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    Bulgaria's Rompetrol Rafinare is to start delivering Euro 4 grade diesel fuel with a 2% biodiesel content to its domestic market starting June 25, 2007. The same company recently started to distributing Super Ethanol E85 from its own brand and Dyneff brand filling stations in France. It is building a 2500 ton/month, €13.5/US$18 million biodiesel facility at its Petromidia refinery. BBJ - June 13, 2007.

    San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), a utility serving 3.4 million customers, announced it has signed a supply contract with Envirepel Energy, Inc. for renewable biomass energy that will be online by October 2007. Bioenergy is part of a 300MW fraction of SDG&E's portfolio of renewable resources. San Diego Gas & Electric - June 13, 2007.

    Cycleenergy, an Austrian bioenergy group, closed €6.7 million in equity financing for expansion of its biomass and biogas power plant activities in Central and Eastern Europe. The company is currently completing construction of a 5.5 MW (nominal) woodchip fired biomass facility in northern Austria and has a total of over 150 MW of biomass and biogas combined heat and power (CHP) projects across Central Europe in the pipeline. Cycleenergy Biopower [*.pdf] - June 12, 2007.

    The government of Taiwan unveils its plan to promote green energy, with all government vehicles in Taipei switching to E3 ethanol gasoline by September and biofuel expected to be available at all gas stations nationwide by 2011. Taipei Times - June 12, 2007.

    A large-scale biogas production project is on scheme in Vienna. 17,000 tonnes of organic municipal waste will be converted into biogas that will save up to 3000 tonnes of CO2. 1.7 million cubic meters of biogas will be generated that will be converted into 11.200 MWh of electricity per year in a CHP plant, the heat of which will be used by 600 Viennese households. The €13 million project will come online later this year. Wien Magazine [*German] - June 11, 2007.

    The annual biodiesel market in Bulgaria may grow to 400 000 tons in two to three years, a report by the Oxford Business Group says. The figure would represent a 300-per cent increase compared to 2006 when 140 000 tons of biodiesel were produced in Bulgaria. This also means that biofuel usage in Bulgaria will account for 5.75 per cent of all fuel consumption by 2010, as required by the European Commission. A total of 25 biofuel producing plants operate in Bulgaria at present. Sofia Echo - June 11, 2007.

    The Jordan Biogas Company in Ruseifa is currently conducting negotiations with the government of Finland to sell CER's under the UN's Clean Development Mechanism obtained from biogas generated at the Ruseifa landfill. Mena FN - June 11, 2007.

    Major European bank BNP Paribas will launch an investment company called Agrinvest this month to tap into the increased global demand for biofuels and rising consumption in Asia and emerging Europe. CityWire - June 8, 2007.

    Malaysian particleboard maker HeveaBoard Bhd expects to save some 12 million ringgit (€2.6/US$3.4 million) a year on fuel as its second plant is set to utilise biomass energy instead of fossil fuel. This would help improve operating margins, group managing director Tenson Yoong Tein Seng said. HeveaBoard, which commissioned the second plant last October, expects capacity utilisation to reach 70% by end of this year. The Star - June 8, 2007.

    Japan's Itochu Corp will team up with Brazilian state-run oil firm Petroleo Brasileiro SA to produce sugar cane-based bioethanol for biofuels, with plans to start exporting the biofuel to Japan around 2010. Itochu and Petrobras will grow sugarcane as well as build five to seven refineries in the northeastern state of Pernambuco. The two aim to produce 270 million liters (71.3 million gallons) of bioethanol a year, and target sales of around 130 billion yen (€800million / US$1billion) from exports of the products to Japan. Forbes - June 8, 2007.

    Italian refining group Saras is building one of Spain's largest flexible biodiesel plants. The 200,000 ton per year factory in Cartagena can handle a variety of vegetable oils. The plant is due to start up in 2008 and will rely on European as well as imported feedstocks such as palm oil. Reuters - June 7, 2007.

    The University of New Hampshire's Biodiesel Group is to test a fully automated process to convert waste vegetable oil into biodiesel. It has partnered with MPB Bioenergy, whose small-scale processor will be used in the trials. UNH Biodiesel Group - June 7, 2007.

    According to the Barbados Agricultural Management Company (BAMC), the Caribbean island state has a large enough potential to meet both its domestic ethanol needs (E10) and to export to international markets. BAMC is working with state actors to develop an entirely green biofuel production process based on bagasse and biomass. The Barbados Advocate - June 6, 2007.

    Energea, BioDiesel International and the Christof Group - three biodiesel producers from Austria - are negotiating with a number of Indonesian agribusiness companies to cooperate on biodiesel production, Austrian Commercial Counselor Raymund Gradt says. The three Austrian companies are leading technology solution providers for biodiesel production and currently produce a total of 440,000 tons of biodiesel per annum in Austria, more than half of their country’s annual demand of around 700,000-800,000 tons. In order to meet EU targets, they want to produce biodiesel abroad, where feedstocks and production is more competitive. BBJ - June 6, 2007.

    China will develop 200 million mu (13.3 million hectares) of forests by 2020 in order to supply the raw materials necessary for producing 6 million tons of biodiesel and biomass per year, state media reported today. InterFax China - June 6, 2007.

    British Petroleum is planning a biofuel production project in Indonesia. The plan is at an early stage, but will involve the establishment of an ethanol or biodiesel plant based on sugarcane or jatropha. The company is currently in talks with state-owned plantation and trading firm Rajawali Nusantara Indonesia (RNI) as its potential local partner for the project. Antara - June 6, 2007.

    A pilot project to produce biodiesel from used domestic vegetable oil is underway at the Canary Technological Institute in Gran Canaria. Marta Rodrigo, the woman heading up the team, said the project is part of the EU-wide Eramac scheme to encourage energy saving and the use of renewable energy. Tenerife News - June 6, 2007.

    Royal Dutch Shell Plc is expanding its fuel distribution infrastructure in Thailand by buying local petrol stations. The company will continue to provide premium petrol until market demand for gasohol (an petrol-ethanol mixture) climbs to 70-90%, which will prove customers are willing to switch to the biofuel. "What we focus on now is proving that our biofuel production technology is very friendly to engines", a company spokesman said. Bangkok Post - June 5, 2007.

    Abraaj, a Dubai-based firm, has bought the company Egyptian Fertilizers in order to benefit from rising demand for crops used to make biofuels. The Abraaj acquisition of all the shares of Egyptian Fertilizers values the company based in Suez at US$1.41 billion. Egyptian Fertilizers produces about 1.25 million tons a year of urea, a nitrogen-rich crystal used to enrich soils. The company plans to expand its production capacity by as much as 20 percent in the next two years on the expected global growth in biofuel production. International Herald Tribune - June 4, 2007.

    China and the US will soon sign a biofuel cooperation agreement involving second-generation fuels, a senior government official said. Ma Kai, director of the National Development and Reform Commission, said at a media briefing that vice premier Wu Yi discussed the pact with US Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman and other US officials during the strategic economic dialogue last month. Forbes - June 4, 2007.

    German biogas company Schmack Biogas AG reports a 372% increase in revenue for the first quarter of the year, demonstrating its fast growth. Part of it is derived from takeovers. Solarserver [*German] - June 3, 2007.

    Anglo-Dutch oil giant Royal Dutch Shell PLC has suspended the export of 150,000 barrels per day of crude oil because of community unrest in southern Nigeria, a company spokesman said. Villagers from K-Dere in the restive Ogoniland had stormed the facility that feeds the Bonny export terminal, disrupting supply of crude. It was the second seizure in two weeks. Shell reported on May 15 that protesters occupied the same facility, causing a daily output loss of 170,000 barrels. Rigzone - June 2, 2007.

    Heathrow Airport has won approval to plan for the construction of a new 'green terminal', the buildings of which will be powered, heated and cooled by biomass. The new terminal, Heathrow East, should be completed in time for the 2012 London Olympics. The new buildings form part of operator BAA's £6.2bn 10-year investment programme to upgrade Heathrow. Transport Briefing - June 1, 2007.

    A new algae-biofuel company called LiveFuels Inc. secures US$10 million in series A financing. LiveFuels is a privately-backed company working towards the goal of creating commercially competitive biocrude oil from algae by 2010. PRNewswire - June 1, 2007.

    Covanta Holding Corp., a developer and operator of large-scale renewable energy projects, has agreed to purchase two biomass energy facilities and a biomass energy fuel management business from The AES Corp. According to the companies, the facilities are located in California's Central Valley and will add 75 MW to Covanta's portfolio of renewable energy plants. Alternative Energy Retailer - May 31, 2007.

    Two members of Iowa’s congressional delegation are proposing a study designed to increase the availability of ethanol across the country. Rep. Leonard Boswell, D-Ia., held a news conference Tuesday to announce that he has introduced a bill in the U.S. House, asking for a US$2 million study of the feasibility of transporting ethanol by pipeline. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Ia., has introduced a similar bill in the Senate. Des Moines Register - May 30, 2007.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

War-torn Sudan to become major sugar, ethanol producer

Oil brings conflict and poverty, biofuels bring stability and prosperity. The adage seems superficial, but war-torn Sudan could become the unlikely place where the words materialise into deeds. This largest of African countries is often associated with droughts and human-made humanitarian disasters. But Darfur aside, things are changing very rapidly in this nation of 40 million people, 80% of who make a living in agriculture. The South of the country, enjoying a fragile peace and political autonomy after 25 years of civil war with the North, is actually very lush, green and suitable for a range of crops. South Sudan is only now beginning to understand that it can become a major agricultural producer.

One of the priorities is to increase sugar production. Experts recently outlined the country's plans to boost the sector's output ten-fold to an annual 10 million tonnes by 2015, up from some 850,000 tonnes at present. The vast African nation could eventually end up producing twice that - a staggering amount that would put Sudan in the top-five of world producers alongside Brazil, India and the EU. Obviously, when sugar plans are announced nowadays, biofuels are in the air. And indeed, Sudan is expected to legalise the blending of ethanol in gasoline by July.

Speaking at a three-day International Sugar Organization (ISO) meeting in Mauritius, Hassan Hashim Erwa, marketing manager for the Kenana Sugar Company representing Sudan listed the projects that will be implemented. Kenana is owned mainly by Arab government investors (ironically, that is, people with links to OPEC).

Jobs, health, education and... ethanol
The majority of 13 projects included in a 10-year strategy to produce the 10 milllon tonnes are south of Khartoum between the White and Blue Niles. "By 2015, we will be ready to produce 10 million tonnes," Erwa said. "The capacity of Sudan could go to 20 million." Part of Sudanese agricultural reforms, the projects are expected to create 700,000 jobs and to improve health and education for three million people, Erwa said. This opportunity for socio-economic development is of course much welcome in a country that has just come out of a devastating civil war and that is rebuilding its society.

The largest of the projects, the Eljazeera project, was aiming to produce 2.9 million tonnes of sugar and 205 million litres of ethanol per year, he said. Sudan, which produces 330,000 barrels per day of crude oil, is expected to legalise the blending of ethanol with petrol in July, he said:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Sudan's extra sugar production will most likely be sold on Arab, African, and internal markets, Erwa said. Linked to the presence of oil, Sudan's economy is expected to grow up to 13 per cent this year. "The Sudanese population is growing, the patterns and consumption habits of people are changing," he said.

Sudanese production could also help plug a sugar deficit in the Middle East and North Africa, equal to almost 9 million tonnes for 2006/07, according to ISO figures. This month, the ISO forecast a world sugar production surplus of 9.1 million tonnes for 2006/07. World production would equal 162.6 million tonnes, it said. "All of these factors will contribute to a very dynamic market," Erwa said.

Brazil, global leader in the production of ethanol from sugarcane is showing growing interest to cooperate with Sudan on producing biofuels. At a recent industry fair in Khartoum, representatives from Brazil's ethanol sector were present, and the director of a major Brazilian research institute involved in organising tech transfers and South-South relations said Sudan would make for an interesting partner for joint biofuel development projects (earlier post).

Vast potential
This interest no doubt stems from the country's vast untapped agricultural potential. Sudan has around 86 million hectares of arable land available for rainfed agriculture (roughly three times the size of the United Kingdom, twice the size of California), some 17 million (slightly less than 20%) is currently under cultivation. Even with rapid population growth, Sudan can easily feed its population and neighboring countries, while sustainably growing a vast amount of energy crops for biofuels.

According to the Global Agro-Ecological Data compiled by the FAO and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), Sudan has around 26 million hectares of suitable land for the cultivation of raindfed sugar cane (high inputs), and 73.7 million hectares for sorghum (map, click to enlarge). Take into account that dedicated varieties of sweet sorghum have recently been bred specially for semi-arid regions and with ethanol production in mind (both the ICRISAT as well as scientists from the Texas A&M University's Agricultural Experiment Station have developed such drought-resistant, high yield sorghums; the ICRISAT variety delivers grain, forage and sugar all in one crop; the U.S. variety is meant as a biomass crop for the production of cellulosic ethanol).

Other biofuel crops with a large potential in the country are sweet potato (60.5 million ha), groundnut (79 million ha), pearl millet (75.7 million hectares) and especially soybeans - a major biodiesel feedstock - with 73 million hectares. Of the latter, Sudan only uses a tiny fraction. All data mentioned here are for high input, but rainfed cropping.

The bulk of this potential arable land is found in the Autonomous Region of Southern Sudan.

More information:

On the land data per crop, see FAO/IIASA: Data Sets of selected Global AEZ assessment results - all data are in *.excel format.

Land suitability maps per crop can be generated from the FAO Land & Water Development Division's database of Land Suitability Maps for Rainfed Cropping, which are based on the Global Agro-Ecological Zoning (GAEZ) methodology.

Article continues

Senegal's Agronomic Research Institute outlines biofuel strategy

In many developing countries the basic resources needed for the production of biofuels are present: abundant land, rain, sunshine, suitable energy crops and a huge need for stable fuel supplies and energy security. What they often lack though is agronomic and scientific knowledge and research capacities (earlier post), infrastructures and policy frameworks. The West can help invest in the latter, and South-South cooperation with biofuel leaders like Brazil, Indonesia and Malaysia can go a far way.

But local research institutions and extension services have found in bioenergy and biofuels a new area in which they can build expertise and keep themselves in a relevant position by attracting knowledge and tech transfers. By diversifying research and extension work to this entirely new sector, . In Senegal, the Institut Sénégalais pour les Recherches Agricoles (ISRA) that had lost sense of its purpose over the past years is now being revived because of the biofuel opportunity.

Speaking during his inauguration as new president of the ISRA, Dr Macoumba Diouf explained [*.pdf] the great chances biofuels offer Senegal, but also the many challenges ahead:
  • new crops like tabanani (jatropha) and ricin (castor beans) can deliver competitive biodiesel provided all byproducts are used in innovative ways
  • Senegal's petroleum import bill, that skyrocketed over the past two years, can be reduced, with saved funds invested in the revival of the agricultural sector in the country, aimed at alleviating poverty
  • strengthen the income security of farmers, which will aid to hold back the wave of internal migration from the country-side to the cities
  • restore the environment and bring degraded lands back into culture
  • challenges include the need for the acquisition of basic technologies, the development of dedicated policies, knowledge banks and extension services, and the creation of credit lines for farmers
The role of the ISRA, sketched in the text "Quelle recherche agricole pour une agriculture moderne et durable au Sénégal", will consist of pursueing tech and knowledge transfers (from, amongst others, Brazil), but especially the education of the vast rural population that will need to acquire the basic skills needed to grow feedstocks. The Brazilian model of the Pro-Biodiesel program - which works with smallholders and is explicitly aimed alleviating poverty - is taken as the example to follow.

Diouf referred to Brazil's ongoing effort to offer assistance to Senegal both on the front of agronomic knowledge for the production of feedstocks, as well as for the conversion of oilseeds and biomass into biofuels:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The ISRA is currently working on creating synergies between the National Biofuel Program and special and local agricultural programs. Different agendas, operational strategies and time-frames make that these programs often overlap and that the organisations tasked with their implementation are doing the same tasks twice. An integration of all organisations dealing with bioenergy is called for by the ISRA.

The biofuel opportunity opens the important prospect of diversification of the crop base. Senegalese farmers currently rely on millet, sorghum and niébé which have established and relatively stable markets. However, low prices for these crops keep the agricultural sector relatively static. Diversifying into energy crops will create a new dynamic. The ISRA is actively involved in studying the effects of large-scale crop diversification on the national market.

Senegal largely remains a rural country, with 77% of its population making a living in agriculture. However, a steady stream of migrants moves to the coastal cities, from where youngsters attempt to make it to Europe. This trend is a threat to the vitality of the country's agricultural sector. The Senegalese government thinks a modern bioenergy industry and the jobs it generates may counter this internal migration.

Based on translations by JVDB, cc Biopact, 2007.

More information:

ISRA: Mot du directeur général de l'ISRA entrant, Dr. Macoumba Diouf, à la cérémonie d'installation [*.pdf] - s.d. (February-March 2007)

Walf Fadjri (Dakar): Production de biocarburant: La contribution de l'Isra - May 18, 2007.

Article continues

Mendel and BP collaborate on grass breeding for cellulosic biofuels

Mendel Biotechnology, a pioneer in functional plant genomics, announces it has entered with BP into a collaboration to develop biofeedstocks for the production of cellulosic biofuels. In addition to funding the five-year biofuels research program, BP will become a shareholder of Mendel with representation on Mendel’s Board.

Working with BP, Mendel aims to be at the forefront of seed supply into the future energy grass seed market. Mendel has already established a breeding program for perennial grass variety improvement and will accelerate this program in collaboration with BP. Mendel will establish breeding stations in the Midwest and the Southeast United States, and accelerate breeding collaborations with groups in Germany and China.

Mendel has discovered the functions of genetic switches that control many important aspects of plant growth, metabolism and stress responses. By modifying when and where these key genes are expressed within crops plants, it is possible to obtain significant improvements in plant productivity. Additionally, in many cases, knowledge of gene function enables the identification of natural or synthetic chemicals that can alter plant performance in useful ways.

The biotech company uses traditional as well as advanced (transgenic) breeding techniques to improve yields, drought and freezing tolerance, disease resistance and the efficient use of nutrients in potential biomass crops. Many of the species it is working with are unchartered terrain.

As the biofuel industry matures, new biomass feedstocks will be needed for the production of bio-derived molecules from the entire carbohydrate portion of the plant. Many (tropical) perennial grass species like miscanthus, elephant grass, switchgrass, sugarcane or sorghum are canditates for lignocellulosic biofuels. To ensure a consistent supply of feedstocks to refineries, a new seed industry is needed to provide farmers with high-yielding varieties, and a new service industry is needed to ensure the delivery of feedstocks to the refineries:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

“While the new seed and biofeedstock business will serve the needs of all biofuel refineries, having a first committed collaborator is a critical starting point.” said Neal Gutterson, Mendel’s President and Chief Executive Officer. “BP has emerged as a leader in alternative energies, including biofuels. We cannot imagine a better party to collaborate with in developing our new business.”

“Mendel has demonstrated its excellence in plant science,” said Tony Meggs, Group Vice President of Technology at BP. “This collaboration with Mendel is one example of BP’s commitment to the development of new technologies to enable the supply of new, renewable energy sources.”

Mendel Biotechnology, Inc., a closely-held private company, has been a pioneer in the application of functional genomics to the study of plant genes. Mendel has identified and patented the use of genes that control many aspects of plant growth and development, and is using such inventions to develop or co-develop new plant varieties with improved productivity and quality.

Article continues

Japan's Cosmo Oil plans biofuel plants in Philippines - range of tropical feedstocks

Just when global consultancy Frost and Sullivan says government support and the presence of a law on biofuels have turned the Philippines into one of the most attractive investment sites for biofuels projects, Japanese oil firm Cosmo Oil Co. Ltd., Japan's fourth-largest refiner, has proposed to build a €75/US$100 million bioethanol plant and a €37.6/US$50 million biodiesel processing facility in the province of Leyte, in the central part of the Philippines.

In another development, the FE Global/Asia Clean Energy Services Fund L.P. and the FEGACE Asia Sub-Fund L.P. finalized their investment in Biofuels Resources Inc. (BRI), a company established to construct ethanol plants in the Philippines. The Funds will invest jointly with BronzeOak Philippines Inc. in a series of four special purpose companies focused on ethanol production in the Philippines.

Cosmo Oil
During a recent visit, Cosmo executives made a presentation to provincial officials for the development of biofuel manufacturing plants in the province and possibly in its neighbor province Samar, says Leyte Vice-Governor Miniette Bagulaya.

For the multi-feed ethanol plant, Cosmo plans to establish plantations of high-yield tropical starch and sugar crops:
  • 34,000 hectare (84,000 acre) cassava plantation
  • 36,000 hectare (89,000 acre) sweet potato plantation
  • 76,000 hectare (188,000 acre) yam plantation
  • 40,000 hectare (99,000 acre) sugar cane plantation
Interestingly, Cosmo Oil's bioethanol plant will become the first major facility to use yams as a feedstock. Cassava and sweet potato have already become established ethanol crops.

Yam is the common name given to annual or perennial climbing plants of the Dioscorea genus, the starch-rich root crops of which are edible. Amongst hundreds of cultivars, the Dioscorea rotundata Poir. (white yam) and Dioscorea cayenensis Lam. (yellow yam) are most commonly grown. The roots of the crop can grow up to 2.5 meters in length and weigh up to 70 kg (150 pounds).

Like cassava, yams were traditionally considered to be a survival crop that can be kept in the ground and harvested at times of food scarcity. The tuber still plays a major role in food security in the 'yam belt' in West-Africa, that stretches from Côte d'Ivoire to Nigeria. The crop requires low fertilizer inputs, which is why small farmers have been growing it successfully. However, the crop remains a typically 'understudied' plant and breeding programs can improve productivity. Tuber yields currently vary from 10 up to 25 tonnes per hectare. In 2005, the Philippines produced some 29,000 tons of yams.

Copra, palm oil
Cosmo Oil's biodiesel plant will require 17,000 hectares (42,000 acres) of land for an oil palm plantation and 61,000 hectares (151,000 acres) for copra production from coconuts:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Cosmo Oil said the fuel products that will be produced from the Leyte plants will be sold to local customers and exported to Japan, Australia, and Europe.

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.

Amongst the most recent investors are Eastern Petroleum Corp. which 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).

US firm E-Cane Fuel Corp. recently entered the sector by investing €111/US$150 million to put up a fully integrated ethanol processing facility in Central Luzon based on sugarcane.

The latest in the series is the joint FE Global/Asia Clean Energy Services Fund L.P. and FEGACE Asia Sub-Fund L.P. investment in Biofuels Resources Inc. (BRI). The Funds will investwith BronzeOak Philippines Inc. in a series of four special purpose companies focused on ethanol production in the Philippines. San Carlos Bioethanol Inc. is the first in this series of investments. The project will produce and sell 125,000 liters of ethanol daily, using sugar cane juice from local growers as a raw material. One of the most interesting aspects of the project relates to the project’s use of contracts with multiple sugar cane suppliers to secure a stable price for approximately 50% of the raw material needs of the plant.

According to Richard Roberts, Director of FE Clean Energy Group Inc., "The project has a pricing agreement for 50% of the sugar cane that will be used as a feedstock for the plant. The price of this sugar cane will be tied to the sales price of ethanol, thereby lowering the risk of diverging sugar and ethanol prices."

The SCBI project has entered into an ethanol off-take agreement with a prominent Philippine oil refiner. The contract terms provide a guaranteed floor price in USD terms.

The oil refiner’s interest in contracting for ethanol is a result of a law passed by President Arroyo in December 2006 requiring all gasoline sold in the Philippines to contain a minimum of 5% ethanol with an eventual increase to 10% blends by 2010. Richard Roberts said that the San Carlos deal is an important project for the Philippine Government since "SCBI will be the first fuel grade ethanol plant to be constructed in the Philippines."

In addition to the sale of ethanol, SCBI will generate electricity for sale to the local electricity distributor through biomass cogeneration using the bagasse from the milled sugar cane.

FE Clean Energy Group, the fund manager for the Funds, has indicated that the reason that the BRI projects are smart investments is that the future demand for bio-fuels in the Philippines should outpace the supply. The Fund’s equity funding for the project totals $7,935,000.

Image: yams are a staple food in West Africa. Credit: IITA.

More information:

Yam profile at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA).
Yam factsheet at the Global Crop Diversity Trust.

Article continues

Sandia researchers screen extremophile's enzymes for lignocellulosic ethanol

Researchers from Sandia National Laboratories are looking at the biology of organisms living in earth’s extreme environments to help solve the problem of breaking down lignocellulosic biomass efficiently to convert it into biofuels - the key to a new transportation economy based on abundant renewable, green fuels.

The class of microorganisms known as 'extremophiles' has triggered interest in the scientific community for their cellulase enzymes and exotic metabolisms that could be used for the conversion of biomass into a series of fuels. Earlier, microbiologists sequenced the genome of an anaerobic extremophile the metabolism of which generates hydrogen. Ultimately the findings may lead to efficient biohydrogen production (earlier post).

The scientists working in the context of an internally funded research program at Sandia National Laboratories - a U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) laboratory - aim to successfully demonstrate various computational tools and enzyme engineering methods that will make extreme enzymes relevant to the technical debate. The organism of focus is Sulfolobus solfataricus, a widely studied extremophile that thrives beneath a sulfurous cauldron in the Mediterranean.

Processing of biomass key to ethanol production
Blake Simmons, chemical engineer and project lead at Sandia’s Livermore, Calif., site, says that the primary hurdle preventing lignocellulosic ethanol from becoming a viable transportation fuel is not the availability of lignocellulosic biomass, but rather its efficient and cost-effective processing.
“Production is not a concern. More than a billion tons of biomass is estimated to be created each year in the timber and agricultural industries, as well as a variety of grasses and potential energy crops. Unfortunately, you can’t just take a tree trunk, stick it into an enzymatic reactor, and ferment the sugar produced into ethanol with any kind of efficiency. The process of turning certain lignocellulosic materials into ethanol is very difficult and costly” - Blake Simmons, chemical engineer and project leader.
The bioconversion process typically involves several pretreatment steps that break up lignocellulosic material into easily converted polymers. The laborious process typically begins by chopping the biomass to reduce its size and then delivering it into a dilute acid pretreatment reactor. The reactor then would break down the biomass into cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin. The hemicellulose and cellulose polymers released from the biomass must go through additional processing and acid neutralization before the final product is recovered and placed back into an enzymatic reactor to deconstruct the polymers into fermentable sugars. Not exactly swift and efficient and very costly.

Nature’s own extreme enzymes
Enter enzymes isolated from extremophiles, which may solve this vexing processing riddle. Sandia’s current biological object of interest, said Simmons, is Sulfolobus solfataricus, an organism whose extreme enzymes were isolated and discovered years ago by the German researcher Georg Lipps and whose genome has since then been sequenced. Sulfolobus expresses cellulase enzymes that are known to exist in organisms that prosper in sulfuric acid environments and, through an inexplicable quirk of nature, efficiently break down cellulose into sugars:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

“Biology generally likes sugar,” said Simmons, “since it offers an easy energy intermediate that can be converted into some usable output.” The Sandia team members, he said, are apparently among a handful of researchers looking at enzymes expressed by Sulfolobus and manipulating them in the laboratory with the objective of processing biomass into cellulosic ethanol.

Extreme enzymes, Simmons said, can be found in a variety of locales, including hot springs, gold mines, and even within the rust found under a leaking hot water heater.

While other researchers are examining common biomass sources and attempting to express their enzymes at higher temperatures and lowered pH, Sandia has, in effect, taken the opposite approach.

“Instead of trying to create an extremozyme from sources that live in rather benign environmental conditions, why not just manipulate a real one isolated from its natural state?” asks Simmons. Sandia, he said, has brought the DNA that produces these extreme enzymes into the lab, where researchers then employ a technique called “site-directed mutagenesis” to manipulate and optimize the enzymes’ genetic sequence in hopes of improving performance. These mutations are identified using computational modeling techniques at Sandia that compare the structure and sequence of the extremozymes with their more benign counterparts to identify key genetic sequences of interest.

“The ultimate dream — and it’s only a dream right now — would be to take a poplar tree, put it into a tank, let it sit for three days, then come back and watch as the ethanol comes pouring out of the spigot,” says Simmons. “Though we’re probably decades away from that, this project aims to consolidate the pretreatment steps and get us one step closer to realizing that vision.”

Ethanol products the same, but starting material vastly different
The benefits of developing biomass-to-ethanol technology are well-known, says Grant Heffelfinger, senior manager for molecular and computational biosciences at Sandia’s Albuquerque, N.M., site and the lab’s lead on biofuels programs. He points to increased national energy security, reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, use of renewable resources, and other oft-cited advantages. “But corn ethanol must compete with food markets, leaving lignocellulosic ethanol as the fuel most likely to make the most meaningful short-term impact in reducing gasoline’s stranglehold on the transportation sector,” said Heffelfinger.

Although the end product with cellulosic ethanol and corn ethanol is the same, Simmons points out, the difference is in the complexity of the starting material. While corn is a simple, starch-based material that is easily processed into fermentable sugars, cellulosic biomass consists of a cellulose polymer, wrapped within a complex vascular structure of lignin and hemicellulose and other components.

“Because lignocellulosic biomass is such a multifaceted material, we need to have a fundamental understanding of how it works,” said Simmons. While various industry researchers, he said, are investigating new technologies and facilities that will allow for the processing cellulosic biomass into ethanol, he and his Sandia colleagues are hopeful that their method can be efficiently and cheaply integrated with current and future pretreatment steps. “We believe extremophile enzymes — and the technology that demonstrates how to use them — can be a very powerful resource for the research and industrial community to draw upon,” he said.

Research expected to lead to commercial partnerships and JBEI
Simmons presented his team’s preliminary findings from the extremophile project recently at the 4th World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology & Bioprocessing. The team hopes to publish more advanced findings soon and is finalizing several proposals that could lead to further funding. The lab would be open, Simmons said, to conducting collaborative R&D with other commercial partners or research entities, or to licensing its research capabilities.

This and other efforts at Sandia National Laboratories are expected to be a vital component of the Joint Bio-Energy Institute (JBEI), a multilab/university effort to bring a Department of Energy-funded bioresearch facility to the San Francisco Bay Area. Sandia is planning a key role in that facility, which will focus on cost-effective, biologically based renewable energy sources to reduce U.S. dependence on fossil fuels.

“We believe the use of enzyme engineering to enable the next generation of ethanol biorefineries, with a focus on extremophile enzymes, is a realistic and achievable goal,” said Simmons. “But we need others to believe, too.”

Image 1: Sulfolobus solfataricus

Image 2: Biochemist Joanne Volponi prepares samples of cellulase enzymes for activity assaying in a high-throughput, fluid-handling robotic system. Sandia is demonstrating various computational tools and enzyme engineering methods that can help process cellulosic biomass (Photo by Randy Wong).

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