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    Brazil and the Dominican Republic have inked a biofuel cooperation agreement aimed at alleviating poverty and creating economic opportunity. The agreement initially focuses on the production of biodiesel in the Dominican Republic. Dominican Today - June 21, 2007.

    Malaysian company Ecofuture Bhd makes renewable products from palm oil residues such as empty fruit bunches and fibers (more here). It expects the revenue contribution of these products to grow by 10% this year, due to growing overseas demand, says executive chairman Jang Lim Kuang. 95% of the group's export earnings come from these products which include natural oil palm fibre strands and biodegradable mulching and soil erosion geotextile mats. Bernama - June 20, 2007.

    Argent Energy, a British producer of waste-oil based biodiesel, announced its intention to seek a listing on London's AIM via a placing of new and existing ordinary shares with institutional investors. Argent plans to use the proceeds to construct the first phase of its proposed 150,000 tonnes (170 million litres) plant at Ellesmere Port, near Chester, and to develop further plans for a 75,000 tonnes (85 million litres) plant in New Zealand. Argent Energy - June 20, 2007.

    The first conference of the European Biomass Co-firing Network will be held in Budapest, Hungary, from 2 to 4 July 2007. The purpose of the conference is to bring together scientists, engineers and members of public institutions to present the current state-of-the-art on biomass co-firing. Participants will also discuss future trends and directions in order to promote awareness of this technology as a sustainable energy supply, which could decrease the dependency on fossil fuels and guarantee a decentralised source of energy in Europe. The conference is supported by the EU-funded NETBIOCOF (Integrated European Network for Biomass Co-firing) project. NetBioCof - June 19, 2007.

    Green Energy Resources predicts US$50 per ton biomass woodchip prices within the next twelve months. The current US price level is between $25-32 per ton. Demand caused by the 25-30 new power plants planned in New England by 2010 does not include industry, institutions, universities, hospitals or conversions from natural gas, or cellulostic ethanol. Procurement of woodchips will be based on the delivery capacity of suppliers not local prices for the first time in history. Green Energy has been positioning in New England with rail and port locations to meet the anticipated sector expansion. MarketWire - June 19, 2007.

    In the first major initiative in the US to build a grassroots communications network for the advancement of biofuels adoption, a new national association called The American Biofuels Council (ABC) has been formed. American Biofuels Council - June 19, 2007.

    The Novi Sad-based Jerković Group, in partnership with the Austrian Christof Group, are to invest about €48 million (US$64.3m) in a biodiesel plant in Serbia. Property Xpress - June 19, 2007.

    Biodiesel producer D1 Oils, known for its vast jatropha plantations in Africa and Asia, is to invest CNY 500 to 700 million (€48.9-68.4 / US$65.5-91.7) to build a refinery in Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, in what is expected to be the first biodiesel plant in the country using jatropha oil as a feedstock. South China Morning Post - June 18, 2007.

    After Brazil announced a record sugar crop for this year, with a decline in both ethanol and sugar prices as a result, India too is now preparing for a bumper harvest, a senior economist with the International Sugar Organization said. Raw sugar prices could fall further towards 8 cents per lb in coming months, after their 30% drop so far this year. Converting the global surplus, estimated to be 4 million tonnes, into ethanol may offer a way out of the downward trend. Economic Times India - June 18, 2007.

    After Brazil announced a record sugar crop for this year, with a decline in both ethanol and sugar prices as a result, India too is now preparing for a bumper harvest, a senior economist with the International Sugar Organization said. Raw sugar prices could fall further towards 8 cents per lb in coming months, after their 30% drop so far this year. Converting the global surplus, estimated to be 4 million tonnes, into ethanol may offer a way out of the downward trend. Economic Times India - June 18, 2007.

    A report from the US Department of Agriculture Foreign Agricultural Services (USDA FAS) estimates that the production of ethanol in China will reach 1.45 million tonnes (484 million gallons US) in 2007, up 12% from 1.3 million tonnes in 2006. Plans are to increase ethanol feedstocks from non-arable lands making the use of tuber crops such as cassava and sweet sorghum. USDA-FAS - June 17, 2007.

    The Iowa State University's Extension Bioeconomy Task Force carried out a round of discussions on the bioeconomy with citizens of the state. Results indicate most people see a bright future for the new economy, others are cautious and take on a distanced, more objective view. The potential for jobs and economic development were the most important opportunities identified by the panels. Iowa is the leading producer of corn based ethanol in the US. Iowa State University - June 16, 2007.

    Biofuel producer D1 Oils Plc, known for establishing large jatropha plantations on (degraded land) in Africa and Asia, said it was in advanced talks with an unnamed party regarding a strategic collaboration, sending its shares up 7 percent, after press reports linking it with BP. Firms like BP and other large petroleum companies are keen to secure a supply of biofuel to meet UK government regulations that 5 percent of automotive fuel must be made up of biofuels by 2010. Reuters UK - June 15, 2007.

    Jean Ziegler, a U.N. special rapporteur on the right to food, told a news briefing held on the sidelines of the U.N. Human Rights Council that "there is a great danger for the right to food by the development of biofuels". His comments contradict a report published earlier by a consortium of UN agencies, which said biofuels could boost the food security of the poor. Reuters - June 15, 2007.

    The county of Chicheng in China's Hebei Province recently signed a cooperative contract with the Australian investment and advisory firm Babcock & Brown to invest RMB480 million (€47.2/US$62.9 million) in a biomass power project, state media reported today. Interfax China - June 14, 2007.

    A new two-stroke ICE engine developed by NEVIS Engine Company Ltd. may nearly double fuel efficiency and lower emissions. Moreover, the engine's versatile design means it can be configured to be fuelled not only by gasoline but also by diesel, hydrogen and biofuels. PRWeb - June 14, 2007.

    Houston-based Gulf Ethanol Corp., announced it will develop sorghum as an alternative feedstock for the production of cellulosic ethanol. Scientists have developed drought tolerant, high-yield varieties of the crop that would grow well in the drier parts of the U.S. and reduce reliance on corn. Business Wire - June 14, 2007.

    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.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Engineers develop higher-energy liquid transportation fuel from sugar

Plants absorb carbon dioxide from the air and combine it with water molecules and sunshine to make carbohydrate or sugar. Variations on this process provide fuel for all of life on Earth. We are in the first stages of tapping into that mechanism to create a 'carbohydrate economy' that replaces petroleum. Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison now announce they have come a step closer to making such a sweet world more viable by developing a liquid transport fuel from sugar that has an energy density similar to gasoline.

Reporting in the June 21 issue of the journal Nature, chemical and biological engineering Professor James Dumesic and his research team describe a two-stage process for turning biomass-derived sugar into 2,5-dimethylfuran (DMF), a liquid transportation fuel with 40 percent greater energy density than ethanol.

The prospects of diminishing oil reserves and the threat of global warming caused by releasing otherwise trapped carbon into the atmosphere have researchers searching for a sustainable, carbon-neutral fuel to reduce global reliance on fossil fuels. By chemically engineering sugar through a series of steps involving acid and copper catalysts, salt and butanol as a solvent, UW-Madison researchers created a path to just such a fuel.
Currently, ethanol is the only renewable liquid fuel produced on a large scale. But ethanol suffers from several limitations. It has relatively low energy density, evaporates readily, and can become contaminated by absorption of water from the atmosphere. It also requires an energy-intensive distillation process to separate the fuel from water. - James Dumesic, lead author and Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison
Not only does dimethylfuran have a higher energy content, it also addresses other ethanol shortcomings. DMF is not soluble in water and therefore cannot become contaminated by absorbing water from the atmosphere. DMF is stable in storage and, in the evaporation stage of its production, and only consumes one-third of the energy required to evaporate a solution of ethanol produced by fermentation for biofuel applications.

Dumesic and graduate students Yuriy Román-Leshkov, Christopher J. Barrett and Zhen Y. Liu developed a new catalytic process for creating DMF by expanding upon earlier work. As reported in the June 30, 2006, issue of the journal Science, Dumesic's team improved the process for making an important chemical intermediate, hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF), from sugar (earlier post on another, more recent breakthrough on HMF production):
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Industry uses millions of tons of chemical intermediates, largely sourced from petroleum or natural gas, as the raw material for many modern plastics, drugs and fuels.

The team's method for making HMF and converting it to DMF is a balancing act of chemistry, pressure, temperature and reactor design. Fructose is initially converted to HMF in water using an acid catalyst in the presence of a low-boiling-point solvent. The solvent extracts HMF from water and carries it to a separate location. Although other researchers had previously converted fructose to HMF, Dumesic's research group made a series of improvements that raised the HMF output and made the HMF easier to extract. For example, the team found that adding salt (NaCl) dramatically improves the extraction of HMF from the reactive water phase and helps suppress the formation of impurities.

In the June 21, 2007, issue of Nature, Dumesic's team describes its process for converting HMF to DMF over a copper-based catalyst. The conversion removes two oxygen atoms from the compound lowering the boiling point, the temperature at which a liquid turns to gas, and making it suitable for use as transportation fuel. Salt, while improving the production of HMF, presented an obstacle in the production of DMF. It contributed chloride ions that poisoned the conventional copper chromite catalyst. The team instead developed a copper-ruthenium catalyst providing chlorine resistance and superior performance.

Dumesic says more research is required before the technology can be commercialized. For example, while its environmental health impact has not been thoroughly tested, the limited information available suggests DMF is similar to other current fuel components. Some challenges remain to be addressed, but his work shows that it is possible to produce a liquid transportation fuel from biomass that has energy density comparable to petrol.

More information:
Yuriy Román-Leshkov, Christopher J. Barrett1, Zhen Y. Liu & James A. Dumesic, "Production of dimethylfuran for liquid fuels from biomass-derived carbohydrates", Nature 447, 982-985 (21 June 2007) | doi:10.1038/nature05923

George W. Huber, Juben N. Chheda, Christopher J. Barrett, James A. Dumesic, "Production of Liquid Alkanes by Aqueous-Phase Processing of Biomass-Derived Carbohydrates", Science 3 June 2005: Vol. 308. no. 5727, pp. 1446 - 1450; DOI: 10.1126/science.1111166

University of Wisconsin-Madison: Engineers develop higher-energy liquid-transportation fuel from sugar - June 20, 2007.

Biopact: Breakthrough in biorefining: scientists obtain high yields of HMF from sugar - June 14, 2007.

Article continues

TU Munich and ATZ to cooperate on research into biomass conversion and combustion

The Technische Universität München (TUM) and the Applikations- und Technikzentrum (ATZ) in Sulzbach-Rosenberg (Bayern), have signed [*German] a cooperation agreement for research into new biomass combustion and conversion technologies.

A new dedicated development and test center that took 9 months to build - the Verbrennungstechnikum für Biomasse und Reststoffe - was opened today by the Minister of the Economy Erwin Huber. It hosts a series of experimental and modular pilot plants to test combustion techniques, to develop novel and efficient ways to use generated heat and to study processes to clean emissions and combustion gases of different types of solid biofuel. This way the center can directly develop and test new bioenergy technologies without having to go through the stage of developing project-specific pilot plants.

The agreement between TUM (the 'MIT' of Europe) and the ATZ was signed by Prof. Dr. Wolfgang A. Herrmann (rector of the TUM) and Prof. Dr. Martin Faulstich and Gerold Dimaczek (both of the ATZ). It creates a synergy between the TUM's strong position in the field of fundamental research, and the ATZ's leading capacities in pilot-scale testing. Seven young engineers of the TUM will work at the ATZ to obtain their PhD's in the field of bioconversion. A new post-grad curriculum based on the new research capacities is in the works.

The ATZ was created as a combustion and energy research center at a time when Germany's steel industry was in full bloom, but gradually it was transformed into a leading research institute with a focus on decentralised energy production from biomass and waste materials.

The center's new impulse is spread over two common pathways for the conversion of biomass into energy:
1. One department studies thermochemical transformation processes: combustion, gasification and pyrolysis (overview of projects). Key objectives of the research are:
  • the development and optimisation of integrated biomass power plants
  • the development and optimisation of new combustion technologies
  • research on the treatment, scrubbing and purification of process gases
  • the development of new burner technologies
A modular pilot facility (440kW, with process gas cleaning tools) allows researchers to test and discover the properties of different biofuels and their residues.

2. The department that studies the biochemical conversion of biomass, organic waste streams and water (overview of projects) has the following objectives:
  • develop and optimise anaerobic conversion processes (for the production of biogas and bioethanol)
  • improve and develop microbiological purification of biogenic gases (such as the upgrading of biogas to natural gas quality biomethane)
  • the creation of innovative pretreatment processes for organic waste, specifically the continued development of the trademarked ATZ-TDH technique (a pretreatment technique that optimises the anaerobic fermentation of waste streams), developed in-house
Part of the research of this track focuses on finding new applications for residues obtained from the biochemical conversion ('biorefining'). The center is home to a series of experimental digesters and fermenters of different scales :
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The ATZ center houses around 40 researchers. The institution was created by the Ministry of Economic Affairs of the state of Bayern, as a public venture. It has a long list of innovations on its name and has collaborated with some of Germany's leading heavy industry enterprises.

Prof. Martin Faulstich, Ordinarius for Raw Materials and Energy Technologies at the TUM and founder of the Wissenschaftszentrums Straubing für Nachwachsende Rohstoffe (Straubing Science Center for Renewable Energy) becomes scientific director of the new cooperation, whereas Gerold Dimaczek is responsible for the operational management of the venture.

An earlier EU-funded cooperation between ATZ, the Wissenschaftszentrum Straubing and Hans Huber AG resulted in the construction of Europe's largest and most high-tech pilot plant to test the conversion of sludge to energy (see Sludge2Energy).

The new TUM-AZT center has already created several partnerships with third parties: Tyczka Energie AG will develop biogas networks for industrial zones, whereas a project for the thermochemical conversion of lignocellulosic biomass is under negotiation with a major industrial conglomerate .

More information:
Informationsdienst Wissenschaft: TU München unterzeichnet Kooperationsvertrag mit ATZ Entwicklungszentrum in Sulzbach-Rosenberg - June 20, 2007.

Technische Universität München: Ohne Ingenieure keine bessere Umwelt - June 20, 2007.

Sludge2Energy homepage.

ATZ Entwicklungszentrum homepage.

Article continues

UNEP report: investments in renewables leap to record US$100 billion in 2006

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has issued an in-depth analysis of global investors' unprecedented rush to fund the development of sustainable energy. Renewables have completely shed their fringe image with transactions leaping to a record $100 billion in 2006 and rapidly transforming the future of the world's energy landscape.

Climate change worries coupled with high oil prices and increasing government support top a set of drivers fueling soaring rates of investment in the renewable energy and energy efficiency industries, according to the trend analysis from the UNEP.

The report titled 'Gobal Trends in Sustainable Energy Investment 2007' [*.pdf], says investment capital flowing into renewable energy climbed from $80 billion in 2005 to a record $100 billion in 2006. As well, the renewable energy sector's growth - although still volatile - is showing no sign of abating.
One of the new and fundamental messages of this report is that renewable energies are no longer subject to the vagaries of rising and falling oil prices - they are becoming generating systems of choice for increasing numbers of power companies, communities and countries irrespective of the costs of fossil fuels. - Achim Steiner, UNEP Executive Director.
Among the report's key points and conclusions:
  • Renewable energy and efficiency markets are growing more global and enjoying easier access to capital markets
  • Capital is coming from the venture investment community, the stock markets and internal refinancings, signaling the sector's a shift to a more mainstream status
  • Risk and uncertainly can be reduced through diversification across technologies and geography
  • Energy efficiency is a significant but largely invisible market, attracting increasing attention as investors realize its important role in meeting rising energy demand
  • Capital investors are now more closely aligned with industry proponents in their views of expected growth.
The report offers a host of reasons behind and insights into the world's newest gold rush, which saw investors pour $71 billion into companies and new sector opportunities in 2006, a 43% jump from 2005 (and up 158% over the last two years. The trend continues in 2007 with experts predicting investments of $85 billion this year). In addition to the $71 billion, about $30 billion entered the sector in 2006 via mergers and acquisitions, leveraged buyouts and asset refinancing. This buy-out activity, rewarding the sector's pioneers, implies deeper, more liquid markets and is helping the sector shed its niche image, according to the report.

While renewables today are only 2% of the installed power mix, they now account for about 18% of world investment in power generation, with wind generation at the investment forefront. Solar and biofuel energy technologies grew even more quickly than wind, but from a smaller base. Renewables now compete head-on with coal and gas in terms of new installed generating capacity and the portion of world energy produced from renewable sources is sure to rise substantially as the tens of billions of new investment dollars bear fruit.

Wind, solar, biofuels attract greatest investment dollars
Renewable energy sectors attracting the highest investment levels are wind, solar and biofuels, - reflecting technology maturity, policy incentives and investor appetite - according to the report, adding that the NEX index of clean energy stocks increased 64% in the 15 months to April:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Stock market investments in technology development, commercialization and manufacturing firms leapt 140% in 2006 compared with 2005, while venture capital and private equity investments jumped 163%. Financings of energy generation assets and capacity grew at �a more sedate 22.9%,� the analysis says.

Asset financing of new generation capacity, the largest single source of renewable energy investment, accounted for nearly 40% of the $70.9 billion invested in 2006, a reflection of the sector�s coming of age, the report says. The trend continues in 2007. Most asset financing deals were in the relatively mature wind sector, with biofuels (which experienced a surge of interest in 2006) in second place.

Venture capital and private equity investors in 2006, meanwhile, poured $2.3 billion into biofuels, $1.4 billion into solar and $1.3 billion in wind, much of it to increase manufacturing capacity.

Around 40% of the capital invested in solar went towards new technology development. In biofuels, the proportion was about 20%, reflecting a surging corn-based ethanol industry in the U.S., as well as research into second generation biofuels, including cellulosic ethanol.

Renewable energy investment is almost evenly split geographically between United States and Europe. U.S. companies receive more technology and private investment (with high profile investment interest shown in biofuels during 2006 by entrepreneurs such as Vinod Khosla, Bill Gates and Richard Branson), whereas Europe's publicly quoted companies attracted the most public stock market investment dollars: $5.7 billion compared to $3.5 billion in the U.S.

The pattern reflects the earlier arrival of enthusiasm for renewable energy in Europe and its ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, unlike the US and Australia. As well, government support is particularly strong in some European countries.

The European markets' relative maturity also helps explain its dominance of merger and acquisition activity in 2006, with deals worth more than $20 billion in 2006 compared with $8.8 billion in the U.S., many of the corporate acquisitions being made by investors from developing countries, notably India.

Comparing the renewable energy and dotcom booms, the report says the former is "underpinned by real demand and growing regulatory support (which the dotcom boom did not enjoy), considerable tangible asset backing, and increasing revenues."

Most energy efficiency investment has been in early-stage funding. Venture capital and private equity investment rose 54% between 2005 and 2006 to $1.1 billion. Some merger and acquisition activity also occurred in the energy efficiency industry, notably the Australian Bayard group�s $705 million acquisition of US smart-metering company Cellnet in December.

Key messages
A key message of the report is that this is no longer an industry solely dominated by developed country industries. Close to 10 per cent of investments are in China with around a fifth in total in the developing world. We will need many sustained steps towards the de-carbonizing of the global economy. It is clear that in respect to renewables those steps are getting underway.
As governments prepare to launch a new round of post-2012 climate change-related negotiations later this year, the report clearly shows that, amid much discussion about the 'technologies of tomorrow', the finance sector believes the existing technologies of today can and will 'decarbonize' the energy mix provided the right policies and incentives are in place at the international level. - Yvo de Boer, Executive Secretary of the UN Convention on Climate Change
The report represents a strategic tool for understanding the energy sector's development in both OECD and developing countries, says Michael Liebreich, CEO of New Energy Finance Ltd, a leading provider of research and analysis on the clean energy and carbon markets, which prepared the report for UNEP's Paris-based Sustainable Energy Finance Initiative.

The report attributes the sector's boom to a range of global concerns - climate change, increasing energy demand and energy security foremost among them.

It credits as well the November 2006 U.S. mid-term elections, which confirmed renewable energy as 'a mainstream issue', moving it up the political agenda.

Also spurring the sector's growth has been the persistently high price of oil - averaging more than $60 a barrel in 2006 (although one report conclusion is that the sector is becoming more independent of the price of oil):
"Growing consumer awareness of renewable energy and energy efficiency - and their longer term potential for cheaper energy, and not just greener energy - has become another fundamental driver. Most importantly governments and politicians are introducing legislation and support mechanisms to enable the sector's development."
Geographic distribution and scale
Other insights show some trends about where the investments are taking place:
  • Investment in sustainable energy is still mostly in OECD countries, with the US and EU together accounting for more than 70% in 2006. However, investment in developing countries is growing quickly: 21% of the global total in 2006 occurred in developing countries, compared with 15% in 2004;
  • A healthy 9% of global investment occurred in China, helped by significant asset financing activity in wind and biomass as well as the waste sectors. Investments in China came from across the spectrum, from venture capital through to public markets, "reflecting the country's increasingly prominent position in renewable energy";
  • India lagged a little behind China but was the largest buyer of companies abroad in 2006, most of them in the more established European markets;
  • Latin America took 5% of global investment, most of which financed Brazilian bio-ethanol plants;
  • Sub-Saharan Africa notably lagged behind other regions;
  • Global government and corporate research and development spending rose 25% to $16.3 billion;
  • Investments in small-scale projects rose 33% from an estimated $7 billion in 2005 to $9.3 billion in 2006.
Small-scale projects attract growing interest, driven partly by opportunities in developing countries, which stand to benefit most from small-scale installations (e.g. solar roof panels and micro turbines).
The finance community has been investing at levels that imply expected disruptive change is now inevitable in the energy sector. This report puts full stop to the idea of renewable energy being a fringe interest of environmentalists. It is now a mainstream commercial interest to investors and bankers alike. - Eric Usher, Head of the Energy Finance Unit at UNEP's Paris-based Division of Technology Industry and Economics.
This is a powerful signal of the arrival of an alternative future for today's fossil fuel-dominated energy markets, Usher adds. Signals move markets and the signal in these investment numbers is that the sustainable energy markets are becoming more liquid, more globalized and more mainstream.

This is full-scale industrial development, he added, not just a tweaking of the energy system. Growth is underpinned by a widening array of clean energy and climate policies at the federal, state and municipal levels.

With respect to the energy efficiency sector, the investment trends are harder to identify but the impacts of improving energy efficiency can be valued economically, notes Virginia Sonntag-O'Brien of UNEP's Sustainable Energy Finance Initiative (SEFI). Investments in supply side and demand side efficiency have been helping decrease global energy intensity, which on average has been dropping 1% to 1.5% per year.

Since 1990, energy efficiency has met one-half of all new demand for worldwide energy services. These savings - 3 billion tonnes of oil equivalent - have a value of $6 trillion if an average oil price of $27 is assumed. The challenge is to accelerate energy intensity improvement to levels of 2% or above, which compounded to 2030 would mean a 61% improvement from today.

Says Mohamed El-Ashry, Chair of the Renewable Energy Global Policy Network REN21: "The findings in this report are adding to the mounting evidence that renewable energy is going to play a far greater role in the energy mix than many expected."

NOTE: the full report was not yet online at the time of publishing, check back often.

More information:

UNEP: Global Trends in Sustainable Energy Investment 2007. Full report [*.pdf], June 2007.

UNEP Sustainable Energy Finance Initiative

UNEP Finance Initiative

New Energy Finance Limited

UN Foundation

Article continues

Chemists make important discovery on how enzymes work

University at Buffalo chemists report the discovery of a central mechanism responsible for the action of the powerful biological catalysts known as enzymes. They published their results in an open access article in the journal Biochemistry. The findings surprised many enzymologists.

The UB research provides critical insight into why catalysis is so complex and may help pave the way for improving the design of synthetic catalysts. Such catalysts are expected to be used widely in the production of cellulosic biofuels and in biorefining. In one such example, showing what the future may hold, scientists recently designed synthetic enzymes from scratch and found they were highly efficient in the catalytic conversion of starch and sugar (with water) into biohydrogen (previous post). The new discovery about the essence of enzymatic catalysis may spur the development of similar applications.
Enzymes are the products of billions of years of cellular evolution. Attempts to replicate evolution and design catalysts of non-biological reactions with enzyme-like activity have failed, because scientists have yet to unravel the secrets of enzyme catalysis. The more that is known about catalysis, the better chances we have of designing active catalysts. - John P. Richard, Ph.D., co-author and professor of chemistry at the UB College of Arts and Sciences
Together with Tina L. Amyes, Ph.D., UB adjunct associate professor of chemistry, Richard thinks the discovery will have the potential to transform the chemical industry in processes ranging from soft-drink manufacturing to the production of ethanol and countless other industrial processes.

While attempts to design catalysts have been somewhat successful, the catalysis that results is far less efficient than that produced by reactions with enzymes.

Non-reactive substrate portion key
Protein catalysts are distinguished by their enormous molecular weights, ranging from 10,000 to greater than 1,000,000 Daltons, whereas a synthetic molecule with a weight of 1,000 would be considered large. The recent results by Richard and Amyes provide critical insight into why effective catalysis requires such large molecules. Catalysis starts with molecular recognition of the substrate by the catalyst.

The so-called "catalytic" recognition is limited in man-made catalysts to several atoms that participate in the chemical reaction. Amyes and Richard have provided compelling evidence that interactions between enzymes and non-reacting portions of the substrate are critical for large catalytic rate accelerations:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

These findings demonstrate a simple principle of catalysis that is important for many enzymes that catalyze reactions of substrates containing phosphate groups and which can be generalized to all enzymes.

The chemistry between a catalyst and substrate occurs where groups of amino acid residues interact with the substrate. But enzymes also have domains that interact with the non-reacting parts of the substrate.

A flexible loop on the enzyme wraps around the substrate, burying it in an environment that is favorable for catalysis. In order to bury the substrate, certain interactions are necessary that allow the loop to wrap around the substrate and that is what the phosphate groups on the substrate are doing.

The UB research demonstrates just how important this process is to catalysis. Richard and Amyes discovered these interactions are critical to the process of making reactions faster.

Experimental method
The critical experiment by the UB researchers was to clip the covalent bond that links the phosphate groups to the substrate. "We have found that the interactions between phosphate groups and several enzymes are used to promote the chemistry even in the absence of a covalent linkage," said Richard. "These results have surprised many enzymologists."

To conduct the research, Richard and Amyes developed a specialized and technically difficult assay for enzyme activity that uses nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy to detect chemical reactions that would normally be invisible.

Image: Nature breaks and forms the strongest chemical bonds with incomparable efficiency using enzymatic catalysis. In living cells enzymes catalyze, for instance, the synthesis of proteins and DNA, the cleavage of carbohydrates and proteins and the transformation of toxic side products of the respiration cycle into harmless compounds. In each case the chemical transformation occurs with high selectivity and at an exceptionally high rate under physiological conditions. The major source of the catalytic power of enzymes is the stabilization of the transition state relative to the reactant and in certain cases and to a smaller extent an increase of tunneling effects. The combined catalytic effects lead to rate enhancements of up to 1019 relative to the uncatalyzed reaction in solution. The image shows the structure of an enzyme, endoprotease thermolysin. The active site is depicted in stick and ball representation. Thermolysin catalyzes the cleavage of peptide bonds by 5-7 orders of magnitude relative to alkaline hydrolysis in aqueous solution.

More information:
Tina L. Amyes and John P. Richard, "Enzymatic Catalysis of Proton Transfer at Carbon: Activation of Triosephosphate Isomerase by Phosphite Dianion", Biochemistry, 2007; 46(19) pp 5841 - 5854; (Article) DOI: 10.1021/bi700409b

University at Buffalo: How Enzymes Work: UB Chemists Publish A Major Discovery - June 20, 2007.

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Students patent biopolymer made from biodiesel and wine byproducts

A team of undergraduate engineering students at Oregon State University has discovered that blending byproducts from biodiesel production and winemaking produces an environmentally friendly, biodegradable polymer that could one day replace polystyrene foam. It may also be valuable in the manufacture of furniture, particle board, fire logs, insulation and even hair gel.

The process is so unique and potentially marketable that the students have applied for a patent to protect their intellectual property, said David Hackleman, the Linus Pauling Chair at the OSU College of Engineering.

Christen Glarborg, Patrick O’Connor, Heather Paris and Alana Warner-Tuhy – all seniors studying chemical engineering – delved into combining glycerin, a byproduct of biodiesel production, and tartaric acid, an organic crystalline byproduct of wine production used widely as a food additive. The production of biodiesel produces a lot of glycerin (glycerol), which is why researchers are looking into using it for new applications and products (earlier post and references there).

When put together, glycerin and tartaric acid make a hard, bubbly polymer. The material biodegrades in water. Dr. Hackleman suggested the students try to mold it into a tray, to make a product similar to the polystyrene foam trays used to pack meat, as you find them in the supermarket.

But their first experiments resulted in a rock-hard mess: think of cooking taffy too long, so that it sticks so hard, you have to throw the pot away. The young researchers persevered until they produced a more manageable glue, which they decided to try mixing with other byproducts such as sawdust and woodchips.

A material that was moldable, though somewhat tacky came out of it. After heating eat in an oven to see if it would firm up, it seemed they were possibly onto a particleboard for “green” building. They found that at 600 degrees, the polymer vaporized. This brought them to consider its use as ash-free logs or pellets for heating:
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While the students continued exploring possibilities, Hackleman knew enough about entrepreneurship to realize they should begin the process of protecting their intellectual property. He steered them to OSU’s Office of Technology Transfer, where their invention disclosure was brought to the stage of “patent pending.”

The students are now focused on testing and refining the polymer for strength and biodegradability. While it is not yet clear whether or not the technology will make it to commercialization, it’s certainly a boost for the students, Hackleman said.

The team won "Best Chemical Engineering Project" and was runner-up for "People’s Choice Award" at OSU’s eighth annual Engineering Expo in May. The team members displayed their research among more than 100 student design projects and product prototypes.

"I’m delighted, but not totally surprised, that they can now add to their report the words ‘patent application pending,’" Hackleman said.

Image: glycerin settles at the bottom of a tank of biodiesel. For each tonne of biodiesel produced, some 100kg of glycerin becomes available as a byproduct.

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Eni to produce green diesel from vegetable oils based on UOP's hydrogenation technology

UOP LLC, a Honeywell company, and Italian oil and gas company Eni SpA announced [*.pdf] that Eni will build a production facility using 'Ecofining technology' to produce second-generation diesel from catalytic hydroprocessing of vegetable oils. The advantage of the technology is that it can be integrated into existing petroleum refineries, thereby reducing costs. The resulting bio-based diesel's fuel properties are superior to biodiesel based on the transesterification of plant oil.

The new facility, to be located in Livorno, Italy, will process 6,500 barrels per day of vegetable oils to supply European refineries with a high-cetane green diesel fuel, to meet growing demand for high-quality, clean fuels and biofuels throughout Europe.

It will be the first facility to use the Ecofining technology developed by UOP and Eni. UOP has already completed the basic design for the first unit, which is expected to come online in 2009. Eni, a leading European oil company with operations in 70 countries and 2006 revenues of more than €86 billion, also plans to install several additional Ecofining units at its other wholly-owned and affiliate refineries throughout Europe.
This project is part of Eni’s overall commitment to sustainabilityThis facility will both provide significant value to Eni’s refining operations by producing an ultra-high-quality diesel and fulfilling the proposed European target to grow the renewable energy supply to 12 percent by 2010. - Eni CEO Paolo Scaroni
UOP announced its efforts to develop commercially viable solutions for renewable energy in refineries with the creation of its Renewable Energy & Chemicals business unit in late 2006. The Ecofining process for green diesel is its first renewable technology offering.

The Ecofining process uses catalytic hydroprocessing technology to convert vegetable oils to a green diesel fuel. The product, a direct substitute for diesel fuel, features a high cetane value (the measure of the combustion quality of diesel) of approximately 80. Compared to diesel or first generation biodiesel found at the pump today (table, click to enlarge), which ranges from 40 to 60 cetane, green diesel offers value as a blending stock for refiners seeking to enhance existing diesel fuels and expand the diesel pool:
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The hydrogeneation technology is similar to the second-generation biodiesel production process developed by Brazil's Petrobras ('H-Bio') and is attracting increasing interest from oil companies (amongst them Portugal's Galp Energia, earlier post). The process for green diesel production uses existing refinery and fuel distribution infrastructure [*.pdf] while at the same time producing a high-quality renewable fuel, says Jennifer Holmgren, director of UOP’s Renewable Energy & Chemicals business unit.

UOP LLC, headquartered in Des Plaines, Illinois, USA, is a leading international supplier and licensor of process technology, catalysts, adsorbents, process plants, and consulting services to the petroleum refining, petrochemical, and gas processing industries. UOP is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Honeywell International, Inc. and is part of Honeywell’s Specialty Materials strategic business group.

More information:
Michael J. McCall, T.L. Marker, J. Petri, D. Mackowiak-UOP LLC
S. Czernik-NREL D. Elliott-PNNL D. Shonnard-MTU, "Opportunities for Biorenewables in Petroleum Refineries" [*.pdf], 2005.

Biopact: GALP Energia invests €225 million in 'H-biodiesel' - March 16, 2007

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Software company profits from ethanol boom in the U.S.

Large companies are the driving forces in the biofuels sector. Both agribusinesses and oil companies have a big stake in the production of feedstocks and their conversion into liquid fuels. But what often goes unnoticed is the large number of small and medium enterprises that are benefiting tremendously from the global expansion of biofuels. Ethanol and biodiesel stimulate development and innovation in engineering, logistics, agronomy, biotechnology, consulting and a range of other services.

Over at Ethablog, Henrique Oliveira shows how in Brazil SMEs are flocking around the sector and thriving because of its expansion. Another example comes from the U.S. where Pavilion Technologies, a developer of model-based control software, has enjoyed a surge of new customer wins for a package that predicts and monitors the process flow of ethanol production. Its sales in the sector have grown 300% year over year.

Pavillion's ethanol market share has increased to more than 20 percent of all ethanol plants that are operational in the U.S. today. Producers including East Kansas Agri-Energy, VeraSun Energy, Mid-Missouri Energy, Quad County Corn Processors and Yuma Ethanol have selected its 'Ethanol Solution' to increase production, improve yields and reduce energy costs. Pavilion’s model-predictive control (MPC) solutions are now used by 25 leading manufacturers in the production of more than a billion gallons of ethanol per year.

The software optimizes plant performance by tracking the fermentation, dryer, evaporator, thermal oxidizer, mole sieve and distillation processes, as well as full plant-wide deployment. Reduced energy utilization and increase ethanol yield across the plant is the result. Specific results include:
  • Increased ethanol production by two to 10 percent
  • Increased ethanol yields by 2.5 to five percent
  • Reduced energy costs by three to six percent
  • Reduced product quality variability by 50 percent
  • Reduced air emissions by up to 20 percent.
The suite of control, environmental compliance and performance management applications across all key areas of the ethanol production process – fermentation, dryer, evaporator, thermal oxidizer, mole sieve and distillation – is increasingly being picked up by green fuel producers:
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The package is a modular software platform based on a modern Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA) and a predictive modeling analytic engine. It combines powerful technology for modeling, control, monitoring, analysis, warehousing, visualization and integration to provide ethanol solutions with fast time-to-value and high sustained value to capitalize on dynamic market opportunities.

“Biofuels is an arena that is seeing tremendous innovation. We are thrilled to be a part of that innovation by providing ethanol manufacturers with leading-edge technologies that enhance profitability today. Pavilion’s commitment to delivering financial and environmental benefits to our customers is evidenced by our 300 percent year over year sales growth in the ethanol industry,” said Ralph Carter, CEO, Pavilion Technologies.

The success of Pavillion Technologies is just one example of how the biofuels sector is boosting innovation and development that leaves room for smaller, highly specialized service providers. The fact that bioenergy and biofuels production is in principle ubiquitous (all countries with an agricultural potential can participate in the sector) but highly site-specific (rooted in local agro-ecological conditions) creates a series of specific niches (e.g. plantation management software for a specific crop).

At the same time, the production of green energy has an impact on a range of broad economic sectors (from agriculture, transportation and logistics, to the automotive industry and biotechnology), all of which stand to benefit from the 'bioeconomy'.

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