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    The price of New York crude leapt to 77.24 dollar a barrel on Thursday, marking the highest level since August 9, 2006, as keen global demand and tight supplies fuelled speculative buying, traders said. On Wednesday, the US government had revealed that inventories of American crude fell by 1.1 million barrels last week. France24 - July 26, 2007.

    Arriva, one of Europe's largest transport groups is trialling B20 biodiesel for the first time on 75 of its buses. The company is aiming to reduce total carbon emissions by around 14 per cent by using biodiesel as a 20 per cent blend (predominantly be a mixture of sustainable soya products, along with used cooking oil and tallow). The 75 buses in the innovative trial will carry around 130,000 passengers every week. Minimal engineering changes will be required to the fleet as part of the scheme. Arriva - July 26, 2007.

    Marathon Oil Corporation announces that it has completed two more projects adding biodiesel blended fuel at its Robinson and Champaign terminals in Illinois. The terminals now feature in-line ratio blending in order to provide soy-based B-2 (two percent biodiesel) and B-11 (eleven percent biodiesel). Marathon Oil - July 25, 2007.

    Norway-based renewable energy firm Global Green One has agreed to set up a € 101.6 million bioethanol plant in Békéscsaba (southeast Hungary), with more facilities planned for Kalocsa, Szombathely and Kõszeg, the latter of which was already a target for a €25 million plant in May this year. The Békéscsaba plant would process 200,000 tonnes of maize per year, employing around 100 people. The logistics part of the facility would also create 100 jobs. The company expects the factory to generate €65 million in revenues each year. Portfolio - July 25, 2007.

    A Canadian firm, Buchanan Renewable Energies, is to begin an investment into Liberia's biomass industry that will grow to US$20 million in October and offer 300 jobs by end of the year. The company will start shipping 90 major pieces of equipment to Liberia by the end of August. Daily Observer (Monrovia) - July 24, 2007.

    KNM Process Systems Sdn Bhd, has secured a RM122 million (€26/$36m) order to build a biodiesel plant in Pahang, Malaysia, for Mission Biofuels Sdn Bhd, a subsidiary of Australian biofuels company Mission Biofuels Ltd. The plant will have a biodiesel output of 750 tonnes per day and glycerine output of 82 tonnes per day. Malaysia Business Times - July 24, 2007.

    AlgoDyne Ethanol Energy Inc. confirms that its retail partner, Canadian Green Fuels, has entered into an agreement with Cansource BioFuels to open a new biodiesel production facility in Mayerthorpe Alberta. The deal will see the construction and development of a community based, integrated crushing and biodiesel facility to process 10 million litres of ASTM certified canola based biodiesel which will be scaled up to produce 40million litres by 2010. BusinessWire - July 23, 2007.

    The Center for Management Technology announces the second Biomass-to-Liquids Technology conference will take place in Vienna this year, from 12 to 13 September. The current state of BTL-technologies will be presented and discussed. Biomass-to-Liquids conversion pathways are seen by many as promising avenues into the world of second generation biofuels that relies on the use of a broad variety of possible biomass feedstocks. CMT - July 23, 2007.

    Gulf Ethanol Corporation, a Houston-based energy company, announced today that it has initiated negotiations with representatives of government and industry in Uruguay. Discussions, coordinated by the U.S. Department of Commerce, centered on the synergy between Gulf Ethanol's interest in exploiting the potential of sorghum as a non-food fuel stock for ethanol production and the ideal conditions for growing the crop in Uruguay. The company criticizes the use of food crops like corn for ethanol in the U.S. and is seeking alternatives. Yahoo Press Release - July 20, 2007.

    Dutch company Capella Capital N.V. announces its investment in BiogasPark N.V. and acquires a 20 % stake upon the foundation of the company. The remaining shares are held by the management and strategic investors. BiogasPark N.V. will invest in the field of renewable energy and primarily focuses on financing, purchasing and the maintenance of biogas plant facilities. Ad Hoc News - July 20, 2007.

    Bioenergy company Mascoma Corp. is to build the world's first commercial scale cellulosic ethanol plant in Michigan where it will collaborate with Michigan State University. The $100 million plant will rely on the biochemical, enzymatic process that breaks down biomass to convert it to sugars. One of the factors that attracted Mascoma to Michigan was the recent $50 million federal grant MSU received to study biofuels in June. MSU will help in areas such as pretreatment technology for cellulosic ethanol production and energy crops that can be utilized by the plant. The State News - July 20, 2007.

    PetroChina, one of China's biggest oil companies, aims to invest RMB 300 million (€28.7/US$39.6m) in biofuel production development plans. A special fund is also going to be jointly set up by PetroChina and the Ministry of Forestry to reduce carbon emissions. Two thirds of the total investment will be channeled into forestry and biofuel projects in the provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan and Hebei, the remainder goes to creating a China Green Carbon Foundation, jointly managed by PetroChina and the State Forestry Administration. China Knowledge - July 19, 2007.

    Netherlands-based oil, gas, power and chemical industries service group Bateman Litwin N.V. announces it has signed an agreement to acquire Delta-T Corporation, a leading US-based bioethanol technology provider, with a fast growing engineering, procurement and construction division for a total consideration of US$45 million in cash and 11.8 million new ordinary shares in Bateman Litwin. Bateman Litwin - July 18, 2007.

    TexCom, Inc. announced today that it has signed a letter of intent to acquire Biodiesel International Corp. (BIC), and is developing a plan to build an integrated oilseed crushing and biodiesel production facility in Paraguay. The facility, as it is currently contemplated, would process 2,000 metric tons of oil seeds per day, yielding approximately 136,000 metric tons (approximately 39 Million Gallons) of biodiesel and 560,000 metric tons of soy meal pellets per year. Initial feedstock will consist mainly of soybeans that are grown in the immediate area of the proposed production plant in the Provinces of Itapua and Alto Parana. MarketWire - July 18, 2007.

    Spanish power company Elecnor announced that it will build Spain's biggest biodiesel production plant for €70 million (US$96.48 million). The plant, in the port of Gijon in northern Spain, will be ready in 22 months and will produce up to 500,000 tonnes of biodiesel a year from vegetable oil. The plant will be one of the world's biggest. Spain has decided to impose mandatory blending of biofuels with conventional fossil fuels as part of European Union efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Elecnor [*Spanish] - July 18, 2007.

    The University of North Dakota Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) conducted a feasibility study to determine the most economical solutions to provide biomass energy to the isolated Chugachmiut Tribal Community in the village of Port Graham, Alaska, located on the Kenai Peninsula about 180 miles southwest of Anchorage. The village is only accessible by air or water, making traditional fossil fuel sources expensive to deliver and alternative forms of energy difficult to implement. The case study based on decentralised bioenergy offers interesting parallels to what would be needed to provide energy to the developing world's huge population that lives in similarly isolated conditions. EERC - July 18, 2007.

    According to a basic market report by Global Industries Inc., world biodiesel sales are expected to exceed 4.7 billion gallons (17.8 billion liters) by 2010. Though Europe, with a share estimated at 84.16% in 2006, constitutes the largest market, and will continue to do so for the coming years, major growth is expected to emanate from the United States. The automobile applications market for biodiesel, with an estimated share of 55.73% in 2006 constitutes the largest as well as the fastest growing end use application. Other applications independently analyzed include the Mining Applications market and the Marine Applications market. PRWeb - July 18, 2007.

    O2Diesel Corporation announced that it has received the regulatory approvals necessary to start delivering its proprietary diesel ethanol blended fuel, O2Diesel, in the French market. The approvals pave the way for O2Diesel to move forward into the next stage of its European market development strategy by commencing deliveries to a number of targeted fleets in France. MarketWire - July 17, 2007.

    The BBC World Service is hosting a series of programmes on the global obesity pandemic. Over the coming two weeks a range of documentaries and discussions will be held on the obesity time-bomb that is growing all over the West, but also in the developing world. In North America, a quarter of people are now morbidly obese, 60% is overweight, and one in three children will become obese. The epidemic is spreading rapidly to China and India. BBC World Service - July 16, 2007.

    A new report from Oregon State University shows the biofuels industry is on track to be a $2.5 billion chunk of the state's economy within 20 years. The study identifies 80 potential biodiesel, ethanol and biomass facilities which could produce a combined 400 million gallons (1.5 billion liters) per year of ethanol and another 315 million gallons (1.2 billion liters) of biodiesel. On an oil equivalent basis, this comes down to around 38,000 barrels per day. Oregon State University - July 16, 2007.

    Jatropha biodiesel manufacturer D1 Oils has appointed a leading plant scientist to its board of directors. Professor Christopher Leaver, Sibthorpian professor of plant science and head of the plant sciences department at Oxford University, has joined the Teesside company as a non-executive director. Professor Leaver, who was awarded a CBE in 2000, is a leading expert in the molecular and biochemical basis of plant growth and differentiation. D1Oils Plc - July 16, 2007.

    Panama and South Africa are set to cooperate on biofuels. A delegation consisting of vice-minister of Foreign Affairs Azis Pahad, of Finance, Jubulai Moreketi and of Finance, met with Panama's vice-chancellor Ricardo Durán to discuss joint biodiesel and ethanol production and distribution. Panama's goal is to become a hub for internationally traded bioenergy, making use of the strategic position of the Canal. La Prensa Gráfica [*Spanish] - July 14, 2007.

    Spanish investors are studying the opportunity to invest in agro-industrial projects in Morocco aimed at producing biofuel from the Jatropha plant. Morocco’s Minister for Energy and Mines, Mohammed Boutaleb, said Moroccan authorities are willing to provide the necessary land available to them, provided that the land is not agricultural, is located in semi-arid regions, and that the investors agree to use water-saving agricultural techniques, such as drip-feed irrigation. Magharebia - July 14, 2007.

    Philippine Basic Petroleum Corp. plans to raise as much as 2.8 billion pesos (€44.4/US$61.2 million) through a follow-on offering and loans to finance a 200,000 liter per day bio-ethanol plant in the province of Zamboanga del Norte. The move into biofuels comes in anticipation of the implementation of RA 9367 or the Philippines biofuels law. RA 9367 mandates five percent bioethanol blending into gasoline by 2009, and 10 percent by 2011. Manila Bulletin - July 14, 2007.

    The Michigan Economic Development Corporation last week awarded a $3.4 million grant to redevelop the former Pfizer research facility in Holland into a bioeconomy research and commercialization center. Michigan State University will use the facility to develop technologies that derive alternative energy from agri-based renewable resources. Michigan.org - July 13, 2007.

    Fuel prices increased three times in Mozambique this year due to high import costs. For this reason, the country is looking into biofuels as an alternative. Mozambique's ministries of agriculture and energy presented a study showing that more than five million hectares of land can be used sustainably in the production of crops that would produce biodiesel fuels. The first phase of a biofuel implementation plan was also presented, identifying the provinces of Inhambane, Zambezia, Nampula and Cabo Delgado as the first to benefit. News24 (Capetown) - July 12, 2007.

    The Malaysian Oleochemical Manufacturers Group (MOMG) has urged the government for incentives and grants to companies to encourage the development of new uses and applications for glycerine, the most important byproduct of biodiesel. Global production of glycerine is currently about one million tonnes. For every 10 tonnes of oil processed into biodiesel, one tonne of glycerine emerges as a by-product. Bernama - July 12, 2007.

    BioDiesel International AG has acquired 70 per cent of the shares in Lignosol, a Salzburg based company that is making promising progress in Biomass-to-Liquids conversion techniques. The purchase price is in the single-digit million Euro range. ACN - July 10, 2007.

    Gay & Robinson Inc. and Pacific West Energy LLC announced today a partnership to develop an ethanol plant in Hawaii based on sugarcane feedstocks. The plant's capacity is around 12 million gallons (45 million liters) per year. The partnership called Gay & Robinson Ag-Energy LLC, will also ensure the continuation of the Gay & Robinson agricultural enterprise, one of the oldest in Hawaii. Approximately 230 jobs will be preserved, and a large area of West Kauai will be maintained in sustainable agriculture. Business Wire - July 10, 2007.

    Water for Asian Cities (WAC), part of UN-Habitat, is extending partial financial support for the construction of several biogas plants across the Kathmandu valley and develop them as models for municipal waste management. The first biogas plants will be built in Khokna, Godavari, Kalimati, Patan, Tribhuvan University premises, Amrit Science College premises and Thimi. The Himalayan Times - July 09, 2007.

    EnviTec Biogas's planned initial public offering has roused 'enormous' interest among investors and the shares have been oversubscribed, according to sources. EnviTec has set the IPO price range at €42-52 a share, with the subscription period running until Wednesday. EnviTec last year generated sales of €100.7 million, with earnings before interest and tax of €18.5 million. Forbes - July 09, 2007.

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Monday, July 02, 2007

Physicists find way to increase ultracapacitor energy density seven times

The growing interest in electric vehicles is a boon to bioenergy, because the electricity used by such vehicles must be derived from a primary energy source (previous post). If this source is based on fossil fuels, electric vehicles are obviously not green and could increase greenhouse gas emissions. Renewables such as solar, wind and biomass offer an alternative. Of these, biomass has several advantages: it is cost-competitive, can be used in existing power plants (co-firing with coal, feeding biogas to natural gas plants), and can be stored and used whenever it is needed. Moreover, biomass can be traded physically and globally (earlier post). Most importantly, biomass is the only resource that can be used in carbon-negative energy systems.

For electric vehicles to be mass-produced and penetrate the market, advances are needed in energy storage technologies. Besides batteries and fuel cells, ultra-capacitators stand a good chance of finding an important application in the sector: high performance capacitors would enable hybrid and electric cars with much greater acceleration and better regeneration of electricity when using brakes.

North Carolina State University physicists have now deduced a way to improve high-energy-density capacitors so that they can store up to seven times as much energy per unit volume than the common capacitor:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

A capacitor is an energy storage device. Electrical energy is stored by a difference in charge between two metal surfaces. Unlike a battery, capacitors are designed to release their energy very quickly (graph, click to enlarge). They are used in electric power systems, hybrid cars, spacecraft and all kinds of electronics.

The amount of energy that a capacitor can store depends on the insulating material in between the metal surfaces, called a dielectric. A polymer called PVDF has interested physicists as a possible high-performance dielectric. It exists in two forms, polarized or unpolarized. In either case, its structure is mostly frozen-in and changes only slightly when a capacitor is charged up. Mixing a second polymer called CTFE with PVDF results in a material with regions that can change their structure, enabling it to store and release unprecedented amounts of energy.

The team, led by Vivek Ranjan, concluded that a more ordered arrangement of the material inside the capacitor could further increase the energy storage of new high-performance capacitors, which already store energy four times more densely than capacitors used in industry. Their predictions of higher energy density capacitors are encouraging, but have yet to be experimentally tested.

Vivek Ranjan, L. Yu, M. Nardelli and J. Bernholc, "High-performance energy storage", Physical Review Letters (forthcoming).

Eurekalert: The first heat transistor, remote controlled nanomachines, and more from APS Physics - July 2, 2007.

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New biodiversity data access portal launched

Biofuel production and biodiversity are not necessarily two opposite ends of a spectrum. In fact, the large-scale use of sustainably produced carbon-negative biofuels may come at a cost in biodiversity that is far smaller than the cost of not using biofuels. After all, unmitigated climate change is set to have a major impact on global biodiversity and could bring countless species to the brink of extinction (earlier post and here).

Moreover, environmental damage in some of the biodiversity hotspots in the developing world is partly driven by material poverty which forces small farmers to slash and burn their way through forests for subsistence. The era of the bioeconomy provides opportunities to introduce far more advanced farming practises, opens an entirely new market that may yield unprecedented chances for farmers to increase their incomes, making them ultimately less dependent on destructive agricultural techniques. Sustainable farming in the South can only be achieved when farmers have the financial means to invest in inputs. Biofuels may be the market on which to obtain these means (earlier post).

But for this strategy to succeed against a far more destructive 'monoculturalist' logic, a whole series of policy instruments and decision making tools must be designed and made accessible to as large a number of stakeholders so that appropriate bioenergy strategies can be developed - from earth observation tools to 'biofuels atlases', policy databases and biodiversity records.

The Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) is exactly contributing to fulfilling this need. It launched a new internet tool today at an international meeting for scientific and technical advice to the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) at the UNESCO building in Paris.

The database produces zoomable maps showing the distribution of biodiversity records. In this example the map includes data shared for all species included in the genus Sorghum (218 species) (click to enlarge).

The new GBIF Data Portal is an Internet gateway to more than 130 million data records provided by 200+ institutions scattered over 30+ countries around the world. All of these data (with more to come) can be accessed all at once on the GBIF Data Portal.
This new Portal is one of the key tools GBIF has been working toward since its inception in 2001. It will be extremely useful in improving decisions in support of sustainable development. - Dr. Nick King, currently CEO of the Endangered Wildlife Trust, and soon to become Executive Secretary of GBIF.
Using GBIF's new search engine, you can find where on the globe a species can be found, or get a list of species in your country or your back yard. The data retrieved are instantly mapped by the Portal. The data can also, if the user chooses, be easily plotted on Google Earth:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The Data Portal is a sophisticated tool for users to incorporate biodiversity data into their own websites, or download datasets for ecological studies.

When combined with environmental datasets (soil type, climate, elevation and the like), GBIF data can be used in predicting species' response to climate change, choosing the best places to put protected areas, and so on.

GBIF is an international organisation founded to make the world's biodiversity data freely and openly available worldwide. Membership now stands at 40 countries and 33 international organisations. Current non-members are welcome and invited to join.

The GBIF Data Portal is capable of handling hundreds of millions of data records. With the launch of the Portal, the GBIF network of data providers is set to grow dramatically, from hundreds to thousands of institutions.

GBIF makes the Portal and its extensive capabilities and services, as well as software for data providers, freely available. Civil society, countries and organisations are invited to utilise GBIF's new Data Portal.

PowerPoint introductions to the new Portal used at the launch event are available in English, French and Spanish.

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Scientists develop polyurethane plastics from rapeseed oil

An intensive world-wide effort to develop technology for manufacturing plastics from vegetable oil, rather than petroleum, has led researchers in Canada to a process for making polyurethane (PUR) plastic sheets from canola (rapeseed) oil.

Given the wide-spread use of PUR plastics in our daily lives, this can be seen as an important development. The breakthrough adds to a growing series of plant-based alternatives to petroleum based plastics. Last week, researchers from Brazil announced they successfully produced polyethylene (PE) from sugar cane (earlier post). With the new PUR plastic, we now have a bio-based alternative for most of the commonly used plastics.

In their study scheduled for publication in the July 9 issue of Biomacromolecules, Suresh S. Narine and Xiaohua Kong report on the properties of their vegetable-based PUR sheets. An open access ASAP version of the article is already online.

Polyurethanes are one of the most interesting classes of copolymers, which can vary from rubbery materials to glassy thermoplastics and from linear polymers to thermosetting plastics. The versatile PURs are widely used in liquid coatings and paints, adhesives, flexible foam in upholstered furniture, building insulation, shoes, and automotive interiors.

The process
The PUR sheets were produced with an improved version of a process in which canola oil is treated with ozone to make the chemical raw materials for PUR. This ozonolysis technology has been industrially established and has been used earlier to produce azelaic acid and pelargonic acid from commercial-grade oleic acid. Generally, the process of producing acids is carried out in carboxylic acid. To produce alcohols using this technology, the conversion of the ozonide to acids during ozonolysis should first be prevented. The researchers achieved this by using a nonacid solvent. The products of such ozonolysis (the ozonide) have been further reduced to aldehyde using a reductive agent and subsequently hydrogenated to produce the alcohols.

The scientists then used this ozonolysis- and hydrogenation based technology to produce polyols with terminal hydroxyl groups from vegetable oils and used them successfully to produce PUR elastomers and foams which had better thermomechanical and mechanical properties than the corresponding PUR made from commercially available biobased polyols. This first generation of polyols was not suitable to produce PUR plastics due to their relatively high acidity content:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The researchers have now improved the technology, optimized the process and produced a new generation of polyols from canola oil with lower acidity and hydroxyl number close to what is theoretically achievable. The polyols were suitable for the production of a wider range of PUR materials including PUR plastics.

In their article, the scientists describe the process as low-cost without the need for complicated technology, and said that it produces PUR sheets with "excellent" mechanical properties.

"It is reasonable to believe that the vegetable-based PUR could be a potential candidate to replace or practically replace petroleum-based PUR, in sensitive and high end applications such as in the biomedical area," the report says.

In 2006 world consumption of polyurethanes stood at 8.9 million tonnes.

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).

Xiaohua Kong and Suresh S. Narine, "Physical Properties of Polyurethane Plastic Sheets Produced from Polyols from Canola Oil", Biomacromolecules, ASAP Article 10.1021/bm070016i S1525-7797(07)00016-5 June 6, 2007.

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'Plants for the Future' technology platform presents plan for European bioeconomy

The EU-backed ‘Plants for the Future’ Technology Platform officially released its full and final Strategic Research Agenda [*.pdf] in the European Parliament in Brussels last week. The document backed by scientists, farmers, industry and other public and private stakeholders signposts a route for Europe to use plant sciences and biotechnology to enhance EU competitiveness and welfare. The document outlines a radical transition towards the knowledge-based bioeconomy.

Plants for the Future is a stakeholder forum on plant genomics and biotechnology that was initiated by the European Commission in 2003. It is coordinated by the European Plant Science Organisation (ESPO), is an independent body that represents more than 50 leading Research Institutions from 23 European countries, and by the European Association of Bioindustries (EuropaBio). The organisation has members from industry, academia and the agricultural sector. It provides a short-, medium- and long-term vision for Europe’s plant agricultural sector and sets out a consensus on the research needed to fulfill the vision for the creation of a bioeconomy.
Our forefathers used the potential of plants far more than we are using it today. Today we are using plants nearly only for food, feed and construction. In the future we aim to use plants for energy and as a source of chemicals. The development of the knowledge-based bioeconomy – involving a global industry based on renewable plant resources as an alternative to the current fossil fuel-based industry – constitutes by far the most challenging and promising opportunity in terms of economic, environmental and societal potential. - Dr Markwart Kunz, Plants for the Future.
The strategic research agenda identifies five challenges for Europe’s society to which the plant sector can contribute:
  1. Healthy, safe and sufficient food and feed
  2. Plant-based products – green chemicals and bioenergy
  3. Sustainable agriculture, forestry and landscape
  4. Vibrant and competitive basic research
  5. Consumer choice and governance
The strategic plan includes targets under different time-frames. When it comes to green chemistry and bioenergy, goals for the biotech research community are the development of advanced plant-based raw materials and pharmaceuticals, of plants as energy production systems and as genuine 'production factories' based on the optimisation of non-food plants as a vehicle to produce compounds of interest. The targets and deliverables are highly optimistic but because they are based on expert consultations they offer an overview of what is deemed scientifically and technologically feasible over the coming years.

Bioenergy systems
Sustainable use of plants to produce energy requires a substantial net energy gain. Simulations that take into account all inputs in the plant-based energy generation process tend to show that the net gain currently ranges between negative and a factor two compared with input energy. This is insufficient to play a role of importance in resolving future energy demand. The challenge is to rethink the concept and dramatically lower energy input requirements for growing and harvesting plant biomass, while maximising energy retention. The ultimate application of this know-how would be the development of an economically competitive, net energy producing system for the energy industry. Deliverables and research activities include:

Over the next five years:
  • Development of out-of-the-box options, including some primary feasibility testing of high-energy plant biomass production systems (crops, plant cultures, other) with at least 50% lower energy input requirements than current best production systems (i.e. plants and methods of cultivation and harvesting)
  • Development of out-of-the-box options, including some primary feasibility testing, to increase the energy retention of plants by at least fivefold in comparison with today’s best performers
  • Gene replacement technology to optimise selected, high-energy plant biomass production systems
Over the next ten years:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

  • Prototype development of three prioritised high-energy plant biomass production systems with at least 50% lower energy input requirements than current best production systems (i.e. plants and methods of cultivation and harvesting)
  • Prototype development of three prioritised high-energy plant biomass production systems with a forecasted fivefold higher energy retention than today’s best performers
Over the next twenty-five years:
  • Prototype development of two prioritised high-energy plant biomass production systems with at least 50% lower energy input requirements and at least fivefold greater energy retention than current best production systems (i.e. plants and methods of cultivation and harvesting).
Green chemistry
Both society and industry would benefit from exploring the uses of new plant raw materials with better-performing features or an accumulation of new compounds. These benefits may range from cheaper, safer or more environmentally friendly production methods to the ability to develop better products for the consumer. New plant raw materials may include oils, starches, fibres and secondary metabolites, with application in the health, nutrition and materials industries.

Similarly, plants may become a major source for the production of pharmaceuticals. The development of new plant raw materials and compounds requires the development know-how on key pathways and participating genes, nutrient uptake and transport, energy metabolism, growth conditions, as well as the appropriate enabling technologies.

Deliverables and research activities include:

Over the next five years
  • Fourty prioritised pathways understood at level of participating genes and products
  • Efficient molecular gene evolution technology development applicable to genes participating in the aforementioned pathways
  • Optimise plant recombinant protein expression technology
  • New transgenic production strategies
  • New enabling technologies, such as gene replacement and chemical switch technology
Over the next ten years
  • Systems biology know-how for 100+ pathways in three prioritised plant species
  • Manipulation of 20 prioritised pathways using on/off switches at all control points and the introduction of foreign genes with new functions
  • Sophisticated manipulation of first set of pathways by introducing evolved genes through experimental gene replacement
  • Commercialisation of recombinant pharmaceuticals from plants
  • Improvement of new enabling technologies, such as efficient gene replacement, chemical switch to bring them up to commercial standards
Over the next twenty-five years
  • Predictive systems biology knowledge of 50 pathways in three plant species
  • Revalidation of existing systems biology know-how in five additional plant species
  • Manipulation of 100 prioritised pathways using evolved genes at multiple control points and the optimisation of foreign genes with new functions
Plants as production factories
Plants may offer an attractive alternative production system for proteins and other compounds. Their use as a production system depends on their cost, quality, environmental friendliness and the time it takes to produce the compound of interest, as well as on the uniqueness of the plants needed to produce a particular compound.

The central theme is the optimisation of non-food plants as a vehicle to produce the compounds of interest. A number of factors are likely to determine whether or not industry embraces this new approach: (1) the concentration of the compound, (2) the ability to direct post-translational modifications, (3) the storability of the compound in the plant or (intermediate) extract, (4) the extractability of the compound, (5) the infrastructure requirements (field, greenhouse, growth rooms and ‘fermentors’) and the acreage necessary to grow the plants, (6) the handling requirements during growth and (7) the time needed to grow the plants. In addition, to minimise plant waste and maximise economic benefit, the plant residue remaining after extraction should have a second purpose.

Deliverables and research activities include:

Over the next five years
  • Improved plant gene expression technology for selected non-food plants: mRNA production, translational performance of mRNAs, protein folding, post-translational modification technology
  • Compound accumulation and storage technology
  • Compound transport and secretion technology
  • New technologies (e.g. gene replacement, transfection technologies and chemical switch) applicable to a range of selected species with the potential to meet commercial performance standards
  • New manufacturing strategies for production, extraction and processing
  • Development of small-scale manufacturing infrastructure and capacity for nonfood products
Over the next ten years
  • Mainly non-food plants and plant cells optimised for compound production and extraction
  • Broadened platform of post-translational modification technologies
  • Broad use gene replacement, chemical witch and transfection technologies
  • Controlled boosting of plant cell division rates
  • Development of large-scale production capacity for non-food products
Over the next twenty-five years
  • Compound production and extraction technologies for commercial use and applicable to multiple plants and plant cells
  • Development of plants or plant cells suitable for fermentor-like applications

Speaking at the presentation of the Strategic Research Agenda, the president of EPSO Mr Gruissem said: “Europe must put its knowledge base in the field of plant science into practice to keep the European agricultural sector innovative and internationally competitive.” Plant genomics, the other life sciences and biotechnology are the main scientific drivers of the bioeconomy which is worth an estimated €1.6 trillion a year in Europe. Together, they make up what is becoming known as the knowledge-based bioeconomy:

“To improve their future competitiveness, European farmers will need more diversified and environmentally friendly crops, producing more and better quality food and non-food products. This real challenge will be tackled through state of the art innovation, especially in plant biotechnologies,” said Mr Serra Arias, former vice-president of the Committee of Agricultural Organisations (COPA).

Plants for the Future hopes that the research themes described in its Research Agenda will feature in the EU Commission conference which opened June 26th in Brussels entitled “Towards future challenges of agricultural research in Europe” and in any European Agricultural Research Agenda that may be developed thereafter.

The organisation consulted on the Stakeholders Proposal for a SRA at consultations in 20 European Countries, with the Mirror Group of the European Parliament, and received numerous individual replies via its online invitation for comments.

European Plant Science Organisation: ‘Plants for the Future’ invites Europe to reap fruits of knowledge-based bio-economy [*.doc]- June 25, 2007.

Plants for the Future: Stakeholders Proposal for a Strategic Research Agenca [*.pdf] - June 2007.

ESPO consultations on the Strategic Research Agenda; country-specific consultations can be found here.

EurActiv recently conducted an interview with Dr Markwart Kunz in which he explains the challenges of the bioeconomy: AgroSciences see future in energy and chemicals - July 2, 2007.

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Unique CGIAR project: small farmers in decentralised cassava ethanol production

Cassava is increasingly gaining attention in the developing world as an attractive biofuel crop. The reasons are manifold: as a biofuel, cassava based ethanol has a strong energy and GHG balance. This contrasts with fuels made from crops grown in the US and the EU, the fuels of which barely have a positive energy balance and do little to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Moreover, the plant thrives under rainfed conditions on marginal lands not suitable for other crops, requires relatively low inputs and is thus easily cultivated by small farmers. Cassava grows far away from rainforests the soils of which are not suitable for the crop, thus limiting the risk of the biofuel driving deforstation.

Some of the brightest minds in biotechnology - like Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution - are working on mapping cassava's genome with the aim of improving it for fuel production (see the U.S. DOE's Joint Genome Institute and its work on cassava, as well as the work at the International Atomic Energy Agency's Plant Breeding and Genetics division, where nuclear and space breeding techniques are used to study the crop for improvement).

According to a report from the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), one of the leading global agricultural research consortia working towards strengthening the food security of people in the developing world:
"Cassava has erupted into the first decade of the third millennium as a crop that can contribute to agro-industrial and small-farmer development in the tropics. One of the most recent advances — using cassava to produce fuel alcohol — has opened multiple opportunities, not least for small farmers."
In short, cassava looks like an ideal biofuel crop and countries like Thailand and China have already taken it up to produce ethanol. In Nigeria, the Presidential Cassava Initiative is aimed at ethanol and biogas, and is expected to bring 3 million jobs.

An initiative by the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Colombia (part of the CGIAR), is now playing an active role in diversifying the use of cassava and in creating new strategies to access markets. The approach promoted by CIAT, in alliance with the Latin American and Caribbean Consortium to Support Cassava Research and Development (CLAYUCA) and with Dutch company Diligent Energy Systems, facilitates the participation of small farmers in the production of cassava as the raw material and in pre-processing activities.

Unique decentralisation approach
The initiative is unique in that cassava roots are initially transformed into ethanol at 50% concentration by the small producers, at the most local level. The alcohol is then taken to a central distillery to produce fuel alcohol (ethanol at 99.5% concentration). One of the biggest hurdles to producing fuels from biomass efficiently - transporting the bulky material over long distances - is thus overcome. Raw biomass (such as starch tubers) has a low energy content. By transforming the material into an intermediate product with a higher energy density (alcohol) at the local level, the transport costs can be greatly reduced.

The CIAT's low-tech approach to decentralisation is similar to high-tech strategies based on placing pyrolysis plants near biomass harvesting sites, aimed at producing bio-oil which is then brought to a central processing plant (more here).

Artisan-scale processing plants can easily be set up in many rural communities because of their low cost. Small distilleries have been around for a long time, but their efficiency can be greatly improved with minimal redesigns. In addition, processing by-products from the fermentation step can be used by the local farmers as feedstocks for biogas, animal feed and organic fertiliser:
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To facilitate the implementation of this decentralised approach, CIAT and CLAYUCA received financial support from Colombia’s ministry of agriculture to establish in the second half of 2007, a pilot plant for processing ethanol from cassava, sweet potato and other sources of biomass. The plant’s processing capacity will be 800 liters a day. It will be located at CIAT's headquarters.
We are working to generate an innovative, decentralised process, where small farmers are given more participation and where production is oriented towards a bio-refinery concept, in which the potential of crops such as cassava and sweet potato is tapped to obtain biofuels, convert wastes into fertilisers and animal feed products, and transform liquid effluents into biogas. - Bernardo Ospina, executive director of CLAYUCA.
This endeavour aims to position cassava as an agricultural option that can help Colombian farmers improve their income and quality of life. It should also help validate sustainable and competitive options of energy and agro-industrial development currently implemented by the Colombian government.

The experience can serve as a model for other countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America that seek the sustainable development of bioenergy programs using traditional crops.

The project is not limited to biofuel production. It also aims to solve the problem of contamination from solid and liquid wastes.

The North American companies Feeco, Encap and Soil Net LLC (all from Wisconsin), the sugar refineries Mayagüez, Providencia and Riopaila, Colombia’s largest paper manufacturer (Propal), CLAYUCA and CIAT recently formed an alliance to transform the contaminating residues resulting from the manufacture of ethanol (sugar industry effluents, also known as vinasse) into competitive products, thus helping to reduce the adverse environmental impact of these residues on the region’s soil and water resources.

Vast potential
Cassava holds an enormous potential across the subtropics and the tropics. Especially in Central and West-Africa there is a vast amount highly suitbable non-forest land currently not being used.

Traditionally, cassava is grown as a subsistence crop and seen as an emergency foodstuff. It can be left in the ground for long periods of time and harvested in times of scarcity. At this subsistence level, yields remain low. Given the vast number of small farmers who grow cassava in Africa, Asia and Latin America without inputs, production from existing hectarages can be increased considerably with micro-doses of fertilizer (previous post). Besides increasing yields from existing farms, there are millions of suitable and highly suitable hectares of non-forest land available.

Some countries, like Thailand and Nigeria, have developed an industrial-scale cassava sector which serves to produce animal feeds and starch. Nigeria used to export large quantities to the EU, but new policies there which support European animal fodder producers, have closed off the market. For this reason, former president Olusegun Obasanjo launched a 'Presidential Cassava Initiative' aimed at boosting and diversifying uses for the crop. Biofuels offer an entirely new market and may revive the sector for industrial cassava (earlier post).

More information:
Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research: Fueling Cassava's Popularity - June 2007.

CIAT's Cassava Biotechnology Network.

The Consortio Latinoamericano y del Caribe de Apoyo a la Investigación y al Desarollo de la Yuca.

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