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

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

Creative Commons License

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Report: synthetic biofuels (BtL) and bioenergy efficient, competitive and sustainable in Germany

A new comprehensive report by Germany's Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) analyses the economic, environmental and technological aspects of biomass and its conversion into second-generation liquid fuels, electricity and heat. It concludes that both bioenergy (heat, electricity) and biomass-to-liquids (BtL) production from wood and agriculutral residues in Germany is (1) competitive with fossil fuels, (2) energy efficient and (3) offers a sustainable and cost-effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A consortium affiliated with the KIT has meanwhile begun construction on the specific BtL facilities discussed in the report (earlier post).

The researchers found that synthetic biofuels (gasified biomass liquefied via the Fischer-Tropsch process) are competitive when oil is priced above $65 per barrel and the synfuels are not taxed. Depending on the capacity of the plants, production of electricity from the particular biomass sources analysed (forestry residues, straw) is close to competitive with coal when co-fired with coal or used in highly efficient combined heat and power (CHP) plants. Heat from the same biomass is most competitive and does not require any subsidies or tax-exemptions today to compete with heating oil (biomass being 30% less costly).

The most cost-effective way to reduce CO2 emissions is by using these types of biomass directly for the production of heat, followed by combined heat and power generation (CHP), co-firing biomass with coal, and electricity from gasified biomass. Fischer-Tropsch fuels were not effective in this regard, but have economic benefits as replacements for oil products and petrochemicals.

The report titled 'Kraftstoff, Strom und Wärme aus Stroh und Waldrestholz – Eine systemanalytische Untersuchung' [*.pdf] (Fuels, Electricity and Heat from Straw and Forestry Residues), written by scientists from KIT's 'Institut für Technikfolgenabschätzung und Systemanalyse' (ITAS) says the new bioconversion technologies sharpen competition amongst renewable energy technologies (especially wind and solar) but also within the biomass sector itself. This is so because biomass can be used for a large range of end-products: heat, electricity, aternatives to petrochemicals and transport fuels. This battle for investments will have positive effects on the sector as a whole and will result in the gradual emergence of the most efficient conversion pathways.

The biomass-to-liquids system analysed by ITAS - the so called 'bioliq' concept currently being implemented by the Forschungszentrum Karlsruhe - involves a three step process:
  1. decentralised pyrolysis plants are located close to the biomass source (forests, agricultural zones), where it undergoes fast-pyrolysis resulting in 'pyrolysis slurry', a mixture of bio-oil and pyrolysis coke. This first step turns the bulky biomass into a raw product with a higher energy density, so it can be transported more efficiently to a central location for further processing (the study analyses both decentralised and centralised concepts). The researchers analysed the efficiency of 7 different fast-pyrolysis reactor types
  2. the pyrolysis products arrive at a gasification facility, where they are turned into a carbon monoxide and hydrogen-rich gas (syngas); 5 gasification technologies were compared
  3. after cleaning and conditioning the syngas, it is liquefied via the Fischer-Tropsch (FT) process (synthesis of hydrogen and carbon monoxide) into synthetic biofuels which can be further refined into a range of very clean transport fuels (alternatives to gasoline, diesel, kerosene, and dimethyl-ether and methanol obtained from natural gas); three types of FT-reactors were compared
The researchers analysed the specific advantages of using the dominant biomass sources – straw and wood residues – as well as the disadvantages of the technology, and compared the concept to competing alternative uses for biomass (heat and electricity).

As a starting point, selected plant locations were chosen in the federal state of Baden-Württemberg (southwest Germany), on the basis of which the volume of straw and wood residues available for energy use was outlined, as well as the supply costs for these biomass sources. The technology analysis regarding liquid fuel production from biomass entailed a detailed description of the present status quo of fast pyrolysis, gasification, gas cleaning/conditioning, and Fischer Tropsch synthesis.

Energy balance
The energy balance of the synthetic biofuels based on the bioliq concept in the specified setting, was found to be strong. For fuels obtained from straw the final net balance - after pretreating, drying, pyrolysing, gasifying, upgrading, liquefying and refining the feedstock - was 34%; for synfuels based on forest residues the net balance was 29% (graph, click to enlarge). The energy inputs that go into harvesting and transporting the biomass and the pyrolysis slurry, are between 5 and 12% of the energy content of the FT-fuels, depending on the concept (decentralized/centralized):
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Assuming the combined use of straw and wood residues, the economic estimates for energy self-sufficient plants reveal that bio-based FT-fuels can be produced at costs in a range from €0.90 to 1.00 per litre, depending on plant capacity. The biomass supply accounts for 50-65% to the production costs of FT-fuel, depending on the assumed plant capacity. The economics of two biorefineries were analysed: a small one with a conversion capacity of 0.2 million tonnes of biomass per year and one with a 1 million tonne capacity. Compare this with an oil refinery which requires at least a 10 million tonne capacity to be commercially feasible. If the synthetic biofuels produced in the analysed refineries are not additionally charged with a mineral oil tax, they compete with fossil diesel at crude oil prices of $65/bbl.

Depending on the capacity of the plants, production of electricity from forestry residues and straw is close to competitive with coal when co-fired with coal or used in highly efficient combined heat and power (CHP) plants. Large CHP plants (10-67MWin) burning biomass offer heat and electricity in a more competitive than the fossil baseline. Small CHP plants (1.5-13.4MWel) are far less cost-effective. The costs for eletcricity obtained from gasification of the two types of biomass range from €80 to 135 per MWh, compared to a baseline of €50 for coal in a 500MWel plant.

The study shows that the production of heat from wood residues is already outcompeting fossil heating oil. Because straw and forestry residues have a 30% cost advantage over heating oil, this type of bioenergy does not require subsidies by the state (graph, click to enlarge).

In conclusion, in comparison of the production of FT-fuel with heat and electricity production reveals that these alternatives are closer to competitiveness or have already reached competitiveness in Germany.

CO2 offsetting costs
The CO2 mitigation costs (graph, click to enlarge) are lowest when biomass is used directly for the production of heat, in which case they can even be negative (when waste streams and residues are used that would otherwise require disposal costs). When used in efficient combined heat and power plants, they range between a negative cost and around €50 per Mg CO2 equivalent. Co-firing biomass with coal results in a CO2 offsetting cost of around €40.

Carbon prices would have to fetch between €35-140 to make electricity production from gasified biomass a cost-effective CO2 mitigation technology. The wide range depends on the gasification technology.

For biobased FT-fuels the mitigation costs are above €200 per Mg CO2 equivalent. These results suggest not using the CO2 mitigation strategy as a central argument for the promotion of synthetic fuel production from biomass. But because the BtL concept opens up new ways to use biomass as carbon carrier for other chemical purposes, this technological path will be pursued in any case by the KIT.

The proposed BtL technology is already being implemented by the Forschungszentrum Karlsruhe (FZK) and Lurgi AG, who have been testing a fast-pyrolysis pilot plant for the past two years. Both organisations are now building the gasification and liquefaction plant needed to perform the FT-stage of the production. The work is being supported by the Fachagentur Nachwachsende Rohstoffe (Agency for Renewable Materials, of Germany's Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Consumer protection).

The Karlsruhe Instituts für Technologie is a cooperation between the Forschungszentrum Karlsruhe und der Universität Karlsruhe. The study was commissioned by the Ministry for Food and Agriculture of the state of Baden-Württemberg.

Image: the fast-pyrolis plant at the FZK in Karlsruhe. Courtesy: Forschungszentrum Karlsruhe.

L. Leible, S. Kälber, G. Kappler, S. Lange, E. Nieke, P. Proplesch, D. Wintzer und B. Fürniß, "Kraftstoff, Strom und Wärme aus Stroh und Waldrestholz – Eine systemanalytische Untersuchung" [*.pdf], Forschungszentrum Karlsruhe in der Helmholtz-Gemeinschaft, Wissenschaftliche Berichte, FZKA 7170, Institut für Technikfolgenabschätzung und Systemanalyse, Forschungszentrum Karlsruhe GmbH, Karlsruhe - [september] 2007

Biopact: German consortium starts production of ultra-clean synthetic biofuels - June 23, 2007

Article continues

EU/US biofuel organisations urge OECD to declare report as not reflecting official biofuels policy

The European Bioethanol Fuel Association (eBio) and the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA) are calling upon the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to disavow a paper issued last week which is highly critical of ethanol produced in the US and the EU. The text, written as a working paper by the chair of the Round Table on Sustainable Development at OECD - an organisation that has no direct relation to the OECD -, explicitly states the document does not 'reflect the views of the OECD or the governments of its Member countries.' Yet, media reports are portraying the paper as the official position of OECD and have made a selective reading of the text.

Contrary to eBio and the RFA, Biopact welcomed the critical report because - for those willing to read it carefully - it gives a boost to the idea of a 'Biopact': produce biofuels in the Global South where the sector results in sustainable, highly efficient biofuels that effectively tackle climate change and can bring rural development on an unprecedented scale. Then allow these countries to export freely to the EU and the US, so that sustainable biofuels can replace the unsustainable ones currently being produced in the North. Biopact especially supports the authors in their call to abandon subsidies for inefficient EU/US biofuels and to scrap import tariffs on fuels produced in the South - a precondition for a successful pact.

Major organisations, including the UN's FAO (here), the International Energy Agency (here and here), the WorldWatch Institute (which even said biofuels can contribute to ending global malnourishment) and economists like Joseph Stiglitz now back the idea of such a trade relationship between the North and the South. Moreover, the UN's Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) and the African Union recently concluded that such a pact can help achieve the UN's Millennium Development Goals in Africa.

The text now being criticized by the European and American ethanol industry was a working paper written by Richard Doornbosch, principal advisor to the Roundtable and Ron Steenblik of the Global Subsidies Initiative, for an internal discussion on biofuels at a meeting of the Roundtable. It was (purposely) leaked to the press, who then picked it up and presented it as an official standpoint of the OECD, which it isn't. The report is critical of first generation biofuels produced in Europe and the U.S., but mainly positive about biofuels produced in the South, such as sugarcane ethanol.

The European and American ethanol industries - who stand to lose from a Biopact - are angry and call for a rectification. In a letter to OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria, eBio Secretary General Rob Vierhout and RFA President Bob Dinner write:
Specifically and just as disturbingly, this potentially unauthorized document fails to make its case, is highly one-sided and seemingly conflicts with previous OECD positions supporting biofuels as a component in reducing CO2 gases.

In short, whether deliberate or not, the OECD’s imprimatur is on this document and it is the OECD that must now be accountable for what is a biased assessment of expanding the worldwide production and consumption of renewable biofuels.

We respectfully, but urgently, request that OECD specifically disavow this report as not reflecting the official policy of the organization.
Vierhout and Dinner say the paper released last week by a third-party, anti-ethanol website runs counter to statements made in official OECD publications.

Two years ago, the OECD Observer published an article stating, 'increasing the use of biofuels can improve energy security, greatly reduce greenhouse gases and many pollutant emissions, and improve vehicle performance. Their production can also enhance rural economic development.' This is a viewpoint shared by leading science and policy organisations like the UN's FAO and the WorldWatch Institute.

Additionally, an April 2004 official OECD Paper entitled 'Special Issue on Climate Change Climate Change Policies: Recent Developments and Long Term Issues' came to the conclusion that, 'Biofuels may also be used as a replacement for gasoline. In such a capacity they offer significant advantages for energy security as well as possible new potential for agricultural development.'

Moreover, according to eBio and the RFA the paper contains a large number of inaccuracies and omissions that call into question the validity of the findings. Notably:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::
  • While adopting the scare scenario about potential 'food shortages', the document fails to recognize the significant increases in productivity per acre. In the United States, for example, U.S. corn yields per acre have doubled over the last 30 years. More importantly, this has occurred with reduced inputs per acre.
  • The document fails to reflect a realistic assessment of what is happening to the price of grains and other biofuel feedstocks. In Europe, for example, biofuel production consumes just 1.5% of grains. The price increases, however, are clearly based on a number of other factors in a worldwide market including: strong demand in China, a drought in Australia (an outcome of global warming many would argue) and speculation by investors.
  • The document seems to ignore why OECD and other nations decided to pursue biofuels in the first place 'namely to reduce the consumption of oil which contributes mightily to global warming, whose major production areas are in the volatile Middle East and whose prices are controlled by an international cartel.'
  • Implicit in this paper is a belief that the world can continue to rely on oil for its liquid fuel needs. But the world price of oil is now at $80 a barrel and will likely go higher given emerging market conditions. The incentives provided by OECD countries and others help level the playing field and encourage investors to finance a new and developing industry.
  • The paper also overlooks all of the incentives that have been and continue to be provided to the production of oil. Without comparing the benefits received by oil producers, it is hardly a fair comparison to look at incentives for biofuels in an energy policy vacuum.
  • Finally, the paper disregards the efforts that are currently being undertaken to set up efficient, effective and international standards on the sustainability of biofuels. Both unilateral (several EU member states) and multilateral (Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels) initiatives hold promise for an international standard for sustainable biomass and biofuel production in the very near future safeguarding biodiversity and guaranteeing GHG savings.
In conclusion, Veirhaus and Dinneen wrote:
Based on the foregoing, Mr. Secretary-General, we urge you to publicly disavow the OECD’s support for this document; forcefully state that it was released by a third party and not by the OECD; that OECD governments strongly support and encourage the development of biofuels as one means of addressing the problems of global warming and energy security.
The complete letter can be found below.
Dear Mr. Secretary-General:

As representatives of the world’s ethanol producing industry, we are deeply concerned with the release of a publication by the Chair of the Round Table on Sustainable Development at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) critical of worldwide development of biofuels.

This document was released not by the OECD on whose website this document cannot be found, but by a third party with an anti-ethanol agenda.

While containing the disclaimer that it is does “not necessarily reflect the views of the OECD or the governments of its Member countries,” this document has been described in the media as an OECD report (“Biofuel push damaging, disruptive, OECD says,” Globe and Mail, September 11, 2007).

Thus far, we have seen no official word from you or anyone else in authority at the OECD explaining that this report does not reflect OECD’s views or policies.

Specifically and just as disturbingly, this potentially unauthorized document fails to make its case, is highly one-sided and seemingly conflicts with previous OECD positions supporting biofuels as a component in reducing CO2 gases.

In short, whether deliberate or not, the OECD’s imprimatur is on this document and it is the OECD that must now be accountable for what is a biased assessment of expanding the worldwide production and consumption of renewable biofuels.

We respectfully, but urgently, request that OECD specifically disavow this report as not reflecting the official policy of the organization. Just two years ago the OECD Observer published an article stating, “increasing the use of biofuels can improve energy security, greatly reduce greenhouse gases and many pollutant emissions, and improve vehicle performance.

"Their production can also enhance rural economic development.”

While this article also raised questions regarding land use, impact on agriculture and food and cost, it concluded, “Given the benefits there is little wonder that many IEA countries, including the US, Canada, several European countries, Australia and Japan are considering, or have already adopted policies that could result in significantly higher biofuel use over the next decade.”

Finally, and quite importantly, the article concluded, “If all policies and targets are fully implemented, biofuel use could more than double worldwide over the next five years or so.

Even though that means an ethanol share of gasoline of only 4% or 5%, that would be a huge leap in a petroleum industry that has not faced real competition in over a century.”

Similarly, in April 2004 in an official OECD Paper, “Special Issue on Climate Change Climate Change Policies: Recent Developments and Long Term Issues” stated, “Transport systems in the latter half of this century could be dominated by vehicles, ships and aircraft with very low CO2 emissions.

"This scenario could feature a mix of vehicle types “ fuel-cell vehicles powered by hydrogen, electric vehicles, vehicles running on biofuels, and hydrogen-powered aircraft.

"The hydrogen, biofuels and electricity used in transport could be produced with near-zero well-to-wheel CO2 emissions.•

The report also stated, “Biofuels may also be used as a replacement for gasoline.

In such a capacity they offer significant advantages for energy security as well as possible new potential for agricultural development.”

What is so disappointing about the document released without apparent OECD approval is a failure to appreciate many of the changes that are rapidly taking place in the production, transportation and consumption of biofuels.

• While adopting the scare scenario about potential “food shortages,” the document fails to recognize the significant increases in productivity per acre. In the United States, for example, U.S. corn yields per acre have doubled over the last 30 years. More importantly, this has occurred with reduced inputs per acre.

• The document is devoid of any real analysis of the factors affecting food prices “ the most important of which is energy. In the US, the high cost of energy has had far more effect than a higher price for corn •“ by a margin of two to one.

"" The document fails to reflect a realistic assessment of what is happening to the price of grains and other biofuel feedstocks. In Europe, for example, biofuel production consumes just 1.5% of grains. The price increases, however, are clearly based on a number of other factors in a worldwide market including: strong demand in China, a drought in Australia (an outcome of global warming many would argue)

• In the United States, while the price of corn rose initially and peaked in January, it has since decreased by 40%. Why? Because market forces responded, farmers planted more corn and are expected to harvest a record crop.

• The document seems to ignore why OECD and other nations decided to pursue biofuels in the first place “ namely to reduce the consumption of oil which contributes mightily to global warming, whose major production areas are in the volatile Middle East and whose prices are controlled by an international cartel.

•Implicit in this paper is a belief that the world can continue to rely on oil for its liquid fuel needs. But the world price of oil is now at $80 a barrel and will likely go higher given emerging market conditions. The incentives provided by OECD countries and others help level the playing field and encourage investors to finance a new and developing industry.

• The paper also overlooks all of the incentives that have been and continue to be provided to the production of oil. Without comparing the benefits received by oil producers, it is hardly a fair comparison to look at incentives for biofuels in an energy policy vacuum.

• The claim that there are technological and economic problems with cellulosic or second-generation biofuels is particularly disturbing. The authors provide no support for their claims. They fail to acknowledge the existence of one company in the European Union and one in Canada that are already producing cellulosic ethanol or mention those in the US and the EU that are under construction.

• Finally, the paper disregards the efforts that are currently being undertaken to set up efficient, effective and international standards on the sustainability of biofuels. Both unilateral (several EU member states) and multilateral (Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels) initiatives hold promise for an international standard for sustainable biomass and biofuel production in the very near future safeguarding biodiversity and guaranteeing GHG savings.

It is unfortunate that the OECD has allowed this publication to receive widespread media coverage at a time when countries around the world are seeking alternatives to the economic and environmental problems caused by oil dependence.

Brazil, the United States, the EU, Japan and other nations have recognized the importance of biofuels as one means of reducing global warming gases and strengthening energy security.

While we must have a balanced approach to developing new energy sources, especially renewable sources, we must also get the facts right.

Based on the foregoing, Mr. Secretary-General, we urge you to publicly disavow the OECD’s support for this document; forcefully state that it was released by a third party and not by the OECD; that OECD governments strongly support and encourage the development of biofuels as one means of addressing the problems of global warming and energy security.

With hopes for a more sustainable energy future, we are

Sincerely, Bob Dinneen Renewable Fuels Association

Rob Vierhout eBIO

eBio: Renewable Fuels Association and EBio Urge OECD to Declare New Report as Not Reflecting Official Ethanol Industry Policy [*.pdf] - September 21, 2007.

Biofuels Digest: Widely quoted OECD anti-biofuels report report turns out to be … not from the OECD - September 14, 2007.

Biopact: Paper warns against subsidies for inefficient biofuels in the North, calls for liberalisation of market - major boost to idea of 'Biopact' - September 11, 2007

Biopact: Worldwatch Institute chief: biofuels could end global malnourishment - August 23, 2007

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

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

Biopact: IEA chief: Europe and United States should import ethanol from developing world - October 16, 2006

Biopact: IEA chief economist: EU, US should scrap tariffs and subsidies, import biofuels from the South - March 06, 2007

Biopact: Stiglitz explains reasons behind the demise of the Doha development round - August 15, 2006

Article continues

Amazon forest showed unexpected growth during 2005 drought - contradicts major climate model

Researchers from the University of Arizona (UA) and the University of São Paulo announce they have made a surprising discovery: drought-stricken regions of the Amazon forest grew particularly vigorously during the 2005 drought. The counterintuitive finding contradicts a prominent global climate model that predicts the Amazon forest would begin to 'brown down' after just a month of drought and eventually collapse as the drought progressed.
Instead of ‘hunkering down’ during a drought as you might expect, the forest responded positively to drought, at least in the short term. It's a very interesting and surprising response. - Scott R. Saleska, lead author, University of Arizona.
Co-author Kamel Didan, a NASA-EOS MODIS associate science team member, adds that the big news is that the forest actually showed signs of being more productive. The study "Amazon Forests Green-up during 2005 drought" is online in the current issue of Science Express, the early-online version of the journal Science. The paper will be published in the October 26, 2007, issue.

This image shows how the Amazon forest canopy's 'greenness' differs from normal for the months of July-September 2005 (drought peak). The greenness data is derived from NASA-EOS MODerate Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) sensor aboard Terra Satellite. Green indicates above normal vegetation productivity compared to the 2000-2006 average, red indicates below normal, and yellow corresponds to normal . The study area is highlighted over a true color image background from NASA-EOS MODIS sensor for South America. Credit: Kamel Didan, Terrestrial Biophysics and Remote Sensing Lab, The University of Arizona.

This image shows the spatial pattern of the 2005 drought peak (July – September) rainfall departure from normal. Red indicates severe rainfall reduction compared to the 1998-2006 normal, and blue corresponds to above normal rainfall. The precipitation data is derived from NASA's Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM satellite). The study area is highlighted over a true color image background from NASA-EOS MODIS sensor for South America. Credit: Kamel Didan, Terrestrial Biophysics and Remote Sensing Lab, The University of Arizona.
The 2005 drought reached its peak at the start of the Amazon's annual dry season, from July through September. Although the double whammy of the parched conditions might be expected to slow growth of the forest's leafy canopy, for many of the areas hit by drought, the canopy of the undisturbed forest became significantly greener - indicating increased photosynthetic activity.

Saleska, a UA assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, and his colleagues at the UA and at the University of São Paulo in Brazil used data from two NASA satellites to figure out that undisturbed Amazon forest flourished as rainfall levels plummeted:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

No one had looked at the observations that are available from satellites, says Didan, an associate research scientist in the UA's department of soil, water and environmental science. The researchers took the opportunity of the most recent drought, the 2005 drought, to do so. A big chunk of the Amazon forest, the southwest region where the drought was severest, reacted positively.

The UA scientists and their Brazilian colleague already knew the Amazon forest took advantage of the annual dry season's relatively cloudless skies to soak up the sun and grow. The UA scientists and some other researchers had conducted previous research using satellite data in combination with field measurements and showed that intact Amazon forest increases photosynthesis, actually 'greening up' during the dry season.

However, no one had examined how the forest responded to a drought. The severe 2005 drought and the detailed, long-term observations from two NASA satellites - one that maps the greenness of vegetation, one that measures rainfall in the tropics - gave the researchers what they needed to see how the Amazon forest responds to a major drought.

The researchers used the month-to-month maps of changes in vegetation status across the Amazon available from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer, or MODIS, carried by the Terra satellite, launched in 1999. The team gathered observations of rainfall in the Amazon from the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission spacecraft, launched in 1997.

The seven-to-nine years of observations from the satellites allowed the scientists to map 'normal' rainfall and greenness conditions in non-drought years. When the team compared those conditions to the same months of the 2005 drought, the researchers found that areas of Amazon's intact forests that had received below-normal rainfall in 2005 also had above-average greenness.

Global climate models predict the Amazon forest will cut back photosynthesis quickly when a drought starts. That slowdown in plant growth would create a positive feedback loop - as the forest shuts down more and more, it removes less and less carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The CO2 ordinarily sequestered by growing trees would remain in the atmosphere, increasing global warming and further accelerating the forest's decline and additional CO2-fueled warming.

By contrast, the UA-led team's findings suggest the opposite happens, at least in the short-term. The drought-induced flush of forest growth would dampen global warming, not accelerate it. During the 2005 drought, Amazon forest trees flourished in the sunnier-than-average weather, most likely by tapping water deep in the forest soil. To grow, trees must take up carbon dioxide, thus drawing down the levels of atmospheric CO2. That negative feedback loop would slow warming from greenhouse gases.

Evolutionarily, the forest's resilience in the face of a single drought year makes sense, Saleska said. During El Nino, which occurs about every four to eight years, the Amazon forest receives significantly less rain than average.

The limit of the forest's resiliency is unknown, Saleska said, adding, that if you take away enough water for long enough, the trees will die.

Saleska and Didan's co-authors are Alfredo Huete, UA professor of soil, water and environmental science and NASA-EOS MODIS science team member, and Humberto Ribeiro da Rocha of the department of atmospheric science at the University of São Paulo in Brazil. The research was funded by NASA.

Scott R. Saleska, Kamel Didan, Alfredo R. Huete, Humberto R. da Rocha,"Amazon Forests Green-Up During 2005 Drought", Published Online September 20, 2007, Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1146663

Article continues

DuPont launches non-transgenic high yield soybean varieties

DuPont announced it is commercializing soybean varieties developed using molecular breeding technology that increases yields by as much as 12 percent per acre. DuPont seed business Pioneer Hi-Bred is introducing five varieties with the technology for 2008 planting, pending wide-area product advancement trial results. Molecular breeding is a new way of plant breeding that allows much better and faster selection of elite plants, without the need for genetically modifying them.

The company officially launches one of the three soybean yield traits from its pipeline to commercial status. It will be commercially known as 'Accelerated Yield Technology' (AYT). AYT uses proprietary molecular breeding techniques to rapidly scan and identify genes that increase yield and then incorporate them into elite soybean genetics.
AYT allows us to take a giant step forward on our promise to deliver industry-leading improvements in soybeans. Our customers are seeing dramatic increases in Pioneer soybean variety yields that have never been seen in such a short period of time. This technology embodies our business philosophy to increase the productivity and profitability of our customers to help them meet the rising demand for food, feed, fuel and materials. - William S. Niebur, vice president DuPont Crop Genetics Research and Development.
Until now, molecular breeding techniques used by the seed industry have only produced single-gene defensive traits in commercial varieties. There are multiple genes in complex networks that determine the final yield level achieved. AYT builds upon DuPont industry-leading molecular breeding techniques by allowing researchers to simultaneously select multiple genes to significantly boost yields. AYT is not transgenic so soybeans developed from this process are not subject to additional regulatory approvals.

The first AYT varieties are higher yielding versions of the newest Pioneer elite soybean genetics. Pending final trial results this fall, Pioneer hopes to introduce an AYT version of Pioneer brand 94M80, which set the world record soybean yield of 139 bushels per acre (9.3 tons per hectare) in 2006. New unique genetics are also being developed using AYT and other molecular breeding techniques:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Full implementation of AYT combined with molecular breeding technologies will enable Pioneer to make a new class of soybeans that has unprecedented yield potential relative to anything we have ever seen. These technologies allow us to incorporate a complete package of offensive and defensive characteristics that could make 100-plus bushel soybean yields a common occurrence in the very near future. - William S. Niebur
Pioneer Hi-Bred, a DuPont Leaving Pioneer.com business, is the world's leading source of customized solutions for farmers, livestock producers and grain and oilseed processors. With headquarters in Des Moines, Iowa, Pioneer provides access to advanced plant genetics in nearly 70 countries.

Soybean is the world's largest oilseed crop, with a production of around 32 million tons of oil (2005), a 30% market share of the vegetable oil market. Major producers are the US, Argentina, Brasil and China. Soybeans contain around 20% of oil, which is increasingly used for the production of biodiesel.

Article continues

Friday, September 21, 2007

Scientists discover new anaerobic bacteria that feed on natural gas

A German-American research team of biologists and geochemists has discovered hitherto unknown anaerobic bacteria in marine sediments which need only propane or butane for growth, as reported by the scientific journal Nature in its current online issue.

The hydrocarbons ethane, propane and butane - as well as the main component, methane - are the major constituents of natural gas. Biological processes may lead to the degradation of these hydrocarbons in underground petroleum reservoirs and other geological habitats.
The bacteria isolated here for the first time from marine sediments use sulphate instead of oxygen for respiration and utilize propane and butane as their sole source of carbon and energy. These organisms are tough specialists that have become adapted to strictly utilising only these and no other substrates. - Heinz Wilkes, biogeochemist at GeoForschungsZentrum Potsdam
The investigations showed that the bacteria employ an unprecedented biochemical mechanism for transforming what are essentially unreactive hydrocarbons into reactive metabolites which may then be further oxidised to carbon dioxide. The findings concerning this reaction mechanism are an important step in designing new synthetic methods for selectively producing chemicals from hydrocarbons:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The researchers report the enrichment of sulphate-reducing bacteria (SRB) with the capacity to utilizate short-chain hydrocarbons in an anaerobic environment. The organisms are found in marine hydrocarbon seep areas.

Propane or n-butane as the sole growth substrate led to sediment-free sulphate-reducing enrichment cultures growing at 12, 28 or 60 °C. With ethane, a slower enrichment with residual sediment was obtained at 12 °C.

Isolation experiments resulted in a mesophilic pure culture (strain BuS5) that used only propane and n-butane (methane, isobutane, alcohols or carboxylic acids did not support growth). Complete hydrocarbon oxidation to CO2 and the preferential oxidation of 12C-enriched alkanes were observed with strain BuS5 and other cultures.

Metabolites of propane included iso- and n-propylsuccinate, indicating a subterminal as well as an unprecedented terminal alkane activation with involvement of fumarate.

According to RNA analyses, strain BuS5 affiliates with Desulfosarcina/Desulfococcus, a cluster of widespread marine SRB. An enrichment culture with propane growing at 60 °C was dominated by Desulfotomaculum-like SRB. Our results suggest that diverse SRB are able to thrive in seep areas and gas reservoirs on propane and butane, thus altering the gas composition and contributing to sulphide production.

Olaf Kniemeyer, et. al. "Anaerobic oxidation of short-chain hydrocarbons by marine sulphate-reducing bacteria", Nature advance online publication 19 September 2007, doi:10.1038/nature06200

Eurekalert: Natural gas inhabited by unusual specialists - September 21, 2007.

Article continues

Royal Society report: UK’s separated plutonium stockpile poses severe risks, enough for 17,000 nuclear bombs

Despite a global effort to push nuclear power as a 'safe' and 'clean' energy option, the risks posed by existing nuclear waste are so severe that, without urgent action, they might make the sector completely unacceptable in the future. This is the warning contained in a report published today by the Royal Society, the UK's national academy of science, in which it says that the potential consequences of a major security breach or accident involving the UK's stockpile of separated plutonium are so great that the British government must develop and implement a strategy for its long term use or disposal today.

The scientists propose a cap on all further separated plutonium production in the UK until existing legally binding contracts for safe disposal and reprocessing have been fulfilled. Of all European nations, the UK has the largest stockpile of weapons-usable civilian separated plutonium (graph shows amount for 2004, click to enlarge).

According to the Strategy options for the UK's separated plutonium [*.pdf] the UK's civil stockpile of separated plutonium is now over 100 tonnes - enough to make 17,000 nuclear bombs - and has almost doubled in the last 10 years. The UK's stockpile is largely the by-product of commercial reprocessing of spent fuel from UK power plants.

Plutonium is highly toxic. It is the primary component in most nuclear weapons and could be made into a crude nuclear bomb by a well-informed and equipped terrorist group.
The status quo of continuing to stockpile separated plutonium without any long term strategy for its use or disposal is not an acceptable option. The Royal Society initially raised concerns about the security risks nine years ago and we have not seen any progress towards a management strategy. Furthermore, the stockpile has grown whilst international nuclear proliferation and terrorist threats have increased. - Professor Geoffrey Boulton, chair of the report's working group
Just over 6kg of plutonium was used in the bomb which devastated Nagasaki and the UK has many thousands of times that amount. Professor Boulton stresses that Britain must take measures to ensure that this extremely dangerous material does not fall into the wrong hands.

The report analyses the security, health and environmental risks associated with the large stockpile. Of these, the risk for major security breaches is the most worrying:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Security risks
The UK stockpile of separated plutonium poses three types of security risk:
  • proliferation of nuclear weapons to other States through theft or illicit transfer of separated plutonium;
  • construction of nuclear or radiological explosive devices by terrorists following the theft of separated plutonium;
  • terrorist attacks on storage sites to disperse contained materials.
The first and second are both remote risks as agents of potential proliferating States or terrorist groups would have to steal plutonium from the well-guarded Sellafield site. Separated plutonium stores in some other countries are less secure and would be much easier to divert. It would appear that all of the separated plutonium at Sellafield is of reactor-grade, which poses design problems if used in stockpiled nuclear weapons.

The third probably offers the greatest risk to the current storage arrangements, provided precise knowledge of the location of the materials is available. Plutonium poses a toxic threat if dispersed in a fire or explosion, particularly whilst it remains in a powder form.

Although a direct or indirect attack with explosives or aircraft on the plutonium store at Sellafield could release separated plutonium into the atmosphere, a precise attack or a large explosion would be required to disperse the material. It will remain a potential but remote risk as long as the material remains in its current powdered form and location, and no long-term policy for its disposition is agreed.
The risks of terrorist attack or theft are difficult to estimate but they must be taken with the utmost seriousness.

The potential consequences of a major security breach are severe, and justify a strong and sustained policy to minimise risks.

Health risks
Plutonium emits alpha radiation making inhalation the most important pathway of occupational exposure. Lungs, bone and liver receive the largest doses from inhaled plutonium for both humans and animals. The dose to the lung following deposition depends on the physical and chemical properties of the plutonium compounds that have been inhaled. These properties determine how long the plutonium stays in the lung before it clears and is transferred to the blood.

Once in the bloodstream it is preferentially deposited in the liver and on bone surfaces and eventually in the volume of the bone. Animal experiments show that plutonium can cause cancers of the lung, liver and bone. It may also cause leukaemia but the evidence is less clear. Strict precautions against the possibility of accidents that could cause exposure, particularly via inhalation, must be enforced at all stages of plutonium handling. These are implemented through relevant UK regulation.

On the basis of laboratory data, the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) has drawn up protection guidelines for radiation workers. They are based on the best available data and are calculated using mathematical models of the behaviour of radioactive isotopes in the body. New guidelines will be issued by ICRP in 2007 but they will not affect the situation with regard to plutonium.

Plutonium can be handled safely wherever it is possible to maintain appropriate control of air quality and strict safety procedures are followed, as in most industrial operations. Under such conditions, human exposure to this potential radiation hazard to workers or the general population has been insignificant. However, if plutonium is released as a powder or vaporised it would constitute a major health hazard.

Human health impacts on plutonium workers can be summarized as follows:
Although many epidemiological studies have been carried out on humans exposed to radiation from plutonium most of them have not been robust enough to give useful quantitative information. There have been a number of studies examining cancer rates and radiation exposures, including Pu239, for workers at the Sellafield plant, UK Atomic Weapons Establishment, UK Atomic Energy Authority, as well as the Los Alamos Laboratory and Rocky Flats reprocessing plant in USA. They show no evidence of radiation-induced cancer of the lung or liver but the level of exposure of these workers was relatively low.

Recently data have become available on the health impacts due to plutonium exposure of workers at the Russian Mayak plant in the South Urals. This was a reprocessing facility for the Soviet nuclear weapons programme. Poor working conditions posed severe health hazards.

Although studies are still in progress, some preliminary conclusions are available. Risk estimates for lung and liver cancers are in good agreement with those derived for exposure to external radiation. The results are consistent with a linear relationship between dose and the occurrence of lung cancer. The results are also consistent with previous estimates of risk from earlier studies. There is also an elevated risk of both liver and bone cancer at body burdens greater than 7.4kBq but sufficiently reliable estimates of doses to these workers are not yet available and it is not possible to calculate risk estimates for these cancers.
Environmental risks
Relevant data for estimating the environmental effects of a catastrophic event at the separated plutonium store at Sellafield is likely to be found in studies of the Windscale fire in 1958; Chernobyl; and the potential effects on the local population of discharges from the reprocessing plants at Sellafield and, to a lesser extent, at Dounreay. Discharges to the air consist of gaseous and some volatile fission products and fine dust particles. Dilute washing liquids from the chemical processes are up to 1000 times more radioactive than discharges to the air. These liquids are discharged into the sea, where more than 90% of the plutonium discharge is incorporated into sediments close to the point of release.

Plutonium and other actinides are converted to insoluble forms, which are precipitated or deposited on suspended solid material. These insoluble plutonium compounds are slow to disperse and could be deposited on salt marshes or sea-washed pastures, or dispersed in marine sediment during storms. It is unlikely that anyone will receive a radiation dose greater than 1mSv per annum (the limit set for public exposure) from this source but the monitoring of relevant coastal regions will have to be continued.

Soluble radioactive isotopes, such as caesium, are dispersed in the sea and have been found in low concentrations throughout the Irish Sea and beyond.

The report recommends that a strategy to manage the UK's separated plutonium must be considered as an integral part of the energy and radioactive waste policies that are currently being developed.

According to the Royal Society's report, the best option is to convert the plutonium into the most stable and secure form spent nuclear fuel by turning it into Mixed Oxide (MOX) and using as fuel in nuclear reactors. This would make it more difficult to steal because spent fuel is more radioactive and therefore harder to handle than plutonium and more difficult to use in nuclear weapons because it would need to be reprocessed first.

If the British overnment decides to build a new generation of nuclear power stations then the entire stockpile could be burnt as MOX fuel in these new reactors.

If there is no new nuclear build, at least some of the stockpile could be transformed into spent fuel by modifying Sizewell B to burn MOX fuel. However because of the limited life time of Sizewell B, not all the stockpile could be burned. The report recommends that the remaining separated plutonium should be converted and stored as MOX fuel pellets. These pellets would make the plutonium more secure than it is currently, but less safe than spent fuel.

In the long term the best method of disposing of the UK's separated plutonium stockpile will be to bury it deep underground in the form of spent fuel, or, less ideally, MOX pellets. It is essential that the British government's strategy for developing such a repository for nuclear waste includes an option for the disposal of separated plutonium and materials derived from it.

However the report stresses the urgency of the government developing a strategy for dealing with separated plutonium in the meantime since, according to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, disposal sites for high-level waste may not be ready until around 2075.

Graph: National Stocks of Weapons and Separated Civilian Plutonium. By the end of 2004, the global stockpile of separated plutonium was about 500 tons. This was divided approximately equally between weapons and civilian stocks. Numbers for military stocks are estimates. All separated plutonium can be used for the production of nuclear weapons. Credit: International Panel on Fissile Materials.

The Royal Society: Strategy options for the UK’s separated plutonium [*.pdf]- September 21, 2007.

The Royal Society: UK’s separated plutonium stockpile poses severe risks warns Royal Society - September 21, 2007.

Article continues

Inflation in Brazil decreased more than expected on lower ethanol, food prices

Quicknote biofuels and the economy
Brazil's main inflation indicator slowed more than expected from mid-August to mid-September, with ethanol's lower price being a key driver of the downward move. Prices for gasoline and phone calls fell slightly, while the growth rate in the cost of major food products eased, government data show.

The IPCA-15 inflation index [*Portuguese] published by the Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística, rose 0.29 percent in the month to mid-September, slowing from a 0.42 percent increase in the month through mid-August.

The inflation figure was lower than the 0.41 percent median forecast of 30 economists surveyed. The estimates ranged from 0.32 percent to 0.47 percent.

Food prices, a nagging pressure on inflation the past several months, contributed strongy to the slowdown in the IPCA index, the IBGE said, rising 0.87 percent compared with a 1.61 percent gain in the previous month.

Ethanol dropped 2.08 percent and phone rates fell 0.92 percent, also helping slow the inflation rate. Gasoline prices fell 0.86 percent:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

In the 12-month period through mid-September the IPCA index rose 4.2 percent compared with a 3.95 percent increase in the year through mid-August, the IBGE said.

Amongst the regional indices, the greatest rise in the IPCA-15 was for Recife (+0,69%), where the price for a liter of the gasoline rose by 7.66%. Goiânia (-0,08%) noted the sharpest drop in September.

The so-called IPCA-15 tracks prices from around the 15th of one month to the 15th of the next. The central bank, which has an inflation target this year of 4.5 percent, uses the IPCA as a guide when setting interest rates:

Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística: IPCA-15 fica em 0,29% em setembro - September 21, 2007.

Article continues

Study: some first-generation biofuels could contribute to global warming because of N2O emissions

Yet another argument in favor of a Biopact with the South. A new study led by Paul Crutzen, winner of a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1995 for work on the formation and decomposition of ozone in the atmosphere, re-examines [*.pdf] the total emission of nitrous oxide (N2O) from crop production and concludes that growing and burning first-generation biofuel crops like corn and rapeseed may actually raise, rather than lower, net greenhouse gas emissions. Crops grown in the South, like sugarcane and other grasses, retain their climate change reducing potential and are a positive alternative to conventional fuels.

N2O is a by-product of fixed nitrogen application in agriculture and is a greenhouse gas with a global warming potential (GWP) 296 times larger than an equal mass of CO2.

Crutzen and his colleagues calculated that growing the most commonly used biofuel crops - rapeseed and corn - releases around twice the amount of N2O than previously thought, thereby wiping out any benefits from not using fossil fuels and potentially contributing to global warming. Crops like sugarcane and grasses have a far better balance (table, click to enlarge).

Note that Crutzen did not take into account the production of carbon-negative biofuels based on the geosequestration of CO2 - but this concept is in an experimental stage and has not yet reached broader scientific circles (earlier post and here for a feasibility study). Still, the findings are important for future life cycle analyses of biofuels:
When the extra N2O emission from biofuel production is calculated in “CO2-equivalent” global warming terms, and compared with the quasi-cooling effect of “saving” emissions of fossil fuel derived CO2, the outcome is that the production of commonly used biofuels, such as biodiesel from rapeseed and bioethanol from corn (maize), can contribute as much or more to global warming by N2O emissions than cooling by fossil fuel savings. Crops with less N demand, such as grasses and woody coppice species have more favourable climate impacts. This analysis only considers the conversion of biomass to biofuel. It does not take into account the use of fossil fuel on the farms and for fertilizer and pesticide production, but it also neglects the production of useful co-products. Both factors partially compensate each other. This needs to be analyzed in a full life cycle assessment. - P. J. Crutzen
The significance of it is that the supposed benefits of biofuels are even more disputable than had been thought hitherto. What we are saying is that growing many biofuels is probably of no benefit and in fact is actually making the climate issue worse. - Keith Smith, co-author, atmospheric scientist from the University of Edinburgh
The work is currently subject to open review in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics. Crutzen has declined to comment until that process is completed. The paper suggests that microbes convert much more of the nitrogen in fertilizer to nitrous oxide than previously thought—3 to 5 percent, compared to the widely accepted figure of 2 percent used by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to calculate the impact of fertilizers on climate change:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

For rapeseed biodiesel, which accounts for about 80 percent of the biofuel production in Europe, the relative warming due to nitrous oxide emissions is estimated at 1 to 1.7 times larger than the relative cooling effect due to saved fossil CO2 emissions. For corn bioethanol, dominant in the US, the figure is 0.9 to 1.5. Only sugarcane bioethanol—with a relative warming of 0.5 to 0.9—looks like a better alternative to conventional fuels.
As release of N2O affects climate and stratospheric ozone chemistry by the production of biofuels, much more research on the sources of N2O and the nitrogen cycle is urgently needed...Here we concentrated on the climate effects due only to required N fertilization in biomass production and we have shown that, depending on N content, the use of several agricultural crops for energy production can readily lead to N2O emissions large enough to cause climate warming instead of cooling by “saved fossil CO2”. What we have discussed is one important step in a life cycle analysis, i.e. the emissions of N2O, which must be considered in addition to the fossil fuel input and co-production of useful chemicals in biofuel production.

We have also shown that the replacement of fossil fuels by biofuels may not bring the intended climate cooling due to the accompanying emissions of N2O. There are also other factors to consider in connection with the introduction of biofuels. We have not yet considered the extent to which the high percentage of N-fertilizer which is not taken up by the plants, and the organic nitrogen in the harvested plant material, may stimulate CO2 uptake from the atmosphere; estimates for this effect are very uncertain. We conclude, however, that the relatively large emission of N2O exacerbates the already huge challenge of getting global warming under control. - P. J. Crutzen et al.

P. J. Crutzen, A. R. Mosier, K. A. Smith, and W. Winiwarter. "N2O release from agro-biofuel production negates global warming reduction by replacing fossil fuels" Atmos. Chem. Phys. Discuss., 7, 11191-11205, 2007.

AlphaGalileo: Biofuels could increase global warming with laughing gas, says Nobel prize-winning chemist - September 21, 2007

Biopact: A closer look at the revolutionary coal+biomass-to-liquids with carbon storage project - September 13, 2007

Article continues

Experts: Brazil victim of its own biofuels success, as ethanol price collapses

Can ultra-cheap fuel be a problem when the rest of the world suffers under record oil prices? It seems so. As consumers across the world feel the pinch when filling up their tanks with expensive gasoline, in Brazil experts are worried that ethanol is becoming too cheap too quickly. Record low sugar and ethanol prices are the result of overproduction and have been fueling the debate on how this will affect future investments and growth in the country's biofuels industry.

Sugar and ethanol prices have fallen around 35 percent since the beginning of the record 2007/08 cane crop and output is set to grow further with tens of new projects being implemented. For Brazil, there is only one way out: international exports. This requires the creation of a global ethanol market and an abandonment of current tariffs and non-tariff trade barriers. But governments in both the US and the EU prefer to protect their own farmers and refuse to give their consumers access to more sustainable and far cheaper fuels. Brazil now faces a catch-22: the local market is saturated, and an international market does not yet exist. Experts convened in Sertaozinho to debate the crisis.
I think there still isn't any international ethanol market. We're all working irrationally. There isn't any strategy either from the private sector or from the government. How much ethanol do we want to produce? Nobody knows. But the potential market is huge. - Roberto Rodrigues, director for the Inter-American Ethanol Commission
According to professor Luis Cortez (State University of Campinas), in theory, Brazil can replace all the world's current gasoline needs with ethanol, but this requires massive investments (earlier post and map, click to enlarge). The problem is that these investments are flowing in, but are putting the Brazilian ethanol sector on a faster growth track than is commercially reasonable, with collapsing prices as a consequence, says Plinio Nastari, president of Datagra consultancy. Projected investments in new mills are estimated to be around 17 billion reais (€6.5/US$9.1 billion), but the market suffers from poor regulatory structure and a lack of long-term planning to cope with this rush.

With expected demand for 720 million tonnes of cane by 2013/14, the sector should not grow more than 7.3 percent per year to avoid worsening the current oversupply, Nastari said. But Brazil's cane crop has risen an average of 9.9 percent each year since 2000, boosted by increasing ethanol demand.

Datagro projected demand for cane is currently higher than predicted by the consultancy a few years ago, but investments in new mills have surpassed what was forecast even more and are at an excruciatingly high level. There are 138 new ethanol projects on the table in Brazil. 79 of these are highly likely to be build, for 30 construction is moderately probable, while only 29 will not likely go beyond the planning stage:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Sugar and ethanol prices have fallen around 35 percent since the beginning of the 2007/08 cane crop, and the drop's effect on the industry is raising concerns also in government.

Manuel Bertone, Production and Agroenergy Secretary in the Agriculture Ministry, said the disorganized way the market is growing will not be in line with the rise in demand, which could lead to even lower prices.
The market will not grow if we do not organize all parts of the production chain a way to keep security and stability (in supply). Besides that, if we do not have a regulatory basis, possibly no country will buy ethanol from us. - Manuel Bertone, Production and Agroenergy Secretary in the Agriculture Ministry
Bertone ruled out intervention in the sector but defended a dialogue between producers and the government. In order to develop the market Brazil needs to increase output faster than demand. But this will come at a heavy cost, already seen today: low prices. Bertone added that the biofuels market abroad is an extremely controlled market that would be hard to enter.

The launch of flex fuel vehicles in 2003 made it harder for analysts and producers to make demand projections, as consumption in this case depends totally on the relation between ethanol and gasoline prices. Normally, if the biofuel is 30 to 40 percent cheaper at the pump than gasoline, ethanol is a better option for flex-fuel car owners.

CheckBiotech: Brazil ethanol sector fears 'delirious' growth - September 20, 2007.

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

Biopact: Brazilian biofuels can meet world's total gasoline needs - expert - May 21, 2007

Article continues

Report: U.S. ethanol sector does not need subsidies

The ethanol industry in the United States is booming and has achieved an impressive scale over the past two years. However, many critics have said this growth has come at a high cost for the American tax payer: the cost of all the tax breaks, direct subsidies and other benefits for corn-derived ethanol was estimated to total at least $5.1 billion last year (earlier post). Moreover, the sector is proteced by import tariffs on cheaper and more sustainable ethanol made in the developing world. Recently, a paper written for the 'OECD Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels' (not affiliated with the OECD) warned that these subsidies are not effective, and that trade barriers prevent more sustainable and competitive biofuels from reaching the market (more here).

However, a new study by Dr Thomas Elam, agricultural economist for consulting firm FarmEcon, now shows that this heavy federal support is in fact not needed. The report titled "Fuel Ethanol Subsidies: An Economic Perspective" [*.pdf], states that with current oil prices, even America's corn-based ethanol, which is amongst the most costly biofuels, can survive without subsidies.
Ethanol is one of the most profitable enterprises in the United States today, but unfortunately a high percentage of those current profits come not from the marketplace, but from the federal treasury. Increased energy prices make it possible for the ethanol industry to thrive on its own. - Dr Thomas Elam, agricultural economist

In the chart above (click to enlarge) the breakeven ethanol value of corn is calculated based on the energy value of ethanol, current ethanol production costs, current ethanol yields and the current relationship between corn prices and distiller's dried grains with solubles (DDGS) prices. The chart uses the historic relationship between crude oil and U.S. wholesale gasoline prices to relate the value of gasoline to the value of crude oil.

At current crude oil and gasoline price levels coupled with the Federal subsidy the ethanol industry can afford to pay about twice the 2003-2005 average price of corn. As long as oil remains above $55 per barrel, and more importantly wholesale gasoline above about $1.90 per gallon, ethanol producers can pay more than 2003-2005 corn prices. If crude oil were to go to $90 per barrel corn would be affordable to ethanol producers at up to $6.00 per bushel, including the Federal subsidy.

According to the report, this shows clearly that the case can be made that the subsidy for ethanol, if there is to be one at all, should be based on gasoline prices, not a flat amount per gallon of ethanol used for fuel. In fact, if oil prices go high enough the government should consider taxing ethanol used for fuel to alleviate the effects of ethanol demand on food prices:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

According to Elam's study, federal supports, when fully implemented, will drive up the cost of corn and other grains by $34 billion per year. The ethanol boom is driving up the cost of food production, and could eventually cost a family of four about $460 a year in higher food costs.

Federal supports are severely distorting crop prices while adding little, if anything, to the stated goals of the renewable energy program, Elam said. The ethanol program is also increasing the federal outlays and has very little impact on U.S. dependence on foreign oil, the report says.

The study also contends that increased ethanol production will do little to reduce domestic dependence on foreign oil:
On a net energy basis, ethanol will not make a significant contribution to overall U.S. energy production/ If the ethanol industry achieves 100 percent E10 market share in the United States, it would take about 200 million tons of corn annually. This is equal to a 10 percent reduction in the current global grain supply. - Dr Thomas Elam, agricultural economist
The 51 cents per gallon tax credit given to fuel blenders who add ethanol to gasoline has caused significant increases in food costs and distorting farmer planting incentives, the report says.
Ethanol producers can easily afford to compete with U.S. livestock and poultry producers for corn. Even without subsidies, ethanol production would be expanding at a significant rate due to high gasoline prices and the improvements in ethanol production technology in recent years. - Dr Thomas Elam, agricultural economist
The American Meat Institute, National Chicken Council and National Turkey Federation commissioned Elam's study.

Elam, Thomas, "Fuel Ethanol Subsidies: An Economic Perspective" [*.pdf], Report commissioned by The National Turkey Federation, National Chicken Council, American Meat Institute - September 19, 2007.

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

Biopact: Paper warns against subsidies for inefficient biofuels in the North, calls for liberalisation of market - major boost to idea of 'Biopact' - September 11, 2007

Article continues

University of Tennessee and Mascoma team up to build cellulosic ethanol biorefinery

The University of Tennessee and Mascoma Corporation plan [*.pdf] to jointly build and operate a 5 million gallon per year cellulosic ethanol biorefinery in Monroe County.

The principal product of the facility will be cellulosic ethanol derived from non-food biomass, like grasses such as switchgrass, wood chips and other cellulosic materials.

Because it does not compete with food or feed uses, using dedicated energy crops like switchgrass to produce cellulosic biofuels on marginal crop land is widely seen as the answer to producing affordable, domestic, renewable fuel without raising food or feed costs.

When operating at full capacity, the facility will require 170 tons per day of switchgrass and other agricultural and forest biomass. An $8 million farmer incentive program is under development to encourage local production of this new energy crop, switchgrass.

The comprehensive switchgrass program includes direct payments to farmers in advance of an established market for switchgrass. Participating farmers will receive high quality switchgrass seed for planting, as well as research and technical support related to switchgrass production.

Consolidated bioprocessing

Mascoma's focus is on genetically engineering thermophilic ethanol-producing bacteria in order to facilitate the transition of cellulose ethanol processing to a Consolidated Bioprocessing (CBP) configuration. CBP comes down to reducing the number of biologically mediated bioconversion steps into a single process. It is widely recognized as the simplest, lowest cost configuration for producing cellulosic ethanol.

Mascoma’s lead organism for thermophilic 'Simultaneous Saccarification and Fermentation' (tSSF) is Thermoanaerobacterium saccharolyticum. This organism has been modified to produce stoichiometric quantities of ethanol from a xylose feed. This strain is attractive for use in a tSSF configuration as the elevated fermentation temperature can substantially reduce cellulase requirements in an industrial processing operation:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Location and logistics
The planned biorefinery will be located 35 miles south of Knoxville in the Niles Ferry Industrial Park in Vonore. Pending a successful permitting process, construction is expected to begin by the end of 2007 and the facility will be operational in 2009.

A key in the selection of the Monroe County site was the economic and agricultural development potential in the area, reflecting the agriculture-based Biofuels Initiative's goal of using ethanol production as an economic driver throughout the state, especially in rural communities.

The site sits in the heart of a productive farming region where the agricultural community has shown interest in the biofuels effort, says Dr. Kelly Tiller, director of external operations for the UT Office of Bioenergy Programs. An economist with the UT Institute of Agriculture, Tiller is also one of the authors of the business model for the Biofuels Initiative.

The Niles Ferry site also has all needed infrastructure to support the facility, and is close enough to Knoxville and Oak Ridge to allow easy movement by researchers and students to and from the site, Tiller explained.

The plant will be about one-tenth the size of a commercial production facility. This will allow researchers to fine-tune the operations and process used in order to create a system that can be expanded to larger plants across the state in coming years.

University of Tennessee Biofuels Initiative
The business partnership and plans for the facility are a result of the UT Biofuels Initiative [*.pdf], a research and business model designed to reduce dependence on foreign oil and provide significant economic and environmental benefits for Tennessee’s farmers and communities.

Tennessee is an ideal partner for Mascoma as the first state committed to producing switchgrass as an energy crop, said Bruce A. Jamerson, Mascoma's chief executive officer.

The demonstration scale research facility is also a complement to research efforts at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, another key partner in the state's biofuels strategy. In June, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory was awarded $125 million from the U.S. Department of Energy to fund the Bioenergy Science Center, a research collaborative to address fundamental science and technology challenges to commercially producing cellulosic ethanol.

The Tennessee Biofuels Initiative, through the management operations of the demonstration biorefinery, will work with investigators at Oak Ridge National Laboratory to test and validate discoveries that could lead to enhanced efficiency in the conversion of cellulose to ethanol. The project teams view the biorefinery as a laboratory for large-scale chemistry experiments in cellulosic conversion to ethanol.

It is expected that eventually Tennessee could produce over 1 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol a year, which could offset up to one-third of the state’s petroleum usage.

Article continues

IEA: China and India to continue to exert pressure on dwindling oil supplies

According to latest estimates of the International Energy Agency (IEA) to appear in the World Energy Outlook 2007 (WEO-2007) focusing this time on China and India, these rapidly expanding economies will continue to put pressure on tightening global oil supplies next year as they are projected to suck even more imported oil to feed their industries and meet transportation needs. This means sustained high oil prices, with grave consequences for developing countries as well as for India and China's poorer populations.

This year, the demand for oil in China is expected to increase by 5.9 per cent to 7.6 million barrels per day. In 2008, the demand will rise 5.7 per cent to eight million barrels, the Paris-based agency says.

The IEA expects oil demand in India to rise 4.3 per cent this year to almost 2.8 million barrels, but growth should slow down to 2.3 per cent in 2008, given the resumption of naphtha's structural decline.
The strength of gasoline sales [in India] is directly related to the country's rising vehicle fleet, which is expanding at some 15 per cent per year and is poised to exceed two million vehicles by the end of the decade, compared with 1.3 million in 2006. - IEA, WEO-2007, China and India Insights
China imports about 40 per cent of its crude oil requirements, while India imports around 76 per cent of its overall crude needs.

The IEA, which acts as an energy policy advisor to 26 member countries, last week revised downward its 2007 forecast for global oil product demand to 85.9 million barrels a day, largely as a result of high prices and poor weather in countries comprising the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

However, the IEA said global oil prices are unlikely to see a drastic fall in the near term as tight fundamentals and renewed geopolitical concerns outweigh worries of an economic downturn:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Crude oil futures in the US surged to a record high of $81.90 this week.

The IEA's report, available in November, presents new and more detailed models for both China and India to allow a more comprehensive analysis of different future energy paths.

WEO-2007 analyses the impact of rising energy use in these countries on:
- international energy prices;
- investment needs and financing arrangements;
- energy-related greenhouse gas and other emissions; and
- energy and non-energy international trade flows.

The prospects for coal use, the role of nuclear, renewables, energy-efficiency improvements and urban and rural energy poverty in these two countries are all examined in depth. The work rests on close collaboration with public authorities and private organisations in China and India, as well as with key international organisations.

The energy challenges for China and India are enormous. How they meet those challenges will have farreaching consequences for the rest of the world. With extensive data, detailed projections and in-depth analysis, WEO-2007 provides invaluable insights into the prospects for these two emerging energy giants and the consequences of their choices for the global economy.

We will present a more in-depth analysis of the findings as soon as the report is released.

Gulf News: India and China expected to exert pressure on dwindling oil supplies - September 21, 2007.

IEA: World Energy Outlook 2007 - China and India Insights - to be released on November 7, 2007.

Article continues

Volvo opens world's first carbon-neutral vehicle factory: biomass, wind, solar

The Volvo Group today opened the first vehicle plant in the world that is completely free from carbon dioxide (CO2): Volvo Trucks’ plant in Ghent, Belgium. The Volvo Group’s efforts pertaining to CO2-free plants are fully in line with EU’s goal for reducing carbon-dioxide emissions by 20% in Europe by 2020. A combination of biomass, wind, solar and bio-oil provides the renewable energy to manufacture around 35,000 trucks per year.
Our ambition is to make all our plants CO2-free plants and Ghent is the first. It is not an easy undertaking, but we are prepared to try different alternatives to achieve our goal for CO2-free production in our plants. - Leif Johansson, Volvo CEO
The Volvo Trucks website has a handy tool that allows you to calculate the energy needed to manufacture a truck and the emissions that go with it. It takes around 103MWh of energy to make one, with CO2 emissions ranging between 14 and 15 tonnes, depending on the model.

Already in 2005, the Volvo Group decided to transform the Volvo Trucks plant in Tuve, Sweden into a CO2-free vehicle plant and work is currently in progress on the completion of the local planning and an application for environmental permits has been prepared. The Volvo Trucks plant in Umeå, Sweden is also undergoing transformation to become CO2-free.

For Ghent, the switch implied investments in biofuels and wind power to provide the plant with electricity and heat that does not add any carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

The Ghent factory decided to construct a new pellet-fired biomass plant which supplies 70% of the heating requirements. Energy for the combustion process is provided by solar cells on the roof. Three wind turbines on the site cover half of the facility’s electricity requirements. 30% is provided by an oil-fired boiler that was converted to burn bio-oil. The remaining electricity consists of certified green energy supplied by Belgium's leading energy company, Electrabel:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The Ghent plant has an annual production of 35,000 trucks. It employs around 2,500 people.

Volvo is leading a transition to cleaner energy, both in the production of cars and trucks, as well as in the fuels they utilize. Recently the Volvo Group released results of an extensive well-to-wheel 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 renewable liquid and gaseous fuels: biodiesel, biogas combined with biodiesel, ethanol/methanol, DME, synthetic diesel and hydrogen gas combined with biogas (earlier post).

The group is also developing hybrid trucks that promise to reduce fuel consumption by 35 per cent.

Volvo Trucks Global: presentation of the carbon-neutral plant in Ghent, Belgium.

Volvo Trucks Global: Environmental Product Declaration, an interactive tool showing the lifecycle emissions for different trucks.

Biopact: Volvo releases comprehensive analysis of seven biofuels for use in carbon-neutral trucks - August 29, 2007

Article continues

Thursday, September 20, 2007

CO2 emissions could violate EPA ocean-quality standards within decades

In a commentary in the upcoming issue of the Geophysical Research Letters (GRL), a large team of scientists state that human-induced carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions will alter ocean chemistry to the point where it will violate U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Quality Criteria (1976) by mid-century if emissions are not dramatically curtailed now. This is the first recognition that atmospheric CO2 emissions will cause ocean waters to violate EPA water quality criteria.

The paper also says that carbon-dioxide induced changes in ocean chemistry within the ranges predicted for the next decades and centuries present significant risks to marine biota and that adverse impacts on food webs and key biogeochemical process would result.

An international team of twenty five leading researchers described the evidence to date regarding the effects of CO2 emissions on the acidity of the world's oceans. The study was led by Ken Caldeira of Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology. Included are researchers from Norway, the United Kingdom, France, Australia, Japan, Monaco, and the United States.

About one third of the CO2 from fossil-fuel burning is absorbed by the world's oceans, explained lead author Ken Caldeira. When CO2 gas dissolves in the ocean it makes carbonic acid which can damage coral reefs and also hurt other calcifying organisms, such as phytoplankton and zooplankton, some of the most critical players at the bottom of the world's food chain. In sufficient concentration, the acidity can corrode shellfish shells, disrupt coral formation, and interfere with oxygen supply.

Most of the research today points to a future where, in the absence of a major effort to curtail carbon dioxide emissions, there will be double the atmospheric concentrations of CO2 (760 parts per million, or ppm) by century's end. Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations could reach 500 ppm by mid-century. Pre-industrial concentrations, by comparison, were 280 ppm and today's concentration is about 380 ppm.

The acidity from CO2 dissolved in ocean water is measured by the pH scale (potential of Hydrogen). Declines in pH indicate that a solution is more acidic (map shows change in sea surface pH caused by anthropogenic CO2 between the 1700s and the 1990s). The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (1976) Quality Criteria for Water state: "For open ocean waters where the depth is substantially greater than the euphotic zone, the pH should not be changed more than 0.2 units outside the range of naturally occurring variation". The euphotic zone goes to a depth of about 650 feet (200 meters), where light can still reach and photosynthesis can occur:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Atmospheric CO2 concentrations need to remain at less than 500 ppm for the ocean pH decrease to stay within the 0.2 limit set forth by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [1976], remarked Caldeira. If atmospheric CO2 goes above 500 ppm, the surface of the entire ocean will be out of compliance with EPA pH guidelines for the open ocean. We need to start thinking about carbon dioxide as an ocean pollutant. That is, when we release carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, we are dumping industrial waste in the ocean.

Keeping atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations below 500 ppm level would require a rapid global transition to a system of energy production and consumption that releases very little carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

Map: Change in sea surface pH caused by anthropogenic CO2 between the 1700s and the 1990s. Credit: Wikimedia commons.


Caldeira, K. et al. (2007), Comment on "Modern-age buildup of CO2 and its effects on seawater acidity and salinity" by Hugo A. Loáiciga, Geophys. Res. Lett., doi:10.1029/2006GL027288, in press.

Article continues

China 'opening up' Congo for minerals, bioenergy with massive $5 billion loan

China has signed its largest single deal in Africa with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC): a $5 billion loan to develop infrastructures, mining, bioenergy, forestry and agriculture. Infrastructure Minister Pierre Lumbi said the money will be spent on building roads, railroads, hospitals, health centres, housing and universities. All other bilateral and multilateral loans pale in comparison with China's.

In exchange, the People's Republic will get rights to Congo's extensive natural resources, including timber, agricultural products, cobalt and copper. The move is part of China's quest to guarantee supplies of raw materials to its surging economy. After years of war, dictatorship and turmoil, Congo's infrastructure is either non-existent or in ruins, and extraction operations are producing at a fraction of their potential. China wants to change this and take the advantage as an early entrant in the country's reemerging economy.

The West has been caught offguard by the sheer scale and the timing of the deal, with the IMF, World Bank and others seeking clarification. The $5 billion package is the largest single loan to any African country of the $20 billion that China has pledged to finance trade and investment in the continent over the next few years.

A first phase of $3 billion will finance huge transport infrastructure projects in the DRC, including a 3,400km (2,125 mile) highway between the northeast city of Kisangani and Kasumbalesa on the border with Zambia. There will also be a 3,200 km (2,000 mile) railway to link the country's southern mining heartland to the main Atlantic port of Matadi in the west (map, click to enlarge).

Besides connecting the mining areas to the Atlantic, the infrastructure works are set to open the enormous central area of the DRC, where a vast agricultural potential can be found. Analysts estimate that this zone holds the world's second largest sustainable bioenergy potential, after that of Brazil.

Quickfacts and superlatives:
  • Congo experienced a natural resource war between 1996 and 2003 involving more than 10 countries; the conflict was the most lethal since the Second World War, killing an estimated 4.5 million Congolese; last year, the country held its first democratic elections since independence from Belgium, bringing Joseph Kabila to power; the East of the country remains unstable and hosts the UN's largest peace-keeping force
  • the Inga rapids on the Congo River - the world's largest river basin - could generate an estimated 42,000 MW of hydro-electricity (more than the Three Gorges and the Itaipu complex combined, see a detailed overview here); plans by an international consortium are under way to build the Grand Inga, which could light up the continent and export electricity to Europe and the Middle East (earlier post)
  • the Inga 2 dam is currently under reconstruction, which will bring electricity to the mining zones in the south; a $178 million World Bank loan is being used to revamp the world's largest network of power cables, a 1700 km stretch from Inga to the Katanga mining area; only 6% of all Congolese citizens have access to electricity
  • the DRC holds the world's largest reserves of cobalt (35% of the total), around 10% of the world's copper, and uranium, diamonds and gold
  • 70% of Congo's 57.5 million inhabitants are farmers; per capita GNI is amongst the lowest in the world, at around $120 per year (2006 estimate)
  • Congo currently utilizes less than 5% of its potential arable land, estimated to be around 167 million hectares (412m acres); projections show the country could maximally produce between 35 and 40 Exajoules of renewable bioenergy by 2050 in a sustainable way - that is, without deforestation and without threatening food, fodder and fiber demand of the country's growing population; this is equivalent to roughly 15.7 to 17.9 million barrels of oil per day, an output that can be sustained for decades
Under the Sino-Congolese deal, a further $2 billion is earmarked for rehabilitating the crumbling mining infrastructure and setting up joint ventures in the mines sector. The state mining conglomerate Gecamines went bankrupt in 1990 and since then there has been a free-for-all that sees hundreds of giant 36-wheel trucks plying the roads each day, carrying mineral-rich ores across the border to Zambia.

When it comes to bioenergy, Beijing is paving the way for investments in the forestry, palm oil and rubber sector, with a recent announcement by a Chinese firm that it might invest $1 billion in a 3 million hectare energy plantation. Besides half a million barrels of oil equivalent energy, the project would bring 'a hundred thousand jobs' (earlier post). For its part, the Congolese government has identified bioenergy and biofuel production as a priority area for industrialisation (earlier post), and is actively seeking foreign investors:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

China's move into the DRC is part of a wider scramble for resources in Africa. The official Xinhua press agency recently estimated there are at least 750,000 Chinese working or living for extended periods on the continent, a reflection of burgeoning economic ties that reached $55 billion in trade in 2006.

Chinese trade and investment has galvanised mineral production from South Africa (manganese) to Niger (uranium), and from Sudan to Angola (oil).

Much of that activity reflects an intense appetite for the African resources needed to fuel China's manufacturing sector, but big Chinese companies have quickly become formidable competitors in other sectors as well, particularly for big-ticket public works contracts, like the ones now proposed for DRC.

China is building major new railroad lines in Nigeria and Angola, large dams in Sudan, airports in several countries, and new roads almost everywhere.

One of the largest road builders, China Road and Bridge Construction, owned by the Chinese government, has 29 projects in Africa (many financed by the World Bank or other lenders) and offices in 22 African countries. So China's money may be going to Chinese companies to provide these big projects.

Skepticism in the West
The Chinese deal was signed at a time when an IMF mission landed in Kinshasa to review progress towards the resumption of budget support for Congo. IMF, World Bank and African Development Bank officials seem to have been caught offguard by the scale and timing of China’s plans.

The agreement comes at a delicate stage in Congo’s negotiations towards forgiveness of debt accumulated under the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who died in 1997, totalling about $8 billion, or equal to 800 per cent of current national exports.

Western mining groups, awaiting the results of a government review of about 60 contracts signed during the recent civil war, were also seeking more details from the Kinshasa government.

IMF and World Bank officials have acknowledged the scale of Congo’s infrastructure needs. But they are seeking to ascertain whether the Chinese loans are in line with Kinshasa’s commitment under the financial institutions’ heavily indebted poor countries debt reduction initiative not to contract new debt on anything but concessional terms.

In a best-case scenario, the IMF would restart a lending programme – the last one stalled in 2006 because of poor implementation – and Congo would stand to benefit from an 80 per cent write-off of its external debt in mid-2008 at the earliest. “If the terms of the deal do not meet the concessionality issue, that would be a concern,” said an IMF official.

Most of the mining activity in the country is being carried out by smaller, more entrepreneurial companies. Large western mining groups are keen to gain access to these resources to replace their dwindling deposits but have largely held back from investing in the country – put off by continuing unrest, widespread corruption and the lack of infrastructure.

Alex Gorbansky, managing director of Frontier Strategy Group, a political risk consultancy, said China’s $5bn draft agreement with Kinshasa would put pressure on both the large mining companies looking to get in and the small miners already there. “It will give China a distinct advantage in the Congolese copper belt,” he pointed out.

He said large western mining groups, such as Anglo American and Rio Tinto, were spending increasing amounts of time and money weighing opportunities in Congo. But China’s move might mean they had left it too late to secure the best assets. Gorbansky added that there was a risk that some of the mining licences held by smaller companies could be transferred to Chinese investors but Victor Kasongo, the country’s deputy mines minister, insisted this would not be the case.

Map: rough overview of Congo's transport infrastructures and China's projects. Credit: Biopact 2007, cc

Financial Times (via Onet): Alarm over China’s Congo deal - September 20, 2007

BBC: China opens coffers for minerals - September 18, 2007

BBC: Congo's cable revamp world record - July 31, 2007

World Bank: feature page on the DR Congo, with a good overview of the state of the country's economy.

Biopact: Energy to produce biofuels, from the world's largest dam - September 04, 2006

Biopact: New Congo government identifies bioenergy as priority for industrialisation - May 03, 2007

Biopact: DR Congo: Chinese company to invest $1 billion in 3 million hectare oil palm plantation - July 28, 2007

Biopact: International roundtable looks at building the world's largest dam in Congo - October 04, 2006

Article continues

Asia-Pacific nations urged to study biofuels more carefully

The nations of Asia and the Pacific are being urged to study the issue of biofuels with greater care before deciding on how they will use their agricultural products to generate energy. Scientists say there is an urgent need to support the current rush toward major decisions on biofuel policies in Asia and the Pacific with solid research and unbiased information about their potential benefits, impact, and risks. In the long-run the biofuels revolution promises to lead to both poverty alleviation and the protection of the environment, the scientists conclude, but this positive outcome depends on careful decisions to be taken today.

This appeal was issued at the end of a recent Expert Consultation on Biofuels organized by the Asia Pacific Association of Agricultural Research Institutions(APAARI) together with the Philippine-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics in India (ICRISAT), the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico. The consultation was held at IRRI’s headquarters in Los Baños, Philippines, on August 27-29.
There’s no doubt biofuels will have an impact on agriculture in Asia and the Pacific and present some very interesting new opportunities. But we need to be absolutely sure this will not affect the region’s food security and its continuing efforts to alleviate poverty. - R.S. Paroda, APAARI’s executive secretary
In the Asian region, both China and India are gearing up for substantial investments in biofuels. Malaysia and Indonesia are investing heavily in oil palm plantations for biodiesel production. The Philippines has mandated the blending of gasoline with 5 percent biofuel. However, at the same time, countries such as China have currently banned the use of maize – a vital food crop for national food and feed security – as biofuel.
The donor community should fund new R&D efforts on bioenergy, since the long-run benefits will lead to both poverty alleviation and protection of the environment – thus meeting two of the major Millennium Development Goals. - Conclusion 9 of the Expert consultation
The consultation focused on important issues such as (i) how bioenergy production may have an impact on global and regional food security, (ii) understanding bioenergy options for key crops and cropping systems in Asia, (iii) identifying research priorities for designing and evaluating integrated food-bioenergy production systems, and (iv) developing a framework for research on biofuels in key agricultural systems of Asia:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Conclusions of the Expert Consultations

1. The Bioenergy Revolution is fast approaching. Biofuels will play a major role in the global economy of the future. Many countries are exploring different strategies and policies on alternative energy sources, and the Asia-Pacific region, in particular, is expected to play a significant role in the development and promotion of biofuels.

2. Poverty is still widespread in Asia. It is not clear to what extent poor farmers will benefit from the Bioenergy Revolution. What is clear is that the introduction and/or expansion of biofuel crops will cause major land-use changes, and that many feedstocks (although originally targeted at marginal lands) will compete with food crops in productive eco-regions. The challenge is to ensure a balance between food and biofuel production.

3. Policymakers need to protect the poor from rising commodity prices likely to be triggered by the diversion of crop produce or area expansion of biofuel crops. Therefore, there is an urgent need to strengthen policy research in order to avoid decisions that may lead to competition between food and bioenergy, and identify a complementary approach that benefits both sectors.

4. International organizations and the international agricultural research centers (IARCs) must accelerate their biofuel-related research in order to generate much-needed international public goods (IPGs) that will benefit resource-poor farmers. They also need to enhance regional coordination of R&D efforts on bioenergy in the Asia-Pacific region, encourage regional information sharing, and facilitate research networking and capacity building of NARES.

5. Public-sector research needs to ensure that technology advances made in the private sector ultimately benefit the poor in the developing world. This is particularly important for many second-generation biofuel technologies, which, for want of proper policies and IPR regime, may not be accessible to poor farmers in Asia. Public-private partnerships, being the key factor, will have to be established and promoted.

6. It is critical that scientists examine and share unbiased information on the life cycle performance and economics of bioenergy technologies, and their impact on food security and poverty. The social and environmental impacts of these technologies will also have to be assessed. This requires a standardized typology of food-feed-fiber-energy–producing agricultural systems as well as standardized methodologies for their integrated assessment.

7. Asian countries should consider the use of crop residues, especially rice and wheat straw, which are largely being burned in most countries. This is a priority area for R&D, particularly with regard to thermal conversion technologies for different scales and the level of residue retention, which may be needed for sustainable land use under different cropping systems.

8. Potential biofuel-producing countries in Asia should conduct their own national assessments critically and devise appropriate strategies to meet long-term bioenergy goals. APAARI and other regional/global organizations should devise strategies for the Bioenergy Revolution, and sensitize policymakers so that Asia-Pacific countries can reap the expected benefits.

9. The donor community should fund new R&D efforts on bioenergy, since the long-run benefits will lead to both poverty alleviation and protection of the environment – thus meeting two of the major Millennium Development Goals.

The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) is the world’s leading rice research and training center. Based in the Philippines and with offices in 10 other Asian countries, it is an autonomous, nonprofit institution focused on improving the well-being of present and future generations of rice farmers and consumers, particularly those with low incomes, while preserving natural resources. IRRI is one of 15 centers funded through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), an association of public and private donor agencies.

Article continues

Biomass 'more attractive' investment than wind

According to veteran energy reporter Matthew Wald all renewables have their pros and cons, without there being a clear favorite. Wald analysed the trade-offs associated with alternatives in Getting Power to the People [*.pdf], a special in-depth feature appearing in the September/October 2007 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

However, Kurt Alen of Thenergo, a Belgian green energy firm, disagrees. Investors can expect to see more profit from biomass companies than they would from ploughing their capital into wind power and other renewables.

When it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions - a growing market with carbon emissions as a commodity - energy investors have four basic choices: either backing fossil fuels with all the future risks and uncertainties this entails (peak production, increasing prices, climate penalties); throwing their weight behind nuclear, which is being plagued by limited long term uranium supplies and the eternal waste problem; investing in carbon-neutral renewables like wind and solar; or backing energy concepts that fight climate change most effectively, namely carbon-negative bioenergy.

While wind has been a favoured alternative technology of the investment community, biomass is a more attractive prospect for several reasons. According to Alen, a lot of people understand the wind concept, but few understand biomass and its present and future advantages.

Biomass projects generate more profits than other renewables for two key reasons:
  • First, by partnering with the producers of the fuel - be they farmers, forests or facilities producing large quantities of organic waste - such schemes can ensure a steady supply of the fuel and a reliable market for the heat produced from CHP plants. In one of its projects Thenergo charges farmers a gate fee for unwanted manure, extracts the methane to produce power and then sells the residue back to the farmers as fertiliser. The biomass energy producer often gets paid for his raw materials. When waste is not available, biomass can always be traded physically and imported in an efficient and competitive manner.
  • The second advantage over wind is the operational time. Wind is an energy 'converter' whereas biomass is an 'energy carrier', which is a major advantage. Investors sometimes make the mistake of comparing potential schemes by the Megawatt, but fail to take into account that a 10MW wind park might produce less energy than a 3MW biomass plant because it would be running at a lower efficiency and would not use its full capacity - the wind does not always blow, whereas a well-run biomass facility is operational on a continuous basis.
Using these arguments, Alen showed that a €15million biomass might sell €4.1million of power per year, twice the value of the energy produced by an equivalent priced wind farm.

Carbon-negative energy and carbon credits
Added to this is the fact that in the medium to long term, biomass projects can be coupled to carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies, resulting in carbon-negative energy production. Only biomass can achieve this. Wind power is carbon-neutral at best and only prevents a rise in atmospheric CO2 emissions in the future. Carbon-negative bioenergy on the contrary takes CO2 emissions from the past out of the atmosphere. With the prospect of CCS being included in carbon-trading schemes (earlier post), this gives carbon-negative biopower a strong advantage over other renewables:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Thenergy attempts to maximise its profits through shrewd trading of certificates for green power production and selling its energy on the markets at the right time. But even without subsidy from certificates, alternative energy sources will soon be a viable business proposition, said Alen.

Thenergo is a leading European bioenergy company. Recently it launched a Belgian-Dutch partnership to develop a 5MW biocoal project in the Netherlands. The project will generate annually up to 42,800MWh of power and 75,000 tons of biocoal pellets. These pellets are made from thermally processed biomass either from dedicated energy crops or from wood debris, forest residue and chippings. This 'designer coal' can be burned in existing coal plants.

It also announced the development of a 3MW CHP biogas project in Flanders. The project will be operational for up to 8,000 hours per year, generating annually 24,000MWh of clean power, enough to supply around-the-clock electricity for up to 6,000 households. Feedstocks are locally sourced waste streams for which it gets paid.

Eurekalert: Trade-offs reveal no clear favorites in alternative energy market - September 11, 2007.

Wald, Matthew, "Getting power to the people"[*.pdf], Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 63, N° 5, September/October, 2007, pp. 26-43, DOI: 10.2968/D630D5008

Edie News Center: Biomass 'more attractive investment' than wind - August 31, 2007

Biopact: Carbon-negative energy gets boost as UNFCCC includes CCS in CDM mechanism - September 19, 2007.

Biopact: Thenergo to develop new 3MW CHP biogas project in Flanders - August 08, 2007

Biopact: Belgian-Dutch partnership to develop 5MW biocoal project - August 10, 2007

Article continues

Need for biofuel policies illustrated in Hungary, where opportunistic biomass harvesting amplifies drought

An interesting example of the need for strong policies and farming rules for biofuels comes from Hungary. Like many other countries in the EU, Hungary has suffered a drought, slashing its corn output by half. These droughts are responsible for an increase in food and biofuel feedstock prices (earlier post).

According to Szent Istvan University professor Marta Birkas, lack of precipitation is not the only cause of this drought in Hungary's maize areas: careless agricultural techniques, opportunistic biofuel production and burning agricultural by-products in power plants have amplified the situation's severity.

This year's dry weather would have had less impact on crops if farmers had left the maize plants' stalks and straw on the fields as protection from the sun and evaporation, instead of selling it as biomass.
There is plenty of biomass out there to burn and lots of fallow land to grow energy crops. I caution everyone not to sell [corn] straw and stalks to power plants. The soil needs it as a protection from drought. - Marta Birkas, Szent Istvan University professor
Like the professor says: there is enough land and biomass from other sources, so in theory biofuels as such are not the problem. What is problematic is the market-driven rush to cash in on the biofuel boom, which pushes farmers to disregard basic sustainability rules and which drives them to exploit resources where they can be gotten in the least costly way. The problem can be observed elsewhere.

Analysts from the IEA's Bioenergy Taskforces confirm that there is 'plenty of land out there' on a planetary basis (to be exact: more than enough to produce more energy from sustainable biofuels than the world's total energy use combined). But the best land is used first, and expansion into the very areas that would make biofuel production more sustainable, is more costly. Moreover, in the specific case of Hungary it must be said that corn is a crop that should be abandoned for biofuels production in any case, as the energy balance of maize-based fuel is very weak, as is its GHG reduction potential. It also requires heavy inputs of fertilizers.

Thus, strong policies are urgently needed to ensure a certain degree of sustainability. Biofuel makers in Hungary turn grains and oil seeds into gasoline and many burn farm byproducts to meet the often high energy needs of their plants for processes like fermentation. For this, they utilize resources that should be left on the field, especially when drought looms:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Wrong farming methods, especially careless ploughing, also reduces the soil's ability to store water efficiently, Birkas said.

Ministry officials said Hungary would invest heavily in farm machinery and irrigation to address these problems as drought was becoming more frequent, hitting the major grain growing country for the fourth time in 10 years.

"Soil dryness has several causes, both lack of precipitation and wrong agricultural techniques," Agriculture Minister Jozsef Graf told Reuters.

Hungary needs to raise its irrigated area by at least 100,000 ha from about 80,000 hay, another official said.

This year's drought is expected to cut the maize crop by half to 4 million tones and Hungary has started buying back grain left in European Union stores from previous bumper seasons to sell to animal breeders short of feed.

Reuters: Biofuels worsen Hungary's drought, expert says - September 20, 2007.

Biopact: UN: biofuels not to blame for high food prices - September 14, 2007

Article continues

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Researchers explore why conservation efforts fail: lack of anthropological insight main cause

Bioenergy production relies on the careful and sustainable exploitation of natural resources, balancing environmental, social, political and economic factors in a complex matrix. To make projects succeed, lessons can be learned from sustainability scientists, and in particular from those who apply modern conservation techniques to ecosystems. However, while some of these conservation efforts have resulted in success stories, just as many strategies have wrought serious failures. It is from these failures that we can learn.

In this week's special issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Indiana University political scientist Elinor Ostrom and colleagues wonder why exactly so many conservation projects fail. Ostrom edited the special issue with Arizona State University's Macro Janssen and John Anderies.

Part of their answer is that while many basic conservation strategies and concepts are sound in theory, their practical use is often seriously flawed. The strategies and policies are designed in academia and then applied too generally, in a 'top-down' and often eurocentric manner, as an inflexible, regulatory 'blueprint' that foolishly ignores local culture, economics, social behavior and politics.

Conservationists need help from anthropologists and ethnographers, they urge. These social scientists carefully analyse and learn to understand the complexities of how other cultures interact with nature and its resources. Environmental anthropologists take a broad, but very empirical and detailed perspective: through participant observation and other dedicated fieldwork techniques they learn the language of the communities they work with and they succeed in placing their social behavior in that often impenetrable whole called 'culture'. The ethnographer's sharp eye reveals practises that are highly meaningful to local communities, but that remain invisible to outsiders, including the conservationist.

In her contribution, Ostrom therefor proposes a flexible 'framework' for determining what factors will influence natural resource management. The interdisciplinary framework highlights the need for ethnographic analysis and anthropological understanding. What conservationists must learn is that they shouldn't ignore what's going on at the local level, Ostrom says. It is highly beneficial to work with local people, including the resource exploiters (often seen as 'the enemy'), to create effective regulation, she adds. Top-down approaches are doomed to fail.

Modern conservation theory relies on well established mathematical models that predict what will happen to a species, a resource or a habitat over time. But one thing these abstract models can't account for is the unpredictable behavior of human beings whose lives both influence and are influenced by conservation efforts. Without understanding local cultures and their complex symbolic and social fabric, conservation can never take root in the community in such a way that its members take the effort to heart, understand its rationale and act on it:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Ostrom's framework is divided into tiers that allow conservationists and policymakers to delineate those factors most likely to affect the protection or management of a given resource.

The first tier imposes four broad variables: the resource system, the resource units, the governance system and the resource users. The second tier examines each of these variables in greater detail, such as the government and non-government entities that may already be regulating the resource, the innate productivity of a resource system, the size and placement of the system, the system's economic value and what sorts of people use the resource -- from indigenous people to heads of state. The third tier digs even deeper into each of the basic variables.

Applying Ostrom's framework, policymakers are encouraged first to examine the behaviors of resource users, then establish incentives for resource users to aid a conservation strategy or, at least, not interfere with it. In short, anthropologists and ethnographers must be hired first to lay the ground-work and describe the local human context, before any further steps can be taken.

Ostrom's framework could also serve to normalize the effects of political upheavals that occur regularly at both national and state/provincial levels. It also accommodates non-political changes that may come with economic development and environmental change. In short, the framework's flexibility would allow the resource managers to modify a plan without scrapping the plan entirely.

Ostrom is the co-director of the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at IU Bloomington. She and special issue co-editors Janssen and Anderies are also affiliated with the Arizona State University School of Human Evolution and Social Change. Ostrom's research was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation, the Ford Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation.

Biopact strongly agrees with Ostrom's analysis, but quite frankly, we think the author states the obvious. Biopact was originally founded by a group of social & cultural anthropologists precisely out of frustration over the current state of affairs: countless communities in the developing world have to deal with a permanent stream of top-down decision makers - from Worldbankers, bureaucrats, NGOs, conservationists, economists, and international aid organisations - who all enter their world to dictate how they should organise their lives and deal with the environment. After their 24-hour stay (if that), they leave and go back to their headquarters in Paris, London or New York, thinking they have achieved something. When the project fails because of 'unexpected behavior' of the local community, the anthropologist simply points to the power of culture.

We should not exaggerate the matter, because many organisations and projects have already understood the value of 'local knowledge' and of actively engaging local communities in decision-making processes and in policy design, but still, this often remains a paper exercise. It is amazing to see that in the 21st century, countless analysts, policy makers and researchers still talk and think about other people in a purely academic context without even knowing the communities in question, let alone the complexities of their culture and life-world. What is more, even so-called 'stakeholder participation' efforts are often naive, because they follow routines developed in academia. Only a prior and in-depth anthropological approach can overcome the pitfalls of such consultation rounds.

Applying abstract mathematical models to reorganise cultures' approach to the environment, to politics and the economy, is profoundly naive if these models are not informed by thorough analyses of the reality on the ground. Communities of people are not merely an empty 'factor' the effects of which can be 'computed' and predicted. Precisely in order to get a grip on the dense, idiosyncratic practises of other cultures, the science of social and cultural anthropology has developed successful methods, techniques and analytical frameworks with which to document, translate and understand life-worlds and human behavior in all its dimensions. There is no reason as to why conservationists should not hire these researchers and fieldworkers.

Ethnographic fieldwork must be carried out by trained professionals and can be resource intensive and time consuming. But the knowledge gained from it is invaluable and reduces the risk of failure for conservation efforts. Anthropological insight allows for the adaptation of interventions and projects to a very specific context whose dynamics are largely determined by culture.

: Anthropologist Shauna LaTosky with Mursi-kids in Southern Ethiopia. Ethnographic field work is time consuming but yields invaluable insights into local culture. Without this knowledge, conservation efforts have a higher risk of failing. Credit: University of Mainz.

Ostrom, E. "A diagnostic approach for going beyond panaceas", Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci., Published online before print September 19, 2007, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0702288104

Eurekalert: Why conservation efforts often fail - September 18, 2007.

Biopact: A closer look at Social Impact Assessments of large biofuel projects - April 04, 2007

Article continues

New plastic-based, nano-engineered CO2 capturing membrane developed

Carbon-negative bioenergy is becoming an ever more feasible concept (earlier post), but a crucial step needed to make it work is the development of cost-effective carbon-capture technologies. CO2 capture is by far the most expensive step in the carbon capture and storage (CCS) process. Techniques to trap the greenhouse gas before it enters the atmosphere can be divided in to three categories: pre-combustion, oxyfuel, and post-combustion capture (overview). The latter technique separates CO2 from the waste gases resulting from the combustion of (bio)fuels.

Current methods used for this type of filtration are expensive and require the use of chemicals. However, scientists are developing cheap membranes made from plastics that can perform the same task in a less costly way. Recently, a team from Australia announced progress on the creation of an inexpensive polypropylene membrane (earlier post).

Now researchers from the Membrane Research Group (MEMFO) at the Chemical Engineering Department of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim report on the development of a similar membrane, made from a plastic material that has been structured by means of nanotechnology. It catches CO2 while other waste gases pass freely.

The technology is effective, inexpensive and eco-friendly, and can be used for practically all types of CO2 removal from other gases. Its effectiveness increases proportionally to the concentration of CO2 in the gas. This latter point is important within the context of pre-combustion CO2 capture from biogas, which has a very large carbon dioxide fraction (earlier post).

The separation method occuring in the membrane is called 'facilitated transport' and is comparable to the way our lungs get rid of CO2 when we breathe. It is a complex but effective mechanism:
The novelty is that instead of using a filter that separates directly between CO2 and other molecules, we use a so-called agent. It is a fixed carrier in the membrane that helps to convert the gas we want to remove. - May-Britt Hägg, NTNU Professor leading the Membrane Research Group (MEMFO)
The agent helps so that the CO2 molecules in combination with moisture form the chemical formula HCO3 (bicarbonate), which is then quickly transported through the membrane. In this manner, the CO2 is released while the other gases are retained by the membrane:

Various materials are used to make membranes. It could be plastic, carbon and/or ceramic materials. Membrane separation of gases is a highly complex process. The materials must be tailored in an advanced way to be adapted to separate specific gases. They must be long-lasting and stable:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The new membrane is made of plastic, structured by means of nanotechnology to function according to the intention. Membranes based on nano-structured materials are eco-friendly and will reduce the costs of CO2 capture.

”With this method, we can remove more CO2 and obtain a cleaner product for smaller plants. Thus, it becomes less expensive,” Hägg says.

”We also have membranes today that are used to separate CO2 and have been used for a couple of decades, but these membranes are used for natural gases at high pressures, and are not suited for CO2 from flue gas. If the membrane separated poorly, very large amounts of the material is needed, and that makes this separation expensive,“ Professor Hägg explains.

Membranes have a major potential to become an inexpensive and eco-friendly alternative in the future. An international patent has been taken out for the new type. Manufacturers both in Europe and the USA have taken an interest in putting it into production, the professor reveals.

Testing in Europe

The Membrane Research Group (Memfo) recently joined a consortium of 26 European businesses and institutions within a project named NanoGloWa – Nanostructured Membranes against Global Warming. The consortium has received EUR 13 million to develop such membranes. One of these millions is reserved for Memfo.

According to Hägg, the new technology ought to be very interesting for coal-powered plants. “Within a five-year period, the plan is to test the membrane technology in four large power plants in Europe. We believe this will result in an international breakthrough for energy-efficient CO2 membranes,” she says.

When it comes to gas-powered plants, the concentration of CO2 is so low that the pressure in the waste gas must be increased before the gas can be cleaned with this method. However, Professor Hägg reveals that Statoil is currently developing a method for pressurized exhaust that could be combined with this membrane technology, and that would make it interesting for purification in gas-powered plants as well.

Besides CO2 purification in energy production, the method could be used for more or less any type of purification where carbon dioxide is removed from other gases.

”For instance, we are testing this method to purify CO2 from laughing gas in hospitals, and the results are promising,” concludes Professor May-Britt Hägg.


AlphaGalileo: New membrane catches CO2 - September 19, 2007.

Norwegian University of Science and Technology: Membrane Research Group (Memfo), overview of research [*.pdf].

Biopact: Plastic membrane to bring down cost of carbon capture - August 15, 2007

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

Article continues

Synthetic biology company Amyris announces $70 million in funding for next-generation biofuels

Amyris Biotechnologies, an innovator in the development of renewable hydrocarbon biofuels, today announced that it closed the first tranche of its $70 million Series B funding. Duff Ackerman & Goodrich Ventures (DAG Ventures) led the financing and was joined by existing Series A investors, including Khosla Ventures (heavily involved in a range of biofuels and bioeconomy projects), Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and TPG Ventures. The Series B funding will be used to further the development and scale up of its technology for the production of three transportation biofuels: biogasoline, biodiesel, and biojet, and to support business initiatives to enable Amyris to bring its biofuels to market as early as 2010.

Amyris, a synthetic biology company, uses engineered microbes and rapid enzymatic pathway construction techniques to build microorganisms capable of producing high-value compounds, from renewable biofuels to pharmaceuticals. Amyris' platform technology is based on a modular design of metabolic pathways. The emerging and potentially disruptive field of synthetic biology is seen by many as a science with major applications in next-generation bioenergy and biofuel production (more here, here, here and especially here). Some have already taken its principles out of the lab and used them to design new, third-generation biofuel crops (earlier post).
Amyris is designing better biofuels from designer bugs. This is a big deal because Amyris' cost competitive biofuels will work with existing engines without compromising performance and will have a lower carbon footprint. This financing will help Amyris scale with speed. - John Doerr, partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers
Amyris pioneers a technology platform that allows it to use a variety of environmentally-friendly renewable feedstocks including sugarcane, corn and cellulose, to produce high-value compounds. This technology has been proven in Amyris’ earlier non-profit project, funded through a grant to the Institute for One World Health from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to reduce the production cost of artemisinin-based anti-malarial drugs.

Using the same synthetic biology technology platform, Amyris is now developing capabilities to produce a slate of high-performing hydrocarbon transportation biofuels that are environmentally friendly, cost-effective, and compatible with current engines and distribution infrastructure:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::
"Amyris has not only a break-through technology but a clearly defined strategy to commercialize a promising slate of next-generation biofuels that could have a profound impact on the transportation market," said R. Thomas Goodrich at DAG Ventures. "We are investing with strong confidence in what Amyris is creating as well as the management and scientific team the company is putting in place to execute on its vision."

"No-compromise transportation fuels derived from renewable sources hold substantial promise for meeting the tremendous need for alternative energy sources in the future," said John Melo, CEO of Amyris. "We have already succeeded in creating these biofuels in our lab. We are delighted with the strong interest in our Series B funding which will enable us to continue the research and scale-up of our technology and to implement our business model as the first biofuels company to go from production to customer."

Amyris expects to close the second tranche of its Series B financing by the end of 2007.

Image: the Escherichia coli bacterium, one of the many microorganisms used in synthetic biology experiments. Amyris recently reengineered a bacterium into a chemical factory that makes a proven anti-malarial drug.

Vincent J J Martin, Douglas J Pitera, Sydnor T Withers, Jack D Newman & Jay D Keasling, "Engineering a mevalonate pathway in Escherichia coli for production of terpenoids", Nature Biotechnology 21, 796 - 802 (2003), Published online: 1 June 2003; | doi:10.1038/nbt833

Biopact: Breakthrough in synthetic biology: scientists synthesize DNA-based memory in yeast cells, guided by mathematical model - September 17, 2007

Biopact: Scientists call for global push to advance synthetic biology - biofuels to benefit - June 25, 2007

Biopact: Scientists patent synthetic life - promise for 'endless' biofuels - June 09, 2007

Biopact: Scientists take major step towards 'synthetic life': first bacterial genome transplantation changing one species to another - June 29, 2007

Article continues

Carbon-negative energy gets boost as UNFCCC includes CCS in CDM mechanism

Very important news: the capture and sequestering underground of carbon dioxide from power plants will earn carbon credits under the Kyoto Protocol, following amendments to the treaty’s main carbon trading scheme. A UNFCCC official says approval has been given for so-called carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects to claim Certified Emission Reduction (CER) credits under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).

Jose Miguez, a member of the CDM Executive Board, said the CDM would be expanded to cover some specific CCS activities in the upcoming first Kyoto commitment period to 2012. Projects would only be eligible in developing countries where at least half the nation’s electricity is generated from burning coal.

Carbon-negative energy ever more closer
This means, very importantly, that so-called 'bio-energy with carbon storage' (BECS) systems will be eligible for the credits too, which is what the bioenergy community has been asking. With this decision, the revolutionary potential of BECS can finally begin to be realised and transform the world's energy production systems - starting in developing countries.

The techniques currently being developed for the capture and geosequestration of carbon can be applied to biomass instead of coal, and thus deliver carbon-negative fuels and energy. Renewables like wind, solar, hydro or geothermal are all carbon-neutral. That is, they merely prevent the release of emissions in the future. Carbon-negative bioenergy and biofuels on the contrary clean up emissions from the past. They take back what we emitted years ago.

Scientists who developed BECS concepts within the context of 'Abrupt Climat Change' (ACC) scenarios, project that BECS systems can reduce atmospheric CO2 levels rapidly, safely and without the need for alternative and risky geo-engineering interventions. If implemented on a global scale, BECS can bring atmospheric CO2 back to pre-industrial levels by mid-century (earlier post and especially here).

Geo-engineering, the safe way
Some have suggested that we are already facing a future of catastrophic climate change and that this calls for radical geo-engineering solutions. One of the least controversial of the ideas is the use of 'synthetic trees' - machines that capture CO2 and sequester it underground. The problem is that the idea represents a costly intervention, and does not replace the polluting fossil fuels that are responsible for the problem in the first place.

BECS systems are based on the same principle, but use real trees instead. Contrary to the synthetic trees, BECS systems yield energy while capturing CO2. As energy crops grow, they store carbon. When they are transformed into useable energy, the carbon released is captured via a range of techniques (pre-combustion, oxyfuel or post-combustion capture), and then locked away. The balance is carbon-negative energy in the form of electricity, heat, or liquid and gaseous fuels. In short, BECS systems allow societies to keep using energy as usual, while cleaning up their past emissions.

This is a far less radical approach than some of the more questionable geo-engineering options presently on the table, which would require societies to power down, with all the risks this entails. Some of these proposals include:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Seeding the oceans with iron to ensure that algae sequester carbon dioxide which would then drop to the bottom of the ocean (earlier post), creating artificial clouds that reflect sunlight back into the atmosphere and lead to global cooling, or launching billions of tiny mirrors into space to prevent sunlight from reaching the planet. The most controversial proposal is the suggestion that mitigating global warming could be accomplished by emulating a volcanic eruption because volcanic aerosols scatter incoming sunlight, reducing outgoing radiation. Rockets full of sulphur particles would be launched into the upper atmosphere and envelop the earth in a blanket of aerosols. Scientists advise against this idea because it is too risky (more here).

The BECS-concept could be seen as a geo-engineering option that is much more feasible, far less costly and virtually risk-free. 'Geo-engineering', because it requires the establishment of vast energy plantations across the globe, the biomass of which must replace coal.

Because of the confluence of several factors, this idea is becoming more and more feasible. First, there is vast potential for energy crops in the South. Projections by the International Energy Agency's Bioenergy Task 40, which looks at this potential, assesses the biomass potential to be as high as 1300 Exajoules worth of energy by 2050 (this is roughly three times as much energy as the total amount of energy used today by the entire planet from all sources, - coal, oil, gas, nuclear) (more here).

An EU-study looked at things in a more concrete way. It asked what the potential is for tropical tree crops that might be used for the production of green steel. Its conclusion: there are more than 46 million hectares of suitable land available in Central Africa (southern Congo, the western part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, northern and eastern Angola, western Zambia, western and southern Tanzania, northern Mozambique and the western and central parts of the Central African Republic), and another 46 million in Brazil. There, fast growing and high yielding trees like Eucalyptus can be grown in a reasonably sustainable manner (earlier post).

Many other biomass crops can be grown in other parts of the subtropics and the tropics, where land-use is extremely limited and much arable land is available without the threat of a conflict between food and fuel production, and without the need for deforestation (see the IEA projections).

A second factor is the progress made by scientists in developing ever better crops for bioenergy. Examples are myriad, but we will refer only to a most recent one: the design of a eucalyptus tree that sequesters far more carbon dioxide than normal trees, and has a lower lignin content (earlier post). This is an important example, because the more CO2 a tree captures, the more of it can be sequestered when used in BECS-systems.

A third reason is the advances made in the design of highly efficient bioconversion processes that are becoming competitive with oil, gas and coal. Some of these include new biogas, gasification, biomass-to-liquids and combustion processes. Some of these can already be coupled to CCS technologies.

Finally, BECS can be decoupled from power generation. This means that a geosequestration site (e.g. a depleted oil or gas field) can be selected independently of the location of a power plant but in function of the local biomass production potential. Biomass would be grown close to the sequestration site, converted into a (gaseous or liquid) biofuel, the CO2 captured and stored, and the ultra-clean, carbon-negative fuel shipped out to end-markets.

For all these reasons, BECS-systems become flexible concepts that can be applied in a wide range of contexts and that can rely on the large global potential for the production of dedicated biomass.

Growing awareness
The BECS-concept is only gradually permeating the minds of the energy and climate communities. But some concrete projects are underway that hint at its potential. Recently we discussed a study by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (DOE/NETL) and the U.S. Air Force (USAF) focused on a highly advanced generation of fuels made from combining the liquefaction of both coal and biomass, and then coupling the system to carbon sequestration technologies. It's a mouthful, but the radical concept comes down to: coal+biomass-to-liquids (CBTL) + carbon capture and storage (CCS), or CBTL+CCS. The CBTL process consists of the production of so-called synthetic fuels, obtained from the gasification of feedstock, with the gas then liquefied via Fischer-Tropsch synthesis into an ultra-clean synthetic fuel. If the coal is left out and biomass is used exclusively, the fuel becomes carbon-negative.

The above example is one based on the production of fuels, not power and electricity. Alternatives to this concept are the production of ultra-clean carbon-negative biomethane. Energy crops are digested anaerobically after which the CO2 fraction is scrubbed out of the gas via pre-combustion techniques. The carbon dioxide is then ready to be sequestered. Pure carbon-negative biomethane can then be shipped to markets.

But BECS-systems will find their most wide and earliest applications in power plants, in settings similar to CCS coupled to coal plants. The CCS-techniques can be applied to fully dedicated biomass power plants that burn wood or biomass pellets instead of coal. However, in a first stage, it is most likely that biomass will be co-fired in coal plants to which CCS is applied. Several 'clean coal' projects are now beginning to grasp the fact that the inclusion of biomass as a fuel could make the fuel carbon-negative instead of merely carbon-neutral.

For example a new CCS project announced by Praxair and Foster Wheeler explicitly hints at the inclusion of biofuels (earlier post); it calls these still 'opportunity' fuels, but with the advent of global biomass trade and given the huge potential for its sustainable production in the South, biomass will soon transit from an opportunity fuel into a main fuel in power plants.

The fact that the UNFCCC is set to include CCS for carbon credits in the CDM, implies that BECS could be introduced first in the South, precisely there where large-scale sustainable biomass production is most feasible.


Carbon Positive: CCS given Kyoto green light - September 19, 2007.

Biopact: A closer look at the revolutionary coal+biomass-to-liquids with carbon storage project - September 13, 2007

Biopact: En route to carbon-negative energy: Praxair and Foster Wheeler team up to pursue carbon capture demonstration projects - September 18, 2007

Biopact: IEA report: bioenergy can meet 20 to 50% of world's future energy demand - September 12, 2007

Biopact: Climate change and geoengineering: emulating volcanic eruption too risky - August 15, 2007

Biopact: Capturing carbon with "synthetic trees" or with the real thing? - February 20, 2007

Biopact: Green steel made from tropical biomass - European project - February 08, 2007

Biopact: Scientists develop low-lignin eucalyptus trees that store more CO2, provide more cellulose for biofuels - September 17, 2007

Article continues

EDG to support Dutch company with construction of biogas plants that recycle minerals and produce commercial NPK fertilizers

Swiss Hawk’s portfolio company, Enviromental Development Group AG (EDG), has annouced [*German] the closing of an agreement with Dutch company Beesterzwaag Beheer B.V. to support the construction of advanced biogas plants that recycle minerals and produce high-quality commercial fertilizers from digestate in a highly efficient and integrated way.

Beesterzwaag is a technology leader in the field of converting biomass feedstocks used in energy production into NPK fertilizers, with a patented technique that allows a sustainable handling of agricultural waste derived from the livestock and farming sectors. It is often said that biogas digestate or biomass ash 'can be used as organic fertilizers', but merely spreading these materials onto farmland is not efficient and does not allow for precise control of dosages.

Instead, Beesterzwaag developed a process (schematic, click to enlarge) that concentrates part of the digestate into into pellets that are then used as a biofuel for power generation. After the pellets are burned, the remaining minerals are recovered and reused. The other fraction contains ammonia, which is transformed in a green way into ammonium nitrate, the world's most widely used fertilizer. The result is a commercial liquid NPK fertilizer containing the macro-nutrients used in agriculture.

The process consists of the following steps:
  • Centrifuge: the digestate is separated and concentrated by a decanter. The concentrate (thin fraction) contains the biggest part of nitrogen and potassium components of the minerals, while the concentrate (solid fraction) contains the biggest part of the phosphates.
  • Drying: the concentrate from the decanter is fed to a dryer. The dryer is heated by the steam produced from the heat exchanger in the off gas of the gasmotors powered by biogas generated on-site. The dried concentrate will be pelletised and used as biofuel in coal or biomass fired power plant. The dryer is located in a separate room. The moisture from the dryer is condensed and used to produce hot water. The condensate is recycled to conversion process. The non condensables are treated before the are emitted.
  • Pelletization: The biofuel is pelletised and transported to a container, ready to be shipped to power plants.
  • Nitrification: The majority of the minerals in the concentrate (thin fraction) will be ammonia. The ammonia is converted to ammonium nitrite in a biological step. In a second step the ammonium nitrite is converted to ammonium nitrate by addition of acid and air. Ammonium nitrate is most used fertiliser in the world. The liquid out of the nitrification is called the thin NPK minerals fraction.
  • Evaportation: the thin NPK minerals fraction output from the nitrification contains a still a lot of water. This thin fraction is concentrated in an evaporator into NPK fertiliser. The concentration of this fertilizer will be as high as the concentration of existing competitive liquid fertilizer products. The evaporator release condensed vapour besides the NPK concentrate. The concentrated NPK is stored in a tank and transported via trucks to the clients.
Beesterzwaag is currently constructing two plants with the integrated mineral recycling and fertilizer production technology in Belgium and the Netherlands, in co-operation with Biomassa Holding B.V., a green energy company that has 6 large-scale biomass power plants under construction:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Biomassa Holding B.V. is building the following large-scale biomass plants in the Netherlands and in Belgium: a 180,000 ton biomass plant in Drachten (energy for 10,000 households), a 135,000 plant in Terneuzen and a similar one in Nederweert (both supply energy to 7,500 households), a 120,000 ton plant in Ieper (6,600 households), a biomass plant with a capacity of 240,000 tons in Waalwijk (good for 13,300 households) and one with a capacity of 150,000 tons in Zaltbommel (8,300 households.

Enviromental Development Group AG plans to co-operate with Beesterzwaag in regard to building of an additional plant in North-West Germany. The investment volume totals approx €6 million. EDG has made an exclusive agreement with Beesterzwaag for the promotion of the technology in the German market, the world's largest biogas market.

EDG operates as a project developer in the field of environmental technologies and cooperates with established companies as well as with independent teams. EDG structures the projects by identifying and evaluating innovative technologies/ processes, structuring of projects and developing business plans, preparing projects for investment, creating synergies between the portfolio projects.

EDG focuses specifically on the utilisation of biomass (biofuel and biogas), wind and solar energy, 'waste-to-energy( (utilisation of recycling-and-disposal-technologies for the production of energy and secondary raw materials, smart technologies for energy and resouces efficiency.

Swiss Hawk is a niche investment banking organisation that trades in high growth alternative asset class investments. The Company pursues an aggressive investment policy focusing on late stage pre-IPO and IPO transactions with high growth potential and planned exit in the short to medium term. Swiss Hawk is listed on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange Open Market.

Translated by Jonas Van Den Berg for Biopact, CC, 2007.

Presseport: EDG unterstützt niederländischen Anbieter bei der Errichtung von Biomasse-Anlagen - September 19, 2007.

Article continues

India to double ethanol blend to 10% to lift sugar sector out of overproduction crisis

India plans to double the requirement for ethanol blended into gasoline and lift a ban on direct production of the biofuel from sugarcane juice — measures that would help reduce the country's record sugar stocks, lift India's millions of sugar farmers out of their current overproduction crisis, and address the rising demand for transport fuels. The news lifted stocks of sugar companies by nearly 20 percent in today's trade.

The government will soon issue orders requiring oil companies to double the ethanol content in gasoline sold in the country to 10 percent by October next year from 5 percent now, said Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar Wednesday. This would propel India to become one of the largest ethanol consumers.

Pawar told reporters the government wants farmers and sugar mills to directly produce ethanol from sugar cane juice. Currently, Indian laws allow ethanol to be produced only from molasses, the byproduct left after the juice is extracted for making sugar.

Pawar's comments brought relief to the sugar industry, which is battling surplus stocks and declining prices. Sugar stocks are expected to reach 11 million metric tons (12.1 million tons) by the end of this month, more than half what the country consumes in a full year.

India - the world's second-largest sugar producer - is experiencing a record sugar cane harvest, projected to be 28 million tonnes this year. This, combined with Brazil's record crop, has led to a drop in world sugar prices, despite the ethanol boom in Brazil (earlier post). An even bigger harvest of 30 million tons is projected for India's 2008 season, which would keep India's millions of farmers in crisis:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The Indian sugar industry therefor demanded the government to implement a switch to ethanol, in order to slow down the price drops (earlier post). The pressure has worked.

India currently only allows the production of ethanol from mollasses, the byproduct of sugar production. But this is an inefficient and costly process. With mills now allowed to utilize sugar cane juice as the feedstock, they can cut losses by reducing sugar inventories.

The move would make the production of biofuel far more affordable, trade officials say. Some expect production costs for ethanol made from Indian sugarcane to be as low as 20 rupees (€0.36) per liter (US$1.85 per gallon).


AP: India plans to double ethanol blend in gasoline, lift curbs on biofuel production - September 19, 2007.

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

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

Article continues

Guangxi to blend 10% ethanol into gasoline in December

China's southern region of Guangxi will start blending 10 percent ethanol into gasoline for cars in December, adding to the nine other provinces in the country using the biofuel. An official at the Guangxi Development and Reform Commission said it was preparing to start using fuel ethanol as a new biofuel plant would come on stream.

China Agri-Industries Holdings Ltd, a listed arm of state-owned agricultural group COFCO, is building the plant, which can manufacture up to 200,000 tonnes of fuel ethanol a year from cassava.

China, the third-largest ethanol producer after Brazil and the United States, plans to blend 2 million tonnes of ethanol into gasoline by 2010, up from 1.02 million tonnes currently. By 2020, it wants to achieve an output of 10 million tonnes. China is promoting biofuels to cut its reliance on very costly imported oil. The commitment to use more biofuels was reiterated recently, when the People's Republic unveiled a $265 billion renewable energy plan, which aims to generate 15% of the nation's energy from renewables by 2020 (more here).

The Guangxi plant will be the first major fuel ethanol producer using cassava, the starch-rich root crop used mainly for industrial products. A recent study shows cassava-based ethanol has a strong energy balance and is thus an efficient biofuel (previous post).

Four other plants in Guangxi currently use corn or wheat, but Beijing is set to phase out these feedstocks and instead plans to use non-food biomass sources. Cassava is considered one of those, alongside sweet potato and sorghum (previous post). However, traders and industry officials said the COFCO plant in Guangxi might squeeze local cassava supplies, raising the country's need for imports of the crop from Vietnam and Thailand, the world's major exporters.

This in itself needn't be problematic, because regardless of the origin of the feedstock, cassava ethanol can be produced profitably when oil prices are above US$40. Transportation costs of cassava chips from nearby Thailand or Vietnam are marginal:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Local experts estimate that the Guangxi plant alone would need to import at least 300,000 tonnes of cassava chips per year if it was to operate at full capacity. According to one executive from a plant in Guangxi manufacturing food-grade ethanol, the Guanxi plant can cover only a third of it needs locally.

Guangxi, the country's top cassava grower, can grow cassava only three months between November and January. The crop has to compete with sugar cane over land in the region, also the country's top sugar-producing area.

However, there is vast room for expansion of the crop in South East Asia. In the future, China might simply start importing cassava from these regions. Alternative, it could locate ethanol plants right at the source, there where cassava production takes place. Several Chinese companies are already doing this.

Image: new high-yielding cassava varieties successfully bred by the Chinese Academy of Tropical Agricultural Sciences (South China University of Tropical Agriculture) are being grown by farmers in Guangxi. Credit: CATAS/SCUTA.

Reuters: China's Guangxi to fill cars with ethanol in Dec - September 19, 2007.

Biopact: First comprehensive energy balance study reveals cassava is a highly efficient biofuel feedstock - April 18, 2007

Biopact: China unveils $265 billion renewable energy plan, aims for 15% renewables by 2020 - September 06, 2007

Biopact: China mulls switch to non-food crops for ethanol - June 11, 2007

Article continues

NanoLogix generates electricity from biohydrogen made from waste

NanoLogix, Inc., a nano-biotech company announces it has succeeded generating electricity onsite using hydrogen gas produced from its bioreactor prototype facility at Welch Foods Inc., a cooperative in Pennsylvania.

A 5.5 kW generator converted to run on hydrogen was utilized for the demonstration. The generator ran flawlessly on hydrogen gas produced by NanoLogix’s hydrogen bioreactor system in which bacteria convert carbohydrates (sugars) found in waste water. The system powered multiple strings of 100-watt light bulbs.

According to Harry Diz, Department Chair and Professor of Environmental Engineering at Gannon University and NanoLogix Bioreactor Development chief, this is the first time that electricity has been generated anywhere onsite using hydrogen produced through the use of bacteria to digest waste.

Currently there are two major problems with hydrogen: producing it, and storing and transporting it. Traditional production methods consist of using electricity for hydrolysis or reforming natural gas into hydrogen. These methods are energy intensive (about 20% of energy is lost in conversion) and entail the danger that the primary energy source will be fossil fuels. In such a case, hydrogen would no longer be a 'green' and renewable gas over its life-cycle. Secondly, storage and transportation of hydrogen is difficult and expensive.

Renewable biohydrogen production methods may offer a competitive alternative way to generate the gas. They rely on the transformation of biomass via a range of processes (overview): (1) biochemical conversion (diagram, click to enlarge): chemotrophic or phototrophic micro-organisms are allowed to ferment the carbohydrates (sugars) under anaerobic or aerobic conditions (depending on the micro-organism) during which hydrogenase or nitrogenase enzymes produce hydrogen directly (on H2 production from cyanobacteria and micro-algae see the last section of our post on biofuels from algae), (2) thermochemical conversion: biomass in solid form (wood, straw, etc) is transformed through gasification into a hydrogen-rich gas, from which the H2 is then separated, or (3) indirectly from biogas: biomass is anaerobically fermented into biogas, the methane of which is further converted into hydrogen (similar to H2 production from natural gas); combinations between biohydrogen and biomethane production are being researched as well.

For the biochemical pathway researchers are trying to find and sequence microorganisms most suitable to the task; they can often be found in extreme environments (more here and here). Others are re-engineering the metabolic processes of bacteria to make them more efficient at converting biomass into hydrogen (an example). Finally, a small group of scientists is designing new organisms from scratch, relying on the novel techniques found in synthetic biology. This new science field promises to allow the creation of truly dedicated microorganisms (more here and here).

Nanologix uses the biochemical pathway: bacteria in a hydrogen bioreactor digest the dissolved carbohydrates in the waste water stream and exhale hydrogen gas. Not only does this create hydrogen, the process also cleans the water:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

This leaves the other major problem associated with hydrogen: the difficulty of storaging and transportating the gas. The Nanologix bioreactor converts the gas to mechanical or electrical power on site. If more energy is produced than can be used, it is transported over existing electrical grids. Biohydrogen production can thus be decentralised and applied to many waste streams. The gas can not only be used in modified internal combustion engines, but also in more efficient fuel cells.

NanoLogix anticipates potential upscaling of the Welch’s operation to commercial bioreactor status. The Welch’s development enabled the conversion of sugar from a wastewater stream to produce hydrogen, a feat that contributes to ongoing research and development for processing other types of waste streams. Linked to that development and following NanoLogix's business plan for expansion, in the spring of 2008 the company intends to begin bioreactor construction at the Erie Wastewater Treatment Plant for the extraction of hydrogen from their protein-rich activated sludge waste stream.

In the future, development economists predict that small and remote communities in the developing world might benefit greatly from such decentralised biohydrogen production systems. In fact, recently the Indonesian government announced it is studying a concept based on decentralised production: biohydrogen would be generated from biomass and fuel cells would convert it into electricity to be used for telecoms and village power; waste-water would be cleaned in the process and bring potable water to remote communities in the vast archipelago.

Nanologix: NanoLogix Inc. Announces Historical First in Energy Generation With Bioreactor-Produced Hydrogen At Welch's - September 17, 2007.

Biopact: New company called 'Biohydrogen' to make H2 from sugar - April 14, 2007

Biopact: Extremophile's genome sequenced, may improve biohydrogen production - April 20, 2007

Biopact: Investigating life in extreme environments may yield applications in the bioeconomy - July 05, 2007

Biopact: Scientists patent synthetic life - promise for 'endless' biofuels - June 09, 2007

Biopact: Biohydrogen fuel cells to bring water, energy and telecoms to remote communities in Indonesia - August 18, 2007

Article continues

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Dynamotive demonstrates fast-pyrolysis plant in the presence of biofuel experts

Dynamotive Energy Systems Corporation, a leader in bio-oil production technology, today announced it hosted a tour of its fast-pyrolysis plant in Guelph, Ontario, with over seventy-five global biofuel experts attending. Amongst them were scientists from the International Energy Agency's Bioenergy Task 40, to which we refer often as they are leading research into global bioenergy trade and logistics.

Dynamotive's plant is the first commercial-scale facility to produce bio-oil from biomass. The pyrolysis plant comprises eight fully assembled modules and will process, once in full operation, 66,000 dry tonnes of biomass a year and have an energy output equivalent to 130,000 barrels of oil. Because of its modular design, it is seen as a key technology capable of ensuring the emergence of a truly decentralized biofuel production paradigm (earlier post).

Bio-oil is an industrial fuel produced from cellulosic biomass, either obtained from dedicated energy crops or from residues from agriculture and forestry. By rapidly heating the biomass feedstock to temperatures of 450 - 600 °C in the absence of air ('fast' or 'flash' pyrolysis), a heavy pyrolysis oil ('bio-oil') is obtained (schematic, click to enlarge). When combusted this oil produces substantially less smog-precursor nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions than conventional oil as well as little or no sulfur oxide gases (SOx), which are a prime cause of acid rain. Bio-oil and Dynamotive's 'BioOil Plus' (earlier post) are price-competitive replacements for heating oils #2 and #6 that are widely used in industrial boilers and furnaces. Bio-oil can also be transformed into designer biofuels for transport.

Dynamotive's plant design has attracted attention from the bioenergy community because it promises genuine decentralized biofuel production. Because the plant is a modular concept, it can be brought to the source of the biomass, instead of bringing bulky feedstock to a central plant. The idea is to turn the bulky biomass feedstock into bio-oil on the spot. This liquid with a much higher energy density can then be transported more economically to more central processing facilities, or directly to end-markets. Moreover, the modularity of the core processing modules allows for better scaleability (more here).

During the demonstration, the plant was operational and for the first time the full cycle of production from wood chips to bio-oil was demonstrated publicly. The plant had previously undergone testing and inspection processes by regulatory and technical authorities in readiness for continuous operation. Previous tests conducted demonstrated the capacity of the plant to operate at its nominal design capacity of 200 tonnes per day biomass input.

Dynamotive and Evolution Biofuels (Dynamotive's partner in the venture) based on the successful start up will now proceed with the final commissioning and synchronization of all systems task that is expected to be completed within two weeks. The plant will be then operated by Dynamotive’s and Tecna’s staff for 60 days before handing over the plant operations to Evolution Biofuels:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The tour was part of a two-day conference in Toronto sponsored by the IEA's Bioenergy Task 40 which focuses on bioenergy trade, Bioenergy Focus Ontario and the Canadian Bioenergy Association, a national non-profit organization whose mission is to promote utilization of sustainable biomass for the production of biofuels, heat and power.

The Guelph plant, with a capacity to convert 200 tonnes of biomass into bio-oil per day, was developed in partnership with MegaCity Recycling Inc. and operates under the name Evolution Biofuels Inc. This Dynamotive flagship pyrolysis plant was constructed using modules that minimize on-site activities and allow for rapid deployment. It comprises eight fully assembled modules and when fully operational will process 66,000 dry tons of biomass per year with an energy output equivalent to 130,000 barrels of oil.

Prior to the tour, Dynamotive's Vice President Anton Kuipers presented the company's strategic initiatives to conference attendees on Wednesday, September 12. Mr. Kuipers commented during the presentation, "With two BioOil plants completed in Canada and plans underway for additional plants in Latin America and in the United States, Dynamotive is moving ahead in its global initiative to increase production of fuels from biomass." (On Dynamotive's activities in Latin America, see here).

In a very interesting side-development, Dynamotive also announced that it is experimenting with biochar ('agrichar', 'terra preta') which could lead to the production of carbon-negative fuels (more here and here). By storing a carbon-rich fraction of the pyrolysed biomass in agricultural soils, a low-tech carbon sequestration technique can be developed. The process has shown to result in increased yields for the (energy) crops that are planted on such improved soils.

Biopact: Dynamotive and Mitsubishi Corporation sign cooperation agreement - August 02, 2007

Biopact: Dynamotive plans to build 6 bio-oil plants in Argentina - April 30, 2007

Biopact: Dynamotive begins construction of modular fast-pyrolysis plant in Ontario - December 19, 2006

Biopact: Biomass-to-liquids: bring the factory to the forest, not the forest to the factory - September 18, 2006

Biopact: Carbon negative biofuels: Dynamotive to test biochar to boost crop yields, water quality, and sequester carbon - May 30, 2007

Article continues

African Development Bank approves €10 million loan for replanting and expanding palm oil, rubber in Gabon

The Board of Directors of the African Development Bank (AfDB) has approved a €10 million loan under its private sector window to finance Belgium's Tropical Agriculture Investment Company (Société d’Investissement pour l’Agriculture Tropicale, SIAT) for its expansion project in Gabon.

The project involves both replanting old plantations and establishing new ones with high-yielding trees (see table for an overview of current operations):
  • Oil Palm: (1) establishing a new 4,250-ha oil palm plantation and replanting 1,500-ha in Bindo; (2) replanting a 750-ha oil palm plantation in Zilé; (3) replanting a 1,000-ha oil palm plantation in Makouké; (4) modernizing a palm oil mill and palm kernel crushing plant in Makouké; (5) expanding the capacity of the palm oil refinery in Lambaréné from 50 tons per day tpd) to 75 tpd; (6) modernizing the soap manufacturing plant in Lambaréné, and (7) increasing the capacity of palm oil storage tanks in Lambaréné and Port Gentil by 3,000 tonnes.
  • Rubber: (1) re-planting 4,100-ha nucleus rubber plantations in Bitam and Mitzic; (2) supporting a 2,000-ha out-grower rubber scheme; and (3) establishing a new crumb rubber line with a capacity of 40 tpd in Mitzic.
According to the AfDB, the project will have a strong social development impact. At the local level, it will inject capital into the economy of Woleu-Ntem and Moyen-Ogooué provinces and help increase the living standards of the rural population.

The expansion project will provide employment for an additional 520 permanent staff for field preparation, planting, harvesting oil palm fruit, and tapping rubber latex. The project will further support some 500 out-grower farmers. The project staff and out-growers will be provided regular training to enhance their skills and improve their productivity. At the national level, the project will help Gabon expand its oil palm and rubber industries and produce more value added products. It will also generate tax revenue for the state and help to generate foreign exchange earnings.

The project will contribute to diversify Gabon’s economy, which is heavily dependent on crude oil, a sector controlled by a tiny elite. The country's petroleum resources are in decline and even though Gabon has a large agricultural potential, the sector has been underinvested because of the past oil boom. Palm oil and natural rubber now offer the most immediate strategy to make Gabon less dependent on oil revenues and to prepare it for the unavoidable post-oil era. Both commodities are experiencing record prices as a result of high petroleum prices (palm oil as a substitute for diesel, natural rubber which follows petroleum-derived synthetic rubber prices):
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Siat Gabon is actively involved in community development initiatives in the project area, providing social infrastructure such as roads, bore holes, and electricity. The company has created six modern townships dotted with over 900 houses for the workers. In addition, Siat Gabon has established “Cités cadres” with a total of 200 houses for senior staff, supervisors, and skilled workers in the project area. The project has further provided 8 primary schools in the neighboring communities with a combined enrollment of about 800 pupils. The company also operates 2 clinics, one for general healthcare and the other for maternal healthcare.

Women represent about 35% of the permanent workforce and about 40% of the seasonal workers. They are mainly involved in nursery activities, fruit collection, processing operations, quality control, and as office work. Women hold about 25% of the middle management positions in the company, including the post of Deputy MD. Women will benefit from a number of indirect jobs like retail shops and small restaurants to cater to the needs of the local population. The company operates a 'village plantation program', under which women are encouraged to cultivate food crops in the company’s plantations within the first two years of planting. This has enabled the women to ensure household food security as well as generate additional incomes.

As a result of a privatisation exercise implemented by the Government of Gabon in 2003, Siat acquired Agrogabon, Hévégab and a part of Sogadel, namely the Ranch of Nyanga. On the 5th of April, 2004, the take-over convention for the above mentioned enterprises was signed. Siat Gabon was created in order to accommodate the assets of these SOE’s.

The rubber activity of the company, located in the northern part of Gabon, consists of the Bitam Estate (2,500 ha mature rubber plantation) and the Mitzic Estate (5,500 ha of mature rubber plantation). It also includes 2,500 ha of mature outgrower plantations. At Mitzic the company operates a crump rubber factory with a daily capacity of 50 tonnes. Expansion work on estates and factory have resumed. The entire rubber production of 15,000 tonnes per annum is exported.

The oil palm activity is located around Lambarene and Makouké, and comprises 8,000 ha of mature oil palm plantation, a palm oil/palm kernel mill with a capacity of 30 tonnes ffb/hour, a soap factory of 25,000 tonnes/annum and a refinery/fractionation plant of 50,000 tonnes of oil per annum. Production is mainly meant for the domestic market.

The cattle ranch, located in the Province of Nyanga in the southern part of the country, comprises a concession of 100,000 ha. Presently, a heard of 2,000 head is meant to be increased to 20,000 over the next ten years. Cattle of the Ndama type will be imported from the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is also envisaged that approximately one third of the ranch area will be converted into an eco-tourism site.

Siat is an active member of the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

SIAT: Siat in Gabon.

Africa News: Gabon: AfDB loans €10M for palm oil, rubber - September 17, 2007.

Article continues

Climate change leads to increase in atmospheric moisture, water vapor itself a potent greenhouse gas

Observations and climate model results confirm that human-induced warming of the planet is having a pronounced effect on the atmosphere’s total moisture content. Water vapor itself is a potent greenhouse gas and more of it means an amplification of global warming. Those are the findings of a new study appearing in the September 19 early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences as an open access article. The results debunk the claims by climate-deniers that the lower atmosphere has cooled over recent decades.

Scientists from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s Program for Climate Modeling and Intercomparison and eight other international research centers, found that the atmosphere’s water vapor content has increased by about 0.41 kilograms per cubic meter (kg/m²) per decade since 1988. Natural variability in climate can not explain this moisture change. The most plausible explanation is that this is due to the human-caused increase in greenhouse gases.

Positive feedback
More water vapor amplifies the warming effect of increased atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide. This is what scientists call a 'positive feedback'.

Using 22 different computer models of the climate system and measurements from the satellite-based Special Sensor Microwave Imager (SSM/I), the atmospheric scientists have shown that the recent increase in moisture content over the bulk of the world’s oceans is not due to solar forcing or gradual recovery from the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo. The primary driver of this ‘atmospheric moistening’ is the increase in carbon dioxide caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

This is the first identification of a 'human fingerprint' on the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere. 'Fingerprint' studies seek to identify the causes of recent climate change and involve rigorous comparisons of modeled and observed climate change patterns. To date, most fingerprint studies have focused on temperature changes at the Earth’s surface, in the free atmosphere, or in the oceans, or have considered variables whose behavior is directly related to changes in atmospheric temperature.

The water vapor feedback mechanism works in the following way: as the atmosphere warms due to human-caused increases in carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and chlorofluorocarbons, water vapor increases, trapping more heat in the atmosphere, which in turn causes a further increase in water vapor:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Basic theory, observations and climate model results all show that the increase in water vapor is roughly 6 percent to 7.5 percent per degree Celsius warming of the lower atmosphere.

The authors note that their findings, when taken together with similar studies of continental-scale river runoff, zonal-mean rainfall, and surface specific humidity, point toward an emerging human-caused signal in the cycling of moisture between the atmosphere, land and ocean.

This new work shows that the climate system is telling us a consistent story. The observed changes in temperature, moisture, and atmospheric circulation fit together in an internally- and physically-consistent way.

Why care?
So why should we care about a more humid atmosphere? There are at least three good reasons.
  • First, water vapor is itself a potent greenhouse gas, so it is important to have a good understanding of the cause or causes of its recent increase.
  • Second, atmospheric moisture content is one of the large-scale environmental conditions that influences the genesis and development of hurricanes. In the absence of countervailing changes in other factors, an increase in water vapor would favor the development of more intense hurricanes.
  • Finally, the observed increase in water vapor provides independent evidence of the reality of warming of the lower atmosphere. The observed water vapor increase since 1988 is consistent with pronounced warming of the surface and lower atmosphere, but fundamentally inconsistent with claims (still made by some die-hard skeptics!) that the lower atmosphere has cooled over recent decades.
Wider implications of the study
One persistent criticism of the 'discernible human influence' findings of previous IPCC assessments is that such conclusions were largely based on 'fingerprint' studies which relied heavily on surface temperature changes. The thrust of the criticism was this: if there really is a signal of human activities lurking in the climate system, it should be manifest in many different climate variables, and not in surface temperature alone.

The new study helps to refute this criticism, and shows that we have now moved well beyond 'temperature only' fingerprint studies.

Map (click to enlarge): Estimates of the amount of atmospheric water vapor over oceans from the satellite-based Special Sensor Microwave Imager. Results are for August 28th (top panel) and August 29th, 2005 (bottom panel). Locations with high atmospheric moisture content are denoted by red and white colors. The highest water vapor values are associated with typhoons Talim and Nabi in the Pacific and with Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf of Mexico. Courtesy: Carl Mears and Frank Wentz/Remote Sensing Systems.

B. D. Santer, et al., "Identification of human-induced changes in atmospheric moisture content" [open access], Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci., Published online before print September 19, 2007, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0702872104

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory: Increase in atmospheric moisture tied to human activities - September 18, 2007.

Article continues

Marine biofuels enter market with new biodiesel bunker tanker

A new biodiesel bunker tanker has joined the local bunker barges in Vancouver this year for the summer cruise season, Bunkerworld has learned. The Chemical Sprinter is being operated by Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. (RCL) as part of the company's biodiesel programme for cruise ships operating out of Vancouver and Seattle.

The Malta-registered tanker required a special exemption, as a foreign-flagged vessel, to stem bunkers in the port and brings the biodiesel product up from Grays Harbor in Washington state. Royal Caribbean has been undertaking sea trials of a palm oil-based biodiesel since 2005 and has used it in vessels that typically run on marine gasoil (MGO) fuelled gas turbines.

The biodiesel fuel, which is apparently 95% pure, burns cleaner than regular MGO with reduced CO2, nitrogen oxide (NOx) and sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions. Sources told Bunkerworld last year that Royal Caribbean had no trouble using the fuel as a ready substitute for the heavy marine fuel oil.

According to recent studies by Germany's Institut für Physik der Atmosphere (IPA) and by the College of Marine and Earth Studies of the University of Delaware, CO2 emissions from the shipping sector are on the same order as those of the aviation industry. They could double by 2050.

The studies reveal converging estimates of current ship emissions and suggest that shipping emitted around 800 Tg CO2 and contributed around 2.7% to all anthropogenic CO2 emissions in 2000 (1 Tg = 1012 g = 1 million metric tons = 1 Mt). The same studies put aviation emissions of CO2 at about 650 Tg (graph, click to enlarge).

For comparison, aviation and road transport contributed around 2.2% and 14%, respectively. Other comparisons suggest that shipping accounts for around 15% of all global anthropogenic NOx emissions and for around 8% of SO2 emissions. The relatively high contribution is a result of marine engines operating at high temperatures and pressures without effective NOx emission reduction technologies and because of the high average sulfur content (2.4%-2.7%) in marine fuels.

Marine biofuels reduce all major emissions substantially. Added advantages are that the green fuels are biodegradable, 10 times less toxic than table salt and are thus far less damaging to marine ecosystems than petroleum fuels. Moreover, handling marine biofuels in a bunker context is considerably safer than dealing with petro-fuels (earlier post).

This year Royal Caribbean has sourced its biodiesel from the plant in Grays Harbor operated by Imperium Renewables, which expanded this year from a 5 million gallon per annum capacity to around 100 million gallons. The cruise company has committed to nearly 50,000 metric tonnes of Imperium's biodiesel for this year, rising to close to 60,000 metric tonnes in 2008:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Feedstocks are reportedly tight at present in the biodiesel industry. Imperium will use Canadian canola oil for most of its feedstock over the next 18 months and will not use palm oil in the forseeable future, president John Plaza was reported saying this week.

According to Imperium's SEC filing, however, it has contracted with Singapore-based Cargill International Trading to supply palm oil from Southeast Asia from March this year through September 2009 as required.

The contract includes a minimum quantity over the three-year period, not specified in the SEC filing due to confidentiality reasons.

At least two Royal Caribbean cruise ships based in Vancouver this year are using the product, the Infinity and the Radiance of the Seas.

Celebrity Cruises, part of RCL, is also involved in the programme and the Chemical Sprinter was seen stemming the Summit today. Royal Caribbean was unable to provide further details about its biodiesel programme when contacted by Bunkerworld. It confirmed, however, that it did use biodiesel from time-to-time in its eight gas-turbine powered ships instead of MGO.


Bunkerworld: Biodiesel bunker tanker welcomed - September 14, 2007.

Institut für Physic de Atmosphere: Comparing Fuel Consumption, CO2 and Other Emissions from International Shipping and Aircraft: A Summary of Recent Research Findings - March 8, 2007.

Biopact: EU plans unilateral shipping emissions cap - April 23, 2007

Biopact: Shipping industry waking up to the biofuels call - BioShip - October 13, 2006

Article continues

Energy crisis in Zimbabwe fuels environmental crisis; bioenergy, renewables offer way out

Writing for The Herald in Harare, Zimbabwe, Jacob Mujokoro describes how the regional energy crisis there is leading to an environmental crisis. High fossil fuel prices result not only in disastrous social and economic consequences for poor countries (previous post), populations are also forced to deforest more and more in search for affordable fuel. In what experts call 'primitive biomass use', fuel wood is burned in an extremely inefficient way and leads to a major health crisis (indoor smoke pollution, killing up to 2 million women and children each year; more here).

Mujokoro thinks modern bioenergy, biofuels and other renewables offer a way out. The country and region has a large potential for the sustainable production of dedicated energy crops. Biofuels may have their own environmental problems, but these pale in comparison with the potential ecological disaster that could result from ever increasing oil prices.

Much has been said and written about the anticipated regional energy crisis in Southern Africa. Well, it's no longer anticipated, as many in the region, Zimbabweans included, find themselves in the midst of the crisis, Mujokoro writes.

Always anticipated, as demand outstripped supply in Southern Africa due to growth and expansion of urban areas as well as reduced water levels due to successive seasons of drought, the question is as we focus on the energy crisis, who is minding the environment? Needless to say, the negative effects of the energy crisis are already being felt across Zimbabwe through increased deforestation.

It is thus crucial that the nation and indeed the region find alternative sources of energy to avert a major environmental crisis.

Population growth has been occurring without corresponding development in energy production, compelling many countries to increase resource exploitation and accelerating environmental deterioration. With increased urbanisation and industrialisation the situation is worsening, as more energy is needed.

As can be seen in Zimbabwe, urban centres have become a lucrative market for fuelwood because it seems to be relatively available and cheaper than modern fuels. Not only will the alternative forms of energy be a major boost to national economies but such environmental damage as global warming, partly responsible for the recurrent droughts in East and Southern Africa, can also be mitigated.

The Forestry Company of Zimbabwe recently indicated that the country is losing large swathes of forestry, as much as 400 000 hectares annually as a result of the energy crisis:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

More and more people are turning to fuelwood as the energy crisis takes its toll in sub-Saharan Africa. Urban demand for fuelwood is accelerating the degradation of woody vegetation.

In Zimbabwe, advanced deforestation and soil erosion in marginal areas with poor rainfall has forced many people to migrate to urban areas and in so doing increasing the demand for electricity.

Deforestation is affecting many rural people, and is caused primarily by the need for fuelwood for the curing of tobacco and tea, by excessive felling of timber for domestic and export markets, by agricultural production, by urbanisation, by bushfires, and, more significantly, by demand for fuelwood by both rural and urban households.

As more land around the towns and cities is further depleted of its remaining vegetation, a vicious cycle of soil erosion is set in motion.

Not only is the energy crisis affecting the generation of power but the use of fossil fuel is also impoverishing the majority of Africans as more and more funds of the national budget go towards the importation of oil and other petroleum products.

With world crude oil prices nearing US$80 a barrel, economies across Africa are suffering under soaring energy costs.

As long as clean energy alternatives are absent in these countries, hard-won achievements in economic development will continue to fall prey to oil prices.

Africa has plenty of opportunities to exploit renewable energy resources such as wind, solar, and geothermal power. And renewable biofuel production is equally achievable. Countries thus need to develop tools to diversify their energy supplies away from conventional energy sources.

The acting operations manager of the Forestry Company of Zimbabwe, Mr Abedinigo Marufu, decried the effects of the power crisis saying Zimbabwe has witnessed a massive jump of a 100 percent in deforestation as people resort to firewood as a source of energy.

Despite the fact that Africa has abundant energy resources, it is estimated that 600 million Africans do not have access to electricity, and use wood for cooking and heating.

Four hundred thousand Africans, mainly women and children, also die every year of respiratory diseases related to the indoor air pollution from using wood and other traditional fuels.

Instead of relying on nature, Africa needs to move a step further and harness the massive opportunities presented by the good climate as well as the large swathes of land uninhabited for the generation of cleaner forms of energy.

With a larger land mass bigger than China, India, Western Europe, and the United States put together, thousands of miles of coastline and only 14 percent of the global population, Africa has vast potential for wind and solar power generation. Studies have shown strong potential for wind power generation.


Another alternative will be photovoltaics. This is a technology in which light, from the sun, is converted into electrical power.

With the introduction of low-cost PV cells from China, the market price is dropping dramatically making wide-scale PV application much more feasible.


Biofuels are another sector where Africa could rival major global producers and play a central role in meeting the soaring demand for ethanol in Europe, United States, and China.

Africa's agricultural economies are well suited for a wide range of energy crops capable of producing energy.

Jatropha has attracted a fair amount of attention in developing countries, Zimbabwe included.

One hopes the efforts will not come to waste but will be taken to their logical conclusion, with more people taking up Jatropha production to meet both local and export demand. Biofuel industries can create a high-value, clean energy product for export.

Southern African countries are rich in modern energy resources.

Many sub-Saharan African countries have great potential for the development of hydropower, which is the major source of electricity production.

Indeed, as Achim Steiner, the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), said "The continent is rich in renewable resources which can benefit the majority of people within a few years."

Energy is neither created nor destroyed, but rather transformed. We are continually changing one form of energy into another.

Indeed, it is high time that the Southern African Power Pool starts providing low-cost, affordable and environmentally friendly energy and to ensure that economic development in the region is not constrained by energy shortages.

Opportunities for the creation of cheaper, cleaner and environmentally friendly forms of energy are wide and the regional body needs to take the initiative in developing the sector.

The Herald (via AllAfrica): Zimbabwe: Energy Crisis Threatens Environment - September 18, 2007.

Article continues

US tops Biofuels Country Attractiveness Indices for Q2 2007

The US is the fastest expanding market in the world for biobased renewable fuels, according to Ernst & Young’s second quarterly 'Biofuels Country Attractiveness Indices' [*.pdf] (earlier post on Q1 rankings, and for definitions of the indices, which are made up of factors ranging from infrastructure to market regulations).

Some interesting changes can be observed compared to the previous rankings. Germany's lower biodiesel ranking is the most obvious one. The world's largest biodiesel market has seen a tax exemption on the fuel being removed, with the consequence that producers can no longer compete with much cheaper imports.

Brazil loses its top spot on the ethanol ranking because it is a victim of its own success: the country sees mounting pressure to stimulate further export potential, as the headroom in the domestic market is reaching its limits following record sugarcane harvest and production outputs resulting in plummeting ethanol prices (previous post). For this reason, Brazil's leaders have been touring the globe to promote Brazilian biofuels and to create export markets (more here, here and especially here).

A new entrant is The Netherlands, which wants to become a European trading hub for biofuels. Suitable infrastructures are expected to attract large investments there (see our extensive coverage of the Bioport concept). Likewise the Philippines are taken up in the Index, as it continues to receive interest from overseas investors who are starting biofuel projects with the aim to export (earlier post and here, here and here).

According to the Indices the attractiveness of the US for investment in biofuels was given a further boost last month by the US House of Representatives, which announced that it plans to provide billions of dollars of tax breaks and incentives for renewable energy (earlier post).

Overall ranking
Investment in the US biofuels industry shows no sign of abating. The increased investment in biofuels in the US is being driven by its attractive regulatory environment, support mechanisms, and project pipelines, which are unrivalled.

The US has a strong development pipeline in ethanol production and the world’s largest project pipeline for biodiesel, which should produce 450 million gallons by 2008, compared to 136.5 million gallons in 2006. The sheer size of the pipeline provides investors with a greater choice in both operating assets and project development opportunities.

In addition, recently proposed legislation would require US refineries to blend a mandatory minimum of 1.25 billion gallons of biodiesel per year by 2012, and although not passed, it sends a very positive message to investors about future demand for biofuels in the US.

These factors have strengthened the US’s position at the top of the All Biofuels Index (table 1, click to enlarge) and given the US a significant four-point lead over its closest rival Brazil.

Germany maintains its position, but is seeing significant difficulties in its biodiesel industry as producers are now running at 50% capacity. This is expected to worsen as higher local feedstock prices, rising fuel excise levies, and cheap imports are making it impossible for German producers to compete:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Spain’s score has risen closer to that of France and Germany as its newly instated mandatory blending targets of 1.9% biofuel content by 2008, 3.4% by 2009 and 5.83% by 2010 are expected to increase demand, prompting investment in new production capacity.

Behind them Sweden has moved into sixth place, principally due to the rapidly growing national demand for ethanol which is set to step up further as the next phase of the distribution obligation will take effect this year. The UK score remained steady with further ethanol production capacity expansion announced, but concerns over the lengthy pollution prevention and control permit procedures are expected to slow development.

China’s overall score remains the same despite the drop in its ethanol score, caused by the fact that no more grain-based ethanol sites will be granted permits in response to continuing rises in food crop prices.

The Netherlands is a new entrant into the All Biofuels Index top 15 with its position as Europe’s fuel hub expected to help it add over 1.2 million tons per annum (mtpa) of production capacity over the next two to three years. India drops one place as newly implemented support mechanisms are insufficient to stimulate significant growth in either biofuels technology.

Australia drops by five points over doubts surrounding the government’s ability to enforce blending targets and the vulnerability of the agricultural sector to droughts. Actual biofuels production was 13 million liters per year in 2006 against a target of 82–124 million liters per year.

The US has moved ahead of Brazil to take the top spot in the Ethanol Index at Q2 2007. The US has a strong development pipeline and further support mechanisms currently being progressed are encouraging. Continuing high levels of transaction activity and investment in established production sites as well as cellulosic technology can be expected.

Brazil’s score decreases by two points despite increased domestic blending targets from 23% to 25%; this will be insufficient to absorb the expected output increase of 13.5% this year compared to 2006. Brazil needs to compensate for this with more export agreements such as the one currently being negotiated with Japan for 3.5bLpa from 2011.

Germany’s ethanol industry sees only moderate demand increases but planned expansion of the nationwide network for E85 sales is encouraging.

Spain has overtaken France and Canada to claim fourth spot in the Indices as a result of new mandatory blending targets expected to increase demand. The positive trend in the US market is expected to aid the Canadian industry although it still lags some way behind.

Sweden’s score has risen by two points as the obligation on fuel stations resulted in almost double the level of sales of the fuel in the last year. This should increase further as the obligation will now extend to smaller retailers too. Sweden imports most of its ethanol from Brazil.

In the UK, despite recent announcements of new production capacity, the industry has raised concerns over the time taken for facilities to obtain environmental licenses.

China has dropped one point after an announcement by the government that only production facilities processing noncereal-based feedstock will be permitted, in order to relieve price pressures on food production. This is expected to limit new capacity until commercial scale cellulosic technology will become available.

With the introduction of mandatory blending targets and its favourable position as a fuel hub for Europe, The Netherlands will see a large number of new projects being constructed and moves into twelfth position.

Australia loses six points and falls four places, as the government is failing to enforce blending targets and concerns are raised over Australia’s ability going forward to grow enough grain and sugar cane given the current extended drought conditions.

India loses two points as the 5% mandated ethanol blend has to be implemented only if economically viable. This is not envisaged to be the case in the immediate future and casts significant doubts over the likelihood of developing the 560 million liters per year production capacity required to meet the target.

Indonesia enters the Ethanol Index as foreign investment is expected to continue flowing into the market from its Asian neighbours taking advantage of the high-yielding feedstock and low production costs.

The US moved up to first place in the Biodiesel Index seeing its score rise by one point. Increased incentives and rising blending targets have been reinforced by the recently proposed legislation that would require US refineries to blend a minimum of 1.25b gallons of biodiesel per year by 2012.

The US also has the largest project pipeline in the world and with the proposal starting at a mandated volume of 450m gallons in 2008, compared to production of 136.5m gallons in 2006, this should grow further.

France loses one point but remains in second place. The country has not increased the production quota exempt from excise duty, despite narrowing domestic headroom and falling demand in Germany, France’s largest export market, which may cause the market to stall.

Brazil has moved up to third place in the ranking as a result of new project announcements and a number of direct supply agreements between producers and domestic industry players with high fuel consumption. With further positive uptake of biodiesel by different national industries (e.g., mining, public transport) expected, there is still headroom for increased capacity expansion.

Germany loses the top spot and falls to joint fourth, losing nine points. Despite having the largest production capacity globally and establishing an EU biofuels target of 10% for 2020 under its EU presidency, the annually increasing tax duty on biodiesel is placing unsustainable pressure on the industry. Resultant falling demand means prices have dropped by almost 5% in Q2 while feedstock prices rose by around 10% and are now higher than at the beginning of the year. Tightening margins are predicted to force production below 50% of capacity by the year-end as the market is severely tested in the run up to the next scheduled tax increase in January 2008.

Spain should see its biodiesel production increase to more than 400ktpa by 2008 (compared to 125ktpa in 2006) due to newly introduced mandated blending targets.

Thailand remains in ninth place as the government’s 10% mandated blending target for 2011 encourages announcements of a number of further plant developments.

The Netherlands enters the Biodiesel Index as a result of a good project pipeline driven by its domestic blending regime and exploitation of key European logistical hubs Rotterdam, Eemshaven, and Terneuzen.

Indonesia sees continued foreign investment from its regional neighbors driving the industry and is in joint eleventh place.

China lacks any consistent regulatory approach to the biodiesel industry but persistent shortage of conventional diesel in the high-growth market still provides continued expansion potential.

The Philippines is a new entrant with a 1% blending target mandatory since May 2007 and foreign companies, particularly Japanese and Chinese, continuing to build capacity for export.

India dropped out of the top 15 biodiesel nations in Q2 2007 as an official price regime is not expected to cover production costs. The uncertainty over government intentions is causing small producers to negotiate individual supply contracts, thereby slowing down expansion.

Malaysia was removed from the top 15 as high prices for palm oil are likely to delay current production and further development of the industry.

UK pioneers carbon and sustainability reporting

The UK score in the All Biofuels Index remained steady at seventh position, but until the implementation of the Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation (RTFO) in 2008, current incentives, which provide tax breaks on capital expenditure and a GBP 0.20 reduction in fuel duty, are not sufficient to develop the UK biofuels market beyond niche supply.

With the recent launch of the Carbon & Sustainability (C&S) consultation on the RTFO, the UK government has taken a lead globally in pioneering a mechanism that from 2011 could differentiate incentives received by different biofuels. In the initial phase of the RTFO (2008 – 2011), only data will be collected and the incentives received shall remain unaffected.

The UK Government’s objective with the consultation is laudable, as it’s likely to bring greater rewards for biofuels suppliers who can improve the efficiency of their biofuels production, but this should not act as a barrier to rapid deployment of biofuels capacity.

Next-generation biofuels
According to the report, overall the biofuels industry faces many challenges from the rising demand for agricultural commodities. However, investment in second generation biofuels is the future. Second generation biofuels are derived from by-products that we cannot eat such as switchgrass, corn and wood chips, and are less exposed to the price fluctuations of the first generation biofuels, which are derived from food crops.

Ernst & Young: Biofuels Country Attractiveness Indices, Q2, 2007 [*.pdf] - September 2007.

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

Biopact: Ethanol prices in Brazil plummet, government considers increasing blend from 23 to 25% - May 30, 2007

Biopact: U.S. House passes Energy Bill: boost to biofuels, CCS and renewables - August 06, 2007

Biopact: How Brazil convinced the EU on biofuels - Lula's speech - July 06, 2007

Biopact: The Netherlands aims to become a 'bioport' for global biomass trading - report - February 12, 2007

Article continues

Sri Lankan students launch initiative to promote biofuels

In an interesting development, students from the Master in Business Administration class at the University of Colombo have formed a society to promote biofuels across the island state. The move is a bottom-up initiative, from socially and environmentally conscious youth, who look into their nation's long-term future.

They describe their motivation in Sri Lanka's Daily News. The students are very optimistic about the advantages of ethanol and biodiesel, but perhaps a bit naive when it comes to the potential environmental costs of biofuels and the complex economic and social drivers that dictate their feasibility. Still, let's listen to their youthly enthusiasm and to the reasons as to why they launched their biofuel society:
The recent surge in [interest] in environmental issues affecting our planet coupled with the increasing costs of fossil fuels such as oil and gas have led to an increase in interest in biofuels. [...] Sri Lankan expenditure on imported fossil fuel is totaling to US Dollars 1,029 Millions in the year 2006 (according to Central Bank Report) and day by day cost of living is going up. We use fossil fuel for power generation to lighting lamps and if an alternative energy source such as renewable energy can be used to save Billions of Dollars we spent on importation of fossil fuel.
The arguments dealing with energy security and import costs are certainly strong ones. High fossil fuel prices are truly disastrous for developing countries and especially hurt the poor. Some of the least developed countries are already spending twice as much on importing oil than on such basic social services as health care (earlier post).
Biofuels can also provide us with a sustainable form of energy. This is great news for future generations but also effects us today as dwindling supplies of oil and gas force prices upwards meaning that we pay more for our gas and petroleum as well as fossil fuel generated electricity.
'Peak Oil and Gas' remains the dark shadow that looms over all nations that want to achieve a certain degree of modernity. Abundant and low-cost energy is absolutely key to the development of economies and societies, especially when they are making the transition from low to higher development. This entails a phase of high energy intensity, requiring abundant and secure supplies of energy. Currently biofuels offer the only feasible alternative to petroleum.

Obviously, 'Peak Oil' is only a problem for those who believe in the ideologies of 'progress' and 'modernity'. But then, these discourses have found their strongest adherents in developing countries. Only in 'post-modern' societies, and amongst their middle classes that have gained all the wealth of the world, can one find the questionable idea that humanity should somehow revert back to pre-modern times. Luckily, this is remains a marginal discourse.

The Sri Lankan students continue by highlighting the fact that biofuels can be produced locally. In the words of FAO chief Jacques Diouf, they also promise to bring a 'rural renaissance'. About 80 per cent of the country's 20 million inhabitants is made up of a rural population and farmers:
There are 3.5 million households in Sri Lanka with a high potential of promoting ethanol production at domestic level. [...] Biofuels can easily be made at home and by local communities and farming groups. This can again make biofuels a cheap alternative to fossil fuels and can help to strengthen local communities both socially and economically.
There are many environmental and economic benefits of using ethanol, they students think, and they list them as follows:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

  • Reduced harmful exhaust emissions
  • Sustainable energy source
  • Reduced dependence on foreign sources of oil and gas
  • Biodegradable with no toxic effect on environment
  • Does not contribute to greenhouse effect due to growth / burning cycle
  • Cheap method of achieving high octane fuel
  • Many cars are already capable of running on ethanol with no modifications
  • Can reduce levels of disease causing emissions from petrol blends.
  • Can be made at home - reducing energy costs associated with transportation
The biofuels that will be made in Sri Lanka would be first generation fuels obtained from tropical crops such as sugar cane, jatropha, coconut, cassava and tropical tree and grass species, as well as from the island's abundant agriculture and forestry residues. For these crops and fuels - contrary to biofuels made from crops such as canola or maize - the science is clear: they substantially reduce carbon emissions and can be grown in a sustainable manner.
Biofuels have an enormous environmental benefit; they can help reduce the levels of toxins in our air and water. They can reduce the advance of global warming and can help reduce fuel needs by providing more efficient models of energy creation. When a biofuel is burnt to release the energy contained within the biomass, the carbon that is released has recently been taken from the atmosphere by the plants that the biofuel derived from.
Sri Lanka needs a positive change, the students conclude:
We, a team of motivated students reading for a Master in Business Administration at The University of Colombo are aligned to create the positive change to Sri Lanka with bio fuel. We have formed a society called REBIL to further experiment on the possibilities of producing Ethanol out of illicit liquor.

REBIL stands for Renewable Energy through Illicit Local Liquor and promotes bio fuel to reduce the nations' dependency on imported crude oil, helping to reduce environmental effects of daily life and to create job opportunities to 3.5 million rural families.

We invite you, the responsible citizens of Sri Lanka to join hands with us to make this dream a reality.
Photo: Sri Lanka's mainly rural population takes advantage of the country's wet tropical climate to produce tea, rubber, coconuts and spices. The agro-ecological conditions on the island are highly suitable for a range of high-yielding biofuel crops.

Daily News (Sri Lanka): Biofuel: cheaper, more environmentally friendly - September 18, 2007.

Rural Poverty Portal: Geography, agriculture and economy of Sri Lanka.

Biopact: High oil prices disastrous for developing countries - September 12, 2007

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

Article continues

En route to carbon-negative energy: Praxair and Foster Wheeler team up to pursue carbon capture demonstration projects

The push towards so-called 'clean coal' is gathering momentum, with a growing number of demonstrations under way. The term 'clean coal' sounds like a cynical contradiction in terms, but the technologies that are being developed for it actually hold the key to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the most radical way. This is so because the techniques to capture and store carbon (CCS) can be applied to biomass fuels instead of coal, in which case carbon-negative energy can be obtained. Scientists looking at the concept within the context of 'abrupt climate change' suggest that if such 'bio-energy with carbon storage' (BECS) systems are implemented on a large enough scale, we can get back to pre-industrial atmospheric carbon dioxide levels before the middle of the century (here and here).

Whereas solar, wind, geothermal, wave and other forms of carbon-neutral renewable energy merely prevent the emissions of new greenhouse gases, BECS systems actually take carbon dioxide from the past out of the atmosphere, in a safe and reliable way. As the window to prevent catastrophic climate change is closing rapidly (earlier post and here), the question becomes whether it is still ethical to invest in carbon-neutral energy when we know carbon-negative systems can be implemented today at reasonable costs.

Biopact tracks developments in carbon capture and storage inasmuch as they relate to the transition towards BECS systems. We think the coal industry should be encouraged to develop the technologies, after which the sector should be forced to blend biomass into its fuel mix. Later on, pure biofuel-based BECS systems must be implemented on a global scale.

A new CCS initiative is under way, with Praxair, Inc. and Foster Wheeler North America Corp., signing a multi-year agreement [*.pdf] that calls for the joint pursuit of certain demonstration projects that will incorporate clean coal technologies and integrated oxy-coal combustion systems into coal-fired electric generating plants to facilitate capture and sequestration of carbon dioxide (CO2).

The combination of the two companies' technologies and systems expertise would enable a coal-fired generating plant to reduce carbon dioxide stack emissions by more than 90 percent as compared to a conventional coal-fired plant of similar size. Generating plants that burn 'opportunity fuels' such as biomass and petroleum coke in combination with coal would also be able to effect similar reductions in CO2 emissions. When biomass is used as the sole fuel, carbon-negative energy is obtained. The two companies have agreed to share technical information to ensure successful integration of the combined systems.

Under the agreement, Foster Wheeler will develop and supply steam generators using oxy-coal combustion technology that can be installed in new or existing coal-fired power plants. Oxy-coal combustion creates a highly concentrated stream of CO2 from a steam generator to facilitate carbon capture and sequestration (schematic, click to enlarge; see here for a short discussion of pre- and post-combustion carbon capture techniques which differ substantially from oxy-fuel combustion based carbon capture). Foster Wheeler expects that its first applications of oxy-coal combustion technology would involve the company's circulating fluidized-bed (CFB) steam generators, which have already gained global market acceptance for their efficiency, fuel flexibility, and relatively low emissions. Foster Wheeler expects that oxy-coal combustion technology will be applicable to pulverized-coal (PC) steam generators as well.

The companies expect that their first joint commercial effort will be the previously announced demonstration project being pursued by the Jamestown (New York) Board of Public Utilities. The Jamestown project would be the first of its kind in the United States and potentially an international model for future energy development:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Praxair has been advancing oxygen-based combustion and gas-processing technologies that bring substantial productivity and environmental benefits to customers in many industries. For this project, Praxair will provide the upstream oxygen-supply facilities, applying its design, engineering and construction expertise in building large cryogenic air-separation plants that produce the large volumes of oxygen necessary for clean-coal projects.

Praxair also will provide the downstream CO2 capture and gas-processing technologies and equipment, based on its experience as one of the world's leading CO2 suppliers. Praxair's control systems and integration capabilities also will be a key component of the project.
We have already completed pilot and bench-scale testing of oxy-coal combustion in an R&D environment, and we look forward to accelerating this work under our agreement with Praxair. The application of oxy-coal combustion will allow us to advance both our CFB and PC technologies in the area of carbon capture. - Gary Nedelka, president and chief executive officer of Foster Wheeler North America Corp
Foster Wheeler Ltd. is a global company offering, through its subsidiaries, a broad range of engineering, procurement, construction, manufacturing, project development and management, research and plant operation services. Foster Wheeler serves the upstream oil and gas, LNG and gas-to-liquids, refining, petrochemicals, chemicals, power, pharmaceuticals, biotechnology and healthcare industries.

Praxair is the largest industrial gases company in North and South America, and one of the largest worldwide, with 2006 sales of $8.3 billion. The company produces, sells and distributes atmospheric, process and specialty gases, and high-performance surface coatings.

Euractiv: 'Carbon-capture trials safest way forward' - Laurens Rademakers, Biopact - April 3, 2007

Biopact: Abrupt Climate Change and geo-engineering the planet with carbon-negative bioenergy - December 21, 2006

Biopact: Policy and regulatory framework crucial for CCS success - July 29, 2007

Biopact: EU opens public consultation on carbon capture and storage - February 24, 2007

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

Article continues

Monday, September 17, 2007

Scientists develop low-lignin eucalyptus trees that store more CO2, provide more cellulose for biofuels

A team of Taiwanese and U.S. scientists has succeeded in developing eucalyptus trees capable of ingesting up to three times more carbon dioxide than normal strains, indicating a new path to reducing greenhouse gases and global warming. The new trees also have properties that make them more suitable for the production of cellulosic ethanol. In this sense, they can be seen as part of third-generation biofuels. This generation is based on crops modified in such a way that they allow the application of a particular bioconversion technology (previous post). Analyses show that there is a very large potential for the production of sustainable biomass from Eucalyptus in Central Africa and South America.

Under the auspices of Taiwan's National Science Council, staff members at the Taiwan Forestry Research Institute (TFRI) under the cabinet-level Council of Agriculture and North Carolina State University in the United States carried out the gene modification project that not only creates eucalyptus with a higher than normal CO2 absorptive capacity, but also causes them to produce less lignin and more cellulose.

TFRI researcher Chen Zenn-zong explained that cellulose, hemicelluloses, and lignin in trees are all created from carbon elements. However, only cellulose can be used in commercial processes of pulp manufacturing and bio-ethanol extraction. Lignin is the 'glue' that holds cellulose together. Breaking down the lignin barrier is a major obstacle for the production of cellulosic ethanol.
The idea behind the whole project is to increase the value of genetically-modified eucalyptus to related industries, so we adjusted the ratio of cellulose and lignin. Meanwhile, we enhance the tree's capacity in absorbing CO2 to reduce greenhouse gases, so that more trees planted for production, the more CO2 are consumed. - Chen Zenn-zong, Taiwan Forestry Research Institute
With every eucalyptus carrying 18 percent less lignin and 4.5 percent more cellulose, Chen estimated that a pulp factory with an annual output of 1 million tons could generate extra revenues of NT$1. 2 billion (about US$36 million) every year.

Eucalyptus is a fast-growing tropical tree species used as a biomass source for bioenergy, and for pulp and paper manufacturing. Major research efforts are under way to map the tree's genome with the aim to improve it as an energy crop. Eucalyptus is on the agenda of the U.S. Department of Energy's Joint Genome Institute (DOE JGI), with an international team working on increasing biomass production and the carbon sequestration capacities of the species (more here):
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

So far, researchers have succeeded in developing high yield varieties. But this is the first time that the eucalyptus tree has been modified in a way that allows it both to store more carbon while at the same time yielding less lignin.

Earlier, geneticists and plant biologists succeeded in creating low-lignin poplar and willow (more here), as well as sorghum (earlier post) with the specific aim of improving pulping and ethanol production respectively.

With an emerging global carbon and biomass market, it becomes interesting to develop crops that sequester more CO2. They can be used as carbon sinks in afforestation and reforestation efforts and fetch carbon credits. Alternatively, with their high biomass yields, they will be used more and more for the production of next-generation biofuels. These include cellulosic ethanol, and fuels obtained from pyrolysis (bio-oil) and from biomass-to-liquids processes resulting in synthetic biofuels (gasification and synthesis by the Fischer-Tropsch process).

Eucalyptus is an interesting crop for the production of solid biofuels as well (woody biomass), that can be co-fired with coal or used in dedicated biomass power plants. Estimates show that there is enormous potential for the establishment of eucalyptus plantations in the tropics. A European project analysing the production of 'green steel' based on utilizing biomass from the tropics indicated that some 46 million hectares of land are available in Central Africa alone. In Brazil, another 46 million hectares are suitable. The land in question can sustain eucalyptus plantations without any major negative environmental footprint (previous post).

China Post: Gene-modified eucalyptus ingests more CO2 - September 14, 2007.

Biopact: Scientists release new low-lignin sorghums: ideal for biofuel and feed - September 10, 2007

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

Biopact: Virginia Tech researchers receive $1.2 million to study poplar tree as model biomass crop - June 26, 2007

Biopact: Celebrity spotting: Marc Van Montagu and GM energy crops - July 05, 2007

Biopact: Green steel made from tropical biomass - European project - February 08, 2007

Article continues

CME Group to offer options on ethanol futures

CME Group, the world's largest and most diverse exchange, today announced the listing of options on Ethanol futures, tools for customers to better manage risk in the energy industry, scheduled to begin trading electronically on e-cbot October 5 and then on the CME Globex platform in January.

In addition, clearing services will be offered for cash-settled options on Ethanol futures, scheduled to begin October 5, as well as for options on Ethanol Calendar Swaps, also know as forward month swaps, to be offered this fall. Centralized clearing includes the benefits of daily mark-to-market margining and reduced counterparty risk.

Ethanol futures have been trading at the Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT), now part of the CME Group, since March 2005. The Ethanol futures prices will be used in the settlement of both the options on Ethanol futures and the cash-settled options. Forward Month Ethanol Swaps, launched in December 2006, will serve as the underlying value for those options:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

CME Group is the world's largest and most diverse exchange. Formed by the 2007 merger of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) and the Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT), CME Group serves the risk management needs of customers around the globe. As an international marketplace, CME Group brings buyers and sellers together on the CME Globex electronic trading platform and on its trading floors.

CME Group offers the widest range of benchmark products available across all major asset classes, including futures and options based on interest rates, equity indexes, foreign exchange, agricultural commodities, and alternative investment products such as weather and real estate. CME Group is traded on the New York Stock Exchange and NASDAQ under the symbol "CME."

Article continues

Shimadzu and Groton Biosystems partner to enhance ethanol monitoring system

Shimadzu Scientific Instruments and Groton Biosystems announce they are collaborating to interface Groton’s ARS series of online sampling monitors with Shimadzu’s Prominence HPLC (high performance liquid chromatograph) to form a closed-loop solution for online analysis. Manufacturers can now quickly and efficiently optimize enzyme levels in mash by incorporating this system into the bio-ethanol production process.

With this automated HPLC ethanol monitoring system, manufacturers can determine the appropriate times to add enzymes with only a few key strokes. Optimized enzymes yield more product and limit the formation of useless by-products.
Our collaboration with Shimadzu gives ethanol manufacturers more control over the fermentation process. Now they can sample product automatically, monitor enzyme levels, and get the reliable data needed for fermentation trend analysis. - Bill Dinardo, CEO of Groton Biosystems.
Groton Biosystems provides the biofuel industry a sterile sampling system able to function in the high-solids/high-viscosity environment found in both corn and biomass fermentations. The ARS system provides automated and real-time online sampling to commercial fuel ethanol plants, enabling the monitoring of both enzyme activity and ethanol production from corn starch.

Shimadzu has been working with biofuel manufacturers from the outset, providing a range of HPLC instrumentation to meet specific needs. Today, Shimadzu supports both bioethanol and biodiesel, working with central commercial labs, R&D and academic facilities engaged in biofuels research, and, of course, biofuel plant labs:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

U.S. manufacturers of bioethanol and biodiesel are struggling to keep up with dramatically increasing demand for alternative fuels. Groton shares our vision to provide manufacturers with the analysis tools they need to increase their yield to help satisfy our national needs.- Curtis Campbell, Ph.D., HPLC business manager with Shimadzu
Shimadzu Scientific Instruments (SSI) is the American subsidiary of Shimadzu Corporation, headquartered in Kyoto, Japan. Founded in 1875, Shimadzu is a $2 billion multinational corporation with three major divisions: Medical Diagnostics, Aerospace/Industrial, and Analytical Instruments. The Analytical Instruments division is one of the world's largest manufacturers of analytical instrumentation and environmental monitoring equipment.

Groton Biosystems (Boxborough, Mass.) is a pioneer in providing fermentation and cell culture production companies with leading-edge online monitoring solutions. Groton offers the most cost-effective solutions for monitoring the entire research and manufacturing process.

Article continues

Medical Discoveries Inc. acquires developer of jatropha oil

Medical Discoveries, Inc. (MDI) announced today it has acquired privately-held Los Angeles-based Global Clean Energy Holdings LLC, a subsidiary of Mobius Risk Group LLC. The purchase includes certain proprietary rights, intellectual property and other rights relating to both the cultivation and production of feedstock oil from the Jatropha curcas plant, and the commercialization of the oil for the production of biodiesel.

MDI claims the per barrel cost of Jatropha oil is currently significantly lower than the cost of crude oil. It uses a fraction of the resources, and is considerably less expensive to produce than soybean, rapeseed or corn oil, the primary crops presently used for the production of biofuels. The oil extracted from Jatropha curcas seeds, a native non-edible plant indigenous to many tropical and sub-tropical regions of the world, including Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America, is used for the production of high quality biodiesel – an important renewable fuel quickly gaining commercial acceptance worldwide. The Jatropha plant requires less water and fertilizer than conventional crops, and can be grown on desert and other lands not suitable for the production of food crops.
One of the greatest challenges facing the biofuels industry is the high cost of food-based feedstock. Developing and distributing a cost-effective non-food based biofuel feedstock is an enormous opportunity for MDI’s shareholders to participate in the very exciting biofuels industry. - David R. Walker, Chairman of the Board of MDI
Despite a surge in attention, many practical questions remain about harvesting and handling the Jatropha crop and its seeds. Dilemmas about social equity and labor conditions must be resolved as well (earlier post).

Notwithstanding these reservations, due to the vast quantities of water, land, and agrichemicals presently required by first-generation crops currently used for the production of biodiesel and ethanol-based fuels in the U.S. (corn, wheat, soybeans), government concerns about significant future environmental damage are driving the need to develop new economical biofuel feedstocks:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

According to a recent article published in the Wall Street Journal, “U.S. farmers only have the capacity to replace about 7% of the country’s gasoline with corn-based ethanol, despite a new federal renewable-fuels target of 15% by 2017. To reach that goal, the U.S. will likely have to find a lot more land.”
Shifting to biodiesel which has a much higher energy balance than ethanol, can allow the United States to achieve our renewable energy fuel goals while shifting jobs and revenues to U.S. companies, further reducing our dependence on foreign oil. - Richard Palmer, MDI’s newly appointed President and Chief Operating Officer.
The ability to produce low cost oil from a non-edible plant, which does not compete with land or other resources used for food crops, provides MDI an opportunity in the biofuels feedstock business without the side effect of driving up food prices.

Goldman Sachs recently cited Jatropha curcas as one of the best candidates for future biodiesel production. MDI believes its business strategy, the land and operating agreements it continues to develop plus its expertise in plant and soil sciences positions it to become the first and largest United States-based producer of commercial quantities of Jatropha oil.

In addition to growing and selling Jatropha oil and other biomass byproducts, the company intends to sell the carbon sequestration credits generated by the plant’s ability to convert large volumes of carbon dioxide to oxygen through photosynthesis.

The credits will be sold to companies unable to meet their greenhouse gas reduction requirements under the Kyoto Accords, or within other Cap and Trade markets domestically. The carbon credits will be sold through the European Climate Exchange (ECX) and the Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX). The Kyoto Protocol is an amendment to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change assigning mandatory emission limitations for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

In order to establish and drive its new business, the Company hired Richard Palmer, a seasoned energy executive with many years of experience in the alternate energy and bio-fuels industry. To further support the new effort, the Company has entered into a consulting agreement with Mobius Risk Group LLC, a leading energy risk management company.

In a strategic move to bolster its Board’s bio-fuels, risk management, and financial expertise, MDI appointed three new directors to its Board of Directors; Richard Palmer, its new President and COO, Eric J. Melvin, the Chief Executive Officer of Mobius Risk Group, and Martin Schroeder, the Executive Vice President & Managing Director of The Emmes Group, a strategic business development, assessment and planning organization. In order to provide additional funds for its new operations, Medical Discoveries has entered into a $1 million loan agreement with a third party lender.

Medical Discoveries purchased Global Clean Energy Holdings LLC from Mobius Risk Group and Mr. Palmer in exchange for 63,945,257 shares of its common stock. Of the 63,945,257 shares, 27,405,111 shares were issued subject to the Company achieving certain specified performance milestones. Some or all of the 27,405,111 shares may be cancelled if the milestones are not met.

Biopact: Analysts: labor-intensive Jatropha not a magic bullet - September 12, 2007

Article continues

Breakthrough in synthetic biology: scientists synthesize DNA-based memory in yeast cells, guided by mathematical model

Harvard Medical School researchers have successfully synthesized a DNA-based memory loop in yeast cells, findings that mark a significant step forward in the emerging field of synthetic biology. The scientists succeeded in building a biological device from scratch and programmed it to perform a specific task, guided by a predictive mathematical model they developed. Synthetic biology is a field generating much excitement, rumor and speculation but it lacks concrete applications. However, this is the first time scientists actually succeed in creating a useful, synthetic biological device. The disruptive science of synthetic biology promises to bring many applications in the bioenergy and biofuels sector.

Dr. Pamela Silver, lead author, explaining her research and the importance of synthetic biology, especially as it relates to potential applications in bioenergy and biofuels.

After constructing genes from random bits of DNA, researchers in the lab of Professor Pamela Silver, a faculty member in Harvard Medical School’s Department of Systems Biology, not only reconstructed the dynamics of memory, but also created a mathematical model that predicted how such a memory “device” might work. The findings are to be published in the September 15 issue of the journal Genes and Development.
Synthetic biology is an incredibly exciting field, with more possibilities than many of us can imagine. While this proof-of-concept experiment is simply one step forward, we’ve established a foundational technology that just might set the standard of what we should expect in subsequent work. - Dr Pamela Silver, lead author
Like many emerging fields, there’s still a bit of uncertainty over what, exactly, synthetic biology is. Ask any three scientists for a definition, and you’ll probably get four answers. Some see it as a means to boost the production of biotech products, such as proteins for pharmaceutical uses or other kinds of molecules for, say, environmental clean-up. Others see it as a means to creating computer platforms that may bypass many of the onerous stages of clinical trials. In such a scenario, a scientist would type the chemical structure of a drug candidate into a computer, and a program containing models of cellular metabolism could generate information on how people would react to that compound.

Either way, at it’s core, synthetic biology boils down to gleaning insights into how biological systems work by reconstructing them. If you can build it, it forces you to understand it.

Leading synthetic biologists recently released a manifesto - the Ilulissat Statement - in which they call for a global push forward in the field. They stated that synthetic biology could bring solutions in the sectors of biofuels, climate change and clean energy. Recent breakthroughs include the publication of a genome transplantation method allowing scientists to transform one type of bacteria into another type dictated by the transplanted chromosome - a revolution that might imply applications for bioenergy (earlier post). Synthetic biologists are already teaming up with biofuel producers to develop third-generation energy crops that can be guided to behave in a specific way (here and here).

Mathematically guided memory loop
A team in Silver’s Harvard Medical School lab led by Caroline Ajo-Franklin, now at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and postdoctoral scientist David Drubin decided to demonstrate that not only could they construct circuits out of genetic material, but they could also develop mathematical models whose predictive abilities match those of any electrical engineering system.

Building a biological device that does precisely what you predicted it would do is seen as the litmus test for synthetic biology:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The components of this memory loop were simple: two genes that coded for proteins called transcription factors. Transcription factors regulate gene activity. Like a hand on a faucet, the transcription factor will grab onto a specific gene and control how much, or how little, of a particular protein the gene should make.

The researchers placed two of these newly synthesized, transcription factor-coding genes into a yeast cell, and then exposed the cell to galactose (a kind of sugar). The first gene, which was designed to switch on when exposed to galactose, created a transcription factor that grabbed on to, and thus activated, the second gene. It was at this point that the feedback loop began.

The second gene also created a transcription factor. But this transcription factor, like a boomerang, swung back around and bound to that same gene from which it had originated, reactivating it. This caused the gene to once again create that very same transcription factor, which once again looped back and reactivated the gene.

In other words, the second gene continually switched itself on via the very transcription factor it created when it was switched on.

The researchers then eliminated the galactose, causing the first synthetic gene, the one that had initiated this whole process, to shut off. Even with this gene gone, the feedback loop continued.

Essentially what happened is that the cell remembered that it had been exposed to galactose, and continued to pass this memory on to its descendents. So after many cell divisions, the feedback loop remained intact without galactose or any other sort of molecular trigger.

Most important, the entire construction of the device was guided by the mathematical model that the researchers developed.
Think of how engineers build bridges. They design quantitative models to help them understand what sorts of pressure and weight the bridge can withstand, and then use these equations to improve the actual physical model. We really did the same thing. In fact, our mathematical model not only predicted exactly how our memory loop would work, but it informed how we synthesized the genes. - Pamela Silver, lead author
For synthetic biology, this kind of specificity is crucial:
If we ever want to create biological black boxes, that is, gene-based circuits like this one that you can plug into a cell and have it perform a specified task, we need levels of mathematical precision as exact as the kind that go into creating computer chips. - Pamela Silver, lead author
The researchers are now working to scale-up the memory device into a larger, more complex circuit, one that can, for example, respond to DNA damage in cells.
One day we’d like to have a comprehensive library of these so-called black boxes. In the same way you take a component off the shelf and plug it into a circuit and get a predicted reaction, that’s what we’d one day like to do in cells. - David Drubin, author

Video: credit Harvard Medical School, Department of Systems Biology.

Caroline M. Ajo-Franklin, David A. Drubin, Julian A. Eskin, Elaine P.S. Gee, Dirk Landgraf, Ira Phillips, and Pamela A. Silver, “Rational design of memory in eukaryotic cells”, Genes and Development, Volume 21, Issue 18: September 15, 2007

Pamela Silver profile at the Harvard Medical School, Department of Systems Biology

Eurekalerts: Scientists synthesize memory in yeast cells - September 14, 2007.

Biopact: Scientists call for global push to advance synthetic biology - biofuels to benefit - June 25, 2007

Biopact: Scientists take major step towards 'synthetic life': first bacterial genome transplantation changing one species to another - June 29, 2007

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

Biopact: Agrivida and Codon Devices to partner on third-generation biofuels - August 03, 2007

Article continues

Black-empowered firm Siyanda advances biofuel project, despite legislative uncertainty in South Africa

Black-empowered firm Siyanda is proceeding with preparations for the the development of a soyabean-based biodiesel production plant, despite continued delays in the finalisation of legislation governing biofuels in South Africa. The project will be a joint venture between petrochemicals giant Sasol, the State-owned Central Energy Fund and Siyanda.

CEO Madi Ramsamy said that Siyanda had secured a supply of soybean seed from New Crop Seed, and was planning to plant the first crop in October, near Newcastle in KwaZulu-Natal.

The project includes the development of a proposed 100,000 t/y soyabean-based biodiesel plant valued at between 1.2 and 1.3 billion rand (€120/$167 - €130/$181 million) . It includes the construction of the soyabean processing plant, an oil cake manufacturing facility, an oil extraction facility and a biodiesel refinery. Siyanda has also secured contracts for the supply of fuel and fertiliser for the farms.

Legislation governing the biofuels sector, and outlining government support for its development was expected in May, but is yet to be finalised. The Department of Trade and Industry said it was unable to comment until the policy was finalised and made public. South Africa is proceeding carefully with its legislation and wants to ensure small farmers benefit from the biofuels opportunity (earlier post):
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

However, Ramsamy said that JV partner Sasol wanted to delay the project until legislation was in place. Sasol's widely reported standpoint is that a biodiesel plant in South Africa is not economically viable without government support.

The project would be decided on by Sasol's board after government's national biofuels sector strategy document had been published, and Sasol confirmed that in the absence of legislation a decision is yet to be made.

Ramsamy agreed that government support was critical for the development of the industry. In a telephonic interview, he noted that he would like to see support in the form of agricultural or crop subsidies that would promote local emerging farmers.

Ramsamy said that Siyanda wanted to use local feedstock, and that he would like to see government assist farmers by lowering their input costs, such as seed, fertiliser and fuel, through subsidies.

These cost reductions would ripple through and also benefit buyers of the feedstock, such as Siyanda.

Ramsamy said that he assumed the delays with the legislation were related to including the necessary input and approval from all the relevant government departments, such as the Department of Trade and Industry, the Department of Minerals and Energy, the Department of Science and Technology and the Department of Finance.

Ramsamy was optimistic that the legislation would be in place by the end of October.

Engineering News: SA firm advances fuel-from-soya project, despite legislative uncertainty - September 17, 2007.

Article continues

Sunday, September 16, 2007

A quick look at natural gas and biogas hybrids

Last year in June, the Institut Français du Pétrole (IFP) participated in the Challenge Bibendum in Mortefontaine, near Paris. IFP presented, with Gaz de France, an all-natural-gas hybrid prototype vehicle developed on a Toyota Prius II base, with which it achieved record fuel efficiency and slashed greenhouse gas emissions compared to a gasoline powered hybrid. The prototype used only 3.56 kg of natural gas for 144 km of combined city and highway driving. In energy terms, this performance is equivalent to a fuel consumption of 3.63 liters of gasoline per 100 km (64.8 miles per gallon). On gasoline the Prius achieves a combined fuel economy of only 5.11 L/100 km (46 mpg). Most impressively, CO2 emissions for the natural gas hybrid were less than 75 g/km.

We have a look at this exceptional car, because it can just as well be fueled by biomethane instead of natural gas, lowering its carbon footprint still further.

Biomethane is obtained from biogas that has been upgraded to natural gas quality. In Europe, the fuel is increasingly used as it is by far the most efficient transport biofuel. In Sweden, Switzerland, Austria and Germany, the gas is already being fed into natural gas grid, and dedicated CNG infrastructures supplied with upgraded biogas are now available. Of all transport biofuels made from dedicated energy crops, biogas by far yields most useable energy per hectare. Researchers have found that for temperate grass species, one hectare can yield between 2,900–5,400 cubic meters of methane per year, enough to fuel an ordinary passenger car for 40,000 to 60,000 kilometers (one acre of crops can power a car for 10,000 to 15,000 miles) (earlier post).

The combination of hybrid technology and biomethane fuel has enormous potential for improving both the fuel economy and cutting the CO2 emissions of vehicles. Last year, the EU published a well-to-wheel analysis of more than 70 different fuels and propulsion technologies but forgot to include biomethane hybrids. After pressure from many organisations, a new version of the document was made available, including the compresed (bio)gas-hybrid (it calls the fuel Compressed Biogas - CBG - analogous to CNG). The CBG-hybrid came out as a concept as efficient and clean as cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells. However, CBG-hybrids do not require the new and expensive infrastructures needed for the hydrogen economy.

The study also looked at coupling carbon capture and storage (CCS) to fuel production. CCS would increase the cost of fuel production, but would considerably reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As we have reported earlier, CCS technologies can be applied to biogas in a cost-effective way, in which case the fuel becomes carbon-negative. Carbon-negative fuels can only be obtained from biomass (more here on a concrete project in the U.S. that is applying CCS to biomass and coal to obtain carbon-neutral jet fuel; if the biomass fraction were to be increased, the fuel would become truly carbon-negative and start taking historic CO2 emissions out of the atmosphere).

In short, one of the cleanest and most efficient vehicles would be a car running on a carbon-negative biofuel coupled to CCS and used in a hybrid-electric propulsion technology or in a fuel cell. The CBG-hybrid would be one of the most promising candidates over the medium term because (1) of all carbon-negative biofuel production pathways, biogas+CCS is the least costly, (2) contrary to hydrogen and fuel cell cars, CNG-hybrids can be brought on the market today, whereas (3) compared to hybrids running on liquid (bio)fuels, CNG-hybrids running on gaseous fuels are more efficient on a well-to-wheel basis:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The IFP and Gaz de France demonstrated that CNG-hybrids can reduce both fuel consumption and CO2 emissions. The vehicle was adapted for natural gas using simple technological solutions, without sacrificing the passenger compartment or the trunk: the gasoline tank is replaced by strong, lightweight natural gas tanks placed under the chassis, with a special manifold, and natural gas injectors replacing the gasoline injectors.

The project was a natural next step in a joint research effort being carried out by IFP and Gaz de France on natural gas as a fuel for vehicles: it was preceded by a first Smart-based demonstrator with a "downsized" engine (an engine having a reduced displacement, turbocharged to preserve performance) running on natural gas alone, developed in 2004, and will soon be followed by a Smart-based natural gas hybrid prototype currently under development.

IFP, a research center active in the fields of energy, transport, and the environment, develops new engine and fuel technologies. In an energy context marked by the need to diversify sources while protecting the environment, IFP devises innovative solutions to meet sustainable mobility needs in the decades to come. Using its unique experience in fuels and engines, IFP is developing alternative fuels (biofuels, synthetic fuels, etc.) and clean, economical vehicles (Natural Gas for Vehicles or biofuels, hybrid powertrains, etc.).

IFP's transport business, and, more specifically, its Powertrain Engineering Business Unit, draws on the skills of multidisciplinary teams, comprising over 200 highly specialized engineers and technicians, and is supported by a very broad range of testing facilities and equipment. The research program is hinged around the following strategic themes: fundamental research (particularly in the field of combustion), low-emission engine technologies (CO2, pollutants, noise), engine control, advanced fuels and lubricants as well as alternative fuels with low greenhouse gas emissions, and demonstrators.

For a number of years, Gaz de France has been using its experience and its extensive industrial experience to make natural gas a genuinely promising alternative fuel. The research that the Group has undertaken in the use of natural gas as a fuel has meant that it is coming to be increasingly used, and that the market is in constant growth, first and foremost with local authorities (buses and cleaning and waste collection vehicles) and, more recently, in company vehicle fleets.

The advantages that natural gas displays mean that it is imposing itself as a credible solution for the necessary changes in road mobility in coming years. Natural gas fuel is a means of reconciling the desires of car users with the challenges facing the transport and energy sectors in the years to come, in terms of the environment, of public health, of energy supplies, prices, performance and comfort of use. Gaz de France offers a whole new energy for automobiles.

IFP: Record fuel efficiency for the first all-natural-gas hybrid prototype developed by IFP and Gaz de France - July 4, 2007.

European Commission, Joint Research Institute, Institute for Environment and Sustainability: Well-to-Wheels reports [updated and revised frequently].

Biopact: A closer look at the revolutionary coal+biomass-to-liquids with carbon storage project - September 13, 2007

Biopact: Report: carbon-negative biomethane cleanest and most efficient biofuel for cars - August 29, 2007

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

Article continues

Georgia Tech's Strategic Energy Institute focuses on biofuels and biomaterials from forest products

Fuel prices are at record highs, a situation with disastrous consequences for poor countries. Biofuels are seen as a way to counter this trend, but only a handful of countries currently succeeds in making fuels that are competitive with oil products. However, scientists across the world are focusing on developing technologies and processes that should make it possible to tap abundant sources of biomass and bring down production costs. Efficient bioconversion techniques can be shared with the South, so that it can overcome the catastrophic social and economic effects of high oil prices.

Researchers at Georgia Tech are very active in the sector and are focusing on converting cellulose-rich forest products into biofuels, in an integrated biorefinery that yields high value bio-based materials besides fuels. They understand that many energy issues require a multi-disciplinary approach, which is why this university launched the Strategic Energy Institute (SEI), created to enable, facilitate and coordinate programs related to energy research and education. Their research efforts are interdisciplinary and take an integrated systems approach.

The Strategic Energy Institute has been broadly engaging companies to define projects that many faculty members at Georgia Tech can pursue in a collaborative effort. One of the main projects aimed at advanced technologies to make transportation fuels from forest-based biomass is made possible with funding from Chevron, Atlanta startup C2 Biofuels, the Georgia Research Alliance and one of the U.S. Department of Energy’s new BioEnergy Science Centers.

The Georgia Tech researchers are examining and optimizing the five major steps required to produce bioethanol from woody biomass. These steps include (1) selecting the best plant material, (2) preparing the plants for conversion, (3) breaking down the carbohydrates into simple sugars, (4) fermenting the sugars into alcohol and (5) separating the ethanol from water. Let's have a quick look at their advancements.

1. Selecting a biomass source
Bioethanol produced from corn is being manufactured at a rate of more than 5 billion gallons per year in the United States, but concerns exist about the future price and availability of corn as a food crop if it’s being used to help meet energy needs.

Because forest products are a more efficient source of ethanol and more than 5 million tons of trees are available for harvest each year in Georgia beyond what is needed for pulp mill and sawmill production, Georgia Tech researchers are turning to Southern pine trees. Switchgrass, a fast-growing tallgrass, is another attractive source of plant material because of its ability to grow in poor soil and adverse climate conditions, its rapid growth and its low fertilization and herbicide requirements:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Art Ragauskas, a professor in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry, studies the chemistry and structure of the starting plant material to determine which varieties and characteristics of switchgrass and pine trees improve conversion to ethanol:

2. Pre-treatment

Ragauskas also examines how different acids react with the wood chips to make accessible the complex interior mixture of carbohydrate polymers, including cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin.

Pre-treatment is performed under severe chemical conditions and very high temperatures. Understanding the chemistry should allow the researchers to make pre-treatments more efficient, less costly and more effective, says Ragauskas.

After the acid pre-treatment, the wood is placed in a reactor and exposed to high-pressure steam.

John Muzzy, a professor in the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and Kristina Knutson, a postdoctoral fellow in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry, are working with Ragauskas to develop a continuous reactor that will employ mechanical energy and/or boiling water instead of acid and high temperatures to break up the wood. That would greatly reduce processing and chemical costs while increasing the life expectancy of the reactors, Ragauskas notes.

3. Breaking down the sugars
After the pre-treatment, the cellulose and hemicellulose are further broken down to free the sugar for fermentation to alcohol. Commercially available enzymes can do this, but they are too expensive to use in biofuel production, according to Andreas Bommarius, a professor in the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry. As an alternative, he is identifying novel enzymes and engineering them to be longer-lasting and more effective at breaking down cellulose polymers to sugars than those commercially available.

Bommarius and his team wants to produce enzymes more efficiently and make them more active and stable, at the same time improving bioethanol production at a lower cost.

4. Fermentation

In conventional ethanol production, the sugars obtained are then fermented with yeast to produce alcohol. Rachel Ruizhen Chen, an associate professor in the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, is working to increase the ethanol production rate by using the bacteria Zymomonas mobilis instead of yeast in the fermentation process because it has a three- to five-fold higher productivity than yeast when making bioethanol. Chen plans to manipulate the enzymatic, transport and regulatory functions of the bacterial cell to improve the bioethanol fermentation process.

The lignin portion of the biomass must be extracted from the mixture prior to fermentation. Unfortunately, current pre-treatments break down some of the lignin, which enables it to be carried over to the fermentation process where it acts as a fermentation inhibitor.

William Koros, the Roberto C. Goizueta Chair in the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, is investigating efficient ways to separate the lignin from the cellulose and hemicellulose portions of the biomass. Koros, a Georgia Research Alliance (GRA) eminent scholar in membranes, plans to extract the lignin byproducts by pulling the hydrolyzed biomass mixture through a selective membrane with a vacuum using a process called pervaporation.

Lignin is an important by-product of the enzymatic process and has many potential uses. Ragauskas is examining the possibility of converting lignin to a biofuel precursor or using lignin as a building block chemical to make new polymers or chemicals. Professors Christopher Jones and Pradeep Agrawal, both of the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, are exploring ways to chemically fractionate pine and convert suitable portions to true gasoline fuels.

To produce a biofuel with a similar energy density to gasoline from renewable feedstocks, they plan to convert pre-treated pine to fuel using chemical catalysts traditionally used by the petroleum industry, rather than enzymes. These biofuels could yield higher miles-per-gallon than traditional ethanol-rich fuels such as E-85, according to Jones.

5. Separating ethanol from water
For bioethanol, once the sugars are fermented into alcohol, a significant amount of water must be separated out. This separation primarily occurs in a distillation column, which involves heating the mixture and separating the components by the differences in their boiling points.

Distillation is very energy intensive and expensive, and it might defeat the purpose when you’re trying to produce biofuel economically, says Sankar Nair, an assistant professor in the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, who is collaborating with Koros on two separation projects aimed at improving the energy efficiency of the biofuel process.

A membrane-based approach would avoid the need to supply heat energy, and instead rely on differences in the transport rates of the components through a membrane to achieve separation. The challenge is in producing selective membrane systems that can produce pure ethanol. Polymer materials have been widely investigated and have the advantage of high throughput, but such membranes can’t yet produce pure ethanol from a dilute ethanol-water mixture, notes Nair.

Instead, Koros and Nair are exploring membranes that contain nanoparticles of porous inorganic materials called zeolites that are so small they can be dispersed efficiently into a polymer matrix. The very specific porosity of the zeolite should allow separation of ethanol from water. By using two membranes in series – the first hydrophobic to remove ethanol from a large mass of water and the second hydrophilic to remove any trace water in the ethanol product from the first membrane – it may be possible to design an economical membrane process for biofuel separation from water.

Taking a systems approach: the biorefinery

Producing ethanol from biomass involves more than these process steps. Researchers must also decide how to ship the biomass to the processing plant, how large the processing plant should be, where it should be located, and how to ship the ethanol to fueling stations.

Bill Bulpitt, an SEI senior research engineer who returned to Georgia Tech in 2004 after working 17 years for Southern Company, is working with students who are running computer simulation models that represent what a full-scale production plant might look like. The models analyze the costs for the various components of the system, which helps to determine the optimal biorefinery size.

When building a biorefinery, there is a certain size that’s economically viable. That’s what we are trying to determine, Bulpitt explains.

To evaluate a biofuel system, the project team must consider the energy balance – that is, how much energy goes in versus how much comes out. A biofuel system must take into account positive or negative energy balances, positive or negative net greenhouse gas emissions, and positive or negative environmental and ecosystem impacts.

Ethanol biorefineries could get a significant economic boost from the sale of high-value chemicals that could be generated from the same feedstock. Charles Eckert, a professor in the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and collaborators Charles Liotta and Art Ragauskas are exploring the use of environmentally friendly solvent and separation systems to produce specialty chemicals, pharmaceutical precursors and flavorings from a small portion of the ethanol feedstock.

Matthew Realff , an associate professor in the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, is developing optimization models to determine the best structure for a biofuel processing system. Realff ’s model integrates information from crop production through processing to fuel distribution. It includes information on the location and number of crop acres available, the current economic value of the crop, distances and ability to ship the crop, the economic scaling of the cost of the processing equipment with size and the location of the distribution terminals.

These optimization models are valuable to companies like C2 Biofuels that plan to build biorefineries. And they complete the comprehensive research approach Georgia Tech has taken toward optimizing bioethanol production process.

Picture: Professor Art Ragauskas prepares samples containing cellulose, lignin and hemicellulose for analysis. Credit: Georgia Tech, Gary Meek.

Georgia Tech: Georgia Tech Takes Comprehensive Biofuels Approach - September 16, 2007.

Strategic Energy Institute: Georgia Tech Part of New Biofuel Research Center - June 29, 2007.

Article continues

Ecriture automatique: getting priorities straight

Biopact reports about biofuels and bioenergy, and tries to promote these energy options in the Global South, because we believe they might improve the resilience of societies there. However, this does not mean bio-based energy is an absolute top priority in the grand order of things.

We asked some of our collegues to scribble down what they see as the most important socio-economic interventions, energy technologies and policy measures in different regions, needed to ensure that the 21st century is an environmentally sustainable, energy secure and socially equitable one. Sometimes it can be fruitful to go beyond thinking, analysing and studying, and instead let intuition do its work. So after a bit of écriture automatique, we obtained the following map of energy-related priorities.

Clearly, bioenergy is only one of many, more important, things to do and to imagine [entry ends here].
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Article continues