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

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Saturday, September 29, 2007

Research finds recovery from acid rain much slower than expected

Acid rain emerged as a concern in the 1960s with observations of dying lakes and forest damage in northern Europe, the United States, and Canada. It was one of the first environmental issues to demonstrate a large-scale regional scope. The chief pollutants — oxides of sulfur (SOx) and nitrogen (NOx) from combustion of fossil fuels — can be carried hundreds of kilometers by winds before being washed out of the atmosphere in rain, fog, and snow. Acid rain kills plant life, destroys agriculture and forests, pollutes rivers and streams, and erodes stonework.

Over the last 20 years, serious action has been taken across Europe to clean up acid pollutants from power generation and industry, which was widely expected to bring recovery. However, new research led by Cardiff University's School of Biosciences shows that the expected improvements in rivers are far short of expectations.

The dissappointing findings are important for the developing world, and in particularly for Asia, where acid rain still is a major problem. There, energy consumption has surged and reliance on coal and oil remains very high. By 2020, Asian SO2 emissions could reach 110 million metric tons if no action is taken beyond current levels of control (graph, click to enlarge). As a result, damage to natural ecosystems and crops is likely to increase dramatically, at an enormous social and economic cost.

An example from India illustrates the dramatic effects of acid rain on agricultural productivity: researchers there found that wheat growing near a coal-fired power plant where SO2 deposition was almost five times greater than the critical load (the amount the soil can safely absorb without harm) suffered a 49 percent reduction in yield compared with wheat growing 22 kilometers away.

Damage could be largely avoided if modern pollution control technologies, such as flue-scrubbers, are widely adopted and if low-sulfur fuels are used. In this context, bioenergy and biofuels offer a major alternative to coal and oil. Co-firing low-sulfur biomass in power plants combined with a transition to 100% biomass power plants and biofuels in transportation can drastically reduce both SOx and NOx emissions.

From the Cardiff University scientists we learn that these efforts are urgent, because ecosystem recovery from acid rain takes much longer than expected. Recent studies in Galloway, the Scottish Highlands and Wales reveal that many streams are still highly acidified, decades after the first pollution control measures came into effect. Biological recovery has been particularly poor.

Key findings from the projects, carried out by combined teams from Cardiff University, the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and National Museum Wales, include:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

  • Acidity in Welsh headwaters is declining, but only slowly
  • More than two thirds of all streams sampled were acid enough during high flow to cause biological damage, with metals at toxic concentrations
  • Sulphur pollution from man-made sources is still an important cause of acid episodes, particularly in Wales
  • Sensitive insects survive conditions in the most acid streams for only a few days
  • Headwater acidification is still a significant problem for important salmon fisheries, and Special Areas of Conservation such as the Welsh River Wye.
Professor Steve Ormerod of the School of Biosciences, a leading researcher into the biological effects of acid rain for more than 20 years, said: "Organisms and ecosystems are the best indicators of recovery from pollution, so these results will alarm anyone interested in the well-being of our rivers. We need to understand the factors responsible for such delayed recovery, particularly since climate change is likely to make the acidification problem even worse."

Dr Chris Evans, an acid-rain specialist from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology in Bangor, added "pollution reductions are slowly improving in upland waters, but there is a long way to go. The large biological effects of acid episodes shown by this work mean that it is vital to continue monitoring these ecosystems if we are to protect them in future."

The research contrasts with other recent studies which showed some encouraging early signs and will come as disappointing news to those who thought the acid rain problem was solved.

Graph credit: World Resources Institute.

Eurekalert: Recovery from acid rain 'much slower than expected' - September 28, 2007.

World Resources Institute: Acid Rain: Downpour in Asia.

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The Seven Commandments of Mexican biofuels: from social justice to sustainability

In a very interesting essay Ricardo Cantú of Mexico's School of Public and Political Administration at Monterey's Technological University explores how one might go about creating a sustainable ethanol economy that simultaneously serves the interests of social justice, the environment, and energy security, in the context of Mexico. A project much like that of the Biopact, focused on Sub-Saharan Africa.

The overriding goal emerging from Cantú's excellent paper titled "Ethanolomics: The Think-About's of the Mexican Ethanol Project" [*.pdf] is to devise a strategy for improving the living standards of the rural poor in Mexico via an invigoration of the agricultural economy, boosting energy security for the population at large while limiting the catastrophic effects of high oil prices on the poor, and contributing to the fight against climate change by producing fuels that effectively reduce carbon emissions.

In theory, biofuels "could potentially [...] solve all of the above problems" writes Cantú, an argument voiced by many biofuel proponents in the Global South (and partially by organisations like the FAO, the WorldWatch Institute and the IEA). Plant based alternatives to oil could:
diminish the global ecological harm that the fossil fuels are making; lessen the economical dependence of some countries with the global markets and foreign policies [...]; be a renewable energy source, because it would use biomass inputs; and power up rural economical dynamism.
But this is theory. The same theory set out in our 'Biofuels Manifesto'. In reality, biofuels can go two ways: either perpetuating social injustices, concentrating power in an ever smaller number of hands, and damaging the environment, or they can become an engine for poverty alleviation, rural revival, a healthier environment, reduce hunger and bring global social justice. In order to make sure biofuels take the latter path, Cantú provides a set of ground rules. It won't be easy to follow them, but it is not impossible either. The guidelines are:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

  1. Over the whole chain, the use of biomass should produce fewer emissions of greenhouse gases net than on average with fossil fuel.
  2. Production of biomass for energy must not endanger the food supply and other local applications (such as for medicines or building materials).
  3. Biomass production must not affect protected or vulnerable biodiversity and will, where possible, have to strengthen biodiversity.
  4. In the production and processing of biomass, the quality of soil, surface and ground water and air must be retained or even increased.
  5. The production of biomass must contribute towards local prosperity.
  6. The production of biomass must contribute towards the social well being of the employees and the local population.
  7. The overall ethanol production costs should be cheaper and more accessible than that of the fossil fuels, or at least the same level, excluding all the subsidies or tax benefits to the producers or distributors.
That's quite a checklist. Over at Salon, Andrew Leonard, in his typically succinct and sharp way, picks one of these to see what it really means: The production of biomass must contribute towards local prosperity.

Cantú stresses that a key requirement of a biofuel economy in Mexico is that the farmers capture the rewards of their production. In other words, one wants to avoid a situation in which farmers sell their sugar cane or maize or sorghum at rock-bottom prices to middlemen who then grab all the upstream profits. Cantú envisions farmer cooperatives setting up their own ethanol mills, and dealing directly with distributors.

Such a model is not uncommon in the U.S. and in Europe, and there's no reason, in principle, it couldn't work in Mexico or in other developing countries, says Leonard. But it would require strong government leadership and the sharp eye of civil society organisations to check whether policies are enacted.

Indeed, to achieve all the goals outlined above would require a tightly regulated market with significant government intervention: in other words, a direct repudiation of the kind of Washington Consensus policies of deregulation and privatization that the West has been pushing on Latin America and elsewhere for decades.

Ricardo Cantú, "Ethanolomics: The Think-About’s of the Mexican Ethanol Project" [*.pdf], Cátedra de Integración Económica y Desarrollo Social, Escuela de Graduados en Administración Pública y Politica Pública, Tecnológico de Monterrey, Working Paper No. 2007-3.

Salon: The Seven Commandments of Mexican ethanol - September 28, 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: IEA report: bioenergy can meet 20 to 50% of world's future energy demand - September 12, 2007

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

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Malaysia to trial jatropha in Sabah - replicating palm oil's poverty reduction power?

The palm oil industry is a corner stone of Malaysia's economy, generating export revenues only surpassed by oil and gas. It has become politically incorrect to say this, but over the past decades the sector has brought unprecedented wealth to hundreds of thousands of small farmers. Small holders retain a 41% share of the hectarage in the sector. The incidence of small holder poverty has dropped from 30% in the 1970s to nearly zero today, a stronger reduction than observed in any other agricultural segment. According to an analysis of the sector presented to an UNCTAD workshop:
the government of Malaysia, though its poverty redressal programs, in particular the organized smallholder programs involving oil palm, has been able to enhance the incomes of agricultural smallholders and lifted them from the vicious cycle of poverty.
Today, these strong social arguments in favor of palm oil have been clouded by environmental worries. Deforestation resulting from expanding plantations could carry a cost higher than the direct social and economic benefits from palm oil. Environmental economists are still studying the matter, but as things stand today, it may be more sensible to keep forests intact as carbon sinks, and compensate the farmers for doing so. However, the threat of ever rising oil prices may make this proposition untenable in the long run. With oil at a record $80 per barrel and rising, palm based biofuels may become more commercially attractive than the carbon value of forests.

Recently, two scientists writing in Nature urged conservationists to forget the idea of compensated reduction - which is a top-down, bureaucratic scheme unlikely to reach the small holders who need the money most - and instead suggested they should become palm oil farmers themselves. With the profits made from the plantations, conservationists could then buy forests to keep them intact (earlier post). To some the idea sounded bizarre ('join the enemy, to beat him') but it clearly illustrates the tension between direct socio-economic benefits from palm oil and more abstact benefits from environmental goods and services embodied in intact forests.

Malaysia is accutely aware of this tension, which has prompted it to show interest in diversifying its portfolio of biofuel crops by looking into Jatropha curcas. The shrub has been touted as an alternative to the large oil crops because it can be grown on poor soils, with limited inputs, away from forests.

The country's Plantation Industries and Commodities Ministry will therefor launch a pilot project in Kota Marudu in northern Sabah (map, click to enlarge) to cultivate jatropha, whose seeds contain up to 40 percent oil. Should the project prove to be viable, commercial cultivation of the plant will be carried out in the state, minister Datuk Peter Chin Fah Kui says.

But despite the environmental arguments in favor of jatropha, the same social logic which drove the government's efforts in the palm oil industry is still at work. After a dialogue with small holders in the region, the minister said:
We need to study the suitability of the [jatropha] crop in terms of soil and weather, and we chose Kota Marudu for the pilot project on the request of its MP, Datuk Dr Maximus Ongkili, as the area is among the least developed in Sabah, and we must do something to improve the lot of the people in the constituency.
Could jatropha replicate the poverty alleviating power of palm oil, while at the same time avoiding the environmental problems associated with palms?
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Chin thinks so and hopes smallholders, especially those in Kota Marudu, will participate in the cultivation "as it is sure to provide good returns". The ministry regards jatropha as an alternative crop that could contribute to the production of biodiesel in Malaysia with the potential to become a full-blown commercial crop.

However, the question remains on what type of land the jatropha will be grown and what its effects will be on land competition and on indirect pressures on forests.

If the crop is planned on land that would be suitable for palm oil, it will be difficult to convince farmers to grow it, since jatropha can't compete qua productivity and is extremely labor intensive (earlier post). On the other hand, of marginal interest may be the role jatropha could play in crop diversification. Small farmers who produce for a market that is heavily dependent on global market forces often face strong price fluctuations, and thus often stand to benefit from a diversified crop portfolio.

The strongest arguments in favor of jatropha - the fact that it can be grown on marginal soils and in semi-arid environments requiring little inputs of water - probably don't make sensee in Sabah. After all, Sabah is a heavily forested, lush green region in Borneo, the largest island in the humid tropics. The extent of 'marginal' soils there is probably limited.

On oil palm cultivation in Sabah, Chin added the federal government will continue to support the sector in the state with the use of new methods including quality seedlings. And here too, the support schemes are directed at small holders, the traditional recipients of financial and agro-technical aid:
We want to ensure that it is not only the large plantations that benefit from the latest methods but also the smallholders, which is why we have the quality seedlings aid scheme
In recent years, improved palms have been developed with some cultivars showing a 30% increase in yield. In order to arrive at a more sustainable palm oil sector, it is crucial for small holders to have access to these cultivars, so that replanting opens a cycle of higher productivity.

In another development, Chin said his ministry will introduce a new system that saves time for rubber tappers. If the smallholders use the new method, which involves gas and chemical extraction techniques, they will only need to tap 11 days a month, but the latex they collect will be equivalent to the amount from tapping daily, he explained.

Some environmentalists from the West have done their best to discredit Malaysia's plantation sector as a whole. One of their strategies has been to focus on the large estates as if they are the only actors in the industry. Too often they gloss over the fact that millions of people derive their livelihoods from the sector and that it has had profoundly beneficial social effects for Malaysia's rural population. If managed well, the biofuel market is set to bring more wealth to the small holders once again.


Bernama: Biofuel Crop Jatropha To Be Cultivated In Sabah - September 28, 2007.

Arif Simeh, "The Case Study on the Malaysian Palm Oil" [*.pdf], Regional workshop on commodity export diversification and poverty reductionin South and South-East Asia (Bangkok, 2001), UNCTAD.

Biopact: Jobs per joule: how much employment does each energy sector generate? - September 01, 2006

Biopact: Towards a truce: environmentalists should use palm oil as a lever for conservation - September 03, 2007

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Friday, September 28, 2007

RWE Power, BASF and Linde to cooperate on CO2 capture technology

RWE Power, BASF and The Linde Group today agreed to develop new processes for CO2 capture from combustion gases in coal-fired power plants. The co-operation will comprise the construction and operation of a pilot facility at the lignite-fired power plant of RWE Power AG in Niederaussem to test new developments and solvents from BASF for the capture of CO2 - so-called CO2 scrubbing. Linde will be responsible for the engineering and the construction of the pilot facility.

The development of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies - which promise to reduce carbon emissions from coal plants by up to 90% - is important to the bioenergy community in that they can be applied to biomass fuels, thus opening the prospect of radically carbon-negative energy production. Such 'bio-energy with carbon storage' (BECS) systems are seen as the most realistic energy systems to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on a global and drastic scale (earlier post and here). Scientists have studied the concept in the context of 'abrupt climate change' scenarios, and found the technology - if implemented worldwide which would require the establishment of vast energy plantations - can be seen as the most cost-effective, safe and viable 'geo-engineering' option (more here).

BECS-systems take historic CO2 emissions out of the atmosphere; if implemented globally, they could take us back to pre-industrial CO2 levels by mid-century. Only biomass combined with CCS can yield carbon-negative energy and fuels; all other renewables are carbon-neutral at best and merely prevent new emissions. BECS systems clean up our past.

The fossil fuels industry will develop CCS technologies first because it has the money and means to do so, after which they should be applied to biofuels as soon as possible.

Pilot plant
The purpose of the pilot facility to be run by RWE Power is the long-term testing of new solvents with a view to gaining an understanding of processes and plant engineering to improve CO2 capture technology. The goal is to apply CO2 capture commercially in lignite-fired power plants by 2020. The new technology should enable to removal of more than 90 per cent of CO2 from the combustion gas of a power plant and then subsequently to store this gas underground.

Once pilot tests have been completed successfully, the companies will decide on a subsequent demonstration plant in 2010. This will be designed to provide a reliable basis for the commercialisation of the new process. RWE Power has earmarked a budget of approximately €80 million for the development project, including the construction and operation of the pilot facility and demonstration plant.

RWE Power, Germany's largest energy company, is designing all its new coal-fired power plants so that they can eventually be equipped with the CO2 capture technology that is currently being developed with BASF and Linde. The aim is to set up not only highly modern plants from 2020 onwards, but also virtually carbon-neutral coal-fired power plants including storage.

Apart from the so-called CO2-scrubbing method, RWE Power is also developing the first carbon-neutral coal-fired power plant with CO2 transport and storage, based on the integrated gasification combined-cycle process (IGCC). This large-scale 450-MW plant is due to come on stream in 2014, although no decision has yet been taken as to where it should be located. With a view to climate protection, RWE Power has also decided to expand renewable energies throughout Europe, with the focus on generating electric power from water, wind and biomass.

CASTOR: European carbon capture project
RWE and BASF have been involved in the CASTOR project since early 2004, a research project that is sponsored by the European Union (EU) and which seeks to find methods to remove CO2 from combustion gases and to store it:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The project is also supported by a number of prestigious European universities, research institutions, public authorities and industrial enterprises, including several renowned power plant operators, oil and gas companies and plant manufacturers.
We are accepting the challenges of climate protection and want to be proactive in pushing all the available options for the reduction and avoidance of CO2. We are confident that, together with our partners, we will soon be developing the process of CO2 capture to commercial maturity so that this technology can be deployed in new and existing modern coal-fired power plants in the future. - Dr. Johannes Lambertz, Board member of RWE Power with responsibility for fossil- fuelled power plants
According to Lambertz there is agreement among experts that coal will continue to be an important pillar in the global energy supply for decades to come. This is why the companies have set up a long-range CO2 avoidance strategy: building the most efficient coal-fired power plants in the world, and developing a new generation of power plants for tomorrow, with an efficiency of over 50 per cent.

RWE Power is the largest German electricity producer responsible for the Group's generation of electric power in Germany as well as in Central/Eastern Europe. RWE Power uses a wide range of energy sources: lignite from open-cast mines in the Rhineland and nuclear energy for the base load, as well as hard coal, gas and renewable energies such as water, wind and biomass for medium and peak loads. RWE Power and its subsidiaries employ a workforce of over 17,000, both in Germany and abroad.
BASF conducts worldwide research on products to conserve resources and energy. By entering into this collaboration with RWE Power and Linde, we are contributing our wide-ranging expertise in CO2 capture technology. Our research is seeking to find a suitable solvent for the efficient capture of CO2. - Dr. Stefan Marcinowski, research representative and Board member of BASF.
BASF is the world's leading chemical company. Its portfolio ranges from chemicals, plastics, performance products, agricultural products and fine chemicals to crude oil and natural gas. As a reliable partner to virtually all industries, BASF's high-value products and intelligent system solutions help its customers to be more successful. BASF develops new technologies and uses them to meet the challenges of the future and open up additional market opportunities.
This promising co-operation of three responsible major companies can provide an important impetus to climate protection. It is the aim of the Linde Group to help reduce emissions wherever possible. Our activities include continuous efficiency improvements of our plant designs for the benefit of our customers, CO2 capture methods as well as expedient recycling systems and the production of environmentally friendly alternative fuels. - Dr. Aldo Belloni, member of the Executive Board of Linde AG.
The Linde Group is a leading gases and engineering company with around 49,000 employees working in more than 70 countries worldwide. Following the acquisition of The BOC Group plc, the company has sales of around 12 billion euro per annum.

Image: RWE Power AG's brown-coal fired power plant in Niederaussem, which will run the trials with BASF's carbon capturing solvents. Credit: RWE Power.

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Sacramento utility in 10 year contract to purchase competitive biomass energy

The Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) Board of Directors announces it has approved the extension of an 18-month contract with Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI) for the purchase of carbon-neutral renewable energy from a new biomass plant in Burlington, WA.

The agreement will allow SMUD to buy 15 to 23 megawatts of round-the-clock baseload power at a competitive cost relative to other renewables like wind or solar, through July 31, 2017. This is enough electricity to serve between 13,000 and 20,000 homes.

Biomass power plants have advantages over wind and solar energy, in that the latter are intermittent energy sources, not capable of generating electricity when there's no wind or sunshine. They need baseload back-up from another source (mostly fossil fuels). Biomass on the contrary is an energy carrier and can be stored, traded, and utilized to provide a reliable baseload. With biomass, peaks in demand can easily be met. However, the difference should not be exaggerated as distributed wind and solar systems are being developed and new energy storage concepts are emerging.

What really sets biomass apart from other renewables is the fact that the energy carrier can be utilized in power stations and fuel production factilities that are coupled to carbon capture and storage systems. This allows for the production of radically carbon-negative energy which takes historic CO2 emissions out of the atmosphere. Such a concept is possible only with biomass; all other renewables are carbon-neutral at best.

Sierra Pacific Industries - a forestry company - turns wood waste into energy through seven cogeneration plants. Together, these facilities produce over 100 megawatts of electrical power. Bark, sawdust, and other low-grade byproducts of wood manufacturing processes were burned or sent to landfills in the past. Today, Sierra Pacific Industries turns these materials into biofuels for on-site cogeneration facilities and dedicated biomass power plants:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Besides the bioenergy purchase agreement, SMUD Board also approved a 10-year extension of a related transmission and exchange agreement with Seattle City Light. This agreement brings SMUD closer to its goal of getting 20 percent of its power supply from renewable energy sources by 2011. In 2006, SMUD’s power mix was made up of over 13 percent qualifying renewable sources.

Through its Greenergy program, SMUD offers consumers the choice of supporting energy created by green resources. Greenergy members can switch to 100 percent renewable resources for use on the SMUD power system for only pennies a day.

Renewable resources (like bioenergy and landfill gas created by waste decomposition) are used to create the energy for Greenergy, not conventional sources that pollute like coal. SMUD matches 40 percent of the Greenergy premium to help secure new power plants fueled by renewable resources.

More than 30,000 customers have signed up for SMUD's Greenergy. According to the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL), Greenergy qualifies as America's fifth-largest green pricing program based on the number of customers enrolled.

In addition to purchases of renewable power based on biomass, SMUD owns approximately 39 megawatts of wind generation (with an additional 63 megawatts on-line by year’s end) and 10.4 megawatts of solar power.

Sacramento Municipal Utility District: SMUD Board approves 10-year wood biomass purchase [*.pdf] - September 24, 2007.

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Mascoma to build first switchgrass cellulosic ethanol plant

Mascoma Corporation, a developer of advanced low-carbon energy biotechnology, recently announced that it intends to establish America's first operating facility producing cellulosic ethanol utilizing switchgrass as feedstock. The project represents one of the largest commitments of capital yet made in support of the cellulosic biofuels industry. Some new details about the plan have become available.

Mascoma and the University of Tennessee plan to jointly build and operate the five million gallon per year cellulosic biorefinery. Construction is expected to begin by the end of 2007 and the facility will be operational in 2009. The business partnership and plans for the facility are a result of the Tennessee Biofuels Initiative, 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. It includes a $40 million investment in facility construction and $27 million for research and development activities, including incentives for farmers to grow switchgrass funded by the State and the University of Tennessee. The large-scale demonstration facility will be located in Monroe County, Tennessee.
We are excited about our partnership, the first to produce biofuels from switchgrass, and the opportunity in the future, to expand our production to commercial scale. Along with the new DOE Bioenergy Research Center at nearby Oak Ridge, Tennessee will have a one-two punch addressing our nation’s need for low-carbon, domestically produced energy. - Bruce A. Jamerson, CEO Mascoma
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.

The University of Tennessee’s Institute of Agriculture will support the establishment of switchgrass as an energy crop. Initial research conducted by the University of Tennessee’s Institute of Agriculture indicates that Tennessee is capable of generating over one billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol from switchgrass alone. The U.S. as a whole has the resources for a supply of a billion tons of lignocellulosic biomass (maps, click to enlarge).

Biofuels made from cellulosic biomass, either obtained from dedicated non-food energy crops or from agricultural and forestry residues have a much stronger energy balance than first-generation fuels made from, for example, corn. Cellulosic ethanol's 'energy return on energy invested' (EROEI) is up to 4 times higher than corn based ethanol (graph, click to enlarge). The fact that these fuels do not compete with food is obviously a major advantage:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Mascoma's facility is complemented by research efforts at nearby Oak Ridge National Laboratory. In June, Oak Ridge 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 project is Mascoma’s third cellulosic biorefinery. Mascoma has begun construction on its first facility announced in 2006, a multi-feedstock demonstration-scale biorefinery located in Rome, New York. This project is being developed in partnership with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority and the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets.

In July 2007, the company announced plans to build one of the nation’s first commercial scale biorefineries using wood as a feedstock. This project is located in the State of Michigan and is being developed with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and partners including Michigan State University and Michigan Technological University.

Graphs credit: UT Biofuels Initiative.

University of Tennessee: UT Board Approves Biofuels Business Partnership - September 19, 2007

University of Tennessee, Office of Bioenergy Programs: From Grow to Go for a New Bioeconomy.

Dr. Kelly Tiller, "UT Biofuels Initiative" [*.pdf], Presented at the Public Hearing on the Niles Ferry Biorefinery Location, Vonore, TN, - August 16, 2007

UT Office of Bioenergy Programs: Switchgrass as a Future Energy Crop [*.pdf].

Biopact: University of Tennessee and Mascoma team up to build cellulosic ethanol biorefinery - September 21, 2007

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Finland starts trials of Neste Oil's second-generation NExBTL biodiesel in buses

Next-generation biofuels are here. The first buses running on ultra-clean second-generation biodiesel were introduced in Helsinki's public transportation this morning. The vehicles utilize fuels produced via state-owned Neste Oil's proprietary NExBTL (Next Generation Biomass-to-Liquids) process. Finland ambitiously aims to replace 30% of petroleum fuels with such next-generation biofuels by 2020, more than the EU requires (previous post). Interestingly, Neste Oil has recently announced that it is looking into sourcing feedstocks for its second-generation biofuel from the developing world, where they can be produced in a sustainable and competitive way, while potentially offering chances for rural development (here).

NExBTL is a biodiesel production process that differs from classic transesterification but also from second generation biomass-to-liquids processes used to obtain synthetic biodiesel (which is based on the gasification of biomass, with the gas being liquefied via the Fischer-Tropsch process). NExBTL instead consists of hydrogenating fatty acids under high-pressure, using hydrogen produced at the oil refinery (schematic, click to enlarge). The process can use multiple vegetable oil feedstocks and results in a product with characteristics similar to ultra-clean synthetic biofuels.

Several companies are developing the same process. In Brazil, Petrobras is investing in 'H-Bio', in Portugal Galp Energia is doing the same, whereas UOP, a Honeywell company, is developing the fuel which it dubs 'green diesel' (earlier post, and references there).

First tests with the NExBTL fuel shows efficiency remains high, while NOx emissions are down almost 20% and particulates close to 30% compared to standard diesel. In addition, the fuel reduces fossil CO2 emissions by up to 80% (earlier post). Neste Oil recently started construction on its €100/US$134 million NExBTL plant, the first large-scale second-generation biodiesel facility in the world, capable of producing 170,000 tonnes per year (more here).

The bus trials are part of a larger test program. Six buses are on the road today, but in the coming weeks this figure will increase to around 60. In all, there are around 1,400 buses operating within the Greater Helsinki area's public transportation system. The aim is to have every second bus operating in the Greater Helsinki Area running on biofuel by the year 2010.

Two capital area bus contractors, Pohjolan Liikenne and Veolia Transport, are taking part in the first phase of the experiment. From the beginning of 2008 they will be joined by Helsingin Bussiliikenne, the capital area’s principal bus operator owned by the City of Helsinki:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The idea behind the experiment is to reduce the capital area’s emission levels from public transportation. The nitrogen oxide and particle emissions of biodiesel are lower than those of regular diesel.

The experiment will not yet have an impact on the air quality, but in 2010 it certainly will, confirms Reijo Mäkinen, head of public transportation services at the Helsinki Metropolitan Area Council (YTV).

Switching to biodiesel does not require any alterations to buses. The outlay of the experiment is around €100,000 per year, and it will be split evenly between Helsinki City Transport (HKL) and YTV. Neste Oil’s investment in the experiment is slightly higher. For the bus and coach contractors, there are no expenses from taking part in the pilot project.

: Helsinki Deputy Mayor Pekka Sauri fills up a Pohjolan Liikenne bus with NExBTL biodiesel under the watchful eye of Henrik Lindgren. Credit: Roope Salonen.

Helsingin Sanomat: Biofuel buses introduced in Helsinki public transport - September 28, 2007.

Neste Oil: NExBTL Renewable Synthetic Diesel, presentation [*.pdf].

Biopact: Scania tests show bio-based synthetic diesel sharply cuts Emissions - June 05, 2007

Biopact: Finland's Trade & Industry minister wants 30% biofuels by 2020 - June 01, 2007

Biopact: Finnish oil major is considering jatropha oil for next-generation biodiesel - April 19, 2007

Biopact: Eni to produce green diesel from vegetable oils based on UOP's hydrogenation technology - June 20, 2007

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Boeing, Air New Zealand and Rolls-Royce to conduct biofuel flight demonstration

Boeing, Air New Zealand and Rolls-Royce have announced a Memorandum of Understanding under which they will conduct a flight test with second-generation biofuels next year, as part of a wider research programme to understand renewable fuels and their potential future applications in aviation.

The partners say that as little as a year ago biofuels in aviation seemed like 'pie in the sky' to many industry observers, but it is now a possibility and technology is moving so fast that it may become viable in a much shorter timeframe than previously thought. Biopact readers have been able to follow these developments. Two years ago, our view that biofuels would become a reality in aviation before 2010 was laughed at; today, all major aircraft and jet-engine manufacturers, as well as governments and private aerospace R&D initiatives have launched biofuel programs, with some already in the stage of lab engine tests.
Our near-term goal in this pioneering effort is to identify sustainable alternative bio-jet fuel sources for the planes that are flying today. A significant first step is identifying progressive fuel sources that will provide better economic and environmental performance for air carriers, without any change to aircraft engines or the aviation fuel infrastructure. - Craig Saddler, president of Boeing Australia
The evaluation, due to take place in the second half of 2008, will use a biofuel blended with kerosene ('biokerosene'). An announcement on the source and mix will be made closer to the time of the flight. The fuel will be used on a Boeing 747-400, owned by Air New Zealand and powered by four Rolls-Royce RB211-524s. The Boeing 747 flight, which is likely to depart Auckland and will not carry customers, will be conducted under strict safety standards. Only one engine will use the derived fuel, the remaining engines will be driven by kerosene.

Data will be gathered throughout the test process that will contribute to a wider understanding of the capabilities and limitations of renewable fuels and aid in the search for alternatives to kerosene. The evaluation will validate on a real engine what previous lab work has predicted. After the evaluation has been completed, the engine will be examined for condition and overhauled prior to returning to normal operational service:
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This programme signals the continuation of a very long journey. The environment is not a new subject for us and we’ve been investing in research that has been devoted to environmental improvement for many years. As a world-class engineering organisation, Rolls-Royce is particularly well placed to take a major role in this arena and we are committed to finding solutions. As an industry, we’ve already succeeded in driving down fuel burn by 70 per cent on a passenger per kilometre basis since the dawn of the jet age. - Jim Sheard, Senior Vice President – Airlines for Rolls-Royce
Air New Zealand is keen to encourage research into alternative fuels and wants to work hand-in-hand with industry partners and the New Zealand Government on promoting this type of activity. Air New Zealand would like to progress to an all New Zealand bio-fuel for future tests flights, but sourcing the quantity necessary may be a challenge in the short term.

Research into bio-jet fuels has exploded over the past years, partly because airlines' profitability strongly depends on fuel costs and because bio-jet fuels promise to reduce emissions considerably. But biofuels for aviation present several challenges: they require high-performance characteristics, in particular the capacity to remain fluid at low temperatures and the need for smooth blending with petroleum based fuels. Gradually, biofuels are being designed that approach the required cold tolerance threshold (graph, click to enlarge).

Likely candidates are synthetic biofuels, obtained from gasifying biomass that is liquefied by Fischer-Tropsch synthesis ('biomass-to-liquids'). Such fuels can be refined into designer fuels with specific characteristics. Another potential fuel is 'green diesel' based on a hydrogenation process of vegetable oils.

Some recent initiatives in bio-jet fuel research include a large program by the French aerospace industry into second-generation (synthetic) biofuels and other candidates. The project, known as CALIN is being initiated by a conglomerate of research organisations consisting of France's aerospace research agency ONERA, propulsion company Snecma and members of the country's Aerospace Valley group which unites most of Europe's leading aerospace manufacturers, including EADS, Airbus, Air France Industries, Alstom and Dassault (earlier post).

Snecma recently succeeded in testing a CFM56-7B jet engine with an ester-based biofuel at a Snecma site in Villaroche. The engine is produced by a joint venture between Snecma, CFM International, and General Electric Company. The fuel used was a methylester derived from plant oil, mixed with 70% Jet-A1 kerosene. The successful test with the unmodified engine reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 20% (earlier post and here).

Boeing recently announced that it is planning to to fly aircraft on a 50% biofuels blend in a bid to reduce its carbon footprint and to overcome the future threat of 'Peak Oil'. According to Boeing, a blend of synthetic (bio)fuels and vegetable-oil based biofuels makes it possible in the future to replace petroleum-based jet-fuels.

Boeing is collaborating with, amongst others, NASA and researchers in Brazil (here) and mentioned several sustainable bio-jet fuel production paths in its recent publication 'Alternate Fuels for use in Commercial Aircraft' [*.pdf].

The father of Brazil's bio-jet fuel and his company Tecbio, which conducted flight-tests already in the 1980s and which today collaborates with NASA and Boeing recently launches biofuel cooperatives in Brazil to reduce poverty. Their aim: to produce bio-jet fuels from Babassu, a sustainably harvested oil-rich nut. The vision is for a vast 'social justice' program that relies on sustainble, traditional Babassu forestry (more here).

Also this year, Virgin Atlantic announced that it will fly a 747 on biofuels in 2008. The company excluded the use of synthetic biofuels, because they have already been tested in the lab and proved to be viable. Virgin Atlantic wants to research yet another series of alternatives; it has been looking at Africa for potential feedstock production projects, likely based on Jatropha oil. Sir Richard Branson intends to get his entire fleet working on renewable bio-based fuels (earlier post).

A large number of private initiatives are underway to develop biokerosene. Amongst them Diversified Energy which developed biofuels that withstand very cold temperatures and can be used in aviation. Their process consists of freeing up the free fatty acids contained in triglycerides from glycerol and passing them through a catalyst after which a resulting gas is synthesized into a liquid (earlier post)

UOP, a Honeywell company, has accelerated research and development on renewable energy technology to convert vegetable oils to military jet fuels. UOP developed a technique based on hydroprocessing that may yield fuels that meet the stringent requirements (more here).

The University of North Dakota recently received a US$5 million grant to develop military bio-jet fuels (earlier post). Whereas North Carolina State University found an innovative technology for the production of biofuels for jet aircraft based on transforming glycerol, the major byproduct of biodiesel (earlier post).

Obviously, several armies are looking into biofuels for aviation as well. A study for the US Military, written by Sasol, concluded that synthetic biofuels (Fischer-Tropsch) can power the entire military - including its airforce - in case of severe oil supply disruptions (earlier post). Finally, the U.S. Air Force has been experimenting extensively with synthetic fuels, which can be made from biomass. It already ground-tested them in real engines (earlier post).

In a very recent development, Brazil's state-owned Petrobras announced it plans to introduce a type of bio-jet fuel named 'Bio QAV' in 120 of the country's airports, with concrete trials to begin in 2008. 'Bio QAV' ('Biokerosene for Aviation') is based on the H-bio second-generation biodiesel production process, which relies on hydrotreating vegetable oils (more here).

Many more developments are under way, a search of our site will reveal them.

Graph credit: Alternate Fuels for use in Commercial Aircraft, Boeing, 2007.

Rolls-Royce: Rolls-Royce joins Air New Zealand and Boeing in renewable fuels study programme - September 28, 2007.

Air New Zealand: Air New Zealand Announces Bio Fuel Research Initiative - September 28, 2007.

David L. Daggett, Robert C. Hendricks, Rainer Walther, Edwin Corporan, "Alternate Fuels for use in Commercial Aircraft"[*.pdf], Boeing, 2007.

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U.S. NIST awards $10 million to 5 biofuels and green chemistry projects

The U.S. Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) announced 56 new awards for innovative industrial research and development projects under the agency’s Advanced Technology Program (ATP). Amongst them, the following 5 biofuels and green chemistry projects can be found:

Caisson Laboratories: platforms for biocontained high-value products
Caisson Laboratories has proposed creating a suite of broadly applicable biotechnology tools to redirect the biosynthetic capacity of seeds for the large-scale production of seed-based biofuel feedstocks and other biomaterials for the industrial and pharmaceutical sectors; and prevent genetically modified traits from being transferred to other plants through pollen.

The proposed tools will regulate the expression of certain plant genes while diverting large percentages of photoassimilate (the energy-storing sugars produced by photosynthesis) to the production in seeds of high-value natural or synthetic compounds.

Three commercially valuable applications of this technology will be demonstrated by the end of the project: the alteration of plant metabolic pathways to substantially increase the production per acre of fermentable starch in harvested seeds of grain sorghum; the prevention of germination among second-generation (F2) plants such that inadvertently unharvested volunteer sorghum plants do not create a weed problem in subsequent seasons; and transgene biocontainment such that pollen-based gene flow among engineered sorghum plants and neighboring crops or weeds is prevented.

The impact on the US economy could be substantial; the value of the increase in the amount of ethanol produced is expected to exceed $2 billion at today’s production levels and cost structure, according to Caisson. As for transgene biocontainment, the technology may provide the basis for meeting future regulatory standards for valuable genetically modified traits in crops.

Total project (est.): $2,495,000; Requested ATP funds: $2,000,000

Virent Energy Systems: catalytic biomass depolymerization
Virent is proposing to develop catalytic biomass depolymerization (CBD) process based on heterogeneous catalysis (where the catalyst is in a different phase from the reactants) for the pretreatment of biomass prior to fuel production.

The CBD system will combine acid-catalyzed hydrolysis of carbohydrates with reductive depolymerization to continuously and cost-effectively convert cellulosic feedstocks into oxygenated hydrocarbons (sugars and other intermediates) that can be processed easily into fuels and chemicals using fermentation or an existing Virent bioprocessing technology:
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Compared to current approaches to biomass pretreatment, the proposed CBD process is more robust, yielding significantly higher reaction rates and higher product concentrations, according to Virent. If successful, this technology could be used in parallel with several biofuel refinery processes coming on-line in the next few years.

Total project (est.): $2,713,611; Requested ATP funds: $1,998,189

Metabolix: integrated bio-engineered chemicals
Metabolix has proposed developing a commercially viable process for producing widely used organic chemical feedstocks from renewable agricultural products rather than fossil hydrocarbons like oil or coal. Their planned Integrated Bio-Engineered Chemicals (IBEC) project will bio-engineer bacteria to produce a polymer precursor from fermentation sugars.

Chemical processes will then be used to recover product with high purity exploiting the ease of separation and subsequently disassemble the polyester and convert it into a variety of four-carbon (C4) industrial chemicals. Today, C4 chemicals are produced almost entirely from fossil-based hydrocarbons. Global demand is estimated at 2.5 billion pounds annually, and growing at a rate of 4 to 5 percent a year.

If successful, the process could be extended to produce commercially important C3, C5 and possibly C6 chemical intermediates as well. The project is technically risky because of the extensive bioengineering that is required, but if successful it would enable an entire class of bio-based routes for producing key industrial chemicals, reducing the need for non-renewable, fossil-based feedstocks and providing the nation with competitive advantages in polymers, chemicals and agriculture, all while reducing adverse environmental impacts.

Total project (est.): $4,754,451; Requested ATP funds: $1,996,241

Solazyme: biopetroleum from algae
Solazyme has proposed a project to use algae to produce biopetroleum, which will match the composition of light sweet crude oil. The biopetroleum would be fully compatible with the infrastructure that refines, distributes retails and consumes petroleum products—not just automobile fuels but aviation fuel and chemicals as well.

Biopetroleum will require an industrial scale biofermentation process that can produce pure, long-chain hydrocarbons efficiently. ATP funding is expected to accelerate the project by four years.

Adopting biopetroleum to meet even a fraction of the nation’s renewable energy goals could avoid a costly duplication of infrastructure and save consumers and industry an estimated $20 billion a year (compared with other biofuels), potentially growing to as much as $120 billion a year, according to Solazyme.

Total project (est.): $2,704,483; Requested ATP funds: $1,999,321

Thar Technologies: process for biodiesel production without hexane use
Thar Technologies has proposed developing and demonstrating novel processing technology and equipment to produce diesel-grade fuel from plants without the use of hexane. Instead of traditional techniques using hexane for extraction of the oil from plants, Thar will use supercritical fluid extraction, a green chemistry process that uses physiologically compatible carbon dioxide and also requires less energy per unit of production.

In addition, Thar’s process will integrate several post-extraction steps into one continuous, efficient process for producing biodiesel. Once the new processes are developed in the laboratory, a pilot plant will be constructed and operated.

If successful, the technology will be a green process that can profitably produce biodiesel directly from oilseed feedstock while reducing energy consumption, eliminating environmental hazards and eradicating the need for production subsidies.

Total project (est.): $2,408,245; Requested ATP funds: $1,944,126

These projects are amongst the new awards which represent a broad range of technologies, including medical diagnostic techniques, alternative energy sources, manufacturing, semiconductor electronics, transportation, nanotechnology, energy conservation and automated language translation, among others.

A total of 69 companies and one non-profit organization will participate in the projects, which include nine joint ventures. Forty-eight of the projects are led by small businesses. The new awards potentially represent a total of up to $138.7 million in ATP funding together with an industry cost-share of up to $104 million, if all projects are carried through to completion. ATP awards are made contingent on available funding and on evidence of satisfactory progress throughout the multi-year research schedules.

The 56 projects were chosen in a competition announced last April and represent the last set of R&D projects to be funded under the ATP, which was abolished under the America COMPETES Act (P.L. 110-69). The act allows for continued support for ongoing ATP projects, including those chosen in the FY 2007 competition.

The ATP provided cost-shared support to enable or accelerate high-risk industrial research projects. Projects were selected for funding by a competitive, peer-reviewed process that evaluated the scientific and technical merit of each proposal and the potential for broad-based benefits to the nation if the technology were successfully developed.

NIST promotes U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards and technology in ways that enhance economic security and improve our quality of life.

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Thursday, September 27, 2007

European Plant Science Organisation calls for more action to kickstart the bioeconomy

With the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to cut our reliance on increasingly costly and non-renewable oil, the need for action in plant sciences arises to obtain an economically viable and sustainable production of renewable biofuels, green chemicals and biomaterials. While other countries already attribute significant research money to this field (e.g. more than $800 million in recent projects on biofuels in the US, $3 billion for the bioeconomy in Brazil), Europe still lacks concerted action. The EU's renewable energy directive, calling for 20% biofuels and renewables by 2020, is ambitious, but research support is insufficient to achieve these goals. In response, the European Plant Science Organisation (EPSO), has released a set of recommendations on how Europe can meet this challenge and provide a basis for integrated approaches towards the future knowledge-driven bioeconomy. The call for action comes after the EPSO-coordinated ‘Plants for the Future’ Technology Platform outlined its strategic research agenda (earlier post). EPSO represents more than 140 academic institutions from 25 European countries with over 20,000 people in plant research.

In 'Sustainable Future for Bioenergy and Renewable Products' [*.pdf] Europe's plant scientists state they are willing to take a responsible role in the implementation of a sustainable future bioeconomy by developing the knowledge and skills required for obtaining increased quantities of biomass suitable for conversion to biofuels and to renewable resources, at economically competitive prices, and within an environmentally and economically sustainable agricultural system that is an essential part of a future bioeconomy.

Societal and economic relevance
Today’s economies are based on carbon resources of fossil origin, which provide societies with their major energy sources and raw materials for chemical production. However, several major challenges for mankind arise from this approach:
  • the use of these fossil-based resources as fuels, but also as non-degradable substances and composites, causes severe regional and global environmental problems, including CO2 emissions for which there is increasingly compelling scientific evidence that they are a major contributory factor in global warming and climate change;
  • the availability of fossil resources does not match the expected increase in consumption of energy and raw materials in the future;
  • the distribution of fossil carbon sources around the globe makes them an even less reliable source in the future.
These aspects make clear that the present high dependence on fossil fuels is not sustainable. Together with the economic fact that energy and raw material prices have drastically increased over the last decade, these factors necessitate the development and establishment of alternative concepts and products.

Bio-based strategies hold great promise for sustainable solutions and are presently being developed worldwide to contribute significantly to the future mix of energy sources. Plants provide the major source of organic substances on our planet. They include relatively under-utilised forms such as cellulose, hemicellulose, starch, lipids and lignin that have major potential for use as raw materials for energy and industrial feedstocks. Significant impact is expected from bioenergy with respect to mitigation of climate change, development of rural areas and employment options as well as the provision of alternative energy forms. This is especially true for fuels used in transportation.

However, in order to make bioenergy a sustainable alternative, a holistic approach is needed, which:
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  • improves biomass supply with respect to amount and quality
  • improves conversion of biomass into other energy forms
  • reduces or eliminates toxic waste products
  • develops zero-waste biorefinery concepts for efficient conversion of plant raw materials into diverse products
  • manages bioenergy production systems in a sustainable manner
  • has minimal impacts on the environment
Effective and multilateral networking between the different, hitherto separated, research communities will be crucial to make bioenergy and bioeconomy a sustainable success. This approach will form the basis for the network required for a knowledge-based bioeconomy (KBBE) and will also provide new opportunities to farmers, the forestry sector and other stakeholders.

Plant science: creating the knowledge base for the bioeconomy
As plants will provide the major resource in a KBBE, plant science will play a major role in developing the capacity and novel opportunities for a bio-economy in line with the environmental and economic settings in Europe. European plant science is very well positioned to contribute with its strong expertise to obtain increased quantities of biomass at adequate qualities for the various optional routes of conversion, at economically competitive prices and with acceptable impacts on the environment.
There are numerous fields of action in which knowledge from plant sciences on agriculture and forestry crops needs to be used to deliver to the overarching aim of a sustainable bioenergy economy:

Higher biomass production urgently needed
This includes activities that increase biomass potential through direct improvement of growth and biomass production. This can be realised by increased growth rates, prolonged vegetation periods, or improved architecture of crops. It can also be achieved by reducing the loss of biomass due to pathogens and pests, by improved stress tolerance to allow using marginal lands and to lower competition with food production. Since the amount of biomass has to be enlarged significantly, all possible options have to be addressed in parallel.

Improved bioconversion for bioenerggy and biomaterials
This requires strong interdisciplinary interactions with microbial, chemical, engineering and process sciences to develop new industrial processing methods. In plant science, activities include modifying cell wall structure and composition to increase the ease with which it can be decomposed into units that are either themselves useful as biofuel, or are good starting points for the production of chemicals. Enhancement other aspects of the organic and inorganic composition of biomass with respect to the conversion processes (e.g. removing compounds inhibiting decomposition or fermentation, reducing alkali for improved combustion behaviour, etc.) and residue handling should also be achieved. Improving composition of harvestable plant biomass will also be beneficial, for example to provide lignin more suitable for making lignin-based composites.

Improved resource use efficiency

This is the key to higher biomass yield at low environmental impact. Achieving this includes improving processes such as energy collection through enhanced photosynthesis efficiency and nutrient use efficiency. This will reduce the dependence of plant growth on the application of additional inputs such as fertilizers that require high amounts of energy for production and have a deleterious environmental impact. Also topics like nitrogen-fixing bioenergy crops, associations with beneficial soil microorganisms and improving phosphate use efficiency are of prime importance to address decreasing availability and anticipated rising costs of fertilisers. Furthermore, minimising the water consumption per unit of energy gained is critical because fresh water will be a key limiting factor for food and energy production in the future on marginal land and with changing climatic conditions. Utilisation of plant varieties that can remove harmful substances from water and soil (e.g. excess nitrogen in overfertilised land, excess salt in highly irrigated land) can even provide additional beneficial effects.

Increased genetic diversity of bioenergy plants
This is key to achieving new properties in bioenergy crops. A bioenergy roadmap needs to be established and will include (i) the use of traditional food crops for which all the scientific tools are available, (ii) the development of novel crops via genomics-driven domestication of hitherto not or not significantly used species, (iii) the development of specific energy crop rotation systems and (iv) the use of the different options originating from agriculture, forestry or even an biofactory (e.g. algae) approach. Actions include the development of specific energy crops having improved properties in comparison to the classical crops, probably via an initial round of genomics-supported breeding, followed by introducing novel features through smart breeding or genetic modifications. Throughout the introduction of novel species, their potential to displace native species and their potential impact on biodiversity needs to be considered. It will be crucial to address the alternatives of food and energy utilisation.

Plant research in tune with bioenergy and environmental sciences

Plant scientists in Europe are prepared to take this challenge in close coordination with researchers and engineers in related disciplines in order to develop a new, sustainable and economically viable bioenergy sector within the bioeconomy of the future. Integration of plant research programmes must be obtained with:
  • White biotechnology: in order to obtain new biocatalysis features to form useful energy sources (e.g. bioethanol, biogas, etc.)
  • Conversion technology, chemistry and chemical engineering: significant interaction is required to obtain useful breeding targets on quality and quantity of biomass supplied to the alternative conversion routes.
  • Agricultural and forestry management, ecosystem and biogeochemical research: as the production of large scale biomass for bioenergy will be done in new production systems, new plant features must be integrated in them and they must be checked for their biogeochemical impacts.
  • Agricultural and forestry management and economics: it will be important to consider the potential to utilise non-food components of existing crop plants (e.g. straw, stover) for bioenergy as an added-gain that does not jeopardise food/feed production, and to consider how new dedicated energy crops are best integrated into agricultural practice and rotations in a manner that aids rather than competes with food and feed production.
  • Sustainability assessment: for an ecologically, socially and economically viable bioenergy sector, impact analysis on all the above stated aspects must be integrated and evaluated in macro and microeconomic contexts. It is important to provide society with scientifically validated information about options using transgenic and/or clonal plants and on the conversion of marginal land, grass or agricultural land and forests into efficient production units for various energy feedstocks. A thorough discussion of the balance between food-feed-energy outputs from agriculture must be based on sound scientific evidence.
Taking significant steps forward
This concept for a sustainable bio-economy is in agreement with the strategic research agenda (SRA) of the European Technology Platform ‘Plants for the Future’ published in June 2007. EPSO member institutions are committed to contribute to the implementation of the SRA, but significant steps are required in a coordinated manner between stakeholders from the public and private sector to transfer this plan into action:
  • significant investments into research and implementation similar to those presently done in leading countries outside Europe at national and European levels;
  • co-ordination with industry as well as governmental agencies and NGOs;
  • co-ordination and development of a common research agenda between all platforms committed to the idea of a sustainable knowledge-based bio-economy along the entire value chain.
EPSO published a position paper entitled ‘Sustainable future for bioenergy and renewable products’ and opened an internal discussion on it, asking its members to comment and send their feedback. After compilation and integration of the replies, the position paper was presented by Uli Schurr to the participants of the Venice Conference 'The Future of Science - The Energy Challenge' on 21 September 2007.

By publishing this present paper, EPSO wants to take an active role in the current debate about bioenergy and the potential ways to address this societal challenge. It presents insights on how research activities can contribute to tackling issues such as: How plant science can contribute to achieving the 10% goal for biofuels by 2020? What can plants do and not do? How can EPSO contribute?

The text was developed by an expert group comprising Mike Bevan (John Innes Centre Norwich, UK), Wilhelm Gruissem (ETH Zürich, CH), Hermann Hoefte (INRA, FR), Dirk Inze (VIB Gent, BE), Karin Metzlaff (EPSO, BE), Ulrich Schurr (Institute Phytosphere Jülich, DE – chair of the group), Mark Stitt (MPI Molecular Plant Physiology Golm, DE) and Björn Sundberg (Umeå Plant Science Centre, SE).

EPSO: EPSO position paper 'Sustainable Future for Bioenergy and Renewable Products' - September 27, 2007.

EPSO: Sustainable Future for Bioenergy and Renewable Products [*.pdf] - September 2007.

Biopact: 'Plants for the Future' technology platform presents plan for European bioeconomy - July 02, 2007

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India: 'outrageous' oil price damages economy, as $80pb could be new floor price

High oil prices have negative impacts on a range of social and economic activities, especially in the developing world. The least developed countries are energy intensive and consequently spend much more on oil as a percentage of GDP than highly developed countries. According to the African Union, Sub-Saharan African countries poured between 10 and 15% of their GDP into oil imports in 2006, whereas OECD countries spent only 1.5-3%. In oil importing poor countries, each price increase can be felt immediately throughout the economy on both the macro- and micro-economic front, with poor classes suffering most (earlier post).

Palaniappan Chidambaram, Finance Minister of India, which is heavily dependent on oil imports, illustrated some of the effects today by calling the current price for crude oil 'outrageous' and damaging the economy's growth.
The price of crude oil is an enormous external risk. Since these outrageous prices cannot be fully passed through to the consumers in India, the burden falls largely on the domestic budget and constrains our capacity for investment. - Indian Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram
India imports nearly three-fourth of its crude oil requirement and spent more than $57 billion in 2006-07 for the purpose - almost equal to the country's entire trade deficit. Government has not allowed state-run oil marketing firms to raise fuel prices in line with cost and India's three main oil companies are projected to suffer a revenue loss of about 13 billion dollars this year.

Chidambaram also warned the depreciation of the dollar vis-a-vis the rupee has thrown up an unexpected downside risk. The Indian currency has strengthened more than 11 per cent in 2007, hurting exporters.

Forecasts: record price guaranteed
Meanwhile, the oil industry says the price is justified because the money is needed to invest in new exploration and refining capacity (earlier post). Recently, Iranian government spokesman Gholamhossein Elham even went so far as to state:
We, the oil exporting countries, believe the oil price is low and is not the real value of this important material of the world’s energy [mix].
Reuters published a poll on Wednesday asking petroleum (establishment) analysts to predict the average price for US crude oil in 2008. The result: $67 per barrel. However, Goldman Sachs, the most bullish in the poll, predicted WTI crude to average $85 next year with prices climbing as high as $95 by the end of 2008.

Peak Oil analysts are being taken more and more seriously, because they have been more accurate in their predictions. So what do they say? The Association for Peak Oil & Gas (ASPO) concluded at its latest annual conference that the new floor price of crude oil is $80 per barrel. The projection was shared by Ray Leonard, Vice-President of Kuwait Energy Company, James Buckee, CEO Talisman Energy, Jeff Rubin, chief economist of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and James Schlesinger, former U.S. energy secretary. Today, the ASPO's 1 year forecast stands at $107 pb.

Obviously, a price bracket of $67 to $80 makes biofuels a must for developing countries. Many first-generation fuels can be made at costs well below these prices, and we see a continued push into 'tropical' and 'subtropical' biofuels next year dominated by ethanol made from sugarcane (average production cost in Brazil: $37 per barrel of oil equivalent), sweet sorghum and cassava (projected production cost in Thailand: $38pboe), and by biodiesel made from palm oil (projected cost in Malaysia: $55pboe), jatropha and soy oil. But at $80-100, some second-generation biofuels too become competitive with crude. Amongst these, fast-pyrolysis based fuels and synthetic biofuels based on the Fischer-Tropsch process would be commercially viable (earlier post). Cellulosic ethanol based on enzymatic hydrolysis would require higher prices still. With the current state of technology, algae-based biofuels would need an oil price bracket of $120-150 to be competitive.

Catastrophy for poor countries
In energy intensive countries, the macro-economic effects of high oil can include higher inflation (including increased food prices), less economic growth, higher unemployment, and a weakened capacity to ease the debt burden:
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Such countries do not have the technical and financial instruments to deal with oil shocks, such as reserves and finetuned monetary policies. Most importantly, governments are often forced to cut spending on social services, with the UN finding that some of the poorest countries are already spending twice as much on importing oil than on such basics as health care. Of course, the poor suffer under all these factors most.

On the micro-economic front the consequences depend on government policies. In countries where fuels are not subsidized, the effects for the poor can be truly catastrophic: higher costs for food, for heating and cooking, and less mobility. Energy can take up to 30% of the household budget of families in the least developed countries. Farmers have a reduced capacity to bring their produce to market - a major problem in the Global South, where the majority of people live in rural areas and is employed in agriculture.

When petroleum fuels are subsidised, as is the case in India, the costs are transferred to the government, which then has a reduced capacity to invest in state and social services (education, health, security, etc...). Ultimately, the costs arrive at the population at large.

A more extensive overview of the effects of high oil prices on the least developed countries can be found here.


The Economic Times: FM warns against crude oil prices hurting GDP growth - September 27, 2007.

Reuters: Oil prices seen surging to record level next year - September 26, 2007.

Peakoil Netherlands: Iran: oil at $80 per barrel is cheap - September 24, 2007.

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

Biopact: Report: synthetic biofuels (BtL) and bioenergy efficient, competitive and sustainable in Germany - September 22, 2007

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Fortis Bank buys €13.1 million worth of carbon credits from biogas project in Brazil, at first internet auction

Belgian-Dutch Fortis Bank has bought carbon credits equivalent to 808,405 tonnes of CO2 which were offered in an auction by the São Paulo Municipal Government on the Brazilian Mercantile & Futures Exchange (BM&F). This was the world’s first Certified Emission Reductions (CERs) spot market auction managed and promoted by a regulated exchange, representing an important initial step in the organization and development of a global market for environmental certificates. The auction was carried out via the Internet.

Fortis Bank paid a total €13.1 million(US$18.5 million), which comes down to 16.20 €/tonne. The minimum price was 12.70 €/tonne and according to BM&F nine companies participated in the auction. (The carbon price in Europe currently stands at 21.23 €/tonne).

The carbon credits or CERs were approved by the UNFCCC's Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), a Kyoto Protocol instrument that allows wealthy and industrialised countries to buy carbon credits from or invest in clean energy projects in the developing world, as an alternative to more expensive emission reductions in their own countries.

The credits were issued by the Bandeirantes sanitary landfill, where methane gases are collected by private company Biogás Energia Ambiental and used to generate electric energy. The fact that the project involves carbon credits, alternative energy production and social development - the money is going to be invested in community projects - helped increase the final price, the city's adjunct municipal secretary Stela Goldenstein said.
The result is positive and now we have close to 34 million reais to invest in the neighborhood [in which the landfill is located]. This is apart from the 2008 budget for environmental projects. - São Paulo mayor Gilberto Kassab
The carbon credits from the Bandeirantes operation are evenly divided by Biogás and the municipality. The auction was only for the municipal government's share. Biogás has already sold its credits directly to German bank KFW, said Biogás official Manoel Antonio Avelino da Silva:
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Brazil is one of the leading generators of CERs in the world, after China and India. Many CDM projects involve direct participation of companies from the industrialised world but often intermediaries - banks and specialised carbon credit constultants - close the deals. The auction at the Brazilian Mercantile & Futures Exchange however was the first direct internet-based deal.

The BM&F Settlement Bank provided oversight and provides the cash settlement services.


Reuters Brasil: Fortis leva lote total de créditos de carbono em leilão na BM&F - September 26, 2007.

O Globo Online: Fortis leva lote total de créditos de carbono em leilão na BM&F - September 27, 2007.

Brazilian Mercantile & Futures Exchange: Carbon Credits: BM&F will hold an auction on September 26th - September 21, 2007.

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ConocoPhillips and Archer Daniels Midland team up to develop fuels from bio-oil

ConocoPhillips and Archer Daniels Midland Company today announced that they have agreed to collaborate on the development of renewable transportation fuels from biomass.

The alliance will research and seek to commercialize two components of a next-generation biofuel production process: the conversion of biomass from crops, wood or switchgrass into 'biocrude' (pyrolysis oil, bio-oil) that can be processed into fuel; and the refining of biocrude to produce transportation fuel.

Next-generation biofuels are obtained from two main conversion processes: a biochemical pathway that utilizes dedicated enzymes to break down lignocellulose into secrete fuels and gases (ethanol, biobutanol, biogas, biohydrogen); and a thermochemical pathway that transforms biomass either into a gas (gasification) or into a heavy oil, both of which need further processing into useable liquid and gaseous (transportation) fuels.

Within the thermochemical conversion segment, fast-pyrolysis is a process that rapidly heats (450-600 degrees celsius) biomass in the absence of air. The end product is bio-oil, also known as pyrolysis oil or biocrude. Fast-pyrolysis can yield around 70% of bio-oil from a given biomass feedstock (properties, click to enlarge). The pyrolysis liquid can then be further refined into a range of transportation fuels and green chemicals in dedicated biorefineries or in existing petroleum refineries. Biocrude can also readily be used as an alternative for heating oil and in oil-fired power plants.

A by-product is pyrolysis coke (char), which can be gasified or used directly as fertilizers and as feedstock for green chemistry. Alternatively, this bio-based char can be sequestered into agricultural soils, which results in improved yields (earlier post on the potential for carbon-negative biofuels by sequestring pyrolysis char or other forms of biochar.)

Because bio-oil has a high density (1110-1250kg/m3) with a high heating value (HHV) of around 16-19GJ/ton, its energy density is much higher than raw biomass. This allows for a decentralised logic in which pyrolysis plants are brought to the biomass source, instead of hauling the bulky feedstock to a central facility (earlier post)

Bio-oil production can also be combined with gasification. The idea is to pyrolyse biomass close to where it can be found, and then to ship the bio-oil and char to a central gasification plant, where the syngas is transformed into liquid biofuels ('synthetic biofuels') via the Fischer-Tropsch process. Recently, a German report showed that such a strategy would result in biofuels that are competitive with current petroleum fuels (earlier post):
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ConocoPhillips earlier showed its interest converting biomass to fuel through fast pyrolysis by investing $22.5 million into a biofuels research program at Iowa State University, which aimes to develop next-generation fuels from biomass.
ConocoPhillips believes that the development of next-generation biofuels is a critical step in the diversification of our nation’s energy sources. We are hopeful that this collaboration will provide innovative technology toward the large-scale production of biofuels that can be moved efficiently and affordably through existing infrastructure. - Jim Mulva, chairman and chief executive officer
Patricia Woertz, chairman and chief executive officer, ADM, added, "as we advance our global bioenergy interests, this alliance with ConocoPhillips represents an important next step. Innovative collaboration like this will identify and bring to market feasible, economic and sustainable next-generation biofuels."

ConocoPhillips and ADM have an example to draw some experience from: Dynamotive, an existing fast-pyrolysis company, has made serious process in demonstrating the technology and is actively building the first commercial-scale plants.

Image: a sample of bio-oil. Credit: Biomass Technology Group.

Biopact: Report: synthetic biofuels (BtL) and bioenergy efficient, competitive and sustainable in Germany - September 22, 2007

Biopact: Dynamotive demonstrates fast-pyrolysis plant in the presence of biofuel experts - September 18, 2007

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

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Ceres raises $75 million to develop dedicated energy crops

Energy crop and biotech company Ceres, Inc. announced today that it has raised $75 million through a private offering of convertible preferred stock. The late-stage financing round was led by Warburg Pincus, a global private equity firm with a track record of investing in energy, alternative energy and renewables.

A seed and traits developer, Ceres plans to use the proceeds for research and product development activities in several dedicated energy crops, which are bred to maximize yields of plant biomass — the energy-rich source of next-generation biofuels based on biochemical and thermochemical conversion processes. The cellulosic biofuels industry shows promise of significant growth and is likely to become a material part of the transportation fuel market in the next decade.

Ceres has developed genomics-based tools and biotech traits for corn and other row crops which can be fully leveraged in dedicated energy crops. Within its energy crop business segment, Ceres’ development efforts cover switchgrass, sorghum, miscanthus, energycane (sugarcane optimized for biomass instead of sugar) and woody species like poplar. One of its first seed products, a high-yielding switchgrass cultivar, is currently scheduled for commercial launch in 2009.

Ceres traits under development include (schematic, click to enlarge): stress tolerance; yield density; nutrient uptake; composition; structure; and enzyme production. These traits can improve the economics of biofuel production as well as the environmental benefits of energy crops, including drought tolerance and nitrogen-use efficiency:
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We believe that Ceres is well-positioned to succeed as a leading supplier to energy crop growers and cellulosic biorefineries. The company has a strong track record in research and development and an intellectual property position that has been validated by industry-leading licensing agreements - Chansoo Joung, Warburg Pincus Managing Director
Richard Hamilton, Ceres President and CEO, says the company now has the resources needed to expand the scale of commercialization efforts, and the independence to broadly collaborate with downstream players in the transportation fuel industry.

The company also plans to continue the discovery and licensing of its traits to other businesses outside of energy crops.

Founded as a plant genomics company, Ceres holds one of the world’s largest proprietary collections of fully sequenced plant genes.

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UK's D1Oils continues to expand jatropha plantations globally

In its interim report [*.pdf] for 2007, D1 Oils, the only truly global biofuel company, shows it keeps expanding its Jatropha curcas plantations in India, South East Asia and Africa. For the first time, it is entering South America, while it is exploring Australia's agro-ecological potential for the crop. However, the Jatropha oil is not yet on the market, so D1Oils is temporarily utilizing other feedstocks for its 42,000 tonne biodiesel plant in Teesside. High prices for these feedstocks combined with competition from subsidised US biodiesel exports have more than doubled D1Oils' first-half pre-tax loss. Both problems are described as 'short term' challenges because the much less costly Jatropha oil is set to flow soon and the EU is taking action against the US's 'illegal' export subsidies (the socalled B99 loophole, more here). Jatropha remains a wild crop, but an ongoing plant improvement and molecular breeding programme promises to result in the emergence of high-yielding cultivars.

In June, D1Oils created a joint-venture with BP, D1-BP Fuel Crops Limited, to create a global Jatropha business (earlier post). The establishment of D1-BP Fuel Crops was a significant endorsement of the new feedstock strategy, which relies on the comparative advantages of developing countries that will grow the crop and the rural communities where planting will be based. The new joint venture, with an oil major choosing to produce biofuel feedstocks in the developing world, also represents a turning point for biodiesel globally.

Planting programme
Up to 15 September 2007, D1 has planted or obtained rights to offtake from a total of 198,690 hectares of jatropha worldwide. This represents an increase of over 53,000 hectares on the total of 145,625 at 16 March 2007 and an increase of 23,609 hectares on the total of 175,081 hectares at 30 June 2007. The cumulative position at 15 September 2007 is summarised in the table below (click to enlarge):

The table indicates the broad geographic locations and types of arrangements associated with jatropha planting worldwide in which D1 has an interest. The level of investment costs and security of future oil supply are proportional to the degree of direct involvement by D1 and its joint venture partners.

Managed plantations are those farms where land and labour is held by D1, either through its subsidiaries or joint venture partners. Under contract farming, the farmer plants his own trees on his own land. D1 and its partners assist with the provision of seedlings and the arrangement of bank finance for planting, and offer a buyback of harvested grains with an offtake agreement, subject to a floor price and the achievement of agreed quality standards.

D1 Oils provides support and advice during cultivation, and monitors the condition of the crops. Seed and oil supply agreements are arms-length supply contracts with third parties whereby D1, either directly or through joint venture partners, has offtake arrangements in place over future output from jatropha plantations which the third party is developing. D1 has limited involvement in this planting and relies on third parties to measure and manage the crop effectively.

During the period D1Oils continued to develop planting partnerships and expand planting footprint across all three operating regions. A joint venture relationship in North East India with Williamson Magor, one of India’s leading tea companies, has been particularly successful. Ongoing planting of jatropha is now approaching 50,000 hectares:
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Two Memoranda of Understanding (MOU) were recently signed in Indonesia. The first, with PT Astra Agro Lestari, part of the Jardine Matheson Group and the largest publicly traded agribusiness in Indonesia, concerns the creation of a 500 hectare Jatropha curcas pilot plantation, planting of which is planned to start in Q4 2007. Once the pilot is successful, the relationship will then turn to commercial planting. The second, a tripartite MOU between D1 Oils Asia Pacific, PT Medco Energi International, a publicly listed integrated energy company, and PT Mambruk Sarana Interbuana, a pioneer of solar energy in Indonesia, is for a 500 hectare pilot plantation in West Java. Planting operations here will commence in Q4 2007 with the intention to expand to 10,000 hectares.

In a key development for planting operations in South Africa, D1 is working together with the South African Government to establish the first commercial level jatropha pilot project in that country. The initial plantation size will be 5,000 hectares of which 1,000 hectares is expected to be planted in the first year. Planting will be carried out by D1 in co-operation with the Central Energy Fund, the Department of Agriculture and a commercial farming concern made up of both black and white farmers.

The project is intended to determine economic feasibility and will be used as a model for commercial jatropha planting in South Africa.

In addition to continuing planting in Africa, India and South East Asia, D1-BP Fuel Crops will expand planting to new, emerging markets, in particular South America. To this end D1 has signed a strategic partnership agreement with a Brazilian group, Curcas Diesel Brazil, to develop jatropha plantation projects throughout that country.

In the medium term, D1Oils believs that Australia has potential as a production location for jatropha and we are in active dialogue with the relevant Federal and State authorities regarding permission to import seeds and begin the first controlled trials for commercial planting of Jatropha curcas.

Plant improvement
D1Oils continued to collect individual accessions of Jatropha curcas from around the globe, and we began putting the most promising varieties from an already significant collection through the first ever commercial breeding and product placement trials.

These trials will identify optimal adaptation to different cultivation conditions. continued the development of our breeding programme to create the first cultivars
for future selection of high-yielding varieties. D1Oiuls also added two further Regional Development Centres (RDCs) in Swaziland and Thailand respectively.

Multiplication of the first generation, selected seed material, referred to as ‘E1’, was begun in all three operating regions. This seed material has been selected for higher yield and good biodiesel profile.

During the period, the company also introduced its Sustainable Oil Supply Programme (SOSP), in co-operation with our joint venture partners and farmers. This stewardship programme will record the performance of planting, enable the development of accurate oil production forecasts and will also monitor the implementation of policies for social, economic and environmental sustainability.

As a result of the formation of its joint venture with BP, D1’s plant science programme has been established as a separate company, wholly owned by D1 Oils plc. The activities of this new company will comprise research and development, plant science, breeding, and production and multiplication of seed and seedlings. It will act as the exclusive supplier to D1-BP Fuel Crops, the planting joint venture, on a cost-plus basis, of selected, high-yielding jatropha seeds and seedlings. It will also provide technical agronomy support and expertise to support and implement the SOSP programme. D1-BP Fuel Crops will pay D1 an annual royalty fee for the high yield performance by the plants it supplies.

Plant science operations to support the joint venture are on track. D1Oils anticipates that a proportion of the first of the selected E1 seedlings will be available before the end of this year. It is the intention to plant 50,000 hectares with E1 seedlings in 2008. The company expects to plant out the first 5-10% of this total ahead of schedule in 2007.

Furthermore, D12Oils is expanding research and testing infrastructure in anticipation of the growth in business from the joint venture. New Development Centres are being established in Cape Verde (as a central facility), as well as Indonesia and other countries where D1-BP Fuel Crops will operate, enabling D1 to support fully the joint venture’s planting activities.

A significant development is the recent signing of an exclusive worldwide service agreement with Keygene NV of the Netherlands. Keygene is one of the global leaders in the science of genetic fingerprinting, in particular molecular markers and marker-assisted breeding approaches. The agreement provides D1 with exclusive rights to contract research and molecular services carried out by Keygene on jatropha. Keygene’s genetic fingerprinting technology enables the identification of different jatropha cultivars through genetic markers similar to commercial bar codes. The technology has the potential to increase significantly the effectiveness of D1’s breeding programme for jatropha.

In addition to focusing on jatropha, D1Oils keeps to investigating other inedible oil crops.

Trading and biodiesel production
D1Oils' activities in refining and trading have been impacted by the ongoing challenges of high feedstock prices exacerbated by subsidised biodiesel imports from the United States. Refining margins across the industry have come under increasing pressure, and already in February 2007 D1Oils announced its intention to run refineries below capacity and to manage stocks of vegetable oil previously purchased at lower prices.

There has been no improvement in the overall level of feedstock prices (in fact they have continued to increase), and, having processed existing stocks, D1Oils is no longer refining virgin oil. However, the company is taking advantage of the flexibility and precision of its modular D1 20 refinery units to refine parcels of “off-spec” material purchased from other suppliers.

During the period the biofuel company increased the capacity of its Teesside site with the addition of a fifth D1 20 refinery unit. This is the first upgraded D1 20 units and has an enhanced capacity of 10,000 tonnes per year. Final commissioning is now underway, increasing the production capacity of the Teesside site to 42,000 tonnes.

Having completed the acquisition of a site in Bromborough, D1Oils began the conversion of the existing facilities, which formerly produced fuel and lubricant additives, to create 100,000 tonnes of initial biodiesel refining capacity. Given market conditions, the company has slowed the timetable for commissioning the first 50,000 tonnes of this capacity, which will be completed shortly.

D1 Oils is studying the potential impacts of the UK's Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation (RTFO) on the UK market after April 2008. It expects the RTFO to have a positive impact on trading conditions for UK biodiesel refining, but believes this benefit is likely to be counterbalanced by both higher feedstock prices and the continuation of subsidised soya methyl ester imports from the USA, which are entering the EU market in the form of a 99% soya biodiesel and 1% mineral diesel blend; so-called B99.

US producers are currently eligible for subsidies of US$1 for every gallon (approximately 11 pence per litre) of biodiesel blended with mineral diesel, which then receives further subsidy in EU markets. As a result, this material is setting market prices in the EU and refinery margins are substantially eroded.

The European biodiesel industry is working to get the EU authorities in taking the necessary measures to end the eligibility of US imports for double taxation relief. Unless the B99 taxation “double dip” issue is addressed, it will be difficult for the EU to develop a robust biodiesel refinery industry and for UK refiners to supply motorists and road transport businesses under the RTFO.

Until commercial volumes of low-cost jatropha oil become available for UK refining, D1Oils is purchasing and selling modest quantities of B99 to enable us to meet its obligations to clients and to develop our supply chain. It will continue to do so until the issue of asymmetric subsidies is resolved or feedstock prices reduce.

D1Oils: D1 Oils plc Interim report 2007 [*.pdf] - September 2007.

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Petrobras starts approving joint ventures worth $1 billion to set up 20 new ethanol plants

Brazil's state-run oil company, Petrobras will start approving five joint venture projects worth US$1 billion to produce ethanol from the Goias and Mato Grosso states this week, with the aim of getting 20 ethanol projects going by 2012. The initial funds will cover the acquisition of sugar cane plantations and co-generation facilities that will be fueled by bagasse, the fibrous biomass residue from crushed canes.

Petrobras has entered into a joint venture with Japan's Mitsui to establish 20 ethanol distilleries around the country with an annual capacity of 200 million litres each, by 2010 (earlier post). The Brazilian company will hold up to a 30 percent share in the projects.

Petrobras Downstream Director Paulo Roberto Costa told reporters the company is likely to approve five more biofuel joint ventures by the end of 2007 and another 10 more in 2008.

Earlier, Petrobras announced its strategic and business plans for the coming years (here), in which it aims to produce 4 billion liters of ethanol (equivalent to 50,000 barrels of oil per day) by 2012 for which it needs at least another 15 projects (besides the five already selected). Petrobras has been studying around 40 mill projects for exports mainly to the Japanese market since early 2007. The company is a key player in ethanol transport and distribution in the domestic market:
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The company is likely to fall short of its target for ethanol export sales this year due to infrastructure problems in Nigeria and a setback in the Venezuelan markets, as Venezuela had elected to go with an oil-based rather than an ethanol-based additive. However, Costa said talks had resumed on biofuel exports to Venezuela during President Hugo Chavez's visit to Brazil last week.

Currently, Brazil is the only country to export biofuels on a large scale. It has been leading an effort to create a genuine international market and to boost South-South technology exchanges. Brazil has also been active in trying to promote its production model abroad, mainly in Central America and Africa, where it offers scientific, technological and policy assistance. The goal in Africa is to help the continent tap its vast sustainable bioenergy potential in order to help African countries alleviate poverty by investing the establishment of green fuel industries.

Bilateral and trilateral biofuel cooperation agreements with African countries include agreements with Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria, Angola and Mozambique, with others to follow soon (more here).

Petrobras for its part has signed a series of collaboration agreements on biofuels with other (oil) companies, including Norway's Statoil (here), with India's state-owned Bharat Petroleum (here) and with Portugal's Galp Energia (earlier post).

Energy current: Petrobras aims for 20 ethanol projects by 2012 - September 27, 2007.

Petrobras: bioenergy portal.

Biopact: Petrobras announces strategic plan for 2020, expands biofuels activities globally - August 16, 2007

Biopact: Petrobras to build $200 million ethanol plant in Niger Delta to help alleviate crisis - May 30, 2007

Biopact: Brazil in Africa: South-South cooperation on bioenergy speeding up - March 13, 2007

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New biofuels market study focuses on India

A strong economy, rising incomes, and a vibrant market have given a huge boost to the transport sector in India, which is the fastest growing energy-consuming sector in the country. According to a new biofuels market analysis by Frost & Sullivan, this sector’s energy demand is expected to grow by 6 to 8 percent per annum during the 11th five-year plan period (2007-2012). With more than 80 percent of passengers and 60 percent of freight being transported by road, it is obvious that the dependence of personal modes of transport, such cars and two-wheelers, has increased drastically.

The automotive vehicle population is growing by 12 to 15 percent per annum and this will, in turn, impact the transport sector’s energy demand. Diesel and gasoline (petrol) contribute to 98 percent of the energy consumed in the transport sector.

Against this background the new report titled Strategic Analysis of the Indian Biofuels Market provides an overview of the current and future markets for biodiesel and ethanol in India. It also provides feedstock analysis, market drivers, restraints, and future strategies for the industry.

Held back by the lack of large-scale availability of feedstock, the Indian biodiesel market trails its global counterparts by a long way. It is likely to take a while for biodiesel to be established as an effective biofuel, since Jatropha plantations in the country are still in the initial stages of development. Three to four years and many plantations later, the country may have the feedstock necessary for the large-scale production of Jatropha oil for use in biodiesel. The absence of a clear Government policy on Jatropha oil production has inhibited several biofuel manufacturers from entering this market. Hence, Indian manufacturers are considering importing palm oil to produce biodiesel:
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The better-developed Indian bioethanol market is also grappling with similar availability issues, as ethanol is primarily manufactured from molasses - a by-product of sugar. Since sugarcane production is cyclical, the availability and cost of production of bioethanol will vary depending on sugarcane crop yields. India’s ethanol-blending program could not be implemented during 2003-2004 due to a low sugarcane output and the second phase of this program was announced in September 2006 only after a recovery in sugarcane production.

Overall, the Government and industry have to show greater initiatives toward the Jatropha program to help biodiesel manufacturers save costs. Meanwhile, in the bioethanol sector, further research is necessary to aid in the development of alternate feedstock and improvement in production efficiency.

India’s crude oil and petroleum products supplies are largely import-dependant. With oil import expenditure increasing by more than six times in the last 25 years due to escalation in global demand and prices, biofuels are likely to be pressed into service. This alternate form of fuel will be critical in reducing the dependence on fossil fuels, achieving greater energy security, and reducing noxious emissions.

"The Government is currently implementing an ethanol-blending program, while it is also considering initiatives in the form of mandates for biodiesel," notes the analyst. "Due to these mandates, the rising population, and the growing energy demand from the transport sector, biofuels will be assured of a significant market in India", the report states.

Research & Markets: Greater Government Involvement Needed To Improve Feedstock Production In The Indian Biofuels Market - September 26, 2007.

Frost & Sullivan: Strategic Analysis of the Indian Biofuels Market - August 2007.

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Biogas plant in the Netherlands upgrades gas for use in transport, households

In September, the first installation in The Netherlands which retrieves biogas from the sewage treatment process for domestic and transport use officially entered [*.Dutch] service in the city of Beverwijk, after a year of trials.

The Hoogheemraadschap Hollands Noorderkwartier treats the sewage of around 1 million Dutch citizens in 20 plants. At its plant in Beverwijk some 1,5 million cubic meters of biogas gets released which, up til now, was used in two gas engines. The excess was flared. The old system needed replacement, and after a feasibility study it became apparent that an anaerobic fermentation system had several advantages: it is more efficient, requires less maintenance and reduces CO2 emissions.

The new system from BioGast Sustainable Energy upgrades biogas resulting from the fermentation of sewage sludge to biomethane which is then fed into the gas grid of ENECO Energie. The BioGast system is targeting yearly production of 650,000 m3 of gas—sufficient for more than 400 households.

A filling installation has been added to the BioGast which allows cars to fill up their tanks with the green gas. The Hollands Noorderkwartier Water Board will purchase natural gas fuelled cars which will run on the CO2 neutral biogas.

Interestingly, the installation is contained in a single container, allowing rapid replication of the system as a 'plug-in' that can be integrated with other sewage treatment facilities:
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The BioGast is an initiative of the Hoogheemraadschap Hollands Noorderkwartier, Biogast Sustainable Energy and ENECO Energie. Biogast sees similar installations in the agricultural sector, where dedicated biogas plants have become a common sight.

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

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

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

Biogas as a transport fuel offers particularly interesting prospects for the developing world, where oil infrastructures are not yet developed extensively. By relying on locally produced biomethane used in CNG cars, these countries could leapfrog into a clean, secure and green post-oil future.

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

ENECO Energie: Biogastinstallatie levert “groen” gas voor woningen uit rioolzuivering - September 7, 2007.

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

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

New software and protocol makes 'precision' a reality in 'precision agriculture'

The quest for more efficiency in agriculture is being undertaken on many fronts, from improving crops through biotechnology to the utilization of more sustainable and high-tech farming techniques. The use of detailed agro-ecological data and the tools to deal with them in an effective way, are crucial for modern farming. Researchers from the Australian Centre for Precision Agriculture (ACPA) at the University of Sydney contribute to this strategy by releasing new protocols and software developments that help farmers put the precision back in 'precision agriculture'.

The new methods make it easier for growers to use previously ineffectual soil and environmental data to manage their crops. Historically, gaps between researchers and producers, as well as lack of capacity to transform data into relevant decisions, have all contributed to data languishing on hard drives rather than being used to inform growing decisions.

Using freeware available online, the researchers have developed a simplified protocol to teach growers how to convert complex yield and soil data into pertinent information (image shows an example, click to enlarge). The resulting data and maps, when interpreted with local agronomic knowledge, can be used to make class-specific management decisions.
The protocol provides [growers] with the ability to experiment on their fields with different combinations of temporal data layers to improve their understanding of how their fields respond. - James Taylor, lead author
Taylor and his team of researchers worked with a range of growers to develop the methodology.

The researchers' article in the September/October 2007 Agronomy Journal details their work in advancing field management, in particular their efforts to move away from treating all zones uniformly to more site-specific management. After receiving protocol training on how to analyze and apply field data, Australian growers were able to utilize the protocol and software to develop better field management, including implementing site-specific nutrient and pest management treatments:
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Researchers hope that this precision agriculture protocol will be used by growers across a broad range of cropping systems to increase efficiency and effectiveness in crop management.

As more data or 'expert' knowledge are acquired, the process can be re-run to update or test the effectiveness of the management classes, Taylor says.

The protocol, developed with funding from Australian Grains Research and Development Corporation, promotes a cost-effective approach to class management at a grower and consultant level. Users begin with raw data which they then clean and cluster to develop management classes so they can care for the sites appropriately. The software tools which run the data analysis, VESPER and FuzME, are available online at the Australian Centre for Precision Agriculture.

Image: New protocols are making it easier for growers to use previously ineffectual soil and environmental data to better manage their crops. Credit: James Taylor

J. A. Taylor, A. B. McBratney and B. M. Whelan, "Establishing Management Classes for Broadacre Agricultural Production", Agron J 99:1366-1376 (2007), DOI: 10.2134/agronj2007.0070

Eurekalert: Emphasizing the 'precision' in precision agriculture - September 27, 2007.

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EU suspends set-aside for 2008

The European Union's set-aside scheme, whereby farmers receive subsidies to leave 10% of their land unused to avoid surplus production, has been suspended for 2008. The European Parliament (EP) approved the use of the so-called urgency procedure on a report relating to the direct support schemes and support schemes for farmers for the coming year. The Commission proposed the measure to deal with tightening grain supplies and record prices, which it blames on (worldwide) low harvests. We also think inefficient grain-based biofuels have played a significant role, even though the EU Agriculture Commissioner disputes this (see here and here).

Neil Parish (EPP-ED, UK, South West Conservative) and Chair of the EP Agriculture Committee spoke in favour of using this procedure.
My committee agreed to the request that urgent procedure should be approved. It was approved unanimously. The Commission is proposing to set a 0% rate of compulsory set-aside for 2008. This proposal must be adopted as soon as possible - that is before the end of this month - in order to allow farmers to take their decisions for growing crops on set aside land in 2008. The land concerned must be brought back to adaption because a poor 2008 harvest combined with 10% set-aside will expose the internal market to potential serious risks.
The European Commission proposed to set at 0% the obligatory set-aside rate for autumn 2007 and spring 2008 sowings, in response to the increasingly tight situation on the cereals market. In the EU-27, a lower than expected harvest in 2006 (265.5 million tonnes) led to tightening supplies at the end of marketing year 2006/2007 and to historically high prices. Intervention stocks have shrunk from 14 million tonnes at the beginning of 2006/2007 to around 1 million tonnes now in September, mainly composed of maize held in Hungary. Reducing the set-aside rate from 10% to 0% is expected to increase output by at least 10 million tonnes:
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Set-aside was introduced to limit production of cereals in the EU and applied on a voluntary basis from 1988/89. After the 1992 reform, it became obligatory i.e. producers under the general scheme were required to set-aside a defined percentage of their declared areas in order to be eligible to direct payments. With the 2003 reform, they received set-aside entitlements, which give the right to a payment if they are accompanied by eligible land put into set-aside.

LibDem Euro MP Liz Lynne, joint agriculture spokesperson for the European Liberal Democrats, is in favour of the decision, but also feels that the time is right to completely scrap the set-aside scheme, which has existed since 1992, so long as more money is put into environmental stewardship schemes.

Speaking today from Strasbourg, Liz said:
I think today's decision marks a victory for common sense and I hope a step in the right direction. Unusual weather across Europe and elsewhere, as well as alternative land use such as growing crops for bio-fuels, has reduced yields and this needs to be addressed. I think set-aside has now served its purpose and we should scrap it altogether.

Many people think there is something absurd about the notion of paying farmers not to produce on 10% of their land while continuing to farm the remaining 90% as intensively as before. Currently, high grain prices are threatening to push up meat and bread prices for consumers. Bringing set-aside land back into production should help to offset these increases and also help to cut bureaucracy.
Speaking about the unexpected benefits of set-aside which may be lost if set-aside is suspended, Liz added:
I can understand concern that there have been environmental gains from set-aside areas, strips alongside hedges for example, but there are much better ways to encourage farms to be more green and sustainable, as well as commercially viable."

We should instead boost green practice through the Environmental Stewardship Scheme. Many farmers say they would like to be greener but the Environmental Stewardship Scheme is under-funded. The newer, second tier of the scheme, Higher Level Stewardship, for more far-reaching environmental projects and practice, is so overstretched that it is hardly worth their while to put in a claim because the budget has been cut. The government and the European Commission could address this.

European Parliament: Direct support schemes and support schemes for farmers set aside for year 2008 - September 25, 2007.

European Parliament: Common agricultural policy CAP: direct support schemes and support schemes for farmers, as regards set aside for year 2008 (derog. Regulation (EC) No 1782/2003)

European Commission: Cereals: Commission proposes to set at zero the set-aside rate for autumn 2007 and spring 2008 sowings - September 13, 2007.

Biopact: EU to free up set-aside land to ease cereal prices - July 30, 2007

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Israeli company develops small, modular biomass flash-pyrolysis plants

Israeli biomass energy start-up Genova Ltd is building a first pilot plant to demonstrate its innovative power generation concept. The process relies on the gasification of biomass through flash-pyrolysis, with waste heat used to process and dry the feedstock. Interestingly, the design consists of small, modular units with a capacity ranging from 0.5 to 5 megawatts. This allows for the production of bioenergy close to the source of the biomass (more on the many advantages of decentralised production close to waste streams, here and here). Genova will demonstrate its 0.5Mw pilot plant, located in the town of Karmiel (Galilee), with olive stones, an abundant biomass residue with few other markets.

The start-up is partly funded by the government-owned Misgav Technology Center, a technology incubator, and by the Israel Electric Company, the country's state-owned electric utility.

Conventional pyrolysis (chemical change caused by heat) emits residues such as alcohols, ketones, tars, and phenols that are harmful to groundwater supplies, while traditional biomass gasification results in gases with a low caloric value, limiting its practical value.

Genova's patented high-temperature flash-pyrolysis gasifies the biomass and so eliminates the disadvantages of other traditional methods (schematic, click to enlarge). The resulting gases can be burned in gas turbine or gas engines. The company has developed a highly efficient next-generation reactor-pyrolyser, providing pyrolysis process more stable and reliable than other similar processes. Moreover, the system deploys joint mechanical and chemical treatment of raw materials.

Flash-pyrolysis involves heating the biomass rapidly to 800 degrees celsius, the temperature at which its molecules break down. Several gases, including methane and carbon monoxide are then produced which, because they are lighter than air, flow upwards into a standard gas turbine to generate electricity. The other by-product, pyrolysis coke, can be sold for use to power air conditioners or as filters for various substances:
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According to Yonat Grant, an industrial engineer and CEO of the company, only ten percent of the electricity produced is used to power the process. This claimed 90% efficiency contrasts with the 50% efficiency of more traditional integrated pyrolysis-gasification processes. While the cost of producing a kilowatt with the classic systems is around 9 cents, Genova's cost supposedly is only 2 cents per kilowatt.

The high efficiency and low cost of the system has attracted considerable attention. The Israel Electric Company added a $60,000 investment to the $300,000 it already invested via the Misgav incubator.

Genova's pilot project involves olive waste from the village of Julis, in northern Israel. The feedstock is fed into a converter in order to produce electricity which in turn powers the olive press in a self-sustaining system and dries the biomass. The process is being carried out in a 200 kw/hour plant in the Druze village.

Besides national interest, an investor from California's wine industry will try out the Genova reactor with vineyard waste products. There is also interest coming from Australia, which has a flourishing olive oil industry.

Last year, Genova was included on the Red Herring 100 Europe listing, quite a unique feat, because it was the only environmental technology company (all the rest are 'traditional high tech' (software, communications)), it was the only company currently in a technology incubator, and it was the youngest company (all the other companies have raised millions of dollars). Finally, it was the only company with a female CEO.

Picture: woody olive-stones separated from the pomace, an abundant biomass resource. Credit: Professional Institute of Agriculture and Environment "Cettolini" of Cagliari (Sardinia, Italy).

Israel21c: Turning olive pits into energy - September 25, 2007.

Misgav Technology Center: Description of Genova.

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

European project looks at nanotechnology to develop CO2 capturing membranes

A new European project called 'Nanomembranes against Global Warming' (NanoGLOWA) is attempting to find a new way of capturing CO2 emissions from power plants with the help of nanotechnology. Nanostructured membranes could reduce carbon capture's energy consumption and costs, making it more attractive than current technology (earlier post). The €12 million NanoGLOWA project receives the bulk of its funding from the European Commission, and unites 26 organisations from 14 EU member states.

Europe produces one gigaton of carbon dioxide annually and wafts it into the atmosphere. Around one-third of this stems from fossil-fuelled power plants. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) could reduce those emissions by up to 90%. The idea is to store the carbon thus captured underground in, for example, empty gas fields and aquifers.

Biopact follows developments in CCS technology because it allows for the creation of radically carbon-negative bioenergy and biofuels (more here, here and here, and references in these texts).

Existing carbon capture methods include absorption and non-selective cooling. During the absorption process, flue gasses - mainly consisting of nitrogen, water, dust particles and, of course, CO2 - flow through several baths in which the carbon dioxide is bound with amines. However, this 'scrubbing' technology is far from being energy- or cost-effective, as it can consume up to 25% of the energy actually produced, and large installations as well as chemicals are needed, says the NanoGLOWA team.

CO2 separation through membranes, on the other hand, would consume only up to 8% of the energy produced, and bring down installation costs. However, suitable membranes must first be developed (interesting flash presentation of current production methods).

The NanoGLOWA project is comprehensive in scope. It will develop, produce, and integrate nano-engineered membranes in power plants and test their carbon capturing effectiveness (project overview, schematic, click to enlarge).

Currently, the following five types of nanomembranes are simultaneously being designed in the framework of the project:
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  • polymer membranes: diffusion transport membranes, block copolymers; fixed-site carrier-type membranes, cellulose acetate or polyamides; ionomeric high voltage membranes, electrically modified materials;
  • carbon membranes: carbon molecular sieve membranes;
  • ceramic membranes
While polymeric membranes are cheap, they seem to dilate when brought into contact with CO2 at higher pressure, so that selectivity and hence efficacy may be significantly reduced. Carbon membranes, on the other hand, are well developed and have good selectivity, says the NanoGLOWA team, but they may be contaminated by the power station's flue gasses.

Finally, ceramic membranes are very stable and have great longevity as they respond well to extreme conditions such as high temperatures. After development in academic laboratories, the membranes will be tested in pilot power plants in the fifth and final year of the project (2011).

Membrane processes are characterized by the fact that a feed stream is divided into two streams, which are called the retentate stream and the permeate stream. Either of these streams can be the ‘product’ of the process. The membrane itself is the central part of every process and can be seen as a filter between two phases. The actual separation is achieved because transport of one component through the membrane is faster than the other component(s).

The actual performance of a membrane is determined by two different factors, namely its permeability and selectivity. The permeability is defined as the volume of gas flowing through the membrane per unit of area and time. The selectivity, also known as the separation factor, is determined by the difference in permeability of the components of interest. If, for instance, the permeability of component A is three times higher than component B, the permeate stream contains three times more of component A and the selectivity from A over B is 3.

The permeability of gases and therefore selectivity between different gasses depends strongly on the gas and type of material used for the membrane. Membranes can be constructed from different starting materials. The two main classes in membrane science are organic membranes (e.g. plastics, carbon) and inorganic membranes (ceramics). Both classes of material are subject of investigation in NanoGLOWA.

The NanoGLOWA project unites 26 organisations, including six universities and five power plant operators, as well as industry and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) from 14 European countries. The project receives €7 million in funding from the European Commission under the Sixth Framework Programme. Total costs amount to €12.5 million.

Cordis: Nanotechnology could help bring down costs of CO2 capture - September 25, 2007.

NanoGLOWA: How membranes are made - flash animation.

Biopact: New plastic-based, nano-engineered CO2 capturing membrane developed - September 19, 2007

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Total Petrochemicals and Galactic to build new bioplastics plant in Belgium

France's Total Petrochemicals and Belgium's Galactic have announced the signature of an agreement for the creation of a joint venture to develop a production technology for polylactic acid (PLA) bioplastics made from renewable biomass.

The project entails the construction of a pilot plant capable of producing 1,500 tonnes per year of PLA using a clean, innovative and competitive technology, to be developed by both partners. Based on the Galactic Escanaffles site, near Tournai (in Belgium's 'Agrifood Valley'), the plant is scheduled to come on stream in 2009.

The research and development phase, which will start at the same time as its construction, should last 4 to 5 years. Called Futerro, the new company will benefit from the support of the Total Petrochemicals Research Centre in Feluy. The ambitious research project is made possible by the financial support of the Walloon Region within the framework of the competitive hubs of the Walloon Marshall Plan.

Lactic acid is obtained from the fermentation of carbohydrates: either sugar (beet or cane) or starch (corn, wheat, potato or cassava). PLA is an aliphatic polyester obtained by polymerising this lactic acid (schematic, click to enlarge). The polymer is fully compostable, reduces carbon dioxide emissions compared to petroleum based plastics, and has found ready applications in the food packaging and textiles industry:
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Total Petrochemicals’ objective with this PLA development project is to fulfil a growing demand for biodegradable and renewable plastics.

For Galactic, this new development will mean new outlets for lactic acid by turning it into feedstock for a new green chemistry.

Galactic is a Belgian company created in 1994 part of the Finasucre group - one of the top ten sugar producers - owning sugar refineries in Australia (Bundaberg Sugar), Belgium (Frasnes & Moerbeek) and Africa (Compagnie Sucrière). The Finasucre group represents an annual sugar production of 1.3 million tons.

Established with an initial production capacity of 1,500 tons of lactic acid and lactates, Galactic rapidly expanded its production to more than 18,000 tons today.

Total Petrochemicals: Total Petrochemicals and Galactic venture into bioplastics production [*.pdf] - September 25, 2007.

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Community biogas plants preferred waste management option amongst citizens of Kochi, India

Highlighting the need to decentralise solid waste management, a study conducted by the SCMS Group's Centre for Socio-Economic Research in Kochi, a city of 1.5 million in India's southern Kerala state, found that the majority of respondents in the city preferred setting up community biogas plants for waste treatment.

Waste management is a huge problem in most of the developing world's rapidly growing cities. A lack of waste treatment technologies and policies often results in a very tangible health risk to the population. Organising integrated waste management requires an insight into how people deal with household waste. Researchers from the SCMS therefor conducted their survey, with the objective to analyse the best financial support and intervention strategies, and to see how different social classes should be approached. Other developing world cities could benefit from similar social science approaches to discover how waste management should be organised most effectively (also have a look at the enormous waste problem in Africa's second largest city, Kinshasa, and its choice for biogas - earlier post).

The basic survey was conducted in 832 households in 15 wards. The areas included Elamakkara North, Thrikkanarvattom, Karukappilli, Kaloor South, Kathrikadavu, Elamkulam, Thammanam, Kadavanthra, Vaduthala East, Puthukkalavattom, Edapally, Devankulangara, Vennala, Chalikkavattom and Thevara (map, click to enlarge).
We should take into account the minute details of the waste management problem in order to solve it - A. P. M. Mohammed Hanish, Kochi District Collector
It was found that 488 households preferred biogas plants while 186 voted for vermi-compost units. Interestingly, 19 per cent of the respondents said that they did not want assistance for installation of biogas or vermi-compost units, said Radha Thevannoor, project co-ordinator and director of the SCMS School of Technology and Management.

Preference for biogas plant installation was found high among people in the income category of Rs 5,000 (€89/$126) and below and those in the category between Rs5,000 and Rs15,000.
The low income group seems to be more practical in the case of waste management. [...] Many of the people whom we approached were of the opinion that it is the government's responsibility to manage the segregation and disposal of waste. Some of them were not even ready to consider the segregation of waste at home - Poornima Narayan and N. Rajagopal, Centre for Socio-Economic Research
Pointing towards the public perception on the feasibility of various intervention strategies on waste disposal, Thevannoor said that the majority preferred financial aid rather than technical help from the part of the Government.

Moreover, it was found that 80.5 per cent of the total respondents preferred common facilities than individual ones. The responses in favor of communal biogas plants were high among all the income categories:
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N. Rajagopal and Poornima Narayan, research team members, said that 45.9 per cent respondents depended on organised groups for waste disposal while 27.6 per cent dumped the waste in Corporation bins.

The study found that waste generated from organic matter/ vegetables constituted 31 percent of the total waste followed by garden waste with 20 percent. Plastic and rubber constituted 12 per cent of the total waste.

The researchers observed that there was no system of separating organic, inorganic and recyclable waste at the household level.

Residents also supported Kudumbasree units engaged in waste collection. Lack of space for setting up bio-gas plants was found in apartments in the city.

Recommending that financial intervention strategies on waste management should be primarily targeted at middle and lower income categories, the team suggested setting up model community biogas plants in areas coming under the Kochi Corporation, which is responsible for waste treatment.

Newindpress: Community biogas plants mooted - September 25, 2007

Newindpress: Project report on waste management submitted - September 25, 2007

The Hindu: Study finds preference for biogas plants - September 25, 2007.

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Senate committee approves funding for O2 Diesel's development and demonstration of novel biofuel blends

O2Diesel Corporation, a developer of clean burning renewable ethanol-diesel fuel blends, announced today that it has been included in the fiscal year 2008 Defense Appropriations bill to continue and expand existing O2Diesel O28 demonstration projects to develop clean, renewable alternative diesel fuels at Nellis AFB and Air National Guard Facilities in Nevada. The DOD Appropriations bill is pending consideration by the full Senate, and must then be reconciled with the House Defense Appropriations bill in conference.

O2Diesel has been under contract to develop a new fuel for the Department of Defense that will be composed of at least 20% renewable sources including the company's patented and proprietary biomass-derived stabilizing additive, and renewable ethanol. This fuel, when finalized, will help DOD facilities meet local air quality compliance requirements and strengthen its commitment to reducing the USA's dependency on foreign oil imports.

Rigorous testing of the new biofuel is currently underway at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, a nationally recognized research facility. The research will be followed by an expanded in-use fleet demonstration at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas where the company's O2Diesel(TM) fuel has been running successfully for the past 38 months.

O2Diesel(TM), is an extensively tested blend of 7.7vol% fuel grade ethanol treated with the company's patented and proprietary biomass-derived stabilizing additive with any available diesel fuel, which significantly reduces smoke, PM, CO, NOx emissions (table, click to enlarge) from a host of centrally-fueled diesel-powered equipment, including urban buses, and with no engine modifications. O28 is a renewable based biodiesel fuel consisting of O2Diesel(TM) and B20 Biofuel:
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Since 2002, the U.S. Congress earmarked almost $5 million in funds for a US Air Force comprehensive research project that evaluates O2Diesel as a fuel for non-tactical military vehicles and other diesel-powered equipment such as electric generators. Nellis Air Force Base and the Nevada Air National Guard became the first military users of O2Diesel in demonstrations with their fleets. In addition, O2Diesel is developing a new environmentally-friendly fuel for DoD that will contain at least 20% renewable content, including O2Diesel's proprietary additive.

In order to gain acceptance in the marketplace, it is necessary for motor fuels to meet a consensus-based fuel specification through organizations such as the American Society for Testing & Materials (ASTM) and the Canadian General Standards Board (CGSB). O2Diesel is a leading participant in setting specifications ethanol diesel fuels.

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Analysts uncertain about palm oil price outlook

Three leading palm oil market analysts each offer a substantially different medium term outlook for the commodity. These differences are the result of uncertainties about biofuel subsidies in the US, demand in Asia, the development of other vegetable oil markets and the outlook for crude oil.

Vegetable oils are increasingly used in biofuels as crude oil prices have tripled to a record in five years. US farmers have planted more corn to meet demand for ethanol, pushing sowings of soybeans to a 12-year low. Malaysia and Indonesia account for about 90 percent of palm oil output, the most competitive vegetable oil. Palm oil on the Malaysian Derivatives Exchange, which trades the global benchmark, touched a record 2,764 ringgit on June 6 and has averaged 59 percent more since January than a year ago. The most active contract gained 1.4 percent to 2,606 ringgit on Friday. Soybean oil, palm oil's main competitor, reached a 23-year high of 40.49 cents on Tuesday.

Up on soaring demand
Dorab Mistry, a director at Godrej International, thinks palm oil futures in Malaysia may advance as much as 15 percent during the next year because of rising demand for biofuels and a shortfall in supplies of other vegetable oils. Prices might climb to up to 3,000 ringgit, or $870, a ton in the year ending Sept. 30, 2008, Mistry said during a conference in Goa. Earlier this year, he had predicted that prices would surpass 2,500 ringgit this year. Mistry has traded vegetable oils since 1976.

Demand for vegetable oils in the year to September 2008 may rise by 5 million tons, while supply may increase by 3.9 million tons, Mistry thinks. This incremental demand includes two million tons for biofuels and three million for food purposes.

Down, on US subsidy cut
For his part, James Fry, managing director of London-based LMC International and a leading gobal palm oil market analyst, told reporters at a conference in India that palm oil prices could ease from January if the United States cuts incentives it gives to biofuel producers.

Fry thinks palm oil prices are likely to reach 2,000 to 2,100 ringgit per tonne by March, down from the current levels of around 2,600 ringgit per tonne. The U.S. may cut subsidies to its biofuel units and if it does that by January global palmoil prices will start softening

The subsidy the US government gives is meant to encourage local soybean oil being converted into biofuel. But many people are importing palm diesel instead of using local soyoil to make biofuels. They import palm diesel, mix it with 1 percent local diesel, make the blend, that is biofuel, and collect the subsidy. Analysts have been expecting the US to stop this misuse of the subsidy for the last six months:
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Steady growth, stable prices
Finally, according to Thomas Mielke, chief editor of Oil World, a trade publication, global palm oil production may rise to a record 41 million tons in the year to September 2008, from a probable 37.38 million tons this year, as crops recover from the dry season in Malaysia and Indonesia. He said he expected prices to trade between 2,300 and 2,600 ringgit in the next 12 months.

Mielke thinks palm oil can partly fill the gap created by insufficient production growth in soybeans, canola and sunflower.

International Herald Tribune: Price of palm oil predicted to leap - September 24, 2007.

Reuters: Palm prices seen falling if U.S. cuts biofuel subsidy - September 23, 2007.

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NY Times finally understands the need for a 'Biopact'

At last, a mainstream publication has begun to understand the logic behind the Biopact. Writing for the New York Times, Jerry Garrett says what we have been saying all along: why should the US and the EU heavily subsidize and protect their own inefficient biofuels that are too costly to be competitive, that do not reduce greenhouse gas emissions and that rely on food crops, while down South there are huge countries in need for development with an abundance of resources making it possible to produce highly efficient biofuels that substantially recude emissions, that don't rely on food crops, that are competitive with oil (very much so at current prices) and that may bring jobs and rural development to the poorest?

At last. We replicate and augment the piece here in full, because it is quite significant to see a major opinion maker supporting our case:

Here’s an interesting bit of scientific research, writes Garrett, courtesy of a recent report from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, a Paris-based global economic think tank [note, the report was not by the OECD, but that's a detail], on the difference in greenhouse gas emissions from cars burning gasoline-only fuel and fuels made from various forms of ethanol:
  • Corn ethanol: 0-3 percent greenhouse gas emission reduction.
  • Sugar cane ethanol: 50-70 percent reduction.
  • Cellulosic ethanol: 90-plus percent.
But wait, there’s more:

Which form of ethanol production is the United States government (and its taxpayers) subsidizing? Corn, of course.

Which form of ethanol production does the United States government levy a 53-cents-a-gallon import tariff on? Sugar cane, naturally.

And which form of ethanol production is under-funded, under-researched, and furthest from commercial production? The cleanest choice, obviously.

Do you see a pattern here?

Corn ethanol is also the culprit that raises costs of corn-based food crops, because food production is being diverted to ethanol production. Corn ethanol production also affects the price of other food crops such as wheat, barley and soybeans because it is economically more attractive for farmers to switch from those crops to subsidized corn-raising. Corn ethanol is also only marginally less costly (some critics think it may even cost more) to manufacture than a gallon of gasoline.

The cheapest, easiest to obtain and most readily available form of ethanol available is sugar cane ethanol from Brazil. In fact, Stratfor, a strategic planning newsletter, pointed out that Brazil “has developed a fuel that reduces greenhouse gas emissions and comes from a place that is politically stable and friendly to both the European Union and United States.” And Brazil has a surplus of it, ready to export (more here):
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Why not do something right now to alleviate our fossil fuel energy addiction? Or should we wait until, say, 2022 when domestic ethanol production is projected to be ramped up, as a Bush administration target suggests? Until 2022, should we continue to meet our nation’s energy needs via our many friends in the Middle East? (This is working so well for us, so far.)

Elsewhere in the OECD’s scathing indictment of the corn ethanol industry, it called for an end to government subsidies to those growing corn for ethanol. It suggested the European Union act immediately to end “set-asides,” wherein part of the available farm land is left fallow for a year or two, to let the soil rest, and to keep grain prices artificially high by keeping it in shorter supply. The set-asides make especially little sense this year, in view of a widespread drought, lower yield grain harvests, and a significant diversion of acreage planted for corn-as-food to ethanol production instead. The OECD said import tariffs on fuels, such as sugar cane ethanol, ought to be removed.

The report also suggested a ban on using food crops for ethanol production.

Ethanol isn’t fussy; it can be made any number of ways. And should meaningful cellulosic ethanol production ever get off the ground, it could easily be made from inedible crops like switchgrass or even garbage.

So why is America, in particular, insisting on making ethanol from the worst possible choice? It seems that our government’s only true interest in ethanol production lies in placating its agricultural lobby, which in turn is seeking to cash in on forced legislative mandates for domestic ethanol production.


New York Times: Corn Ethanol: Biofuel or Biofraud? - September 24, 2007.

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Senegal in possible $2 billion biofuel & oil refinery deal with Energy Allied International

Senegal has been one of the leading forces in West-Africa calling for the development of a biofuels industry aimed at improving the energy security of the region and at boosting its agricultural sector.

Last year president Abdoulaye Wade initiated a 'Green OPEC' of sorts, the PANPP (Pays Africains Non-Producteurs de Pétrole), a coalition of African countries aiming to implement a biofuels strategy in order to overcome the catastrophic reliance on ever more expensive oil. He explained the urgency of the need for a switch to biofuels for non-oil producing African countries. Wade has also established a wider network of allies, amongst them Brazil and India, who are interested in prodiving technological, policy and financial support for the fledgling biofuels industry.

For Senegal, a long list of reasons makes biofuels a major opportunity. Some of the more important ones, as stressed by Wade in several opinion pieces:
  • its agricultural sector, which suffers under false competition from EU/US subsidised farming (e.g. the cotton scandal) can be revived through biofuel crop production
  • green fuels would strengthen energy security and reduce economic losses due to high import bills (poor countries in Africa spend up to between 10 and 15% of their GDP on oil imports; rising prices are truly disastrous for development - more here)
  • a biofuels industry can reduce the push and pull factors that lead to the highly problematic rural exodus and further to (illegal) emigration to Europe (more here about the 'Return to Agriculture' program); Spain, the main recipient of illegal immigrants from Senegal, recently started cooperating with the African country on a concrete project in this context (here)
  • biofuels can reduce poverty and food insecurity, as they promise to bring income and agricultural security to farmers (lack of income is the key driver of food insecurity; crop portfolio diversification strengthens the livelihoods of farmers); around 80% of Senegal's population is employed in agriculture (map)
Besides a strong set of policies and the need for access to biofuel technologies, attracting concrete investments is obviously the biggest requirement to kickstart a biofuel industry in the country. But Senegal has quite a few advantages making it an attractive destination for bioenergy investments: an abundance of natural resources (e.g. it only utilizes 18% of its potential arable land), relatively strong infrastructures, a large workforce, a stable investment climate and government, and a favorable geographical position (close to the EU and the US).

For these reasons, Texas-based consultancy Energy Allied International is helping Senegal draw up plans for a US$2 billion investment in a new oil refinery and biofuel power plant. Speaking to Reuters, CEO Mike Nassar said 'We are at a point where we have enough information right now to demonstrate that a new refinery in Senegal is viable, to produce 60,000 barrels a day of high-end quality products':
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Jet fuel, diesel, butane and gasoline could be sold locally in sub-Saharan Africa and be exported to Europe and the United States, Nassar said in an interview after meeting Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade.

'The president wants to see more and more investments to Senegal. He believes in the refinery and biofuel,' Nassar said. Senegal has no crude oil production of its own, so the new refinery would import heavy crude from sub-Saharan Africa's top producers Nigeria and Angola, Nassar said.

Senegal's energy ministry announced plans last month for Iran's national oil company to sell Senegal one year's supply of Iranian crude on preferential terms, take a stake in Senegalese state oil refiner SAR and increase SAR's capacity to 3 million tonnes a year from 1.2 million tonnes.

Nassar said the project his consultancy was investigating would not conflict with the Iranian plans. 'This particular (Iranian) project is taking the old refinery and modernising it to be able to produce some different products,' he said. He said there would be limited overlap as the bulk of output from the new refinery would be for export, while SAR produces primarily for the local market.

Nassar said the total cost of the oil refinery and biofuels plant would be nearly $2 billion, but he did not say who would be funding it. Senegal produces ground nuts, sugar cane and jatropha, which have both been suggested as possible sources of biofuel.

Image: Eighty percent of Senegal's population makes a living in agriculture; major crops grown are cotton and groundnuts. Both offer potential for biofuels and bioenergy.

Reuters: US consultancy plans Senegal refinery, biofuel unit - September 25, 2007.

Biopact: Senegal's president explains the urgency of biofuels development in the South - November 02, 2006

Biopact: A closer look at Africa's 'Green Opec' - August 02, 2006

Biopact: Spain and Senegal to cooperate on biofuels as way to curb illegal migration - August 24, 2007

Biopact: Senegal in the spotlight: cooperation with Brazil, EU on bioenergy and migration - October 27, 2006

Biopact: Global South-South exchanges on biofuels growing rapidly - August 28, 2006

Biopact: Senegal and Brazil sign biofuel agreement to make Africa a major supplier - May 17, 2007

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Sterling Biofuels signs MOU to develop Malaysian palm oil mill

Australia's Sterling Biofuels International Ltd announces that it has entered into a Memorandum of Understanding to develop a palm oil mill in the Lahad Datu region (Sabah) where its biodiesel plant is located (map, click to enlarge). The same company earlier acquired a stake in a Malaysian company with a licence to develop a new palm plantation which will allow it to obtain feedstock supplies at less than half the current market price.

The development of the mill will be undertaken jointly with a local partner who will provide access to minimum quantities of raw material (oil palm fruit bunches) for the mill. This is required for the purposes of obtaining a mill licence.

Sterling, which will own 70% of the joint venture, will manage the construction and subsequent operations of the mill. During the initial phase, the mill's capacity will be 45 tonnes per hour but this will increase to 90 tonnes per hour after the second phase. When completed, the mill will have the capacity to supply 100% crude palm oil (CPO) which can be refined for use in the biodiesel plant.
The development of the palm oil mill represents an extension of Sterling's participation in upstream activities within the palm oil/biodiesel value chain. This initiative, when fully operational, will contribute towards security of feedstock supply for the biodiesel plant as well as result in total potential savings of up to RM180 (A$62) a tonne compared to our current feedstock costs. - CRS Paragash, Group Managing Director
Due to Sterling's palm oil industry experience and the fact that the technology for a palm oil mill is well established, the company thinks the mill will be ready for operation by 1 January 2010 (within 24-30 months, time taken to construct and ready the new mill for commercial operation):
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The cost of developing the mill is expected to be funded through equity contributions from the joint venture partners as well as non-recourse debt. Sterling's 70% share of the equity contribution is estimated at $2.8 million. This is expected to be funded from Sterling's existing cash balances.

The time frames associated with the development of this palm oil mill have been designed to complement the development time frames associated with recently announced oil palm plantation development. The 24-30 month development timeframe for the mill fits in well with the 5-6 year development program for the oil palm plantation.

Earlier Sterling Biofuels announced the acquisition of a 70% stake in a Malaysian company that has development rights over 10,600 acres of land earmarked for an oil palm plantation in Malaysia. The acquisition was significant as it marked the start of Sterling’s participation in various upstream activities within the palm oil/biodiesel value chain. This upstream strategy will:
  • position Sterling to better manage its feedstock requirements and protect itself against future adverse spikes in the price of its palm based feedstock;
  • eventually enable Sterling to capture the best margins within the palm oil/biodiesel value chain wherever they may occur; and
  • provide Sterling with a greater degree of feedstock price stability when assessing whether to increase its biodiesel production capacity from its existing 100,000 metric tonnes per annum.
Through a newly incorporated wholly owned Malaysian subsidiary, Sterling acquired 70% of the issued capital of UTE Power Sdn Bhd (“UTE”) which is controlled by a company listed on the Malaysian MESDAQ market. UTE has been granted the right to develop 10,600 acres of fertile land owned by a state government body into an oil palm plantation. The development rights are for a period of 60 years with an option to renew for another 30 years.

Under the relevant agreement, UTE will pay to the state government body an agreed annual payment. In return, all proceeds from the plantation will belong to UTE. The first annual payment due on the date of execution of the agreement with the state government body has been paid.

The participation allowed Sterling Biofuels to enter the oil/biodiesel value chain without the high start up costs normally associated with an investment in an oil palm plantation. When the plantation matures, it will have the potential of providing the equivalent of 20% of its current feedstock requirements at under RM1,000 (A$346) a tonne compared to the current crude palm oil price of RM2,534 (A$877) a tonne.

While current Malaysian rules on foreign equity ownership restrict Sterling’s ownership of UTE to 70%, Sterling will apply for Malaysian regulatory approval for the ability, should it choose to do so, to acquire a further 15% of UTE from the initial promoters. This option to purchase additional equity in the plantation development is exercisable over the next 4 years at an agreed price.

Development of the plantation is subject to Malaysian environmental impact assessment and approval which the company is confident of obtaining in due course. Sterling has also applied for membership of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and intends to comply with the principles for sustainable production and use of palm oil developed by the Roundtable.

Sterling Biofuels: Sterling Biofuels Extends Upstream Participation - Development of Palm Oil Mill [*.pdf] - September 25, 2007.

Sterling Biofuels: Sterling Biofuels kickstarts upstream strategy - Acquires rights to develop oil palm plantation - 13 Sept 2007

Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.

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Monday, September 24, 2007

USDA report looks at ethanol logistics and transportation

The Agricultural Marketing Department (AMD) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) released a report which looks at the transportation requirements needed to sustain the rapidly growing corn-based ethanol sector. Trains, barges and trucks ship grains, ethanol and byproducts from the corn belt in the center of the country to America's coastal cities. In the future, dedicated pipelines may move the biofuel. In 'Expansion of U.S. Corn-based Ethanol from the Agricultural Transportation Perspective' [*.pdf] the question is raised which effects the growing production of ethanol will have on agricultural and ethanol transportation chains (see image for a schematic overview of the rail and truck ethanol distribution system).

For the first 6 months of 2007, U.S. ethanol production totaled nearly 3 billion gallons, 32 percent higher than the same period last year and ahead of USDA projections. As of August 29, there were 128 ethanol plants with annual production capacity totaling 6.78 billion gallons, and an additional 85 plants were under construction. U.S. ethanol production capacity is expanding rapidly and is currently expected to exceed 13 billion gallons per year by early 2009, if not sooner.

Ethanol demand has increased corn prices and led to expanded corn production, which is affecting grain transportation as corn use shifts from exports and feed use to ethanol production. Most ethanol is currently produced in the country's heartland, but 80 percent of the U.S. population (and therefore implied ethanol demand) lives along its coastlines (map, click to enlarge). Transportation factors to consider as ethanol production continues to expand therefor include:
  • The capacity of the transportation system to move ethanol, feedstock, and co-products produced from ethanol
  • The availability of corn close to ethanol plants (~ 50 miles)
  • The location of feedlots relative to ethanol producing areas
Ethanol production capacity expansion is occurring faster than originally anticipated. In May, USDA issued a report analyzing the effects of an expansion in biofuel demand on U.S. agriculture. The analysis focused on two ethanol expansion scenarios in relation to the baseline long-term projections issued in February 2007. Under Scenario 1, U.S. ethanol production increases to 15 billion gallons per year (bgy) by 2016. Under Scenario 2, U.S. ethanol production increases to 20 bgy by 2016.

AMS applied its modal share analysis to the three USDA scenarios: baseline (February 2007 long-term projections) and the two scenarios described above to evaluate the impact of ethanol production expansion on grain transportation. The 5-year 2000-2004 modal share rates were assumed to stay constant over the projected period:
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Agricultural transportation and ethanol
Rapid expansion of the U.S. ethanol industry could have several implications for agricultural transportation, including increasing volumes of ethanol shipments and shifting grain and oilseed marketing patterns that could occur due to changes in production and use.

Transportation is typically the third highest expense to an ethanol producer—after feedstock and energy. Balancing transportation operating expenses with fixed infrastructure costs can be critical to sustained profitability for each ethanol plant.

Storage needs for ethanol are also related to transportation needs—truck and rail have a faster turnaround and barges can haul larger quantities. For example, trucks offer more flexibility and responsiveness to move the product as the market dictates, reducing storage needs at the ethanol plant. But, barge may offer cost savings due to volumes moved.

Other transportation requirements include inbound feedstock and outbound co-products. Corn is shipped to the plant as feedstock (mostly by truck) and distillers grains (dry distillers grains with solubles (DDGS) and wet distillers grains (WDGs)) are shipped by truck, rail, or barge.

For purposes of comparison, a large petroleum 2-barge unit tow hauls 2.52 million gallons (although ethanol is usually shipped in smaller, 630,000-gallon tanker barges), which is equivalent to about 80 railcars or 300 tanker trailers (table, click to enlarge).

In 2005, rail was the primary transportation mode for ethanol, shipping 60 percent of ethanol production—approximately 2.9 billion gallons of ethanol; followed by trucks—30 percent, and barges—10 percent (graph, click to enlarge).

Ethanol transactions currently involve two types of marketing arrangements: 1) direct sales to customers and 2) movements to a strategic location. Both types of arrangements require transportation. Movement of the product can be arranged by the customer, supplier, or a third party—known in the petroleum industry as the marketer.

As the number of companies producing ethanol increases, the share of ethanol marketed by third parties—marketers—is expected to rise as well. The marketers ensure supply interruptions are kept to a minimum and are able to move large volumes by gathering production from several smaller ethanol plants into unit trains (trains consisting of 85–100 cars that stay together from origin to destination). The role of the regional (shortline) railroads has increased for the shorter movements of ethanol to intermediate rail terminals. As ethanol volumes rise, the industry may start requiring quality control programs that ensure that shipments are not contaminated with other chemicals.

Ethanol producers are expected to continue to rely on qualified ethanol marketers to efficiently distribute their products. Some railroads have instituted a Certificate of Authenticity program that certifies ethanol quality shipments on their railroad.

Transportation sensitivity to demand and distribution changes
All three modes used to transport ethanol—rail, barge, and truck—are at or near capacity. Total rail freight is forecast to increase from 1,879 million tons in 2002 to 3,525 million tons by 2035, an increase of nearly 88 percent.6 Federal Highway Administration projects truck freight to almost double from 2002 to 2020, and driver shortages are projected to reach 219,000 by 2015.

In 2004, there were 1.3 million long-haul heavy-duty truck drivers. The lock and dam system on the inland waterways is aging. The lack of excess transportation capacity increases the sensitivity of transportation to sudden changes in transportation demand and distribution patterns. Changes in these patterns brought on by rapidly increasing ethanol production could impact rail network performance, highway congestion, and barge traffic. For example, the increased sensitivity of transportation modes became evident in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, when rail had insufficient capacity to transport displaced grain barge freight and trucks could not carry the grain economically for long distances.

To date, logistical concerns have not hampered ethanol production growth or the construction and expansion of new ethanol plants. However, issues that may arise as production grows include:
  • Uncertainty about the location of and demand from terminal markets which consolidate, transload, and distribute ethanol for blending. Change in State policies towards ethanol may decrease this uncertainty.
  • Shifts in transportation demand for corn, ethanol, DDGS, and WDGs among rail, truck, and barge, in the context of overall traffic and future ethanol production locations.
  • Concern about the adequacy of transportation infrastructure to efficiently ship ethanol and co-products.
  • Increased transportation demand for agricultural inputs, mainly additional fertilizer for increased corn acreage.
Expected long-term growth in overall freight volumes—U.S. Department of Transportation projects total inter-city freight by all modes to grow dramatically from 19.3 billion tons in 2002 to 37.2 billion tons in 2035.8

Ethanol production scenarios and transportation

The increased use of corn for ethanol has raised corn prices, and has resulted in increased corn production in the United States and changes in grain transportation as corn use shifts from exports and feed use to ethanol production. In August, USDA forecast corn production for the 2007/08 marketing year to reach about 13.05 billion bushels, up 2.5 billion bushels (24 percent) from last year.

Increased grain production typically causes transportation demand to increase. Rapid ethanol production expansion, however, may affect where corn is transported and by which transportation mode. For example:
  • Much of the increase in the corn crop will be trucked to ethanol facilities. Trucks currently dominate the local transportation of corn to ethanol plants. Should this trend continue, it may lead to a shift in modal share of grain transportation. However, as corn production is expected to continue to increase, demand for grain transportation for all modes may rise proportionately.
  • In August, USDA projected 2007/08 corn exports at 2.15 billion bushels (up 50 million bushels from last year). Projected corn exports, however, decline in 2008/09 and 2009/10 before increasing in subsequent years, which leads to variability in overall rail and barge transportation demand, assuming the historical 5-year average modal share stays the same.
  • Price competition in different locations (corn basis) may shift transportation patterns more frequently than in the past because corn used for fuel has created an additional demand for corn and corn origination patterns may change as ethanol production increases. However, if corn supplies are abundant, there may be less price competition and thus fewer shifts in transportation patterns.
Transportation shifts are expected to continue over the next several years, until commodity markets adjust to sustained ethanol production. Since most of the export grain is shipped by rail and barge, a reduction in grain exports may reduce grain movements by these modes.

Transportation requirements could increase as ethanol production reaches 15 billion gallons by 2016; demand for rail and barge services then may recede as export demand decreases under the 20 billion gallon scenario (graphs, click to enlarge). In the near-term, however, sharp increases in ethanol and DDGS movements are expected to offset any decreases in rail and barge grain transportation due to decreased exports and domestic use.

Trucking demand continues to grow for all three scenarios, increasing most dramatically as ethanol production grows from the baseline to the 15-billion gallon target.

Increased ethanol production could lead major corn-producing states to become corn deficit states, resulting in the need to source corn from other states and increasing transportation distances for sourced feedstock. Corn prices are expected to vary by location to ration the demand between domestic feedlots, ethanol plants, and exports. For example, as demand for corn at ethanol plants increases, corn prices may strengthen near the ethanol-producing areas relative to corn prices in export locations.

This impact is demonstrated by the corn basis, which is the difference between the local cash prices and the nearby Chicago Board of Trade futures contract. Transportation demand may be higher in the areas with stronger prices (stronger basis). Increases in transportation costs, however, may also weaken (decrease) the interior basis, which would cause farm prices to fall in those locations.

The domestic corn basis during the first half of 2007 has been strengthening relative to exports until recently. Corn futures prices have been decreasing from the high of over $4.00 in the spring to $3.20 by the end of July. However, the corn basis in Nebraska and at the Gulf ports have been strong, indicating relatively stronger demand in those locations for ethanol and export use.

Railroads shipped about 60 percent of ethanol produced in the United States in 2005, or 82,483 carloads and have kept up with the annual ethanol production growth of 26 percent in 2006. According to preliminary Freight Commodity Statistics, the Class I railroads’ origination of all alcohols grew by 28 percent.

The expected growth in rail movements of ethanol may pose some hurdles for shippers. Ethanol volumes moved by rail could jump from the projected 190,816 carloads in 2007 to over 408,000 in 2016 (table, click to enlarge). Class I railroads, however, assert that the additional volume due to ethanol is well below the 20.8 million carloads of cargo freight they originated in 2006.

The variability and uncertainty of rail grain transportation demand is a function of grain export projections. For example, in the 20-bgy scenario, projected grain exports decline and rail grain transportation demand would decrease. However, that decrease is more than offset by the increased demand for ethanol and DDGS rail transportation. The consequences of the increased ethanol and DDGS transportation under the 20-bgy scenario occurring during a relatively short period could include a strain on rail transportation and logistics infrastructure.

Thus, the interdependence of corn used for fuel vs. corn used for feed (domestic and exports) may translate into uncertainty for rail transportation.

Unit Train Economics

It is more efficient and cost effective for railroads to move unit trains. The primary reasons include a higher asset utilization rate and lower inventory carrying costs. The industry “rule of thumb” is that the ethanol railcar utilization rate for a unit train is 30 turns per year, compared to 12 turns per year for a single-car shipment. Inventory carrying costs (travel, dwell, and unloading times) for a single-car shipment of ethanol could be as much as four-times that of a unit train.

Unit train movements would increase the average number of loadings per year for each ethanol tank car, which could help alleviate potential tank car shortages.

Rail tariff rates for unit trains are typically lower than those for single-car and smaller shipments. For example, BNSF’s tariff rate is discounted $900 for a gathered unit train of ethanol vs. a single car shipment of ethanol from Southwest Iowa to the Los Angeles Basin, California.

Construction of unit train infrastructure at destination terminals—mostly owned by blenders, refiners, and third-party providers—may become a key to the efficiency of rail ethanol transportation. Factors that may be contributing to a slower rate of the infrastructure development include its capital-intensive nature as well as the sometimes-lengthy permitting process.

Similar economics are developing in the DDGS rail shipments. Unit trains of DDGS are currently discounted on BNSF by approximately $7.50 per ton relative to single car movements.11 Additional DDGS storage at origin and unit train unloading infrastructure at destination would encourage further unit train utilization of DDGS.

Infrastructure issues
Supply Chain Issues
Several supply chain issues could inhibit growth in the ethanol industry. The efficiency of the ethanol transportation system may begin to depend on the ability of the blending market to accommodate additional quantities of ethanol.

The supply and demand of ethanol may become temporarily out of balance because blenders require time and financial incentives to add blending capacity. These extra financial incentives, including cheaper ethanol, could be in addition to the current blender tax credit of $0.51 per gallon, which is in place through 2010. Blenders are watching Federal and State legislative processes carefully to assess the legislative risk to their capital investments. Grain markets may also be affected by ethanol supply chain issues. There is concern that grain storage shortages may occur as ethanol production capacity and corn crops continue to expand.

Rail Capacity
Rail capacity typically depends on several factors, including locomotive power and railcar availability and utilization, which are affected by train speeds, dwell time, loading and unloading times, and track capacity. In addition to an efficient logistics infrastructure, an adequate supply of railcars and other transportation equipment for ethanol and DDGS are needed to sustain growth in the ethanol industry.

Ethanol Rail Tank Cars
Ethanol is shipped in standard rail tank cars (approved for flammable liquids)—DOT 111A or AAR T108 rail cars. As of January 1, 2007, 41,000 rail tank cars capable of shipping ethanol were in use. Orders for new cars increased substantially in 2006 with a surge in ethanol plant construction and are expected to almost double this fleet in the next 2–2½ years. Rail tank cars are nearly all privately owned, either by leasing companies or shippers. Orders for new rail tank cars, 75 percent of which are estimated to be for ethanol use, started to increase in the 4th quarter 2005 and continued to increase through the 3rd quarter 2006 (Figure 9). Rail tank car manufacturers increased production lines, but the backlog grew from about 10,000 railcars in the 3rd quarter 2005 to a peak of 36,334 railcars in the 4th quarter 2006. By the end of 1st quarter 2007, the manufacturing backlog had decreased to 36,166 railcars.

Grain Rail Cars

Increased rail service demand is expected to affect railcar fleet composition and availability for moving corn, ethanol, and DDGS. Most grain is shipped in designated covered hopper railcars C113, C114, C213, or C313, which can also be used for other dry bulk commodities. Total covered hopper railcar fleet as of January 1, 2007, was 268,000 railcars—almost 2 percent higher than on January 1, 2005. However, the grain rail car fleet share is estimated to be approximately 160,800—60 percent of the total covered hopper fleet.

Distillers Dried Grains with Solubles (DDGS) Transportation Issues Ethanol plants that use corn as feedstock produce a co-product called distillers grains (DDGSdried distillers grains with solubles, WDG-wet distillers grains, and MDG-modified distillers grains). For every 56-pound bushel of corn, 17.5 pounds of DDGS and 2.76 gallons of ethanol are produced, on average. Dairy cattle operations and cattle feedlots are the primary domestic users of distilled grains as a protein supplement for the ruminant animals.

Research is ongoing for increasing the DDGS use by poultry and hog operations, which currently is limited due to nutritional challenges DDGS present to non-ruminant animals.

Production of DDGS is expected to grow proportionately with ethanol production increases. Currently, about 10 percent of DDGS are exported—1.25 million metric tons (mt) in 2006.

According to the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS), the United States exported approximately 900,000 metric tons of DDGS during the first 6 months of 2007—60 percent higher than the same period last year. The trend of increased DDGS exports is expected to continue. Increased use of barges to ship DDGS to export locations is likely.

The original co-product of distilled grains from ethanol production is wet distillers grains (WDG). Shipping the WDG’s saves energy, but the product is perishable and needs to be trucked to a nearby feeding operation within a couple of days. Drying the product adds cost for the ethanol producer, but provides a more stable product for transport and storage. Railroads and barges ship DDGS long distances and trucks are used for shorter distances.

Demand for shipping DDGS to domestic and export markets has been increasing, thus expanding demand for super jumbo covered hoppers—railcars that are greater than 5,500 cubic feet (ft3) and have wide gates for easier flowability. During storage and transport, DDGS tends to cake and bridge between particles. Thus, flowability has become one of the major issues that needs to be addressed for effective sales, marketing, distribution, and utilization of distillers grains. Because these co-products do not always flow easily from railcars, workers sometimes hammer the car sides and hopper bottoms in order to induce flow. This can lead to severe damage to the rail cars themselves and can also pose worker safety issues.

According to the Rail Supply Institute, from first quarter 2005 through first quarter 2007, new deliveries of super jumbo railcars have totaled 11,307, with most of the growth occurring in 2006. DDGS are estimated to use about 70 percent of this fleet. DDGS railcars are nearly all privately owned.

Flowability issues associated with shipping DDGS, based on the feed industr experience of using regular grain covered hoppers, have created expectations of a shorter lifespan for railcars used to ship DDGS. DDGS are also shipped in containers for export. The same flowability issues have started to affect availability of containers. DDGS transportation may be affected if feedlot operations move closer to the ethanol producing areas—more distillers’ grains would be sold wet, requiring less rail and more truck transportation to feedlots and decreasing availability of DDGS for export.

Truck Service
Corn for ethanol is most frequently delivered to plants by trucks, typically from corn farms within a 50-mile radius. The truckload requirements just for corn to ethanol—if trucks are assumed to carry 98 percent of the corn delivered to ethanol plants—are expected to increase from 2.3 million in 2006 to 4.7 million truckload equivalents by 2016. The demand for corn trucking increases substantially—to 5.9 and 7.8 million truckloads under scenarios 1 and 2, respectively (table, click to enlarge).

Standard gasoline tanker trucks (DOT MC306 Bulk Fuel Haulers) are used to ship ethanol from ethanol plants to the blending terminals. These trucks move an estimated 30 percent of ethanol. The current fleet size of the independently operated tank trucks is approximately 10,000. Many petroleum companies own their tanker truck fleet and are not included in the total.

Constraints to truck service include the availability of truck drivers (especially with HAZMAT certification), equipment shortages, and the differences in ethanol routes from the well-established and predictable petroleum routes—in part due to the rapid growth of new ethanol plant construction. In addition, overall truck freight is forecast to almost double from 2002 to 2020, while driver shortages are projected to reach 219,000 by 2015. In 2004, there were 1.3 million long-haul heavy-duty truck drivers.

Tank Barge Service
Barges move an estimated 10 percent of ethanol. The main terminals served by barge include Chicago, IL, New Orleans, LA, Houston, TX, and Albany, NY. Ethanol is typically shipped in 10,000–15,000 barrel tank barges. The number of ethanol plants located near a river facility, however, is relatively small. As the industry grows, the share moved by barge may increase. According to Informa Economics, 2,808 tank barges were in operation in 2006, up from 2,782 in 2005, and 2,777 in 2004.

Construction of a 16.6-million-gallon ethanol terminal on the Mississippi River at Sauget, IL, is expected to be completed by June 2008. The Army Corps of Engineers has approved construction of a 5th ethanol storage tank at this location to hold an additional 480,000 gallons by the third quarter of 2008. The terminal will be capable of loading 1.26-million-gallon tank barges as well as 95-car unit trains and trucks.

Potential Pipeline Developments
Pipelines are considered to be the safest and most cost-efficient mode of transportation. The ethanol industry, however, is fairly dispersed and significant infrastructure investments would still be necessary to consolidate sufficient quantities that could then be moved through pipelines.

No ethanol is currently shipped by pipeline due to its corrosive nature and ability to attract water. The pipeline industry, however, led by the Association of Oil Pipe Lines (AOPL) and American Petroleum Institute (API), is moving forward with an accelerated research program to address integrity issues related to shipping ethanol/gasoline blends (earlier post).

The project, managed by the Pipeline Research Council International (PRCI), will focus on an accelerated research effort due to be concluded in 6-12 months. It plans to identify those blends that:
  • Can be moved in existing pipelines with little to no modification to the system.
  • Can be moved with appreciable modifications.
  • Cannot be moved in existing systems but could be moved in specially designed new transmission or short-haul distribution systems
If and when pipelines are able to ship ethanol blends, it could alleviate potential strain on the rail system. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) regulate the pipeline industry.

USDA AMD: USDA releases report on implications of ethanol production on agricultural transportation - September 21, 2007.

USDA ADM: Expansion of U.S. Ethanol from the Agricultural Transportation Perspective [*.pdf] - Transportation and Marketing Programs Transportation Services Branch
- September 2007

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

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Schmack Biogas to build biogas plant coupled to ethanol facility, fed by residues

Germany's Schmack Biogas AG announces an interesting initiative: it will build a highly sophisticated biogas plant that will digest waste streams from a bioethanol production facility. In the coming weeks Schmack Biogas will start construction of the plant in Poland, which will be the country's largest biogas plant with a capacity of 2MW. The anaerobic digester will be built on behalf of Agrogaz, a Polish joint venture between Regensburg-based Aufwind Schmack GmbH Neue Energien and Polish energy provider Polenergia.

The Polish biogas plant will be engineered to tie in with an existing bioethanol plant which will supply residuals from bioethanol production as the main feedstock for the biogas production. In turn, the biogas plant will not only produce electricity but also feed its process heat back to the bioethanol plant. Dr. Karl Reinhard Kolmsee, Schmack Biogas AG's Managing Board member in charge of sales says this is a highly ecologically optimised cycle which makes excellent economic sense.

When ethanol is made from grains, its major byproduct is distillers’ dried grains (DDG, or in their original form, wet distillers grains: WDG) which has alternative, low value added uses as as animal feed (previous post) or as an organic fertilizer and herbicide (more here). Several researchers think DDG can be used for a range of more valuable products like biohydrogen or chemicals like polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) used for the production of biodegradable plastics (earlier post). Schmack Biogas sees WDG as an excellent feedstock for anaerobic digestion, provided production systems are highly integrated:
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Dr. Kolmsee adds that the construction of this technologically sophisticated plant marks the company's entry into another European market, thereby demonstrating the future potential and long-term viability of biogas and highlighting the continued strong demand on the part of energy providers and investors.

Schmack Biogas AG is a leading German supplier of biogas plants. Established in 1995, the company provides its services through two divisions, namely Planning and Construction and Plant Management and Service, and is one of the few full-service providers in the industry. Apart from technical support, the company focuses on comprehensive microbiological service.

Through its newly established subsidiary, Schmack Energie Holding the company now also operates its own plants and markets the biogas produced as well as the electricity and heat generated - mainly together with joint venture partners. To date, Schmack Biogas has built 201 plants with a combined nominal output of approx. 58 MW.

According to a recently published Energy Barometer on Biogas, the renewable fuel has a large potential in Europe and is growing rapidly amid increasing concerns about oil and gas prices and climate change. In 2006, around 5.35 million tonnes of oil equivalent (mtoe) was produced in the EU, an increase of 13.6% compared to 2005. The production of electricity from biogas grew by 28.9% over the same period. Germany remains European leader and noted a 55.9% growth in 2006 in electricity generated from the renewable gas.

Analysts, amongst them a founder of Schmack, have found that over the long term (2020-2030) the European biogas sector can replace all imports of natural gas from Russia (earlier post).

Biogas has seen a growing interest in the EU because of the fuel's excellent greenhouse gas emissions and energy balance (earlier post and here).

When the green gas is purified and upgraded as biomethane to natural gas quality, it can be used in the form of fuels for vehicles running on natural gas (CNG) (earlier post) or injected into the natural gas distribution network, when this is so permitted by national legislation (more here). Both applications are being undertaken in several EU member states. Use of the green gas in fuel cells is a recent development (more here).

Image: EUCO Titan® 640, a Schmack Biogas plant. Credit: Schmack Biogas AG.

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

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

Biopact: Study: biogas can replace all EU imports of Russian gas by 2020 - February 10, 2007

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GreatPoint Energy closes $100 million capital raise for gasification and CCS technology

GreatPoint Energy, Inc., a developer of catalytic gasification technology to convert coal, petroleum coke and biomass into clean synthetic natural gas while enabling the capture and sequestration of CO2, today announced the financial closing of a $100 million strategic equity round. The round was co-led by Sustainable Development Investments (SDI), a unit of Citi Alternative Investments (a division of Citi) and The Dow Chemical Company, and included the AES Corporation, Suncor Energy, Inc. and several financial firms.

GreatPoint Energy will use the funds to construct and operate a large-scale demonstration facility and soon thereafter will build, own and operate commercial synthetic natural gas manufacturing plants.

The development is important because GreatPoint Energy's technologies can be applied to lignocellulosic biomass to yield carbon-negative energy and fuels (more here). Other renewables like wind or solar are carbon-neutral and prevent greenhouse gas emissions from entering into the atmosphere in the future. Carbon-negative bioenergy however takes emissions from the past out of the atmosphere.

Moreover, GreatPoint Energy is the first comany to follow the logic of decentralised fuel production, dependent on the location of geosequestration sites instead of being tied to power plants (short discussion here); Biopact will discuss the flexibility of this concept as it applies to decentralised bioenergy+CCS technologies, at the upcoming Sparks & Flames Gas Storage & Trading Summit (more here).
We believe that this investment round validates our proprietary gasification process as the most cost-effective means of transforming widely abundant and low cost resources into the cleanest commercial fuel, natural gas, and furthers our position as the most innovative energy technology company in the industry. With natural gas increasingly in short supply and long term gas prices continuing to rise, GreatPoint Energy is well-positioned to competitively produce this clean resource domestically, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution on a scale larger than any other commercial energy option. - Andrew Perlman, President and CEO of GreatPoint Energy
GreatPoint Energy’s catalytic gasification technology converts abundant, low cost carbon feedstocks, such as coal, petroleum coke, and biomass, into pipeline quality natural gas. GreatPoint Energy’s plants combine steam and carbon under pressure and in the presence of its catalysts to make pure methane, known generally as natural gas. Natural gas is the cleanest of all commercial fossil fuels, provides roughly 25 percent of all U.S. energy needs, and consists primarily of hydrogen. Over the past five years, the price of natural gas in America has risen significantly as domestic resources are depleted and the nation becomes increasingly dependent on foreign imports.

As part of its proprietary process, GreatPoint Energy removes and captures the mercury, sulfur, carbon dioxide and other pollutants from the feedstock, to produce a pure stream of methane. GreatPoint Energy’s synthetic natural gas, called 'Bluegas', is as clean as natural gas and can be used directly in place of natural gas for all applications, including power generation, residential and commercial heating, and production of chemicals.

The Bluegas production process (schematic, click to enlarge) consists of a first step in which coal or biomass and the catalyst are fed into the methanation reactor. Inside the reactor, pressurized steam is injected to 'fluidize' the mixture and ensure constant contact between the catalyst and the carbon particles. In this environment, the catalyst facilitates multiple chemical reactions between the carbon and the steam on the surface of the coal or biomass. These reactions generate a mixture of predominately methane and CO2. The process:
  • Produces methane in a single step and in a single reactor into a pipeline grade product without the need for external water gas shift reactors or for external methanation reactors; it produces CO2 as a valuable sequestration-ready byproduct
  • Significantly reduces operating temperature with lower cost reactor components, lower maintenance costs and higher reliability, and eliminates costly high temperature cooling
  • Utilizes steam methanation and thus eliminates costly air separation plant
  • 65% overall efficiency, because of a thermally neutral reaction process without the need for an integrated power plant
GreatPoint Energy plans to construct Bluegas facilities in locations where the carbon dioxide it captures can be locally sequestered, and then transport its Bluegas product by existing natural gas pipelines to natural gas markets across the country:
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GreatPoint Energy’s leading technology can help address climate change in an efficient and affordable way. We are pleased to have co-led this round with Dow and believe that this company represents a positive advance in the utilization of coal by creating a pure and sequestration-ready stream of CO2 for use in applications such as enhanced oil recovery. - R. Andrew de Pass, Head of Citi’s Sustainable Development Investments group
The strategic financing round includes a range of companies that GreatPoint Energy expects to work closely with during the scale-up, development, construction and operation of large scale natural gas manufacturing facilities. In addition to Dow, both the AES Corporation, one of the premier global power companies, and Suncor Energy Inc., a major North American energy producer and marketer and a world leader in synthetic fuel production from oil sands, participated in the round. Their representatives will each assume a position on GreatPoint Energy’s Board of Directors.

According to New Energy Finance, GreatPoint Energy’s capital raise represents the largest Series C financing to date, and one of the largest overall clean tech venture deals ever completed.

Dow is a diversified chemical company that harnesses the power of innovation, science and technology to constantly improve what is essential to human progress.

Sustainable Development Investments (SDI) is a private equity investment unit of Citi Alternative Investments (CAI) focused on renewable energy, alternative energy, clean technologies, water management, waste management, energy efficiency and environmental credits investments.

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

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

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CIAT: cassava ethanol could benefit small farmers in South East Asia

When urbanites in Thailand hear about 'mansampalang', 'manioc' or 'tapioca' they usually think of poor Isaan farmers who are unable to grow anything better on their parched sandy soil. But Reinhardt Howeler, scientist at the Cassava Office for Asia of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), thinks those poor farmers may not be so poor in the future thanks to the 'Green Cassava Revolution' that is currently sweeping most Southeast Asian countries. With a combined effort from the science and policy community, cassava can bring a rural renaissance and benefit the poorest.

Howeler, working for the CIAT, a leading 'Green Revolution' institution supported by the CGIAR, says that in Thailand, cassava production expanded rapidly in the 1970s and 1980s in response to an ever-increasing demand for cassava pellets used as an energy source for animal feed in Western Europe. The country's cassava production area, initially located in southern Thailand, first moved to the eastern seaboard provinces of Chon Buri and Rayong during the late 1970s, and in the 1980s expanded greatly in the Northeast.

During the late 1980s, Thailand's cassava-production area covered 10 million rai (1.6 m ha/3.9m acres). Almost all of this was destined for the lucrative export market for cassava pellets in Europe. However, changes in the EU's agricultural policies in 1993 lowered the support price of their own grain crops, and made Thailand's cassava pellets no longer competitive as a cheap source of energy in animal-feed rations. Thus, the amount of cassava pellets Thailand exported to the EU began to drop precipitously year after year and is now less than 400,000 tonnes.

Foreseeing the problem of overproduction, the Thai government tried to decrease the cassava-growing area by encouraging farmers to plant other crops, however, none of these were as well adapted to the climatic conditions in the Northeast as cassava. As a result, farmers continued to grow cassava, albeit in a much reduced area of about 6.2 million rai (1m ha/2.4m acres). But while the area was reduced, cassava yields started to increase substantially from about 2.24 tonnes per rai (14t/ha, 5.6t/acre) in 1995 to 3.55 tonnes per rai (22t/ha, 9t/acre) in 2006/2007. The result was that total cassava production decreased only marginally from a peak of 24 million tonnes in 1989 to about 16 million tonnes in 1998/1999 and back up to 25 million tonnes in 2006/2007.

So, what does Thailand do with 25 million tonnes of cassava roots?

First, the Thai cassava industry quickly changed from making mainly cassava pellets for export to making more and more cassava starch for both the domestic and export markets. Currently the cassava starch and modified starch industry absorbs over 50 per cent of all cassava roots produced in the country, as compared to 36 per cent in 1991. Secondly, Chinese neighbours to the north have also built more and more starch factories, to the point that domestic production could not keep up with demand. Thus, in 2001, they started importing dry cassava chips from Thailand, first in very modest amounts, but increasing every year to four million tonnes in 2006.

Finally, in 2000, Thailand was one of the first countries in Asia to initiate a 'gasohol' or E10 programme, with the aim of replacing 10 per cent of normal gasoline with fuel-ethanol, which is a renewable energy source made from locally produced sugarcane (or molasses) or cassava. When the biofuel is made from cassava, it shows a strong energy balance (previous post):
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There are several advantages to the use of 'gasohol' over normal gasoline:
  1. It reduces the consumption of imported oil and thus saves foreign exchange and increases the country's energy security. (According to Dr Niphon Poapongsakorn, dean of Economics at Thammasat University in Thailand, cassava-based ethanol is competitive when oil is above $40 per barrel. See our 'Quicknotes' for September 14, 2007.)
  2. Ethanol is an octane booster that can replace the imported chemical additive MTBE.
  3. Ethanol combustion in cars pollutes the air less and produces less CO2 than normal gasoline, thus reducing global warming.
  4. Ethanol is made from renewable and locally produced crops, thus helping Thai farmers increase their sales and improve their income. The rapid increase in the demand for cassava roots has already resulted in the doubling of the price of fresh roots, dry chips and starch as compared to 2003.
  5. Increased incomes for the rural poor allow them to strengthen their food security, a problem mainly resulting from a lack of income, not from a lack of natural resources or physical food scarcity
Presently there is only one ethanol factory in the country using cassava as its raw material and producing about 80,000 litres per day. However, two additional factories are ready to start operation and another 12 factories should be completed by the end of 2008, producing a total of 3.4 million litres of ethanol per day. This will require an additional six million tonnes of fresh roots, on top of the 25 million tonnes currently being produced. Since the cassava growing area of about seven million rai cannot increase substantially due to competition from other crops, the increased supply can only be met through increases in yield, from the current 3.5 tonnes per rai to about 4.5 tonnes per rai in the next couple of years. How can this be achieved?

Thailand currently has the second highest cassava yield after India and nearly double the average yield in the world. The rapid increase in the country's cassava yield was achieved through the hard work and excellent collaboration among the Agriculture Department, the Agriculture Extension Department and Kasetsart University as well as with the private processing and trading sector and the Thai Tapioca Development Institute.

So what does the future hold for cassava in Asia? In many countries the increasing demand for cassava roots can only be satisfied through marked increases in yield.

This will require renewed efforts in breeding, agronomy, biotechnology and improvements in processing technologies, coupled with a dynamic and effective extension programme using a farmer participatory approach. Even though cassava is the third most important food crop in Southeast Asia after rice and maize, it has always been considered as an "orphan crop", with little funding allocated for research of the crop.

While there are thousands of researchers all over the world working on important crops like rice, maize, soybean, oil palm and rubber, there are only a few dozen researchers working on cassava. Unless this situation improves and the crop receives adequate funding and research attention, it will remain an "orphan crop", only grown by the poorest farmers and eaten by the poorest people, except that the increased demand for fuel-ethanol, if not met through rapid increases in production, will push up the price until the poor will no longer be able to afford it.

Reinhardt Howeler is a scientist from the Cassava Office for Asia of the International Center for Tropical (Agriculture), an international agricultural research centre that engages in cassava research and development, and supported by the CGIAR, a strategic alliance of members, partners and international agricultural centers that mobilizes science to benefit the poor. CGIAR is the science body that led the Green Revolution.

The Nation: Cassava and biofuel: the new magic - September 24, 2007.

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

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Sunday, September 23, 2007

A look at Växjö, Europe's greenest city

Earlier this year, the city of Växjö in southern Sweden won the Sustainable Energy Europe Award 2007, for being the greenest community in the EU. Växjö and its 80,000 inhabitants set the standard for Sweden, which has vowed to become a 'zero oil' country by 2025, and for the rest of the world.

The city won the prize offered by the European Commission's DG for Energy & Transport for its relentless efforts in slashing carbon dioxide emissions, for its intelligent energy management and for its communal approach to building a more sustainable environment. More than 50% of Växjö's energy's supplies are now covered by renewables. Because of this, the city suceeded in bringing down greenhouse gas emissions by 30% per capita between 1993 and 2006. This means that every citizen currently contributes to climate change with a mere 3,232kg of CO2 emissions per year.

This level is far below the global average. US citizens emit around 20 tonnes per year, the EU's per capita emissions average 10 tonnes, and China's roughly 5 tonnes. Växjö citizens now have a carbon footprint equal to that found in many developing countries, while at the same time enjoying very high living standards. Proof that low carbon living does not compromise a modern lifestyle. In fact, Växjö has received an economic boost because of its collectively organised green efforts.

Back in 1996, Växjö decided that it would become a completely fossil fuel free city (an overview of the strategy *.pdf). The goal is now to reduce per capita emissions further by 50% by 2010 and by 70% in 2025, compared to 1993.

Växjö's success is due to a comprehensive set of efforts that impact all aspects of life in the city: from teaching kids the basics of sustainable living to applying advanced renewable energy technologies. On the technological front, the biggest emission reductions were achieved because of the big share of biomass in the community's energy mix. In the heating sector, nearly 90% of energy comes from renewable biomass, with 14,000 appartments, 1,700 houses, the local hospital and university, the tourist infrastructure (hotels) and companies all connected to the efficient district heating grid. Biomass is also used for the production of electricy and cooling, in integrated 'trigeneration' power plants.

The reliance on biofuels has been beneficial for Växjö's economy, both for the municipality as well as for individual consumers. To help local politicians implement carbon-sensitive decisions and policies, Växjö initiated an 'ecobudget', which carefully screens the lifecycle effects and costs of all the natural resources locally used. The system is stringent but cuts energy waste. The 'ecobudget' is now proving that considerable energy and financial savings can be made with a good analysis of how the city's natural resources interact.

Biomass gasification plant for the production of bio-DME and biohydrogen, Växjö, Sweden.
Most of the remaining emissions in the city come from transportation, but here too a decrease in emissions has been achieved. This reduction is a result of a bigger share of flex-fuel vehicles and more biofuel blended in petrol and diesel. The University of Växjö also leads an international biomass-to-liquids program called Chrisgas to develop large scale bio-hydrogen and dimethyl-ether (DME) production from biomass. Bio-DME, a clean burning synthetic biofuel, can be obtained from the gasification of biomass, with the syngas liquefied via Fischer-Tropsch synthesis; it is an alternative to diesel fuel. Experts from eight EU member states participate in the project, funded by the Swedish Energy Agency and the EU.

The Fossil Fuel Free Växjö programme incorporates a range of other activities and technologies, such as as smaller scale biomass district heating, district cooling, biomass boilers for households, energy efficient street lightning, energy efficient building/construction (ecobuildings that reduce energy consumption by 30%), solar panels, encouraging the use of public transport and bicycles (comfortable and safe bicycle paths have been built) and biogas production for power and transport fuels:
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The Fossil Fuel Free program is developed in co-operation between the city administration and a lot of stake holders, local enterprises, Växjö University, etc. All these initaitives together with announced national incentives is estimated to give 50% reduction of CO2 emissions by 2010 which means that the goal will be met.

In the Sustainable Community Category, the selection committee of the Sustainable Energy Europe award chose Fossil Fuel Free Växjö, Sweden, because:
  • Fossil Fuel Free Växjö is an overall community programme that takes an integrated and cooperative approach to achieving its objectives.
  • It involves a wide array of integrated activities aimed at generating more energy and heat from renewable energy sources and technology.
  • It also focuses on improving energy efficiency in all areas, on conservation and on achieving sustainable patterns of mobility.
Växjö is an example to be followed. With its long standing political commitment to making its community fossil free it is demonstrating to all of us that its efforts are paying off and it is already half way to achieving its objective. The Municipality of Växjö has for a long time successfully worked with environmental issues and the political agreement and involvement in this issue has given the Local Agenda 21-work a prominent place.

All municipal departments and companies are responsible for their work to get a sustainable development. The municipality of Växjö is not able to solve the world’s environmental problems on its own, but thinks we can all participate and share the responsibility. What we do locally also has a global impact.

In the Environmental Programme for the City of Växjö you can read about the three areas in which community interventions are being made: 'Living Life', 'Our Nature' and 'Fossil Fuel Free Växjö', all aimed at protecting the environment and at mitigating climate change.

You can also find more about Fossil Fuel Free Växjö and how a region in Japan is taking advantage of the Swedish city's experience, here: Bioenergy Småland - Expo Växjö.

City of Växjö: Climate Strategy [*.pdf].

City of Växjö: Fossil Fuel Free [*.pdf]

City of Växjö: Environmental Programme [*.pdf].

University of Växjö: Chrisgas project.

Växjö Energi AB: A Biomass CHP in Växjö, Sweden, with recirculation of residual wood ash [*.pdf].

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France's 'Biomasse 2' plan attracts 56 candidates to build efficient CHP plants

In December 2006, the French Ministry for the Environment and Sustainable Development launched the 'Biomasse 2' plan, which aims to build highly efficient biomass power plants with a combined capacity of 300MW. The ministry now announces [*French] it has received 56 offers from candidate companies and consortia, worth a combined 700MW.

Candidates for the implementation of the national 'Biomasse 2' plan must demonstrate their capacity to generate both heat and power (CHP) from waste biomass obtained from agriculture and forestry, with an overall systems efficiency of at least 50%. Most traditional fossil fuel-fired power plants operate well below this threshold.

The plan was launched as a strategy to increase the use of biomass in France so that the country can achieve its European obligations, which call for a 20% share of renewables in the total energy portfolio of all EU member states by 2020. 'Biomasse 2' is also aimed at structuring and strengthening the biomass supply chain. Candidates for the project had to present a detailed overview showing that biomass supplies do not adversely impact other markets for the resource.

France is the world's leading nuclear energy producer, generating 75% of its domestic needs and exporting the rest to neighbors. But the country has a considerable potential for the production of biomass energy from both its large agricultural and forestry sectors. This resource will be used to augment domestic electricity supplies, allowing for a further growth in net exports of 'climate-neutral' nuclear energy:
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The French Energy Regulation Committee will now examine the offers after which the Ministry for the Environment and Sustainable Development will select the winning candidates.

The selected projects will then be granted an electricity supply contract to deliver energy to state-owned Electricité de France or to another energy distributer, depending on the case.

The winning companies will be granted regulatory approval so that the plants can come online before January 2010. The 'Biomasse 2' plan is part of a larger national renewable energy strategy that focuses on decentralised production and on a diversification of the energy portfolio.

Ministère de l'Écologie, du Développement et de l'Aménagement durables: Jean-Louis BORLOO, ministre d'État, ministre de l'Écologie, du Développement et de l'Aménagement durables se réjouit du succès de l'appel d'offres pour la construction de centrales électriques alimentées à partir de biomasse - September 2007.

Enerzine: Biomasse : 56 projets à l'étude - September 5, 2007.

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