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    Taiwan's Feng Chia University has succeeded in boosting the production of hydrogen from biomass to 15 liters per hour, one of the world's highest biohydrogen production rates, a researcher at the university said Friday. The research team managed to produce hydrogen and carbon dioxide (which can be captured and stored) from the fermentation of different strains of anaerobes in a sugar cane-based liquefied mixture. The highest yield was obtained by the Clostridium bacterium. Taiwan News - November 14, 2008.

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Saturday, September 01, 2007

First global satellite survey of gas flaring shows hidden costs of oil

The first globally consistent survey of gas flaring has been conducted using satellite data, and a series of national and global estimates of gas flaring volumes have been produced covering a twelve-year period spanning 1995 through 2006.

Color composite of the nighttime gas flaring lights of the Nigeria region generated using 1992 as blue, 2000 as green, and 2006 as red. Nigeria is the second largest contributor to global gas flaring, after Russia.
The report [*.pdf], which was commissioned and funded by the World Bank’s Global Gas Flaring Reduction partnership (GGFR), was executed by scientists at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The results show the hidden costs of the oil and gas industry, as large amounts of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere and useful energy is wasted through gas flaring.

Gas flaring estimates, which were produced for sixty countries or areas around the world, show that global gas flaring has remained stable over the past twelve years, but remains large - in the range of 150 to 170 billion cubic meters (bcm).

According to the satellite data, in 2006 oil producing countries and companies burned about 170 bcm of natural gas worldwide or nearly five trillion cubic feet (graph, click to enlarge). That’s equivalent to 27% of total U.S. natural gas consumption and 5.5% of total global production of natural gas for the year. If the gas had been sold in the United States instead of being flared, the total US market value would have been about $40 billion. Gas flaring also emits some 400 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, more than the total emissions of a country like France.
Gas flaring not only harms the environment by contributing to global warming but is a huge waste of a cleaner source of energy that could be used to generate much needed electricity in poor countries around the world. In Africa alone about 40 billion cubic meters of gas are burned every year, which if put to use could generate half of the electricity needed in that continent. -Bent Svensson, manager of the World Bank’s GGFR partnership.
Flaring or burning of gas is widely used to dispose of natural gas liberated during oil production and processing when this occurs in remote areas far from potential users, where there is often no infrastructure on site to make use of the gas. In recent years, however, renewed efforts are being made to eliminate flaring, such as re-injecting it into the ground to boost oil production, converting it into liquefied natural gas for shipment, transporting it to markets via pipelines, or using it on site for generation of electricity:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Since this is the first study of gas flaring using satellite observations, scientists warn that these preliminary results should be used with caution, as there still are several sources of error and uncertainty, including variations in flare efficiency, mis-identification of flares, non-continuous sampling, and environmental effects:

In any case the results are welcomed by the climate change and energy community.
This study proves that it is possible to monitor gas flaring from space and make reasonable and independent estimates of the volume being wasted. In the past, the only way to track gas flaring was through official estimates, but now those days are over. These independent figures should help governments and companies alike to get a better sense of how much gas they are actually flaring. - Christopher Elvidge, lead author, NOAA National Geophysical Data Center
According to the satellite observations, 22 countries have increased gas flaring over the past 12 years. These include: Azerbaijan, Chad, China, Equatorial Guinea, Ghana, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mauritania, Myanmar, Oman, Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Qatar, Russia (excluding Khanty Mansiysk region), Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Sudan, Thailand, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Yemen.

On the other hand, the satellite observations show that 16 countries have decreased gas flaring from 1995 to 2006, including Algeria, Argentina, Bolivia, Cameroon, Chile, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Libya, Nigeria, North Sea, Norway, Peru, Syria, UAE and USA (offshore).

And nine countries have had largely stable gas flaring across those 12 years. These include Australia, Ecuador, Gabon, Iran, Kuwait, Malaysia, Khanty-Mansiysk (Russian Federation), Romania, and Trinidad.

The authors used low-light imaging data from the U.S. Air Force Defense Meteorological Satellite Program to assess the volumes of gas burned in flares, which are visible in observations of nighttime lights under cloud-free conditions (map at the beginning of this article, click to enlarge). Current and planned satellite sensors will continue to provide data suitable for estimating gas flaring volumes for decades to come. GGFR encourages on-site monitoring as well to help track changes in gas flaring volumes and to report progress in reducing flaring.

In 2002 the World Bank and the Government of Norway started the Global Gas Flaring Reduction (GGFR) initiative, which now has 12 country partners and 10 industrial partners, including the world’s largest petroleum companies. GGFR’s main goal is to bring all major stakeholders around the table so that they can together reduce the barriers to eliminate gas flaring to minimum levels. These main barriers include lack of an effective regulatory framework for associated gas utilization, lack of markets and lack of infrastructure to take the gas to those markets.

The GGFR partnership, managed and facilitated by a team at the World Bank in Washington, DC, includes the following partners: Algeria (Sonatrach), Angola, Cameroon, Canada (CIDA), Chad, Ecuador, Equatorial Guinea, France, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Khanty-Mansijsysk (Russia), Nigeria, Norway, U.K. Foreign Commonwealth Office, the United States (DOE); BP, Chevron, ENI, ExxonMobil, Marathon Oil, Hydro, Shell, Statoil, TOTAL; OPEC Secretariat, and the World Bank.

National Geophysical Data Center / Global Gas Flaring Reduction: A Twelve Year Record of National and Global Gas. Flaring Volumes Estimated Using Satellite Data [*.pdf], Final Report to the World Bank - May 30, 2007

National Geophysical Data Center: Gas Flaring Survey, global results and country results.

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German IT firm uses biogas fuel cell to power server farm

In a world first, German IT service firm T-Systems has taken a biogas fuel cell into operation [*German] to power and cool one of its server farms - these energy devouring machines that power our information society. The servers' electricity and cooling requirements are covered in an entirely carbon-neutral way by the 250Kw pilot system. Better still, because of the extreme efficiency of the fuel cell, T-systems is set to cut energy costs considerably. Affordable green computing power is becoming reality.

We referred earlier to the trials with this biogas powered fuel cell. Now it is being taking into full operation. The project is a joint initiative of Power and Air Solutions, Voigt und Haeffner, and CFC Solutions GmbH, a subsidiary of MTU, supported by the German Ministry for Technology & Economy. The cell, a 'Hot Module' manufactured by CFC Solutions measures 8 by 2.5 meters and consists of three components: a gas pretreatment section that converts biomethane into hydrogen, the fuel cell, and the electricity converters that convert direct into alternating current. Coupled to the system is a cooling cell that converts the heat generated by the Hot Module (400 degrees Centigrade) into cold air used to cool the server space (image, click to enlarge).

Specifications of the biogas powered Hot Module:
  • System efficiency: 90%
  • Electrical efficiency: 47%
  • Thermal output: 180Kw
  • Electrical output: 238Kw
  • Coupled heat-power-cooling system
T-Systems wants to build a power system entirely independent of grid-electricity, in order to ensure that its energy is climate neutral and supplies are guaranteed all the time. The biogas used to power the system is generated from biogas maize produced in the vicinity of the city of München. When the biogas is converted into hydrogen, the CO2 that is released is taken back up by the dedicated energy crop, making the cycle carbon neutral.

T-Systems has been enthusiastic because the extreme efficiency of the biogas powered fuel cell has allowed it to cut energy costs. The overall thermal and electrical efficiency of the system - combining heat, power and cooling - adds up to more than 90 per cent. Traditional utility power generation plants often have a capacity below 40 per cent.

Bernd Kraus, Business Process Outsourcing chief at T-Systems, says that the company currently spends 29 per cent on energy. Without the fuel cell system, these costs would increase to 38 per cent by 2010. The biogas fuel cell system allows T-Systems instead to push down costs to 20 per cent by 2010. Costs of the project are €2.5 million, partly covered by a €1 million research grant by the German Ministry of Technology and Economy.

Energy costs at the server park are high and have been increasing steeply over the past years due to rising grid electricity prices. The servers devour more energy than all of T-System's other operations. Fifty per cent goes to cooling. Moreover, as new servers keep getting stacked on racks in the same space, cooling needs per cubic meter become bigger and bigger:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The biomethane for the project is produced by Schmack GmbH, a global biogas leader. The biofuel is produced locally - in Pliening near München - from dedicated energy crops. The crop in question is starch rich maize, the whole crop of which is utilized to generate approximately 5000 cubic meters of methane per hectare. This is enough methane to yield an equivalent of 50 MWh per hectare per year.

T-Systems-Manager Horstmann, Project coordinator Willi Hoffmann and State Secretary of Bayern Hans Spitzner push the button, activating the unique power system. Green and efficient computing power is now a reality.

To power T-Systems' entire data center in München with biogas, around 40 to 80 of the fuel cells would be required, says Manfred Teumer, T-Systems chief for Infrastructure & Architecture Services. One entire server farm requires around 1 square kilometer of biogas maize.

An advantage of the fuel cell system is that it yields a constant amount of energy, which is exactly what is needed for server farms that do not show sudden peaks in power consumption.

In case of power outages, T-Systems used to rely on its own diesel generators. But this is a thing from the past. By implementing a 'cross-cable' concept in the design of the fuel cell system, two fully independent power circuits are available all the time. In case the grid blacks out, the fuel cell takes over 100 per cent.

All images courtesy of Herman Gfaller, Silicon.de.

Silicon.de: Bildergalerie: Brennstoffzelle im T-Systems-Rechenzentrum - August 30, 2007.

Silicon.de: Biogas fürs Rechenzentrum - T-Systems hat in seinem Rechenzentrum im Euro-Industriepark (EIP) München den Dauertest einer Brennstoffzelle gestartet - August 27, 2007.

Silicon.de: Geiz ist im Rechenzentrum geiler als Ökologie - August 17, 2007.

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Ontario province funds agricultural and bioenergy research in Northwest

The Ontario government is supporting agricultural research that will advance crop and bioenergy production in Northwestern Ontario's Thunder Bay and Nipigon regions. Bill Mauro announced the initiative on behalf of Northern Development and Mines Minister Rick Bartolucci.

The Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation (NOHFC), designed to foster job creation and strengthen the economies of northern communities, will invest $675,000 to help the Thunder Bay Agricultural Research Association investigate research in four major areas: biomass production, medicinal plants, sustainability of production systems and crop nutrition.

The Thunder Bay area and the Northwest (map, click to enlarge) is considered an agricultural frontier that presents unique challenges to the production of certain crops.
  • One of the initiatives involves biomass production – turning biomass crops into liquid, solid and gaseous biofuels.
  • Another initiative will look at sustainability by testing how manure, wood ash and lime interact with fertilizer to grow crops.
  • A third initiative involves testing soil to determine what effect nutrients like zinc and magnesium have on corn, soybeans and alfalfa.
  • And the fourth will determine the benefits of local medicinal plants.
Station manager Tarlok Sahota says the station will put greater emphasis on economic drivers over the next five years.

Other investments announced by the NOHFC incude:
  • Providing $6 million to Lakehead University, which is building capacity that will support the competitive and sustainable development of Ontario’s boreal forest
  • Providing $355,974 to Lakehead University, in partnership with Bowater Canadian Forest Products and the Pulp and Paper Research Institute of Canada, for the development of new testing apparatus that would measure the polluting effects of pulp and paper mill waste water
  • Establishing the Forest Sector Prosperity Fund, part of the $1-billion plan to help forest companies invest in their own future and the future of the communities that depend on them.
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

"We are looking forward to the results of this ambitious agricultural research. We are optimistic that it could create opportunities for the development of regional industries aimed at processing, marketing and adding value to local farm products," said Bill Mauro.

These initiatives are part of the government’s Northern Prosperity Plan for building stronger northern communities. It has four pillars: Strengthening the North and its Communities; Listening to and Serving Northerners Better; Competing Globally; and Providing Opportunities for All.

Ministry of Northern Development and Mines: Ontario Supports Nipigon Diversification Efforts - August 31, 2007

Ministry of Northern Development and Mines: Province Funds Agricultural Research In Northwest - August 30, 2007.

Chronicle Journal, Thunderbay: Farmers score with canola - August 30, 2007.

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Petrobras signs a MoU with India's Bharat Petroleum on biofuels marketing, logistics

Brazil's state-run oil company Petrobras, via its downstream business, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with India's state-owned Bharat Petroleum to develop the market for biofuels. Downstream director Paulo Roberto Costa signed the MOU on Petrobras' behalf, while Bharat Petroleum's executive director Sanjay Krishnamurti signed for the Indian company.

The MOU is aimed at the undertaking of technical studies in ethanol and biodiesel logistics and marketing with views to exporting these goods to India and other markets abroad.

Bharat Petroleum has a strong presence in oil refining and derivative marketing in the Indian market and intends to implement the use of an ethanol-gasoline mix and to develop international ethanol marketing business opportunities [entry ends here].
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Friday, August 31, 2007

Vienna UN conference: consensus on building blocks for international response to climate change

A round of climate change talks under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) concluded in Austria today with agreement [*.pdf] on key elements for an effective international response to climate change.

The conference concluded that industrialized countries should strive to cut emissions by 25 percent to 40 percent of their 1990 levels by 2020. Experts said that target would serve as a loose guide for a major international climate summit to be held in December in Bali, Indonesia. Critics have already responded that this range of cuts too broad.

The “Vienna Climate Change Talks 2007” were attended by more than 900 delegates from Parties, representatives from Intergovernmental Organisations, NGOs and members of the press.

They were designed to set the stage for a major United Nations conference in December in Bali. The meeting in Indonesia will seek to advance future action on climate change post-2012, when the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol expires.
Countries have been able to reassess the big picture of what is needed by identifying the key building blocks for an effective response to climate change. There is a consensus that the response needs to be global, with the involvement of all countries and that it needs to give equal importance to adaptation and mitigation. - Yvo de Boer, UNFCCC Executive Secretary
Government delegates also debated how the response can be enabled by an approach that opens the way for financial flows to climate-friendly and climate-proof investments. This was based on a report on the investment and financial flows relevant to the development of an effective and appropriate international response to climate change, presented to the conference by the UN Climate Change Secretariat.

Alluding to the potential of the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), Yvo de Boer said:
The report clearly shows that energy efficiency can achieve real emission reductions at low costIt also shows that many cost-effective opportunities for reducing emissions are in developing countries, but also that industrialised countries need aggressive emission reduction strategies.
The CDM permits industrialized countries to invest in sustainable development projects and thereby generate tradable emission credits:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The conference comprised the last workshop of the “Dialogue on long-term cooperative action to address climate change by enhancing implementation of the Convention” and negotiations under the Kyoto Protocol designed to identify emission reduction ranges of industrialised countries.

A number of Parties, including Indonesia as the host country of the UN Climate Change Conference 2007, in Vienna called for Bali to launch a formalised way to continue this work, which represents one of the options for taking the outcomes further.

At Vienna, the “Ad Hoc Working Group on Further Commitments of Annex I Parties (industrialised countries) under the Kyoto Protocol, the AWG, officially recognised the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) indication that global emissions of greenhouse gases need to peak in the next 10 to 15 years and then be reduced to very low levels, well below half of levels in 2000 by mid-century, if concentrations are to be stabilised at safe levels.

The group also officially recognised that avoiding the most catastrophic forecasts made by the IPCC, including very frequent and severe droughts and water-shortages in large parts of the world, would entail emission reductions in the range of 25-40% below 1990 levels by industrialised countries. The mitigation potential of industrialised countries increases through the use of the CDM.
This is a first step that has laid the groundwork for the Bali Conference. It shows that Parties have the necessary level of ambition to move this work forward. - Yvo de Boer
UNFCCC: Vienna UN conference shows consensus on key building blocks for effective international response to climate change [*.pdf] - August 31, 2007.

UNFCCC: Investment and financial flows relevant to the development of effective and appropriate international response to Climate Change - August 2007.

AP: Agreement Reached on Greenhouse Gas Curb - August 31, 2007.

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Russian scientists develop fullerene-based hydrogen sorbing agent that meets DOE criteria

Scientists from Saint Petersburg have tested various materials for their ability to absorb hydrogen and found that a composite material consisting of fullerene-containing soot and magnesium hydride meets the targets set out by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) for hydrogen transport power systems. Given that hydrogen is likely to be made from biomass in the future, the latest developments in storage technologies are important for the bioenergy community.

The DOE has fixed two targets for hydrogen storage solutions applied to automotive transportation. The first target requires a ratio of hydrogen weight / tank weight that is superior to 0,065 (6,5% weight). This target limits the weight of the tank. The second target requires a hydrogen volumetric density higher than 62 kg/m in order to limit the volume of the tank.

The Russian researchers from the Ceramic Thermal Materials Science and Engineering Centre focused their work on building an experimental hydrogen storage material with a gas weight content of around 60 kilogram and a volume content not less than 5% per cubic meter. Current traditional methods of storing nitrogen, either under high pressure in gaseous condition, or in liquid or adsorbed state, have low hydrogen parameters, both in weight and volume.

To develop their storage method, the scientists looked at various solid sorbents, based on carbon nanostructures - multi-layer nanotubes, astralenes (nanodispersible fulleroid systems) and fullerene-containing soot - which are activery studied around the world. They also analysed specialy treated palladium, magnesium hydride and their composites.

The researchers performed their tests at a special hydrogen test stand able to operate under temperatures from -180 to +800 degrees centigrade and with pressures varying from 0.0001 millimeter mercury column to 20 megapascals, as well as under various environmental conditions.

The scientists found that the inner cavities of all materials (central channels and interlamellar zones of nanotubes and astralenes) do not absorb hydrogen despite any type of specialized preliminary treatment for these materials. Enthusiastic researchers have tested palladium as a catalytic agent, but failed: this metal added only 1-1.5% to hydrogen absorption. Other nanomaterials - graphite fiber, activated carbon, pure fulleren dust, titanium powder and titanium metal hydride - showed much lower sorption values than powders of nanostructural materials.

Fullerene-containing soot appeared to be the winner among sorbent materials:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The researchers prepared a powder of fullerene-containing soot, treated it with glycerol, and added magnesium hydride powder. These manipulations resulted in a sorbing agent the hydrogen sorbing parameters of which fit the requirements for hydrogen storages developed by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

The new sorbent boasts the following parameters: the weight content of hydrogen slightly exceeds 5%, which leads to 65 kg in one cubic meter. Maximum absorption is shown under conditions of 200-350 degrees centigrade and 1-10 megapascals. The reverse process is highly effective at temperatures of 340-350 degrees centigrade.

Image: fullerenes are a family of carbon allotropes - molecules composed entirely of carbon, in the form of a hollow sphere, ellipsoid, or tube.

Russian Information Center: New Horizons of Storing Hydrogen - August 30, 2007.

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Brazil and the Philippines to intensify cooperation on biofuels

Brazil has agreed to intensify cooperation in energy security, particularly in the development and use of biofuels, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs says. Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo said he met with Brazilian Minister for Foreign Relations Celso Amorim and they agreed to intensify cooperation in the development and use of ethanol, biodiesel and biomass energy.

Brazil is the world's leading biofuel producer and has been able to replace 18 per cent of its automotive fuel requirements with the green fuels.

Since ethanol has become less costly and much easier to manufacture and process than petroleum, the alternative fuel is steadily becoming a promising alternative to gasoline throughout the world.

According to Department of Foreign Affairs, in the Philippines, the use of ethanol and other fuel alternatives will be a major boost to the country’s energy independence agenda which outlines the road map for the attainment of energy self-sufficiency by 2010. It is expected to ensure a steady supply of energy to the Philippines which is heavily dependent on imported oil:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Last January, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo formally signed Republic Act 9367, also known as the “Biofuels Act of 2006,” into law. It promotes the use of alternative transport fuels consistent with the Declaration on East Asian Energy Security ratified by the 16 heads of state of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and its dialog partners during the 12th Asean Summit in Cebu.

In the Philippines, bio-ethanol will be produced from crops such as sorghum and sugar cane.

Brazil has been extremely active in promoting the alternative abroad, signing tens of bilateral technology transfer and cooperation agreements with countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia.

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Statoil takes 42.5% interest in Baltic biodiesel producer

Norwegian oil company Statoil has signed a letter of intent with SEB Venture Capital for the purchase of a 42.5% interest in UAB Mestilla. Mestilla is building the biggest biodiesel factory in the Baltic states.

Owners of Lithuanian agricultural company Linas Agro will be the other shareholder, with a 57.5% stake. Construction of the factory began in the spring of 2006. It lies in the free economic zone near the coastal town of Klaipeda. Plans call for production to begin in the autumn of 2007.

The biodiesel factory (photo, click to enlarge) will have a capacity of just over 100,000 tonnes per year. The plant is close to the port, and the good export possibilities make it an efficient supplier to the European market. Moreover, the plant is located in an area of Europe where raw materials are readily available at competitive prices.

Statoil is also working to develop market opportunities both in the Baltic states and Poland with road and rail delivery.

The raw material is vegetable oil. But since the new factory has its own crusher, it can also make vegetable oil directly from oil seed rape supplied by farmers. The crushing capacity makes it more robust with a view to raw materials supply, which come from the Baltic states, Ukraine, Belarus and Russia:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

"While Linas Agro possesses expertise on sourcing raw materials, Statoil has broad experience with sales, distribution and marketing of automotive fuels," says Sjur Haugen, Statoil's sector manager in the Manufacturing & Marketing business area.

Linas Agro will be responsible for the raw material supply and Statoil will be the sole marketer of the biodiesel product.

"It is unusual that an agricultural and oil company are collaborating this way in the biodiesel industry," says Mr Hagen.

"Our aim is to create a strong supply value chain meeting common sustainability criteria to the benefits of our customers. By being close to the market and being involved in the whole production process we have improved our ability to deliver the right quality biodiesel at the right time to them."

Final closing of the transaction will be dependent on Lithuanian competition authority approval.

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Thursday, August 30, 2007

The bioeconomy at work: Tohoku Electric turns glycerin into bioplastics

Tohoku Electric Power Co. has developed a process to convert glycerin, a major byproduct of biodiesel fuel production, into lactic acid for use in making polylactic acid (PLA), a type of biodegradable plastic.

While researching production of large quantities of acetic acid from rice hulls, the firm’s R&D center discovered that glycerin could be converted into lactic acid. It then conducted basic research on conditions to facilitate such conversion and found that stable conversion to lactic acid could be achieved by mixing the glycerin with alkaline water and raising the temperature to 300°C and the pressure to 12 megapascals.

Tohoku Electric has reached an agreement with Hitachi Zosen Corp. to develop a lactic acid production system that increases reaction efficiency and can convert large quantities of glycerin into lactic acid.

The conventional process for polylactic acid production starts with bacterial fermentation of sugar from corn, sugarcane or other renewable source to produce lactic acid. The lactic acid is then converted into lactide (two lactic acid molecules are converted into one lactide molecule). After purification through vacuum distillation, the lactide undergoes a solvent-free melt process that causes the ring-shaped lactide polymers to open and join end-to-end to form long chain polymers:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

For each ton of vegetable oil transesterified into biodiesel, around 100kilograms becomes available as glycerin. Because the product is now flooding the market, researchers have been looking for a range of new uses.

Recently a group of engineers succeeded in converting the compound into ethanol and green chemicals via anaerobic fermentation (earlier post). Another cost-effective way to use the resource is by turning it 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.

GreenCarCongress: Tohoku Elec Develops Process for Converting Biodiesel Byproduct Into Biodegradable Plastic - August 30, 2007.

Biopact: Engineers convert glycerin efficiently into ethanol, green chemicals via anaerobic fermentation - June 26, 2007

Biopact: Students patent biopolymer made from biodiesel and wine byproducts - June 20, 2007

Biopact: Researchers make biodegradable films from biofuel and dairy byproducts - June 11, 2007

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Scientists: nutrient recycling makes the bioeconomy sustainable

This spring American farmers responded to the ethanol industry's demand for grain by increasing their corn acreage by 19 percent over last year, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates (earlier post). What if that happens again next year? What if farmers decide against crop rotations and plant corn on the same fields, year after year? Or, what if farmers begin growing biomass crops such as switchgrass for the production of ethanol from plant fiber? Will soil lose fertility? Will erosion increase? Will the amount of energy needed to produce biofuels go up or down? In short, will the bioeconomy be sustainable?

Robert Anex, an Iowa State associate professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering, examines a plot of hybrid sorghum-sudangrass. The plant is a high-yielding biomass crop that's being studied as a possible biomass source for the production of cellulosic ethanol. Iowa State researchers are conducting a double-crop experiment with the plant: They're growing hybrid sorghum-sudangrass in the summer and growing triticale, a wheat-rye hybrid, over the winter. That would provide two crops, capture more solar energy and reduce erosion. Credit: Bob Elbert.
Robert Anex, an Iowa State associate professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering and associate director of Iowa State's Office of Biorenewables Programs, is working to answer those and other questions about the transition to an agriculture that produces biomass for energy as well as food, fodder and fiber. One definite answer is that American agriculture is undergoing a profound transformation.
It may well be that the development of biomass-based crops production systems can have as profound an impact on agriculture and its environmental footprint as it does on energy security and the global climate. Whether this is a positive impact or a negative impact will depend largely on how biomass feedstocks are produced and converted, and the extent to which these two activities are integrated. - Robert Anex and co-authors
Together with Andrew Heggenstaller and Matt Liebman of Iowa State's agronomy department and Lee Lynd and Mark Laser of Dartmouth College, Anex wrote "Potential for Enhanced Nutrient Cycling through Coupling of Agricultural and Bioenergy Systems" [*abstract] a paper recently published online by Crop Science, the official publication of the Crop Science Society of America.

Nutrient recycling

The paper reports that as much as 78 percent of the nitrogen fertilizer needed for crops could be recovered from an integrated biological and thermochemical process that converts switchgrass to ethanol. The study says such nutrient recovery and recycling could significantly improve the sustainability of biomass production and the amount of energy required to produce ethanol from plant fiber.
Innovative bioconversion processes configured to recover key plant nutrients from biomass will allow recycling nutrients to crop fields, thereby closing nutrient cycles and reducing the energetic and economic costs of fertilization. Such advanced bioconversion matched with complementary biomass production may promote the development of highly productive agricultural–industrial systems that protect environmental quality. - Robert Anex and co-authors
The researchers say the nutrient recovery could happen this way: Plant fiber would be converted to liquid fuels by pre-treatments and fermentation. The co-products of fermentation would be dried and heated to turn the solids into gases. The gasification would leave plant nutrients in the resulting ash and ammonia. The nutrients in both streams could be recovered and returned to the fields that produced the biomass. The scientists present a generic case to illustrate their concept:
A generally representative example of nutrient recovery from an integrated biological and thermochemical conversion process designed to produce ethanol and synthetic fuels from switchgrass (Panicum virgatum L.) indicates that approximately 111 kg ha–1 yr–1 of N can be recovered. This is equivalent to 78% of the N-fertilizer input required. This example illustrates that N recovery and cycling could significantly improve the sustainability of biomass production as well as the overall energy balance of ethanol production from lignocellulosic biomass. - Robert Anex and co-authors
This potential for nutrient recycling means there's potential for a new kind of agriculture feeding a sustainable bioeconomy:
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"By creating a large, new domestic demand for agricultural products, the advent of commercial-scale conversion of biomass into ethanol and other industrial chemicals is likely to have a strong influence on the design of agricultural systems," the researchers wrote. "The possibility of recycling nutrients from the biorefinery to the agricultural system that produces the feedstock may allow substantial improvements in both sustainability and production efficiency."

But, sustaining biomass production is a complex system that depends on many variables such as soil type and slope, soil organic matter and the amount of biomass actually harvested.

To help farmers begin to understand how collecting biomass from their fields may affect soil fertility, erosion, energy needs, labor and the bottom line, Anex and a team of Iowa State researchers have added bioeconomy elements to I-FARM, a Web tool that helps farmers simulate and plan various changes to their operations.

I-FARM is free and can be found at http://i-farmtools.org. Its focus is on the upper Midwest but weather and soils data from 28 states are accessible from its database.

In one simulation, the I-FARM research team (Anex, Ed van Ouwerkerk, an Iowa State research associate in agricultural and biosystems engineering; Tom Richard, an associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering at Penn State University; Amritpal Kang, an Iowa State graduate student; and Brian Gelder, an Iowa State postdoctoral research associate) studied the effects of harvesting corn stalks and leaves on three farms in northwest Iowa's Palo Alto County. One grain farm harvested no stover, one harvested 1,809 dry tons of stover a year and the other harvested 3,077 dry tons a year.

The simulations found the farm that harvested the most stover also needed the most fertilizer, had the most erosion and barely returned sustainable levels of organic matter to the soil. That farm also recorded the highest net farm income before taxes.

Anex's study of the sustainability of the bioeconomy is being supported, in part, by grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation.

The studies are helping researchers answer some questions about the sustainability of agriculture in a bioeconomy, Anex said. But there are still lots of questions about how everything in a new agricultural system would fit together.

"Despite the promise of alternative crops and cropping systems as well as the nutrient recovery and recycling concepts examined here, there are still many questions that remain about their practical implementation," Anex and the other researchers wrote in their paper. "The issues that have been addressed here and the questions that have been raised are only a small subset of those that must be addressed if we are to usher in a new and beneficial agricultural revolution."

Robert P. Anex, Lee R. Lynd, Mark S. Laser, Andrew H. Heggenstaller and Matt Liebman, "Potential for Enhanced Nutrient Cycling through Coupling of Agricultural and Bioenergy Systems", Crop Science, 47:1327-1335 (2007)

Iowa State University: Iowa State researcher studies the sustainability of the bioeconomy - August 30, 2007.

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Clean coal project ZeroGen achieves milestone by successfully drilling and testing two wells

ZeroGen, Australia’s most advanced clean coal power demonstration project owned by the Queensland government, has achieved [*.pdf] a significant milestone with the completion of the first stage of its test drilling program. The ZeroGen Clean Coal Power Demonstration Project aims to enable deep cuts in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to the atmosphere by combining the technologies of Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) and CO2 Capture and Storage (CCS) (schematic, click to enlarge).

Biopact focuses on developments in CCS technologies because they allow for the production of radically carbon-negative energy when applied to biomass (more here, here and here). If implemented on a global scale, socalled 'Bio-energy with Carbon Storage' (BECS) systems take historic carbon dioxide emissions out of the atmosphere and allow us to go back to pre-industrial CO2 levels in a matter of decades (earlier post).

The first phase of ZeroGen’s test drilling, Drilling Program One (DP1), involved the drilling of two wells of depths between 1000 and 2000 meters in the Northern Denison Trough in Central Queensland. The tests involved injecting water into the underground saline reservoirs to replicate carbon dioxide released from the production of electricity by burning coal.

An international peer review of the results has now confirmed the tests were successful in determining that the local geology could support the clean coal technology. The ZeroGen team has now mapped out the area for a second round of tests to locate the best saline aquifer for storing large quantities of CO2 - a process called geosequestration. Other objectives of Drilling Program Two (DP2) are to investigate the cost considerations associated with on-shore CO2 storage as well as monitoring and verification techniques:
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DP1 was undertaken by Stanwell Corporation Limited with technical expertise provided by Shell Development (Australia) Limited, a world leader in CO2 sequestration, and a number of Queensland firms. The next phase of investigations will be managed by Stanwell Corporation Limited and will be undertaken in collaboration with Shell, Sunshine Gas, MBA Petroleum Consultants and AGR Asia Pacific.

ZeroGen's commercial partner Shell Development (Australia) has agreed to be part of the next stage and will work in collaboration with Sunshine Gas and MBA Petroleum Consultants. Shell has yet to decide whether to take a 10 per cent equity in the project.

Clean coal technology is considered crucial to addressing global warming, given the continued use of coal-fired power stations, particularly in developing countries. But much depends on whether electricity generated by projects such as ZeroGen would be competitively priced.

While there are a number of clean coal technology projects around the world, including geosequestration tests being undertaken in Victoria's Otway Ranges, ZeroGen is unique in that it is designed to produce power and reduce emissions using a series of technologies in Queensland geological conditions which are, most importantly, similar to that of China. Mr Beattie has made no secret of his desire to sell clean coal technology to China in an effort to safeguard Queensland's future as a coal exporter. He has promoted ZeroGen in meetings with Chinese government officials, while the ZeroGen team has also helped China's GreenGen project and held talks with potential Chinese investors.

Graham Reed, program manager for the Centre for Low Emission Technology, yesterday said ZeroGen had made "a very significant step in so far as this project and Queensland are concerned".

Peter Cook, chief executive of the Co-operative Research Centre for Greenhouse Gas Technologies, also welcomed the ZeroGen development, describing it as "a first, cautious and totally appropriate step in the process".

The ZeroGen plant's critics, including at one point federal Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane, argue that it is too small at 100mw and will not be commercially viable. Mr Macfarlane would not comment yesterday on the status of ZeroGen's application for federal funding.

But ZeroGen remains several years ahead of its comparable rivals, including the US-based FutureGen project, and is starting to be assessed by coal companies, whose financial support is crucial to its success.

ZeroGen Pty Ltd is owned by the Queensland Government and Stanwell Corporation Limited is the main service provider for the feasibility study. The feasibility study is expected to be completed by late 2008 and involves: further test drilling (DP2); an Environmental Impact Statement; the CO2 pipeline route identification; native title and cultural heritage negotiations; and extensive stakeholder engagement.

Image: artist impression of the proposed ZeroGen power station. Credit: ZeroGen.

ZeroGen: Clean coal project achieves significant milestone - August 30, 2007.

ZeroGen: Test Drilling Fact Sheet [*.pdf].

Queensland Government: Smart State takes step closer to clean coal with ZeroGen - August 30, 2007.

The Australian: Low-emission coal test success - August 30, 2007.

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NETL and USAF release feasibility study for conceptual Coal+Biomass-to-Liquids facility

The U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (DOE/NETL) and the U.S. Air Force have released a study that examines the feasibility of producing 100,000 barrels per day of synthetic jet fuel from coal and biomass. The study made a life-cycle analysis and showed the coal+biomass-to-liquids (CBTL) facilities could cut emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), the primary greenhouse gas, by 20 percent compared to conventional petroleum processes. The resulting fuels would be competitive at current oil prices.

The study provides a performance baseline that can be used to show how CBTL with carbon capture and storage would capitalize on domestic energy resources, provide a buffer against rising petroleum and natural gas prices, and mitigate output of CO2.

The joint NETL/Air Force report, Increasing Security and Reducing Carbon Emissions of the U.S. Transportation Sector: A Transformational Role for Coal with Biomass [*.pdf] looks at a plant design that would gasify coal and biomass, and then convert the gas to jet fuel using Fischer-Tropsch (FT) chemistry (schematic, click to enlarge). The report is the first of a series of feasibility and conceptual plant design studies undertaken for commercial-scale FT plants employing co-gasification of coal and biomass.

At full capacity, a single plant, using the base-case configuration outlined in the report, would use more than 4,500 tons of high-sulfur bituminous coal and nearly 630 tons of corn stover per day. From this feedstock it would produce:
  • Nearly 7,500 barrels per day of diesel fuel or aviation jet fuel that, with additives, can be delivered to end-use customers.
  • More than 3,500 barrels per day of liquid naphtha products that can be shipped to a refinery for further upgrading to commercial-grade products or sold as chemical feedstock.
  • 11.1 megawatts of electricity that can be exported to the grid, in addition to the electricity generated for internal use.
An environmentally friendly energy producer, the conceptual plant is based on the use of “best available control technology” guidelines for sulfur, nitrous oxides, particulate matter, and mercury. In addition, CO2 will be captured and compressed for injection into a pipeline that will ship the CO2 to a sequestration site:
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The comparison of CO2 emissions between petroleum-derived diesel and FT diesel was based on a limited well-to-wheel life cycle analysis. The analysis for each fuel included the major CO2 sources from the production and transportation of the feedstocks to the refinery/plant, the CO2 emitted during production, and the CO2 emissions resulting from transportation of the diesel product to the end user and the combustion of the product. Most of these CO2 emissions, apart from the combustion of the fuel itself, result from the energy used in each processing step.

The major limit imposed on the life cycle analysis was that the CO2 emissions resulting from the construction of the CTL facility were not considered. To be conservative, no credit was taken for soil carbon storage by the biomass. Complete greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions were not considered. The study considered only emissions of carbon dioxide.

Three types of biomass were examined in this study: switchgrass, poplar trees, and corn stover. In all cases, Illinois #6 bituminous coal was used. A conceptual process design was prepared for a CBTL facility capable of co-feeding coal and biomass into a gasifier to produce a syngas suitable for FT synthesis. The conceptual design estimated the performance, size, and cost of the major pieces of equipment and provided the basis for estimating the CO2 emissions associated with the synthesis of FT diesel.

Most of the estimates for CO2 emissions associated with the production, transportation, and processing of feedstocks and end products were obtained from the Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) Greenhouse Gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy Use in Transportation (GREET) Model version 1.7. GREET is a publicly available model that was sponsored by the DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and has been used to evaluate various fuel and vehicle systems for government and industry. It is a widely accepted model for estimating greenhouse gas emissions from fuels on a well-to-wheels basis.

The study is a well-to-wheels carbon analysis and includes the carbon dioxide emitted in production of the feeds to the CBTL plant, the carbon dioxide emitted during conversion of the input coal and biomass to FT fuels, and the transportation and combustion of these fuels.

Estimates for the CO2 emissions from a conventional refinery were obtained from multiple sources including GREET. A broad range of estimates were reported, depending on the assumed operating efficiency of the refinery.

Conceptual CBTL designs were examined for all three types of biomass. In these conceptual designs coal and biomass are gasified in entrained flow gasifiers and the raw synthesis gas is cleaned of impurities. The clean synthesis gas is then sent to slurry phase FT reactors where the hydrocarbon fuels are produced. Slurry phase reactor technology is under development by several companies and Sasol is utilizing these reactors at their Oryx Gas-to-Liquids (GTL) plant in Qatar. Slurry reactors have excellent heat transfer characteristics and allow high conversions of synthesis gas per pass. However, there has not been much commercial experience with these reactors and there are issues relating to hydrodynamics and separation of the wax produced in the FT process from the fine catalyst. Wax is produced to maximize the distillate yield. The wax is hydrocracked to produce additional distillate product.

For each conceptual plant, estimates were made for the amount of biomass that would have to be co-fed with coal to attain the target 20% reduction in CO2 emissions. In these plant configurations about 88% of the carbon dioxide emissions resulting from the conversion of the coal to FT fuels are captured and compressed to 2,200 psi. After compression it is assumed that the carbon dioxide is piped from the CBTL plant boundary.

In the analysis, except for one sensitivity case, no additional cost for sequestering or storing the carbon dioxide is included in the economics. In the sensitivity case a cost of $4.60 per metric tonne was added for carbon dioxide transportation, sequestering, and monitoring (TS&M). This increased the required selling price of the FT fuels by about 1.8 percent compared to cases with no costs for TS&M.

However, if the carbon dioxide could be sold for enhanced oil recovery (EOR) operations or other reuse it would have a net positive value and be a credit in the economic analysis. The results of the study indicated that FT diesel can be produced at the target CO2 reduction level by co-gasifying coal with a relatively modest amount of biomass. For woody biomass, the CO2 reduction target could be attained using 10-15% woody biomass by weight (7-10% by energy) on an as-received basis. For switchgrass, the CO2 reduction target could be attained using 12-18% biomass by weight (7-10% by energy) and for corn stover the needed amount is 12-18% biomass by weight (7-11% by energy).

As part of the study, a scoping level economic analysis was performed for the coal-only plant and the CBTL plants. Based on the economic parameters used in this study, the required selling price (RSP) of the diesel product was estimated to be about $71/barrel for a coal-only (CTL) plant. On a crude oil equivalent basis this would be about $55/bbl. For the woody biomass CBTL plants the RSP of the fuel is estimated to be about $76/barrel. On a crude oil equivalent basis, this is equivalent to $58-59/bbl or about seven percent higher than the coal-only case. For the corn stover and switchgrass plants the RSP of the fuel was estimated to be about $75/bbl. On a crude oil equivalent basis this is about $58/bbl. Some sources, including GREET, indicate that dedicated energy crops including short rotation woody biomass and switchgrass could further reduce the CO2 footprint of a CBTL plant. If the full soil carbon credit can be realized, it would be possible to meet the CO2 reduction goal with as little as 5-10% by weight woody biomass. However, whether or not soil carbon sequestration should be included and the amount of this credit is a controversial issue at present. To be conservative it was decided not to include this credit in this analysis. Because the percentage of biomass required is relatively low and within the range of the limited demonstration test data available for coal:biomass co-feeding to pressurized gasifiers, it is concluded that the proposed CBTL process is potentially feasible.

Energy crops
A limited resource assessment was performed to determine if sufficient biomass can be harvested and transported to a CBTL facility of sufficient size to be economically practical. It was determined that the biomass availability would not be a major limiting factor for CBTL plants in the 7,500 BPD diesel capacity range. This size CBTL facility would require a sustainable annual supply of biomass of about 1,000 TPD. For switchgrass and poplar with dry yields per acre of about 5-6 tons, the total land area required would be about 1,440 square miles (a radius of about 22 miles).

This assumes that only 8 percent of the land is available for production of the energy crops. For corn stover with a lower crop yield of about two dry tons per acre (half of the crop is left on the land for soil conditioning), the area required for sustained operations to produce 1000 TPD would be about 920 square miles (radius of about 17 miles) because the land available for production is assumed to be as high as 31 percent.

All three biomass types examined in this study showed nearly equivalent performance in the CBTL process. Regional land availability will be the most important determinant of which biomass type to use for a specific site. The reference plant studied was a 7,500 BPD diesel plant located in southern Illinois. This plant size was chosen based on a preliminary and highly approximate estimate for the amount of biomass that may be required. The report does not suggest that 7,500 BPD is either the maximum or optimum size for a CBTL plant. It was shown that larger plants of at least 30,000 BPD are feasible based on biomass resource availability. It is left as a recommendation for further work to perform a more detailed biomass resource and infrastructure assessment which would be needed to determine the maximum CBTL plant size that is technically feasible and to determine the optimum plant size for which economies of larger scale balance the increased cost of collecting larger quantities of biomass.

Time horizon
Multiple scenarios were presented with timelines for the build up of a CBTL industry. In the most conservative scenario, the production goal of 100,000 BPD is not attained until 2026. Incentives could stimulate the development of the industry. An aggressive hypothetical production ramp-up was prepared for the construction of seven CBTL facilities that would meet the DoD goal of obtaining 100,000 BPD of synthetic fuel by 2016. The ramp-up assumes that the first two plants will be small 7,500 BPD facilities of the same design as the reference plant. These first plants will use corn stover since this type of biomass is currently available. It is
assumed that over time, more plants will be constructed simultaneously; future plants will be larger in capacity (up to 22,500 BPD) and shake down periods for start-up will grow shorter. These later plants would use mixtures of switchgrass, corn stover, and woody biomass.

Although specific plant locations were not proposed, a national biomass resource assessment has forecast that there will be abundant quantities of suitable biomass available in multiple geographic regions in the U.S. by 2016 and that the hypothetical ramp-up is feasible with respect to resource availability.

Because biomass availability is often seasonal for some crops it is recommended that any CBTL plant have processing equipment on site that is suitable for several biomass types. Although this will increase capital cost, in that way when corn stover is available, after the corn harvest, the CBTL facility can utilize this crop predominately. When the switchgrass is available after harvesting, the facility could use this feed. The woody biomass should be available most of the time depending on the cutting cycle. The coal would act as the flywheel to keep the plant operating at a fairly constant output.

The concept of using both coal and biomass together to produce high quality FT fuels via gasification should be advantageous to both coal and biomass to energy technologies. Coprocessing biomass with coal can significantly reduce the carbon footprint of a CTL facility and the gasification route allows non-food product biomass-like cellulose and lignin to be used for energy production.

In conclusion, the report finds economic benefits for converting coal and biomass to liquids, based on the price of crude oil. At current crude oil prices of over $60 per barrel, the commercial-scale CBTL plant configurations are shown to produce products that are competitive in the liquid fuel markets.

National Energy Technology Laboratory: Increasing Security and Reducing Carbon Emissions of the U.S. Transportation Sector: A Transformational Role for Coal with Biomass - Department of Energy, National Energy Technology Laboratory and the Department of Defense, Air Force - August 24, 2007.

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Brazilian president proposes to include biofuels in Millennium Development Goals to reduce poverty

Brazil's president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has launched the proposition [*Portuguese] to include a biofuel mandate in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as a way to alleviate poverty in Africa. He expressed the idea during the presentation of the latest data which show that Brazil succeeded in reducing extreme poverty in the country by half, surpassing the UN's target. The link between poverty reduction, the MDGs and biofuels is very much present in the leader's global vision on development.

Lula said that when the wealthy countries start utilizing biodiesel and ethanol on a large scale, this should happen with the participation of Africa, where biofuel production is set to bring unprecedented opportunities for development. To do so, a mandate should be included in the UN's Millennium Development Goals - a set of eight ambitious targets aimed at reducing poverty by half by 2015.
Global biofuel production should be included in the framework of the MDGs: all countries should aim for a target of introducing 20 per cent ethanol or biodiesel by 2015 to 2020. [...] Africa's problem is that it has much to offer, but little money to invest. For this reason I am a strong proponent of a biofuel program that links the global transition towards renewables with the opportunity to generate employment and incomes in Africa. - Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, President of Brazil
Earlier this month the Brazilian government participated in a high level meeting with the African Union and the UNIDO to discuss the challenges and opportunities presented by biofuels on the continent. A panel of African scientists there concluded that biofuel development may help reach the MDGs (earlier post). Without access to abundant and modern forms of energy, social and economic development is impossible. Energy economists have therefor called for more attention to energy economics in international development efforts (e.g. A Place for Energy Poverty in the Agenda? [*.pdf] by the IEA's chief economist, Fatih Birol). Likewise, the director-general of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said biofuels offer an historic chance to lift African countries out of poverty, because they offer unprecedented employment opportunities while providing that most necessary of goods: energy. However, changes in the current global trade regime are needed to achieve these benefits (previous post). The Worldwatch Institute for its part recently made the case that biofuels will help cut undernourishment in the poorest countries - a clear Millennium Development Goal.

President Lula hinted at the positive contribution to poverty alleviation of the Pro-Biodiesel program initiated in Brazil in 2003. In 2005, a biodiesel mandate was introduced requiring a 2% blend by 2008 and 5% by 2010. The program is based on the inclusion of the poorest rural households, who produce feedstocks under a 'Social Seal'. This system gives incentives to biofuel producers who source this feedstock (earlier post). Some 65,000 of the poorest farmers and their families are so far benefiting from the program.

The Brazilian president, enjoying his last term, wants to replicate the model in Africa and has launched several South-South initiatives to do so. But the real potential for African countries is to participate in a global market. Africa has all the necessary resources - abundant land, labor in need of income and employment, a huge rural population that needs to diversify its crop portfolios and needs new markets, and suitable agro-climatic conditions for a range of biofuel crops - but it lacks capital. Coupling the wealthy country's needs to Africa's potential would thus present a win-win case. The instrument of the Millennium Development Goals offers a way to ensure that the idea is implemented in a sustainable way that strengthens the goals.

Lula made the suggestion during his presentation of the Third National Report on the MDGs, which showed that the country had succeeded in meeting the goal of reducing extreme poverty by half. The MDGs include a global partnership for development with Brazil for the first time becoming a net donor of development assistance. The country wrote off around US$400 million of Africa's debts:
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According to projections by the Brazilian government, the country will succeed in reaching the other MDGs well before the stated year of 2015. These include eradicating extreme poverty, providing basic education to all, boosting gender equality, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, combating HIV/AIDS and malaria, ensuring environmental sustainability.

Several organisations have called for the inclusion of energy security and access to energy as a goal, because ultimately, access to energy is crucial for reaching the other goals. Not formally included, many international development organisations now do have energy programs, because the socio-economic impacts of rising prices have proved to be disastrous to the poorest countries. Moreover, biofuels and bioenergy offer one of the most feasible ways to ensure that the global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is undertaken with the participation of developing countries.


Aquidauana News: Lula quer incluir biocombustível entre as metas do milênio - August 29, 2007.

People's Daily: Brazilian president proposes biofuel usage to help reduce African poverty - August 30, 2007.

Ministério do Desenvolvimento Social e Combate à Fome: Pobreza extrema atinge menor índice e Brasil ultrapassa meta da ONU - August 29, 2007.

UN Millennium Development Goals.

Fatih Birol, "Energy Economics: A Place for Energy Poverty in the Agenda?", The Energy Journal, Vol. 28, No. 3., International Association for Energy Economics, 2007.

Biopact: Report: biofuels key to achieving Millennium Development Goals in Africa - August 02, 2007

Biopact: FAO chief calls for a 'Biopact' between the North and the South -
August 15, 2007

Biopact: An in-depth look at Brazil's "Social Fuel Seal" - March 23, 2007

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Mozambique's Petromoc seeks to invest $408 million in biofuels

Mozambican oil company Petróleos de Moçambique (Petromoc), together with its partners, is working to raise US$408 million to finance a project for production of biofuels which will replace the country's total petro-diesel consumption. Claudio James, one of the Petromoc engineers, says the project, to be implemented in three phases, is set to create about 800 jobs and will substantially reduce the country's fuel bill.

Oil prices increased three-fold over the past years, with disastrous consequences for developing countries. Some poor country governments are now forced to spend twice as much on importing oil products than on health. Increased energy prices affect all sectors of the economy and drive inflation, especially in energy intensive economies like those in the South. Biofuels can mitigate these negative effects.

According to James, the project has been designed already, and Petromoc and its partners are raising funds for its implementation, which implies planting 45,000 hectares of jatropha. The energy plantation will yield about 500,000 tonnes of raw material to produce 226 million litres of biodiesel a year.

As partners, Petromoc is counting on Brazil's INM International, Sonipal Ltd, and Aruangua Agro-Industrial Lda. The engineer estimates that within 36 to 48 months, Mozambique will be able to produce enough biodiesel to supply the entire country.

Mozambique is seen by analysts as one of the African countries that contribute considerably to the continent's large biofuel production potential. Researchers affiliated with the International Energy Agency estimate that Mozambique can produce around 7 Exajoules of biofuels sustainably (earlier post; map, click to enlarge). The country currently consumes around 590,000 tonnes of oil products per year, the bulk being diesel (IEA data). This equates to around 0.18EJ. Achieving full energy independence is well within reach, with capacity to spare to supply international markets.

When it comes to the availability of land, the country currently uses around 4.3 million hectares out of a total of 63.5 million hectares of potential arable land, or 6.6 per cent (FAO). Moreover, some 41 million hectares of poor quality land are available for the production of energy crops that require few inputs and are not suitable for food production (earlier post):
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Meanwhile, Petromoc has begun to implement a smaller biodiesel project worth US$ 4 million, of which the first $600,000 have been invested. This pilot project, implemented by Energias Alternativas Renováveis, Lda (ECOMOZ), a subsidiary of Petromoc, relies on coconut oil as a feedstock, but the company is considering other oil crops. Capacity is 40 million liters per year. The plant is located in the Inhambane Province.

Another local company has begun planting palm trees, but because it takes about seven years before the plants reach full maturity, jatropha is thought of as the quickest way out because it starts yielding from year three onwards, James added.

Mozambique now has an installed capacity to produce 80,000 litres of biodiesel per day. James said Petromoc is hoping the government will grant incentives for the production of biodiesel. Petromoc counts on initiating the establishment of a 3000 hectare jatropha immediately and a study for the full swing of the project is to be finalised soon.

A host of other companies are investing in Mozambique's biofuel potential too. Canada's Energem recently acquired a jatropha biodiesel project based on an initial 1000 hectares; it will begin planting a further 5000 hectares, and will invest in an additional 60,000 hectares over the coming years (earlier post). Chinese, Italian, Portuguese and Brazilian companies are active in the sector as well (more here).

Most recently, the government of India and Mozambique discussed the potential of the biofuel sector to alleviate poverty in the country (previous post).

Map credit:
Batidzirai, B., A.P.C. Faaij, E.M.W. Smeets.

Agencia de Informacao de Mocambique: Petromoc Seeks Funding to Produce Bio-Fuels - 29 August 2007

Petromoc: Inauguração da Unidade de Produção de Biodisel da ECOMOZ - August 22, 2007.

Salvador Namburete: Mozambique's Experience on Bio-fuels [*.pdf], Minister of Energy of the Republic of Mozambique, presentation at the International Conference on Biofuels, Brussels, July 5-6, 2007.

Batidzirai, B., A.P.C. Faaij, E.M.W. Smeets (2006), "Biomass and bioenergy supply from Mozambique" [*abstract / *.pdf], Energy for Sustainable Development, X(1),
Pp. 54-81

Faaij, A.P.C., "Emerging international biomass markets and the potential implications for rural development" [*.pdf], Development and Climate Project Workshop: Rural development, the roles of food, water and biomass; opportunities and challenges; Dakar, Senegal, 14-16 November 2005.

Biopact: Mozambique-India partnership: biofuels for poverty alleviation - July 03, 2007

Biopact: Energem acquires jatropha biodiesel project in Mozambique - August 02, 2007

Biopact: Journal "Energy for Sustainable Development" focuses on international bioenergy trade - November 05, 2006

Biopact: Lusophone world and China join forces to produce biofuels in Mozambique - May 19, 2007

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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Researchers aim to produce ethanol from sorghum in the farmer's field

Sorghums are receiving a lot of interest from the biofuel research community, because the grass species can be grown with relatively low inputs and yields high amounts of biomass and fermentable sugars. Efforts are underway to map sorghum's genome and several crop improvement breakthroughs have been made. One group of scientists recently developed a drought-tolerant sorghum, whereas another found a way to engineer this widely grown crop in such a way that it becomes tolerant to aluminum toxicity, a major achievement (previous post). But high biomass yields are only one part of the complexity of producing competitive biofuels.

Members of the OSU Biofuels Team harvest sweet sorghum to test the feasibility of in-field processing. Credit: Todd Johnson.
Oklahoma State University is investigating other aspects of utilizing the crop as a feedstock for ethanol. Researchers there are taking a decentralised and localized approach, with the aim of making possible the effective production of ethanol in the farmer’s own field. Sweet sorghum (Sorghum bicolor (L.) Moench), one of the many varieties, can be grown throughout temperate climate zones of the United States, including Oklahoma. It provides high biomass yield with low irrigation and fertilizer requirements. Corn ethanol, in contrast, requires significant amounts of water for growing and processing.

Best of all, producing ethanol from sweet sorghum is relatively easy, says Danielle Bellmer, biosystems engineer with the OSU Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources’ Robert M. Kerr Food and Agricultural Products Center. “Just press the juice from the stalk, add yeast, allow fermentation to take place and you have ethanol,” Bellmer said. “Unfortunately, the simple sugars derived from sweet sorghum have to be fermented immediately.” Throw in the expense of constructing and operating a central processing facility that would only operate the four to five months of the year when sorghum would be available in Oklahoma and the challenge multiplies.

The beginnings of a possible solution presented itself when entrepreneur Lee McClune, president of Sorganol Production Co. Inc., approached FAPC scientists seeking their assistance in testing his newly designed field harvester capable of pressing and collecting juice from sweet sorghum. His proposed Sorganol process involved using the harvester, large storage bladders for fermentation and a mobile distillation unit for ethanol purification. OSU’s initial involvement in the project was to look at the feasibility of fermenting the juice in the field:
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“We’re examining such things as juice extraction efficiency, whether or not pH (acidity) or nutrient adjustment of the juice is needed and various environmental factors,” Bellmer said.

The goal is to make production of ethanol from sweet sorghum economically viable by using an in-field processing system that minimizes transportation costs and capital investment.

Equipment such as the harvester and other technology could be owned individually or cooperatively with a number of producers sharing and possibly helping one another process ethanol from sweet sorghum.

In Oklahoma, the potential processing scenario might look like this: Plant sweet sorghum around mid-April, and then stagger plantings for two to three months. This would provide a harvest window of August through November.

“Ethanol yields in Oklahoma could range from 300 gallons to 600 gallons per acre, depending on biomass yield, sugar content and juice expression efficiency,” said Chad Godsey, biofuels team member and OSU Cooperative Extension cropping systems specialist with the department of plant and soil sciences.

Godsey said the team is working to determine the maximum possible harvest window for sweet sorghum in Oklahoma. “Obviously, the longer the harvest window, the more ethanol state farmers will be able to produce,” he said.

OSU Biofuels Team researchers also are studying environmental parameters that may affect the feasibility of on-farm fermentation. A producer must be able to ferment the juice in the field during Oklahoma’s harvest season for sweet sorghum, which occurs in the fall when temperature extremes are highly possible. “Temperature can speed up, slow down or derail the fermentation process,” Godsey said.

Weather data for Oklahoma indicate an average low temperature of about 44 degrees Fahrenheit and an average high temperature of approximately 98 degrees Fahrenheit during the August-through-October period over the past 10 years.

Six test plot sites are maintained at Oklahoma Agricultural Experiment Station facilities across the state, allowing OSU scientists to conduct research on sweet sorghum under local conditions.

“We would like to do with sweet sorghum what the Brazilians have done with sugar cane: In Brazil, sugar cane ethanol provides a large percentage of their fuel needs,” Bellmer said.

The idea of using sweet sorghum for commercial ethanol production is not new. The reason sweet sorghum is not as popular as corn in terms of being a source of ethanol in the United States has been the need to ferment its simple sugars immediately and the high costs associated with a central processing plant that is operated only seasonally.

“By determining a process by which agricultural producers can create ethanol in the field from sweet sorghum, that barrier is removed,” Bellmer said. “Producers will then have a much higher value product to sell.”

Eurekalert: OSU 'sweet' biofuels research goes down on the farm - August 29, 2007.

Biopact: Mapping sorghum's genome to create robust biomass crops - June 24, 2007

Biopact: U.S. scientists develop drought tolerant sorghum for biofuels - May 21, 2007

Biopact: Researchers and producers optimistic about sweet sorghum as biofuel feedstock - July 27, 2007

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Volvo releases comprehensive analysis of seven biofuels for use in carbon-neutral trucks

The Volvo Group today released results of an extensive analysis of seven different biofuels for use in demonstration trucks that run 100% on the renewable fuel without emitting any environmentally harmful carbon dioxide. The carbon-neutral trucks were equipped with diesel engines that have been modified to operate with the following renewable liquid and gaseous fuels: biodiesel, biogas combined with biodiesel, ethanol/methanol, DME, synthetic diesel and hydrogen gas combined with biogas.

The full 'well-to-wheel' efficiency and sustainability of the alternative fuels was assessed using seven criteria and scored on a five point scale (table, click to enlarge) .

1. Impact on the climate: carbon dioxide emissions throughout the entire chain according to the well to wheel principle, which includes growing the raw material including fertilizer; harvesting the raw material; transporting it to the plant where the fuel is produced; production of the fuel; distribution to refuelling stations; the use of the fuel in vehicles. Calculations are based on fully renewable raw materials, but fossil fuels are currently used for cultivation or production. In future, it will be possible to replace fossil energy with renewable energy, however, with a lower level of efficiency as a result.
Results: five of the alternatives — synthetic diesel, dimethyl ether, methanol, biogas and hydrogen plus biogas — reduce the impact on the climate by more than 90%. In the case of methanol, gasification of black liquor is required in order to get the highest rating. For biogas and hydrogen gas combined with biogas, gasification of biomass is required in order to receive the highest rating. A lower rating applies if the biogas is produced through anaerobic digestion of household waste. Results for ethanol vary between 0 and 75 percent reduction depending on the production method. Biodiesel had the lowest ranking after ethanol.

2. Energy efficiency: was rated on a falling scale and is expressed in percent. The percentage indicates the amount of energy that reaches the vehicle’s driven wheels. By way of comparison, it can also be mentioned that with the fossil diesel fuel used today, we achieve approximately a 35 percent total level of efficiency. This relatively high level of efficiency is reached because raw oil can be considered to be a “semi-finished product” and the production of diesel is thereby very energy-efficient. The results may vary for the same fuel, depending on the production process used.
Results: DME and methanol receive the highest rating, on the condition that they are produced from black liquor from the wood pulp industry. The highest rating for synthetic diesel also requires the gasification of black liquor. The rating for biogas, biogas+biodiesel and hydrogen gas+biogas apply to production with gasification and anaerobic digestion. The production of biogas via gasification of black liquor is not included in the summary. The low rating for ethanol is due to the high energy consumption for cultivation and fuel production.

3. Land use efficiency: the yield per hectare for each crop has been calculated using information about average yields from good quality land. The rating scale indicates how far a heavy truck can travel per year and hectare. Growing conditions apply to Swedish conditions. Cultivation in other places leads to different results but the relationships are more or less the same. The researchers reduced the amount of fuel produced by the amount of fuel/energy required for harvesting, production, transport, etc. The results may vary for the same fuel, depending on the production process used.
Results: DME and methanol, combined with black liquor gasification get the highest rating. These fuels have high harvest yields, require little use of fossil fuels, and have high energy efficiency. Synthetic diesel has high harvest yields, requires little use of fossil fuels, but has lower energy efficiency and limited selectivity in production. Ethanol gets a low rating due to limited energy efficiency and in certain cases the need for a great deal of fossil energy. Biodiesel gets the lowest rating due to low average harvest yields and the use of a great deal of fossil energy. Biogas production via gasification of black liquor is not included in the summary. Biogas from anaerobic digestion scored high.

4. Fuel potential: the availability of raw material and the choice ofproduction process determine the amount of fuel that can be produced. Certain processes can use many different feedstocks and complete crops. Others are limited to parts of the contents of individual crops. A general problem with feedstocks from agricultural products is that they compete with food production. According to a study conducted by EUCAR/CONCAWE/JRC, the potential availability of waste wood, farmed wood, and straw in the EU in 2012 is approximately 700 TWh (Terawatt hours) per year while the potential for sunflower oil and rapeseed oil is estimated at approximately 80 TWh per year. The amount of fossil fuel that can be replaced by biomass varies depending on the level of efficiency in the fuel’s production process and in its final use. Biomass potential in the EU in 2012 is not adequate to replace fossil fuels. The import of biomass from better areas from a cultivation perspective may solve this problem:
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Results: 350 to 420 TWh are equivalent to approximately 10-12% of the expected demand for petrol and diesel in the EU in 2015. DME, methanol, biogas, biogas+biodiesel and hydrogen gas+biogas get the highest rating. Synthetic diesel, DME, methanol, and biogas can all be produced from entire crops, wood feedstocks, or other biological material. However, synthetic diesel has a lower level of efficiency and provides a lower proportion of fuel that can be used in vehicles. With respect to biogas, waste material and sewage can be used in production. Ethanol can be produced from a number of feedstocks, including waste wood or other biological materials that contain cellulose, although the level of efficiency is relatively low. Biodiesel, which has received the lowest rating, is produced from vegetable oils such as rapeseed oil and sunflower oil. Availability is limited since rapeseed can only be grown on the same land every fourth year or every sixth year. Furthermore, only the oil in the seeds can be utilised for fuel.

5. Vehicle adaptation: a collective assessment was provided, explaining how technically complicated it is to adapt vehicles to the new fuels. This criterion also includes the fuel’s effect on the vehicle’s efficiency in different ways, such as maximal engine performance, weight increase, and range between refuelling. The last parameter mentioned can, for example, affect the vehicle’s load capacity. The technical complexity includes factors that require increased space for the fuel and the need for new and more expensive components. It also encompasses the need for technology to meet future emissions requirements. For example, certain fuels require more advanced emission controls than others.
Results : biodiesel and synthetic diesel get the highest rating. Vehicles that are run on these fuels are essentially comparable to conventional diesel vehicles. However, biodiesel requires increased service and has higher nitric oxide emissions. The lower energy content in DME results in a 50-percent reduction in range but it is still possible to use the fuel for long-haul transport. DME requires a unique and advanced fuel system, but also offers savings in terms of costs and weight with regard to exhaust noise damping and treatment of exhaust gases. Ethanol’s lower energy content results in a 30-percent shorter range per tank of fuel. Biogas+biodiesel offers maximal engine performance, but range is reduced by half if the gas is in liquid form. This also requires two separate fuel systems. Biogas and hydrogen gas+biogas require an Otto engine, which limits power output. The compressed gas has a low energy density, which limits range to approximately 20 percent. A complex tank system results in higher costs and increased weight.

6. Fuel costs: the assessment includes the costs of raw materials, fixed and variable costs in the production plants, and costs for transport, infrastructure, and energy consumption in the chain of distribution. Generally speaking, it is difficult to calculate future costs due to fluctuations in the price of raw materials and rapid technological development. Production costs for the fuel often comprise only a small part of the price to the end-user due to taxes, etc. The researchers compared costs here with conventional diesel fuel, exclusive of taxes, at a raw oil price of USD 70 a barrel. The comparison was made per litre of diesel equivalent. In other words, more than a litre of certain fuels is needed to get the same energy content as a litre of diesel. The results may vary for the same fuel, depending on the feedstock used.
Results: DME and methanol get the highest rating. When produced from black liquor, they are already competitive today in terms of costs. Production via gasification of forest products or farmed wood is more expensive. The cost of biodiesel is some 60 percent higher than for conventional diesel. With respect to biogas and hydrogen gas+biogas, the biogas based on waste materials leads to the most favourable results, primarily due to low feedstock costs. For biogas+biodiesel, biogas in liquid form is approximately 25 percent more expensive than compressed biogas. Biogas production through gasification of black liquor is not included in the summary. Synthetic diesel is the most expensive fuel because of high investment costs and the relatively low energy efficiency in production. Ethanol is generally expensive to produce. Production from forest products is the most expensive process.

7. Fuel infrastructure: the infrastructure is often considered to be the greatest challenge for an alternative fuel. It is an important criterion in terms of how quickly and easily a new fuel can be introduced and integrated into the existing infrastructure. However, it should be kept in mind that the infrastructure for conventional fuels also requires major investments. In the long term, the infrastructure is a secondary issue. This criterion also takes into account the safety and environmental aspects of handling the fuel in the infrastructure.
Ratings: synthetic diesel gets the highest rating. Synthetic diesel can easily be mixed with traditional diesel without jeopardising established standards and specifications. Biodiesel requires certain measures due to its lower storage stability. Methanol and ethanol require corrosion-resistant material, increased fire protection measures, and a separate infrastructure if they are used as pure fuel. Methanol should be handled in completely closed systems due to a high health risk. DME is a gas at room temperature and atmospheric pressure. In a vehicle, it is a liquid fuel at a pressure of 5 bar. The infrastructure for DME is similar to the one that has been established for Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG). DME is heavier than air and can accumulate in the event of leakage, resulting in a fire hazard. Biogas is handled at high pressure (200 bar) and requires the same infrastructure as the current system for natural gas. The infrastructure for hydrogen gas is the most expensive and complicated one since hydrogen gas requires even higher pressure than biogas.

The seven Volvo FM trucks were equipped with Volvo’s own 9-liter engines that have been specially modified by the group’s engineers to illustrate the possibilities of carbon-dioxide-free transport:
The diesel engine is an extremely efficient energy converter that is perfectly suited to many different renewable fuels, liquid or gaseous. With our know-how in engine technology and our large volumes, we can manufacture engines for several different renewable fuels, and also create possibilities for carbon-dioxide-free transports in such other product areas as buses, construction equipment and boats. - Jan-Eric Sundgren, member of Volvo Group Management and Senior Vice President, Public and Environmental Affairs
Climate change, transport and responsibility
According to the widely publicized Stern report, approximately 14 percent of total global carbon-dioxide emissions will come from the transport sector, with road transport accounting for a total of 10 percent. However, there is no information on the percentage of these emission levels that in turn originate from cargo transport. A calculation based on European conditions and statistics, whereby passenger cars represent 60% of carbon-dioxide emissions and cargo transport for the remaining 40%, indicates that cargo transport will account for about 4-5% of total global carbon-dioxide emissions.

As one of the world’s largest manufacturers of heavy trucks, diesel engines and buses, the Volvo Group is part of the climate problem, says Leif Johansson, CEO of Volvo. But environmental issues are one of the areas which we have assigned the very highest priority, and based on our resources and knowledge, we both can and will be part of the solution.The seven trucks exhibited in Stockholm can be operated on the same number of different renewable fuels and/or combinations of fuels. Since all of these fuels are produced from renewable raw materials, they provide no carbon-dioxide contributions to the ecosystem when combusted and, accordingly, do not impact the environment.
With these vehicles, we have shown that Volvo is ready, that we possess the technology and the resources for carbon-dioxide-free transport, but we cannot do this alone. We also require large-scale production of renewable fuels and putting such production in operation requires extensive investments in research and development, and also well-defined, common guidelines from authorities in as many countries as possible. - Leif Johansson, CEO of the Volvo Group
Promising results from gasification
Despite the current shortage of both biomass for the production of renewable fuels, and finished fuels, the Volvo Group does not view carbon-dioxide-free transport as a utopian idea. One of the reasons for this is the second generation of renewable fuels that are produced through gasification and that generate both large volumes and a greater number of fuels to choose between.

“Gasification is a promising line that may lead to a significantly larger substitution than today’s technology,” says Leif Johansson. “Our own history has taught us that much of what we once thought impossible we have since been able to solve a few years later. This can be applied to such important areas as energy efficiency and exhaust emission control. I am an optimist and believe in a similar trend in carbon-dioxide-free transport.”


Volvo renewable fuels.

Collective overview of the ratings for seven biofuels.

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Report: carbon-negative biomethane cleanest and most efficient biofuel for cars

The UK's Renewable Energy Centre today released its assessment of responses to the King Review of Low Carbon Cars’ call for evidence. It supports the findings of the Biomethane for Transport organisation which found that biogas is the cleanest and most efficient of all transport fuels. Biomethane is carbon-negative, can be readily used in CNG cars and makes use of a wide variety of biomass feedstocks.

In the continuing fight against climate change there have been an increasing number of targets set in the UK and internationally for varying types of energy use and generation. One of the most important areas in which the UK needs to reduce carbon emissions is the transport sector, but it has also proven to be one of the most expensive areas in which to make any significant technological development and improvements.

The King Review of Low Carbon Cars, announced in June as part of the country's 2007 Budget, was intended to build on the progress made in recent reports including the 2007 Energy White paper and examine the vehicle and fuel technologies which over the next 25 years could help to decarbonise road transport, particularly cars. Following the publication of the report issued by HM Treasury and led by professor Julia King of Aston University, Gordon Brown issued a call for evidence from all interested parties on how best to reduce emissions from road transport.

The Renewable Energy Centre commented that the report was long overdue, as whilst emissions from other sectors, such as the use of domestic energy, has fallen or become more stable, the transport sector's emissions continue to increase and currently accounts for over 20% of the UK’s total CO2 output. The Cambridge report produced this year, estimates that the UK will be unable to meet the reduction targets set following the Kyoto agreement in 1997.

The Biomethane for Transport organisation responded to the King Review and stated that the one of the most economically viable directions to take would be vehicle and fuel improvements that can be adapted to existing internal combustion engines.

The Renewable Energy Centre supported the organisation’s findings that the use of biogas for transport had many advantages over many of the other technologies proposed. Biomethane has the lowest gas emissions of any biofuel and the capture, upgrading and burning of the gas actually produces fewer emissions than if the organic waste used was left to decompose naturally. The organisation confirms findings from previous research as well as results from longstanding trials in continental Europe.

An overview of the strong arguments in favor of biomethane for transport, summarized from the Biomethane for Transport King Review Response [*.pdf]:
  • Negative Carbon Balance – Biomethane produced from the decomposition of organic waste (e.g. anaerobic digestion) actually has a negative ‘well to wheel’ carbon balance. This is due to the fact that capturing, upgrading and burning the gas prevents methane from being released into the atmosphere when waste naturally decomposes, and also because methane is an inherently low carbon fuel. The ‘Biogas as a Road Transport Fuel’ report estimated that using biomethane as a fuel in the HGV and LGV fleets could provide a saving of up to 9.1 million tonnes of CO2 per year.
  • Low Emissions of Local Pollutants – Methane fuelled vehicles have extremely low emissions of local pollutants, including NOx and particulates when compared to modern petrol and diesel vehicles. Substitution of diesel and petrol vehicles with biomethane (and also fossil methane) would have a beneficial effect on air quality.
  • Low Noise – Methane fuelled engines run more quietly than petrol and diesel, vehicles, particularly so when compared with the latter. This can have a beneficial effect on urban environmental quality, and also have economic benefits where vehicle movements are restricted because of noise limitations.
  • Link With Waste Management – Many local authorities are either developing, or planning to develop, anaerobic digestion facilities as an alternative pathway to landfill for organic waste. Vehicles are one of the best ways of using the biomethane produced from these plants. By tying the two areas together local authorities are provided with a disposal pathway for organic waste, reducing the amount of waste sent to landfill, and vehicles are provided with fuel. Costs are reduced for all parties through a joint approach.
  • Compatibility With Existing ICE Technology – Methane fuel is used in modified internal combustion engines, therefore the fuel is able to take advantage of improvements in this technology. Using biomethane alongside other technologies can therefore provide significant co-benefits, e.g. a hybrid running on biomethane would benefit from the inherent carbon reductions produced by both technologies
When biomethane is produced from dedicated energy crops, it can yield more energy than any other current type of biofuel. The green gas can be made from a very wide range of biomass crops as well as from abundant crop residues. Scientists have found [*.pdf] that for temperate grass species, one hectare can yield between 2,900–5,400 cubic meters of methane per year, enough to fuel a passenger car for 40,000 to 60,000 kilometers (one acre of crops can power a car for 10,000 to 15,000 miles).

Moreover, biogas can be made even cleaner by coupling its production to dedicated carbon storage technologies and sites, independently from power stations. By capturing CO2 from biogas before it is combusted - the least costly carbon capture strategy for any fuel source - and sequestring the greenhouse gas under ground, the fuel becomes thoroughly carbon-negative. The use of this cleaned biogas, upgraded to biomethane, takes CO2 emissions from the past out of the atmosphere (more here and here). Only biofuels allow the creation of such carbon-negative energy systems - all other energy concepts are either carbon-neutral or carbon-positive:
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The Biomethane for Transport organisation also suggests a way in which organic waste can be used more productively, whereby a waste management plant is linked with anaerobic digestion facilities to make use of the methane gas produced. This would provide a useful solution for organic waste, in turn reducing the amount of waste sent to a landfill and provides vehicles with a source of renewable fuel.

However, some argue that the results of this review will have little impact on the cars driven in the UK in the short term, particularly due to the fact that none of the major car manufacturing operations in the UK are British-owned anymore, and the review will only have limited influence on foreign-owned companies.

Richard Simmons, Founder of The Renewable Energy Centre commented “Biomethane should prove to be a very realistic part of the future alternative to fossil fuels but will only truly reduce the impact we are having on the environment if we realise that it cannot be used in isolation. It is important that we work towards more fuel efficient cars and reduce our often excessive use of vehicles. This is a particularly vital step for all car owners to play their part in reducing fuel emissions”.

Biogas is increasingly being used in Europe, both for electricity generation as for transport. A recent 'Biogas Barometer' report, published by a consortium of renewable energy groups led by France's Observ'ER, cites a 13.6% increase growth in biogas use for primary energy production between 2005 and 2006 in the EU (earlier post).

The total energy potential for biogas in the EU has been the subject of several projections and scenarios, with the most optimistic showing that it can replace all European natural gas imports from Russia by 2020 (more here). Germany recently started looking at opening its main natural gas pipelines to feed in the renewable green gas. And an EU project is assessing the technical feasibility of doing the same on a Europe-wide scale (previous post).

Biogas as a transport fuel offers particularly interesting prospects for the developing world, where oil infrastructures are not yet developed extensively. By relying on locally produced biomethane used in CNG cars, these countries could leapfrog into a clean, secure and green post-oil future. A country like Pakistan showed that converting the automobile fleet to CNG is feasible: in less than two years time, it converted 1 million cars to run on compressed gas (earlier post).

For comprehensive overviews of the latest developments in biogas research, development and applications, please search the Biopact website.

Graph: energy obtained per hectare of energy crops for selected bioconversion processes. Source: L-B- Systemtechnik GmbH Ottobrunn.

HM Treasury: The King Review of low-carbon cars.

The UK's Renewable Energy Center.

National Society for Clean Air and Environmental Protection, Biomethane for Transport: Biomethane for Transport King Review Response [*.pdf] - August 16, 2007

Annimari Lehtomäki: Biogas production from energy crops and crop residues [*.pdf], Jyväskylä Studies in Biological and Environmental Sciences 163, PhD Dissertation, Faculty of Mathematics and Sciences, University of Jyväskylä, 2006.

Reinhold Wurster, GM Well-to-Wheel-Studie - Ergebnisse und Schlüsse sowie Vergleich mit anderen Arbeiten und Ausblick auf Kraftstoffpotentiale und -kosten [*.pdf], L-B- Systemtechnik GmbH Ottobrunn, November 2003.

Biopact: Experts see 2007 as the year of biogas; biomethane as a transport fuel - January 09, 2007

Biopact: Pre-combustion CO2 capture from biogas - the way forward? - March 31, 2007

Biopact: Biopact to chair Sparks & Flames conference panel on carbon-negative biofuels - August 08, 2007

Biopact: Hydrogen out, compressed biogas in - October 01, 2006

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BioWeb launched: new information resource will help develop biobased economy

Open, convenient access to thorough information will drive new biomass science and technology out of the computer network and into our garages and homes. Scientists with the U.S. Sun Grant Initiative believe this, and today they announced the availability of a new collection of materials designed to speed the effort.

Called BioWeb, the project is an Internet library of peer-reviewed papers and information related to bioenergy and bioproducts. Available to the public, the BioWeb is a continually expanding collection of basic and applied scientific knowledge, with some information about production economics and policy thrown in for perspective.
Scientists, students, and anyone interested in accurate information about biomass conversion and utilization can access the BioWeb. We expect it to be an invaluable resource to investors and researchers interested in the expanding markets related to biomass production and conversion. - Terry Nipp, executive director of the Sun Grant Association
The $400,000 project, which is supported through grants from DOE, DOT and USDA, is a collaborative effort of five regional Sun Grant Centers. Dr. Kelly Tiller, an agricultural economist with the University of Tennessee, coordinates the project.

"We've been testing the Web site throughout the spring and summer, and we're pleased with the positive feedback we've gotten. Site users should find valuable information collected in a format that is easy to use and interactive," Tiller said.

She emphasized that the information on the BioWeb meets the high standards of academic peer review. "All of the information on the site has been reviewed by a body of scientists well versed in their respective disciplines," Tiller said. "A lot of highly regarded researchers have contributed to the BioWeb - 75 strong and growing - from universities and national laboratories. They are working at a feverish pace to add tremendous volumes of credible information to the site. It's expanding daily:
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Project co-director, James Doolittle, a soil scientist at South Dakota State University and Director of the North Central Sun Grant Center, thinks the new resource will have wide appeal among a variety of audiences all interested in this rapidly changing and expanding field. "We look forward to the BioWeb becoming a valuable resource that becomes bookmarked and visited frequently by individuals looking for reliable information on biofuels, bioenergy and bioproducts."

The Sun Grant Initiative involves a network of land grant universities collaborating with the U.S. Department of Energy to reduce America �s dependence on petroleum through development of a biobased economy. The idea is to strengthen American agriculture while simultaneously improving rural economies and developing environmentally friendly manufacturing products and technologies.

Authorized by Congress in 2004, the regional Sun Grant Centers include South Dakota State University, Cornell University, Oregon State University, Oklahoma State University and the University of Tennessee. These regional centers emphasize research, higher education, and Extension programs on renewable energy and biobased industries. The national Sun Grant Association coordinates their efforts.

Eurekalert: New resource will help develop biobased economy - August 29, 2007.

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Petrobras to introduce bio-jet fuel 'Bio QAV' in 120 airports, trials in 2008

Brazil's state-run oil company Petrobras, a global and historic leader in biofuel development, announces [*Portuguese] that it is preparing for the introduction of a new type of biofuel for use in the aviation market.

The company is developing jet fuel called 'Bio QAV' ('Biocombustível misturado ao Querosene de Aviação'), a mixture of biodiesel and kerosene (Jet A-1). Opening a seminar titled "Biodiesel Brazil: Consolidated on Land, Initiated in Marine Transport and Towards Aviation" the president of Petrobras Distribuidora, Graça Foster, said the company's aviation arm (BR Aviation) is working on procedures to adjust its 13 fuel bases which deliver kerosene to Brazil's airports.

The fixed installations (fuel tanks) and supply trucks supplying the 120 airports serviced by the distribution arm of Petrobras will be adapted to accomodate Bio QAV. (Map shows main airports of Brazil, click to enlarge).

Work is now underway to extend and adapt the Quality Assurance System to the new fuel, with technicians, suppliers and staff being trained to understand the new norms and handling procedures for Bio QAV.

Foster said that by the end of 2008 test flights with the bio-jet fuel will be carried out. The president noted that biodiesel is now present in all transport sectors - automotive, rail, maritime, and aviation - as well as in the industrial and power sectors:
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Biofuels for aviation were originally developed in Brazil, with successful trials going back to the 1980s. In recent years, all major aircraft manufacturers, as well as goverment agencies, research organisations and airlines in different countries, have begun intensifying research into bio-based jet fuels.

Several bioconversion methods are being investigated, ranging from synthetic biofuels based on the Fischer-Tropsch process, to hydrogenated biodiesel (also called 'green diesel' or 'H-Bio').

In Brazil, Tecbio recently started collaborating with Boeing and Nasa to develop bio-kerosene (earlier post). Tecbio is the company founded by Expedito Parente, the father of bio-jet fuel, who in May of this year announced a large scale program to produce aviation biofuels from local resources (babassu palms). The project is explicitly intended to alleviate poverty and will be based on collaboration with farmers' cooperatives who harvest and treat the oil rich nuts of the palm (earlier post).

Petrobras has played a crucial role in making Brazil's ethanol programme a success. The more recently initiated biodiesel program promises to open a second successful front for the country. The state-run oil company developed an innovative process for the production of biodiesel, called H-Bio, which consists of hydrogenating vegetable oils by relying on existing petroleum refinery infratructures.

According to Foster, in only 13 months time, Petrobras Distribuidora has succeeded in setting up biodiesel supply points in the entire territory of Brazil, allowing it to take care of supplying the national biodiesel market from January 2008 onwards, when the B2 obligation (mixture of 2% of biodiesel with diesel) comes into force.

Petrobras Bioenergia: Biodiesel vai entrar no mercado de aviação - August 24, 2007.

Biopact: French aerospace organisations launch aviation biofuels research project - August 08, 2007

Biopact: Father of bio-jet fuel launches biofuel cooperatives in Brazil to reduce poverty - May 25, 2007

Biopact: Syntroleum to deliver bio-based synthetic jet fuel to U.S. Department of Defense - July 09, 2007

Biopact: Boeing to fly aircraft on 50% biofuels blend - June 14, 2007

Biopact: EU study looks at pros and cons of 20 most promising alternative fuels - July 25, 2007

Biopact: CFM successfully tests 30% biofuel in jet engine - June 19, 2007

Biopact: UOP to develop biofuel technology for military jets - June 28, 2007

Biopact: NASA and Boeing join Brazil to develop biokerosene aviation fuel - August 30, 2006

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New algae biofuel concept may cut costs

Most biofuel projects based on the cultivation of algae are failing because of high capital costs, fundamental flaws inherent in production systems, and lack of progress in the science behind algae-culture. For this reason, Biopact and scientists remain sceptical of the current potential of the hyped concept (earlier post, and our interview with Dr Krassen Dimitrov who studied algae systems in depth).

One of the most promising companies, GreenFuel, recently experienced 'successful failure' with its project, resulting in the lay-off of half of its staff. An algae company in South Africa went bust because it couldn't deliver a fraction of what it had promised to investors (previous post). Another one in the US saw its expensive and fragile photobioreactors destroyed in a storm. Some companies have given up on the concept alltogether and simply switched to more robust terrestrial energy cropping instead.

Algae only yield large amounts of biomass when they are grown in a closed environment that allows nutrient flows to be controlled carefully. Such systems based on photobioreactors are extremely expensive and have been dismissed early on by scientists in the 1970s. Instead, open ponds could be used, but here algae cultures rapidly become unstable and yield low amounts of biomass. Large-scale trials conducted in the 1970s and 1980s showed yields are consistently lower than ordinary terrestrial crops. Infrastructure costs, the risk of failed cultures and low yields do not warrant the upfront investments in such ponds.

Still, some are trying to develop low-cost closed environments for algae production, and if the technology works out, then all the better for all of us. The latest attempt comes from Diversified Energy Corporation which has formed a partnership and licensing arrangement for a patent pending system invented by XL Renewables, Inc. The approach, called Simgae (for 'simple algae'), utilizes common agriculture and irrigation components to produce algae at a fraction of the cost of competing systems.

Instead of creating elaborate architectures designed to push yield to its utmost maximum, the proposed system makes cost and simplicity the driving variables. It uses unique thin walled polyethylene tubing, called 'Algae Biotape', similar to conventional drip irrigation tubes (schematic, click to enlarge). The patent pending biotape is laid out in parallel across a field. Under pressure, water containing the necessary nutrients and a small fraction of algae are slowly introduced into the biotape. Carbon dioxide is injected periodically and after roughly 24 hours the flow leaves the Algae Biotape with a markedly greater concentration of algae than was started.

All the supporting hardware components and processes involved in Simgae are direct applications from the agriculture industry. Re-use of these practices avoids the need for expensive and complex hardware and costly installation and maintenance. The Simgae design is expected to provide an annual algae yield of 100 – 200 dry tons per acre (250-500tons/ha):
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Capital costs are expected to be approximately $45,000 – $60,000 (a 2 – 16 times improvement over competing systems) and profitable oil production costs are estimated at only $0.08 – $0.12/pound. These oil costs compare to recent market prices of feedstock oils anywhere from $0.25 – $0.44/pound.
We’ve kept the veil on Simgae until we were absolutely confident in its performance and economics. This is the right technology at the right time to deliver algae biomass for use as a feedstock for biofuel oils, super-antioxidant animal feeds, starches to the ethanol industry, and many other uses. All of this is packaged in a cost effective, easy to install and maintain system that also cleans dirty water and converts carbon dioxide to oxygen through photosynthesis. We are thrilled to be partnered with Diversified Energy to introduce Simgae on a global basis. - Ben Cloud, President and COO of XL Renewables
The companies think that at 1/2 – 1/16th the capital cost, profitable oil production will cost between $0.08 – $0.12/pound, partly due to low operations and maintenance requirements.

Under an exclusive worldwide license, Diversified Energy will provide systems engineering and project management to commercialize the technology.

The team is currently conducting a demonstration of the technology in Casa Grande, Arizona. Continued testing and system optimization is expected to occur through 2008.

Diversified Energy Corporation, headquartered in Gilbert, Arizona is a privately held alternative and renewable energy company focused on maturing innovative technologies, developing commercial energy projects, and providing engineering services support to project developers. Principal areas of expertise include biofuels, gasification, and algae production.

XL Renewables, Inc, Based in Phoenix, Arizona, is developing an integrated biorefinery located in Vicksburg, Arizona, 100 miles west of Phoenix in La Paz County. The $260 million project integrates a modern dairy operation with a biofuels plant to produce ethanol, biodiesel, milk, animal feed and compost fertilizer. The integrated biorefinery utilizes the dairy manure, along with other waste streams to provide 100% of the power, heat and steam needs of the project and significantly lower production costs.

Biopact: Scientist skeptical of algae-to-biofuels potential - interview - July 18, 2007

Biopact: South African algae biofuels company breaks down - June 15, 2007

Biopact: An in-depth look at biofuels from algae - January 19, 2007

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Maxol to introduce E5 in its 150 stations in Ireland, ethanol made from whey

For the first time throughout Ireland, drivers of standard petrol powered vehicles will be able to use a biofuel without risk to the car manufacturer's warranty. The fuel is being introduced at all 150 Maxol service stations nationwide in September.

The Maxol Group is replacing its regular unleaded petrol with its new E5 fuel - a blend of 95% petrol and 5% locally produced bio-ethanol which will retail at the same price as standard unleaded petrol. Maxol's E5 fuel has been successfully piloted at over 24 service stations throughout the North East of Ireland since September 2006.

The bio-ethanol fuel in E5 is 100% organic and is currently made from whey, a milk derivative and a by-product of the Carbery Milk Products Cheese plant in Ballineen, Co. Cork.

The rollout of the E5 green fuel is another first for Maxol in the Irish fuels market, following on from the launch of their E85 fuel (85% bio-ethanol) in September 2005. It is also further evidence of Maxol's commitment to renewable fuels and to helping the Irish Government meet bio fuel consumption targets set out in EU Directives. These targets require bio fuels to account for 5.75% by 2010 and 20% by 2020.
This move towards ethanol use helps Ireland to meet EU targets. It is a win for consumers who benefit from lower emission fuel at no extra cost, a win for agriculture which can now develop interests in ethanol production and a win for the economy in that it could potentially reduce our imports. - Tom Noonan, Chief Executive of the Maxol Group
Although 5% may seem at first to be a small percentage, when applied to every litre of petrol that Maxol sells through its 150 service stations in the Republic of Ireland, this adds up to a very significant amount of locally produced, renewable and carbon neutral fuel:
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Renewable fuels are an essential part of our future and our children's future, says Maxol, which is keen to develop initiatives in this area to help our environment. "While this is simply another relatively modest step along the path towards fossil fuel substitution, I can envisage a time in the not-too-distant future when the only fuels from Maxol service stations will be bio-fuels", concludes Noonan.

Ethanol made from whey is not new. Recently, a fuel retailer in New Zealand introduced the biofuel in its service stations, collaborating with a large dairy cooperative which turns the milk by-product into alcohol (previous post).

Earlier, one of Germany's largest dairy products groups also announced a major investment in producing ethanol from whey, with a plant integrated into the dairy factory, that will produce 10 million liters (2.64 million gallons) of the biofuel per year.

Maxol: Bio-fuel can now be used in standard petrol vehicles - August 27, 2007.

Biopact: New Zealand launches commercial ethanol, made from milk by-product - August 01, 2007

Biopact: German dairy products group to make bioethanol from whey - April 03, 2007

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Amelot Holdings and Pan-Am Biofuels team up to develop 2000-acre jatropha plantation in Costa Rica

Amelot Holdings, Inc. and Pan-Am Biofuels, Inc., a Utah-based company with biofuel feedstock plantations located in Costa Rica, have announced a joint venture partnership to develop a 2,000-acre (809 hectare) Jatropha plantation in Guanacaste, Costa Rica.

The planned plantation, when fully operational in 2008, will produce up to 3 million gallons (11.3 million liters) of Crude Jatropha Oil (CJO), the feedstock used to produce biodiesel.
Based on our proprietary knowledge and extensive experience gained, we have developed and enhanced systems for creating a failsafe Jatropha fuel farm. This project represents many months of intense work and planning to build what will become, when it is fully operational, the largest combination feedstock and bio-diesel production facilities of its kind in Central America. - Joseph J. Black, President of Pan-Am Biofuels
The plantation will be located in the Guanacaste province, in North-Western Costa Rica, which has an optimal climate for growing the Jatropha Curcas shurbs. This perennial tropical crop requires relatively low inputs, can be grown on poor soils and yields oil from seeds that have to be harvested manually.

The proposed project's low-risk and unique funding methodology will initially be facilitated within a blended public/private funding arrangement. Amelot holdings will have exclusive rights to all of the CJO produced by the plantation:
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Aziz Hirji, Chairman of Amelot holdings, stated, "To be in the biodiesel refining business today requires the control of a bio-feedstock source necessary to produce biodiesel. We are confident that our current and future needs for feedstock will be secured and enhanced in this joint venture. In addition, this venture will greatly enhance the efficiency and profitability of Amelot's operations."

Pan-Am Biofuels, Inc. is a business entity poised to meet the explosive demand for alternative fuels through sustainable business solutions and green technologies that safeguard the future of our planet. Pan-Am uses Jatropha saplings made from selected and tested Jatropha seeds. They offer turnkey projects to corporations and individuals for the development of Jatropha plantations.

Amelot Holdings, Inc., a publicly traded company, is a diversified holding company that has identified a projected $20 billion opportunity to manufacture renewable fuels to supply the growing demand and to reduce the dependency and environmental impact of fossil fuels.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Guide to installing wood pellet heating systems in green buildings

The Energy Crops Company has released a freely available Wood Pellet Design Guide, which must allow architects, specifiers and builders to install wood-pellet fired heating systems in buildings. The guide provides information on the practical aspects of wood pellet heating, including system design, access, delivery, storage, and installation, as well as a summary of relevant planning guidelines and financial support available.

The guide comes at a time when a new survey on 'green building' shows that property professionals greatly overestimate the costs of such projects. The study, carried out by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and based on a global survey of 1,400 key players, found that the overestimation could be as high 300%, creating a major barrier to more energy efficiency and lower carbon emissions in the building sector. Buildings account for some 40% of the EU's final energy consumption, but implementation of EU legislation to improve building efficiency has been delayed in most member states.

Graham Hilton, managing director at the Energy Crops Company explains that global warming attracts a lot of attention from protesters and pundits alike, but that it is the construction industry that is required to turn government promises and planning requirements into action. Combined with conservation and energy efficiency, relying on biomass for heating is the most economically sound, reliable and effective way of cutting carbon emissions, meeting planning requirements, and securing long-term, stable fuel supply.

With high heating oil and natural gas prices, and the need to cut carbon emissions, heating with renewable wood pellets has become an attractive and efficient option. As a consequence, the use of the solid biofuel is growing rapidly in the EU (overview for 2005) and international trade is growing steadily (earlier post).

The guide produced by the Energy Crops Company brings the opportunities arising from these developments to the architect and the planner. It is designed to answer all the logistical and practical questions about using wood pellet heating systems, giving decision-makers the details they need to make informed choices:
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The guide is intended to be used by commercial and public sector organisations of all sizes that are considering incorporating renewable fuels in their energy mix. It covers the specifics of installing wood pellet boilers in new builds, as well as the conversion of existing central heating systems, and offers practical advice on system design, equipment and maintenance.

As well as outlining the benefits of using wood pellet heating systems in terms of both cutting costs and carbon emissions, the design guide provides a detailed overview of all the pertinent planning regulations, including the Merton rules and the building and clean air regulations, as well as the financial grants and tax exemptions that apply.

The guide also includes detailed information about requirements for fuel delivery, handling, storage and access, so that these can be incorporated into building design.

The Energy Crops Company was set up in 2005 to provide sustainable wood-fired heating solutions to a wide range of commercial and industrial customers. It specialises in the supply of wood pellet fuel and, through its network of partners, delivers a complete service for converting to biomass heating.

Energy Crops Company: Wood Pellet Design Guide.

World Business Council for Sustainable Development: Energy Efficiency in Buildings. Business Realities and Opportunities. Summary Report. [*.pdf] - August, 2007.

World Business Council for Sustainable Development: Global Survey Shows "Green" Construction Costs Dramatically Lower Than Believed - August 21, 2007.

Euractiv: 'Green building' costs grossly overestimated says study - August 23, 2007.

Biopact: Solid biomass production for energy in EU increases markedly - December 21, 2006

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Syngenta introduces tropical sugar beet for food and biofuels, may yield more than sugar cane

In a very important step towards the creation of a global carbohydrate economy, Syngenta has introduced sugar beet in India for cultivation in tropical climatic conditions. The newly bred tropical sugar beet brings significant agronomic, environmental and output advantages to Indian farming and the Indian economy. The beet, which took over ten years to develop, delivers similar output yields to sugar cane and can be used both for processing sugar for food and conversion to bio-ethanol.

The new sugar beet can be grown in relatively dry areas across the tropics, with substantially less water than typically required by sugar cane. It is faster growing and can be harvested after five months allowing farmers to grow a second crop on the same land, thus increasing agricultural output and raising farmer income.

Syngenta is engaged in two tropical sugar beet projects:
  • Sugar for food: at Ambad near Jalna, in the state of Maharashtra, the Samarth Cooperative Sugar Mill has commissioned a pilot plant for processing tropical beet in co-operation with the Vasantdada Sugar Institute. First harvests delivered the expected high yield of top-quality sugar.
  • Sugar for biofuel: at Kalas, near the city of Pune, Syngenta co-operates with over 12,000 farmers linked to Harneshwar Agro Products, Power and Yeast Ltd, which built and operates a bio-ethanol production plant processing the tropical beet. The faster growth of tropical beets increases annual ethanol output over sugar cane.
The development of tropical sugar beet took over ten years, building on Syngenta’s extensive breeding know-how and technology base. The biotech company will explore use of tropical sugar beet in other tropical regions with poor soil conditions:
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The Indian government is highly interested in Syngenta’s technological capabilities to support growth of India’s agricultural sector, says Sharad Pawar, India’s Minister for Food and Agriculture. According to Pawar, the successful introduction of sugar beet leads to higher sugar output available for food and energy in a shorter period and using less water. He is sure the Indian sugar industry will happily work together with Syngenta to further optimize the crop and introduce it to growers across the country.

Robert Berendes, Head of Business Development at Syngenta added: "This is a unique project that benefits growers, consumers and the environment. It is an outstanding example of the application of our technology to enhancing agricultural productivity under conditions of climatic stress."

India is currently the world's second largest sugar producer, with output for 2006-2007 estimated to be a record 28 million tonnes. Next year, another increase of around 7 per cent is expected.

World sugar prices have been falling over the last year, despite a record output of ethanol in Brazil, the world's largest producer of the biofuel. Indian sugar producers have been urging the government to speed up the creation of an ethanol policy, so that blending can start immediately. This should strengthen prices and alleviate the crisis (earlier post).

The new tropical sugar beet promises the production of carbohydrates on land not suitable for sugar cane. Thus India's prospects to develop ethanol (and later biohydrogen) now look better.

Images, credit Syngenta.

Syngenta: Syngenta introduces tropical sugar beet for food and biofuels - August 28, 2007.

Biopact: Switch to ethanol can alleviate sugar crisis in India - June 09, 2007

Biopact: World sugar prices keep falling, despite ethanol boom - July 22, 2007

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UK scientists almost double hydrogen storage capacity of organic polymer

Cardiff scientists exploring the safe storage of hydrogen to power vehicles as an environmentally friendly alternative to petrol have succeeded in developing an organic polymer capable of storing 3 per cent hydrogen by weight. The figure is almost double the amount of hydrogen the group’s preliminary polymers could store last year (1.7 per cent), and offers hope of producing an organic polymer in the future capable of storing enough hydrogen to successfully power a vehicle.

The team, consisting of by Professors Neil McKeown from the School of Chemistry together with Peter Budd of the University of Manchester and David Book from the University of Birmingham, knows that in order to make hydrogen a viable alternative to petrol, a material which can store hydrogen at a weight of over six per cent is required. This figure is estimated by the American Department of Energy (DOE) as the minimum required to make a fuel tank for hydrogen to power a vehicle for 300 miles. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has set a target of 5% reversible mass loading for a realistic storage system.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council funds the project focusing on the physisorption of hydrogen on the large and accessible surface of a microporous material. This technique offers the attractive possibility of safe hydrogen storage with an energy efficient release for consumption. However, physisorption relies on the very weak interactions between the microporous material and hydrogen molecules, therefore, the mass loadings are generally low. Thus, the challenge is set to make a microporous material of appropriate structure and chemical composition to help reach the DOE/IEA targets.
In order to obtain a polymer that can store useful quantities of hydrogen we need to make a much more porous material, but one in which the holes are very small so as to fit snugly the small hydrogen molecules. - Professor Neil McKeown
Previously, polymers have not been investigated as materials for the storage of hydrogen because most polymers have enough conformational and rotational freedom to pack space efficiently and are therefore not microporous:
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However, the recently developed polymers of intrinsic microporosity (PIMs) do possess significant microporosity and preliminary hydrogen sorption results are encouraging with significant quantities adsorbed. Most importantly, the chemical composition of PIMs can be tailored via synthetic chemistry. Therefore, the adventurous primary objective of the scientists' work is to prepare novel PIMs in a form that demonstrate hydrogen loadings equal to or in excess of the IEA 5% benchmark at moderate pressures and 77 K.

Professor McKeown and his team are investigating a number of promising methods to enhance pororosity as they attempt to build on their current success and produce a material that can store and release hydrogen safely and effectively. They are also collaborating with Professor Kenneth Harris within the School of Chemistry to develop other types of hydrogen storage materials.

Image: Molecular model of organic polymer. Credit: Cardiff University.

Cardiff University: Developing green fuel - August 27, 2007.

Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council: Polymer-based hydrogen storage materials - project overview.

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Monday, August 27, 2007

Major breakthrough: researchers engineer sorghum that beats aluminum toxicity

In a development of major importance for world agriculture and the bioenergy sector, an international team of scientist has succeeded in cloning an aluminum-tolerance gene in sorghum, promising a boost to crop yields in vast parts of the developing world. Soghums are crops that can produce both food, feed and fuel. The new crops can be grown in the huge expanses of land plagued by aluminum toxicity. When soils are too acidic, aluminum that is locked up in clay minerals dissolves into the soil as toxic, electrically charged particles called ions, making it hard for most plants to grow. In fact, aluminum toxicity in acidic soils limits crop production in as much as 50% the world's arable land, mostly in developing countries in Africa, Asia and South America.

Acidic soils worldwide: aluminum toxicity in acidic soils limits crop production in as much as half the world's arable land
The scientists from Brazil's Embrapa, the US Plant Soil and Nutrition Laboratory (US Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service), the Institute for Plant Genomics and Biotechnology (Texas A&M University), and the Department of Plant Pathology (Kansas State University) cloned a novel aluminum-tolerant gene in sorghum and expect to have new genetically-engineered aluminum-tolerant sorghum lines already by next year.

The research [*abstract], to be published in the September issue of Nature Genetics, provides insights into how specialized proteins in the root tips of some cultivars of sorghum and such related species as wheat and maize can boost aluminum tolerance in crops.

Sorghum is an important crop in Africa, Central America and South Asia and is the world's fifth most important cereal crop. Scientists also see the plant as a major energy crop and have received serious funding to develop drought-tolerant sorghums for biomass production (more here, here, here and here) as well as varieties that boost both food, fodder and fuel production all at the same time (earlier post, here and especially here). The new aluminum toxicity resistant plant could make sorghum a robust crop that can drive the bioeconomy forward.
My lab has been working to identify the physiological mechanisms of plant aluminum tolerance as well as its molecular basis. The reason this is significant is there are extensive areas of the earth's lands that are highly acidic, with pH of 5 or below [pH below 7 is considered acidic]. Most of these areas are in the tropics or subtropics, where many developing countries are located. - Leon Kochian, Cornell adjunct professor of plant biology and director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture -Agriculture Research Service (USDA-ARS) Plant, Soil and Nutrition Laboratory at Cornell; lead author
Kochian's research shows that in aluminum-tolerant sorghum varieties, special proteins in the root tip release citric acid into the soil in response to aluminum exposure. Citric acid binds aluminum ions very effectively, preventing the toxic metal from entering the roots:
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Kochian and colleagues, including the paper's first author, Jurandir Magalhaes, who received his Ph.D. from Cornell in Kochian's lab and now directs his own lab at the Embrapa Maize and Sorghum Research Center in Brazil, used genetic mapping to identify a single gene that encodes a novel membrane-transporter protein responsible for the citric acid release. The gene, they discovered, is only turned on to express the protein and transport citric acid when aluminum ions are present in the surrounding soil.

The researchers have now used the sorghum gene to engineer transgenic aluminum-tolerant Arabidopsis thaliana (a small mustard plant used in plant research because of its small genome and short life cycle) and wheat plants. Sorghum is harder to genetically transform, Kochian said.

The map-based cloning of this agronomically important gene in sorghum is helping advance this species as a model for further exploring the mechanisms of aluminum tolerance and discovering new molecular genetic solutions to improving crop yields, Kochian said.

"This research also has environmental implications for badly needed increases in food production on marginal soils in developing countries," said Kochian. "For example, if we can increase food production on existing lands, it could limit encroachment into other areas for agriculture." Alternatively, it could free up land for energy crop production.

The research is supported in part by the McKnight Foundation Collaborative Crop Research Program, the Generation Challenge Program, the National Science Foundation and the USDA-ARS.

Map: Aluminum toxicity in acidic soils limits crop production in as much as half the world's arable land, mostly in developing countries in Africa, Asia and South America. Credit: Cornell University Chronicle Online.

Leon V. Kochian et. al., "A gene in the multidrug and toxic compound extrusion (MATE) family confers aluminum tolerance in sorghum", Nature Genetics, advanced online publication, 26 August 2007 | doi:10.1038/ng2074

Cornell University Chronicles Online: Cornell researchers clone aluminum-tolerance gene in sorghum, promising boost to crop yields in developing world - August 27, 2007

Biopact: ICRISAT harnesses ethanol from drought tolerant sweet sorghum - January 25, 2007

Biopact: Sun Grant Initiative funds 17 bioenergy research projects - August 20, 2007

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

Biopact: ICRISAT's pro-poor biofuel projects provide livelihood and food security to landless farmers in India - August 13, 2007

Biopact: Researchers and producers optimistic about sweet sorghum as biofuel feedstock - July 27, 2007

Biopact: Mapping sorghum's genome to create robust biomass crops - June 24, 2007

Bipact: ICRISAT launches pro-poor biofuels initiative in drylands - March 15, 2007

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NASA finds long-term increase in rainfall in tropics

NASA scientists have detected the first signs that tropical rainfall is on the rise with the longest and most complete data record available.

Using a 27-year-long global record of rainfall assembled by the international scientific community from satellite and ground-based instruments, the scientists found that the rainiest years in the tropics between 1979 and 2005 were mainly since 2001. The rainiest year was 2005, followed by 2004, 1998, 2003 and 2002, respectively.
When we look at the whole planet over almost three decades, the total amount of rain falling has changed very little. But in the tropics, where nearly two-thirds of all rain falls, there has been an increase of 5 percent. - Guojun Gu, research scientist at Goddard Space Flight Center, lead author
The rainfall increase was concentrated over tropical oceans, with a slight decline over land. Climate scientists predict that a warming trend in Earth's atmosphere and surface temperatures would produce an accelerated recycling of water between land, sea and air. Warmer temperatures increase the evaporation of water from the ocean and land and allow air to hold more moisture. Eventually, clouds form that produce rain and snow.

"A warming climate is the most plausible cause of this observed trend in tropical rainfall," says co-author Robert F. Adler, senior scientist at Goddard's Laboratory for Atmospheres. Adler and Gu are now working on a detailed study of the relationship between surface temperatures and rainfall patterns to further investigate the possible link. The study [*abstract] appears in the Aug. 1, 2007, issue of the American Meteorological Society's Journal of Climate.

Obtaining a global view of our planet's rainfall patterns is a challenging work-in-progress:
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Only since the satellite era have regular estimates of rainfall over oceans been available to supplement the long-term but land-limited record from rain gauges. Just recently have the many land- and space-based data been merged into a single global record endorsed by the international scientific community: the Global Precipitation Climatology Project, sponsored by the World Climate Research Program. Adler's research group at NASA produces the project's monthly rainfall updates, which are available to scientists worldwide.

Using this global record, Gu, Adler and their colleagues identified a small upward trend in overall tropical rainfall since 1979, but their confidence was not high that this was an actual long-term trend rather than natural year-to-year variability. So they took another look at the record and removed the effects of the two major natural phenomena that change rainfall: the El Niño Southern Oscillation and large volcanic eruptions.

El Niño is a cyclical warming of the ocean waters in the central and eastern tropical Pacific that generally occurs every three to seven years and alters weather patterns worldwide. Volcanoes that loft debris into the upper troposphere and stratosphere create globe-circling bands of aerosol particles that slow the formation of precipitation by increasing the number of small cloud drops and temporarily shielding the planet from sunlight, which lowers surface temperatures and evaporation that fuels rainfall. Two such eruptions - El Chicon in Mexico and Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines - occurred during the 27-year period.

The scientists found that during El Niño years, total tropical rainfall did not change significantly but more rain fell over oceans than usual. The two major volcanoes both reduced overall tropical rainfall by about 5 percent during the two years following each eruption. With these effects removed from the rainfall record, the long-term trend appears more clearly in both the rainfall data over land and over the ocean.

According to Adler, evidence for the rainfall trend is holding as more data come in. The latest numbers for 2006 show another record-high year for tropical rainfall, tying 2005 as the rainiest year during the period.

"The next step toward firmly establishing this initial indication of a long-term tropical rainfall trend is to continue to lengthen and improve our data record," says Adler, who is project scientist of the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM), a joint mission between NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. The three primary instruments on TRMM are currently providing the most detailed view of rainfall ever provided from space. Adler's group has been incorporating TRMM rainfall data since 1997 into the global rainfall record.

NASA plans to extend TRMM's success of monitoring rainfall over the tropics to the entire globe with the Global Precipitation Measurement mission, scheduled for launch in 2013. This international project will provide measurements of both rain and snow around the world with instruments on a constellation of spacecraft flying in different orbits.

Image (click to enlarge): 6-year TRMM climatology, precipitation January 1998-December 2003. Credit: Nasa TRMM.

Gu, G., R.F. Adler, G.J. Huffman, and S. Curtis, 2007: "Tropical Rainfall Variability on Interannual-to-Interdecadal and Longer Time Scales Derived from the GPCP Monthly Product" [*abstract], Journal of Climate, 20, 4033–4046.

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center: Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission website.

The Global Precipitation Climatology Project (GPCP)

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U.S. DOE to provide $33.8 million to support enzyme development for cellulosic biofuels

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) today announced a Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) that will make available up to $33.8 (€24.7) million to support the development of commercially viable enzymes - a key step to enabling bio-based production of clean, renewable biofuels such as cellulosic ethanol. The announcement comes after the DOE awarded $385 (€282) million to six cellulosic ethanol projects earlier this year (previous post), part of a US$1.2 billion (€907 million) investment in biorefineries.

This latest FOA is focused on the development of hydrolytic enzymes and enzyme system preparations that can effectively saccharify pretreated lignocellulosics to produce fermentable sugars under process relevant conditions. The enzymes or enzyme systems must be able to survive a wide range of environmental conditions and be stable to denaturing conditions typically found in lignocellulosic processing.

DOE expects that applicants will be willing and able to take the enzyme or enzyme systems to a commercial scale and have a sound business strategy to license and market them. For the purposes of this FOA, 'commercialization' will be defined as the transition from research to routine operational application. This implies the orderly sequence and implementation of actions necessary to achieve market entry and general market competitiveness of the enzymatic systems.
These enzyme projects will serve as catalysts to the commercial-scale viability of cellulosic ethanol, a clean source of energy to help meet President Bush’s goal of reducing our reliance on oil. Ethanol from new feed stocks will not only give America more efficient fuel options to help transform our transportation sector, but increasing its use will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. - Andy Karsner, DOE Assistant Secretary
With a minimum 50 percent industry cost-share, the funding will total nearly $68 million to further enzyme commercialization efforts. By harnessing the power of enzymes, which are responsible for many of the biochemical processes in nature, biorefineries can more efficiently use cellulosic (non-food) feedstocks for biofuels production. The funding thus aims to further reduce costs of enzyme system preparations in process-relevant conditions.Since 2000, DOE enzyme development advancements have yielded thirty-fold cost reductions mainly on enzyme production:
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This biofuels effort focuses on production from non-food materials and agricultural waste – such as corn stover, switchgrass, and prairie grass. This FOA focuses specifically on systems to hydrolyze and saccharify cellulosic biomass feedstocks. Saccharification enables the biorefining process by breaking down pretreated cellulosic material into more simple sugars, allowing them to be further processed through fermentation and ultimately turned into biofuels such as ethanol. Enzymes developed under this FOA must prove durable and effective in process-relevant conditions.

As part of the President Bush's "Twenty in Ten Plan", DOE is pursuing a long-term strategy to support increased availability and cost-effective use of renewable and alternative fuels. Twenty in Ten seeks to displace 20 percent of U.S. gasoline usage by 2017 through diversification of clean energy sources and increased vehicle efficiency.

Image: cellulase enzyme attacks cellulose. Credit: NREL.

U.S. Department of Energy: Department of Energy to Make Available up to $33.8 Million to Support Commercial Production of Cellulosic Biofuels - August 27, 2007

U.S. Department of Energy: Development of Saccharifying Enzymes for Commercial Use.

U.S. Department of Energy: Development of Saccharifying Enzymes for Commercial Use [*.pdf] - full announcement.

Biopact: Bush's State of the Union: "twenty in ten", biofuel imports - January 24, 2007

Biopact: U.S. Dept. of Energy awards $385 million to 6 cellulosic ethanol plants, out of $1.2 billion - March 01, 2007

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Biogas from dairy farms in California: report looks at regulatory issues

Biogas is rapidly becoming one of Europe's most important biofuels, with the sector scaling up to produce the alternative to natural gas on an industrial scale. Last year, thousands of plants produced an estimated 5.3 million tonnes of oil equivalent energy from biogas (overview). The developments in the EU are such that experts are looking at ways to open the main natural gas grids to feed in biomethane. Some estimate that biogas can replace all of the EU's natural gas imports from Russia by 2020. On the continent, the gas is increasingly produced from dedicated energy crops and used as an efficient transport fuel in CNG vehicles (overview here and here).

In the U.S., the sector is in its infancy. But the outlook for biogas is very good (previous post), which is why analysts there are proactively researching regulatory issues. A new report released by the Energy Policy Initiatives Center (EPIC) at San Diego University examines these regulatory challenges as they relate to biogas production and use on California's Dairy Farms. California is home to about 1,800 dairies that represent over 1.7 million dairy cows (graph, click to enlarge), which produce a significant amount of biomass that can be converted to biogas by anaerobic digestion. California dairies have a methane production potential of about 40 million cubic feet per day (1.1 million cubic meters) or 14.6 billion cubic feet/year (413 billion cubic meters). But the state currently has only 22 biogas-producing digesters located on dairy farms.
Biogas production via anaerobic digestion has attracted significant attention as a viable greenhouse gas reduction strategy, largely because methane is a potent greenhouse gas with 21 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. But regulations related to biogas are still evolving as the industry grows, so it is important to identify current regulations that might create disincentives and to identify issues that need further attention to ensure that biogas can play a vital role in our greenhouse gas reduction strategy. - Scott Anders, EPIC’s director and author of the report
The report titled Biogas on Dairy Farms: A Survey of Regulatory Challenges [*.pdf] provides background information on how biogas is produced and used; identifies challenges or issues of uncertainty related to air quality, water quality, solid waste management, electricity, and natural gas regulation; and recommends ways to encourage biogas production in California:
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Biogas is produced through a biological process called anaerobic digestion, in which bacteria convert organic materials into biogas in an oxygen-free environment.

Converting cow manure and other agricultural wastes to a clean and useful energy sources helps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by capturing methane that would otherwise have been released into the atmosphere. It also creates a renewable gas that can replace traditional natural gas for electricity generation and, because other organic wastes can be mixed with manure, biogas production can help to divert organic materials away from our landfills.

EPIC is an academic and research center of the University of San Diego School of Law that studies how energy policy issues affect the San Diego County region and California. EPIC integrates research and analysis, law school study and public education, and provides legal and policy expertise and information about efficient and environmentally responsible solutions to our future energy needs.

Energy Policy Initiatives Center: EPIC Releases Paper on Regulatory Challenges Related to Biogas - August 21, 2007.

Scott J. Anders, Biogas Production and Use on California’s Dairy Farms. A Survey of Regulatory Challenges [*.pdf], Energy Policy Initiatives Center, University of San Diego, August 2007

Biopact: Germany considers opening natural gas network to biogas - major boost to sector - August 11, 2007

Biopact: EU research project looks at feeding biogas into the main natural gas grid - April 08, 2007

Biopact: Study: EU biogas production grew 13.6% in 2006, holds large potential - July 24, 2007

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Radar partners with New Energy USA for solid biofuel technology based on recovered coal slurry

Radar Acquisitions Corp. announces it has signed an arm's length joint venture agreement with New Energy USA to establish a joint venture to utilize New Energy's Re-Fuel technology process to develop engineered solid fuel products using a combination of reclaimed coal slurry pond waste and biomass. The Re-Fuel technology is a patent pending process that combines a coal waste product with biomass to produce an engineered solid fuel product. The Re-Fuel technology has been licensed for use on three project sites in the United States to date.

Coal mining generates enormous amounts of solid waste in the form of rocks and dirt. This refuse is used to create a large pond or a dam. After this reservoir is built, the void is typically filled with millions of gallons of waste slurry from a coal preparation plant. This impounded liquid waste can sometimes total billions of gallons in a single facility.

According to the published patent application New Energy's technology taps into these vast black lakes, by making:
burnable renewable fuel (RF) briquettes from recovered coal from coal slurry ponds, biomass, and a binder. The briquettes may be augmented with one or more of recovered environmental burnable fraction from municipal solid waste (MSW), agricultural livestock waste, lumber processing residue, solid wood waste material, agricultural by-products and crops, and like burnable waste material. Accordingly, the method for making burnable renewable fuel (RF) briquettes includes the steps of recovering coal from coal slurry ponds; recovering biomass; adding a binder to said recovered coal and said biomass; and forming solid burnable RF fuel briquettes therefrom.
Re-Fuel briquettes will benefit the environment through the reclamation of this type of coal slurry in the production phase and cleaner stack and ash emissions in the power generation phase. Production of Re-Fuel can qualify the producing joint venture company for a variety of tax credits while providing coal waste owners/suppliers with a significant benefit by decreasing site reclamation costs. According to Radar, users of Re-Fuel will benefit from a competitively priced, cleaner, more efficient product that may also make them eligible for substantial carbon credits:
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The JV agreement sets out terms whereby Radar, through the ownership of 50 percent of a legal entity created for each of the projects, will acquire a 50 percent interest in each of four coal slurry pond briquette projects, as well as the option to participate in additional projects, for consideration of US$1.0 million in common shares of Radar.

Three quarters (75 percent) of the shares will have performance escrow restrictions such that one quarter (25 percent) of the shares will be released upon the commencement of production of engineered solid fuel from each of projects 1, 2 and 3. New Energy will have no voting rights to Radar shares while they are held in escrow. Any shares remaining in escrow after three years will be cancelled.

In addition, the Joint Venture Agreement contemplates payments by Radar of US$150,000 to secure and maintain ownership of the Projects and begin a budgeted work program for the Projects. Such payment will be made to RPS Fuels, LLC, a company created to develop, market and pursue the business of developing Project 1. A sum of US$2,250,000 will be paid to RPS Fuels upon Project 1 reaching the feasibility stage and provided the payment is used for the total project financing needed for Project 1 and to maintain property ownership for the Projects. US$2,250,000 will be paid to RPS Fuels or a second JV Entity, provided that such payment is used to complete the total project financing for Project 1, and provided that the payment is used to maintain ownership of the Projects, and to develop the Projects or any additional projects.

With regards to the option to acquire additional projects, a JV Entity will have a right of first refusal to purchase up to 100 percent of any Additional Project staked, acquired or otherwise obtained by New Energy and/or Radar. The establishment of the Joint Venture is subject to final TSX Venture Exchange approval and the consideration is being held in trust, accordingly.

Radar is a diversified natural resource development company focused on growth through the acquisition, exploration and development of resources and resource related technologies. The company is focused on a joint venture agreement it has with New Energy USA, LLC, to develop engineered solid fuel products (Re-Fuel) using a combination of coal slurry pond waste and biomass.

Image: Marfork Coal's Brushy Fork coal slurry impoundment, which, at its final stage, will hold 8 billions of gallon of coal waste sludge. The impoundment partially lies over old underground mines and is directly upstream from the town of Whitesville, West Virginia. Credit: Vivian Stockman.

MarketWire: Radar Enters into Joint Venture with New Energy USA, LLC, for Engineered Solid Fuel Technology and Coal Slurry Pond Projects - August 27, 2007.

USPTO: Fuel pellet briquettes from biomass and recovered coal slurries - January 11, 2007

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Kenyan farmers see hope in Virgin's bio-jet fuel test

According to the chief of the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), to African scientists and to global natural resource think tanks like the Worldwatch Institute, biofuels offer a historic chance to tackle global poverty and to reach the Millennium Development Goals. If biofuel policies and trade reform are implemented well, the world's poor - the bulk of who can be found in the vast rural areas of the Global South - can benefit by producing fuels for local and international markets.

This opportunity does not go unnoticed in Africa. In Nairobi, Kenya's capital, the local Business Daily pins its hopes on Sir Richard Branson and his Virgin Fuels venture. It writes:
Virgin Atlantic's quest to become the first commercial airline to use biofuels to power its aircraft could be the catalyst needed to realise the potential in Kenya's alternative energy sector. The airline has scheduled a test flight on biofuel early in 2008, less than a year since June when Virgin Atlantic owner Richard Branson committed Sh210 billion towards research into environmentally-friendly energy resources for the next 10 years.
Virgin has been testing different bio-jet fuel types and indicated that in the future biofuel feedstocks may well be sourced from Africa as a way of combining poverty alleviation and greening the airline industry (previous post). The money for the bio-jet fuel, which will come from Branson's airline and rail businesses, is to be invested through Virgin Fuels, a new arm that is focusing largely on biofuel innovations.

The Nairobi based newspaper continues:
Local farmers have started growing biofuel-producing crops like jathropa and rapseed and a breakthrough for Virgin would mean new markets for them. Ms Lorna Omuodo, the director of the Vanilla Jathropa Development Foundation, said it would be an opportunity to improve rural incomes if Virgin pioneers foreign market opportunities for biofuel.
Quoting the director of the Vanilla Jathropa Development Foundation, the potential to engage many farmers in the sector becomes apparent:
Jathropa does well in arid and semi arid areas and this will be a good opportunity to offer those people alternative income. The local industry has potential to benefit at least 12 million people, six million of them directly and the other half indirectly.
If Sir Richard couples the idea of greening the airline industry to sourcing biofuels from the South, he could do more to alleviate poverty than all of the UK's development assistance programmes combined. The Global South has vast untapped resources needed to make biofuels in an efficient and cost-effective manner: land, labor and a suitable climate for a range of promising energy crops (map: land suitability for jatropha, click to enlarge). Of course, such an initiative would require a strong set of social and environmental sustainability policies, investments in research and development in biofuels and African agronomy, and a change in the current trade regime. But in principle these requirements can be met:
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Virgin's decision to trial bio-jet fuel comes at a time when the local Kenyan biofuel industry, which is still at its budding levels, has shifted its focus from the basics of growing the raw materials into market opportunities ranging from searching for possible industrial users to how farmers can earn from international carbon trade.

Jathropa, which grows in marginal areas, is the best bet for Kenya as a biofuel raw material. A recent biofuel industry meeting in Nairobi agreed that focus should also be directed to looking for export opportunities.

Virgin has been very active in the biofuels sector. Recently it launched the first biodiesel train in regular operation (earlier post). Virgin Atlantic plans to fly the 747 on biofuels in early 2008 (more here). In an interview, the technical director for the project excluded synthetic biofuels for the trial, because they have already shown to work.

Map: land suitability for rainfed jatropha cropping in Africa - some 1.5 billion hectares are highly to moderately suitable; the bulk of the countries with jatropha potential currently utilizes less than 30% of its potential arable land. Credit: Fair Trade Biodiesel.

Business Daily (Nairobi): Virgin Bid to Use Biofuel Could Boost Energy Sector - 27 August 2007

Biopact: Virgin launches first biodiesel train in Europe - June 07, 2007

Biopact: Virgin Atlantic to fly 747 on biofuels in 2008 - looks to Africa - April 24, 2007

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New Zealand biofuel plant on hold because of Brazilian competition

An interesting example of how the global biofuel market works when there are no trade barriers or subsidies comes from New Zealand. There LanzaFuels Limited today announced that it has put its plans for a local biofuels production plant on hold because of competition from the tropics. LanzaFuels has been investigating the feasibility of ethanol produced from locally grown maize (corn) in response to the 3.4% biofuel sales obligation announced by the country's government in February this year.

LanzaFuels spokesman Howard Moore explained the reasons behind the decision:
"Brazilian prices for fuel ethanol are currently at historically low levels and so, combined with the strong New Zealand dollar, the cost to import ethanol is now lower than it can be made locally. This situation has developed recently, and until future prospects become more encouraging, the Company considers it is unwise to invest further in the project".
LanzaFuels has been planning to build a large-scale ethanol production plant using locally grown maize, and powered by wood waste. It planned to target land currently used for beef and sheep farming. This would have provided higher returns to farmers who are not benefiting from current high dairy prices. Moore says "this would have had a double benefit for the environment by both reducing fossil fuel use and reducing agricultural methane emissions".

The low prices for sugar cane based ethanol are the result of a record sugar crop in both Brazil and India (previous post). In May, ethanol prices in Brazil recorded their lowest level in 2 years, making the government consider an increase in the blending rate by 2% (from 23 to 25%). At the same time, crude oil prices have risen to new records. The advantage of sugar cane based ethanol has never been this great (earlier post).

Besides a record crop, Brazilian farmers, sugar processors and ethanol producers can draw on vast experience resulting in steep efficiency increases, which lowered their production costs for ethanol by 75% over 25 years (earlier post), further strengthening their natural comparative advantages:
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Industry analysts and agronomists think this trend is far from over: Brazilian ethanol can become even more efficient and double or even triple its output per hectare, as both processing technologies progress and biotechnological advancements are made (earlier post).

In this case it will become nearly impossible for biofuel producers relying on crops like corn to compete. At least not in a free trade environment.

Both the European Union and the United States heavily subsidize their farmers and protect their markets against more efficient fuels by imposing import tariffs that can be as high as US$0.54 per gallon. For the U.S. alone, these biofuel subsidies were estimated to be as high as $5.1 billion in 2006 for ethanol alone (earlier post).

But resistance to this state of things is growing. Brazil recently initiated a WTO case against U.S. ethanol and farm subsidies (earlier post). Likewise, the governments of Sweden and the Netherlands have launched a formal request for a study to be performed by the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to assess the damages brought about by farm subsidies and biofuel trade barriers both in the U.S. and the EU (earlier post). Sweden, one of Europe's leading green nations, wants all barriers for biofuels removed, so that a global trade can emerge that allows countries in the South to make use of their comparative advantages (more here).

Scoop: LanzaFuels Biofuels Plant On Hold - August 27, 2007.

Biopact: Brazil initiates WTO case against U.S. ethanol and farm subsidies - August 20, 2007

Biopact: Subsidies for uncompetitive U.S. biofuels cost taxpayers billions - report - October 26, 2006

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Sunday, August 26, 2007

Report: large scale imports and co-firing of palm oil products can be sustainable

Northern European countries import significant quantities of biomass for energy production, among which palm oil has been used increasingly for co-firing in existing gas-fired power plants for renewable electricity production. However, imported biomass is not automatically a sustainable energy source. The production and removal of biomass in other places in the world result in ecological, land-use and socio-economic changes and in greenhouse gas emissions (e.g. for transportation).

The International Energy Agency's Bioenergy Task 40, which analyses the technical opportunities and challenges for large-scale international bioenergy trade, refers to a new report which looks at the conditions that have to be met to make such imports sustainable.

To find out, Dr Veronika Dornburg, Dr André Faaij, Birka Wicke and Dr Martin Junginger of the Department of Science, Technology and Society at the Copernicus Institute (Utrecht University) used a set of strict sustainability criteria developed by the Cramer Commission in the Netherlands. This commission has formulated (draft) criteria and indicators for sustainable biomass production, taking into account social, environmental and emissions factors (earlier post).

In their study titled A Greenhouse Gas Balance of Electricity Production from Co-firing Palm Oil Products from Malaysia [*.pdf], the scientists applied these stringent criteria to a specific bio-electricity chain: the production of crude palm oil (CPO) and a palm oil derivative, palm fatty acid distillate (PFAD), in Northeast Borneo in Malaysia, their long-distance transport to the Netherlands and co-firing with natural gas for electricity production at the Essent Claus power plant in the province of Limburg.

The Cramer Commission sets a (very) high target for greenhouse gas emission reductions: a biofuel used for electricity production must reduce GHG emissions with no less than 70% compared to fossil fuels in order to be called green. The scientists found that for PFAD this target can be reached (graph, click to enlarge). For CPO, the picture is more complex. Only when palm oil plantations were established on degraded land, a reduction of well over 100% could be obtained. In that case, such plantations act as carbon sinks. When established on logged over land, the bio-electricity chain only reduces GHG emissions by more than 70% if specific plantation management improvements have been made; for plantations without such interventions, a reduction of more than 50% will only be obtained when compared to coal:
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The bio-electricity chain is based on the co-firing of natural gas (NG) with palm fatty acid distillate (PFAD) and crude palm oil (CPO) at the power plant. CPO is the main product of an oil palm plantation, while PFAD is a by-product of CPO refining. Due to this difference (main product vs. by-product), two separate bio-energy chains are defined and their emissions are calculated independently.

The GHG emissions of by-products are calculated on the basis of system extension. This approach assumes that the by-product generated can replace the same or a similar product that was produced from another feedstock. Due to this replacement, an emission credit for the avoided GHG emission from the original production of the product can be determined. Allocation of emissions to by-products will be based on market prices when system extension is not possible.

The concept of GHG emission reductions from co-firing biomass, i.e. CPO and PFAD, for electricity production compares the emissions from this bio-electricity chain to a fossil reference system. The functional unit of this comparison is defined as producing 1 kWh electricity. The overall emissions of the whole electricity production chain, both fossil- and bio-based, include all emissions occurring anywhere during resource extraction, treatment, transport, and power production.

The three most important greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O), are accounted for. For comparing the emissions of these three gases, the concept of global warming potential (GWP) is applied by which the radiative forcing of the different gases can be compared.

Investigating the overall emissions for different land types, CPO production on peatland and natural rain forest was found not to be an option for producing sustainable electricity as its emission reduction potential is negative compared to fossil reference systems. Moreover, it was found that CPO production on logged-over forest also does not meet the Cramer Commission criterion of 70% emission reduction compared to various fossil reference systems and that the 50 percent emission reduction target can only be reach when compared to electricity production from coal.

However, when CPO is produced on degraded land, GHG emission reductions of well over 100 percent may be reached, indicating that oil palm plantations may serve as carbon sinks.

The study also investigated potential improvement options in the management of the oil palm plantation and the mill and their effect on the GHG emission reductions.

This investigation resulted in three options that can have large impacts on the emissions, with the largest effect being caused by planting oil palm on degraded land. Also, a fourth option (applying more organic fertilizer) was examined but it showed only very little effect on the GHG balance.

Together the four options cause the overall emissions of the CPO-based electricity chain to become negative so that the oil palm plantation may actually serve as a carbon sink.

The second source of bio-electricity that was investigated in this study is palm fatty acid distillate, a by-product of CPO refining. It was found that PFAD has a very positive GHG balance and compared to the fossil reference systems it can reduce GHG emissions by over 70 percent, meeting the Cramer Commission criteria in all cases.

Discussion and Conclusions

The study found that the land use conversion for oil palm plantation makes up a very large share of the overall emissions and, due to this significance, may not be neglected in the overall GHG emission calculations for palm oil-based electricity or, in fact, for any other biomass-based electricity.

However, especially this aspect has shown to be difficult to analyse because the conversion of specific land types to oil palm plantation and the quantities of land converted specifically for oil palm are not well studied.

The sensitivity analysis of the GHG emissions from CPO production illustrates how the emissions can vary when different values for CPO production parameters are assumed. This points out that the actually level of emissions depends largely on the local settings, the specific management of the plantation and the particular production methods.

The study has established further that methodological choices can have large impacts on the results and on whether the GHG emission reduction targets of the Cramer Commission may or may not be reached. Especially significant is the decision of the time period for which land use change emissions are accounted for. With respect to the allocation of emissions to by-products, the results have shown much less variation, even though a difference in results could be found between system extension and market price allocation.

PFAD-based electricity was found to have very small emissions, both compared to fossil reference systems and to CPO-based electricity production. The most important reason for why PFAD has such small emissions and so large GHG emission reduction potentials is that PFAD is treated as by-product so that, according to the Cramer Commission methodology, only those emissions need to be accounted for that are generated in direct connection with PFAD processing and use.

While, based on the mass balance of a refinery (where PFAD is a by-product produced at a rate of less than 5 percent by weight), this is a valid assumption, the choice to treat PFAD as a by-product may be debatable when considering that PFAD is a valuable product for the oleochemical and animal feed production industries.

Moreover, one might not want to consider PFAD sustainable just because the GHG balance is positive, especially when it comes from unsustainably produced CPO. It needs to be discussed again when a product is considered only a by-product and how to account for the possibly un-sustainability of the CPO that is used for PFAD production.

Based on the results of the calculation a simple decision tree for determining whether the Cramer Commission criteria on GHG emissions can be reached was made (schematic, click to enlarge). It must be noted that this decision tree is simple and crude, and that actual compliance with GHG emission criteria depends strongly on the local conditions.

The study demonstrates that it is possible to calculate the GHG emissions of a specific bio-electricity chain with an extended version of the Cramer Commission methodology for GHG emissions. While GHG emissions can vary strongly for different land use changes and methodological approaches, many of the chains studied were found not to be sustainable according to the Cramer Commission GHG emission criteria.

However, if CPO production takes place on previously degraded land, the management of the production of CPO is improved, or if the by-product PFAD is used for electricity production, the criteria can be achieved, and palm oil-based electricity can be considered sustainable from a GHG emission point of view.

If bioelectricity is to be produced from palm oil and its derivatives, these sustainable options should therefore be focussed on.

Picture: worker in Malaysia carrying fresh fruit bunches from the plantation. A new study by the Copernicus institute analysed the GHG balance of co-firing palm products in the Netherlands and imported from Malaysia.


Birka Wicke, Veronika Dornburg, André Faaij, Martin Junginger, A Greenhouse Gas Balance of Electricity Production from Co-firing Palm Oil Products from Malaysia [*.pdf], Department of Science, Technology and Society, Copernicus Institute, University of Utrecht, May 2007.

IEA Task 40: Sustainable International Bioenergy Trade.

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