible to achieve a true breakthrough on next-generation biofuels quite soon. Neste Oil is at the forefront of this development", he added:
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In order to raise the share of biofuels, Mr Pekkarinen would oblige public transport buses and coaches to use alternative fuels. In addition, the minister called for "fast yet soft solutions" to make taxis and agricultural and forestry equipment to swap to biofuel.

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

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

More information:

Biopact: Finnish oil major is considering jatropha oil for next-generation biodiesel - April 19, 2007

NewsRoom Finland: Finnish share of biofuels in transport third by 2020 -Pekkarinen - June 1, 2007.

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EU questions US climate plan

Yesterday, President George Bush outlined a proposal to tackle climate change. The US wants to organise a summit of the 15 biggest polluters to draw up a strategy by 2008 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. According to the plan, the free market, technology and voluntary, national targets alone should be sufficient to address the planetary crisis. The US did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012. Critics say the plan is weak and vague, looks at the short term only, ignores years of ongoing multilateral efforts, will delay concrete action and rejects measurable and enforceable targets.

Some think the mere fact that the Bush administration finally recognises the threat of global warming means it has 'crossed the Rubicon' and that the US government may be negotiated into a more serious and comprehensive approach. Others see the plan as a "poison pill", aimed at preemtively killing all hope for a G8 agreement on climate change.

The White House proposal comes ahead of the G8 Summit to take place in Heiligendamm, Germany, next week. Chancellor Angela Merkel, who chairs the Summit, has put global warming at the top of the agenda and wants an agreement that will form the basis of the meeting of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in December in Bali, Indonesia, when U.N. officials hope to launch formal talks on a post-Kyoto treaty.

Merkel, whose country also holds the rotating EU Presidency, has staked Germany's year long presidency of the G8 on reaching such a deal. She backs a far more ambitious plan that would limit average global temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Practically, this will require - by 2050 - a global reduction in emissions of 50 percent below 1990 levels. The EU's plan also calls for binding carbon emissions targets and a multilateral, global agreement similar to the Kyoto Protocol, including instruments to trade carbon certificates globally. The US had earlier indicated it will not accept binding targets and the new plan rejects them again.

The clash between the EU and the US positions was illustrated by José Manuel Barroso, President of the EU Commission: "It is clear that we need a more ambitious position from the US." He added that "the US is relying strongly on market mechanisms in the battle against climate change, and rightly so. But market mechanisms only work when one has binding targets." Mr Barroso stressed that the US preoccupation with technology to tackle global warming would only work if Washington signed up to a global system of "measurable, binding, enforceable targets."

On the need for a multilateral approach, the EU chief said "I hope that the United States intends to use the meeting as an opportunity to make the G8 summit contribute towards the UN's multilateral climate protection system." Barroso added that "in the US Congress there is very visible support for more ambitious proposals." Touring Europe, US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi has indeed indicated support for a multilateral and far more comprehensive approach than that sketched by the White House.

"The leading role of the UN on climate change is non-negotiable," the chief German negotiator on climate change, Bernd Pfaffenbach, was cited as saying by the UK paper Guardian. Another German official described the US proposal as a "poison pill" aimed at undermining G8 and UN efforts to tackle global warming:
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German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel, who has been the lead negotiator for the G8 climate deal, has shed his diplomatic veneer and lashed out at the voluntarist US plans: "Now is not the hour of diplomacy. Now is the hour for real action." The German environment minister then took on the US directly, saying "the challenge remains that of convincing the Americans that they have a responsibility -- also for their own citizens who suffer from climate change." According to Gabriel, the US position makes it easier for developing nations to sit back and do nothing about reducing their own emissions. Countries such as India and China, said Gabriel, "have the attitude: 'if the industrialized nations don't take responsibility, then why should developing countries do so?' The only solution is to continue negotiations with the Americans and to put them under pressure."

Under Merkel's leadership, the EU has set ambitious targets for cutting carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 20 per cent from 1990 levels by 2020. A similar goal has been set for increasing the use of renewable energy resources. The EU also leads negotiations in preparation of a post-Kyoto agreement by the UNFCCC.

However, the influential German newspaper Financial Times Deutschland predicts the G8 summit, which takes place from Wednesday to Friday, will mark Merkel's "greatest foreign policy defeat" to date at the hands of Bush.

More information:
Jurnalo: EU head Barroso slams Bush climate plans, predicts failure at G8 - June 1, 2007.

EU Observer: Europe questions US conversion on climate change - June 1, 2007.

Euro Today: EU leaders greet new strategy with caution - June 1, 2007.

BBC: US seeks new greenhouse gas goals - May 31, 2007.

Washington Post: US rejects EU emission reductions - May 29, 2007.

Der Spiegel: Gloves Off in Row on Climate Change - May 29, 2007.

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Thursday, May 31, 2007

The bioeconomy at work: conductive biopolymer made from soybeans

Researchers from the Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México (UAEM) and its Laboratorio de Síntesis y Caracterización de Materiales, recently investigated the electrical properties of composites based on acrylated-epoxidized soybean oil (AESO)-co-butyl methacrylate (BMA) with carbon black (CB). Their findings are reported in AZojomo, a materials sciences journal.

Polymer matrix composites with carbon black - a petroleum product - are very interesting materials. This is so because the carbon black can be used as filler material and can beneficially modify the electrical and mechanical properties of the used matrixes. The polymer components of these composites are traditionally made using oleo-polymers, derived from crude oil; however, an alternative is to use natural and renewable sources as soybean oil, palm oil, linseed oil or sunflower oil.

Polymers derived from those natural oils are taking importance in different areas such as engineering and aeronautics due to the fact that their mechanical properties can be improved by reinforcing them with natural and synthetic fibers and clays, among others. Recently electrical properties were reported pointing that percolation concentration of carbon nanotubes was around 1%. So, polymers obtained from renewable sources are good candidates for being used in conductive polymeric composites:
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The composites investigated by the Mexican team were obtained by in situ copolymerization of the above-mentioned monomers with Vulcan XC72 CB. Examination of the resultant materials has shown that the transition from the dielectric state to the conductive state could be achieved by:
  • Varying the carbon black concentration in the polymeric matrix
  • Varying the different monomers proportion that conform the polymer matrix
The researchers found that when the carbon black concentration is changed the electrical resistivity shows a typical behavior of ordinary conductive polymer composites:

However, the electrical percolation threshold for the AESO:BMA system is reached at lower values than those reported for commercial oleo polymer-based composites. These findings could lead to commercial applications of the materials in antistatic shielding materials and solven sensors.

More information:
Eurekalert: Conductive plastics made from natural, renewable, environmentally friendly soybeans - May 29, 2007.

S. Hernández-López, E. Vigueras-Santiago, J. Mercado-Posadas and V. Sanchez-Mendieta, "Electrical Properties of Acrylated Epoxidized Soybean Oil Polymers Based Composites", AZojmo, Open Access Rewards System (AZo-OARS) article, Volume 3 May 2007, DOI : 10.2240/azojomo0236.

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Research warns 'dangerous climate change' may be imminent - carbon negative bioenergy now

NASA and Columbia University Earth Institute research finds that human-made greenhouse gases have brought the Earth’s climate close to critical tipping points, with potentially dangerous consequences for the planet. From a combination of climate models, satellite data, and paleoclimate records the scientists conclude that the West Antarctic ice sheet, Arctic ice cover, and regions providing fresh water sources and species habitat are under threat from continued global warming. The research appears in the current issue of Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics. It warns that 10 more years of "business as usual" - emitting greenhouse gases as we are doing now - will result in irreversible and destructive climate change. The time to act is now. And we must intervene radically.

Carbon-negative bioenergy
The research finds that what has been called 'dangerous climate change' and 'abrupt climate change' (ACC) is becoming ever more likely. ACC scenarios have not been the topic of much discussion because they are a dark shadow that haunts policy makers, governments and businesses alike. Abrupt and dangerous climate change involves tipping points the consequences of which cannot be prevented and which would have disastrous, irreversible impacts on major ecosystems:
Abrupt Climate Change (ACC - NAS, 2001) is an issue that ‘haunts the climate change problem’ (IPCC, 2001) but has been neglected by policy makers up to now, maybe for want of practicable measures for effective response, save for risky geo-engineering.
This is what Peter Read and Jonathan Lermit of ACCStrategy write in their paper entitled "Bio-Energy with Carbon Storage (BECS): a Sequential Decision Approach to the threat of Abrupt Climate Change" [*.pdf] (and see earlier post). The Abrupt Climate Change Strategy group (ACCStrategy) is one of the few organisations devoted to developing precautionary strategies that must prepare us for potential abrupt climate change becoming imminent.

Their major contribution is the study of how carbon-negative bioenergy systems offer a feasible geo-engineering option to mitigate dangerous climate change.
Negative emissions energy systems are key to responding to ACC because – taking account of rising levels on non-CO2 greenhouse gases, for which no means exists for accelerating natural removal processes – the need may be to get to CO2 levels below pre-industrial. This cannot be done by natural absorption, even with zero emissions energy [such as wind, solar, nuclear].

A portfolio of Bio-Energy with Carbon Storage (BECS) technologies, yielding negative emissions energy, may be seen as benign, low risk, geo-engineering that is the key to being prepared for ACC. The nature of sequential decisions, taken in response to the evolution of currently unknown events, is discussed. The impact of such decisions on land use change is related to a specific bio-energy conversion technology. The effects of a precautionary strategy, possibly leading to eventual land use change on a large scale, is modeled.
Given the new NASA and Columbia University Earth Institute research, the time is now to start implementing BECS on a large scale. In practise, BECS requires us to plant energy crops on a vast scale, use them massively instead of coal, natural gas and oil, while sequestring their carbon into soils or into geological formations like saline aquifers, or depleted oil and gas fields. One way of sequestring the crops' carbon - by storing it into soils - is low-tech, the other, based on 'carbon capture and storage' (CCS) techniques is high-tech. Both result in carbon-negative energy systems that can clean past greenhouse gas emissions out of the atmosphere and prevent ACC from happening. According to Read and Lermit:
Under strong assumptions appropriate to imminent ACC, pre-industrial CO-levels can be restored by mid-century using BECS. Addressed to ACC rather than Kyoto’s implicit focus on gradual climate change, a robust strategy related to Art 3.3 of the Convention may provide the basis for rapprochement between Kyoto Parties and other Annex 1 Parties.
In other words, BECS can tie up all countries into a single geo-engineering project, with some providing bioenergy feedstocks en masse to be used by the others that now rely on climate destructive fossil fuels.

Tipping points
The NASA and Columbia University scientists found that tipping points can occur during climate change when the climate reaches a state such that strong amplifying feedbacks are activated by only moderate additional warming. Their study finds that global warming of 0.6ºC in the past 30 years has been driven mainly by increasing greenhouse gases, and only moderate additional climate forcing is likely to set in motion disintegration of the West Antarctic ice sheet and Arctic sea ice. Amplifying feedbacks include increased absorption of sunlight as melting exposes darker surfaces and speedup of iceberg discharge as the warming ocean melts ice shelves that otherwise inhibit ice flow:
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The researchers used data on earlier warm periods in Earth’s history to estimate climate impacts as a function of global temperature, climate models to simulate global warming, and satellite data to verify ongoing changes. Lead author James Hansen, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, New York, concludes: “If global emissions of carbon dioxide continue to rise at the rate of the past decade, this research shows that there will be disastrous effects, including increasingly rapid sea level rise, increased frequency of droughts and floods, and increased stress on wildlife and plants due to rapidly shifting climate zones.”

The researchers also investigate what would be needed to avert large climate change, thus helping define practical implications of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. That treaty, signed in 1992 by the United States and almost all nations of the world, has the goal to stabilize atmospheric greenhouse gases “at a level that prevents dangerous human-made interference with the climate system.”

Based on climate model studies and the history of the Earth the authors conclude that additional global warming of about 1ºC (1.8ºF) or more, above global temperature in 2000, is likely to be dangerous. In turn, the temperature limit has implications for atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), which has already increased from the pre-industrial level of 280 parts per million (ppm) to 383 ppm today and is rising by about 2 ppm per year. According to study co-author Makiko Sato of Columbia’s Earth Institute, “the temperature limit implies that CO2 exceeding 450 ppm is almost surely dangerous, and the ceiling may be even lower.”

The study also shows that the reduction of non-carbon dioxide forcings such as methane and black soot can offset some CO2 increase, but only to a limited extent. Hansen notes that “we probably need a full court press on both CO2 emission rates and non-CO2 forcings, to avoid tipping points and save Arctic sea ice and the West Antarctic ice sheet.”

A computer model developed by the Goddard Institute was used to simulate climate from 1880 through today. The model included a more comprehensive set of natural and human-made climate forcings than previous studies, including changes in solar radiation, volcanic particles, human-made greenhouse gases, fine particles such as soot, the effect of the particles on clouds and land use. Extensive evaluation of the model’s ability to simulate climate change is contained in a companion paper to be published in Climate Dynamics.

Business as usual
The authors use the model for climate simulations of the 21st century using both ‘business-as-usual’ growth of greenhouse gas emissions and an ‘alternative scenario’ in which emissions decrease slowly in the next few decades and then rapidly to achieve stabilization of atmospheric CO2 amount by the end of the century. Climate changes are so large with ‘business-as-usual’, with additional global warming of 2-3ºC (3.6-5.4ºF) (image, click to enlarge) that Hansen concludes “‘business-as-usual’ would be a guarantee of global and regional disasters.”

However, the study finds much less severe climate change – one-quarter to one-third that of the "business-as-usual" scenario – when greenhouse gas emissions follow the alternative scenario. “Climate effects may still be substantial in the 'alternative scenario’, but there is a better chance to adapt to the changes and find other ways to further reduce the climate change,” said Sato.

While the researchers say it is still possible to achieve the “alternative scenario,” they note that significant actions will be required to do so. Emissions must begin to slow soon. “With another decade of ‘business-as-usual’ it becomes impractical to achieve the ‘alternative scenario’ because of the energy infrastructure that would be in place” says Hansen.

More information:
J. Hansen, M. Sato, R. Ruedy, P. Kharecha, A. Lacis, R. Miller, L. Nazarenko, K. Lo, G. A. Schmidt, G. Russell, I. Aleinov, S. Bauer, E. Baum, B. Cairns, V. Canuto, M. Chandler, Y. Cheng, A. Cohen, A. Del Genio, G. Faluvegi, E. Fleming, A. Friend, T. Hall, C. Jackman, J. Jonas, M. Kelley, N. Y. Kiang, D. Koch, G. Labow, J. Lerner, S. Menon, T. Novakov, V. Oinas, Ja. Perlwitz, Ju. Perlwitz, D. Rind, A. Romanou, R. Schmunk, D. Shindell, P. Stone, S. Sun, D. Streets, N. Tausnev, D. Thresher, N. Unger, M. Yao, and S. Zhang, "Dangerous human-made interference with climate: a GISS modelE study" [*.pdf], Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, 7, 2287–2312, 2007.

P. Read and J. R. Lermit, "Bio-energy with carbon storage(BECS): a sequential decision approach to the threat of abrupt climate change" [*.pdf], Energy, November 2005, vol. 30, no14, pp. 2654-2671 [*pdf - link to full article located at ACCStrategy)

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Nigeria to power telecom base stations with biofuels

A young Nigerian entrepreneur, Husainin Solomon, has risen up to the challenge to satisfy the quest of mobile telecom operators’ search for cheap energy in the country, by producing biofuels as a competitive and green alternative fuel to power base stations.

Mobile phone use in Nigeria and in Africa in general has skyrocketed over the past few years, contributing greatly to social and economic development. According to some analysts, the number of cellphones in Africa has increased from 7.5 million to 76.8 million, putting phones in the hands of roughly one in ten Africans. Mobile phones are being used very creatively in agriculture, trade, education, health care and in small businesses. They even provide a tool for grassroots politics and drive social change. Soon, the phones may be used to gain generic internet access, which would truly revolutionise life in rural Africa.

But energy supplies to power base stations are erratic and have become a major hurdle to expanding the sector. Electricity in Nigeria, both in urban and rural areas is epileptic. Thus most of the 6,000 installed base stations in the country are being powered by generators, using prohibitively costly diesel fuel. Biofuels may offer a way out. A pilot scheme to use the green fuels to power such base stations is now underway in Lagos, Nigeria's megacity. Soyabean based biodiesel is being used to power a sub-urban base station owned by MTN Nigeria in a six-month trial. The pilot scheme is being funded by the GSM Association Development Fund, Ericsson, together with MTN Nigeria (earlier post). Similar trials are under way in rural India.

Olabode Sowumi, head of Corporate and Marketing Communications of Ericsson, West and East Africa, explained how the biodiesel production and distribution process works. "The biodiesel is produced from crops that are rich in oil like groundnut, soya bean, palm oil and so on. A local entrepreneur can buy excess of the crops from farmers and convert the biomass into biofuel, using a special processing plant. The biofuel is then sold to the telecommunications operator."

Keywords of the system are decentralisation, local ownership, renewability and energy security. Husainin Solomon has emerged as the first local entrepreneur to buy into the idea. Putting up his own money and creativity, the young man approached Diamond Bank Plc, and the bank promptly invested 20 million naira (€116,000/US$ 156,000) in the concept, under its Bright Idea initiative. The investment is large, by Nigerian standards. Solomon:
The market is there, two telecom giants have approached me for the oil, because they are having problems fuelling their base stations across the country. So, what we are going to do is very simple: get people to cluster around about 10 base stations and they produce the oil and we put it in the generators and it will work. If not, it will be difficult and one day we will wake up and they will not be able to run the base stations.
The young entrepreneur, who spoke with the Daily Sun in an exclusive interview, argued that the biofuel concept can help solve the hydra-headed issues of power supply in the country. Interestingly, he points at the opportunity biofuels bring to help alleviate poverty, and especially to relieve the socio-economic crisis in the Niger Delta - an idea that is being shared by more and more people (amongst them Brazil's state-owned oil company Petrobras - earlier post):
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I had a brief working opportunity in South Africa, working on a soya beans farm. The farm went a step ahead to roll out a diesel refinery, using soy oil. I was lucky to be among the people who installed the diesel energy system, called the Mopomulanga plant in South Africa. Biofuel from the plant is being piped directly into homes. The South Africans don’t have our kind of oil, but they get their fuel from coal and now biofuels.

After sometime, I decided to return to Nigeria to start something on my own. Initially, I started by creating awareness among local cooperative society, informing them about the benefits of the improved soya bean seedlings I brought from South Africa.

While I was doing that, I saw the advert of the Diamond Bright Idea and I approached them and the bank bought the idea and that has culminated in an equity investment of N20million in the biodiesel-for-base-stations concept.

It is good that Nigerian government is talking about bioethanol, getting petrol from cassava, maize and sugar cane, using the Brazilian example. My take is that if the Nigerian government is doing this with ethanol, they should not neglect biodiesel because it is another essential sector of the energy industry. More so, it’s cheaper and adaptable to modern engines. Both Ford and BMW motors have come to approve the use of biofuels in their cars.

I realise that energy is the bedrock of any economic growth. Once there is an energy crisis, the economy is in trouble. This is why I am coming into the sector and I believe government must support this initiative.

Solution to Niger-Delta problem
You can imagine if Kogi is producing biofuel oil, and Niger-Deltans are not likely to continue to say don’t take our oil. With huge investment in bio-fuel we can complement the oil producing areas without necessarily destroying or damaging the soil.

Nigerian economy
The Nigerian economy is ready for this invention. Right now, the incoming president has been talking about energy. He has no option than to decentralize energy. A village of about 600 people can produce her own fuel from her feedstock, and put it into generator and it gives them light.

The major challenge is people who may look down at the project because it’s a new sector. Nigerians are used to the usual fossil fuel for long, so if you are talking about an alternative source of oil it seems you are coming from the moon.

Another challenge is in the area of regulation. In Nigeria, because we are not prepared for it there is no sound regulatory authority that accommodates small-scale energy production by small groups. All the same, we are working towards establishing an enabling regulation to encourage such farming projects.

Fossil fuel and Bio-Diesel cost comparism
The technology for producing biodiesel is very cheap, so the cost of production is also cheaper . We are not looking at a gigantic plant; it’s a room-size plant, with about 30 people to run the production process.

Diamond Bank Bright Idea
Diamond Bank came in as equity partners in the project, and that is good for us and that will afford us to do some basic things. Now, we have passed the regulatory test, we can do a bigger pilot project, look at the adaptability, acceptability and then enlighten others in the industry so they understand what we are talking about.

The money given to us is not a loan, we are not paying back, but they will be sharing in the profit, so that the Bright Idea project will continue indefinitely. We will run the projects for the next five years, and we will pay them Net Profit Valuation (NPV), at the end of the five years.

More information:
Biopact: Ericsson, GSMA and MTN to use biofuels to expand mobile coverage in developing world - October 11, 2006

Biopact: Biofuels to expand mobile coverage in rural India - February 08, 2007

The Daily Sun (Nigeria): Behold! Nigerian who powers GSM base stations with soya beans bio-diesel - May 30, 2007.

NextBillion: Africa: The Impact of Mobile Phones - May 6, 2005.

The Feature: Farmers, Phones and Markets: Mobile Technology In Rural Development - Feb. 15, 2005.

My Heart is in Accra: Draft paper on mobile phones and activism - April 9, 2007.

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The bioeconomy at work: renewable products from palm empty fruit bunches

Palm oil may have a bad reputation for the role it plays in tropical deforestation, but is definitely here to stay, as the industry is highly profitable and offers a ready replacement for petroleum products, prices of which will keep rising. However, in order to limit the expansion of plantations, it is crucial to get the most out of each hectare of the plantations that already exist. One way to do so is by recuperating the vast waste-streams that result from the processing of palm fruits. If these waste streams can be turned into value-added products, the pace of the expansion of new plantations may be somewhat slowed down.

For each tonne of crude palm oil (CPO) produced from fresh fruit bunches, the following 'waste' products become available: around 6 tonnes of waste palm fronds, 1 ton of palm trunks (after a life-cycle of 25 years per tree, and at 150 trees per hectare), 5 tons of empty fruit bunches (EFB, photo), 1 ton of press fiber (from the mesocarp of the fruit), half a ton of palm kernel endocarp, 250kg of palm kernel press cake, and 100 tonnes of palm oil mill effluent (POME). In short, a palm oil plantation yields a vast stream of biomass that is currently not used in a productive way (earlier post). Often, it is burned in the open air, or left to settle in ponds where the degrading biomass emits methane.

Over the past few years, many research efforts have been undertaken to make use of these waste products. Some of those look at utilizing the biomass as an energy source for green electricity and power (to power palm oil mills) or as a feedstock for the production of second-generation biofuels. Others have shown that a whole range of bio-based products can be made from the residues - products such as renewable and biodegradable plastics, packaging, paper and specialty products such as geo-textiles (photo).

One company very active on this front is Malaysia's Ecofuture Bhd, which commissioned its fourth palm oil by-product processing factory last month. Worth 50 million ringgit (€10.9/US$14.7 million) "our new factory will be in full swing next year and we have received fresh sales orders from overseas," Ecofuture executive chairman and managing director Yeo Kim Luang Yeo told reporters.

Ecofuture manufactures biodegradable, toxic-free, compostable and microwaveable food/general packaging products made or recycled from EFB fibres. Its latest plant produces non-wood virgin pulp, a feedstock for paper making. The plant is expected to produce between 1,000 and 1,500 tonnes of non-wood virgin pulp monthly, also derived from empty fruit bunches of oil palm fruits and sold at between 2,040 and 2,380 ringgit (€446 to €520/US$600 and US$700) a tonne, considerably above CPO prices:
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Ecofuture's four factories are all located within the same compund in Segamat, Johor. Yeo said the company has received orders from Canada and it is also looking at possible tie-ups with local companies to produce more of the non-wood virgin pulp.

"This is a huge scientific breakthrough for the company and a good opportunity for our country to convert biomass into products such as manufacturing papers, prints, corrugated cartons and paper-based products."

Ecofuture products further include fibrous sand mats and food packaging materials under the brandname Ecomat, Ecopak and Ecofibre. Ecofuture was listed on the Mesdaq market of Bursa Malaysia in January 2005 and exports half of its products overseas to China, the Philippines, Canada, US, Australia, European and West Asian countries and Taiwan.

For the year ended December 31 2006, Ecofuture posted a lower pre-tax profit of 674,843 rupiah from 2.1 million ringgit a year ago due to the floods in Johor which affected the quality of its oil palm fruit brunches in the fourth quarter of 2006.

Its revenue, however, rose to 80.1 million ringgit from 69.1 million ringgit following the higher turnover achieved by the milling operations and higher crude palm oil prices.

Image: geo-textiles made from fibres from the processing of palm fruits. The 'empty fruit bunches' offer high strength fibres that can be woven into specialty textiles, such as those used to deal with slope and erosion problems.

More information:
Fibre products made from empty fruit bunches - Ecofuture's ecofibre.

Biodegradable packaging made from the same material - Ecofuture's ecopack.

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EU and OPEC discuss energy policies, biofuels and CCS

The European Union (EU) and the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) held a joint Roundtable on Energy Policies in Brussels, Belgium, yesterday. The event was co-chaired by Mr Heinz Hilbrecht, Director of the European Commission’s Directorate for Conventional Energies, and Dr Hasan M. Qabazard, Director of OPEC Secretariat's Research Division.

The roundtable was part of the formal EU-OPEC Energy Dialogue, which was established in December 2004, to exchange views on energy issues of common interest, including oil market developments — and the potential this has for contributing to stability, transparency and predictability in the market.

Notable successes have already been achieved with the energy dialogue, in enhancing understanding between the two groups on key topical issues, as well as setting-up joint roundtables, workshops and studies to gain deeper insights into such issues. The Roundtable on Energy Policies in Brussels was the latest such action. It included sessions on: the energy outlook over time-horizons to 2030; the EU’s energy, transport and climate policies; and OPEC’s capacity-expansion objectives and market-stabilisation measures.

It recognised the importance of the Millennium Development Goals and the fact that access by the poor to modern energy services facilitates the achievement of these goals.

Both parties welcomed the growing diversity in the energy mix, in both the EU and OPEC countries, including renewables and biofuels. The sustainability of biofuels was discussed, in particular the potential impacts of the large-scale trade and use of biomass for energy purposes, in terms of land-use changes, competition with food supply and other biomass uses, biodiversity, and competition for water resources. The scope to tackle these problems through an appropriate EU policy framework was also discussed.

Nevertheless, while both parties welcomed an enhanced diversification of the energy mix, they also noted that, under all reputable scenarios, the world would continue to rely on oil as its dominant source of energy, to foster economic growth and social progress. They also noted that, according to most reputable international institutions, there are enough conventional and non-conventional oil resources to meet demand.

'Clean' fossil fuels

Environmental protection, on both the local and global scales, was also a prominent topic of discussion. Both the EU and OPEC believed that cleaner fossil fuels technologies should be promoted. In particular, recalling the joint OPEC - EU Roundtable on carbon capture and storage (CCS, see previous post and references there) held in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in September 2006, they underlined the need to make this technology commercially viable, it having a vital role to play in limiting greenhouse gas emissions. In the framework of their energy dialogue, both parties are exploring concrete means for enhancing cooperation in this field:
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OPEC and some of its Member Countries made presentations about capacity expansion. In this connection, the risk of unneeded idle capacity stemming, inter alia, from the uncertainties over future levels of oil demand, was discussed.

It was noted that government policies related to the environment and the production of cleaner fuels, also had an impact on the downstream sector. A joint EU-OPEC study on investment needs in the refining sector and the role of the oil refining industry in oil markets is now in progress.

The parties concluded that continued dialogue and exchanges of views between the EU and OPEC constituted an important element in improving understanding among all parties and that this was in line with the mutual interests of supporting oil market stability and predictability, for the benefit of the world at large.

The next event under the EU-OPEC Energy Dialogue will be the 4th Ministerial Meeting in Vienna, Austria on 21 June 2007.

More information:
OPEC: EU-OPEC Roundtable on Energy Policies - May 31, 2007.

OPEC: EU-OPEC Roundtable on Carbon Dioxide Capture & Storage - Sept. 21, 2006.

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Lovelock and Leaky warn for deforestation, palm oil - call for 'biodiversity credits'

Two of the world's most eminent scientists, James Lovelock, father of the 'Gaia' theory, and Richard Leaky, palaeo-anthropologist and son of famous parents, have warned that deforestation in the tropics, driven in part by palm oil expansion, may bring the great apes to the brink of extinction and could contribute to climate change. The rush towards palm oil for biodiesel drives this dynamic and should be halted. The question is how. The answer to that question lies with you, reader from the US and Europe. And it requires you to give up a small chunk of your wealth.

Climate change

Speaking to a conference on biofuels in Hong Kong, Lovelock warned that deforestation driven by the expansion of palm oil plantations may contribute to climate change. Preserving tropical forests is seen as key to mitigating global warming caused by greenhouse gases, as they capture a large volume of carbon dioxide emissions.

In Asia, home to the world's top oil palm producers such as Malaysia and Indonesia, there has been an investment boom in biodiesel plants, which convert palm oil into biodiesel for cars. This has helped to push up prices for palm oil - the cheapest vegetable oil - by 25 percent so far this year. Prices had risen by 40 percent in 2006.

Chinese investors are also looking into building palm-based biodiesel plants in Indonesia or Papua New Guinea as Beijing promotes biofuels to cut the country's dependence on imported oil, although it already has a big deficit in vegetable oils.

Profit and economics drive investors to choose the easiest and fastest crops for biofuels first, in this case palm oil. Biofuels made from sustainable crops, such as cassava, sugarcane, sorghum, sweet potatos or jatropha receive less interest.

Great Apes

Likewise, Dr Richard Leakey said that growing pressure to switch from fossil fuels to biofuels made from palm oil could result in further destruction of the animals' habitats.

The chair of WildlifeDirect called for immediate action and proposed financial incentives to save forests from destruction as one possible solution. He said: "Climate change will undoubtedly impact everything we know."

The great apes - gorillas, chimps, bonobos and orangutans - are already under threat from habitat destruction, poaching, logging and disease. He said that "great swathes" of forest had already been destroyed in South Asia to make way for palm oil plantations, and this had had a dramatic impact on orangutans, which currently number 50,000:
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Dr Leakey said the growing pressure to turn to biofuels based on palm oil could place the great apes' habitat in further peril. He added: "People shrug their shoulders and say what are poor countries to do if they cannot exploit their natural resources, and I can understand this, but it is not sustainable the way it is going."

Dr Leakey suggested "biodiversity credits" (akin to "compensated reduction") could be a possible solution. "Being paid for not cutting down indigenous forests and getting credit for that is a further step that builds on the idea of getting paid for planting new forests," he explained.

"It does seem that we cannot stop development, but it does also seem that perhaps we can stop development where critical species are threatened, and perhaps there could be a price added to that." He said that there could be creative ways to solve the problems that climate change could bring, but added that it was crucial that action was taken now.

Dr Leakey told journalists: "Could the great apes go because of climate change? Yes. Possibly not within our lifetime, but what about in 100 or 200 years? "Climate change is measurable and is happening at rate that is almost unprecedented from what we know in previous history, and the implications for biodiversity are there for all to see."

Commitment and opportunity costs
Lovelock and Leaky have given the warning. It is now up to the consumers and governments of the West to compensate farmers in the South to preserve rainforests, which are a global environmental good, common to humanity as a whole.

However, in order to make compensated reduction schemes work, much remains to be done. Some of the problems associated with such concepts are the lack of committment by governments, the scale at which the scheme must be implemented and the potentially disastrous social consequences that can arise from it. First of all, most recently it became apparent that OECD countries, after pledges to the contrary, cannot even meet their very modest promises to spend 0.7% of their GDP on development assistance for Africa (earlier post). In fact, research has found that in 2006 aid to Africa even dropped, despite vows to substantially increase it that year. The question is obvious: if these wealthy industrialised nations - that were build on total deforestation and the massive use of fossil fuels during centuries - are not willing to follow through on their promises for aid, why would anyone assume they will take "compensated reduction" serious?

Secondly, the opportunity costs of compensated reduction schemes are quite overwhelming. One idea is to tie the value of a plot of forest to the amount of carbon it stores. Of course, this will never suffice, since the opportunity costs are much higher than most think. The West has had a free ride and deforested all of its forests since the industrial revolution. This, in combination with the massive use of climate destructive fossil fuels (coal, then oil and gas), has led to an enormous economic development and growth, unparalleled in human history. Deforestation has led not only to mass agriculture, but also to expanded mobility (rail and road networks), and to the creation of entirely new industries (e.g. mining). Futhermore, the West has had the privilege of using coal and oil for more than two centuries, without having to pay for the carbon emissions their use caused.

In this context, it becomes apparent that simply linking the value of a rainforest area to a current price for carbon, is not nearly enough. With Peak Oil in mind, and with the historic opportunity costs, rainforests are worth much more. They are worth an entire era of industrial development. Compensation costs for avoided deforestation would thus be much higher than the value of the amount of carbon stored in those forests.

Finally, compensated reduction schemes may become a weapon in the hand of the powerful, that can be used to push the millions of small farmers in the tropics who make a living from slash and burn agriculture, off the land. If the credits do not reach those who need them most (that is the poor), then the scheme is set to do more harm than good. This means a massive effort and investment is needed to stimulate good governance, eradicate corruption, and find implementation and monitoring strategies that work, in order to ensure the money does indeed trickle down from the bureaucracies to the bottom. Else, compensated reduction is set to become a disaster for the poor.

So in the end, the question as to whether the great apes and their habitat will be preserved is the shared responsibility of consumers and governments not only in the South, but also in the North. The protection of this environment will require a massive effort and a huge investment, to be put up by consumers and governments from the industrialised countries.

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Carbon negative biofuels: Dynamotive to test biochar to boost crop yields, water quality, and sequester carbon

In a very interesting development, Dynamotive USA, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Dynamotive Energy Systems Corporation, an innovative biomass-to-liquids technology developer, announced it is taking part in a project to test biochar, a co-product of the company’s BioOil biofuel, as a soil enhancer to increase fertility, boost crop yields, and sequester carbon. The system results in the production of carbon-negative biofuels that can potentially revolutionise the way we tackle climate change.

Dynamotive develops fast-pyrolysis technologies that turn biomass into a liquid (pyrolysis oil, bio-oil) by heating it rapidly in the absence of air (earlier post and here; on recent innovations in pyrolysis, see here). During the pyrolysis process, a carbon-rich byproduct known as 'black carbon', 'agrichar' or 'biochar' is obtained.

Going carbon-negative
If this biochar, an inert form of carbon, is stored in soils, while the rest of the products are used as fuels, the system results in carbon-negative biofuels (earlier post). As biomass grows, it takes CO2 out of the atmosphere and stores it. When turned into biofuels, carbon-neutral energy is obtained. But if a part of the biomass is turned into an inert form of carbon and stored in soils, the remaining fuels actually become carbon-negative. Contrary to other renewables like wind, solar or nuclear, which are all slightly carbon positive and thus contribute to climate change, only biomass can yield a genuine carbon-negative energy system that allows CO2 emissions from the past to be cleaned up.

The project, initially involving 14 tons of Dynamotive-produced biochar, is centered in Iowa’s Corn Belt, and aims to replicate ancient Amazonian Indian and West African soil fertilization practices known as 'terra preta' (black earth), which are considered among the most fertile in the world.
“Because the biochar does not readily break down, it could sequester, apparently for thousands of years, nearly all the carbon it contains, rather than releasing it into the atmosphere as the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. Crucially, we expect it to boost agricultural productivity significantly through its ability to retain nutrients and moisture and host beneficial soil micro-organisms.” - Dr. Desmond Radlein, Dynamotive’s chief scientist behind the company’s proprietary fast-pyrolysis technology.
The project is led by Heartland BioEnergy LLC, based in Webster City, Iowa. Heartland proposes to build a biorefinery in central Iowa that would include a BioOil and biochar plant developed in partnership with Dynamotive and several agriculture equipment companies:
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Heartland works closely with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Soil Tilth Laboratory, Iowa State University and Iowa Soybean Association in studies coordinated by the Prairie Rivers of Iowa RC&D, an organization that addresses regional environmental issues and economic development opportunities.

“Not only has Dynamotive’s biochar the potential to raise high-yield rates of corn another 20%, but we believe there is a real possibility the char trial could also result in evidence that could point the way to dramatic improvements in water quality, which could have far-reaching beneficial consequences,” said Dr. Lon Crosby, of Heartland BioEnergy.

President of Dynamotive USA, Andrew Kingston, said: “By enhancing productivity of the land and crop yields, sequestering carbon by putting it back into the soil, and producing alongside ethanol and biodiesel our BioOil that displaces hydrocarbon fuel use in industrial applications, we aim to show, with our partners, a virtuous circle of land, crop, fuel and environment management. The Amazonian Indians created the most fertile soils in the world, and today we may be able to benefit from adopting their land management methods.”

Dr. Crosby said the field trials will involve three strips of corn crop land 800 feet long and 30 feet wide. One strip will have no char applied, but the second one will have 2.5 tons of char applied per acre, and the third one will have 5 tons. Further tests will follow.

For several decades, scientists have recognized that the most productive soils in Europe have a char base, classifying these lands as “black carbon” based. The role of char was poorly understood and believed to be an indirect effect, resulting from the routine burning of crop residues from naturally productive soils over centuries. Recent research from South America has shown that the application of char to low productivity soils can turn them into highly productive soils.

Dr. Crosby continued: “Subsequent research has shown that the char, per se, is playing an active role in changing bulk density, modifying soil structure, regulating water storage ability and loosely binding soil nutrients so they are retained and released for plant growth. Outside of the black carbon soils of Europe and the terra preta soils of South America, biochar is a minor soil constituent. However, when scientists have looked, they have found it, suggesting that char was, at one point, an important soil constituent in many soils. It has been found at low levels in native prairie soils in the U.S. and Canada. This suggests that char application can significantly enhance soil productivity.”

Heartland BioEnergy’s proposed biorefinery is expected to serve as the prototype for a series of biorefineries strategically located across the Corn Belt that would use up to 17% of the 10 million dry tons of annually available cornstalk biomass within a 50-mile radius. Cornstalks represent the single largest source of annually renewable energy in the U.S., and Iowa will produce over 40 million tons of cornstalks harvestable on an annual and sustainable basis.

About BioOil
BioOil is an industrial fuel produced from cellulose waste material. When combusted it produces substantially less smog-precursor nitrogen oxides (‘NOx’) emissions than conventional oil as well as little or no sulfur oxide gases (‘SOx’), which are a prime cause of acid rain. BioOil and BioOil Plus are price-competitive replacements for heating oils #2 and #6 that are widely used in industrial boilers and furnaces. They have been EcoLogo certified, having met stringent environmental criteria for industrial fuels as measured by Environment Canada’s Environmental Choice Program. BioOil can be produced from a variety of residue cellulosic biomass resources and is not dependent on food-crop production.

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Ethanol prices in Brazil plummet, government considers increasing blend from 23 to 25%

Quicknote biofuel economics
The Brazilian government is mulling the hike of an obligatory 23% ethanol mix in all gasoline to 25% with increased urgency as local prices plunge, an Agricultural Ministry official told Dow Jones Newswires Brasil. The União das Indústrias de Cana-de-Açúcar (UNICA) had already announced [*Portuguese] the possibility of such a move last week.

Average Sao Paulo mill ethanol prices for hydrous ethanol, a gasoline substitute, on Friday plummeted to their lowest point in two years in nominal terms, according to the local Cepea-Esalq index.

"With this fall of prices, the ministers that make up the Inter-ministerial Council of Sugar and Ethanol, or Cima, are already talking about the possibility of raising the mix back to 25%," said Alessandre Strapasson, the general coordinator at the Agricultural Ministry's sugar and ethanol department.

However, Strapasson added that he had no forecast yet for when the obligatory ethanol mix might be pushed back to 25%. "It's possible it will be in June," he said. The higher mix would help the domestic market consume an additional 40 million liters of ethanol monthly, or just under 500 million liters of ethanol per year, sustaining prices.

Record sugar cane harvest
This month alone, local prices have fallen roughly 30% for both hydrous and anhydrous ethanol, with the onset of Brazil's enormous 2007-08 sugarcane harvest (May-April) and increased ethanol output, said a spokeswoman at the Center for Advanced Studies in Applied Economics, or Cepea.

On Friday, hydrous ethanol prices [*Portuguese] at the Sao Paulo mill gate averaged just under 0.61 reais per liter (€0.23/US$0.31) without taxes, down 10.5% from the week before. Anhydrous ethanol prices also dropped to 0.76 reais per liter (€0.29/US$0.39) without taxes, down 13.7% from the week before. In gasoline equivalent terms, a liter of hydrous ethanol without taxes now costs €0.29/liter, anhydrous ethanol €0.38/liter (hydrous ethanol: US$1.52/gallon, anhydrous ethanol: US$1.92/gallon).

Export boost
Local traders and analysts generally note that there is a bright side to tumbling local prices: the export market has perked up in recent weeks, with buyers from the U.S., European Union and Asia once again looking for deals:
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On the local ethanol market, meanwhile, slipping Sao Paulo ethanol prices at the mill gate have not yet reached the consumer at the gas station, which has kept demand stable for the moment, said traders.

Despite the big fall so far, "there is space - though not much - for prices to fall still further," said Julio Maria Borges, the director of local sugar consultancy JOB Economia. Borges forecasts ethanol output from Brazil in the 2007-08 season to hit a record 20.5 billion liters, up 14.9% from the year-ago period.

Brazil's Agricultural Ministry forecasts ethanol output at over 20 billion liters this harvest, with about 3.8 billion or 4 billion liters destined for the export market, said Strapasson. Brazil is the world's leading ethanol exporter, but No. 2 ethanol producer after the U.S.

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Petrobras to build $200 million ethanol plant in Niger Delta to help alleviate crisis

The Brazilian government has urged the new president of Nigeria to include a biofuel development plan for the troubled Delta region in his program. President Umaru Yar´Adua, who takes office today, has indeed done so and has announced that solving the social crisis in the Niger Delta is his priority.

Oil companies and local elites extract vast oil wealth from the Delta, whereas the local population lives in dire poverty. This has caused a social and political crisis, with youngsters and local militias turning against the oil companies, often in violent clashes. Kidnappings of oil workers have become a routine, and local 'volunteer armies' have warned for 'total war'. The crisis has so far led to a reduction of as much as 25% of Nigeria's crude oil output, with a spike in global petroleum prices as a result.

Biofuels for development
Now, in a very interesting turn of events, Brazil's state-owned oil company Petrobras is taking the courageous step to build an ethanol plant right in the middle of this troubled region [*Portuguese]. According to Brazil's state news agency, the aim is to make biofuel from sugar cane and to boost prices for the crop grown by the local people. By strengthening the incomes of local farming communities and by providing jobs, the company hopes it can contribute to solving the Delta crisis, mainly driven by poverty.

Petrobras signed the agreement with the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation to build a US$200 million ethanol plant on the shore of the Niger River. The goal is to supply the local market and help Nigeria to introduce 10% ethanol in its gasoline supply.

Brazil and Nigeria have seen a boost in their bilateral relations over the past years. Energy production and energy security form the kernel of the good relations, with Nigeria being Africa's largest oil producer, whereas Brazil is the world's largest biofuel producer. Both flows are now being joined in what is seen as a mutually beneficial relationship. Brazil's ambassador in Abuja, Pedro Luiz Rodrigues, says the agreement is yet another step towards the creation of a strong energy relationship.

The agreement with Petrobras was negotiated in february, with outgoing president Olusegun Obasanjo. The country's new leader, Yar´Adua, has welcomed the deal. The Nigerians will own a 70% stake in the venture, but Petrobras has announced this is just a first step in its plans to expand ethanol production in Nigeria. Over the coming months, the company will export ethanol from Brazil to Nigeria, to kickstart local blending and keep facilities operational until the new project comes online.

Roberto Giannetti da Fonseca, of the Relações Internacionais e Comércio Exterior da Federação da Indústria do Estado de São Paulo (Fiesp), who helped negotiate the deal, says this first step will allow Nigeria to blend 10% of ethanol in its gasoline supply, as planned. Even though Nigeria is the sixth largest crude oil exporter, it imports all of its gasoline because it has no refinery. Blending gasoline with locally produced ethanol will make the fuel cheaper to Nigerians:
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Brazil wants to use ethanol as a weapon in the fight against poverty and violence in the world's most troubled regions. Staring with the Niger Delta is an extremely courageous step. In one year, 150 foreign oil workers have been kidnapped by militias who claim that the local government and elites have allied with the oil companies and refuse to share wealth with the local populations.

For the militias, oil companies are synonymous with poverty. They say oil and gas production destroys their environment and has ruined one of the people's only guarantees for income, the fishery industry. The government has not invested in the region which means people have no access to the most basic of goods, such as electricity nor kerosene, even though they live in one of the planet's most energy rich regions.

Brazil getting serious in Africa
The courageous step by Petrobras comes at a time when Brazil is making its goal of using biofuels for development more and more concrete.

Recently, the country established an Africa cell of its state-run tropical agronomy institute EMBRAPA in Ghana, Accra. From there, the world's top experts will assist African countries in food and biofuel production.

Likewise, a consortium of research organisations and companies has announced plans to create a 'Biofuel Town' near Lagos, Nigeria, in order to kickstart a biofuels industry in the country.

Brazil has also signed a host of bilateral and trilateral biofuel cooperation agreements with African and European countries, to help sub-Saharan Africa tap its vast bioenergy potential. Brazil wants to share biofuel technologies and knowledge, in order to help African countries alleviate poverty by investing the establishment of green fuel industries. So far, agreements have been signed with Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria, Angola and Mozambique, with others to follow soon.

Petrobras is rapidly becoming the most creative of all large energy companies. Besides its oil and gas operations, it invests in socially responsible biofuel production, involving communities and cooperatives of smallholders. Poverty reduction and social development are top of its agenda. When it comes to technological innovations, the company is a world leader in the development of new types of biofuel, amongst them 'H-Bio' (biodiesel) and cellulosic ethanol. Last year, the company was voted 8th most respected corporation in the world, but the kind of couregeous initiatives it is now undertaking in Nigeria may boost that ranking.

Image: armed militia patrolling the Niger River in the troubled Delta.

More information:

Agência Estado: Petrobras vai construir usina de US$ 200 milhões na Nigéria - May 30, 2007.

Último Segundo: Petrobras vai construir usina de álcool na Nigéria - May 30, 2007.

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Mexican farmers switch from agave to maize because of ethanol boom

Mexican farmers who grow blue agave for the production of tequila have been plagued by low prices for years. As maize (corn) prices are booming because of the ethanol market in the U.S., they are now abandoning the blue agave en masse, to jump on the opportunity to grow maize.

Authorities in the country say as much as 25 to 35 percent of the cactus plantations may be turned over to maize [*Spanish]. Seeding less of the cactus plant means prices will increase in the coming years. "They choose the crop that brings in most returns" says Ismael Ramirez, director of agriculture of the Tequila Regulation Council.

This logic demonstrates well the fact that farmers are set to benefit from biofuels globally. They can now play on two markets and diversify their crops according to the price outlook for a given agricultural product.

The blue agave (Agave tequilana azul) grows on high and barren soils and takes around eight years to mature. In order to make an agave field available for maize, farmers often put fire to the plantation and remove the crop's roots. Tequila, the world famous liquor that got its name from a town in the western Mexican state of Jalisco, contains around 51% of alcohol derived from the cactus, whereas the remainder comes from maize or sugar cane. The sugar rich sap from the agave is obtained from its pineapples:
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Production of blue agave grew rapidly at the beginning of the decade, when prices reached all time highs. But in spite of accelerated consumption, especially in Europe and the US, overproduction caused a fall of prices for the past few years. Many agave farmers have therefor chosen to switch to maize, which has become more lucrative.

Maize prices have reached all time highs on ethanol production in the U.S. According to Arnulfo del Toro of the Ministry of Agriculture, the switch to maize by Mexican farmers, in combination with a plague of TMA that destroys agave, may lead to shortages of the tequila plant by mid 2008. This would prop up prices again, benefitting the remaining agave farmers.

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Despite promises, rich nations cut aid to Africa - study

Despite big pop concerts and promises to dramatically boost aid, rich nations have cut contributions to Africa and ignored vows to improve trade conditions for the continent, according to a study released on Tuesday.

Knowing this, some are beginning to call for an exit strategy for Africa, drawing on the continent's own forces and resources. One of the most important strategies to do so, say NGOs, is to push for increased access to rich agricultural markets, which will benefit Africans more than aid that doesn't trickle down. This immediately brings up the continent's potential as a major biofuel producer (earlier post). However, increasing access to agricultural and bioenergy markets requires the abandonment of unfair tariffs, non trade barriers and subsidies in the US and the EU.

Declining aid
African Monitor, an independent group formed in 2005 to track pledges made by the Group of Eight (G8) industrialised countries after what was dubbed "the Year of Africa", said real aid inflows began to decline as early as 2006 (a fact that was already observed by others).

"Donors who have promised to double aid to the continent are largely not fulfilling that promise. In 2007 and 2008 aid is expected to drop even further," Cape Town Anglican Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane, who founded African Monitor, told a Johannesburg news conference. "Promises have been made to Africa. The time to act is now."

The report comes as G8 countries vow again to put Africa on the agenda at their annual summit in Heiligendamm, Germany, next month. The meeting will be headed by Germany's chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country also holds the current EU presidency.

At the G8's 2005 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, British PM Tony Blair announced a commitment from world leaders to double development aid to Africa by 2010 as well as to boost African access to markets, particularly in agriculture. Live 8 concerts were organised by icons such as Bob Geldof with many a celebrity joining the calls for more aid. But Ndungane said a detailed study now shows the rich nations' promises have turned out to be hollow, once again.

Excluding debt relief - a growing category of Western help for Africa - official development assistance to Africa from 22 rich Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries fell from US$106 billion in 2005 to US$103 billion in 2006, the study said.

It added that OECD aid money fell to an average 0.3 percent of gross national income (GNI) in 2006 from 0.33 percent in 2005, despite a G8 promise to increase development assistance budgets to 0.7 percent of each country's (GNI) by 2015. Table 1 (click to enlarge) shows the latest OECD figures per country for 2006. Only a handful of them has reached the 0.7 percent mark:
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Donor darlings
The African Monitor report said 55 percent of overall aid to Africa went to just 10 countries - "donor darlings" that often have strategic rather than humanitarian claims to Western help.

Nigeria, a key source of oil for many rich economies and the continent's primary beneficiary of debt relief efforts, received 18 percent of aid to Africa in 2005, while other top recipients included Ethiopia, Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo.

Lesotho, one of Africa's poorest nations and gripped by one of the world's worst AIDS pandemics, was among the countries receiving the least aid assistance, the report said.

"If vulnerability is not a dominant criteria for choosing (aid) beneficiaries, it is worthwhile to consider what motivates donors to select a particular country," it said.

Access to agricultural markets
Moreblessings Chidaushe of AFRODAD, a non-governmental group that looks at African debt issues, said slow progress in the flow of aid showed Africa could not wait for handouts from rich nations.

"Africa needs to start working on an exit strategy," she said. "Aid will not take Africa out of this quagmire."

The African Monitor study indicated that, despite steady growth in oil and other African exports, the continent struggled for access to rich markets, particularly for agricultural goods that have a more direct impact on the lives of most Africans.

Ndungane said the G8 should focus on reviving the Doha round of global free trade talks, saying Africa's farmers still face crippling export barriers and unfair competition from subsidised Western producers.

"If the G8 countries are serious, they should drop subsidies, drop tariffs and create market access for Africa," he said.

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Biogas powered fuel cell wins award, attracts attention from Sweden

Acumentrics Corporation, a leading developer of solid oxide fuel cells has won the 2007 New England Innovation Award from SBANE, the Smaller Business Alliance of New England. The company was one of 7 winners chosen from a pool of 171 applicants.

Acumentrics manufactures 5000-watt solid oxide fuel cell systems (SOFC) for power applications. It is also developing combined-heat-and-power units for the home market. Originally the company made power conditioners and backup for the military market. They acquired the fuel cell technology in 2000. Since then, they have increased the output of a single tube from 1 watt to 60 watts. Today they have over 30 fielded units.

One of their key innovations was making ceramic fuel cell technology shatter resistant. It is shatter resistant because of its shape - it is a tube, not a thin sheet as most other fuel cell manufacturers have used - with a special composition of layers that prevents them from flaking off (diagram, click to enlarge). Solid oxide fuel cells must handle temperature swings from 20 to 800ºC. Many other solid oxide fuel cells crack when they are cycled on and off, because of thermal shock.

Carbon neutral biogas
Another highly important feature of the SOFC's is that they do not require hydrogen or the hydrogen economy - which is mired in controversy because it requires huge investments in production, distribution and storage technologies. Acumentrics' fuel cells instead run on biogas, natural gas, propane, ethanol, diesel, and biodiesel - because they can disassociate fuels in the tube, via in-situ reformation (diagram, click to enlarge). While their systems can run off hydrogen, too, customers prefer to work with logistic fuels that are more affordable. Acumentrics fuel cells consume half as much fuel as a comparable small-engine generator, per kW. The combination of carbon neutral biofuels with highly efficient fuel cells makes for what is probably the cleanest and most efficient power system currently in existence.

The fact that SOFC's can be fed carbon neutral biogas instead of hydrogen has attracted the attention of the EU, and more in particular of Germany and Sweden, world leaders in biogas production. In Germany, the fuel cell was used with biogas in a world's first, to cool a server farm. The biogas is supplied by Schmack Biogas, global technology leader in the sector (earlier post). Another SOFC project making use of biogas and delivering both heat and power in a highly efficient way was launched late last year by German company MTU CFC in the District of Böblingen in Leonberg (previous post).

The EU recently awarded a grant of €5.8 (US$7.5) to a European consortium undertaking a three-year project to develop Large Solid Oxide Fuel Cell-based (SOFC) power plants that run on a multitude of (bio)fuels. The project, "Towards a Large SOFC Power Plant" started on January 1, 2007, with a total budget of €11 (US$14.2) million (earlier post).

Last week, Acumentrics shipped another of its 5 kW fuel cell generators to the innovative GlashusEtt environmental information center in Stockholm, Sweden. This generator was purchased by ABB Corporate Research in Västerås, Sweden, together with 8 other Swedish companies and organizations (FMV, Fortum, GlashusEtt, JM, Morphic, SBC, the City of Stockholm and the Swedish Energy Agency). The purpose of the installation is to evaluate how the state-of-the-art solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) works with the carbon neutral biofuel:
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"We are thrilled to see our units run on carbon-neutral biogas," said Gary Simon, CEO of Acumentrics. "People from all over the world come to observe Hammarby Sjöstad’s clever environmental system. And our ability to run directly off biogas makes our fuel cells extremely practical. While we can run on hydrogen, too, it is great to offer compatibility with logistical, affordable fuels. The renewable aspect is a huge bonus."

Stockholm has developed a new, eco-friendly, waterfront district called Hammarby Sjöstad which is slated to house some 25,000 residents. The district features solar cells, green roofs, foot paths, environmentally benign building materials, vacuum-assisted refuse collection, and a wastewater treatment plant that produces biogas for the district.

The wastewater treatment plant produces high quality, 97% methane biogas that is piped into apartments for heating and cooking. This same biogas is piped to the Acumentrics fuel cell system. Acumentrics’ solid oxide fuel cells disassociate fuels inside the cell, via in-situ reformation. They run directly from the biogas, without the need for complex pre-processing (reforming) of the fuel. The result is an elegant power system with fewer parts.

At present the electricity produced by the fuel cell is put to a load bank, but grid-tie ability is slated for later this year. Acumentrics’ fuel cells have the unique ability to follow loads. Output can be adjusted up or down with no harm to the cells. The company believes this is the first real-world solid oxide fuel cell installation that runs on biogas.

The GlashusEtt is Hammarby Sjöstad’s environmental information center. Knowledge is disseminated via study trips, exhibitions, and demonstrations of new environmental technology. Acumentrics’ fuel cell system is located on the third floor.

Acumentrics’ fuel cells can be built inexpensively, which was independently confirmed by the US Department of Energy’s SECA program in its rigorous tests for cost, reliability, durability, efficiency, and start-stop cycling. Today, all of the manufacturing is done in Westwood, MA. The company starts with ceramic powders which are formed into tubular cells, and finishes with fully-enclosed power systems complete with computer controls. In winning the SBANE award, Acumentrics joins an illustrious list that includes companies like Genzyme, Stonyfield Farm, The Mathworks, and iRobot.

Hyper efficiency and carbon negativity
In Europe, biogas is being developed on a large scale for the production of fuels for stationary power generation (to be used in natural gas plants), as well as for the transport sector (earlier post). It is being fed into the natural gas grid on a large scale (previous post) or in dedicated pipelines supplying cities (see here), while some are creating real biorefineries around it that deliver green specialty chemicals, fuels and power (earlier post). The green gas can be made by the anaerobic fermentation of biomass, either obtained from dedicated energy crops (such as specially bred grass species or biogas maize), or from industrial, municipal or agricultural waste-streams.

Of all biofuels, biogas delivers most energy per hectare of crops. It is also the least carbon intensive production path, with some biogas pathways actually delivering carbon negative bioenergy (earlier post). In Germany, some project the potential for biogas to be so high that it might replace all natural gas imports from Russia (see here).

Meanwhile, new fuel cells are being developed that do not require hydrogen to function, but that work on all common types of biofuels, from biomass-based syngas to ethanol and biogas. The latter fuel path is far more feasible for large-scale power generation than hydrogen, the production of which is inefficient, very costly and not very clean (if derived from fossil fuels; in case the hydrogen is made from biogenic processes and biomass, it is renewable and carbon-neutral, but currently, biohydrogen production is not very efficient).

The combination of the efficiency of the SOFC fuel cells - which is far higher than power plants using combustion engines or turbines - and the low carbon footprint and efficiency of biogas production based on organic waste, may probably be the cleanest and most efficient large-scale energy system currently in operation anywhere.

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Brazil to build 'Biofuel Town' in Nigeria to kickstart bioenergy industry

Brazil is becoming very creative and serious about its intentions to help Africa tap its vast biofuel potential. The green energy leader recently established an agronomic research center in Ghana, aimed at transferring knowledge on bioenergy and technology, and a host of bilateral agreements in the sector were signed (earlier post). But now, an exciting new project is being launched - one that may, according to the initiators, become a model for Africa, India and China alike. With the project, Brazil strengthens its commitment to pursue South-South exchanges on bioenergy.

'Biofuel Town'
During the "Dia da África" [*Portuguese] (Africa Day, 25 May), which celebrates relationships between Brazil and Africa, a consortium of research organisations, companies and civil society organisations announced [*Portuguese] it will establish an 'AgroTown' ('Biofuel Town') in Nigeria, to kickstart a biofuel revolution on the continent. The project has the direct support of the government of President Lula da Silva, who is a staunch advocate of using biofuels as a tool for international cooperation and development assistance, as well as of the Nigerian government.

The Brazilian 'Biofuel Town' project consists of the creation of a settlement that can, in a first phase, house 1000 people - who will become bioenergy experts - , on an area of 6 million square meters. The project is estimated to cost US$100 million in a first phase.

The initiative makes use of the vast Brazilian experience in building sector-specific towns on the agricultural frontier. José Luiz de Vasconcelos Bonini, director of JLVB Arquitetura e Urbanismo, one of the brains behind the project, says one of the goals is to export Brazilian biofuels and agronomic know-how to sub-Saharan Africa. "The 'AgroTown' will be built near Nigeria's capital Lagos. The idea is to attract local investors and to help them produce ethanol on the basis of sugar cane and biodiesel on the basis of palm oil, widely grown in the country, as well as from castor."

In between the urban and the rural
Lagos is Africa's largest capital, a true megapolis of 14 million (if not more) inhabitants, many of whom live in dire poverty. It is not a coincidence that the 'Biofuel Town' will be built nearby. As such, it becomes a 'transitional zone' between Nigeria's country-side and the urban landscape. Energy is at the center of this conceptual zone - green energy, and not petroleum, the curse of the country. The location is more than symbolic, because it will actively tap into the real traffic between the rural and the urban, namely into the stream of internal migrants who leave their villages to try their luck in the mega-city.

Bonini notes that Lagos is almost as large as São Paulo, Latin America's biggest city, and that Brazilians understand this trek from the country-side to the city very well.

These rural migrants, on the brink of becoming urbanites, but still fundamentally farmers, will be invited to come and live near the new 'Biofuel Town'. There they will be surrounded by Brazilian agronomists and bioenergy experts. In a first phase these rural families will become the workers on the industrial plantations, but gradually they will be helped to become biofuel experts who will start their own mini-industries in the sector. This 'avant-garde' can then transfer technology, knowledge and skills to other parts of the country:
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To attract families, the 'Biofuel Town' will offer a range of incentives, such as professional training and education. When it comes to Brazilian agronomists, Bonini says the project has received a warm welcome, and a special agency was created to link up agricultural engineers from different institutions to make sure that the project gets noted.

Nigeria's contribution
The African country is set to benefit from this project, and in exchange for this influx of expertise and technology, Nigeria will contribute by exempting Brazilian companies from taxes for a period of five years. "We think this is an opportunity for Brazilian companies to collaborate with local partners and to expand their capacities. The Nigerian partners will help in divulging the news about the Biofuel City. In Brazil, the Associação Comercial Brasil-Nigeria is one of the investors."

According to Berucke Chikaeze Nwabasili, president of Brazil's nigerian community and member of the Associação Comercial says the 'AgroTown' will also function as a commercial chamber that will boost exchanges between the two countries: "It is interesting to do this via the development of biofuels." Nwabasili adds that the experience gained in the 'Biofuel Town' will be transferred to other parts of the country.

Nigeria "is a country rich in land and where sugar cane already is one of the leading crops for subsistence farming. The company Eco Energia will be responsible for the extraction of castor, a crop that is well suited for the region which has an excellent climate."

Interestingly, in another concession, the Nigerian government has authorised the project leaders to supply the town of energy - a task that would normally be carried out exclusively by official energy companies.

The project's ultimate goal is to go beyond the borders of Nigeria and export the model of the 'Biofuel Town' to India, China and the countries of West Africa. But the expansion will also involve products other than biofuels.

Vita Brasil, one of the collaborating companies, hopes to introduce a new ranges of foodstuffs aimed at fighting infant mortality: baby food made from cassava and rice, combined with esential minerals. According to Marc Aygadoux, marketing director, the goal is to triple exports of these products to Nigeria, which currently stand at 100 tonnes per month. A one year pilot project with the food in Brazil's city of Mongaguá, on the coast of São Paulo state, showed very encouraging results: infant mortality was reduced from 26 promille to 5 promille.

According to the director, the company is looking for African directors who can help create the market for the projects there. The 'Biofuel Town' may well be the perfect starting point to do so.

No hegemony

Speaking to 22 African ambassadors to Brazil during the 'Dia da África' president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva stressed that his country has no hegemonic intentions in Africa: "Brazil has no imperialist ambitions. Brazil refuses to become a hegemonic voice. Instead, Brazil wants to develop together, build together, to our common benefit."

The president signed a range of agreements tying the relationships between Africa and Brazil. Initiatives include the creation of a joint Latin-American - African university as well as the opening of a subsidiary of the Fundação Oswaldo Cruz (Fiocruz) on the continent.

Brazil will help the continent especially on the front of peace building and conflict prevention, because a lack of political stability is the single most important factor determining Africa's underdevelopment.

"Only peace can guarantee a healthy development. Without peace, and with war, there is no economic growth, no educational development, no technological progress and injustice reigns."

Lula then focused on his intention to produce biofuels in Africa as a way to lift countries out of poverty.

Present at the celebration of the 'Dia da África' at the Palácio do Planalto were the ambassadors of South Africa, Angola, Cabo Verde África do Sul, Angola, Algeria, Cabo Verde, Cameroon, Côte d´Ivoire, Egypt, Gabon, Ghana, Guinee, Equatorial Guinea, Libya, Morocco, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Kenya, Senegal, Sudan, Tunisia, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

More information:
Notícias Agrícolas: Brasil implantará agrovila na Nigéria para etanol e biodiesel (DCI) - May 25, 2007.

Agência Brasil: Lula sugere novas parcerias com países africanos e defende fim das guerras - May 25, 2007.

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Chevron and Texas A&M create alliance to develop cellulosic biofuels

Chevron Corporation and the Texas A&M Agriculture and Engineering BioEnergy Alliance (Texas A&M BioEnergy Alliance) announced today that they have entered into a strategic research agreement to accelerate the production and conversion of crops for manufacturing ethanol and other biofuels from cellulose.

Chevron Technology Ventures, a division of Chevron USA, will support research initiatives over a four-year period through the Texas A&M BioEnergy Alliance, a formal partnership combining the collective strengths of The Texas A&M University System's two premier research agencies in agriculture and engineering - the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station (TAES) and the Texas Engineering Experiment Station (TEES) (and earlier post on these institutions' recent work on the development of a drought tolerant, high yield sorghum for biomass energy).

The research initiatives will focus on several technology advancements to produce biofuels including, but not limited to:
  • identifying, assessing, cultivating, and optimizing production of second-generation energy feedstocks for cellulose and bio-oils with a focus on non-food crops
  • characterizing and optimizing the design of dedicated bioenergy crops through advances in genomic sciences and plant breeding
  • developing integrated logistics systems associated with the harvest, transport, storage and conversion of bioenergy crops
  • developing advanced biofuels processing technologies
This means both partners will collaborate on all important aspects dealing with the production and enhancement of energy crops as well as with the logistics of getting them to processing facilities, and with the actual bioconversion of the biomass feedstocks into finished liquid fuels for transport:
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"Chevron believes that biofuels will fill an important role in diversifying the nation's energy sources by providing a source of low-carbon transportation fuel," said Don Paul, vice president and chief technology officer, Chevron Corporation.

"Bringing biofuels to large-scale commercial production is an enormous challenge that requires the combined efforts of industry, universities and research institutions, and governments. It is through partnerships like this that biofuels will be a viable part of meeting the energy challenges of tomorrow."

"The Texas A&M BioEnergy Alliance has a broad, holistic vision focused on developing practical, near-term solutions to bioenergy related problems, in addition to performing the necessary long-term fundamental research," said Dr. G. Kemble Bennett, vice chancellor and dean of Texas A&M Engineering. "Forming an alliance with Chevron fits well with our research initiatives and allows us to leverage our strengths in biomass and biofuels to transfer new technologies from lab to the public, providing real solutions that are economical, sustainable and environmentally friendly."

For instance, Texas A&M BioEnergy Alliance partners in agriculture have developed exceptional high-yield cellulosic energy crops that can produce significantly more biomass per acre than most alternatives. "The development of biofuels from agricultural feedstocks requires a regional approach and research into many alternatives for the long-term energy needs of our country," said Dr. Elsa Murano, vice chancellor and dean of Texas A&M Agriculture and Life Sciences. "We have been able to capitalize on decades of existing research into sorghum, sugarcane, forage and oil-based cropping systems, which should provide us with premier, dedicated feedstocks for biofuels and renewable energy that are sustainable within existing agricultural production systems."

"Cellulosic ethanol, as opposed to sugar- or starch-based ethanol, broadens the choice of feedstock without impacting food supplies," said Rick Zalesky, vice president of Biofuels and Hydrogen, Chevron Technology Ventures. "Making it commercially viable poses a number of scientific and technical challenges -- challenges which we believe the faculty, staff and students at one of the world's premier universities in agricultural sciences and engineering are well-equipped to overcome."

Cellulose is an energy-rich carbohydrate that is the main structural component of green plants, found in the stems, stalks and leaves. One of the primary technical and scientific challenges of making biofuels from cellulose involves designing a low cost method for releasing sugar from cellulose that is bound in the plant cell wall for fermentation into ethanol or other biofuels.

Chevron formed a biofuels business unit in May 2006 to advance technology and pursue commercial opportunities related to the production and distribution of ethanol and biodiesel in the United States. Its research and development (R&D) activities in biofuels are currently structured around a research initiative with Weyerhaeuser Company, one of the world's largest integrated forest products companies; a major alliance with U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory
(NREL); and a portfolio of four significant, regionally focused university programs.

In addition to the Texas A&M agreement announced today, Chevron's biofuels business unit has formed research arrangements with the Georgia Institute of Technology, the University of California Davis and the Colorado Center for Biorefining and Biofuels, which is a consortium of NREL, three major Colorado universities and other private companies. It also recently formed an alliance with Weyerhauser to develop cellulose-based biofuels.

This same day, Chevron Technology Ventures and BioSelect Fuels LLC, a division of Standard Renewable Energy LLC, unveiled their biodiesel plant in Galveston, Texas today. The plant is one of the first large-scale biodiesel production facilities in North America and is now producing clean-burning biodiesel from renewable resources. The facility will initially produce 20 million gallons of biodiesel per year and has the capability to expand operations to produce 110 million gallons per year.

The Texas A&M University System is among the largest systems of higher education in the nation. Through a statewide network of nine universities, seven state agencies, which include Texas A&M BioEnergy Alliance partners TAES and TEES, and a comprehensive health science center, the A&M System is uniquely configured to optimize the integrated development and design of cellulosic and oil-based feedstocks with emerging technologies and sustainable supplies of biomass to address biofuels and renewable energy.

The Texas A&M BioEnergy Alliance is integrating and focusing its broad-based resources to become a world leader in bioenergy. Over the past two decades, faculty and staff researchers have worked on multiple feedstocks, biofuels and bioenergy projects. The Texas A&M Bioenergy Alliance is advancing this research toward demonstration projects and eventual commercialization, while accelerating the next generation bioenergy.

More information:

PRNewswire: Chevron and Texas A&M Form Strategic Biofuels Research Alliance - May 29, 2007.

Chevron Technology Ventures: Chevron and Weyerhaeuser Create Biofuels Alliance - 12 Apr 2007

Chevron Technology Ventures: Chevron and National Renewable Energy Laboratory Establish Research Alliance to Advance Cellulosic Biofuels - 04 Oct 2006

Chevron Technology Ventures: Chevron and UC Davis to Pursue Joint Research Into Next-Generation Biofuels - 19 Sep 2006

Chevron Technology Ventures: Chevron Partners With Georgia Tech to Pursue Next Generation of Renewable Transportation Fuels - 15 Jun 2006

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Monday, May 28, 2007

ICRISAT's pro-poor biofuels initiative - video

As we reported earlier, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) is linking up poor and marginal farmers of the drylands of the developing countries with the global biofuel revolution while strengthening their food and income security. The following video was distributed by ICRISAT and presents the program in a nutshell:
The Andhra-Pradesh based scientific institute, which is a partner of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) that helped achieve the 'Green Revolution', is working with governments and industry leaders to develop partnerships that can result in economic benefits for the poor and marginal farmers of the semi-arid tropics, even while retaining the strong economic competitiveness for the industry. The idea is to develop partnerships that link ICRISAT's innovative research directly with farmers and markets.

Under the pro-poor biofuels initiative, ethanol will be made from a high-yield sweet sorghum variety developed by the ICRISAT and that smallholders in drylands can cultivate with ease. The crop yields food, fodder and fuel. Likewise, cooperatives run by women make biodiesel from crops such as jatropha and pongamia and use the fuel to power diesel generators for rural electrification, tractors and farming equipment and cars [entry ends here].
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Green designer coal: more on hydrothermal carbonisation of biomass

Previously we had a look at the work of German scientists from the Max Planck Institute who developed a simple but ingenious and efficient way to produce renewable coal from biomass, called hydrothermal carbonisation. The potential for this technology is so large that some think it could cover countries' entire energy needs and may lower the reliance on climate destructive coal. An example: if the 70 million tonnes of biomass that Germany produces every year were to be converted into 'bio-coal', this would be sufficient to cover the country's entire energy needs.

What is more the green coal can be designed according to specific needs: it can be made to resemble hard coal for use in traditional power plants, converted into liquid fuels or mimic carbon-rich top-soil that can boost the fertility of nutrient-poor soils. Ultimately a carbon fuel cell could be envisioned in which the bio-based black powder would be converted into electricity without being burned. This would avoid the drawbacks of fuel cells that make use of a gas like hydrogen that is difficult to handle.

In "A Stroke of Genius? A New Recipe for Coal" the Deutsche Welle has an interesting talk with Markus Antonietti (photo), director of the Max Planck Institute for Colloid and Interface Research who helped design the conversion process. A video is available, in which the researcher describes the process as follows:
Biomass goes into the autoclave, a kind of pressure cooker. Leaves, pine cones and other plant residues are put into the pot. Water goes in, too, along with a citric acid catalyst. The mixture releases a lot of heat - in other words, energy.
We underestimated this when we started. We could calculate how much energy was stored in the sugar - in the leaf material. But the first time - as you see - we had a runaway reaction, which is obviously dangerous, so we need to carry it out under safe conditions.
It really is a simple reaction. The ingredients just have to be heated for 12 hours at 180 degrees Celsius. And the coal is ready. The single major by-product of the reaction is water, which can filtered off. In contrast to other biomass techniques this reaction does not generate carbon dioxide. And it gives a higher-energy product, which even smells acceptable.
Could this laboratory coal be produced on a large scale? According to Antonietti, it makes economic sense. If it were up to him the 50,000 tonnes of plant refuse that accumulate yearly in Berlin would be converted into 20,000 tonnes of usable carbon. The energy needed for the heating is no greater that that required by other bioconversion methods. Until that day comes, the Max Planck scientists intend to go on with their research. They want to study their laboratory coal in detail.

Because not all coal is alike. The researchers can adjust the bio-coal to be just a bit refined, or they can cook it until it's like hard coal. One end of the spectrum is topsoil, the other is anthracite. This opens new perspectives: a nutrient-rich earth-like coal can be used to help barren landscapes bloom; soft lignite can be burned in efficient CHP plants, whereas hard coal may be used in large existing power plants.

Markus Antonietti's team is now going to work on the transformation of the bio-coal into synthetic petroleum ('bio-coal to liquids') but the ultimate goal is to design a carbon fuel cell that would directly convert the bio-coal via an electrochemical process [entry ends here].
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UK outlines Biomass Strategy: large potential for bioenergy, bioproducts

The UK's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and the Department of Transport (DoT) have released their joint report on the potential of and strategies to exploit biomass for energy, fuels and renewable products in the UK.

The Biomass Strategy [*.pdf] was published in conjunction with the UK's Energy White Paper, and represents the government’s response to the Biomass Task Force’s report published last year. The cross-departmental report says "there is significant potential to expand the UK supply of biomass without any detrimental effect on food supplies and in a sustainable manner". However, the strategy includes a vision of international biomass and biofuels trade, in which up to half of all bioenergy is imported. To globalise the market, DEFRA, DTI and DoT will strengthen bilateral, trilateral and multilateral cooperation with countries in the South and with international bodies like the UN's Global Bioenergy Partnership.

The report is further informed by a series of additional studies, including economic, carbon and energy analyses of bioenergy sources, a report on the distribution of bioenergy crops in the UK, and a study on the potential of anaerobic digestion for the production of biogas.

These previously separate work streams have now been brought together under a single integrated Renewable Fuels and Materials programme that will focus on the sustainable development of a bioeconomy based on:
  • Bioenergy (for heat, cooling, electricity and transport biofuels)
  • Renewable and biobased construction materials
  • Renewable green chemicals (including monomers, polymers and oils)
  • Plant-based pharmaceuticals, nutriceuticals and bio-actives
The Biomass Strategy has identified a large potential for the bioeconomy in the UK. By 2030 some 25 million tonnes of oil equivalent energy (MTOE) can be obtained from domestic energy agriculture, forestry and residue streams (image 1, click to enlarge). It has found that an additional one million dry tonnes of wood per year from woodland and other wood waste products could be harvested for use in biomass power plants and biorefineries. It also assumes market forces would deliver an increase in the amount of energy crops grown to meet the UK market – with the potential to use up to a further 350,000 ha of farmland across the UK by 2020. In total, the report estimates the total land availability for biofuel and energy crops to be about 1 million hectares (2.47m acres), equivalent to 17% of the total UK arable land area. However, imports of bioenergy will play a major role to meet EU targets for renewables:
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The report states that biomass will have a central role to play in meeting the EU target of 20% renewable energy by 2020. The Climate Change Bill, published in draft in March 2007, sets out a proposed UK target of at least 60% cuts in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 and a strong new system of carbon budgeting. Biomass can contribute considerably to achieving these goals.

The UK government's strategy for bioenergy consists of:
  • realising a major expansion in the supply and use of biomass in the UK
  • facilitate the development of a competitive and sustainable market and supply chain
  • promote innovation and low-carbon technology development so biomass can deliver relatively higher energy yields
  • contribute to overall environmental benefits and the health of ecosystems through the achievement of multiple benefits from land use
  • facilitate a shift towards a bio-economy through sustainable growth and development of biomass use for fuels and renewable materials
  • maximise the potential of biomass to contribute to the delivery of our climate change and energy policy goals: to reduce CO2 emissions, and achieve a secure, competitive and affordable supply of fuel.

Biomass production

Delivery of the strategy will require a major expansion of biomass use and sustainable supply. It is acknowledged that increasing the supply of biomass will have implications for land use, biodiversity, landscape and a range of other environmental factors. The report thinks that a significant increase in sustainable UK biomass production, taking full account of the lessons learnt from more traditional forms of agriculture and emerging understanding of how ecosystems work, is achievable.

They aim is to seek to deliver an expansion of biomass production in a way which is consistent with an enhanced, sustainable approach to land management. This will deliver multiple environmental benefits and enhance the health of ecosystems. The authores have looked carefully at the supply side. They believe there is significant potential to expand the UK supply of biomass without any detrimental effect on food supplies and in a sustainable manner by:
  • sourcing an additional 1 million dry tonnes of wood per annum from currently unmanaged woodland in England, and from increasing the recovery of wood for energy from managed woodland and other sources of wood waste products across the UK

  • increasing the amount of perennial energy crops produced in the UK to meet market demands – with the potential to use up to a further 350,000 hectares across the UK by 20202. This brings the total land availability for biofuel and energy crops to around 1 million hectares, equivalent to 17% of total UK arable land (image 2, click to enlarge)
  • increasing supply from organic waste materials such as manures and slurries, certain organic wastes, source separated waste biomass and waste derived Solid Recovered Fuels (SRF) by expanding existing biomass supplies in this way we estimate the potential future biomass resource in the UK to be a total of approximately 96.2 TWh (8.3 Mtoe). If it is assumed UK biofuel crop production can supply half of the 5% (by volume) target for 20103 this gives a total predicted theoretical biomass resource level in the UK of around 10.0 Mtoe4. This compares with a total UK energy need of currently 165 Mtoe5. These estimates could be considered conservative.

It is clear that imports will continue to play a significant role in meeting UK energy needs, particularly for transport fuels and co-firing (electricity produced from fossil fuels co-fired with biomass). It is estimated that current annual imports account for the equivalent of some 54TWh. This figure is expected to grow.

The authors are keenly aware of the environmental risks from unsustainable production and damaging changes of land use. They fully support the EU approach of linking potential increases in biofuel targets to sustainability criteria. It is acknowledged that increasing the supply of biomass will have implications for land use, biodiversity, the environment and the landscape.

Imports will have an important role to play in meeting the demand for biomass this strategy will create and here we are taking steps to ensure sustainable practices are at the heart of our policies.

Future decisions on biomass production will require a long term view. Climate change is expected to have an impact on the biomass that will flourish in the UK over the next 50-60 years. Some existing biomass sources will cease to be viable in certain
locations while other new species can be introduced. Other sources of biomass such as certain wastes are suitable for energy recovery, including through anaerobic digestion and have an increasingly important role to play. This will expand biomass energy production and reduce the carbon impact of waste management.

Innovation to improve efficiencies
Biomass supply can also be increased through technology innovation, which can improve the efficiency of the energy conversion and reduce the delivered amount and cost of the fuels used. The technology used for heat and power generation is primarily well-established combustion technology.

This can provide heat and power reliably but at low efficiencies when compared with equivalent largerscale fossil fuel generation technologies. Further research is required into potentially more efficient energy generation technologies, such as gasification and pyrolysis.

Both Government and industry are already investing strongly in energy innovation. This includes fundamental research through to the deployment of technologies. This investment is set to rise. A new public/private sector joint venture, the Energy Technologies Institute, will be established. This will have a budget of up to £1bn over the next decade for R&D in low carbon energy technologies and demand management. A new Environmental Transformation Fund (ETF) is also being established to invest in low-carbon energy, including the demonstration and deployment of energy technologies such as bioenergy.

Supply chain development
DEFRA, DTI and DoT are committed to the ongoing development of biomass supply chains in conjunction with action to develop the bioenergy market. They are working closely with the Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) on the development of regional carbon targets. The RDAs also have a key role to play in building the partnerships needed to develop supply chains as an integral part of the regional strategies for renewable energy development. This will facilitate the development of supply chains best suited to local needs and resources.

Biomass for energy
The strategy emphasises the wish to increase the use of biomass as an energy source, given its importance in the transport, heat and electricity sectors. DEFRA, DTI and DoT have looked across the different energy sectors in order to establish which represents the most effective use of biomass raw materials. The analysis shows a clear hierarchy of use in terms of cost of carbon saving (£/tonneC):
  • biomass heating is the most effective form of bioenergy, particularly in industrial and commercial applications
  • biomass combined heat and power (CHP)
  • co-fired electricity in large fossil fuel plants
  • dedicated biomass power plant
  • transport biofuels
Incentives are already in place to support the use of biomass as a renewable fuel source for heat, electricity, and transport. The nature and level of incentives vary between the different sectors, and include the Renewables Obligation (for electricity supply), the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation, and grants towards the capital costs of heat, and CHP.

One conclusion of the strategy is that these incentives should be reordered to reflect this hierarchy of use of biomass. However, such an interpretation would be overly simplistic as it does not take into account the relative importance of biomass fuel sources in delivering climate change goals and targets. For example, despite their higher cost of carbon, transport biofuels are essential to carbon savings in the transport sector for which there are few other options in the short to medium term.

RTFO criteria
The RTFO, when introduced, will mean that by 2010, 5% of fuels sold on UK forecourts will come from renewable sources. DEFRA, DTI and DoT are committed to increasing the level of the planned RTFO beyond 5% after 2010/11, but only if the following conditions are met:
  • biofuels are produced in a sustainable way delivering maximum carbon savings with
  • minimum adverse environmental impacts
  • biofuel blends higher than 5% will not lead to mechanical problems in vehicles
  • costs to consumers and the wider economy will be acceptable
The hierarchy can nevertheless be applied in part. It will inform consideration of renewable energy targets, and the revisions currently being proposed to the Renewables Obligation, in particular the new system of banding support levels to promote emerging energy technologies. It also points to the need for work on whether further measures can be developed to support renewable heat (and cooling), utilising biomass sources, which the Government undertakes to do.

International cooperation
DEFRA, DTI and DoT recognise that there are many countries in which bioenergy has made a more significant contribution towards energy generation for a variety of reasons and where renewable materials are more widely used. The policy makers will continue to engage internationally to establish what lessons we can learn and will continue to play an active role to promote the sustainable use of biomass at an international level. More specifically we:

  • are committed to adopting the CEN European Standards for Solid Biofuels and Solid Recovered Fuels in England. We will support the BSI’s mirror committee in the development and transition of the standards from Technical Specifications to full European Standards (EN) to ensure they provide useable robust documents for the UK. DEFRA, DTI and DoT are working to make the solid biofuel technical specifications available as a free download through the Biomass Energy Centre website. The policy makers will support the industry and end users through a series of information documents and events, to ensure the standards are understood and integrated into everyday use.
  • will actively engage at EU and international levels with a view to developing targets for sustainable biomass renewable energy use and taking forward the agreements reached at the Spring European Council. DEFRA, DTI and DoT will continue to support the efforts of the UK-Brazil-Southern Africa Biofuels Taskforce in assisting Mozambique to implement a national biofuels strategy and thereafter development of an SADC region biofuel market.
  • will actively engage with international bioenergy fora such as the Global Bioenergy Partnership (GBEP), the International Biofuels Forum launched recently (this involves the USA, Brazil, India, China and South Africa, with the UK represented via European Commission) and the International Energy Agency Bioenergy Implementing Agreement. This work seeks to improve co-operation and information exchange between countries with national programmes of research, development and deployment. The agreement aims to accelerate the use of environmentally sound, sustainable and cost effective bioenergy and involves 21 countries plus the EU. DEFRA, DTI and DoT will continue to contribute to the development of global sustainability criteria for biofuels through such bodies.
The report concludes that the impact of increased biomass use must be sustainable and the impact of this strategy on the environment and the utilisation of land for food production will be monitored closely. DEFRA, DTI and DoT will involve stakeholders closely in this process. However, given the evolving policy context it will be necessary to fine tune objectives and actions flowing from them to take account of changing national and international priorities. In the longer term, the ambition is to promote international collaboration on research and good practice which delivers more efficient and sustainable bioenergy production and use.

More information:
DEFRA, DTI and DoT: Biomass Strategy [*.pdf] - May 2007.

The UK Biomass Energy Centre

UK Government non-food crops and uses strategy

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Japan to spend 209 billion yen on next-generation cars and biofuels

Japan's Ministry for Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) will spend ¥209 billion (€1.27/US$1.72 billion) over five years to help companies develop next-generation cars and fuels that would cut carbon dioxide emissions.

In the five years to March 2012, the government will subsidize development of batteries and hydrogen fuel cells for vehicles, gas-to-liquid (GTL) technology for producing synthetic diesel from natural gas, and next-generation biofuels. The goal is to meet cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, to improve energy security and to lead the development of efficient and green mobility technologies that can be exported world wide.

Japan, a signatory to the Kyoto protocol, has lagged behind its target under the treaty, emitting more greenhouse gases compared with 1990. The government is relying on new technologies to meet its aim of cutting emissions 6 percent from the 1990 level by 2012 in the world's second-biggest economy. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently added a long term target to cut emissions in half by 2050.
"Currently Japan relies almost completely on oil products the meet the fuel needs of its transport sector, and we need to curb it. Consumers bear additional costs for environmentally friendly products, but our aim is to not burden them for choosing ecologically-friendly products." - Satoshi Kusakabe, director of METI's auto division
The subsidy plan includes the following targets:
  • To bring down costs of hydrogen fuel-cell cars (currently more than 20 times the price of a gasoline-driven vehicle) to those of cars powered by ICE's. ¥32 billion per year has been allocated for at least the next five years to achieve this goal.
  • ¥24.5 billion will be invested in the development of batteries
  • ¥24 billion for gas-to-liquid technology in the five years ending March 2012
  • To promote the use of biofuels and to cut prices for cellulosic biofuels to about ¥20 per liter. Such second-generation biofuels currently cost around ¥150 per liter (€0.91 per liter/US$4.66 per gallon).
Takashi Shimada, director of policy planning section at the natural resources department of METI said Japan will try to produce biofuels domestically from agricultural residues (such as rice straw). This comes at a time when Japan is investing heavily in sourcing biofuels from the tropics, most notably from Brazil and South East Asia:
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Exporting green technologies worldwide
Takashi Shimada added that Japan can develop these technologies and export them worldwide to help halve carbon dioxide emissions on the planet.

The ministry, together with the Petroleum Association of Japan and the automaker's association, will form a study group in July to discuss measures to cut costs.

Japan emitted 8.1 percent more greenhouse gases in the year ended March 31, 2006, than in 1990, according to the environment ministry, led by a 37 percent surge from households and a 42 percent jump from commercial users like office-building owners.

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Interview: University of Offenburg demonstrates world's first 'Direct Ethanol Fuel Cell'

Students from Germany's University of Offenburg are familiar faces at the European edition of the Shell Eco-Marathon, the race where teams from across the continent compete to drive as far as possible on a liter of fuel. The yearly event is a celebration of efficiency, creativity and future technologies.
The Offenburg team has a very strong track record: two years ago it received the first prize in the diesel engine category, while last year it demonstrated Germany's most efficient hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. At this year's edition, held earlier this month on the race track in Nogaro (France), its hydrogen powered car achieved a mileage of 2716 kilometres per liter (6,491 miles per gallon) of gasoline equivalent fuel.

But it was after the competition, during a unique side-event, that the Offenburg engineers showed their skills to achieve a premiere. On May 13, they demonstrated the world's first 'Direct Ethanol Fuel Cell' (DEFC) in a vehicle. This unique configuration combines the advantages of fuel cells with those of ethanol, side-stepping the disadvantages of hydrogen gas.

In this interview, Professor Uli Hochberg and Andy Hug, both members of the development team behind the DEFC, talked with Biopact's Jonas Van Den Berg and Laurens Rademakers about the technology behind the unique achievement.

Biopact: Can you explain how this type of fuel cell works?
Prof. Hochberg: Our cell is different from conventional cells, as we use anionic membranes in an alkaline fuel cell. On the cathode side (air side) oxygen from the air and water is reduced to a hydroxyl ion (OH-). For this reaction to occur, an electron is needed. The hydroxyl ion travels through a membrane to the anode side and oxidises ethanol to carbon dioxide and water. The electron is released and “travels back” to the cathode side, powering our motor.

Biopact: Alkaline fuel cells are a rather old technology, abandoned 20 years ago. Why did you pick up this technology?
Hochberg: Indeed, the technology was abandoned due to the lack of alkaline membranes, though in principle the efficiency should be higher and the use of non-noble catalysts should be easier under alkaline conditions. Meanwhile alkaline membranes are being developed for water treatment systems, but most of the research is still focused on proton exchange membranes (acid membranes). We thought it would be worth it to have a closer look at this technology again. Even catalysts containing noble metals that can oxidize ethanol (like Platinum-Tin) seem to be unstable under acid conditions – another reason for us to reevaluate the alkaline technology.

Biopact: So what types of catalysts did you use then?
Andy Hug: We characterized noble metal catalysts as well as platinum-free HYPERMECTM catalysts from ACTA. Those catalysts showed the highest cell voltages and ACTA provided us with sufficient amount of catalysts for the demonstration.

Biopact: Last year you built Germany's most efficient hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, but we never heard of the University of Offenburg actually developing fuel cells. How was it possible for you to come up with such a development?
Hug: We were supported by the Zentrum für Sonnenenergie und Wasserstoffforschung (ZSW - Center for Solar Energy and Hydrogen Research) in Ulm. Dr. Gogel and Dr. Jörissen from the Center guided our students and gave us essential hints for the design of our cell.

Biopact: Did the DEFC perform well during the test in Nogaro?
Prof. Hochberg: Well, we were very excited by the idea of using ethanol as a fuel for our car. Ethanol is much more practical to use than hydrogen gas. The demonstration was a great success, but it is clear that there is still a lot of work to be done before the technology with alkaline membranes can be commercialized:
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Biopact: The DEFC's like the one you tested will probably be used first to power electronic devices like laptops and cell phones. Do you think the technology will be scaled up and used in the passenger cars of the future?
Hochberg: Who knows? Having a horizon of 10 years, I don’t think it will be used in passenger cars. But as you say, there are a lot of applications where a combustion engine can not be used.

Biopact: The Offenburg team ran the Eco-Marathon on hydrogen. Many see the 'hydrogen economy' as an alternative to the fossil fuel based economy, and considerable funding and investments are going into the development of hydrogen systems. But some critics point to the fact that this energy concept may not be feasible because hydrogen production, distribution and storage is inefficient or very costly. What is your view on the long term outlook of this 'hydrogen economy', especially when it comes to transport?
Hochberg: Indeed, the distribution and storage of hydrogen is much more costly and inefficient than distribution and storage of a liquid fuel. Two years ago, we received the first prize in the Eco-Marathon for diesel engines. The weight and the space required for the hydrogen storage this year was significantly higher than the weight and the space for the diesel storage 2 years ago. The difference was up to 10 times as large. So there is still a long way to go before we can switch to hydrogen cars without having to reduce the comfort we like to have in our cars – time enough to look for other alternatives.

Biopact: If you were to have unlimited funds to design a hyper-efficient passenger car, what kind of propulsion/fuel system would it use?
Hochberg: Unlimited funds? Fantastic!
If the car is to be commercialized within the next 5 or 10 years, it would be a hybrid car with hub motors similar to the motor we have developed for our vehicle, having a combustion engine.

The primary energy source would be a "designer fuel", made from renewable energy such as hydrogen or biomass, converted into a liquid fuel according to the Fischer-Tropsch process. Or methane from renewable (biogas) or non renewable resources. Those “designer fuels” are actually under development (BTL: biomass to liquid, GTL: gas to liquid). Ethanol would also be an alternative. This car would not only be hyper-efficient, it would also have a nice performance due to the fact that each wheel could be accelerated or deaccelareted separately according to the actual situation.

If the car is to be commercialized later, I would invest in at least 3 different technologies, because to me it is not yet clear which will be the technology of the future. One of them would definitely be the hydrogen fuel cell.

Image (click to enlarge): The Offenberg team showing the DEFC powered vehicle. The team's members (from left to right): Viktor Ritter (aerodynamics and rims), Boris Kubrak (coordination, aerodynamics and race strategy), Sigrid Herb (pilot, PR), Gabriel Antes (carbon fiber technology), Ulrich Hochberg (administration), Andreas Frank (DEFC development/catalyst and membrane screening), Daniela Morgenstern (driver, PR), Marcel Menne (electronics, software engineering), Frank Erdrich (software engineering), Frank Beger (fuel cell electronics, electrical assembling), Andreas Hug (DEFC development coordination), Christian Bohnert (DEFC development / fabrication), Christian Basler (DEFC development/catalyst and membrane screening), Nils-Malte Jahn (hub motor development, electronics), Heiko Westphal (DEFC development / membrane coating), Oliver Matt (DEFC development/stack assembly) and Johannes Offenburger (DEFC development/MEA fabrication). Credit: Shell/Studio Reck.

CC, Biopact, 2007.

More information:
Hochschule Offenburg (University of Applied Sciences): “Schluckspecht auf dem 2. Platz - Weltweit erste Ethanol-Brennstoffzelle vorgestellt” – May 2007.

EnviroDaq: Acta catalysts drive ethanol fuel cell vehicle – May 15, 2007.

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Brazilian biofuels update

Brazil has been very active again these past few days, with some interesting developments in the field of bilateral cooperation, work on biofuels infrastructures (a second ethanol pipeline and waterway infrastructures) and Petrobras' announcement that biofuels have become one of its main strategic sectors, especially the development of its proprietary fuel known as 'H-Bio'. A company's spokesman has also elaborated on Petrobras' plans to further help Africa (in particular Nigeria) to kickstart a biofuels industry. Finally, the rapid mechanisation of sugar cane harvesting in Brazil is resulting in a growing number of cane cutters losing their jobs. The question of finding alternative forms of employment for them is becoming an important issue of discussion.

Brazil and Vietnam to cooperate
In a short note, the Vietnamese government announced today it had approved a plan with Brazil to produce ethanol fuel in Vietnam. Hanoi said in a government directive it had assigned Minister of Industry Hoang Trung Hai to sign an agreement with Brazil, the world's top ethanol exporter, to share ethanol fuel technologies. The directive did not provide details of the plan.

Brazil and Panama: towards a win-win strategy

Long ago, there was some talk about Brazil's vision of creating a centrally located biofuel hub that could serve both the North American, the European and the Asian markets. The idea was to implant biodiesel and ethanol plants in Panama, where raw materials would be transformed into marketable liquid fuels, and then to ship them out. A main objective: to avoid the US tariff on imported ethanol.

During his first visit to Brazil, Panama's president Martín Torrijos toured the ethanol industry and with Lula announced [*Portuguese] that both countries would cooperate on ethanol production, as well as on the expansion of the Canal. Panama will invite Brazilian companies to invest and support them to export ethanol to the U.S., bypassing the tariff. Moreover, Torrijos announced that at the upcoming negotiations with the U.S. on the 'Tratado de Livre-Comércio' (free trade agreement) he will make sure Brazilian companies stand to benefit indirectly, by making Panama their hub to access the North American market more easily.

Besides technical and trade cooperation, Panama and Brazil will jointly study and invest in the sugar cane potential of the country. Currently, some 25,000 hectares of land are devoted to the efficient energy crop, but Panama has an estimated potential of 240,000 hectares. Brazilian expertise in sugar cane agronomy will be shared to strategize around utilizing this resource as efficiently as possible.

Finally, both countries will strengthen their cooperation on expanding the Panama Canal. Several Brazilian engineering firms are already involved in this project, and Lula has reiterated his commitment to uniting Central and South America around the common goal of succeeding in this vast project, that is expected to cost around US$5.2 billion.

Petrobras to focus once and for all on biofuels
State-owned oil company Petrobras has announced its growing focus on biofuels will finally make it a large, integrated and diversified energy company, instead of a mere oil and gas player. General Manager of the company's 'Finished Products' division, Edgard Manta, said Petrobras sees biofuels as its main strategic point of focus. The company will invest massively in three sectors over the coming years, to know ethanol, biodiesel and the innovative 'H-Bio' fuel. Large infrastructure works and the design of new logistical chains becomes a priority:
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(1) For ethanol, the strategic plan is to take minority participations in existing biofuel producers. The goal: to produce 3.5 billion liters exclusively for exports by 2011.

(2) When it comes to 'first generation' biodiesel, Petrobras wants to produce 850 million liters of the biofuel per year by 2011. A cooperation agreement with Brasil Ecodiesel, the largest producer with an installed capacity of 800 million liters (to come fully online in 2008), was signed as well. From next year onwards, Petrobras is mandated to blend 2% biodiesel in all fossil diesel. In January 2008 production of biodiesel begins at Petrobras' three first transesterification plants: one in Quixadá (Ceará state), one in Candeias (Bahia state) and a facility in Montes Claros (in Minas Gerais).

(3) Finally, and most importantly, Petrobras will pursue the large-scale production of its proprietary H-Bio. The process underlying this fuel was designed entirely by the Centro de Pesquisas da Petrobras (Cenpes) and was developed to introduce a renewable oil source in the diesel fuel production scheme taking advantage of existing petroleum refineries. The vegetable oil stream blended with mineral diesel fractions is hydroconverted in Hydrotreating Units (HDT), which are mainly used for diesel sulphur content reduction and quality improvement in petroleum refineries. Four Petrobras refineries have already been adapted to produce H-Bio, which will reduce the company's fossil diesel imports by 25%, signifying saving of around US$240 million per year. The facilities have a combined biofuel capacity of 256 million liters per year.

Biofuel infrastructures: waterways and pipelines
Via its subsidiary BR Distribuidora, which has made biofuel exports possible, Petrobras is further investing in infrastructures to get liquid renewable fuels to market. First of all, BR Distribuidora will build yet another dedicated ethanol pipeline, this time one of around 900 kilometres. The 'alcoolduto' will relay Campo Grande, the capital of the central-western state of Mato Grosso do Sul to the Atlantic port of Paranaguá (in the state of Parana).

Interestingly, the company is beginning to have a serious look at creating waterway infrastructures to transport biofuels. Inland transport over water can in principle be very efficient and cost-effective, but requires good infrastructures and robust maintenance of waterways. BR Distribuidora is going to develop such infrastructures aimed at exporting biofuels from the main sugar cane growing state of São Paulo to the Terminal Marítimo de Ilha D’água (in Rio de Janeiro State) and to the terminal of São Sebastião (São Paulo state).

Petrobras to cooperate with other countries
President Lula has repeatedly stressed his country's willingness to help other countries in the South to kickstart a biofuels industry. Brazil offers technical and scientific expertise and does so via two highly successful state-owned companies: EMBRAPA and Petrobras. The first is the world's leading research center on tropical agronomy, whereas the latter is becoming one of the most competitive non-Western energy companies.

Last year, Petrobras signed a cooperation agreement with Japan which resulted in the formation of Brazil-Japan Ethanol Inc., a joint venture with Japan Alcohol Trading, aimed at exporting bioethanol to the East Asian country. The first shipment has already been delivered. Likewise, the company Mitsui & Co. is cooperating with Brazil to grow energy crops and produce liquid biofuels for exports to Japan. Petrobras has minority shares in both companies that have the sole aim of producing for exports.

Edgard Manta stresses that this approach has the advantage that "this way, all the companies associated with Petrobras are made to comply with our strong social, environmental and labor norms".

Manta then broadened the perspective and said Petrobras will cooperate internationally with countries in Africa and Latin America - in particular with Venezuela, Nigeria and South Africa.

In Venezuela tetraethyl lead in gasoline will be replaced by Brazilian ethanol (an E8 blend). Six cargoes have so far been exported, a total of 150 million liters. Petrobras is negotiating with the government of Venezuela and its state-run oil company PDVSA with the aim of renewing a long term supply contract.

In Africa, from 2008 onwards, the Brazilian oil major will promote an expansion in Nigeria. The idea is to introduce an E10 into the local market. A first shipment of biofuel of around 200 million liters is being negotiated with Petrobras' Nigerian counter-part NNPC.

(President Lula recently talked with 22 African diplomats about ethanol and together with Petrobras and other companies announced the establishment of an "Agrocity" near Lagos, Nigeria, as a starting point to build a pan-African biofuel industry. We will be reporting on this development soon.)

According to Manta, other bilateral agreements and joint ventures have been or are being created with governments and companies of Angola, South Africa, Portugal, Spain, South Korea and Mexico and Paraguay.

Mechanisation and employment
The Agencia Estado reports today that the rapid mechanisation of the sugar cane industry is creating new dilemmas for workers. On the one hand, these low and unskilled laborers come from very poor backgrounds and are not able to find jobs other than doing the backbreaking work of cutting sugar cane. But on the other hand, if they lose their employment on the plantations due to mechanisation, they end up in a truly problematic situation and are often forced to join the growing numbers of people living in the mega-slums of Brazil's large cities.

As is well known, as a result of new legislation and enforcement, the sugar cane sector has had to better the fate of these workers. But progress is slow and abuses are still rampant. Despite this fact, hundreds of thousands of poor workers prefer to harvest cane instead of migrating to the cities where their chances of finding work are limited. Tragically, the sugar sector's increasing mechanisation may now force them towards the latter path anyways.

This trend is worrying São Paulo state's Secretary of Labor Guilherme Afif who wants to study the effect of modernisation and mechanisation on the labor market in depth. To do so, he will sign an agreement tomorrow with the SEAD Foundation to launch a state-wide survey that will be carried out over the coming 4 months.

Afif intends to use the results of the analysis to create a program aimed at facilitating the reintegration of these workers into other markets by training them into a specific niche - ideally, they will be employed in the ethanol industry. The program is seen as urgent and will be implemented in the 645 municipalities of the State.

Afif thinks that the new modernisation cycle of the sugar cane industry may ultimately lead to unemployment for 700,000 workers. "São Paulo may become a social war zone because of biofuels", he said.

The Secretary is also talking with the Federal Minister of Social welfare, Carlos Lupi. According to Afif, Lupi showed interest to collaborate and to free federal funds to support the São Paulo program aimed at providing new qualifications to man power that was laid off. First, however, the results of the survey will have to be awaited.

More information:
Reuters: Vietnam to sign pact with Brazil for ethanol fuel - May 27, 2007.

Agência EFE: Brasil oferece ao Panamá cooperação em etanol e obras do Canal - May 25, 2007.

Ultimo Segundo: Presidente do Panamá reitera que vai promover produção de etanol em seu país - May 26, 2007.

Diário de Nordeste: Lula assina seis acordos de cooperação com o Panamá - May 25, 2007.

ANSA: Brasil e Panamá firmam acordos de biocombustíveis - May 25, 2007.

Diário Comércio, Indústria e Serviços: Petrobras foca os aportes em biocombustível - May 28, 2007.

Reuters Brasil: Petrobras busca parceiro para 2o alcoolduto da companhia - May 25, 2007.

A Tarde Online: SP quer qualificar mão-de-obra em lavoura de etanol - May 27, 2007.

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E-cane Fuel to invest US$150 million in ethanol plant in the Philippines

The Philippines are rapidly becoming an attractive investment hub for the South East and East Asian renewable fuel market. The country's recent biofuel legislation in combination with an active effort to attract foreign direct investment is drawing in companies from China, Japan, the EU and the US. The island state's suitable agro-climatic conditions and its availability of land and labor plays a key role, as does its central geographical position in the region.

US firm E-Cane Fuel Corp. is the latest in a series of companies to enter the country's biofuels sector. The company announced it will invest €111/US$150 million to put up a fully integrated ethanol processing facility in Central Luzon.

E-Cane Fuel chairman and chief executive Jean-Pierre Monclin told reporters the ethanol facility will utilize production from 10 hectares to 20 hectares of sugar cane plantations in Tarlac, Pampanga and Nueva Ecija. Sugarcane farmers in the areas have leased their lands to the company for ethanol feedstock production. The lease agreement covers 25 years, with assurance of annual increases in land rent.

“The plant will be vertically integrated. This means we will be producing 100 percent new feedstock and process them,” Monclin said. He said the investment would be the company’s biggest in the biofuel industry and the firm’s first investment in Asia. E-Cane has bioethanol-related operations in Latin America and Columbia.

The plant will utilize Indian-based technology serviced by Praj, which has some major projects in Europe and Brazil. Construction started six months ago and is expected to go on full commercial operation by 2009. The ethanol plant, which will have a capacity of 150 million liters (39.6 million gallons), will process sugarcane as a primary feedstock.

Monclin said the company would sell ethanol primarily to the domestic market with a portion to be exported to Japan and Korea. He said the firm expected the plant to be fully controlled by Filipino workforce in three years time. E-cane Fuel currently employs about 100 Filipinos:
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Monclin also expressed optimism on the prospects of the country’s biofuels industry.

“I am very optimistic and interested in this project. One, it utilizes clean technology that will help the environment and second, it has social program that helps uplift the lives of the farmers,” he said.

There are already a number of companies that have expressed interest in ethanol projects spurred by the passage of the Philippines' BioFuels Law of 2007. The law mandates an initial 5 percent ethanol blend for gasoline two years after its implementation.

The ethanol facility of Bronzeoak Philippines in San Carlos, Negros Occidental will come online by next year. The facility will produce 100,000 liters of bioethanol a day.

Eastern Petroleum Corp. teamed up with Guanxi Group of China for an ethanol project using cassava as feedstock while PNOC-Alternative Fuels Corp. is planning an ethanol plant project worth US$ 1.3 billion (on Chinese investments, see here, on PNOC's biofuel activities, here).

Ethanol, as a gasoline additive, is expected to spur capital investment, job creation, and economic development in the country, especially in rural areas.

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Sunday, May 27, 2007

Europeans show strong support for post-oil bioeconomy - survey

EPOBIO is an international project funded through the European Union’s Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) to realise the economic potential of plant-derived raw materials. The EPOBIO objectives, implemented by a consortium of top EU and US researchers, are to design new generations of bio-based products derived from non-food plants - from bioplastics to biofuels - that will reach the market place 10-15 years from now.

At the 2nd EPOBIO Workshop titled "Products from Plants – from crops and forests to zero-waste biorefineries" that was held earlier this month in Athens, Greece, a session was devoted to the presentation of a detailed survey on Europeans' Social Attitudes and Expectations [*.pdf] of the emerging bioeconomy.

EPOBIO's Social Attitudes and Expectations Support Package has succeeded, via means of empirical social research, in mapping a sample of European countries according to their citizens’ views on the industrial uses of plants and the forthcoming introduction of bio-based products into the market. The findings provide information about the broad picture of public perception in Europe as well as about the special characteristics of target populations defined by their national or socio-demographic profile.

The survey, based on national representative samples of seven EU member states (France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Spain, Sweden and the U.K.) found strong support amongst the European public as a whole to make the transition towards a bio-based economy:
  • Europeans are not techno-phobic. Across all European countries surveyed there is an overwhelming recognition of the positive impact of technology as well as positive overall feelings about the products and projects identified by EPOBIO.
  • The attitudes of Europeans towards plant-derived engine oils, products made from alternative sources of rubber and biorefineries are positive. More than two out of three declare their willingness to replace conventional commodities with plant made ones, even if they incurred some extra cost, with the highest percentage of support being recorded for bio-plastics. In addition, around four in six Europeans would be in favour of giving the Flagship areas incentives to support development; this necessity, however, is felt more strongly for engine oils made from plants.
  • Regarding the special issues involved in industrial plant exploitation, i.e. genetic engineering, energy production by combustion of plant-made products and the usage of food crops in industry, more than half of Europeans would approve of them providing that they are tightly regulated and controlled. For genetic engineering a considerable proportion of one in four indicate disapproval. Furthermore, when genetic engineering is excluded, those viewing the special issues as not being associated with risk, as useful and morally acceptable outnumber those who view them as being risky, not useful and morally unacceptable.
  • There is a clear support for decisions to be taken at the European level in all countries except for the UK, where almost half of respondents express their preference for decisions to be taken the national level.
The survey provides data that will be used to create an effective communication strategy on the bioeconomy. For this reason, it also identified the special characteristics of different segments of the population. The particular views of target populations which are identified by their socio-demographic characteristics and nationality were found to be the following:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

  • Considerable variation is observed across the European countries with regard to their awareness of the industrial uses of plants and the proposed projects, with Spain, Germany and Sweden recording the highest levels of awareness and Italy, France and Greece recording the lowest.
  • Italians and Greeks rank lowest for their willingness to change
  • Italians and Greeks rank lowest for their willingness to change their purchasing habits but they rank highest for their position in favour of governmental support. Interestingly, this pattern reverses when it comes to Spaniards and Swedes, while the British rank among the highest in both items ‘willingness to buy the product’ and ‘governmental support’.
  • The socio-demographic breakdown of results reveals some interesting differences: (1) males, urban dwellers, highly educated and those aged 35-54 are more optimistic about the recent impact of technology, more knowledgeable about the industrial uses of plants, more willing to buy the novel products proposed and more likely to support their development; (2) as the level of attentiveness to science issues increases, so does the level of knowledge of the industrial uses of plants: (3) familiarity with general and issue specific technological matters has a positive influence over the acceptability of the proposed projects.
From a science communication perspective further issues were considered. The EPOBIO survey findings provide some additional information to help communicators to make decisions on issues such as what kind of messages will be more successful in motivating public support, which actors are more likely to be believed by the public and which channels of mass communication will be more effective in disseminating the relevant information. Hence, the following should be noted:
  • The most persuasive reasons for the European support of the EPOBIO proposed projects and products relate to their environmental benefits and the reduced dependency on petroleum, with the former being most popular for Spaniards, Swedes and Germans and the latter for Italians, Greeks and the French. From a socio-demographic perspective: (1) environmental incentives are most popular for women, urban dwellers, highly educated and those aged between 35-55 years; (2) the incentive of reduced dependency on petroleum is most popular for men, urban dwellers and highly educated; (3) the creation of new jobs is most popular for men, rural dwellers, those who completed lower levels of education and those younger than 35 years.
  • Regarding the perceived trustworthiness of the actors who are expected to play a role in public debates on the industrial uses of plants, about four in five Europeans trust scientists and environmental organizations, while less than one in four trust politicians and the industrial sector. International organizations and E.U. bodies are trusted by more than half of Europeans.
  • Media coverage on the industrial uses of crop plants is predominantly positive in Europe. The newspapers and television are the most effective media for the dissemination of relevant news, whilst scientific journals and the internet are less effective. Journalists, however, seem to lack in public trust, with less than two in five Europeans trusting them.
The broad picture of Europe as portrayed in the survey suggests that its citizens will welcome the introduction of the novel plant-derived products. The variation identified with reference to the national and socio-demographic characteristics recommends the development of diverse communication approaches tailored to the particularities of specific target groups. The challenges for science communicators and decision makers are to ensure that the benefits offered by those technologies are widely understood and that the public are able to follow the pace of technological innovation.

Taking the findings into account, the report based on the survey stressed the need to:
  • Develop an integrated communication strategy aiming at intensifying media coverage.
  • Raise public interest and stimulate public participation.
  • Enhance the role of EU authorities in decision-making processes.
  • Make the view-points of scientists clear in public debates.
  • Improve the corporate profile of the industrial sector.
  • Assure transparency of the processes involved.
Finally, it is recommended that continuous social research by quantitative and qualitative means is vital in order to explore further issues of public perception and to attain a deeper understanding of the underlying mechanisms which operate in project evaluation and consumer decision-making processes.

More information:
EPOBIO website.

2nd EPOBIO Workshop: Products from Plants – from crops and forests to zero-waste biorefineries, 15-17 May 2007, Athens, Greece

EPOBIO Support Theme: Social Attitudes and Expectations: Public attitudes towards the industrial uses of plants: the EPOBIO survey [*.pdf]- Athens, Greece, May 15-17, 2007.

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Engineering students patent promising plasma processing techniques to produce biofuels

Engineering students at North Carolina State University have filed for a provisional patent for one of their innovative techniques to convert biomass into biofuels. The students and their faculty mentor in the College of Engineering’s Institute for Maintenance Science and Technology (IMST) have developed two new, cost-effective techniques: one for producing ethanol from wood and other biomass, the other for the capturing methane, a greenhouse gas, to convert it into methanol.

Both techniques rely on atmospheric pressure (AP) plasma processing and may make it possible to use a wide range of biomass feedstocks. The AP plasma contains an approximately equal proportion of electrons and ions that respond strongly to electric and magnetic fields. Electron and ion interactions in the plasma generate ultraviolet light, charged particles, and highly reactive atomic and molecular species. By controlling these reactive species, specific chemistries can be produced in the plasma to facilitate the production of various chemical compounds (diagram, click to enlarge).

Converting biomass to ethanol using AP processing is not easy, even though a handful of researchers are working with thermal plasma technology (earlier post). The student researchers knew they had to disrupt the biomass structure in order to access the valuable five- and six-carbon sugars contained in the cellulose that could be converted to ethanol by fermentation. Lignin, which is similar to a glue or binder in the biomass structure, is a significant inhibitor when accessing these sugars. This highly robust polymer surrounds the cellulose and hemicellulose, providing a protective sheath from most chemical and biological degradation processes. Breaking these tough bonds poses a challenge.

Dr. Jerome Cuomo, Distinguished Research Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and director of IMST, says he and his students have experience using AP plasmas to disrupt organic structures such as those found in bugs, so utilizing AP plasmas to degrade biomass was a natural direction for their research.

The researchers mineralize organic substances, thus converting them to carbon dioxide and water vapor. With the process they can decompose organic matter, and wood is organic, but lignin inhibits the enzymatic process. So their first trials with the technique were to put some wood into the AP chamber. A few simple tests demonstrated ethanol production in the samples treated in the AP chamber.

After 18 months of research, the team developed a method of disrupting the biomass structure with AP plasma. They call their technique “atmospheric pressure plasma-enhanced soft hydrolysis” and say it is less harsh, more efficient and less energy-intensive than traditional techniques like acid hydrolysis and enzymatic hydrolysis.

The students’ new technique pairs a dilute acid hydrolysis pretreatment with AP plasma and has shown greater than 50 percent improvement in the production of fermentable sugars. The process is significant and could improve the efficiency and cost effectiveness of current hydrolysis techniques. The AP plasma process utilizes a unique power supply, developed by a local start-up company, that is able to produce atmospheric plasmas in air so that continuous processing can be realized and at lower powers for greater process efficiency:
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“The AP plasma process cuts the cost of equipment,” said Matthew R. King, a senior geology major. “The process can be run continuously and scaled to meet any process requirements.”

The students presented their findings at the American Vacuum Society 53rd Annual International Symposium in San Francisco in November 2006. NC State's Office of Technology Transfer (OTT) has filed a provisional application for patent for their technique and is now pursuing a non-provisional application for patent. The NC State OTT is also seeking partners interested in commercializing this technology.

In addition to the biomass project, the students are working on another renewable energy project involving the conversion of hog waste into methanol.

In partnership with Orbit Energy Inc., a biogas company, IMST received a Phase I Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) research grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. Orbit Energy, a local start-up company, provides technologies for converting organic waste into methane and carbon dioxide, two greenhouse gases. The goal of the STTR project is to develop a means of capturing and converting these gases into higher valued organics such as methanol.

Waste materials from hog lagoons, fed into Orbit’s high solids anaerobic digester, produce a ratio of 67 percent methane to 33 percent carbon dioxide, which turns out to be the ideal ratio for making methanol from AP plasma. “We are in our second design of the system,” said W. Patrick Davis, doctoral student in materials science and engineering. “We know how much methane and carbon dioxide we are putting in. We soon will be able to calculate our efficiency in terms of how much we are converting into methanol.” With the help of Dr. H. Henry Lamb, associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, the team will have the ability to identify each chemical produced by this process.

“The key here,” said Christopher J. Oldham, doctoral student in materials science, “is that, as a greenhouse gas, methane is 20 times more harmful to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, and people don’t really talk about that. We’re taking that methane and making valuable alcohols and chemicals.”

“The possibility and potential of this process is to capture and sequester gases emitted from the flues of fossil fuel plants,” Cuomo added. “Many people are looking at what AP plasma can do. Why are we different? We have a power supply that can be scaled to very large power levels. … The folks that are working with AP plasma are mainly in laboratories like ours, but our connection is with industry – to take this to a commercial scale. We’re sequestering carbon, whether methane or carbon dioxide, and we’re seeing signs of carbon compounds that, once fully examined, may have more value than methane and carbon dioxide. We have ambition to do more. Our limitation right now is funding.”

More information:
NC State University: NC State Engineering Students Develop New Techniques to Produce Ethanol and Methanol from Renewable Sources - May 7, 2007.

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