<body> --------------
Contact Us       Consulting       Projects       Our Goals       About Us
home / Archive
Nature Blog Network

    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.

Creative Commons License

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Interview: DaimlerChrysler, farmers see great future in jatropha

Auto giant DaimlerChrysler has been researching, planting and testing jatropha and a biodiesel derived from its oil for the past three years in Gujarat, in northwest India. The project has created a jatropha-euphoria in the poverty-stricken region, with the local farmers who participated seeing a great future in the energy crop. Other projects included growing the crop in the middle of the Egyptian desert, to prove that it thrives in the most extreme conditions. And in Madagascar, where up to 70% of people are unemployed in some regions, the crop has opened a new future for small farmers who can finally diversify their portfolio. For the first time in their lives, farmers across the developing world can grow a crop for which the disastrous phenomenon of overproduction no longer exists.

Germany's NTV conducted an interview [*German] with professor Klaus Becker, leader of the projects and director of Tropenzentrums (Tropical Agriculture) of the University of Hohenheim, revealing why the crop is attracting so much attention (e.g. oil giant BP and D1Oils recently announced a global joint venture to grow the plant on a million hectares). Topics include the future of petroleum and oil prices, the social and environmental sustainability of jatropha, its potential to meet the fuel needs of the rapidly growing number of cars on the planet, climate change and new uses for the plant's oil based on the latest research.

Professor Becker, you have been researching the jatropha plant for DaimlerChrysler since 2003. What is DaimlerChrysler's stake?
Klaus Becker: DaimlerChrysler is interested in the crop because it will give India a high quality biodiesel that can be used directly in existing cars. We will not be establishing plantations ourselves. Initially the project was part of a marketing effort in India, but the crop has grown so popular that this has become larger than we expected. When a major company invests in such a project, people take things seriously, which is what happened with jatropha:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

You were the first to research jatropha on a large scale?
We were the first in Europe. For over 15 years we have been working with a consulting firm in Nicaragua to study jatropha. The plant is 70 million years old. But nobody was interested in it. Without the DaimlerChrysler project the current jatropha-euphoria would not have emerged.

Is jatropha-oil already being used as biodiesel?
We have been trialing it for the past two and a half years. The DaimlerChrysler office in Pune coordinates the road tests. We have multiple test vehicles. This year we plan to burn 40,000 liters of jatropha biodiesel - B100, our fuel does not need to be mixed with petro-diesel. All our tests are based on 100 percent pure jatropha biodiesel.

In ordinary, non-adapted vehicles?
In fully normal Mercedes-CDIs, yes.

We hear so much about jatropha, it sounds like a wonder plant.
Well, it is a great crop.

Jatropha thrives on poor soils, but supposedly the crop even makes these soils more fertile so that other, less robust plants can be grown on it. Is that correct?
Yes it is. We have established jatropha on heavily degraded lands. After 10, 15 years we were able to win back this land, because jatropha had pushed back the effects of the erosion that had destroyed the soils. I offer money to anyone who can show me a negative aspect of cultivating jatropha.

It's a poisonous plant.
That is, the plant can protect itself against predators. Besides, many ornamental plants in Europe are more poisonous than jatropha. But jatropha is a useful crop, or better: it is becoming a useful crop and precisely because it can protect itself against grazing animals, it can be grown on poor lands. The crop doesn't need to be fenced off or protected, it is its own fence. The region in which we work - Gujarat in northwest India, Ghandi-land - is extremely poor, but rich in waste-lands.

An added advantage supposedly is the fact that the plant can not be harvested mechanically. This creates lots of jobs.
That's right. Especially the Indians think this is the most interesting aspect of the crop because it allows social and economic development in the rural areas. We are also working in Madagascar. There are regions there with unemployment rates of up to 70%. Currently there are no crops that can create a substantial number of jobs in the country - except energy crops. Most of the bioenergy crops we are accustomed to can be harvested mechanically. Jatropha on the contrary requires a large number of workers. The standard number we work with is 1.5 workers per hectare for the cultivation of the plants and for harvesting the oil seeds.

But does it make economic sense to growh jatropha if it is so labor intensive?
Yes it does, because energy prices will continue to rise. By 2030 the total number of cars on the planet's roads will have grown from 500 million today to 900 million. By then, countries like China will have overtaken the United States. Today there are 150 million cars on America's roads. In 2030 there will be 190 million in China.

But they can't all burn jatropha-oil, can they?
Quite frankly, the will burn whatever they can find. Anyone who produces any kind of energy will find a ready market for the coming 30 to 40 years, and will sell at the highest prices. For small farmers, this is a very important development: they now have a number of crops available for which the risk of overproduction does not exist - overproduction, the economic phenomenon that has been so disastrous to millions of poor farmers. With jatropha the farmers will, for the first time in their lives, find a stable market with few risks.

This brings us to climate change.
The way we produce biodiesel from jatropha in India and Africa has a strong CO2-balance. During the production of the crop we use relatively low amounts of fossil energy; much of the production consists of manual labor. This makes the balance much better than biodiesel made from, for example, rapeseed.

Have any large jatropha plantations been established?
Well, the crop can grow wherever temperatures are high enough. It is a tropical plant. But it uses much less water than other energy crops, because of its highly efficient strategy to use water. Together with the Ministry of Agriculture and the Environment in Egypt, we are doing trials in the middle of the desert. We irrigate it with waste water from the city.

Excuse me?
Nobody believes this, until they have seen it. We grow jatropha in the middle of the desert - the desert you see in post-cards - in the sand. The crop is irrigated with waste-water. And it thrives beautifully.

Jatropha-plants in the Egyptian desert - such a miracle crop must be attracting its fair share of snake oil vendors. There are a few websites playing with the crop, but they look amateurish.
Well, when it comes to jatropha, the internet is less than amateurish. 5% of what you find is credible. There are people who ask a dollar per seed, others offer 20,000 tons of oil per month. In reality, such amounts are not yet available on the market. My estimate is that 5 million hectares of the crop are being established on a world wide scale, scattered across a vast number of countries. Only Myanmar (Burma) has made a serious effort and established 800,000 hectares over the past year (earlier post). It takes between 4 and 5 years before the plants mature. Other plantations [using improved crops] will take 3 years to reach maturity. Only then will a market for jatropha oil emerge.

In online drug stores it costs €12 for 500 milliliters of jatropha oil.
Yes, jatropha oil is currently sold at that kind of quantities. In Mali, women sell jatropha based soap, very nice soap. In the past the famous Savon de Marseille was made from jatropha oil. The plant yields more than just oil, you see. We are investigating how we can turn jatropha press cakes (the residues that remain after the oil has been extracted) into animal fodder. We are researching how to remove the toxic substances from the meal. If we succeed, we can replace soybean meal, because the quality of jatropha-meal is better. Soja's raw protein content is around 45%; jatropha's is 60%. The only problem is the detoxification step that must be developed. But we are confident that we will pull it off. Even the toxic substance in jatropha, Phorbolester, is valuable. It is being used in cancer research. We want to develop a bio-pesticide from it - a natural product that can be used by organic farmers.

Where will the market for jatropha oil emerge first? In India?
The Indians need everything they produce. The Chinese too have large plans for jatropha; they are looking at establishing 13 million hectares of plantations by 2020.

When will we in Europe be utilizing jatropha-oil?
That's a matter of market policies and economics. Producers will sell to those who offer the best price. It's as simple as that.

But this depends on the evolution of the oil price, doesn't it?
Well, we are certain that oil prices will only get higher. You can bet on it. For the first time, the Chinese have produced more cars than Germany, 7.2 million last year to be precise. We are talking about growth rates of 6 to 8% per year. And that's only the Chinese. The world only talks about China and India, but South-East Asia is overlooked. Take countries like Indonesia, Bangladesh, and even Brazil and Mexico. Or African countries like Nigeria. They are developing rapidly. In Europe, the positive correlation between the availability and use of energy and economic development [called the 'energy intensity' of an economy] is no longer that strong because we have the potential to save energy. But over there, in Africa and India, there is no savings potential because consumption is low. People there have nothing to save, they don't even have electricity!
The same is true for labor. Until the 1980s, the number of jobs and economic development was strongly correlated in Europe. Today share prices rise when companies cut jobs. In Africa and India the opposite is true - the situation there is the same as in Europe 30 years ago.

Does jatropha-oil offer the possibility to replace other petrochemical products?
Yes, very much so. From hydraulic oil to motor oil - for these purposes all plant oils are clearly better than mineral oils .

What about heating oil?
No problem. If you use jatropha biodiesel you don't need to build a protection wall around your tank. Contrary to petroleum based heating oil, biodiesel readily biodegrades in the soil. Biodiesel is ranked in class 1, petrodiesel in class 5 [German classes for fuel oil for home heating].

How to invest in jatropha?
Currently there are some serious investors active in Germany, Colombia, Indonesia and other countries. I'm not allowed to name names. But these investors will soon go public.

How many research projects you would qualify as 'serious' are currently underway?
Oil firm BP has been building on our research in India and has launched research activities there. [Note: the interview was conducted before the announcement of BP's joint venture with D1Oils]. Many universities now have jatropha research groups. At the Dutch University of Wageningen [Europe's leading agronomic university] there are 5 PhD theses being written as we speak. My estimate is that world-wide there are around 1,000 serious research groups working on jatropha. Over the coming years, the crop will reveal many of its secrets. Today, it remains a wild plant.

Translated and adapted by Jonas Van Den Berg and Laurens Rademakers.

NTV: "Jatropha kann man nichts Schlechtes anhängen" - June 29, 2007.

DaimlerChrysler:Öl vom Ödland - Das Jatropha-Projekt in Indien - Jatropha project website.

Jua Katika Mbinga - Sonne über Mbinga [Sun over Mbinga], jatropha project in Tanzania funded by Germany's Energy Agency.

Article continues

Kenya's first ethanol plant may help local sugar industry

A multi-million-shilling company will be set up in the Homa Bay District, in Kenya's Nyanza Province, to manufacture ethanol from sugar.

The announcement by Kenya Sugar Board chief executive officer Andrew Otieno comes at a time sugar production in the country is threatened by cheap imports from the Common Market for East and Southern Africa (Comesa), which has created a free market in the region. Under the COMESA Sugar Safeguard Protocol, a quantitative restriction on imports into the Kenyan market will expire in 2008, which may facilitate higher imports, potentially causing injury to local sugar farmers.

Drawing on numbers of to the Kenya Sugar Board, the FAO estimates [*.pdf] nearly 6 million people derive their livelihoods from the sugar industry, either directly through sugarcane production, sugar manufacturing and distributive activities, or indirectly through the allied economic activities. The sugar milling factories and the sugarcane plantations owned by the factories have employed between 43,000 and 75,000 people in Kenya over the last ten years.

Kenya's sugarcane industry also contributes significantly to the revenue of both the local authorities and the central government in the form of the value-added tax, sugar development levy and local authority levies.

Kenya produces about 450,000 tonnes of sugar annually with at around 620,000 tonnes. Therefore, the shortfall must be met by imports (graph, click to enlarge). Since domestic sugar milling factories produce only raw sugar, industrial users of refined sugar always depend on imports for their manufacturing requirements.

The construction of a local ethanol plant may boost offtake of the raw sugar and replace investments needed to build sugar refining capacity. Otieno spoke to reporters about the ethanol factory when he led a team to assess the site of the proposed company.

The project is the first of its kind in East and Central Africa and only the second to be established in the Comesa region after Mauritius. The ethanol plant, funded by Fair Energy SA, a European company based in Geneva, is to be modelled on the Mauritius 'flexi-sugar' industry, which, besides being efficient, boasts the best-paid farmers and is based on a highly integrated production chain:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Fair Energy SA also manages Kenana Sugar Company in Sudan and businesses in Nigeria. Kenana recently announced it will invest in Sudan's sugar sector with an eye on ethanol.

"The new flexi-sugar company will be fully private but local interest is welcome in acquisition of equity in the structure of the company," Otieno said. "The Sugar Act provides for 50 per cent farmer ownership of mills but this has not been possible in Kenya due to lack of finances."

The board has promised to open up opportunities for farmers to begin with small acquisitions of the company stake through deductions from earnings that would gradually grow to substantial ownership.

"Ethanol is targeted for the export market because Kenya does not have a policy supporting its use as fuel," Otieno added.

The Nation (Nairobi), via AllAfrica: Kenya: Firm to Produce Ethanol From Sugar - June 27, 2007.

FAO Briefs on Import Surges - Countries No. 7: Kenya: dry milk powder, sugar, maize [*.pdf]- February, 2007.

Article continues

Friday, June 29, 2007

REEEP disburses €3.2 million for 35 new clean energy projects in the developing world

The Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership (REEEP), a leading alliance promoting clean energy in the developing world, announces it will fund thirty-five new projects. The funding round, REEEP’s sixth, is the largest in its four year history. Several bioenergy related projects are amongst the new initiatives.

The increased funding was driven by new donor contributions in March when the Norwegian government announced a three-year pledge of €3.7 million. Norway joined the United Kingdom, Ireland, Italy and New Zealand as a project donor government. Norwegian funding is focused on supporting several projects in Brazil, China and India. One is developing a financial mechanism to stimulate energy efficiency in buildings, and another will develop a national action plan for rural biomass. Norwegian funding will also establish a renewable energy fund in West Africa and promote biomass gasifiers in India.

REEEP received about 310 concepts globally in response to the calls for proposals under its 6th programme round. A total of 35 projects were selected through a two stage bottom up process; 7 projects were also placed on the wait-list. A full list of the selected projects can be found here [*.doc].
The REEEP portfolio is moving beyond a collection of good projects to being more strategic. We have started the replication and scale-up of successful projects in the past and have also started commissioning specific projects. We are also pleased to be working closely with the governments of Argentina, Ecuador and Uganda as they formulate national renewable energy policy and legislation. - Morgan Bazilian, REEEP Programme Board Chair
In Africa, solar water heating is rising up the agenda as a demand side management strategy. Three projects are supporting the development of solar water heating markets – in Morocco, South Africa, Tunisia and Uganda. In Uganda alone one study has shown that 41MW could be saved by installing 65,000 solar water heaters in urban areas. Additionally, REEEP and the World Bank will be holding a Development Marketplace competition for LED lighting across Sub-Saharan Africa to replace fossil-fuel lighting:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Energy efficiency remains a REEEP priority with 44% of the total projects funded covering energy efficiency. A successful street lighting ESCO project financed previously will be replicated in other Indian states. Credit risk guarantees will be developed for the Mexican ESCO market and a feasibility study will look at the role of ESCO’s in financing biogas plants at livestock farms in China.
We need to do what we can to ensure that developing countries make a technological leap forward, bypassing polluting technologies and increasing the share of renewable and clean energy sources. - Eric Solheim, Norwegian Minister of International Development
Kyoto mechanisms and the Clean Development Mechanism continue to be promoted by the Partnership. The Gold Standard will receive funding to train CDM experts in Brazil, India, China and South Africa. Meanwhile the London Olympic Committee will work with REEEP on a CDM project which will source emission reductions from renewable energy projects in China to green the 2012 London Olympics.
The projects we’re backing are delivering replicable models for renewable and energy efficient development. Our partnership of governments, NGOs and businesses is helping to establish a stable global marketplace for clean energy. - Dr. Marianne Osterkorn, International Director of REEEP
For the first time REEEP is directly commissioning projects in addition to selecting projects via public tender. Two of the commissioned projects include plans to develop a global status report on energy efficiency and development and establishment of a risk mitigation mechanism for renewable energy and energy efficiency investments in India. REEEP’s project portfolio serves to underpin its overall work programme and contributes towards the REEEP mission and objectives.

REEEP previously disbursed € 2.2 million euro in 2006 and € 1.1 million in 2005.

Earlier this year, the organisation announced it was studying ways to implement biofuel related projects in South Africa. The first investments have been made, and focus is on threading carefully to ensure that the projects thoroughly benefit local communities (earlier post).

REEEP: REEEP Disburses Euro 3.2 million for 35 New Clean Energy Projects - June 27, 2007.

REEEP: Sixth Round - List of Projects - 2007.

Article continues

Biogas powered stirling generator for the developing world

In a very interesting development, Infinia Corporation announced that it has partnered with start-up Emergence BioEnergy Inc. (EBI) to develop an innovative energy system that will serve developing nations' rural communities who can make use of abundant biomass resources. EBI is led by Iqbal Quadir, founder of the highly successful company GrameenPhone, which started by providing telecommunications to the poorest, but rapidly grew into Bangladesh's largest operator.

EBI will start its project in Bangladesh and has developed a comprehensive energy supply strategy for serving low-income countries around the world. Key concepts are village ownership, the use of local biomass resources and decentralized energy production.

The project tries to tackle three well known energy-related obstacles for development in poor countries: (1) primitive biomass used for cooking and heating is highly inefficient and a killer in the kitchen claiming two million lives each year (earlier post), (2) the lack of reliable and affordable refrigerators prevents the development of efficient food and medicine markets where products need to be kept fresh and cool, (3) finally, the lack of rural electrification limits the opportunity for people to study, to connect to the broader world and to spend their time efficiently.
This opportunity has the potential to positively impact more people in more ways than virtually anything I've seen. - Iqbal Quadir, CEO of EBI, founder of GrameenPhone
The initial project involves the mass production of Infinia's 1-kilowatt (kW) free-piston Stirling generator with a thermal appliance. The generator will operate on methane gas produced by an anaerobic digester that converts livestock manure and agricultural wastes into combustible biogas. The product is highly versatile and can be adapted to other fuel sources, depending on the circumstances.

Stirling generators, cryocoolers
Infinia is the leading developer of free-piston Stirling generators ranging in sizes from tens of Watts to multiple kilowatts. The generators are especially well suited for critical power applications that require silent operation, high reliability, and long life with little or no maintenance. The free-piston technology is also applied in the development of cryogenic coolers and pressure wave generators that provide long-life, maintenance-free cooling for a variety of applications.

Stirling engines are highly efficient free-piston engines originally developed by Robert Stirling in 1816. The Stirling cycle uses a working fluid (typically Helium, Nitrogen or Hydrogen gas) in a closed cylinder containing a piston. Heated on one end and cooled on the other, the expansion and cooling of the gas drives the piston back and forth in the cylinder. The work performed by this piston-motion is used to drive a generator (in Infinia’s case, a patented linear alternator) or to create pressure waves to drive a compression process (animation, click to enlarge).

The cycle can be operated in reverse by using the generator as a motor to drive the piston. In this case, the continuous expansion and cooling of the working fluid caused by the piston motion creates a cooling effect. These types of systems are called Stirling coolers (also referred to as cryocoolers) and can maintain temperatures as low as 10 Kelvin (-263°C, and –442 °F):
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The EBI strategy provides a platform that generates electricity on a sustainable basis from locally available fuel sources and provides clean, high quality heat to support additional income-generating opportunities for local entrepreneurs. The digester produces fuel for the Stirling engine and produces waste solids which can be used as fertilizers and fish feed. The Stirling engine will consume biogas from the digester and generate electricity and heat.

"Infinia's unique Stirling engine technology will enable us to provide an efficient and reliable energy system that the farmers and villagers can operate and maintain themselves," said EBI CEO Iqbal Quadir.

Infinia's reliable and maintenance-free 1 kW Stirling engine is being used in residential combined heat and power appliances expected to be commercialized in Asia and Europe over the next 18 months. Mass production of the 1 kW engine will help to ensure that the EBI product is affordable for Bangladeshi entrepreneurs and villages.

In a similar development aimed at increasing the rural poor's access to modern energy, a consortium of major UK universities, the US Los Alamos National Laboratory, a multi-national electrical goods manufacturer, an international charity and numerous universities in Asia and Africa launched the SCORE project (Stove for Cooking, Refrigeration and Electricity). The device will rely on the physics of thermoacoustic heating and cooling - a field of research that has resulted in such high-tech applications as devices to cool satellites, radars and to liquefy natural gas.

Animation courtesy of Infinia Corp.

More information:

Infinia corp.: Free-piston machines.

Renewable Energy Access: Partnership to Develop Biomass Power System for Developing Nations - June 29, 2007.

Biopact: Researchers develop biomass powered "refrigerator-stove-generator" for developing world - May 12, 2007

Article continues

California universities develop innovative process for thermochemical conversion of biomass

A team of made up of nine professors and seven post-doctoral fellows at the University of California, San Diego, Davis and Berkeley plan to make liquid biofuels via an innovative thermochemical process based on upgrading producer gas to syngas. Besides the three University of California campuses, West Biofuels LLC is a partner in the project. The team will develop a prototype research reactor that will use steam, sand and catalysts to efficiently convert forest, urban, and agricultural cellulosic wastes that would otherwise go to landfills into alcohol that can be used as a gasoline additive.

The $1 million, 4-ton-per-day prototype reactor will mix the wastes with high temperature sand in a reaction chamber while the mixture is heated with steam. The gasification process generates an energy rich combination of hydrogen (H2), carbon monoxide (CO), methane (CH4), and carbon dioxide (CO2). Those gases will be catalytically reformed into alcohols. About 30 percent of the energy content of the starting material will be burned to supply the energy needed to operate the plant.

This will actually include a three-step process:
  1. First, the biomass will be gasified thermochemically in a process that is widely used around the world to process wood, coal, and other carbon-containing materials into a producer gas (wood gas).
  2. The methane in the producer gas is typically burned to power electricity-generating power plants. However, the new reactor will catalytically reform the producer gas into syngas, a mixture of hydrogen gas and carbon monoxide.
  3. In the final step, the syngas will be catalytically converted into mixed alcohols with a synthesis catalyst.
In order for all the processes to run at maximum efficiently, the researchers will make use of highly sensitive laser sensors developed at UCSD to continuously monitor the entire operation. Process-control algorithms under development at UCSD's Center for Control Systems and Dynamics (CCSD) will use the sensor data to continuously fine-tune steam temperatures and flows, gas mixtures, and catalyst regeneration to achieve the most efficient and reliable conversion of the biomass into fuel:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The research team is led by Robert Cattolica, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at UC San Diego's Jacobs School of Engineering. The 16-strong team will conduct research on the reactor being build by West Biofuels. Lessons learned will be incorporated into a 100-ton-per-day pilot plant, which could generate one 10,000-gallon tanker truck of mixed-alcohol fuel for every seven semi-tractor trailer trucks of biomass waste. California generates a huge volume of such wastes.

The Orange County basin alone produces about 30,000 tons of urban green wastes per day, which is simply dumped at landfills and used as compost. Cattolica said that waste supply could generate 3 million gallons per day of mixed-alcohol fuel, which is equivalent to all the ethanol currently added to California gasoline.

The biomass processing technology could also permit California to reduce its dependence on outside sources of ethanol. Motorists in California currently purchase more than 900 million gallons of ethanol a year, or 25 percent of the national total. However, the state produces only about 5 percent of the ethanol fuel it consumes. Schwarzengger issued an executive order in 2006 that requires the state to produce at least 20 percent of its biofuels by 2010, 40 percent by 2020, and 75 percent by 2050.

The new biofuels research project was inspired by California's Global Warming Solutions Act, which was signed into law by in September 2006. The act requires a 25 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in California by 2025. Substituting biomass fuel for petroleum would help California achieve its goal. The two-year UC project is funded with a $1.85 million grant from West Biofuels LLC, a San Rafael, CA, company that is developing the biomass-to-alcohol technology, and a $1.15 million state-funded UC Discovery Grant.

The alcohol currently added to gasoline sold in California is derived from corn, sugar cane, beets, or other farm crops. About 95 percent of the alcohol additive comes from outside of California and as far away as China. Rather than fermenting food crops into ethanol, Cattolica's project will use a thermo-chemical process to break down shredded cellulosic wastes into a mixed alcohol, predominately ethanol.

"The more paper and cardboard, agricultural and forest wastes, and sludge and municipal solid waste that we can process into biofuels the sooner the state can meet the state's biofuels goals," said Cattolica. "This is all attainable, and it will allow us to continue using internal combustion engines, reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, and reduce the production of greenhouse gases."

Since carbon dioxide is naturally recycled from the atmosphere into cellulose in plants and back into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide when plants decompose, burning biomass-derived fuel such as alcohol in internal combustion engines has a zero net effect on the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. On the other hand, burning fossil fuels continually adds carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, to the atmosphere.

"The technology we're developing will tap a huge, energy-rich resource that now is literally going to waste," Cattolica concluded.


University of California, San Diego, Jacobs School of Engineering: Wood Chips in - Biofuel out - June 12, 2007.

University of California, San Diego: Center for Energy Research.

Article continues

D1 Oils and BP to establish global joint venture to plant jatropha

In an important step for the production of biofuels in the Global South, D1 Oils plc, the UK-based producer of biodiesel, announced [*.pdf] plans to establish a global Joint Venture with BP to create a world-wide Jatropha curcas plantation business: D1-BP Fuel Crops Limited. The humble shrub's oil ('crude jatropha oil' - CJO) is now on track to become a commodity that can be produced by countless farmers in the developing world.

Jatropha is an oilseed tree that grows in tropical and sub-tropical regions and produces high yields of inedible vegetable oil that can be used to produce high-quality biodiesel. Jatropha can grow on a wide range of land types, including non-arable, marginal and waste land. Jatropha does not compete with food crops for good agricultural land or result in the destruction of rainforest.

The establishment of the 50:50 JV to undertake global planting of jatropha has the following aims and features:
  • An accelerated planting programme: a target to plant one million hectares over four years; in the first year of the JV's operation the pace of planting is likely to remain at the current 150,000 hectares per annum target; it is expected to increase thereafter up to a targeted rate of at least 350,000 hectares per annum by the fourth year.
  • More rapid deployment of higher yielding jatropha varieties: all of D1 oils' current plantations are based on uncultivated “wild seed” jatropha which yield around 1.7 tons/hectare, the JV will allow the deployment of elite E1 seeds with an estimated yield of 2.7 tonnes per hectare
  • Development of logistics strategy and a global supply chain
  • Initial contribution of parties: D1 planting to date and planting business, BP working capital of £31.75 million through equity in the JV; total JV funding requirement of approximately £80 million over five years
  • Plant science activities and intellectual property remain 100 per cent owned by D1
This major global business to plant jatropha as sustainable biodiesel feedstock now entails an endorsement by BP, one of the world's largest oil and gas companies. The D1 Oils planting strategy is based on: the potential to produce low-cost, volume supplies of inedible oil for biodiesel the use of marginal and waste land and land unsuitable for arable crops no competition with high biodiversity value rainforest significant job creation and value to local communities:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Under the terms of the Joint Venture Agreement signed today D1 and BP will work together exclusively on the development of jatropha as a sustainable energy crop, including the planting of trees, harvesting jatropha grain, oil extraction and transport and logistics. Production of jatropha oil for refining into biodiesel is expected to begin in 2008.

D1 Oils Plant Science Limited, D1’s plant science business, will act as the exclusive supplier of selected, high yielding jatropha seeds and seedlings to the Joint Venture. The strategy sees it planting elite seed in greater quantities than D1’s stand alone plan.

With the conclusion of this transaction D1 will comprise, in its upstream business, its wholly owned plant science operations together with the IP in plant science, in addition to 50 per cent of a global planting joint venture with BP. In its downstream operations, the business will include, as it does now, its wholly owned interests in refining and trading.

Commenting on the announcement, Lord Oxburgh of Liverpool, Chairman of D1 Oils
plc said: "Biodiesel is a young industry, but is rapidly becoming an established part of the global renewable energy landscape. It is crucial that we develop supplies of alternative, inedible vegetable oils like jatropha that are not subject to the same demand pressures as food oils and that are grown on non-essential land. This partnership with BP strengthens D1’s strategy of delivering commercial volumes of jatropha oil at competitive prices, whilst truly supporting the communities in which we operate."

Elliott Mannis, Chief Executive Officer of D1 Oils plc, said: “This is a transforming event for D1. BP’s decision to join us in this new venture is a significant endorsement of our strategy to develop jatropha for the production of sustainable biodiesel. It shows we have come a long way. BP’s proven logistical, managerial and financial support will enable a significant enhancement and acceleration of the scope and pace of jatropha planting.”

Philip New, Head of BP Biofuels, said:
"As jatropha can be grown on land of lesser agricultural value with lower irrigation requirements than many plants, it is an excellent biodiesel feedstock. D1 Oils’ progress in identifying the most productive varieties of jatropha means that the joint venture will have access to seeds which can substantially increase jatropha oil production per hectare.”

Reasons for the Joint Venture and Strategy
BP plc has a market capitalisation of approximately £114.6 billion. The combination of both financial and industrial strength make it a partner with considerable credibility internationally to assist D1 in the next stages of its corporate development. It is proposed that the JV will be established between D1 and BP International, a subsidiary of BP plc. BP International, which is based in the UK, is engaged internationally in oil, petrochemicals and related financial activities.

The combination of BP’s strong brand and reputation, its major presence in downstream transportation fuel markets, its strong understanding of associated technical and regulatory issues and demand drivers, its access to governments, NGOs and other large organisations and its trading and logistics expertise, make it an attractive partner for D1.

It will also contribute to the development of a world leading player in jatropha. D1 Oils says the JV will have a beneficial impact on:

• Plantation management and Crude Jatropha Oil (“CJO”) production
• Plant science and seedling production
• The wider D1 group

Plantation management and CJO production
D1 has established a leading position globally in the commercialisation of jatropha as a biofuels crop. Jatropha can grow on a wide range of land types, including non-arable, marginal and waste land. It will not compete with food crops for good agricultural land or result in the destruction of rainforest. D1 is on track to deliver on the objectives for its Agronomy business as identified at the time of D1’s most recent placing in December 2006.

The JV will adopt a business plan which the D1 Board believes significantly exceeds D1’s standalone plan in terms of scale and quality and that the involvement of BP with its competencies and resources will increase the likelihood of a successful implementation of the plan. The key features of the Joint Venture business plan are:

An accelerated planting programme.
The JV business plan is to target 1.0 million hectares of new commercial jatropha cultivation over the next four years compared to approximately 600,000 hectares on a standalone basis. In the first year of the JV the pace of planting is likely to remain at the current 150,000 hectares per annum target. However, the pace of planting is expected to increase thereafter up to a targeted rate of at least 350,000 hectares per annum by the fourth year.

A higher quality planting programme.
D1 has to date focused on contract farming and seed purchase agreements. These planting methods are less capital intensive and better reflect D1’s financial resources. The arrangements have facilitated the roll-out of D1’s vertically integrated jatropha based strategy but are limited by: the use of lower yielding wild seed; wide variations in land quality and agricultural techniques and the substantial number of partners spread across a wide geography.

The JV’s planting is intended to be much more strongly weighted towards managed plantations where the JV owns and/or controls the land and production, and towards local partners of significant scale and depth. This is a more capital intensive approach than has been hitherto used by D1 to expand the business, but will result in more reliable oil flow to the Joint Venture than some of D1’s existing contract farming and seed supply relationships.

Forming the JV will facilitate this strategy, partly because BP will help with the extra funding implied by the extra capital intensity, and partly because BP’s reputation and standing are likely to help attract high quality partners.

• More rapid deployment of higher yielding jatropha varieties.
All planting to date has been undertaken using uncultivated “wild seed” which D1 believes will yield 1.7 tonnes per hectare from mature, well managed plantations. The JV will focus on the deployment of elite E1 seeds, targeting yields of 2.7 tonnes per hectare as rapidly as is practicable and at a faster rate than under D1’s standalone business plan. In due course subsequent generations of proprietary seed with increased yields and / or improved characteristics will be utilised.

DOPSL, D1’s new plant breeding and seedling production company, remains outside the JV and will be an exclusive provider of elite planting material and will produce more elite seedlings than under the standalone plan. This is possible because the planting programme will be both larger, and will comprise a higher proportion of land where the commercial relationship is strong enough to merit the deployment of elite seed.

Furthermore, under the terms of the proposed arrangement, the increase of DOPSL’s production capability will be fully paid for by the JV, even though DOPSL itself remains a wholly-owned subsidiary of D1.

• Development of logistics strategy and a global supply chain.
As well as offering the opportunity for greater levels of planting and at higher yields, the formation of the JV will assist with establishing a full, vertically integrated supply chain taking harvested seeds through crushing and pre-processing, and then delivering CJO both to domestic and export customers. BP brings very considerable expertise in establishing and managing operations and supply chains on a global basis and the D1 Board believes that the Joint Venture will draw significant benefit from BP’s experience in this field.

• Use of BP network and brand.
BP has a strong presence and reputation in almost all of the countries where the JV will be operating. The JV will capitalise on this in its dealings with government and regulatory agencies, NGOs and current or potential partners. In addition to lending its name to the Joint Venture, BP plc has provided a royalty-free licence agreement allowing the JV to use the BP “helios” trademark on its communications materials.

• Enhanced funding for D1 and leverage for its shareholders.
The capital required by the JV is to increase the scope and pace of planting activities, focus on the deployment of elite seed, finance a significant increase in DOPSL’s production capacity, and develop an optimal logistics strategy. Of this BP will be responsible for funding the first £31.75m of working capital. These monies are expected to be drawn down over the next two years, thus providing a cash flow benefit to D1 relative to its standalone plan. Beyond this, D1 and BP will be jointly responsible for funding the Joint Venture on a basis pro rata to their shareholdings. The JV is also able to raise further funds in the debt capital markets.

Plant science and seedling production
D1’s plant science and seedling production business will be transferred into DOPSL, which will remain a wholly-owned subsidiary of D1. The formation of DOPSL establishes D1’s existing plant science and seedling production business as a discrete stand-alone entity with its own dedicated team. This will enable DOPSL to maintain its focus on research and development, and to provide the framework by which it can increasingly contribute to the D1 group. DOPSL’s production costs will be fully funded by the Joint Venture.

As at 23 June 2007, D1 had planted or obtained rights to offtake over approximately 172,000 hectares as summarised in the table below:

D1’s effective economic interest in the above planting after taking into account the interests of its partners is approximately 50 per cent.

Shares of D1 went up 10% today.


D1: Analyst presentation D1-BP Fuel Crops Limited [*.pdf]

Biopact: D1 Oils has planted over 156,000 hectares of jatropha - May 03, 2007

Article continues

Omani biofuel project involves tapping date palms - a closer look

From the futuristic science of synthetic biology, to the ancient art of tapping palm trees... Earlier we referred to a very ambitious biofuel project presented by an entrepreneur from Oman. Mohammed bin Saif al-Harthy and his associates at the Oman Green Energy Company announced they were going to utilize 10 million of the region's ubiquitous date palms as a feedstock for ethanol. Initially it was not clear which parts of the tree would be used, because al-Harty stressed that neither the fruit, nor the cellulosic biomass would be harvested.

From the vague project description we deduced that it might involve the traditional technique of tapping sucrose-rich sap from the palm tree (Phoenix Dactylifera), as is still done today to make date palm wine, sugar and syrup. Reuters' AlertNet service conducted a telephone interview with al-Harty and confirms that this is indeed the case.

Tapping traditions
Tapping trees is very labor intensive and demands traditional skills needed to guarantee the survival of the tree. The technique constitutes a severe intervention, but the rewards may be worth it: sap yields can be high (up to 10 liters per tree per day), the sugar content is high as well and the juice can be readily fermented and distilled (more below).

The date palm sap stores the bulk of its reserve of photosynthetically produced carbohydrates in the form of sucrose in solution in the vascular bundles of its trunk. When the central growing point or upper part of the trunk is incised the palm sap will exude as a fresh clear juice consisting principally of sucrose. When left to stand and favoured by the warm season (when tapping takes place), breakdown of sucrose will soon commence, increasing the invert sugar content, after which fermentation will set in spontaneously by naturally occurring yeasts and within a day most of the sugar will have been converted into alcohol.

Tapping deprives the palm of most of its (productive) leaves and food reserves and to recuperate these losses it is knocked out for at least 3 or 4 years before it will bear a full crop of fruit again. A severe wound inflicted on the palm is kept open every day to maintain the sap flow. The palm's survival depends on the skill of the tapper because if the daily scarring is carried on too far, the palm will die. Literally the palm's life balances on razor's edge:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Other palms
In some countries, like India, tapping (wild) date palms is an established cottage industry and several other trees have undergone such traditions over the course of centuries - from the African oil palm and the coconut to less well known palms such as Arenga saccharifera, Caryota urens or Borassus flabellifer. Traditions go back thousands of years. Earlier, we reported about the Nypa fruticans or mangrove palm, a tropical species with a long history of being tapped for its sugar rich sap and which recently attracted a major ethanol investment in Malaysia (more here). A good overview of such ancient tapping techniques, the products they yield, and the wide variety of palms with potential can be found in Christophe Dalibard's study, titled "Overall view on the tradition of tapping palm trees and prospects for animal production", to which we referred earlier.


In his book 'Date Palm Products', written for the FAO, W.H. Barreveld devotes a chapter to different tapping techniques used on the date palm. He includes an overview of yields, both from Arabia (for Phoenix Dactylifera) and from India (where the 'wild' date palm, Phoenix Sylvestris, is tapped on a wide scale). The numbers look as follows (click to enlarge):

The sugar contained in the palm juice can be processed into a range of products, from jaggery and crystalline sugar with remaining molasses, to sugar-candy, large sugar crystals and sugar syrup.

Barreveld provides us with a number that allows us to estimate the ethanol potential of a hectare of tapped date palms. As an average the outturn of jaggery is 10-15% of the weight of the raw juice. Jaggery itself contains between 85-90% of total sugar (composed of different types), the rest being moisture, proteine and fat.

Taking a yield of 8 liters of sap per tree, a planting density of between 156 to 204 trees per hectare, and a harvesting period of 45 days per year (continuous tapping), between 56,160 and 73,440 liters of juice can be harvested per hectare per year. From this amount some 5616 to 7344 kilograms of jaggery can be obtained at low conversion efficiencies, which comes down to 4550 to 6240 kilograms of pure sugar (low estimate). As a rule of thumb, conventional yeast fermentation produces around 0.5 kg of ethanol from 1 kg of any the C6 sugars. In short, from one hectare of tapped date palms, some 2275 to 3120 kilos of ethanol can be obtained.

These raw numbers are based on yields observed in villages that practise the ancient tapping techniques. With some research they can probably be increased significantly. Even the relatively simple act of tapping a tree can become a field of biotech research and innovation, as was demonstrated over the course of the past years in the case of rubber tapping, a process that has seen the introduction of novel techniques such as gas stimulation with ethylene, which enhances the flow of sap (more here). Basic R&D in date palm tapping techniques will yield similar innovations.

Labor intensity
Still, technicalities, potential and traditions aside, tapping is labor intensive. This explains the very high number of jobs that the project is expected to deliver (up to 3500 people working on 80,000 trees -, in a second phase, 10 million trees will be tapped). In the field of energy this is rather problematic. The entire purpose of modern energy is to allow man to use up less physical energy from his own body, and to let the energy technology do it for him. If an army of low-paid tappers is needed to harvest fuel for another segment of society, then questions about equity and social sustainability must be asked.

Earlier, we hinted at this problem by comparing the 'jobs delivered per joule of energy' for a series of energy technologies and resources: from oil, gas and coal to renewables such as wind, solar and different biofuels. In the case of biofuels, harvesting some crops is so labor intensive, that they can only function in a social system based on low-skilled, manual and badly paid labor.

Some crops, like palm oil, are harvested manually, but because of their extremely high yields, they allow smallholders and harvesters to make a decent living. For a crop like jatropha, this is not certain. Sugarcane is being mechanised.

Of all possible non-mechanised harvesting techniques - cutting (cane), picking (jatropha seeds), slashing (oil palm fruit bunches) and tapping (palms, rubber trees) - tapping belongs to the more labor intensive ones because it requires quite some precision work.

It is very interesting to see an entrepreneur from a developing nation sharing the enthusiasm for biofuels. Mohammed bin Saif al-Harty wants to export to world markets and turn his oil-producing Sultanate into a biofuel empire.

He has seen an opportunity and if it works out in a socially acceptable way, then all the better, because reviving an ancient art to fuel the future is a beautiful idea. Moreover, if the project succeeds, we could be looking at a vast new expanse of land - stretching from the semi-arid zones and deserts of North Africa over the Middle East and well into Central Asia - where sugar can be tapped for biofuels.

Slide show: all pictures on the traditional date palm tapping technique were taken from 'Date Palm Products', written for the FAO, by W.H. Barreveld.

Reuters: Interview-Omani sees date palms as future fuel - June 28, 2007

Christophe Dalibard, Overall view on the tradition of tapping palm trees and prospects for animal production, International Relations Service, Ministry of Agriculture, Paris, France, Volume 11, Number 1 1999.

W.H. Barreveld, Date Palm Products, FAO Agricultural Services Bulletin N° 101, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, 1993

Biopact: Nipah ethanol project receives major investment, January 05, 2007

Article continues

Scientists take major step towards 'synthetic life': first bacterial genome transplantation changing one species to another

A major breakthrouh in the life sciences was published in the journal Science today. Researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) present the results of their work on genome transplantation methods allowing them to transform one type of bacteria into another type dictated by the transplanted chromosome. The work, published by JCVI’s Carole Lartigue, Ph.D. and colleagues, outlines the methods and techniques used to change one bacterial species, Mycoplasma capricolum into another, Mycoplasma mycoides Large Colony (LC), by replacing one organism’s genome with the other one’s genome.

The achievement opens the era of synthetic biology, a revolutionary science field the consequences and applications of which we can only begin to imagine. In order to prepare the public for this news, world leading scientists issued a declaration a few days ago, in which they call for a global push to advance synthetic biology. Prior to this 'Ilulissat Statement', Dr Craig Venter, president of JVCI and founder of the Synthetic Genomics Company, patented the technique for the creation of a 'minimal bacterial genome'.

To alleviate public fears, scientists have repeatedly stressed that synthetic biology may address some of the most daunting problems of our times, such as climate change, energy, health, and water resources. Synthetic biology possibly offers solutions to these issues: microorganisms that convert ubiquitous plant matter to biofuels in a highly efficient manner or that synthesize new drugs or target and destroy rogue cells in the body. Now that a major breakthrough has been achieved, they repeat the message once again:
The successful completion of this research is important because it is one of the key proof of principles in synthetic genomics that will allow us to realize the ultimate goal of creating a synthetic organism. We are committed to this research as we believe that synthetic genomics holds great promise in helping to solve issues like climate change and in developing new sources of energy. - Dr J. Craig Venter, president and chairman, JCVI
Methods and techniques
The JCVI team devised several key steps to enable the genome transplantation. First, an antibiotic selectable marker gene was added to the M. mycoides LC chromosome to allow for selection of living cells containing the transplanted chromosome. Then the team purified the DNA or chromosome from M. mycoides LC so that it was free from proteins (called naked DNA). This M. mycoides LC chromosome was then transplanted into the M. capricolum cells. After several rounds of cell division, the recipient M. capricolum chromosome disappeared having been replaced by the donor M. mycoides LC chromosome, and the M. capricolum cells took on all the phenotypic characteristics of M. mycoides LC cells.

As a test of the success of the genome transplantation, the team used two methods — 2D gel electrophoresis and protein sequencing, to prove that all the expressed proteins were now the ones coded for by the M. mycoides LC chromosome. Two sets of antibodies that bound specifically to cell surface proteins from each cell were reacted with transplant cells, to demonstrate that the membrane proteins switch to those dictated by the transplanted chromosome not the recipient cell chromosome. The new, transformed organisms show up as bright blue colonies in images of blots probed with M. mycoides LC specific antibody.

The group chose to work with these species of mycoplasmas for several reasons — the small genomes of these organisms which make them easier to work with, their lack of cell walls, and the team’s experience and expertise with mycoplasmas. The mycoplasmas used in the transplantation experiment are also relatively fast growing, allowing the team to ascertain success of the transplantation sooner than with other species of mycoplasmas:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Dr. Lartigue and her team is excited by the results of the research, and the scientists are continuing to perfect and refine the techniques and methods as they move to the next phases and prepare to develop a fully synthetic chromosome.

Genome transplantation is an essential enabling step in the field of synthetic genomics as it is a key mechanism by which chemically synthesized chromosomes can be activated into viable living cells. The ability to transfer the naked DNA isolated from one species into a second microbial species paves the way for next experiments to transplant a fully synthetic bacterial chromosome into a living organism and if successful, “boot up” the new entity.

According to the JCVI there are many important applications of synthetic genomics research including development of new energy sources and as means to produce pharmaceuticals, chemicals or textiles. The research was funded by Synthetic Genomics Inc., Dr Venter's company.

Background and Ethical Considerations
The work described by Lartigue et al. has its genesis in research begun by Dr. Venter and colleagues in the mid-1990’s after sequencing Mycoplasma genitalium and beginning work on the 'minimal genome project'. This area of research, trying to understand the minimal genetic components necessary to sustain life, underwent significant ethical review by a panel of experts at the University of Pennsylvania. The bioethical group's independent deliberations, published at the same time as the scientific minimal genome research, resulted in a unanimous decision that there were no strong ethical reasons why the work should not continue as long as the scientists involved continued to engage public discussion.

In 2003 Drs. Venter, Smith and Hutchison made the first significant strides in the development of a synthetic genome by their work in assembling the 5,386 base pair bacteriophage φX174 (phi X). They did so using short, single strands of synthetically produced, commercially available DNA (known as oligonucleotides) and using an adaptation of polymerase chain reaction (PCR), known as polymerase cycle assembly (PCA), to build the phi X genome. The team produced the synthetic phi X in just 14 days.

Dr. Venter and the team at JCVI continue to be concerned with the societal implications of their work and the field of synthetic genomics generally. As such, the Institute’s policy team, along with the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), were funded by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for a 15-month study to explore the risks and benefits of this emerging technology, as well as possible safeguards to prevent abuse, including bioterrorism. After several workshops and public sessions the group is set to publish a report in summer 2007 outlining options for the field and its researchers.

Images: Colonies of the transformed Mycoplasma mycoides bacterium. Credit: J. Craig Venter Institute

Carole Lartigue, John I. Glass, Nina Alperovich, Rembert Pieper, Prashanth P. Parmar, Clyde A. Hutchison III, Hamilton O. Smith, J. Craig Venter, "Genome Transplantation in Bacteria: Changing One Species to Another", Science, Published Online June 28, 2007, DOI: 10.1126/science.1144622

J. Craig Venter Institute: JCVI Scientists Publish First Bacterial Genome Transplantation Changing One Species to Another - June 28, 2007.

Article continues

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Carbon sequestration in deep coal seams feasible, but with risks

Deep coal seams that are not commercially viable for coal production could be used for permanent underground storage of carbon dioxide (CO2) generated by human activities, thus avoiding atmospheric release, according to two studies published in the International Journal of Environment and Pollution. Ground water contamination by toxic metals released during the process entails a risk, the researchers found. On the positive side, they confirmed that useful coal bed methane can be recovered from the technique.

Finding ways to capture and sequester the carbon dioxide (CCS) emitted by power plants, indefinitely, is one approach being investigated around the world in efforts to reduce atmospheric CO2 levels and so help combat climate change. CO2 can be sequestered in two broad ways: either terresterially (for example by storing biochar in soils, or by growing biomass), or geologically by pumping into oil and gas reservoirs to extract the last few drops of fuel, in deep saline formations, such as brine aquifers, or unmineable coal seams (illustration, click to enlarge).

If applied to power plants that burn biofuels, CCS results in a system that yields carbon-negative energy. Such 'Bio-Energy with Carbon Storage' (BECS) systems present one of the most feasible concepts to take large amounts of historic CO2 out of the atmosphere. No other energy system is carbon-negative (previous post).

Large potential
Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's National Energy Technology Laboratory have carried out initial investigations into the potential environmental impacts of CO2 sequestration in unmineable coal seams. The research team collected 2000 coal samples from 250 coal beds across 17 states. Some sources of coal harbor vast quantities of methane, or natural gas. Low-volatile rank coals, for instance, average the highest methane content, 13 cubic meters per tonne of coal.

The researchers found that the depth from which a coal sample is taken reflects the average methane content, with much deeper seams containing less methane. However, the study provides only a preliminary assessment of the possibilities. The key question is whether methane can be tapped from the unmineable coal seams and replaced permanently with huge quantities of carbon dioxide; if so, such coal seams could represent a vast sink for CO2 produced by industry. The researchers point out that worldwide, there are almost 3 trillions tonnes of storage capacity for CO2 in such deep coal seams:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

To replicate actual geological conditions, NETL has built a Geological Sequestration Core Flow Laboratory (GSCFL). A wide variety of CO2 injection experiments in coal and other rock cores (e.g., sandstone) are being performed under in situ conditions of triaxial stress, pore pressure, and temperature. Preliminary results obtained from Pittsburgh No. 8 coal indicate that the permeability decreases (from micro-darcies to nano-darcies or extremely low flow properties) with increasing CO2 pressure, with an increase in strain associated with the triaxial confining pressures restricting the ability of the coal to swell. The already existing low pore volume of the coal is decreased, reducing the flow of CO2, measured as permeability. This is a potential problem that will have to be overcome if coal seam sequestration is to be widely used.

The research team has also investigated some of the possible side-effects of sequestering CO2 in coal mines. They tested a high volatility bituminous coal with produced water and gaseous carbon dioxide at 40 Celsius and 50 times atmospheric pressure. They used microscopes and X-ray diffraction to analyze the coal after the reaction was complete. They found that some toxic metals originally trapped in the coal were released by the process, contaminating the water used in the reaction.

"Changes in water chemistry and the potential for mobilizing toxic trace elements from coal beds are potentially important factors to be considered when evaluating deep, unmineable coal seams for CO2 sequestration, though it is also possible that, considering the depth of the injection, that such effects might be harmless" the researchers say. "The concentrations of beryllium, cadmium, mercury, and zinc increased significantly, though both beryllium and mercury remained below drinking water standards." However, toxic arsenic, molybdenum, lead, antimony, selenium, titanium, thallium, vanadium, and iodine were not detected in the water, although they were present in the original coal samples.

Illustration: different options to store carbon dioxide released from power plants. Credit: Energy Information Administration.

Sheila W. Hedges, Yee Soong, J. Richard McCarthy Jones, Donald K. Harrison, Gino A. Irdi, Elizabeth A. Frommell, Robert M. Dilmore, Curt M. White, "Exploratory study of some potential environmental impacts of CO2 sequestration in unmineable coal seams" [*.abstract], International Journal of Environment and Pollution, 2007 - Vol. 29, No.4 pp. 457 - 473, DOI: 10.1504/IJEP.2007.014232

Thomas D. Brown, Donald K. Harrison, J. Richard Jones, Kenneth A. LaSota, "Recovering coal bed methane from deep unmineable coal seams and carbon sequestration" [*.abstract], International Journal of Environment and Pollution, 2007 - Vol. 29, No.4 pp. 474 - 483, DOI: 10.1504/IJEP.2007.014233

U.S. Department of Energy carbon sequestration programme website.

Article continues

Scientists launch fundamental study of plant roots, may yield drought-tolerant crops

At a time when a major U.N. analysis on desertification identifies the phenomenon as one of the greatest environmental challenges of our times, a new £9.2 (€13.6/US$18.4) million research centre at the University of Nottingham will break new ground in our understanding of plant growth that could lead to the development of drought-resistant crops for developing countries.

The Centre for Plant Integrative Biology (CPIB) will focus on cutting-edge research into plant biology — particularly the little-studied area of root growth, function and response to environmental cues.

CPIB brings together experts from four different Schools at the University — Biosciences, Computer Science & IT, Mathematical Sciences, and Mechanical, Materials and Manufacturing Engineering. They will create a 'virtual root' of the simple weed Arabidopsis, a species of the Brassica family routinely used for molecular genetic studies. Expertise in Arabidopsis research is already well developed at the Nottingham Arabidopsis Stock Centre, which integrally linked with CPIB.

Virtual root
A greater understanding of plant roots, particularly how they respond to different levels of moisture, nutrients and salt in the soil, could pave the way for the development of new drought-resistant crops that can thrive in arid areas and coastal margins of the developing world.

Because it is difficult to study roots — as all their growth occurs below ground level — scientists will develop a 'virtual root' using the latest mathematical modelling techniques. By developing computer models of the root that exactly mimic biological processes, they will be able to observe what is happening at every stage from the molecular scale upwards.

Research in this area is crucial because the roots dictate life or death for a plant through uptake of water and nutrients, and response to environmental factors:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Professor Charlie Hodgman, Principal Director of the CPIB, said: “CPIB aims to set a prime example of how multidisciplinary teams can bring novel ideas to and discoveries in crucial aspects of plant science.”

The expertise obtained from the research will be broadened into different crop species. CPIB researchers ultimately aim to integrate their 'virtual root' with those of other international projects that model shoot and leaf development, leading to a generic computer model of a whole plant which will again be used to advance crop and plant science.

The CPIB, which is based at the University of Nottingham's Sutton Bonington Campus, has its official opening on July 2, 2007. It is funded by the Systems Biology joint initiative of BBSRC and EPSRC, which has provided £27M for six specialised centres across the UK.

The initiative is part of a larger research effort by the global science community to develop climate-resilient crops (earlier post).

Illustration: a laser-scanned cross-section of Arabidopsis root. Credit: Duke University.

University of Nottingham: Getting to the root of plant growth - June 27, 2007.

Wikibook on Arabidopsis root development.

Biopact: Climate change threatens wild relatives of key crops - May 22, 2007

Biopact: CGIAR developing climate-resilient crops to beat global warming - December 05, 2006

Article continues

UOP to develop biofuel technology for military jets

UOP LLC, a Honeywell company, announced [*.pdf] today it will accelerate research and development on renewable energy technology to convert vegetable oils to military jet fuels. UOP developed a technique based on hydroprocessing that may yield fuels that meet the stringent requirements.

The goal of the project, which is backed by US$6.7 million in funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is to develop and commercialize processes to produce a bio-based Jet Propellant 8 (JP-8) used by U.S. and NATO militaries.
The focus of our renewable energy efforts has been to develop technologies that align with today’s standard refinery practices, but allow a broader range of feedstock options. We are confident that we have assembled a strong team of experts that will be successful in proving the viability of biofeedstock technologies for JP-8 and other jet fuels, while offering the U.S. military another option for sustainable liquid fuels critical to their programs. - Jennifer Holmgren, director of UOP’s Renewable Energy and Chemicals business unit.
Bio-jet fuels, seen as the last biofuel frontier, have received a considerable amount of interest lately, with major aerospace manufacturers, airlines, biotech companies, universities, and governments (Argentina, US) participating in research to produce viable fuels for use in jet engines. Last year DARPA launched its BioFuels BAA (Broad Agency Announcement) aimed at exploring a wide range of energy alternatives and fuel efficiency efforts in a bid to reduce the military's reliance on oil to power its aircraft, ground vehicles and non-nuclear ships.

Under the BAA, DARPA funds research and development efforts to develop a process that efficiently produces a surrogate for petroleum based military jet fuel - JP-8 (properties *.pdf) - from oil-rich crops produced by either agriculture or aquaculture (including but not limited to plants, algae, fungi, and bacteria) and which ultimately can be an affordable alternative to petroleum-derived JP-8. Approximately 4.5 billion gallons of JP-8 fuel are used by the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Army and NATO annually.

Current commercial processes for producing biodiesel such as transesterification (schematic, click to enlarge) yield a fuel that is unsuitable for military applications, which require higher energy density and a wide operating temperature range. Subsequent secondary processing of biodiesel is currently inefficient and results in bio-fuel JP-8 being prohibitively expensive.

The goal of DARPA's BioFuels program is therefor to enable an affordable alternative to petroleum-derived JP-8. The primary technical objective of the program is to achieve a 60% (or greater) conversion efficiency, by energy content, of crop oil to JP-8 surrogate and elucidate a path to 90% conversion:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Proposers were encouraged to consider process paths that minimize the use of external energy sources, which are adaptable to a range or blend of feedstock crop oils, and which produce process by-products that have ancillary manufacturing or industrial value. Current biodiesel alternative fuels are produced by transesterification of triglycerides extracted from agricultural crop oils. This process, while highly efficient, yields a blend of methyl esters (biodiesel) that is 25% lower in energy density than JP-8 and exhibits unacceptable cold-flow features at the lower extreme of the required JP-8 operating regime (-50F).

Potential approaches to produce a surrogate fuel for JP-8 may include thermal, catalytic, or enzymatic technologies or combinations of these. It is anticipated that the key technology developments needed to obtain the program goal will result from a cross-disciplinary approach spanning the fields of process chemistry and engineering, materials engineering, biotechnology, and propulsion system engineering. The key challenges are to develop and optimize process technologies to obtain a maximum conversion of crop oil to fuel.

JP-8 is a kerosene-based, high-performance fuel that is less flammable and less hazardous than other fuel options, allowing for better safety and combat survivability. In addition to jets, JP-8 is also used to fuel heaters, stoves, tanks, and other vehicles in military service. Commercial airliners use Jet A and Jet A-1, which is also kerosene-based.

UOP's process
UOP's bid was selected and the company will now work with Honeywell Aerospace, Cargill, Arizona State University, Sandia National Laboratories and Southwest Research Institute on the project, which is expected to be completed by the end of 2008. Fuel produced by the new process will have to meet stringent military specifications and is expected to achieve 90 percent energy efficiency for maximum conversion of feed to fuel, reduced waste and reduced production costs. UOP expects the technology will be viable for future use in the production of jet fuel for commercial jets.

UOP, formed its Renewable Energy & Chemicals business unit in late 2006 to commercialize solutions for production of renewable biofuel energy. At that time, UOP announced it has developed, along with European energy company Eni, a hydroprocessing technique to convert vegetable oils and waste into a high-cetane green diesel fuel with low emissions and high efficiency. The process, called UOP/Eni Ecofining, uses existing refinery infrastructure and technology. Earlier this month, UOP announced Eni will build the first Ecofining facility in Italy. The facility is projected to start up in early 2009 (earlier post).

DARPA is the central research and development organization for the Department of Defense (DoD). It manages and directs selected research and development projects for DoD for the advancement of military roles and missions. This is UOP’s first project with DARPA.

UOP LLC is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Honeywell International, Inc. and is part of Honeywell’s Specialty Materials strategic business group. Based in Phoenix, Honeywell’s aerospace business is a leading global provider of integrated avionics, engines, systems and service solutions for aircraft manufacturers, airlines, business and general aviation, military, space and airport operations.

UOP: UOP and Italy's ENI S.p.A. announce plans for facility to produce diesel fuel from vegetable oil- June 19, 2007.

Amar Anumakonda, PhD, Bio-Renewable Fuels: Green Diesel [*.pdf], Renewable Energy and Chemicals Business Unit, UOP LLC.

Strategic Technology Office: DARPA, BioFuels program.

Biopact: Eni to produce green diesel from vegetable oils based on UOP's hydrogenation technology - June 20, 2007

Article continues

Foss and DuPont launch analytical instrument that estimates ethanol yield potential of grain

DuPont and Denmark-based FOSS today announced an agreement that will help farmers and ethanol producers in North America better understand the ethanol yield potential of grain corn being delivered to ethanol plants. The launch of a new instrument will inform farmers which crop variety to grow when, and may increase the efficiency of feedstock production.

Under terms of the agreement, DuPont business Pioneer Hi-Bred, which develops corn hybrids for ethanol, is providing to FOSS proprietary Ethanol Yield Potential calibration technology for use in FOSS grain analyzers. The technology provides estimated ethanol yield in terms of gallons per bushel.

The upgraded FOSS instrument now gives ethanol producers a quick, uniform and extremely accurate reading of the starch content (and thus the potential alcohol yield) in a shipment of corn, wheat or other grains.
This technology is a big step in helping increase ethanol output per acre. When used in FOSS instruments, it gives farmers and ethanol producers nearly instant ethanol yield results on each load of grain brought to an ethanol plant. - Dean Oestreich, vice president and general manager of DuPont and president of Pioneer
The technology allows ethanol producers to use real-time data to manage the grain feeding their ethanol production process. Farmers will be able to take this information and combine it with their on-farm agronomic performance data to tailor the corn hybrids they plant to maximize their ethanol yield on every acre.

Pioneer has already evaluated all of its hybrids for ethanol yields and has identified over 180 hybrids that produce higher than average amounts of ethanol. These high total fermentable (HTF) ethanol hybrids are being positioned with farmers near ethanol plants:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

FOSS will be installing the Pioneer Ethanol Yield Potential calibration into its Infratec 1241 Grain Analyzers and marketing them to dry-grind ethanol plants in North America.
When installed on our instruments, this calibration technology will allow ethanol producers to work with farmers to increase the amount of ethanol they produce. This is truly exciting technology that will help make the most of every bushel of corn harvested. - Christian Svensgaard, President of FOSS North America
FOSS grain analyzers measure several parameters (such as protein, moisture, gluten, colour, starch, hardness, etc...) for a wide range of grains and flours (barley, canola, corn, rice, soybean, wheat, malt, grreen malt, wheat flour, rye flour, durum flour, etc...).

The instrument has the following properties and advantages:
  • Enables the grain trader to specify and control product characteristics exactly with clear segregation for each specific purpose, achieving accurate and optimal payment for each purpose.
  • Just pour the sample into the hopper, press the button and, in less than a minute, read the results on the large color display.
  • The huge Infratec database comprises over 50,000 cross checked samples – calibrations building on a wide sample range from over 20 years of harvests. No surprises – you are prepared even for unexpected harvesting conditions.
  • State of the art performance with transferable calibrations and true transparency between instruments reduces cost of ownership.
  • Accuracy during all conditions - results are independent of sample and ambient temperature giving the right result whether on a hot summer day or in the cold depths of winter.
DuPont is a leader in the biofuels industry and has developed a three-part strategy to increase grain ethanol yield per acre; develop technology to convert cellulose to biofuels; and develop and supply next-generation, improved biofuels.

As the industry leader in NIR/NIT technology, FOSS provides and supports dedicated analytical solutions for the food and agricultural industries. From raw material to finished product, FOSS instrumentation provides precision and control at any stage of the production process including on-line, at-line and bench analysis.

Today over 80 percent of the world's grain is tested on a FOSS solution. The FOSS Infratec 1241 is officially approved and established worldwide as a standard for determining protein, moisture, oil, starch and other parameters essential to optimum ethanol yield.

Pioneer Hi-Bred, a DuPont business, is the world's leading source of customized solutions for farmers, livestock producers and grain and oilseed processors. With headquarters in Des Moines, Iowa, Pioneer provides access to advanced plant genetics in nearly 70 countries.

Article continues

Suez Energy International to build sugar cane biomass plant in Brazil - applies for carbon credits

Suez Energy International, a subsidiary of Suez, one of Europe's largest energy companies, has announced that it is to build a new cogeneration plant fuelled by sugar cane biomass at São Jõa da Boa Vista, in the State of São Paulo, Brazil.

The São João thermo-electric power plant, with an installed capacity of 70 MW, will be constructed in partnership with Dedini Açucar e Álcool, one of Brazil's leading agro-industrial groups active in the bioenergy and ethanol sector. Dedini will consume 47 MW of electricity and the steam produced by the plant.

Tractebel Energia, SUEZ Energy International’s Brazilian generation company, will have a 63% stake in the project, the remainder being held by Dedini Açucar e Álcool. The project will begin operations on January 1, 2010.

The plant will produce energy sold by Tractebel Energia during the first alternative energy sources auctions organized in Brazil. Tractebel Energia sold 23 MW at 141.16 reais/MWh (€55.3/MWh) to a pool of Brazilian distributors under a 15-year Power Purchase Agreement.

BNDES, the development bank of Brazil will finance up to 70% of the 155 million reais (€60 million) total investment cost of the plant, through its special credit line for biomass projects.
The São Jão plant represents SUEZ’s first investment in the largest energy consumption market of the country, the State of São Paulo, where many of its industrial customers are located. The project will further diversify Tractebel Energia’s sources of thermal production, and will apply for carbon credits in the Carbon Development Mechanism under the Kyoto Protocol. - Dirk Beeuwsaert, CEO of SUEZ Energy International.
Tractebel Energia, Brazil's largest private power generator, operates in the States of Santa Catarina, Rio Grande do Sul, Paraná, Mato Grosso do Sul and Goiás (map, click to enlarge). It manages 13 power plants, 6 of which are hydro and 7 thermal plants:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Its installed capacity totals 6,870 MW of which 79% is hydro. The company owns the biomass Lages cogeneration plant in Santa Catarina and has cogeneration projects using sugar cane waste at an advanced stage of development.

Suez Energy International is the business line of Suez responsible for the Group's energy activities outside Europe. Its mission is to develop and to manage electricity and gas projects and to offer tailor-made energy solutions to industry and commercial customers. The company generates and transports electricity, produces and distributes steam, desalinated water, transports gas through pipelines, manages gas distribution systems and is active in liquefying, shipping, storing and regasifying LNG.

Map: Tractebel Energia's power plants in Brazil. Credit: Suez Energy International.

Article continues

POET produces cellulosic ethanol from corn cobs

POET, the largest dry-mill ethanol producer in the U.S., announced that they have produced cellulosic ethanol from corn cobs. The company announced the results of the successful test today along with their intentions to make cobs and corn fiber the feedstock for their commercial cellulosic ethanol production facility that will be jointly funded with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

Formerly known as Broin, the 20-year old company currently operates 20 production facilities in the United States with seven more in construction or under development. The company produces and markets more than one billion gallons (3.785 billion liters) of 'first-generation' corn starch based ethanol annually.

The cellulosic project that POET is now jointly funding with the DOE will convert an existing 50 million gallon per year (189 million liters) dry-mill ethanol plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa into a commercial cellulosic biorefinery. Once complete, the facility will produce 125 million gallons per year (473 million liters), 25 percent of which will be from cellulosic feedstock. By adding cellulosic production to an existing grain ethanol plant, POET will be able to produce 11 percent more ethanol from a bushel of corn, 27 percent more from an acre of corn, while almost completely eliminating fossil fuel consumption and decreasing water usage by 24 percent. Last week, POET announced that Jim Sturdevant, a 22-year veteran of the US Geological Survey, will serve as director of the project:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Besides using corn cobs, POET has also succeeded in producing cellulosic ethanol from fiber, the husk of the kernel, which is extracted through its proprietary 'BFRAC' fractionation process.

Dr. Mark Stowers, VP of Research & Development for POET said the cob has several advantages from an ethanol production perspective. The cob has more carbohydrate content than the rest of the corn plant, giving the ability to create more ethanol from it. In addition, the cob has higher bulk density than the other parts of the corn stalk, so it is easier to transport from the field to the facility.
For a host of reasons, POET is focused on corn fiber and cobs as the first cellulosic feedstock for our production facilities. First, the fiber that comes from our fractionation process will provide 40 percent of our cellulosic feedstock from the corn kernels that we are already processing in our facility. That means that nearly half of our cellulosic feedstock comes with no additional planting, harvest, storage or transportation needs. - Jeff Broin, CEO of POET
The rest of the cellulosic feedstock will come from corn cobs, which will expand the amount of ethanol that can come from a corn crop with minimal additional effort and little to no environmental impact. There is no major market for cobs, so POET will be producing cellulosic ethanol from an agricultural waste stream. Because the cob makes up only 18 percent of the above ground stover, it will not adversely impact soil quality.

Article continues

Novozymes enters development cooperation on cellulosic ethanol in China

At the end of this week, industrial enzyme producer Novozymes expects to sign a research agreement with state-owned China Resources Alcohol Corporation (CRAC) on the development of cellulosic biofuels in the People's Republic.

CRAC operates China's only pilot plant for the production of cellulose-ethanol, located in Zhaodong in Heilongjiang province, which already hosts a full-scale first-generation ethanol plant supplying the local biofuel market. The technology for the demonstration plant was provided by the SunOpta BioProcess Group. CRAC's plant is the first facility in the world to produce ethanol from cellulosic biomass (local corn stover, stalks and leaves) on a continuous 24-hour basis.

Novozymes will now help develop and improve the necessary cellulase enzymes for the bioconversion process that is still in an experimental phase (schematic, click to enlarge). During the three-year development phase Novozymes and CRAC will form a joint research team, which will work at the pilot factory in Zhaodong. At a later stage other partners may be brought in to add additional competences to the project.
With our knowledge of enzyme technology we can help CRAC to develop commercially viable processes for producing second-generation biofuel. At the same time, the project is important because the whole of this industry is still in its infancy. A project as comprehensive as this one will have good prospects of leading to new technologies within the whole area, which is engaged in converting cellulose-based biomass. I am sure that the cooperation between two such important players will lead to fruitful experiences within these critical production processes. And for Novozymes the cooperation will take us a good deal further in our general ‘biomass-to-ethanol’ research. - Humphrey Lau, Marketing Director at Novozymes.
Over the long term Novozymes expects China to become an important biofuel market. The consumption of fuels for transport has increased significantly in recent years in line with the rapidly growing number of cars (earlier post). This has meant intense focus on sustainable energy, especially biofuels, by the policy makers of the People's Republic (more on the PRC's national bioenergy and biofuel strategy).

Novozymes envisages that the production of ethanol based on food grains – so-called first-generation biofuels – will not grow as strongly in China in the coming years because the country is a net importer of these feedstocks. Moreover, China is considering to phase-out the production of biofuels from such sources and intends to focus on non-food crops such as sweet sorghum, cassava, sweet potatos and jatropha instead (earlier post). The production of second-generation biofuels based on agricultural residues and dedicated energy crops will supplement this development path:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

CRAC is an important player in China's alcohol market and possesses important technologies for the production of biofuels. It is a subsidiary of the state-owned China National Cereals, Oils & Foodstuff Corporation (COFCO), which is one of the largest companies in the country and is involved in several different industries.

COFCO is a leading manufacturer of both biodiesel and ethanol and has already begun utilizing non-food crops such as cassava (previous post). The company currently has stakes in three existing ethanol plants and is building another four of its own, located in the autonomous regions of Inner Mogolia and Guangxi Zhuang, and in the provinces of Hebei and Shandong.

COFCO hopes to acquire a 70 percent share of the Chinese ethanol market within three years.

Novozymes has a dedicated website on its involvement in biofuels, here.

The following are presentations of the company's R&D progress into cellulosic ethanol:

Advancing cellulosic ethanol [*.pdf], Presentation at World Biofuels Markets 2007, Brussels - March 6, 2007

The next generation of fuel ethanol - March 15, 2007

Article continues

Thai surplus ethanol to be exported - negotiations over tank farm lease

Thailand's ethanol producers are currently facing a surplus and want to export their biofuel (earlier post). They plan [*cache] to hold talks with the country's largest company, state-owned oil and gas holding PTT Plc, and with Thailand's leading petrochemical company IRPC Plc to provide chemical storage tank leases as mutual facilities to support the exports. According to Sirivuthi Siamphakdee, chairman of the Chamber of Ethanol Producers, individual exports will not cover the cost of each small shipment which is why a pooling system must be organised.

The planned talks come after the government relaxed regulations permitting ethanol exports last month to ease the surplus. The producers, each processing ethanol at between 200,000 and 500,000 litres per day, need to store ethanol in tanks until the volume is large enough to meet the loading capacity of vessels, which have a capacity of at least five million litres. Seven ethanol plants nationwide are operating at a combined capacity of 955,000 litres per day, and Thai ethanol demand for the manufacture of gasohol (E10) is currently only 450,000 litres per day. This leaves 18 million litres in stock. New ethanol output from two plants will raise total capacity to 1.6 million litres per day soon.

The producers earlier asked the Energy Ministry to help remove export barriers, but the institution replied that it could not become involved in private-sector business. Ethanol manufacturers now face the difficult calculus of deciding whether or not to put up substantial investments to build new tank farms. Local ethanol demand could grow quickly, making such dedicated infrastructures unnecessary.Leasing storage tanks on an ad-hoc basis from the large oil & gas and petrochemical companies offers a way out to tackle the ethanol surplus immediately. But this comes at a premium:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Some ethanol producers have meanwhile ceased production to wait and see how the domestic market evolves. But meanwhile, another seven new plants with a total capacity of 2.1 million litres per day will start operations over the next two years. In short, by 2009, total ethanol output could reach 3.7 million liters per day, more than a billion liters per year. The question is whether this amount will be taken up by the local market soon enough. Thai ethanol is primarily made from cassava.

The reasons behind the Thai surplus can be found in a combination of factors: lack of planning, weak policy frameworks, and a steep learning curve to understand fundamental market drivers. But the military coup which ousted PM Thaksin Shinawatra threw plans in disarray too.

The former PM actively encouraged investment in ethanol plants and feedstock production, telling the industry it intended to stop sales of premium gasoline, which would result in much higher demand for E10. However, after the military coup last year, the interim government said octane 95 gasoline would remain on the market as long as there were cars that could not use E10.

The producers failed to succeed in convincing the new Energy Ministry to mandate the 10% ethanol blend. Its refusal is based on the fact that car manufacturers have not yet given guarantees that the blend does not harm older car engines. Flex-fuel cars, which make up 75% of all new cars sold in biofuel leader Brazil, have not yet penetrated the Thai market either. The Ministry said it does not want to take the risk of causing damage to Thailand's car fleet by mandating the blend.

Image: tank farm at the Rayong refinery, owned and operated by a subsidiary of PTT Plc, located in the southern province of Rayong. Credit: PTT Plc.

Article continues

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

WWF condemns Planktos Inc. iron-seeding plan in the Galapagos

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) today announced its opposition to a plan by Planktos Inc. to dump iron dust in the open ocean west of the Galapagos Islands. The experiment seeks to induce phytoplankton blooms in the hopes that the microscopic marine plants will absorb carbon dioxide. The company is speculating on lucrative ways to combat climate change. Reports indicate that Planktos, Inc. - a for profit - is planning other large-scale iron dumping in other locations in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The current experiment could negatively impact the unique marine ecosystems of the Galapagos Islands.

Scientists have warned against this type of 'geo-engineering' schemes, which have - in the case of iron seeding - clearly shown not to work and could harm ocean life (previous post). Simulations also indicate that such strategies carry considerable environmental risks and could even worsen the effects of climate change (earlier post). For these reasons, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change has clearly stated in its latest report that none of these techniques carry a priority to mitigate climate change (report of the IPCC's Working Group III).
There are much safer and proven ways of preventing or lowering carbon dioxide levels than dumping iron into the ocean. This kind of experimentation with disregard for marine life and the lives of people who rely on the sea is unacceptable. - Dr. Lara Hansen, chief scientist, WWF International Climate Change Program
One of those far more feasible and less risky geo-engineering options is the implementation of carbon-negative bioenergy systems (also known as 'Bio-Energy with Carbon Storage' or BECS, see earlier post, and here, here).

According to a summary by the United States Government submitted to the International Maritime Organization, Planktos, Inc. - a for-profit company - will dump up to 100 tons of iron dust this month in a 36 square mile area located approximately 350 miles west of the Galapagos Islands. Planktos, Inc. plans to dump the iron in international waters using vessels neither flagged under the United States nor leaving from the United States so U.S. regulations such as the U.S. Ocean Dumping Act do not apply and details do not need to be disclosed to U.S. entities:
World Wildlife Fund's concern extends beyond the impact on individual species and extends to the changes that this dumping may cause in the interaction of species, affecting the entire ecosystem. There's a real risk that this experiment may cause a domino effect through the food chain. - Dr. Sallie Chisholm, microbiologist, MIT and board member, World Wildlife Fund
Potential negative impacts of the Planktos experiment include:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

  • Shifts in the composition of species that make up plankton, the base of the marine food chain, would cause changes in all the species that depend on it.
  • The impact of gases released by both the large amount of phytoplankton blooms induced by Planktos, Inc. and resulting bacteria after the phytoplankton die.
  • Bacterial decay following the induced phytoplankton bloom will consume oxygen, lowering oxygen levels in the water and changing its chemistry. This change in chemistry could favor the growth of microbes that produce powerful greenhouse gases such as nitrous oxide.
  • The introduction of large amounts of iron to the ecosystem - unless it is in a very pure form, which is likely cost-prohibitive at the scales proposed - would probably be accompanied by other trace metals that would be toxic to some forms of marine life.
In the waters around the Galapagos, some 400 species of fish swim with turtles, penguins and marine iguanas above a vast array of urchins, sea cucumbers, crabs, anemones, sponges and corals. Many of these animals are found nowhere else on earth.

If you feel like protesting against Planktos Inc.'s questionable experiment - we do - then join us in writing to the company to express your concerns. Send your email to Russ George, CEO of Planktos Inc.:[email protected].

Eurekalert: World Wildlife Fund warns against plan by Planktos, Inc. - June 27, 2007.

Article continues

Novozymes and Xergi agree to co-develop biogas microorganisms

The two Danish biotechnology firms Novozymes A/S and Xergi A/S, heavily involved in the biofuels sector, have announced an agreement that enables them to collaborate on the co-development of microorganisms and environmental technologies for the optimal harvest of energy from manure products for use in the production of renewable biogas that yields electricity, heat, and fuels, as well as high-quality fertilizer. According to the Danish Board of Technology, biomethane from manure can supply 25% of the energy required by the Danish transport sector.

This initiative stems from the Danish government’s globalization strategy [*.pdf], to strengthen Denmark’s competitive abilities. The strategy includes support for business-to-business partnerships within five focus areas as formulated by the Ministry of the Environment: giant wind turbines, biofuels, potable water, hydrogen/fuel cells and industrial biotechnology.

Novozymes, a leading industrial enzyme developer, and Xergi, an innovative biogas producer, enter into the last-named partnership, established by the Minister of the Environment Connie Hedegaard. Several other private and public institutes are also participating, among them the Faculty of Agricultural Sciences at Århus University, where Xergi has recently supplied a large anaerobic digestion facility in Foulum.
We see the possibility of a new business area in manure management. Biotechnology has the potential to create increased value in this exciting new field, where energy production is combined with an environmentally friendly process to re-use manure for fertilizer. We are looking forward to our collaboration with Xergi, where we can put our skills and abilities together to shed light on the technological and business opportunities. - Rasmus von Gottberg, Vice President at Novozymes
The Partnership for Industrial Biotechnology has chosen to focus on the area of manure management. The partners identify a set of areas with positive development potential and large export possibilities so Denmark can become a leader in the global marketplace. Denmark already holds a global leadership position in both anaerobic digestion and enzyme & microorganism biotechnology, and together these two leading companies with the other partners will boost Danish environmental technology, benefiting renewable energy and the use of fertilizer globally:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Through their joint effort, Novozymes and Xergi, which is jointly owned by the holding company Schouw & Co. and Hedeselskabet, will develop microorganisms and technologies to harvest the valuable components from manure in the form of energy and nutrients. The process will, in part, optimize the yield of energy from these slurries, and increase the quality of the by-product for use as fertilizer (basic flow-chart of biogas production, click to enlarge).

While Novozymes can develop microorganisms so they optimize the processes in a biogas facility, Xergi has close contact to the market and knows how to optimize the technology where it will be installed and used. By promoting and distributing both green energy and manure management technologies globally, these two companies will strengthen Denmark’s competitive advantage.

Large market possibilities
In Denmark less than 5% of agricultural manure is converted to energy in the form of biogas. Of this 5%, only 50% of the energy is harvested. If all the energy stored in Danish manure could be extracted, the country could, according to the Danish Board of Technology, supply 25% of the energy required by the Danish transport sector.

The ambition and goal of the collaboration between Novozymes and Xergi is to increase substantially the yield of energy from manure so society can get enhanced access to a green, sustainable source of energy that can be used for electricity, heating and the transport, all delivered via the existing natural gas system. And beyond conserving the planet’s natural but dwindling energy resources, this biotechnology will help reduce the release of CO2.

Illustration: Xergi's integrated biogas concept. Credit: Xergi A/S.

Novozymes: Enzymes at Work [*.pdf] - a guide to the world of industrial enzymes and how they are used to make sustainable solutions for many industries.

Article continues

Sino-Brazilian partnership to produce up to 1 billion liters of ethanol for China

According to BBC Brasil, a Chinese state-owned enterprise and a Brazilian group have signed [*Portuguese] an agreement to build two large ethanol factories in Brazil, the output of which will be entirely for the Chinese market. The venture comes at a time when China is considering reducing the production of ethanol from grains and to switch to non-food crops and biofuel imports (previous post). This Sino-Brazilian partnership is the latest in a series of Chinese investments in biofuel production abroad - with projects in the Philippines, Indonesia, Mozambique, Malaysia, and Nigeria. Like Japan, the People's Republic is securing a 'green reserve' of bioenergy located in the continents that are crossed by the equator.

China's state-owned BBCA Biochemicals, located in Anhui province (southeast China), and Brazil’s Grupo Farias, from Pernambuco state (northeast Brazil), have joined forces to set up the plants, at an investment of 390 million reais (€149/US$200 million), which are expected to come online between 2009 and 2010 and will be amongst the ten largest in Brazil. BBCA Biochemical is the sole biofuel producer authorized by the Chinese government to supply fuel ethanol to Anhui, Shandong, JiangSu and Hebei provinces. It has a domestic capacity of 440,000 tons/year in China, but now decides to produce abroad and import. The Grupo Farias currently operates 11 ethanol plants.

Each factory in the Chinese-Brazilian partnership should have a processing capacity of 5 million tons of sugarcane per year - which is large, even by Brazilian standards. Per plant, a production of between 400 and 500 million liters is expected. According to figures from the Union of Sugar Cane Industries (Unica), the country's biggest factories currently are Barra (7 million tons), Sao Martinho (6.7 million), Santa Elisa (5.9 million), Vale do Rosario (5.4 million) and Itamarati (5 million). Combined, the Sino-Brazilian venture may ship up to 1 billion liters of ethanol to China per year.

The factories are likely to be built in the northeastern Brazilian state of Maranhão.
We plan to build units that will be amongst the largest in Brazil. Because of agro-industrial scale advantages we have decided to build two separate plants. [Because of the particularities of sugarcane logistics] building a single large factory does not offer competitive advantages. It is almost certain that the plants will be located there [in Maranhão state], as there is a good area for planting cane and the port of Itaqui has the capacity to receive large ships - Eduardo Farias, the chairman of Grupo Farias.
The Itaqui port is located in the state capital city of São Luís.

Over the coming weeks the chairman of BBCA Biochemicals Anhui, Li Rong-Jie, will travel to Brazil with a group of Chinese executives to define the final details of the partnership with Grupo Farias:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

China's import taxes
The Brazilian press has reported that Grupo Farias will have a majority-stake in the partnership and that the taxes on importing ethanol into China were still under discussion. “We are jointly informing the Chinese government so that it can understand that it needs to lower taxes on ethanol," Farias said.

According to figures from the Brazilian embassy in Beijing, the Chinese government’s tariff table shows that taxes on alcohol imports can vary between 30 and 40 percent.

"The current tax is actually a levy on alcoholic beverages. We are currently trying to convince the Chinese government of the fact that removing the tariff on ethanol as a fuel is in its own interest. It will boost imports of the green fuel", says Charles Tang, president of the Brazilian-Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

The Grupo Farias is a family run business with headquarters in Pernambuco. It has over 40 years of experience in the sugarcane ethanol industry.

Brazil is attracting considerable investments from Asian countries, amongst them India and Japan, with which it has export agreements.

Illustration: One of the Grupo Farias' ethanol plants, Vale Verde Itapací, in the state of Goias. Credit: Grupo Farias.

Article continues

Thailand's largest palm oil producer invests in biodiesel

Chumporn Palm Oil Industry (CPI), Thailand's largest palm oil manufacturer, plans [*cache] to invest 500 million baht (€11.7/US$15.7) to make palm-oil based biodiesel from next year onwards.

The company is currently conducting a feasibility study on location and costs, which should be completed in 12 months, said CPI adviser Suriya Ayachanun. Construction could start soon after the study is done and the company has drawn up a financial plan.

The project looks as follows:
  • capacity: the biodiesel plant will produce 100,000 tonnes per year of 100% (B100) palm-oil based biofuel
  • feedstock: refined bleached deodorised (RBD) palm stearin, a byproduct of palm oil production (schematic, click to enlarge); CPI currently produces 54,000 tonnes of RBD palm stearin, the entire output of which will feed the biodiesel factory; the remainder will be supplied by new feedstock production
  • share of total production: CPI aims to produce 190,000 tonnes of crude palm oil (CPO) this year, or 19% of Thailand's total annual consumption of 978,800 tonnes; in addition, it expects to produce 180,500 tonnes of refined bleached deodorised (RBD) palm oil this year
  • market: the palm-oil based biodiesel will be sold both at home and abroad; B100 would be exported as an additive to countries that want to reduce the sulphur content in diesel because the toxic substance causes acid rain
The biodiesel market in Thailand has lots of room to expand because the country's Energy Ministry will force all oil refiners to mix 10% biofuel with diesel to produce B10 from 2011 onward. Conventional diesel consumption volume in 2011 and 2012 is expected to reach between 60 million and 65 million litres a day. In short, biodiesel demand will be between 2.19 and 2.37 billion liters per annum (roughly 37,700 and 41,000 barrels per day):
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Currently, the Energy Ministry allows oil refiners to mix 2% biofuel with diesel without the need to inform consumers. Diesel demand in the country is now 56 million litres per day. According to Suriya Ayachanun lubricity additive markets are the future of palm-oil based biofuel producers.

Refinery war
However, CPI refuses to sell crude palm oil to Thai Oleochemicals Co Ltd (TOL), the sole oleochemicals manufacturer in Thailand and a subsidiary of PTT Chemical Plc. The company says sales would lead to crude palm oil supply shortages to CPI's own palm oil refinery.

Recently, TOL expressed its need to buy a huge amount of crude palm oil from CPI and other producers to make oleochemicals.

TOL requires 300,000 tonnes of crude palm oil and palm kernel oil per year to produce 130,000 tonnes of fatty alcohol and glycerine, which are used as raw materials for consumer products such as soap, shampoo, lotion, toothpaste and cosmetics. The company also makes 200,000 tonnes per year of methyl ester, used in biodiesel production.

"We could make the deal with TOL if we didn't have our own palm oil refinery business," said Mr Suriya.

CPI currently exports about 10,000 tonnes of crude palm kernel oil a year to Malaysia but could shift some of that output to supply TOL if it offered good terms, he added.

Bangkok Post: CPI to make palm-oil biofuel [*cache]- June 26, 2007.

Article continues

World Oil Outlook 2007: high prices to stay, biofuels may erode OPEC oil demand

The Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) has released its World Oil Outlook 2007 [*.pdf], which contains some interesting perspectives for biofuels, tightly linked to the way OPEC will invest in future capacity expansion.

Most importantly, according to the report, the demand for OPEC crude by 2010 has been revised downwards and will be almost 1 million barrels per day (mb/d) below 2005 levels because of the rise of non-OPEC non-conventional resources (including biofuels) (click to enlarge). Thereafter, demand for OPEC oil will gradually increase. But uncertainties over demand, driven by the rise of green fuels and non-conventional resources, may have serious consequences and delay much needed investments across the entire supply chain. Especially the addition of new oil refinery capacity may get delayed.
In general, biofuels projects do not take as long to implement as refinery projects. The reference case allows for a significant medium-term increase in biofuels production. Any additional increase would further reduce required refinery throughputs and margins. Consequently, policy initiatives to support the development of biofuels may discourage refiners, as well as possibly crude oil producers, from investing in the needed capacity expansion.
The result of this scenario is high fuel product and crude oil prices, expected to remain at a level of $50-60 per barrel until 2030. This is exactly the price bracket at which biofuels made in the South (e.g. sugarcane ethanol and palm oil biodiesel) can directly, without subsidies, compete with oil.

However, if the ambitious biofuel targets in the OECD are not met, the result could be further tightness in the downstream, and possibly the upstream, and in turn, this could have a significant impact on prices, margins and volatility. Such an event would automatically kickstart biofuel production again.

Global outlook
According to the report demand for energy in general is set to continue to grow (click to enlarge) and oil is expected to maintain its leading position in meeting the world’s growing energy needs for the foreseeable future. In OPEC's reference case, with an average global economic growth rate of 3.5% per annum (purchasing power parity basis), and oil prices assumed to remain in the $50-60/b range in nominal terms for much of the projection period, oil demand is set to rise from the 2005 level of 83 mb/d to 118 mb/d by 2030.

This assumes that no particular departure in trends for energy policies and technologies takes place. This is a very important caveat for there are inherent downside risks to demand, something that is specifically addressed in the Outlook. One of these 'risks', is indeed the fast growth of biofuels and non-OPEC, non-conventional oil resources.

OECD countries, currently accounting for close to 60% of world oil demand, see a further growth of 4 mb/d by 2030, reaching 53 mb/d - mainly coming from North America. Developing countries account for most of the rise in the reference case, with consumption doubling from 29 mb/d to 58 mb/d. Asian developing countries account for an increase of 20 mb/d, which represents more than two-thirds of the growth in all developing countries.

Nevertheless, the Outlook assumes that energy poverty will remain an important issue over this period. By 2030, developing countries will consume, on average, approximately five times less oil per person, compared with OECD countries.

Demand per sector
The transportation sector will be the main source of future oil demand increases. Growth in the OECD is expected to continue to rise, although saturation effects should increasingly have an impact upon the growth in passenger car ownership. The potential for growth in the stock of cars, buses and lorries, however, is far greater in developing countries (click to enlarge). For example, two-thirds of the world’s population currently live in countries with less than one car per 20 people. The total stock of cars is expected to rise from 700 million in 2005 to 1.2 billion by 2030, and the global volume of commercial vehicles is anticipated to more than double:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Of the non-transportation oil use, the main expected source of increase will be in
the industrial and residential sectors of developing countries, which see a combined
growth to 2030 of over 11 mboe/d in the reference case. Oil use in households is closely associated with the gradual switch away from traditional fuels. This trend is expected to continue, especially in the poorer developing countries of Asia and Africa, with the urbanisation movement throughout the developing world central to the shift towards commercial energy.

Despite the expected continued growth in electricity production and consumption, oil demand in this sector will experience no significant growth.

No 'Peak Oil', Non-OPEC production plateau
Resources are sufficient to meet future demand. Estimates from the US Geological
Survey of ultimately recoverable reserves have doubled since the early 1980s, while
cumulative production during this period was less than one-third of this increase.

This has been due to such factors as technology, successful exploration and enhanced
recovery from existing fields. On top of this, there is a vast resource base of nonconventional oil to explore and develop.

Non-OPEC crude oil supply at first rises in the reference case to a plateau of around 48 mb/d, before beginning a gradual decline from around 2020. This plateau is initially maintained as increases from Latin America (chiefly Brazil), Russia and the Caspian compensate for decreases elsewhere, mainly in the North Sea. The Middle East
and Africa region experiences a slight rise in volumes over the medium-term to 2010,
but this reaches a plateau of close to 5 mb/d. Non-OPEC crude oil supply is expected
to be just over 45 mb/d in 2030.

Biofuels, non-conventional oil
Regarding non-conventional oil supply and biofuels from non-OPEC countries, the most significant growth is expected to come from the Canadian oil sands, which is seen rising in the reference case to 5 mb/d in 2030, from just 1 mb/d in 2005. Coal-to- liquids and gas-to-liquids are also expected to grow, from about 150,000 b/d and less than 50,000 b/d, to 1.5 mb/d and 500,000 b/d respectively from 2005–2030. These increases will come predominantly from the US, China, South Africa and Australia.

The use of biofuels is also increasing in many regions throughout the world, and recent pronouncements of ambitious targets amplify uncertainties for future demand and supply volumes. In total, the reference case sees more than 10 mb/d of nonconventional oil supply including biofuels coming from non-OPEC by 2030, 8 mb/d more than in 2005.

Of those 10 mb/d, the bulk may come from biofuels, under a high scenario:
OPEC’s projections for biofuels supply in a high scenario case, which assumes an accelerated policy push in consuming countries, sees biofuels supply at just over 5 mb/d in 2030, thus realising even lower demand for oil products in general, and for OPEC oil in particular.
Uncertainty over the magnitude of the rise in non-OPEC non-conventional supply is growing. For example, the European Union recently adopted a minimum binding target for biofuels to reach a 10% share in transport gasoline and diesel consumption.

And in the US, the most recent proposal, as reflected in the ‘Twenty In Ten Goal’, proposes alternative transport fuels hitting over 2 mb/d by 2017.

The Outlook's reference scenario for biofuel supply is extremely conservative (click to enlarge) compared to projections by other organisations (such as the IEA) or to the cumulative supply that would emerge if actual targets set by countries are met. But even in this reference case, OPEC sees the rise of biofuels as an important factor in the uncertainty over OPEC oil demand.

Demand for OPEC crude falls, stabilize, falls
Initial increases in both crude and non-crude supply pushes total non-OPEC supply up to 54 mb/d in 2010. This is 5 mb/d higher than in 2005. With demand rising by only a slightly higher rate, this leaves little room for additional OPEC oil. Indeed, with OPEC non-crude supply, primarily natural gas liquids (NGLs), set to rise to just under 6 mb/d by 2010, the demand for OPEC crude by 2010 is almost 1 mb/d below 2005 levels.

After 2010, non-OPEC crude supply, including NGLs, stabilises, then eventually falls. Yet with non-conventional oil supply increasing at strong rates, over the entire projection period, total non-OPEC supply actually continues to rise. The amount of
crude oil supply expected from OPEC increases post-2010, rising, in this reference case, to 38 mb/d by 2020 and 49 mb/d by 2030.

Investments in capacity
These projections underline the need for substantial investment along the entire supply chain. Expansion of non-OPEC capacity is two-to-three times more costly than in OPEC, with this gap widening over time. The highest cost region is the OECD, which also experiences the highest decline rates. Up to 2030, total upstream investment requirements, from 2006 onwards, amount to $2.4 trillion (in 2006 US$).

These estimates, however, do not include necessary infrastructure investments. Concerning crude oil price assumptions for medium- to long-term analyses, it has been observed that the oil industry, guided by the recent price trends, has mostly revised upward the business-as-usual price assumptions. A further observation is that, due to the effect of several factors, economic growth and oil demand are both now more resilient to higher oil prices than had previously been thought.

All these trends, in addition to rising costs, have become integral to the general perception of higher expected prices in the long-term. Continuous downward revisions to demand projections from organizations such as the International Energy Agency and the US Department of Energy/Energy Information Administration are also noted. In this regard, a key question is whether this downward revision process is set to continue.

On the supply side, there has been a steady rise in expectations for non-OPEC production in the longer term. Increased attention is being paid to non-conventional oil and biofuels and a discernibly higher expected contribution to supply is emerging.

Uncertainty over demand
There is a great deal of uncertainty over future demand and non-OPEC supply, which translates into large uncertainties over the amount of oil that OPEC Member Countries will eventually need to supply. Investment requirements are very large, and subject to considerably long lead-times and pay-back periods. It is therefore essential to explore these uncertainties in the context of alternative scenarios.

Downside risks to demand are more substantial than upside potential. There is a range of important drivers, in particular energy and environmental policies in consuming countries and technological developments, tending to reduce demand.

Uncertainties over future oil demand translate into a wide range of possible levels of necessary investment in OPEC Member Countries. Even over the medium-term to 2010, there is an estimated range of uncertainty of $50 billion for required investment in the upstream, increasing to $140 billion by 2015. This is part of why security of demand is a key concern for producers.

The expected increase in demand for oil products translates into a rising volume of crude that needs refining. Therefore, it is essential to focus attention upon the downstream sector as this is also a key element of the supply chain, and ultimately of market stability. In addition to rising demand, there is a continued move towards lighter and cleaner products. To meet this type of demand, the downstream sector will require significant investment to ensure that sufficient distillation capacity is in place, supported by adequate conversion, desulphurisation, as well as all other secondary processes and facilities.

The reference case for refining capacity expansion estimates that over 7 mb/d of new capacity — out of 14 mb/d of announced projects — will be added to the refining system globally by 2012. Almost 70% of the new capacity will be in the Middle East and Asia-Pacific. With capacity creep, the global reference case capacity additions from existing projects could reach just over 9 mb/d by 2015.

Other drivers of capacity creep
However, several factors will add to the downside risk in the reference case. Mainly because of rising downstream sector construction costs in recent years, combined with the difficulties in finding skilled labour and experienced professionals, these figures have the potential to change. This risk is further exacerbated by the reluctance of refiners to expedite the implementation of projects in light of the rapidly changing policies that put a strong emphasis on developing alternative fuels that compete directly with refined products.

These issues play out in the alternative cost-driven delayed scenario for short- and medium-term capacity expansion. In this scenario, the new distillation capacity additions could be reduced to as low as 8 mb/d for the period until 2015, including assumed capacity creep.

Recognising this, it is evident that up to 2010, refinery capacity expansion under the reference case for refinery projects just keeps pace with the required incremental refinery throughputs. The deficit is small, but does not indicate any potential easing of refinery capacity and utilisations in the shorter term. The cost-driven delayed scenario for capacity additions worsens the deficit.

Nevertheless, under the reference case outlook for refinery projects, the data indicates that capacity additions should exceed requirements in 2011 and 2012 as a range of new projects comes on stream, thereby easing refining tightness and potentially margins.

Under the cost-driven delayed scenario, the excess additions relative to reference requirements are essentially eliminated. Moreover, if global oil demand growth moves below reference case levels, then an easing in the refining sector could begin as early as 2008.

Uncertain projections for biofuels
There are uncertainties surrounding these projections. This is especially relevant for biofuels. In general, biofuels projects do not take as long to implement as refinery projects. The reference case allows for a significant medium-term increase in biofuels production. Any additional increase would further reduce required refinery throughputs and margins. Consequently, policy initiatives to support the development of biofuels may discourage refiners, as well as possibly crude oil producers, from investing in the needed capacity expansion.

Should such a situation be followed by biofuels failing to meet the stated targets, the result could be further tightness in the downstream, and possibly the upstream, and in turn, this could have a significant impact on prices, margins and volatility.
Biofuels also raises issues over the future structure of a complex downstream sector that includes both oil and biofuels. The question is how the sector should be structured in order to withstand major disruptions. With the increasing number of biofuel producers, the chances of losing this capacity for a longer period and over a larger area, for example due to drought, could easily lead to a shortage of required fuels.
Let us remark that OPEC forgets that biofuels are being and will produced in many different countries and regions - projects can be planned and energy crops grown virtually anywhere, unlike oil which has to be 'discovered' - , so a local drought will only marginally affect global supply. A terrorist attack on one big oil refinery, a pipeline, or a major well would have much more impact.

In any case, the Outlook states that under these circumstances, the follow-up question is whether refiners should hold sufficient spare capacity to cover potential losses. OPEC Member Countries have offered, and will continue to offer, an adequate level of upstream spare capacity for the benefit of the world at large.

Downstream investment in consuming nations
It is equally important, however, that adequate capacity also exists in the downstream sector at all times, which is primarily the responsibility of consuming nations.

Based on the reference case assessment of known projects, by 2015 a total of almost 2 mb/d of additional distillation capacity will be required, and by 2020, a further 3.7 mb/d. This is what is needed, on top of the assessed likely capacity additions, to bring the global refining system back into long-run balance, with refining margins that allow for a return on investment, but are not as tight as those of today.

Taking into account the most likely changes in the future supply and demand structures and their quality specifications, the global downstream sector will require in the period 2006–2020, 13 mb/d of additional distillation capacity, around 7.5 mb/d of combined upgrading capacity, 18 mb/d of desulphurisation capacity and 2 mb/d of capacity for other supporting processes, such as alkylation, isomerisation and reforming.

The total required investment in refinery processing to 2020 is projected to be $450 billion in the reference case. Of this, $110 billion comprises the cost of known projects, $110 billion covers the further required process unit additions and $230 billion comprises the ongoing maintenance and replacement. The Asia-Pacific requires the highest level of investment in new units to 2020, with China accounting for around 75% of the Asia-Pacific total.

Inter-regional oil trade should increase by 13 mb/d to almost 63 mb/d of oil exports in 2020. Both crude and products exports will increase appreciably, with products exports growing faster than crude oil exports. Correspondingly, the reference case outlook calls for a total tanker fleet requirement in 2020 of 460 million dwt. This compares to 360 million dwt as of the end of 2006.

Environmentally driven regulations also play an important role in respect to the refined products quality specifications. Clearly, this trend is set to continue in the future, creating a potential for market fragmentation unless regulations are introduced in a co-ordinated manner. Therefore, future quality regulations should, as much as possible, ensure the fungibility of fuels to avoid shortages and prevent unnecessary volatility in product and crude oil markets.

OPEC: World Oil Outlook 2007 [*.pdf].

OPEC: OPEC releases its 2007 World Oil Outlook - June 26, 2007.

Article continues

U.S. Dept. of Energy to invest $375 million in 3 Bioenergy Research Centers

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Samuel W. Bodman announced yesterday that the DOE will invest up to $375 (€279) million in three new Bioenergy Research Centers that will be located in Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Madison, Wisconsin; and near Berkeley, California.

The Centers are intended to accelerate basic research in the development of cellulosic ethanol and other biofuels, advancing President Bush’s Twenty in Ten Initiative, which seeks to reduce U.S. gasoline consumption by 20 percent within ten years through increased efficiency and diversification of clean energy sources. The Department plans to fund the Centers for the first five years of operation (Fiscal Years 2008-2013).
These Centers will provide the transformational science needed for bioenergy breakthroughs to advance President Bush’s goal of making cellulosic ethanol cost-competitive with gasoline by 2012, and assist in reducing America’s gasoline consumption by 20 percent in ten years. The collaborations of academic, corporate, and national laboratory researchers represented by these centers are truly impressive and I am very encouraged by the potential they hold for advancing America’s energy security. - U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman
To bring the latest tools of the biotechnology revolution to bear to advance clean energy production, the Centers will be supported by multidisciplinary teams of top scientists. A major focus will be on understanding how to reengineer biological processes to develop new, more efficient methods for converting the cellulose in plant material into ethanol or other biofuels that serve as a substitute for gasoline. This research is critical because future biofuels production will require the use of feedstocks more diverse than corn, including cellulosic material like agricultural residues, grasses, poplar trees, inedible plants, and non-edible portions of crops.

The Centers will bring together diverse teams of researchers from 18 of the nation’s leading universities, seven DOE national laboratories, at least one nonprofit organization, and a range of private companies. All three Centers are located in geographically distinct areas and will use different plants both for laboratory research and for improving feedstock crops:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The mission of the Bioenergy Research Centers will lie at the frontier between basic and applied science, and will maintain a focus on bioenergy applications. These Centers aim to identify real steps toward practical solutions regarding to the challenge of producing renewable, carbon-neutral energy. At the same time, the Centers will be grounded in basic research, pursuing alternative avenues and a range of high-risk, high-return approaches to finding solutions. To some degree, one key to the Centers’ success will be their ability to develop the more basic dimensions of their research to a point that can easily transition to applied research.

The Department’s three Bioenergy Research Centers will include:
  • The DOE BioEnergy Science Center led by the DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The Center Director will be Martin Keller, and collaborators include: Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Georgia; DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado; University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia; Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire; and the University of Tennessee, in Knoxville, Tennessee.
  • The DOE Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center will be led by the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wisconsin, in close collaboration with Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan. The Center Director will be Timothy Donohue, and other collaborators include: DOE’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington; Lucigen Corporation in Middleton, Wisconsin; University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida; DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois; and Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa.
  • The DOE Joint BioEnergy Institute will be led by DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The Institute Director will be Jay Keasling, and collaborators include: Sandia National Laboratories; DOE’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; University of California - Berkeley; University of California - Davis; and Stanford University in Stanford, California.
Subject to the finalization of contract terms and congressional appropriations, the Centers are expected to begin work in 2008, consistent with President Bush’s Fiscal Year 2008 Budget Request, and would be fully operational by 2009. DOE’s Office of Science issued a competitive Funding Opportunity Announcement in August 2006 to solicit applications. The three Centers were chosen following a merit-based, competitive review process that included external scientific peer review of the applications.

The establishment of the bioenergy research centers culminates a six-year effort by DOE’s Office of Science to lay the foundation for breakthroughs in systems biology for the cost-effective production of renewable energy. In July 2006, DOE’s Office of Science issued a joint biofuels research agenda with the Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy titled "Breaking the Biological Barriers to Cellulosic Ethanol".The report provides a detailed roadmap for cellulosic ethanol research, identifying key roadblocks and areas where scientific breakthroughs are needed.

Today’s announcement follows other key funding announcements this year to advance President Bush’s Twenty in Ten Initiative, and to make cellulosic ethanol cost competitive with gasoline by 2012. On February 28, 2007, DOE announced up to $385 million for six biorefinery projects that when fully operational are expected to produce more than 130 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol per year. On May 1, 2007, DOE announced a funding opportunity for $200 million over five years (FY’07-FY’11) to support the development of small scale bio-refineries that produce liquid transportation fuels such as ethanol. Read additional information on DOE’s biofuels initiatives.

Additional information is available on the Department’s three Bioenergy Research Centers and the Department’s Genomics Research Programs.

DOE's Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the nation and helps ensure U.S. world leadership across a broad range of scientific disciplines. The Office of Science supports a diverse portfolio of research at more than 300 colleges and universities nationwide, manages ten world-class national laboratories with unmatched capabilities for solving complex interdisciplinary scientific problems, and builds and operates the world’s finest suite of scientific facilities and instruments used annually by more than 19,000 researchers to extend the frontiers of all areas of science.

U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Biomass Program.

DOE Bioenergy Research Centers: Transformational Science Fueling America’s Future.

Bioenergy Research Centers - White Paper [*.pdf].

U.S. DOE: Breaking the Biological Barriers to Cellulosic Ethanol.

Article continues

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Cuba to assist Nigeria with ethanol production, agriculture

Quicknote bioenergy cooperation
Despite Fidel Castro's criticism of ethanol made from corn (mainly aimed at the US), Cuba itself is investing heavily in producing the biofuel (earlier post). The island state sees it as a way to revive its once thriving sugarcane sector, and to boost its energy security.

The country has had a long history of growing and researching the crop as well as in studying ways to convert it into energy. But years of neglect and the collapse of the Soviet Union (which bought sugar in exchange for fuel), has brought the sector to a standstill. At its best, Cuba produced a massive 10 million tonnes of sugar per year, in 2006 output was less than 1.6 million tonnes. Biofuels offer a unique opportunity to breathe new life into the industry.

The Cuban government now says it is ready to transfer its sugarcane-based ethanol technology to Nigeria, in a South-South cooperation effort.

Elio Olivia, the Cuban Ambassador to Nigeria, told reporters that his country was not only prepared to share its expertise in the production of varieties of sugarcane, but also in the production of alternative sources of energy with Nigeria. Besides sugarcane ethanol, cassava-to-ethanol technologies would be shared as well.

Nigeria is the world's largest producer of the starch rich crop, and "will benefit from such an exercise at both the federal and state levels," Olivia thinks. The African country used to export cassava for use as animal feed to the EU. But a new policy there, which boosted subsidies for European grain farmers, caused the sector in Nigeria to collapse. Biofuels are seen as a new outlet for the abundant crop - as is stressed in Nigeria's Presidential Cassava Initiative.

Cuba and Nigeria are set to hold a session for the Nigeria-Cuba Joint Economic Commission, a bilateral economic cooperation promoting body attended by officials of both countries to discuss possible areas of partnership. The meeting is to be held in Nigeria's capital Abuja in November [entry ends here].
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Article continues

Engineers convert glycerin efficiently into ethanol, green chemicals via anaerobic fermentation

With biodiesel production in the EU and the US at an all-time high and a record number of new biodiesel plants under construction, the industry is facing an impending crisis over waste glycerin, the major byproduct of biodiesel production. New findings from Rice University suggest a possible answer in the form of the Escherichia Coli bacterium that anaerobically ferments glycerin into ethanol and valuable green chemicals. The efficiency of the conversion process is such that the researchers estimate operational costs to be 40% lower than first generation corn ethanol production.

The breakthrough fits nicely in the emerging concept of the integrated biorefinery that draws on an optimal cascading strategy in which waste-streams from one production process become feedstock for the creation of high value products based on other conversion processes.

For each tonne of biodiesel produced, around 100 kilograms of glycerin (glycerol) is obtained as a byproduct. The vast amount of glycerin that is now flooding the market has turned it from a valuable co-product into a 'waste' stream. This trend has prompted many researchers to find efficient and cost-effective ways to use the resource. So far they found that it can be turned into new types of biopolymers, bioplastic films, and green specialty chemicals such as propylene glycol. Others found glycerin makes for a suitable cattle and poultry feed or for the production of biogas.

Anaerobic fermentation
While some of these researchers are looking at traditional chemical processing - finding a way to catalyze reactions that break glycerin into other chemicals - others, including the Rice scientists, are focused on biological conversion. In biological conversion, researchers engineer a microorganism that can eat a specific chemical feedstock and excrete something useful. One of those biological conversion techniques is called anaerobic fermentation, and oxygen-free process widely used to produce biogas and some drugs. Anaerobic fermentation is the most economical and widely used process for biological conversion.

In a review article [*abstract] in the June issue of Current Opinion in Biotechnology, Ramon Gonzalez, William Akers Assistant Professor in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, points out that very few microorganisms are capable of digesting glycerin in such an oxygen-free environment. But they found a way to make the E. Coli bacterium do the job - efficiently and cost effectively.
We identified the metabolic processes and conditions that allow a known strain of E. coli to convert glycerin into ethanol. It's also very efficient. We estimate the operational costs to be about 40 percent less that those of producing ethanol from corn. - Ramon Gonzalez, lead author and William Akers Assistant Professor in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Rice University
Glycerin glut
Gonzalez says the biodiesel industry's rapid growth has created a glycerin glut. The glut has forced glycerin producers like Dow Chemical and Procter and Gamble to shutter plants, and Gonzalez said some biodiesel producers are already unable to sell glycerin and instead must pay to dispose of it:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

One pound of glycerin is produced for every 10 pounds of biodiesel. The biodiesel business has tight margins, and until recently, glycerin was a valuable commodity, one that producers counted on selling to ensure profitability. - Ramon Gonzalez, William Akers Assistant Professor in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering
The discovery comes at a time when the chemical processing industry is increasingly finding bioprocessing to be a "greener," and sometimes cheaper, alternative to chemical processing.

"We are confident that our findings will enable the use of E. coli to anaerobically produce ethanol and other products from glycerin with higher yields and lower costs than can be obtained using common sugar-based feedstocks like glucose and xylose," Gonzalez concluded.

The bioconversion technique is yet another example of the potential for integrated biorefineries that draw on an optimal cascading strategy in which waste-streams from different conversion processes become new feedstocks for other products. The implementation of biorefineries is aimed at co-producing as many high value products along with biofuels in a highly integrated way.

The report in Current Opinion in Biotechnology was co-authored by postdoctoral research associate Syed Shams Yazdani. Graduate students Yandi Dharmadi and Abhishek Murarka assisted with the research. Gonzalez's research is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Science Foundation.

: Because of its ubiquity, E. coli is frequently studied in microbiology and is the current "workhorse" in molecular biology. Its is widely used in genetic engineering and enzymes extracted from it are used industrial fermentation processes.


Syed Shams Yazdania and Ramon Gonzaleza, "Anaerobic fermentation of glycerol: a path to economic viability for the biofuels industry" [*abstract], Current Opinion in Biotechnology, Volume 18, Issue 3, June 2007, Pages 213-219, doi:10.1016/j.copbio.2007.05.002

Eurekalert: Biotech breakthrough could end biodiesel's glycerin glut - June 26, 2007.

Article continues

Scientists develop device to replace distillation, increases energy efficiency of ethanol production

Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists in California have developed a new device that could replace the classic distillation process used to obtain ethanol from fermented biomass. The patent-pending technology could cut the energy costs of producing ethanol.

Chemical engineers Richard D. Offeman and George H. Robertson at the ARS Western Regional Research Center in Albany, Calif., think it may be possible to increase the efficiency of ethanol production by using a series of specially designed permeable plastic sheets, or membranes, to produce ethanol from fermented broths of corn, or straw and other kinds of biomass feedstocks.

The researchers' invention, called a spiral-wound liquid membrane module (illustration, click to enlarge), could potentially replace the widely used process of distilling ethanol from fermentation broths. The module offers ethanol producers the important advantage of combining two separation processes, extraction and membrane permeation, in one piece of equipment.

In brief, the process works as follows: the fermentation broth — typically containing about 5 to 12 percent ethanol — would travel through a sandwich-like configuration of membranes and mesh sheets, called spacers, that keep the membranes separate from each other. One membrane has a solvent in its pores that extracts the ethanol from the broth. A second membrane, with the help of a vacuum, pulls the ethanol out of the solvent. The ethanol-and-water vapor that results is then, in other equipment, condensed into an ethanol-rich liquid. The leftover broth could be processed into byproducts:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

With further research and development, the module would require less energy than distillation. Today, energy costs are ethanol producers' second largest expense; feedstocks are first.

The scientists have applied for a patent. They now plan to build and fine-tune a prototype, then turn it over to a membrane manufacturer for further development before commercialization.

Already, some ethanol producers have expressed interest in the invention. The technology will help to address the serious concern regarding the energy efficiency of bioethanol production, according to Robert L. Fireovid, ARS national program leader for process engineering and chemistry.

The device has other potential uses, such as cleaning up wastewater or treating natural gas for home use.

Image: Bioethanol is taken out of an incoming fermentation broth using this spiral-wound liquid membrane module. The broth flows across the surface of specially designed permeable plastic membranes that are wrapped around the module's perforated collection tube. Ethanol in the broth is separated by the membranes, using a vacuum, then sent to other equipment to be condensed into liquid. Courtesy: Richard D. Offeman and George H. Robertson, USDA-ARS.

USDA ARS: New Technology Could Lead to More Energy-Efficient Ethanol Production - June 27, 2007.

Article continues

Modern bioenergy can 'liberate' China's farmers , but pro-poor policy needed

We have often pointed to the potential modern bioenergy offers for rural poverty alleviation. Around 2 billion people in the developing world still rely on primitive, dangerous and wasteful biomass technologies for energy (like burning fuel wood on open fires). However, the very presence of these resources makes leapfrogging beyond fossil fuels and towards modern biofuels possible.

Dr Lin Gan, senior research fellow at CICERO (Center for International Climate and Environmental Research - Oslo) and former director of climate and energy programs for World Wide Fund for Nature in China, explores this vision in an interesting essay written for the Asia Times. He thinks modern bioenergy can 'liberate' the hundreds of millions of Chinese farmers who do not enjoy much of the country's growing prosperity. But this requires an appropriate, socially responsible bioenergy and biofuels policy:

Environmental and social costs of development
China is in a rapid transition toward industrialization and integration into the world economy. However, this development has had a high price, particularly on the environment, and has put heavy pressure on local energy resources and ecosystems.

In addition, the gap in income and living standards between urban and rural areas, and between the eastern and western regions of China, has widened and the unemployment rate is increasing. Many are concerned that long-term prosperity of the country maybe harmed by these social disparities. It is projected that unemployment will grow to 100 million people by 2010, and most of it will be in the poor western regions, where farmers are desperately seeking to survive and create better lives for their families. It is clear China will have to look for alternative solutions to develop its agriculture sector, as some 900 million farmers depend on it.

Agriculture in China has developed at a much slower pace than industry over the past two decades, which has led to increasing disparity between rural and urban residents. The majority of the migrant workers from the agriculture sector come to cities for economic reasons: the loss of their lands to urban expansion, increased mechanization in agricultural production, and low income from selling agricultural products.

In particular, major challenges to sustainable rural development occur in the western regions, where severe problems co-exist. Farmers lag in income behind those in the coastal regions; ecosystems are vulnerable; poverty is still a social problem; the majority of the farmers still rely on traditional use of agricultural residues, forest biomass or coal for cooking and space heating, which have severe indoor air-pollution problems that damage health. Above all, the current focus on exploitation of raw materials for industry and fossil-fuel resources cannot make farmers rich, but will rather leave them with pollution, land damage and, above all, depletion of their means of living.

The Chinese government has realized that it must urgently search for alternative solutions. Under the banner of the so-called "harmonious society", the government is looking into new options, namely sustainable rural development, achieved by using resources more efficiently and prioritizing new and renewable energy sources with wider market applications.

Bioenergy to the rescue?
With its vast territory and diversified geographic regions, China has large stocks of biomass resources from agricultural and forest residues, and also large wastelands that can potentially be used for bioenergy development: small and decentralized electricity and heat generation, household applications, and biofuels development:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Bioenergy has become a top priority in the government agenda as the Renewable Energy Law was implemented starting in January 2006. The current focus is on electricity generation from surplus agricultural residues, which were estimated at 200 million tonnes yearly. The government has set a long-term target of 30 gigawatts of electricity generated from biomass by 2020, which will require billions of US dollars in investment.

There is a growing interest in biofuels development as well, such as bio-diesel and ethanol, with the intention of replacing imported oil, which accounts for more than 40% of the country's total oil supply today and may reach more than 50% by 2010. That's why, to most people's surprise, the Chinese government has announced that it will import a million tonnes of ethanol each year from Brazil. Without doubt, these announcements pave the way for new business opportunities, both in China and internationally.

Pro-poor perspective
But this strategy is being defined too narrowly, with the missing part being the fulfillment of the needs of the poor and disadvantaged social groups. Newly built biomass-burning electric-power plants could be good news for those living in remote areas without access to electricity as decentralized power generation would help improve their quality of life. But the current plan, with dozens of demonstration biomass power plants being built, is mainly in economically developed regions, such as in Jiangsu and Shandong provinces.

The key point is that rural residents can only benefit from bioenergy development if it takes place where they live and takes their daily needs into account. The fact is that most farmers still use biomass for cooking and heating in traditional ways, especially in poor remote regions.

While farmers suffer from severe health impacts due to the burning of coal inside their households, fluoride poisoning, for example, is a common health problem in Guizhou province. Some 19 million poor farmers there, mostly minority ethnic groups, are affected, especially women, children and old people.

Traditional use of biomass also wastes a lot of energy because it uses family stoves whose efficiency rates are only at 5-8%. For example, one rural family in remote Yunnan province uses 14-16 tonnes of firewood per year on average, thus causing major damage to natural forests. Modern biomass stoves can achieve 30-40% efficiency rates. Implementation of such stoves would benefit the global environment, save resources, and also increase revenues for rural enterprises.

China needs to make a massive transition from traditional to modern uses of biomass as part of its strategy to develop rural areas in a sustainable way. This leapfrogging requires innovative policy support from the government. By doing so, it will benefit farmers through reduced fossil-fuel use, improvements in living conditions and health, job creation, and income generation.

Most agricultural residues today are burned in the fields, which pollutes the air and wastes energy. With the same amount of investment now used to develop biomass power plants, household-based biomass utilization could generate five to 10 times as many local jobs and five to nine times as much income for rural residents and small companies, in addition to other environmental and social benefits.

So far the Chinese government has not paid adequate attention to these points, especially how to use biomass resources more efficiently and related sustainability issues. Strong policy incentives should be established to provide favorable conditions to get investors, innovators and small enterprises involved in the social and technological transition toward sustainable rural development. Such energy policies could also play a large role in mitigating climate change, a more fruitful move than building pollution-creating coal-burning plants, as is done in China today at an increasing rate. By implementing policies to support household-based biomass use, pressures on rapid urban development could ease.

Internationally, bioenergy has become a dynamic driving force, with many committed players - governments, industries, aid agencies and increasingly private investors - wanting to get involved in China's land of opportunities that will spring from this transition. In the end, it will bring a new perspective to integrate reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions with sustainable rural energy development in China, which will also be a valuable experience for other biomass-rich developing countries in the move to reach social-development and environmental-protection goals.

Dr. Lin Gan received his bachelor's degree in library science from Shanxi University in 1982 and his master's degree in science and technology policy from the University of Lund, Sweden, in 1989. He received his PhD in public administration from Roskilde University, Denmark, in 1995.

Source: Lin Gan, "China's farmers need a second liberation", Asia Times, June 27, 2007.

Article continues

Virginia Tech researchers receive $1.2 million to study poplar tree as model biomass crop

Virginia Tech researchers have received US$1.2 million to study protein-protein interactions associated with biomass production in poplar wood. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) jointly selected the Virginia Tech project and 10 others for awards totaling $8.3 million for biofuel research that may increase the availability and use of alternative fuels (earlier post).

The poplar is the first tree to have had its entire genome sequenced (previous post), the combined effort of 34 institutions from around the world, including the University of British Columbia, and Genome Canada; Umeå Plant Science Centre, Sweden; and Ghent University, Belgium (home of Marc Van Montagu, the father of modern genetic engineering). The project was led by the Joint Genome Institute (JGI) which sequences a wide range of energy crops (and recently announced its 2008 agenda).

Poplar is seen as a model biomass crop because it can be tailored to yield specific materials for the production of green chemicals and fuels (image, click to enlarge). The tree may become part of the 'third generation' of biofuels, which are based on energy crops that have been manipulated in such a way that their properties allow more efficient bioconversion into a predetermined product.

Drawing on the genomics info, the Virginia Tech researchers will aim to improve biomass productivity of the poplar by looking at its protein interactions.
If we can identify the protein-protein interaction networks associated with its woody tissues, it will give us a more detailed understanding of how plants produce their biomass – their genomics and the molecular biology of biomass production. This will ultimately contribute to strategies for improving biomass crops. - Eric Beers, principal investigator, Associate Professor of Horticulture in Virginia Tech's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences
Proteins are the molecular machines required for the production of plant cell walls. To function, proteins must interact with other proteins, but researchers know little about the protein-protein interactions that occur during the process of wood formation:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

This is basic research that could conceivably make the use of poplar wood as a biomass crop more amenable to large-scale production and economically feasible.

Amy Brunner, associate professor of forestry in the College of Natural Resources, will use her expertise in poplar genomics to study a subset of the protein interactions directly in poplar trees and to incorporate results with what scientists know about gene expression and gene function within poplar wood. She has already identified approximately 250 poplar genes specifically associated with wood formation that will be the focus of this project. This is known as the poplar biomass gene set.

In addition, Allan Dickerman, assistant professor at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute, will collect data and employ advanced techniques of computational biology to map protein-protein interactions. These maps reveal functional clusters of protein interactions that will give scientists visual clues about the molecular biology of poplar cell wall-related biomass production.
These research projects build upon DOE’s strategic investments in genomics and biotechnology and strengthen our commitment to developing a robust bioenergy future vital to America’s energy and economic security. - U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman.
In 2006, DOE and USDA began funding fundamental research in biomass genomics to provide a scientific foundation to facilitate and accelerate the use of woody plant tissue for bioenergy and biofuels. New research projects on cordgrass, rice, switchgrass, sorghum, poplar, and perennial grasses join last year’s portfolio of research on poplar, alfalfa, sorghum, and wheat.

Other universities and research centers that received this second round of awards include the University of Minnesota, South Dakota State University, Mississippi State University, University of Georgia, University of Florida, University of Delaware, USDA Agricultural Research Service Western Regional Research Center, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Image: desirable traits of the poplar. Courtesy: U.S. Dept. of Energy.

CheckBiotech: Virginia Tech researchers to study poplar tree as model biomass crop - June 26, 2007.

Biopact: Joint Genome Institute announces 2008 genome sequencing targets with focus on bioenergy and carbon cycle - June 12, 2007

Biopact: The first tree genome is published: Poplar holds promise as renewable bioenergy resource - September 14, 2006

Article continues

ABF, BP and DuPont in joint venture to build $400 million bioethanol, biobutanol plants in the UK

As was recently outlined in its biomass strategy, the UK has a considerable potential to produce biofuels. A major step forward to tapping this potential was made today as BP, Associated British Foods (ABF) and DuPont announced major investment plans, totalling around £200 (€297/$400) million for the construction of a world scale bioethanol plant alongside a high technology demonstration plant to advance the development of biobutanol.

The European Investment Bank (EIB) will provide of £120 (€178/$240) million of project financing at interesting rates. This is the first direct involvement by the EIB in a biofuels project.

A joint venture will be formed, subject to regulatory approval, to build the plant and operate the business. ABF subsidiary British Sugar and BP will each hold 45% of the joint venture and DuPont will hold the remaining 10%.

The plant will produce bioethanol from wheat and will be built at a cost of £200m at BP’s chemicals site at Saltend, Hull. Its capacity will be 420 million litres (111 million gallons) of bioethanol per year and is planned to come on stream in late 2009. ABF expects a return on its investment ahead of its cost of capital in the first full year of operation.

Front end engineering and design work will commence immediately with Aker Kvaerner leading the project and their joint venture partner Praj providing the technology expertise (more info on Aker Kvaerner and Praj). Although the plant will be built from scratch, it will have access to the existing infrastructure at the BP site for essential supporting services. Once operational it will provide around 70 new full-time posts in addition to the employment opportunities generated by the construction phase.

The plant will initially produce bioethanol, but the partners will look at the feasibility of converting it to biobutanol once the technology is available. BP and DuPont intend to build a jointly funded biobutanol demonstration plant, which will run in parallel with the main plant, thus making their agreement to cooperate on biobutanol concrete (earlier post). The plant, funded and owned equally by BP and DuPont, would produce around 20,000 litres of biobutanol a year from a wide variety of feedstocks:
:: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Over the last year, we have accelerated the commercial development of biobutanolThe demonstration facility, which will begin operation in early 2009, will develop the processing parameters and further advance the commercial deployment of our new technology. At the same time, the growing market demand for biofuels is significant. We are concurrently investing in the Hull bioethanol facility with the intention to increase that investment once biobutanol process technology development is completed and conversion feasibility is validated. - John Ranieri, head of DuPont Biofuels.
To begin market development of biobutanol, BP and DuPont are also establishing initial introduction plans for biobutanol in the UK. The companies will import small quantities of biobutanol, sourced from an existing first generation manufacturing facility in China. The first product is expected to arrive by the end of the year and will be used to carry out infrastructure and advanced vehicle testing.

This testing will build upon initial laboratory engine tests using conventional butanol which indicated that butanol has similar fuel performance properties to unleaded petrol. In addition, work will be undertaken to gather comprehensive data on the environmental footprint and sustainability of this next generation fuel.

Feedstock agreements
It is expected that formal agreements will be entered into by the bioethanol joint venture, after its formation, with other ABF businesses: Frontier Agriculture and AB Agri. The supply of locally grown wheat would be arranged by Frontier which is the UK’s leading grain marketer and supplier of agricultural inputs.

The major co-product of bioethanol production, distillers’ grain, would be sold to AB Agri. It will use its highly specialised sales and marketing business, which sources and develops co-products from the food, drink and energy industries, to market the distillers’ grain as an alternative feed for livestock.

This announcement follows the previously announced investment by British Sugar (an ABF subsidiary) to build the UK’s first bioethanol plant at Wissington, Norfolk. Its capacity will be 70 million litres (55,000 tonnes) of bioethanol a year, using sugar beet as a feedstock, and the plant will start production next month.

The European Investment Bank is finalising its approval for the provision of £120m of project financing for both of ABF's biofuel investments at attractive interest rates. This would be the first direct financing provided by the Bank for a biofuel project.

Associated British Food: ABF in joint venture to build £200m UK biofuel plant - June 26, 2007.

BP: BP, ABF and DuPont Unveil $400 Million Investment in UK Biofuels - June 26, 2007.

BP - DuPont: Biobutanol factsheet [*.pdf].

Article continues

Presenting the Alliance for Synthetic Fuels in Europe

The development of ultra-clean synthetic fuels has been speeding up lately, with the first pilot plants actually coming online and a series of cooperation agreements being signed between major research organisations. A new initiative is now joining the forces of some of Europe's leading automotive and fuel supply companies into the Alliance for Synthetic Fuels in Europe (ASFE).

The ASFE members especially seek political and fiscal support from EU and national policy makers for the introduction and increased penetration of all synthetic fuels, including synthetic biofuels, and more specifically to:
  • Acknowledge BtL production could provide Europe with a new and sustainable business in the agricultural sector for the production of low carbon fuels
  • Include GtL fuel, in addition to BtL fuel, as an alternative fuel that can help EU reach its 2020 alternative fuel targets
  • Put in place mechanisms to help achieve alternative fuels targets in a cost effective manner
  • Recognise GtL will pave the way for BtL commercialisation
  • Increase support, including R&D, for BtL production pathways
  • Increase R&D support for advanced engines optimised around synthetic fuels
  • Recognise advanced fuel and engine technologies could provide European industry with new business opportunities
Synthetic fuels are new generation of near zero sulphur and aromatics transport fuels made with the Fischer Tropsch process from natural gas (Gas-to-Liquids, GtL), coal (Coal-to-Liquids, CtL) or biomass (Biomass-to-Liquids, BtL). The process (schematic, click to enlarge) consists of gasifying the feedstock to obtain syngas (consisting mainly of hydrogen and carbon monoxide), which is then fed into a Fischer-Tropsch reactor where the gas is synthesized into liquids. The resulting fuels can be upgraded and 'designed' to have particular properties.

Towards ultra-clean, carbon-negative BtL fuels
Industry studies show that life cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of the GtL process are comparable to a refinery system (+/- 5%). CtL has a carbon penalty, which can be reduced through CO2 sequestration. By linking development of advanced engine and synthetic fuels production technology it is expected that greater vehicle efficiency gains will lead to further reductions in CO2 emissions.

When made from biomass, synthetic fuels become renewable and reduce GHG emissions by between 60 and 90% (graph, click to enlarge). Compared to first generation biofuels such as biodiesel and bioethanol (when made from crops grown in the EU), this is a considerable improvement of the GHG balance. BtL processes can be combined with CO2 sequestration techniques, in which case synthetic biofuels can even become carbon-negative. This means they can take historic CO2 emissions out of the atmosphere:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

But regardless of the feedstock, all paraffinic Fischer-Tropsch fuels have properties that make them superior to petroleum based fuels (graph, click to enlarge). They share the following properties :
  • sulphur-free, low aromatic, odourless, colourless liquid synthetic fuels
  • allow significant reduction of regulated and non-regulated vehicle pollutant emissions (NOx, SOx, PM, VOC, CO)
  • contribute to oil substitution, diversification and security of energy supply
  • can be used in existing diesel fuelling infrastructure
  • can be used in existing diesel engines
  • enable the development of new generation of internal combustion engine technologies with improved engine efficiency and further reduction of vehicle pollutant emissions
  • are readily biodegradable, and non-toxic
Because they can be made from a renewable feedstock - cellulosic biomass - synthetic biofuels represent a critical step on the path to a European future of sustainable, green and clean mobility.

Over the longer term, for environmental, energy security and continued economic development reasons petroleum derived transport fuels will need to be supplemented by alternative fuels. ASFE's vision is for synthetic fuels to play a bridging role from today’s conventional fuels to the future renewable transportation fuels and associated vehicle technologies.

Once commercially available, BtL is expected to contribute a reduction in CO2 of up to 90% compared to crude oil derived fuels. As synthetic fuels share a large part of the production technology, they provide a continuous development path to a low-carbon transport future. Synthetic fuels are compatible with hybrid engine technologies and, thanks to their unique properties, could enable advanced combustion engine technology such as homogeneous combustion.

Further objectives of the organisation are to support research into the fuels, projects demonstrating the benefits of synthetic fuels including vehicle trials, co-operation with governments and promotion of public awareness.

ASFE members are Bosch, DaimlerChrysler, Renault, Shell, Sasol Chevron and Volkswagen.

Images: all graphs and images courtesy of the ASFE.

The Alliance for Synthetic Fuels in Europe, website.

A closer look at the history behind the Fischer-Tropsch process can be found at the FT Archives.

Article continues

Scientists develop biobutanol from wheat straw

Scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service (ARS) are experimenting with a way to convert cellulosic biomass into biobutanol using the bacterium Clostridium beijerinckii.

Biobutanol (butyl alcohol) can become an important renewable transportation fuel because it has a higher energy content than ethanol. It can be used in the existing gasoline supply and distribution lines, has higher octane number, and can be mixed with gasoline in any proportion (earlier post). It is also a valuable chemical.

Biobutanol can be readily be produced from any starch source, obtained from annual crops such as corn, rice or barley. However, due to the prohibitive cost of these grains and cereals and because of the need to balance food and fuel production, use of lignocellulosic biomass residues is the way forward.

The ARS scientists report in Biotechnology for Fuels and Chemicals that a microbial culture such as Clostridium beijerinckii P260 can utilize five and six carbon sugars present in cellulosic biomass and convert them to butanol.

In order to reduce the cost of butanol production, the researchers hydrolyzed wheat straw to lignocellulosic component sugars (glucose, xylose, arabinose, galactose, and mannose) prior to their conversion to butanol. The rate of production of wheat straw hydrolysate to butanol was 214% over that from glucose:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Wheat straw was pretreated with dilute sulfuric acid and hydrolyzed to simple sugars using commercial carbohydrases. Hydrolysis, fermentation, and product recovery were combined in a single step using a 2.5 L bioreactor. Pretreated wheat straw was successfully hydrolyzed to produce glucose, xylose, arabinose, galactose, and mannose, and these sugars were fermented by C. beijerinckii.

The fermentation performance was enhanced by simultaneously recovering products [Acetone-butanol (AB)] from the fermentation broth by gas stripping, thereby, avoiding end product inhibition. The reactor was operated in a fed-batch mode, and the fermentation lasted for more than 500 hours.

These studies, part of a larger project called Cost-Effective Bioprocess Technologies for Production of Biofuels from Lignocellulosic Biomass, demonstrated that production of AB from wheat straw in a single reactor is possible when hydrolytic enzymes are used and product (AB) is simultaneously produced and recovered.

Successful production of economically available butanol from wheat straw by fermentation will benefit farmers, the butanol producing industry and the public at large. Development of such a fuel by an economically viable process is essential as gasoline prices are rising steadily.

Biobutanol made headlines when DuPont and BP announced they were going to collaborate on producing the fuel, which they think holds promise over the longer term as a gasoline substitute (earlier post). Another player is biotech company Green Biologics who received a large (€855,000) fund to research strategies to develop the fuel from cellulosic biomass (see here).

Qureshi, N., Saha, B.C., Cotta, M.A., "Bioconversion of wheat straw to butanol (a superior liquid fuel): simultaneous saccharification, fermentation, and product recovery", [*abstract], Biotechnology for Fuels and Chemicals, Paper No. 4-16, May 2, 2007.

Article continues

Monday, June 25, 2007

Green chemistry in Africa: scientists help Ethiopia leapfrogging into a clean future

At the Biopact, we share the Afro-optimist philosophy which holds that African countries can 'leapfrog' beyond the petroleum era and immediately enter a new bright green world without going through a dirty development stage first. This is possible because African countries are not burdened by fossil fuel based industries, mentalities and infrastructures.

Some may laugh at the idea, but University of Nottingham scientists are instrumental in gradually making the vision a reality: they are helping to establish the emerging field of green chemistry, in Ethiopia.

Green chemistry is a pioneering field of sustainable science that will help African nations to meet the complex challenges of the 21st century and to enter the era of the bioeconomy. Green chemistry focuses on greener ways of creating chemicals, and is now regarded as one of the major routes to more environmentally-friendly production of the chemicals that underpin modern society (earlier post).

The work of Nottingham academics with their colleagues in Ethiopia, detailed [*abstract] in the online version of the journal Science, began with a chance meeting four years ago. Today it is sufficiently developed to enable African scientists to participate more fully in the search for new chemicals, processes and techniques that could impact on millions of people.

In their article, the scientists summarize the value of green chemistry for Africa as follows:
Green Chemistry provides a unique opportunity for African chemists because it combines the search for new science with the development of sustainable chemical technologies appropriate to the needs of the community. Therefore, the resources of Africa — intense sunlight, unique plant species and enthusiastic young people — present its chemists with scientific opportunities, less readily available in many other countries. With modest funding and overseas support, a determined group of Ethiopian scientists has established an international presence within only four years. It is a model which perhaps can be replicated elsewhere. - Professor Poliakoff (Nothingham University), Dr Licence, Dr Asfaw and Dr Temechegn Engida, of Addis Ababa University.
Much current research is focused on the search for renewable, bio-based feedstocks and more environmentally acceptable solvents as replacements for petroleum-based products. This makes Green Chemistry particularly relevant to the needs of African countries such as Ethiopia, faced with an increasing demand for chemicals, little or no indigenous oil, and rapidly expanding populations:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The collaboration started with a chance meeting between Dr Nigist Asfaw and Professor Martyn Poliakoff, who heads research into Green Chemistry at The University of Nottingham, while the latter was on holiday in Ethiopia.

Over the next four years, links were gradually developed and strengthened through staff visits, conferences, workshops and collaborative research. Today, the Ethiopian scientists have established an international presence and are on the brink of their first conference for chemists from across the whole of Africa.

Ethiopian PhD student Haregewine Tadesse is currently in the second year of her PhD in Dr Peter Licence’s research group at The University of Nottingham. Haregewine has made a very strong start, having already authored a high-profile scientific paper for publication and addressed a meeting of the RSC Archives for Africa at the Houses of Parliament. A second Ethiopian postgraduate, Mr Bitu Biru, is due to join in September to start a PhD in the subject.

Green chemistry is now well established at Addis Ababa University and the collaboration has led to a number of other key developments, notably:
  • The establishment of Addis Ababa University as an Overseas Chapter of the American Chemical Society, Green Chemistry Institute.
  • The formation of the Federation of African Societies of Chemistry, bringing together scientists from across Africa.
  • 1st Annual FASC conference to be held in Addis Ababa in September 2007 — with Green Chemistry as its theme.
  • Nottingham PhD student Haregewine Tadesse and Nottingham academic Dr Robert Mokaya, a Kenyan, spoke at the launch of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Archive for Africa. The launch of the Archive means that African scientists will have free access to the latest research published in key scientific journals.
  • Research and staff links between Nottingham and Addis Ababa University, including appointment of Dr Peter Licence as visiting professor, making extended visits to Addis Ababa to participate in teaching at both undergraduate and postgraduate level.
Professor Poliakoff and his colleagues write in Science: “Our collaboration has been intellectually rewarding for all of those involved and it has been particularly helpful in developing the careers of the younger participants. However, this was only possible because our Ethiopian colleagues had already built a strong chemistry department at their university. Having overseas scientists to champion their work on the international scene has clearly been valuable to the chemists in Ethiopia."

They conclude with a clear message: “We strongly urge other scientists to consider championing an African country so that their needs can be more loudly articulated in the international arena and their scientists empowered to meet the tremendous challenges of the future.”

Image: University of Nottingham scientists train and assist their Ethiopian collegues in establishing the emerging field of green chemistry at their universities.

Nigist Asfaw, Peter Licence, Temechegn Engida, Martyn Poliakoff, Empowering Green Chemists in Ethiopia [*abstract], Science, Published Online June 21, 2007, DOI: 10.1126/science.1144439

Article continues

EU opens tender to distill wine lakes into ethanol

The European Union has opened a tender to sell unwanted wine lakes in four countries for use in making bioethanol. The Commission Regulation N° 707/2007 [*.pdf] of June 21 was published in the Official Journal of the European Union.
A tendering procedure for the sale of wine alcohol for exclusive use as bioethanol in the fuel sector in the Community should be organised in accordance with [...] with a view to reducing Community stocks of wine alcohol and ensuring the continuity of supplies to firms.
The total volume put up for sale is 69,337,574 litres (18.3 million gallons) of alcohol stored in Greece, France, Italy and Spain, and broken down into lots of 50,000 hectoliters. The deadline for bids is July 5.

France, Italy and Spain are the EU’s largest winemakers by volume (overview) and receive generous amounts of cash from Brussels to distill some of their excess wine, both table and quality, into industrial alcohol or biofuel.

But EU Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel has said publicly that she favors abolishing this system of 'crisis distillation' - an emergency market tool used as a short-term measure to correct supply imbalances. Instead, she has presented four broad policy options for overhauling EU wine policy, with a formal reform proposal to be published on July 4.

Fischer Boel has repeatedly complained that the EU wine industry still depends too much on distillation to rid itself of unwanted 'wine lakes' at the taxpayers’ expense, saying a fundamental reform is needed to make EU wines more competitive.

The regulation comes at a time when wine makers in the EU face critical overproduction driven by a declining demand for table wine amongst Europeans and competitition from abroad, with continuously falling prices as a result (graph, click to enlarge). In one wine-growing region in France, the crisis is so deep that viticulteurs have even threatened to launch a true guerilla if the authorities do not help raise prices [entry ends here].
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Article continues

Syntroleum and Tyson Foods to produce ultra-clean synthetic biofuels

Tyson Foods and Syntroleum Corporation, a Tulsa-based synthetic fuels technology company, will today announce the formation of Dynamic Fuels LLC, which will produce ultra-clean synthetic biofuels targeting the renewable diesel, jet, and military fuel markets.

The 50/50 venture intends to construct and operate multiple stand-alone commercial facilities capable of producing ultra-clean, high quality, next generation renewable synthetic fuels using Syntroleum's patented Biofining process. This 'flexible feed/flexible synthetic fuels' technology will use feedstock primarily derived from animal fats, greases, and vegetable oils to be supplied by Tyson.

The first biomass-to-liquids (BtL) facility will produce about 75 million gallons (284 million liters) of synthetic fuel annually. Construction of this initial facility is expected to start in 2008 at a yet-to-be-determined site in the south central United States, with production targeted for 2010. The US$150 million project will generate approximately 250 short-term construction jobs and 65 highly skilled permanent jobs.

Dynamic Fuels will leverage Syntroleum's proprietary work done in producing synthetic fuel and developing synthetic fuel standards for the U.S. Air Force and the Department of Defense (earlier post).

The synthetic biofuels produced by the venture are superior to petroleum fuels on many levels. These are some of their properties:
  • higher cetane levels, which are a measure of combustion quality; significantly lower Nitrogen Oxides (NOx) and near zero sulfur compared to petroleum fuels; synthetic BtL fuels have the same fuel properties as coal-to-liquids (CtL) and gas-to-liquids (GtL) fuels
  • provide superior thermal stability, making it effective for advanced military applications
  • higher energy content, better cold flow properties enabling it to function effectively in cold weather
  • reduced carbon dioxide emissions
  • the unblended fuel can be used in existing diesel engines with no engine modifications required and is completely compatible with existing pipelines, storage facilities and other conventional fuel infrastructures
  • further, the synthetic fuel may be blended with petroleum based diesel and/or conventional biodiesel to help those fuels achieve superior environmental and performance characteristics
  • the biofuel can be upgraded into ultra-clean, high quality synthetic jet fuel
Synthetic biofuels are obtained from a two stage process which consists of the gasification of biomass to obtain hydrogen and carbon monoxide synthesis gas. After cleaning it, the gas is then liquefied via the Fischer-Tropsch (FT) process in a reactor. Syntroleum's FT-reactors (image, click to enlarge) are indifferent to the source of the syngas:
:: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The companies will each contribute 50 percent of the estimated US$150 million dollar cost of the project over the next two and a half years, with the primary contributions coming in fiscal year 2008 and 2009. Annual operating profits, which are anticipated to begin in fiscal year 2010 for Dynamic Fuels, will be driven by market fundamentals such as fuel markets, feedstock markets and government support, and are forecast between $35 and $60 million:
Tyson's venture with Syntroleum represents another significant step forward in our strategy of leveraging Tyson's access to animal by-products, our trading skills, and industry relationships to become a premier player in renewable energy. We believe this venture will add value to our business, give animal agriculture another opportunity to participate in the production of renewable fuels and is also an environmentally sound way to contribute to America's energy security. - Richard L. Bond, Tyson president and CEO
As the world's largest producer and marketer of chicken, beef and pork, Tyson produces large by-product volumes of various grades of animal fats, such as beef tallow, pork lard, chicken fat, and greases which can be utilized as renewable feedstock for this venture. Drawing on Tyson's decades of applied protein chemistry experience, the feedstock mix will be pre-processed and optimized for the facilities.

Tyson also intends to use its significant procurement capabilities, industry relationships, and experience in commodity trading and risk avoidance to access feedstocks from other sources. Tyson will also utilize its transportation and logistics team, as well as its truck, rail and barge assets, to coordinate the cost effective movement of the feedstocks to fuel production facilities.
Our venture with Tyson affords us the opportunity to apply part of our established portfolio of technologies to produce next generation ultra-clean renewable synthetic fuels that contribute to our nation's energy independence while helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Tyson organization is a world class company committed to establishing a new benchmark in the renewable fuels industry, and we are proud to combine our Biofining(tm) technology with their resources in this new venture. - Jack Holmes, CEO of Syntroleum
Syntroleum's research and development work, leveraging its gas-to-liquid technology expertise, has already resulted in multiple patent applications related to its Biofining(tm) technology for renewable feedstocks. The company's additional pioneering research has targeted an expansion into full biomass-to-liquid fuel production, which could potentially incorporate cellulosic biomass, animal waste and other organic materials.

Syntroleum brochure [*.pdf] on its CtL, GtL and BtL technologies.

Article continues

Chile's first CDM project based on biomass avoids 500,000 tons of CO2 emissions

CantorCO2e Limited, a provider of financial services to the world’s environmental and energy markets, announced today their facilitation of a groundbreaking transaction involving the first biomass Clean Development Mechanism (“CDM”) Project in Chile.

The multi-million dollar transaction involving contracts between Celulosa Arauco y Constitución SA (Arauco), the largest forestry company in Latin America, and Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), one of the leading electricity generation companies in Japan, will see Arauco sell emissions reductions created from the biomass project to TEPCO.

The transaction will result in the creation of green energy through the burning of sustainable biomass (wood waste) which will then be dispatched to the Chilean electricity grid, thereby reducing CO2 and methane emissions in the order of 500,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent whilst using the latest and cleanest technology available. Much of the biomass will come from Arauco’s own pine plantations and none of it is taken from native forest, of which Arauco owns 400,000 hectares.

The project is one of the largest Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) projects involving biomass to have been agreed under the provisions of the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty signed in 1997 to address and manage global climate change issues. The CDM is a market-based mechanism under the Kyoto Protocol to encourage commercial investment in sustainable development projects in emerging economies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The deal comes at an important time for Chilean industry as it looks to decrease its dependence on natural gas imported from Argentina, which has, until now, been the only economically viable alternative to climate-destructive fuels such as coal and diesel. Although this project is substantial in size, biomass currently accounts for only 1.5% of power transmitted on the Chilean Power Grid and so the growth potential is significant:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

CantorCO2e brings much experience to the project and as broker has been instrumental in developing the right methodology, validation, registration and verification for the project. The project is one of many brokered by CantorCO2e to help mitigate the effects of climate change using market mechanisms.

Arauco is one of the largest forestry enterprises in Latin America in terms of surface area and yield of its plantations, production of market kraft woodpulp, and production of sawntimber and panels. It is organized into four strategic business areas: Forestry, Woodpulp, Sawntimber, and Panels.

The company made headlines a few years ago for its construction of a large pulp plant which provoked protest by local communities (more, here).

The Tokyo Electric Power Co., Inc (TEPCO) supplies power to more than 27 million customers in Tokyo and the surrounding Tokyo Metropolitan Area, which accounts to nearly one third of the total power consumption of Japan. TEPCO is one of the world’s largest private power companies and has more than 60GW of generating capacity.

An overview of the project from TEPCO's point of view [*.pdf / Japanese].

CantorCO2e: CantorCO2e Facilitates First Ever Biomass Emissions Reduction Project in Chile - June 21, 2007.

Article continues

Galp Energia and Sonangol to develop biofuels in Angola, 200,000 hectare project

From Portugal comes another signal [*Portuguese] of what looks like an emerging 'biopact' between the North and the South, albeit one mainly driven by the private sector. The country's leading integrated oil and natural gas company, Galp Energia, over the next few months plans to move ahead with a project to develop biofuels in Angola, in a partnership with the state-owned Sociedade Nacional de Combustíveis de Angola (Sonangol) and local farmers, the Portuguese company’s chief executive, Fernando Gomes said in Porto.

Angola is one of the countries that make Africa the potentially largest producer of sustainable biofuels in the future (see the continent's long-term potential). A rough but low estimate shows that Angola's export potential in 2050, after the rapidly rising food, fuel, fodder and fiber needs for its growing population are fully met and without deforestation or the use of land protected for conservation, is around 6 Exajoules per year, the equivalent of 2.7 million barrels of oil per day (earlier post). Angola, one of Africa's largest oil producers, currently pumps up some 1.6 million bpd of crude oil.

Gomes, who was speaking on the sidelines of a seminar on economic relations between Portugal and Angola declined to give a figure for investment in the project, noting that the project would involve the establishment of energy plantations on 200,000 hectares.
In the short term, biofuels offer a major field for investment. The relationship that exists between Galp and Sonangol, mediated by the Angolan government, will allow us to advance very strongly over the coming months in kickstarting a biofuels project in the country. - Fernando Gomes, CEO of Galp Energia
The model for development Sonangol is aiming for in this project is a partnership with Sonangol and local farmers, Gomes said, adding that negotiations were still underway with Sonangol and with the Angolan government to set the final model used:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

According to Gomes, the current harmony between Galp and Sonangol made it possible to develop projects that had previously been impossible, noting that the Angolan oil company was now a Galp shareholder and that its chairman, Manuel Vicente was a non-executive director of the Portuguese company’s board of directors.

Amongst the business that is now possible is an increase in Galp’s involvement in the fuel distribution business in Angola, via Sonangalp, a company that is part-owned by Galp and Sonangol. Gomes said that Galp has already invested around US$850 million in the Angolan oil sector, which made it the biggest Portuguese investor in the country.

The Lusophone world, led by Brazil and Portugal, is very active in exploring Africa's biofuel and bioenergy future, with concrete investments being made in both Mozambique and Angola (more here). One of those is a project involving the establishment of a 20,000 hectare palm plantation for biofuels in the north-western Bengo province, by Afriagro (previous post).


Lusa Agência: Petrolífera lusa anuncia projeto de biodiesel em Angola - June 25, 2007.

MacauHub: Portugal’s Galp Energia and Angola’s Sonangol develop biofuels in Angola - June 25, 2007.

Article continues

Scientists call for global push to advance synthetic biology - biofuels to benefit

With research backgrounds ranging from materials engineering to molecular biophysics, seventeen leading scientists from around the world issued a statement today announcing that, much as the discovery of DNA and creation of the transistor revolutionized science, the scientific field known as 'synthetic biology' is on the brink of revolutionizing our approach to problems ranging from eco-safe energy to outbreaks of malaria. The announcement comes days after the first procedure to create a synthetic organism was patented - and criticized (earlier post).

Synthetic biology comes down to the construction or redesign of biological systems components that do not naturally exist, by combining the engineering applications and practices of nanoscience with molecular biology.

The two-page text - called the Ilulissat Statement [*.pdf] - calls for an international effort to advance synthetic biology that would not only propel research, but do so while developing protective measures against accidents and abuses of synthetic biology. Biofuels are cited as a prime example of how synthetic biology help can solve future energy crises:
The early twenty-first century is a time of tremendous promise and tremendous peril. We face daunting problems of climate change, energy, health, and water resources. Synthetic biology offers solutions to these issues: microorganisms that convert plant matter to fuels or that synthesize new drugs or target and destroy rogue cells in the body. - Ilulissat Statement
The statement was issued following the conclusion of the first Kavli Futures Symposium with the futuristic title ‘The merging of bio and nano: towards cyborg cells’, held June 11-15 in Ilulissat, Greenland. Signed unanimously, signatories include scientists from the California Institute of Technology, Carnegie Institution of Washington, Cornell University, J. Craig Venter Institute, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the Institute for Advanced Study, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton University, Stanford University, and University of California at Berkeley (United States); Ecole Normale Superieure (France); Delft University of Technology (The Netherlands); Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics, TU Dresden (Germany); Weizman Institute of Science (Israel); Systems Biology Institute, and Sony Computer Science Laboratories (Japan).
When we gathered at the Kavli Futures Symposium, researchers — among the best in their fields — in areas such as nanoscience, physics, biology, materials science and engineering met to share their expertise and brainstorm on one of the most promising yet controversial fields facing science today. That we not only achieved a consensus, but resolved to issue a unanimous statement on the critical importance of this field is significant. - Cees Dekker, professor of molecular biophysics in the Kavli Institute of NanoScience at the Delft University of Technology
The Ilulissat Statement addresses some of the uncertainties of synthetic biology:
As with any powerful technology, the promise comes with risk. We need to develop protective measures against accidents and abuses of synthetic biology. A system of best practices must be established to foster positive uses of the technology and suppress negative ones. The risks are real; but the potential benefits are truly extraordinary.
The statement's recommendations include creation of a professional organization that will engage with the broader society to maximize the benefits, minimize the risks, and oversee the ethics of synthetic life:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

"This is a critical moment for synthetic biology," said Paul McEuen, professor of physics, Cornell University. "The choices facing us now — the scientific investments we make and the rules we set down to govern the field — will impact society for decades to come."

The symposium was sponsored by The Kavli Foundation and co-hosted and organized by The Kavli Institute at Cornell for Nanoscience and The Kavli Institute of Nanoscience at Delft University of Technology.
This is the first of a series of unique symposia that focus on the trends, challenges and opportunities for future scientific research. By emphasizing a forward looking perspective, the Kavli Futures Symposia provide a forum for discussion of the key issues facing future developments and directions in specific fields, and thereby help to define and guide the development of the research in these fields. - David Auston, president of the Kavli Foundation.
The full list of signatories to the Ilullisast Statement on synthetic biology includes scientists who have been working on bioenergy and biofuels:

France: David Bensimon, Ecole Normale Superieure
Germany: Joe Howard, Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics
Petra Schwille, TU Dresden
Israel: Ehud Shapiro, Weizman Institute of Science
Japan: Hiroaki Kitano, Systems Biology Institute, and Sony Computer Science Laboratories
The Netherlands: Cees Dekker, Delft University of Technology
United States: Robert Austin, Princeton University; Angela Belcher, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Steven Chu; Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; Freeman Dyson, Institute for Advanced Study; Drew Endy, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; ;Scott Fraser, California Institute of Technology; John Glass, J. Craig Venter Institute; Robert Hazen, Carnegie Institution of Washington; Jay Keasling, University of California at Berkeley; Paul McEuen, Cornell University; Julie Theriot, Stanford University.

Image: the Escherichia coli bacterium, one of the many microorganisms used in synthetic biology experiments.

Ilulissat Statement: Synthesizing the Future a vision for the convergence of synthetic biology and nanotechnology [*.pdf], signed at the Kavli Futures Symposium ‘The merging of bio and nano: towards cyborg cells’, 11-15 June 2007, Ilulissat, Greenland.

Kavli Foundation: Scientists Call for Global Push to Advance Research in Synthetic Biology - June 25, 2007.

Article continues

The bioeconomy at work: Braskem develops polyethylene from sugarcane ethanol

Braskem, the leading company in Latin America's thermoplastic resins segment and Brazil's second largest privately owned industrial company, announces it has produced the first internationally certified polyethylene made from sugarcane ethanol. Given the fact that petroleum-derived polyethylene is so widely used in our daily lives, this may be called an important breakthrough for the bioeconomy. 60 million tonnes per year of the polymer end up in hundreds of plastic products. We now have a bio-based, renewable alternative with a low carbon footprint.

Brazil has been ahead of most other countries in the development of a genuine bioeconomy in which oil-based products are replaced by renewable carbohydrate and vegetable oil based substitutes. Government initiative (with a fund of almost US$5 billion for the bioeconomy) as well as an innovative private sector that is being supported by a growing number of green scientists and agronomists, is leading to a real revolution that goes beyond mere ethanol.

Sugarcane remains key and is only gradually beginning to reveal its potential to yield products other than liquid biofuels. The humble crop is a goldmine of potential green chemistry products, ranging from bioplastics, detergents, tinctures, drugs, glues, gels, biopolymers and a whole range of molecules and platform chemicals. Major science organisations and companies are now investing in the production of bioplastics from sugarcane (amongst them the University of Queensland, the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology and Metabolix.)

The good thing is that the crop thrives in developing countries, who know they now have a resource in hand that allows them to leapfrog beyond the petroleum era. In the future, they will rely on highly integrated biorefineries that convert biomass into a wealth of fuels, green chemicals and energy. A glimpse of this future in developing countries already comes from the tiny island state of Réunion, where scarce research resources are being invested in sugarcane based green chemistry and biorefineries (earlier post).

Certifiably green
The green polymer developed by Braskem - a high-density polyethylene (HDPE), one of the resins most widely used in flexible packagings - is the result of a research and development project that has already received some US$ 5 million in investment. Part of this amount was allocated to implementing a pilot unit for the production of ethane, which is the basis for the production of polyethylene, from renewable feedstock at the Braskem Technology and Innovation Center, which is already producing sufficient quantities for commercial development of the product.

The certification of the ethanol based biopolymer was conducted by a leading international laboratory, Beta Analytic, which certified that the product contained 100% renewable raw materials. This development by Braskem is aligned with its technological and innovation strategy and its commitment to fostering sustainable development, fulfilling the expectations of both Brazilian and international society for initiatives that contribute to reducing the greenhouse effect.
The leadership of Braskem in the green polyethylene project confirms our commitment to innovation and sustainable development, and creates a very favorable outlook for the development of plastic products made from renewable raw materials, a field in which Brazil has natural competitive advantages. - José Carlos Grubisich, Braskem CEO
The production of plastics from ethanol seeks to supply the main international markets that require products with superior performance and quality, in particular the automotive, food-packaging, cosmetics and personal-hygiene industries. Evaluations conducted in the initial phase of the project ascertained enormous potential for growth and appreciation in the green polymer market. Since both resins are equal in terms of properties and performance, the plastics manufacturing industry should benefit from this important development with no need to invest in new industrial equipment:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The project is now in technical and economic specification process and the startup of green polyethylene production on an industrial scale is expected in late 2009. The new unit will have modern technology and competitive scale, and could reach an annual production capacity of up to 200,000 tonnes. The location and industrial design of the unit will be determined within the next few months.

"Braskem is extremely proud to be at the forefront of a technological breakthrough that aligns the interests of the company, our shareholders, clients and consumers, and that above all else is a great source of pride among Brazilians", concludes Grubisich.

The number of bio-based platform chemicals is growing steadily. We now have replacements for virtually all basic compounds used most commonly in the petrochemical industry as far as plastics are concerned. Green alternatives now exist for some major types of plastic: for low and high density polyethylene (LDPE/HDPE) and polypropylene (PP), polyethylene teraphthalate (PET), and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). In fact, in several cases, the bio-based alternatives outperform their petroleum rivals on many properties (for an example, see Rilsan, a very robust castor bean oil based polyamide).

Braskem: Braskem has the first certified green Polyethylene in the World - June 21, 2007.

For the properties of high density polyethylene, see its profile at MatWeb.

An overview of processing techniques and applications of HDPE, at Braskem.

Article continues

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Mapping sorghum's genome to create robust biomass crops

The University of Georgia's Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development is part of a growing effort in the U.S. to study sorghum as a biomass crop for second-generation cellulosic biofuels (previous post).

One of the goals is to turn the tropical crop into a perennial. Currently, sorghums are produced from seeds, which means the plants have to be harvested each season and then sown again. Making the crop a semi-perennial would make it a more suitable biomass crop for the production of cellulosic biofuels. Coming back year after year, perennials aren't as prone as annuals to causing erosion - a growing problem in the U.S. Moreover, perennials simply grow by themselves after harvest, thus cutting out the (relatively expensive) sowing process.

This transition from annual to perennial has already happened with sorghum's cousin, sugarcane. The great success of this crop is partly due to the fact that it can be grown and regrown sustainably in the same soils for decades. In some cases, sugarcane has been replanted for over 150 years at the same place without a decline in yields.

There are numerous widely-used species of sorghum, which is in fact a genus of grass species: grain sorghums are cultivated for their seeds and can readily replace corn for the production of 'first generation' ethanol. Compared to corn, sorghum needs about half as much water. Other sorghums are grown for silage, whereas sweet sorghums yield sugar-rich stalks, which are crushed, like sugarcane, to obtain a juice which can be fermented into ethanol. Finally, there are (drought-tolerant) hybrids that deliver both grains (for food), sweet stalks (for sugar and/or ethanol), and biomass for fodder. These hybrids are the focus of pro-poor biofuels initiatives in the developing world (earlier post).

Sorghum's genome
The photosynthetic efficiency of sorghum and its drought-tolerance has made the crop an interesting biofuel candidate. As a model for the tropical grasses sorghum is representative of the highly efficient "C4" photosynthesis process, using a complex combination of biochemical and morphological specializations resulting in more efficient carbon assimilation at high temperatures.

According to University of Georgia scientist Andrew Paterson, the efficient crop can easily make the transition from seed-based to whole-plant-based biofuels. The scientist is a distinguished research professor in the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences' crop and soil science department, and director of the UGA Plant Genome Mapping Laboratory.

Paterson has spent 15 years studying sorghum's genetic blueprint. He's hoping now to find answers: why is the plant more drought-resistant than corn? How did it get its genetic makeup? What genes give certain plants height and others disease resistance?

Recently, the U.S. Department of Energy completed the sequencing of sorghum at its Joint Genome Institute (JGI), collaborating with Paterson's lab and several others (amongst them the ICRISAT, which developed the hybrid we have often discussed). The JGI is actively screening a large number of potentially interesting biofuel crops - from grass species and trees, to tropical crops like cassava and now sorghum (more here). Mapping the sorghum genome happened much more quickly than expected:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The sorghum sequence will be a valuable reference for assembling and analyzing the fourfold larger genome of maize (corn), a tropical grass that is the leading U.S. fuel ethanol crop (sorghum is second). Sorghum is an even closer relative of sugarcane, arguably the most important biomass/biofuels crop worldwide with annual production of about 140 million metric tons and a net value of about $30 billion. Sorghum and sugarcane are thought to have shared a common ancestor about 5 million years ago. The two have retained largely common gene order, and some genotypes can still be intercrossed.

The sorghum genus is also noteworthy in that it includes one of the world’s most noxious weeds. The same features that make "Johnson grass" (Sorghum halepense) such a troublesome weed are actually desirable in many forage, turf, and biomass crops that are genetically complex. Therefore, sorghum offers novel learning opportunities relevant to weed biology as well as to improvement of a wide range of other forage, turf, and biomass crops.

Thanks to a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, Paterson can now examine sorghum's 740 million bases more thoroughly. At 740 million letters of DNA, sorghum has a genetic code roughly a quarter the size of the human genome.

Through computer models, the researcher will be able to deduce what the sorghum gene set looks like. And he can build hypotheses on why sorghum has certain traits such as height, flowering and disease resistance that can be tested in the field.

Sorghum is important now as a promising biomass crop, Paterson says. As the demand for biofuels increases, understanding the plant's building blocks grows in importance, especially as scientists look at moving from seed-based to plant-based biofuels. Several cooperation agreements have been signed between research organisations and the private sector with the aim of studying sorghum for this future role (earlier post).

In Europe, the crop is being analysed as a potential feedstock for the production of biogas. In Germany, scientists have created and planted a collection of 160 sorghum varieties from Asia and Africa to see whether the drought tolerant crop can be cultivated in the arid regions of the country during the dry season (earlier post and here). The Northsea Bioenergy Partnership is developing Sudan grass and sorghums (and their hybrids) for the same purpose (see here).

Image: Sorghums from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service National Sorghum Germplasm Collection. Credit: Peggy Greb/USDA

University of Georgia, Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development: UGA scientist sleuthing secrets of sorghum traits - June 7.

U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute: Why Sequence Sorghum?

Article continues