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

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

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

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

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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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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:
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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

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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:
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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

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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:
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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

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