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    Mongabay, a leading resource for news and perspectives on environmental and conservation issues related to the tropics, has launched Tropical Conservation Science - a new, open access academic e-journal. It will cover a wide variety of scientific and social studies on tropical ecosystems, their biodiversity and the threats posed to them. Tropical Conservation Science - March 8, 2008.

    At the 148th Meeting of the OPEC Conference, the oil exporting cartel decided to leave its production level unchanged, sending crude prices spiralling to new records (above $104). OPEC "observed that the market is well-supplied, with current commercial oil stocks standing above their five-year average. The Conference further noted, with concern, that the current price environment does not reflect market fundamentals, as crude oil prices are being strongly influenced by the weakness in the US dollar, rising inflation and significant flow of funds into the commodities market." OPEC - March 5, 2008.

    Kyushu University (Japan) is establishing what it says will be the world’s first graduate program in hydrogen energy technologies. The new master’s program for hydrogen engineering is to be offered at the university’s new Ito campus in Fukuoka Prefecture. Lectures will cover such topics as hydrogen energy and developing the fuel cells needed to convert hydrogen into heat or electricity. Of all the renewable pathways to produce hydrogen, bio-hydrogen based on the gasification of biomass is by far both the most efficient, cost-effective and cleanest. Fuel Cell Works - March 3, 2008.

    An entrepreneur in Ivory Coast has developed a project to establish a network of Miscanthus giganteus farms aimed at producing biomass for use in power generation. In a first phase, the goal is to grow the crop on 200 hectares, after which expansion will start. The project is in an advanced stage, but the entrepreneur still seeks partners and investors. The plantation is to be located in an agro-ecological zone qualified as highly suitable for the grass species. Contact us - March 3, 2008.

    A 7.1MW biomass power plant to be built on the Haiwaiian island of Kaua‘i has received approval from the local Planning Commission. The plant, owned and operated by Green Energy Hawaii, will use albizia trees, a hardy species that grows in poor soil on rainfall alone. The renewable power plant will meet 10 percent of the island's energy needs. Kauai World - February 27, 2008.

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Monday, September 03, 2007

Metabolic Explorer partners with IFP to develop propanediol from biodiesel byproduct glycerin

Metabolic Explorer (Metex), an industrial biotechnology company focused on the bio-production of green bulk chemicals announced that it has signed an agreement with the Institut Français du Pétrole (IFP) to accelerate the scale-up of its proprietary technology for the production of 1,3 propanediol (PDO) from glycerol, the major byproduct of biodiesel production.

PDO is a bulk chemical used in the manufacture of a new class of polyester fibres as well as coatings and plastic films. The chemical can be formulated into composites, adhesives, laminates, powder and UV-cured coatings, mouldings, novel aliphatic polyesters, copolyesters, solvents, anti-freeze and other end uses. The rapidly growing PDO market is forecast to be worth $3.5bn within the next five years.

Metex has developed a range of proprietary technologies which allow it to design highly efficient bacteria able to produce existing bulk chemicals from a wide range of renewable bio-based feedstocks. The fermentation methods provide sustainable solutions to the chemical industry, offering significant economic and environmental benefits over oil-dependent chemical processes.

Under the new agreement, the company expects to benefit from IFP’s in-depth technical expertise in production process design & engineering as well as in process economic optimisation for the development of a new benchmark process to manufacture PDO from glycerol (glycerin). The partnership will improve the global economics of the biodiesel production process and provides Metex with the feedstocks it needs to produce PDO.
Our agreement with IFP is one important step to ensure that we are developing the most economic industrial process for the bio-production of PDO. This collaboration strengthens METabolic EXplorer’s ability to develop economic bio-based solutions that are real alternatives to the current petrochemical processes. - Benjamin Gonzalez, CEO of METabolic EXplorer
The PDO process could play a crucial role in the overall economics of biodiesel production, thus highlighting the potential to transform the value chains of many post-petroleum bulk chemicals.

Others working on the similar green chemistry technologies have projected that optimizing biodiesel production in such a way that it yields a higher quality type of glycerol to be converted into PDO, could make the product 15 times more valuable (earlier post):
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METabolic EXplorer is a leading 'green chemistry' company focused on the production of bulk chemicals. It has developed cell factories for five important bulk chemicals which together have current sales of approximately $11 billion. These products have applications in fibres, biodegradable plastics, paints, solvents and second generation biofuels. The company’s strategy to capture a significant element of major economic benefits that its novel technologies deliver is to use a collaborative business model to allow it produce and market its bulk bio-chemicals.

Metex is also involved in the development of biobutanol made directly from starch. This promising biofuel is produced in a way similar to ethanol, but has many advantages over the more widely used biofuel.

As an international research and training center, the IFP is developing the transport energies of the 21st century. It provides public players and industry with innovative solutions for a smooth transition to the energies and materials of tomorrow – more efficient, more economical, cleaner and sustainable. To fulfill its mission, IFP has five complementary strategic priorities: pushing back the boundaries in oil and gas exploration and production - converting as much raw material as possible into energy for transport - developing clean, fuel-efficient vehicles - diversifying fuel sources - capturing and storing CO2 to combat the greenhouse effect. An integral part of IFP, its graduate engineering school prepares future generations to take up these challenges.

Metabolix Explorer: Agreement designed to develop an optimised production process for Metex’ proprietary bulk chemical PDO - Ausgust 30, 2007.

Biopact: Steps to biorefining: new products from biofuel leftovers - August 10, 2007

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Philippines identify areas for sugarcane production, to benefit 55,000 farmers

The Philippines' Agriculture Secretary Arthur Yap announced that the country's Sugar Regulatory Administration has identified 60,250 hectares of new sugarcane areas that can produce as much as 274 million liters of bioethanol. These new areas for sugarcane will yield more than enough of the biofuel to meet the 2009 requirement which was set at 255 million liters.

Yap said the expansion of sugarcane areas for bioethanol production would help improve the lives of more than 55,000 farmers dependent on the crop.

In order to convert the feedstock into ethanol, about 10 medium-scale refineries would be needed. Interest to establish these is great, with both the local and foreign private sector seeing the Philippines as a relatively good investment opportunity. Recently, a 'Biofuels Country Attractivenes Index' placed the country in the top 15 of the most suitable bioenergy investment destinations mainly because of its central geographical position in the booming South East and East Asian market, its recent biofuel legislation and its suitable agro-climatic conditions for a range of crops.
We have enough land to meet sugar ethanol refinery requirements. What is left for us to do is plant the sugarcane. Compared with other feedstock, only ethanol from sugarcane can be produced in a totally renewable and environment-friendly process by using bagasse - a sugarcane waste material - to fuel boilers that generate the required steam and electricity for the distillery. - Arthur Yap, Philippines Agriculture Secretary
The island state currently has only 38,500 hectares of land planted to sugarcane. The scope for future expansion is large: studies by the Sugar Regulatory Administration showed a total of 377,182 hectares of land are suitable for planting sugar. 17.2 percent of these are in Luzon, 53.3 percent in Negros Island, 6.9 percent in Panay Island, 4.4 percent in the Eastern Visayas region, and 19.1 percent in Mindanao (map, click to enlarge).

Besides existing investments, Yap said the Department of Energy had reported that at least seven new investors have expressed interest in building sugar refineries that would have a combined annual capacity of 402 million liters of ethanol.

Sugarcane is estimated to yield of 4,550 liters of biofuel per hectare, making it one of the best energy crops. With the advent of cellulosic biofuel technologies, part of the fibrous by-product of crushed canes - bagasse - could be converted into liquid fuels:
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The Brazilian experience indicates that when bagasse is used to generate power, the energy requirements of an ethanol plant are easily met, which results in an excess of electricity. This excess is most often transferred to a grid that supplies green electricity to local populations. Often this requires the creation of a new grid infrastructure. With cellulosic biofuels, this could be avoided and more liquid biofuel could be produced instead.

The Philippines recently passed its Biofuels Act requiring a minimum of five percent of ethanol to be pre-blended with gasoline by February 2009, with the ratio doubling to 10 percent by February 2011. The same law requires all diesel engine fuels to be pre-blended with one percent coco-biodiesel. This blending ratio will double to two percent by February 2009.

Suitable crops for first-generation biofuels in the Philippines incude sweet sorghum, sweet potato, tropical sugar beet, jatropha and coconut.

Some major recent investments in the country's nascent biofuel sector include a US$1.3 billion project to be implemented by the UK's NRG and state-owned Philippine National Oil Co. (PNOC) (earlier post), and a US$150 million investment into a fully integrated ethanol processing facility in Central Luzon by US firm E-Cane Fuel Corp (more here).


The Inquirer: Gov’t finds new areas for bioethanol production - September 1, 2007.

Biopact: Biofuels and renewables 'Country Attractiveness Indices' for Q1 2007 - May 24, 2007

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Israel's Merhav Group considers $700 million biofuel investment in East Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia

Jatropha curcas trees raised in Indonesia's East Nusa Tenggara province have a big potential to yield biofuel feedstocks, prompting Israel's project financing company Merhav Group to consider an investment of up to US$700/€517 million.

Merhav Group's president Gideon Weinstein outlined the plan during a coordination meeting with Kupang district head Ibrahim Agustinus Medah, after visiting a jatropha plantation established by the local administration there in 2006.

On the occasion, Weinstein was accompanied by Jacques Eshel and Yosef Ziv, other executives of Merhav Group, and officials of PT Manhattan Capital comprising Sudiro Andiwiguna, Setiawan Sudei, Muhammad Ansor and Herman Ndoen. Jakarta-based PT Manhattan Capital is a national company partnering with the Merhav Group for the development of biodiesel energy sources in Indonesia.

The Merhav Group, which invests in energy, infrastructure, agriculture and agro-industrial projects globally, would in a first stage invest US$350/€257 million in 50,000 hectares (124,000 acres) of jatropha plantations in Kupang district. In the longer run, the company would increase its investment to US$700 million to establish 100,000 hectares (247,000 acres) in the same region.

The Kupang district is located on the island of Timor in the southeast of the province (map, click to enlarge), where the climate is dry tropical. With leading expertise in agricultural water and irrigation management derived from Israeli research, the company is confident that the biofuel crop can be grown in the relatively arid region with a minimal input of water.

Weinstein said his company would invest in the entire production chain, including transportation facilities from energy plantations to warehouses and biodiesel production plants. A team will be sent to East Nusa Tenggara to prepare a feasibility study for the large project:
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PT Manhattan Capital has told Indonesia's agriculture minister and the energy and mineral resources minister about the projet, adding that the companies would want to cooperate with state-run agriculture firm PT Rajawali Nusantara Indonesia (RNI) to develop the jatropha curcas plantations.

Meanwhile, Weinstein said a port would have to be developed to allow the biofuels to be exported. This facility would be built on five hectares of land. Ibrahim said the Kupang district administration would organise a meeting with the relevant agencies to study the feasibility of such a dedicated port in the Sulamu area.

Antara News (Indonesia's national news agency): Big potential of E. Nusa Tenggara biofuel plantation attracts Israeli investor - September 3, 2007.

AsiaPulse (via LexisNexis): Israeli group to invest US$700 million in jatropha cultivation in Indonesia - September 2, 2007.

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Towards a truce: environmentalists should use palm oil as a lever for conservation

The growing popularity of palm oil has been condemned by some conservationists from the West who see rainforest being given over to palms in Malaysia and Indonesia, with an appreciable loss in biodiversity. The push to plant more trees is easy to explain: palm oil is by far the most productive oil and energy crop and brings nearly instant profits to millions of small farmers and estates alike. Palm oil is one of the few sectors that bring social and economic development to poor communities in a straightforward way.

Palm oil producers for their part are fighting the conservationists, accusing the West of hypocrisy for criticizing their production while overlooking the fact that Europe and the US chopped down their own forests and destroyed biodiversity ages ago, a practise that allowed them to develop and modernise in the first place. Conservationists dictate poor countries how not to develop, but don't offer any credible alternative.

Attempts to create a compromise between the two camps have largely failed because of hard economics. The idea that 'avoided deforestation' or 'compensated reduction' could prevent new plantations from emerging is idealistic, because these schemes are 'top down' bureaucratic instruments. Palm oil brings cash to farmers directly, 'bottom up'. With rapidly growing demand from China and India, rising oil prices, the prospect of 'Peak Oil', and the advent of second-generation biofuel technologies, the crop is set to become even more attractive. With new technologies, palm oil not only delivers feedstock for biodiesel, but for cellulosic ethanol, biogas and solid biofuels (earlier post and here). Add new breeding and plant improvement initiatives that promise even larger yields (previous post), and the crop becomes virtually unavoidable.

Now a new paper in Nature thinks it has found a way to arrive at a truce. Lian Pin Koh and David Wilcove suggest the very high yield and high prices that make this crop so untameable could be turned to a biodiversity advantage. They propose that conservationists from the West buy small tracts of existing oil palm plantations, and use the revenue they generate to establish a network of privately owned nature reserves. Then at least they understand the economics of the sector and could push others towards more sustainable production.

According to the authors, a typical mature oil-palm plantation in Sabah, Malaysia, generates an annual net profit of roughly $2,000 per hectare. Based on the current price of $12,500 per hectare for existing oil palm-cultivated land, the capital investment could be recovered in just 6 years. After this initial period, a 5,000-hectare oil palm plantation could generate annual profits amounting to some $10 million, which could be used to acquire 1,800 hectares of forested land annually to be set aside as private nature reserves. New and more sustainable palm plantations can then be established on degraded land, which is feasible, but currently not preferred (more here).

Koh and Wilcove say the scheme would require collaboration between "large conservation donor groups to fund the initial investments and with local oil-palm companies for their expertise in running the plantations," but that the relationship could be a "win-win partnership... because NGOs would be able to protect forests using the oil palm revenue and the companies would be able to enhance their corporate image to satisfy environmentally-conscious consumers."

The authors think conservationist NGOs can participate in such joint ventures without losing their integrity if they go into it with the appropriate level of caution. Koh told Mongabay that there have been many examples of successful collaborations between environmental groups and industry leaders in the USA and elsewhere:
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However, he stressed that some green groups should remain well outside the partnership, serving as much-needed critical voices to pressure governments and oil palm companies to avoid further losses of pristine habitats.

Koh and Wilcove believe that the development of a premium market could help entice producers into working with conservationists.

"Because such oil-palm plantations would be motivated mainly by conservation objectives, they could provide the industry with leadership for the sustainable production of palm oil through environmentally-friendly management practices," they write. "This could also drive the development of a premium market for sustainable oil-palm products and thereby generate economic incentives for more palm-oil producers to adopt sustainable practices."

Koh and Wilcove appear to be optimistic that this price premium, as well as the "green" marketing benefits, can overcome the inherent conflict of interest between the two groups. After all, why would producers want to help set up direct competitors and fund opposition to oil palm expansion unless they were sure to get something tangible in return?

Lian Pin Koh, David S. Wilcove, "Cashing in palm oil for conservation", Nature 448, 993 - 994 (29 Aug 2007), DOI:10.1038/448993a

Mongabay: NGOs should use palm oil to drive conservation - August 29, 2007.

Biopact: Report: large scale imports and co-firing of palm oil products can be sustainable - August 26, 2007

Biopact: Synthetic Genomics and Asiatic Centre for Genome Technology to sequence oil palm genome - July 11, 2007.

Biopact: And the world's most productive ethanol crop is... oil palm - June 21, 2006

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Mission Biofuels signs 3-year Jatropha feedstock deal with smallholders in India

Australia's Mission Biofuels Limited announces that its Indian subsidiary, Mission Biofuels (India) Pvt Ltd (MBIPL), has signed an agreement with an Indian district controlled entity granting it exclusive, long-term access to Jatropha Curcas seeds from already planted lands as well as access to additional land in the district that is to be planted with the oilseed bearing shrub over the next three years. The agreement is presented as a win-win partnership with government and small farmers, with the potential to replicate the model in other communities.

The district authority has formed a producer company which is owned by smallholder farmers and Jatropha growers in the district which will be managed by the district authority. The district authority has, from funding received from the state and central governments under various programs including the rural employment guarantee programs, planted over 25,000 acres (10,100 ha) of jatropha during the last three years.

The district authority will continue to plant more jatropha under these programs, with an estimated 12,500 acres (5000 ha) in the current planting season. The district has now transferred all planted and to be planted trees to this new producer company.
This win-win partnership provides an excellent example of how a forward thinking government authority can help to provide: sustainable benefits to people living in poverty; long term value accrual to the farmers as owners of the producer company; achievement of economies of scale; and benefits from the research and technical and commercial inputs from an integrated biofuels player. More districts should follow this example. - Mr. Ashish Swarup, CEO of MBIPL
Under the agreement, the first-of-its-kind in India, MBIPL has agreed with the producer company to:
  • provide technical inputs and know-how to the Jatropha Curcas farmers;
  • establish nurseries
  • provide a primary processing center in the district to augment the efforts of the producer company
This will enable MBIPL to gain exclusive access to all Jatropha Curcas seeds harvested in the district and will favorably impact the price MBIPL will pay for the Jatropha Curcas seeds purchased from the producer company:
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MBIPL has been in active discussions with some other districts for similar arrangements and is confident that this first success with a win-win agreement will help it finalize arrangements with some more districts in the region providing it immediate and long term access to large scale Jatropha Curcas seeds.

With the signing of this agreement, MBIPL says that it is well on track to achieve its 100,000 acres (40,700ha) of planted Jatropha Curcas target for 2007. MBIPL will continue with its efforts to increase the acreage further.

Mission Biofuels Limited is an ASX Listed company developing a 100,000 tonnes per annum biodiesel plant and a 12,000 tonnes per annum glycerine purification plant at Kuantan Port, Malaysia.

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