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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, October 06, 2007

Biomass pellets revolution in Austria: 46% less costly than heating oil; most efficient way for households to reduce carbon footprint

Biomass pellets are taking Austria by storm, as they are by far the cheapest energy source on the heating market and reduce CO2 emissions more efficiently than any other alternative. Credit: proPellets Austria.

As part of Austria's Energy Efficiency Day [*German], Austrians enjoy the opportunity to learn about renewables and climate change. One form of energy has taken absolute center stage because it represents a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels, allows large carbon reductions and has become the most competitive of all renewables: biomass pellets. In Austria, the biofuel used for heating is currently a whopping 46 per cent less costly than heating oil and 30% less costly than natural gas - which explains its soaring popularity. Moreover, a recent study comparing strategies with which households can reduce their carbon footprint, shows biomass is the least costly and most efficient way of all.

Austria's demand for biomass pellets, made from forestry residues and wood, stands at 400,000 tonnes so far this year. But production has risen to 750,000 tonnes in 2007. Next year, producers are expected to manufacture more than 1 million tonnes. This would meet rapidly rising demand, and leave room for exports. After a sharp increase at the beginning of the year, prices have stabilized since April and are currently almost half those of heating oil on an energy equivalent basis (graph, click to enlarge).

For the average Austrian household, this makes a very significant difference. The yearly heating bill (24,000 kWh per year) costs around €2000 when heating oil is used. Heating with natural gas will cost a family around €1800 per year. With biomass pellets the bill can be reduced to €1100. Heat obtained from pellets thus costs around 3,8 eurocent/kWh, against 6 eurocent/kWh for gas and 6,7 eurocent/kWh for heating oil.

No wonder last year in Austria three times more biomass systems were installed than heating oil systems. In 2006, some 21,300 small (100kW) pellet heating boilers were built, which have saved the country some 80 million liters of heating oil and 80 million cubic meters of natural gas. In the same year, some 777 medium scale (100-1000kW) systems were installed, a 19% increase compared to 2005.

According to Christian Rakos, director of proPellets Austria, the sector's umbrella organisation, the advantages of biomass pellets are obvious: they are carbon-neutral, can be used in modern boiler systems as a ready alternative for heating oil and gas, and their price is completely independent of fossil fuel prices, which guarantees stability, an important advantage for households.

Strongest weapon against emissions
The Salzburger Institute for Urbanisation and Housing (SIR) released a study for the Energy Efficiency Day which showed biomass pellets offer households the most efficient way of reducing their carbon footprint. By switching from a heating oil system to a pellet heating system, the average Austrian household can avoid up to 10,000 kilograms of CO2 emissions. This is more than the emission reduction potential of all other renewables and efficiency measures.

Using highly efficient insulation materials throughout the home, which would cost on average 4 times more than a biomass heating system, would only offer CO2 savings of around 3300kg.

Geothermal heating systems are an attractive alternative to heating oil, but they too perform weakly compared to biomass. This is due, the SIR says, to their reliance on relatively large amounts of electricity - which, in Austria's electricity mix, is obtained mostly from fossil sources:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Moreover geothermal can only be used for floor and wall heating systems. But most houses in Austria use central heating systems that give off their heat via radiators. Geothermal systems can not deliver the high initial temperatures needed to operate radiators. Finally, geothermal heat pumps have the disadvantage of requiring very costly boreholes.

Other strategies with which households can reduce their carbon footprint include a switch of all lighting systems to efficient lamps. This has a potential for saving only around 100 to 300 kg of CO2 per year.

In short, biomass pellets for heating are unsurpassed in their capacity to reduce household emissions in a cost-effective manner.

Energy security

Biomass pellets were promoted at the Energy Efficiency Day for another reason. The latest study by the International Energy Agency (July) was highlighted, as it offered a grim outlook of both oil and gas price evolutions. Biomass already being much less costly than heating oil, its prospects become even brighter in light of this energy outlook. The study warns for a possible oil and gas crisis, because output in producing countries is growing much less than expected.

Biomass production is fully independent of oil and gas prices. Austria has the capacity to utilize its vast forestry resources in a sustainable manner and can meet increasing demand with ease. Imports of pellets can supply the country at a later time. In this sense, the biomass sector - which relies on fuels that can be traded physically - plays a key role in providing energy security not only to states, but to the average Austrian household.

Translated by Jonas Van Den Berg & Laurens Rademakers for Biopact.

Picture & graph credit: proPellets Austria.

Salzburger Nachrichten: Pellets erweisen sich als sehr kostengünstig und verlässlich - October 6, 2007.

Salzburger Nachrichten: Holzpellets sind aktuell um 46 Prozent günstiger als Heizöl - October 6, 2007.

Salzburger Nachrichten: Tag der Energie-Effizienz - October 6, 2007.

ProPellets Austria
, the umbrella of the biomass pellet sector.

Salzburger Institut für Raumordnung & Wohnen - SIR.

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US DOE announces final rule for loan guarantee scheme for advanced energy technology projects - biomass tops list of selected projects

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announces it has issued the final regulations for the loan guarantee program authorized by Title XVII of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPAct). DOE’s action paves the way for federal support of clean energy projects using innovative technologies and will spur further investment in these advanced energy technologies. The final rule is the culmination of a long public rulemaking process.

DOE's announcements build on months of action to implement its loan guarantee program. In August 2006, DOE issued a solicitation inviting pre–applications for up to $2 billion in loan guarantees. By the December 31, 2006 deadline for this solicitation, DOE received 143 pre–applications requesting more than $27 billion in loan guarantee protection (for project costs estimated at more than $51 billion)

Out of these 143, DOE invited 16 project sponsors who submitted pre-applications last Fall, to submit full applications for the loan guarantees. These projects include advanced technologies involving the uses of biomass (6 projects), fossil energy (3), solar (2), industrial energy efficiency (2), electricity delivery and energy reliability (1), hydrogen (1), and alternative fuel vehicles (1). Projects supported by loan guarantees will help fulfill the goal of reducing America's reliance on imported sources of energy by diversifying its energy mix and increasing energy efficiency.

The following is a summary of the 16 projects and sponsors invited to submit full applications.

Advanced biomass projects:
  • Alico, Inc.: Florida is the proposed location for this project, which plans a first-of-a-kind commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant that would use multiple feedstocks and produce multiple products.
  • Blue Fire Ethanol, Inc.: California is the proposed location for this project, which plans to build a commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant using an array of low-cost feedstocks.
  • Choren USA: Southeastern, U.S. is the proposed location for this project, which plans to construct an industrial-scale biomass gasification facility for clean synthetic diesel fuels in the United States.
  • Endicott Biofuels, LLC: Virginia is the proposed location for this project, which plans to construct a second generation biodiesel and bio-derived products plant that would feature a high level of feedstock flexibility allowing for the production of a broad range of biodiesel fuels.
  • Iogen Biorefinery Partners, LLC: Idaho is the proposed location for this project, which plans to build a biorefinery to produce ethanol from a wide range of cellulosic feedstocks and to produce other byproducts of value to several industries.
  • Voyager Ethanol, LLC: Iowa is the proposed location for this project, which plans to build a cellulosic ethanol plant that can accommodate multiple feedstocks in the production of ethanol and higher value byproducts.
Advanced solar energy projects:
  • Luz II: Nevada is the proposed location for this project, which plans to develop a highly efficient large-scale power project using concentrated solar-thermal technology.
  • Solyndra, Inc.: California is the proposed location for this project, which plans to manufacture highly efficient thin-film photovoltaic modules.
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Advanced hydrogen project:
  • Bridgeport Fuel Cell Park, LLC: Connecticut is the proposed location for this project, which plans to build the largest single-site installation of fuel cells in the world.
Industrial energy efficiency projects:
  • GR Silicate Nano Fibers and Carbonates: Washington is the proposed location for this project, which plans a highly energy efficient process for manufacturing paper.
  • Sage Electrochromics: Electrochromic Window Manufacturing Project: Minnesota is the proposed location for this project, which plans to develop a manufacturing facility that would produce energy-efficient windows for the commercial and residential building sectors.
Electricity delivery and energy reliability project:
  • Beacon Power: Massachusetts is the proposed location for this project, which plans to develop a system that will enhance peak performance of electric generation over the power grid.
Alternative fuel vehicle project:
  • Tesla Motors: New Mexico is the proposed location for this project, which plans to build a battery-electric powered vehicle with enhanced range that can be produced for the consumer market.
Advanced fossil energy project:
  • Mesaba Energy Project (MEP-I, LLC): Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) Plant: Minnesota is the proposed location for this project, which plans to build a state-of-the-art IGCC plant that would allot space in its design for CO2 capture and storage. This project would allow for potential CO2 capture in the future, would provide state-of-the-art emission controls far exceeding the emission level requirements specified in Section 1703 of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and would help reduce cost and increase fuel flexibility of IGCC technology.
  • Mississippi Power Company: IGCC Plant: Mississippi is the proposed location for this project, which plans to build an IGCC plant that would commercialize a first-of-its-kind application. This project would allow for potential CO2 capture in the future, would provide state-of-the-art emission controls far exceeding the emission level requirements specified in Section 1703 of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and would help reduce cost and increase fuel flexibility of IGCC technology.
  • TX Energy, LLC: Coal to Synthetic Gas IGCC Plant: Texas is the proposed location for this project, which plans to commercialize a new polygeneration gasification facility that can isolate a significant concentrated stream of CO2 while producing large amounts of power and methanol.
Loan guarantees aim to stimulate investment and commercialization of clean energy technologies to reduce our Nation’s reliance on foreign sources of energy. Finalizing this regulation for the Department’s Loan Guarantee program puts Americans one step closer to being able to use new and novel sources of energy on a mass scale to reduce emissions and allow for vigorous economic growth and increased energy security. - U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman
The final regulation provides that the Department may issue guarantees for up to 100% of the amount of a loan, subject to the EPAct limitation that DOE may not guarantee a debt instrument for more than 80% of the total cost of an eligible project. Under the final rule, if DOE issues a guarantee for 100% of a debt instrument, the loan must be issued and funded by the Treasury Department’s Federal Financing Bank. While Congress must provide authority in an appropriations act for the loan guarantees that the Department will issue, DOE’s intent is to only issue loan guarantees if borrowers and project sponsors pay the “credit subsidy cost” for any loan guarantee they receive. Therefore, DOE does not plan to use taxpayer funds to pay for the credit subsidy costs of these loan guarantees.

The final regulation also provides for the following:
  • The Title XVII loan guarantee program will be implemented through a series of solicitations. The solicitations may target specific technology areas or be general;
  • Eligible projects must employ new or significantly improved technologies that avoid, reduce or sequester air pollutants or anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases as compared to commercial technologies in service in the United States at the time the loan guarantee agreement is executed;
  • The guaranteed portion of a partially guaranteed loan may be separated from or "stripped" from the non-guaranteed portion, except in cases where the guarantee exceeds 90 % of the loan amount;
  • In the event of a loan default, DOE will have a superior lien on all project assets pledged as collateral for the guaranteed loan; however, the final rule allows for the possibility in a default situation that lenders and holders of the non-guaranteed debt could share proportionately with the Department in proceeds from the sale of project assets pledged as collateral. A pari passu structure will not be permitted to override the Department’s superior right to project assets;
  • The Secretary of Energy must determine that there is a “reasonable prospect” of repayment of the guaranteed debt before a loan guarantee may be issued;
  • DOE must charge and collect fees sufficient to cover applicable administrative expenses;
  • Borrower–paid Credit Subsidy Costs and administrative fees paid to DOE may not be included within total project costs for the purposes of determining the amount of guarantees that DOE can issue for a project;
  • A project’s receipt of other governmental assistance does not disqualify a project from receiving a Title XVII loan guarantee; however, when evaluating a project’s application for a Title XVII loan guarantee, DOE will consider the extent to which a project will receive other governmental assistance, (e.g., grants, tax credits, other loan guarantees);
  • The borrower must have a significant equity stake in a project, and proceeds from guaranteed or non-guaranteed debt, and the value of government grants and other assistance, will not be counted as “equity.”
The final rule is the culmination of a public rulemaking process, which began with a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking published May 16, 2007. DOE reviewed and carefully considered all comments it received on the proposed rule.

Congress currently is considering the Department’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2008 Budget request for $9 billion in loan guarantee authority and $8.4 million to run the Loan Guarantee office. Both of these actions are important for the successful execution of this program. DOE’s issuance of additional loan guarantee program solicitations is dependent on receiving adequate additional authorization from the Congress and funding for the operation of its Loan Guarantee program office.

DOE's nnouncements build on months of action by DOE to implement its loan guarantee program. In August 2006, DOE issued a solicitation inviting pre–applications for up to $2 billion in loan guarantees. By the December 31, 2006 deadline for this solicitation, DOE received 143 pre–applications requesting more than $27 billion in loan guarantee protection (for project costs estimated at more than $51 billion).

The 16 pre-applicants invited to submit full loan guarantee applications for review must inform DOE by October 30, 2007 if they plan to submit a full application. The applications received will undergo disciplined and rigorous reviews, necessary to take proper account of the potential risks of a project. The full application review will be subject to the final regulations issued today. The decision to issue loan guarantees will depend on the merits and benefits of particular project proposals and their compliance with statutory and regulatory requirements. The pre-applicants not selected to submit full applications from this solicitation can reapply for future solicitations, for which their project is eligible.

Following funding and authorization for the program in February 2007, DOE has established a Credit Review Board to make recommendations to the Secretary of Energy on loan guarantees; named an office director and technical and financial experts to work in the Loan Guarantee program office; and developed guidelines for the financial and technical review of loan guarantee applications.

U.S. Department of Energy: DOE Announces Final Rule for Loan Guarantee Program - October 4, 2007.

U.S. Department of Energy: Final Rule - Loan Guarantees for Projects that Employ Innovative Technologies [*.pdf].

U.S. Department of Energy: Loan Guarantee Program website.

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Centre for European Economic Research survey: experts see rising prices for all energy commodities over the next five years

A great majority of experts questioned in the course of the authoritative ZEW Energy Barometer [*.pdf/German] compiled by the Centre for European Economic Research (ZEW) expect rising prices for all energy commodities - electricity, natural gas, crude oil and coal - for industrial clients over the next five years. This means bio-based alternatives, capable of covering all commodity categories, are likely to become more attractive.

An overwhelming majory of the more than 200 leading experts questioned [*.German] by the ZEW expect energy prices to rise in the long run (graph, click to enlarge).
  • Electricity: 84% think that prices for electricity will increase over the next five years. About 13% believe that prices will stay at their current level and just 3% forecast prices to fall.
  • Natural gas: approximately 84% of those questioned think that prices for natural gas will increase; a minority of 9% believes that prices will stop rising and remain stagnant. The percentage of experts who forecast prices to fall in the long run is even smaller at about 7%.
  • Oil: 82% expect prices for oil to keep rising over the coming five years; a small minority of 11% believes prices may stagnate; a fall in oil prices is predicted by 7% of the experts.
  • Coal: 65% of experts expect rising prices, 30% believe that by the year 2012 the coal price could be at a similar record level as that of 2007 (earlier post), and 5% think coal prices could fall below this year's level.
Even though the ZEW Energy Barometer is seen as authoritative, caution is urged, especially when it comes to short-term prognoses. Half a year ago, a majority of experts had predicted energy prices to fall considerably, but the opposite was true:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

In the course of the current survey just 49% of experts think that electricity prices will stagnate over the next six months (in the first half of 2007 about 57% thought so). Just 2% expect prices to fall (as compared to 6% in the first half of 2007). On the other hand, 49% now believe that electricity prices will increase over the six months to come.

Experts' view on the short-term development of oil and gas prices is also far more critical than six months ago. Thus, a narrow majority expects stagnating prices (about 47% for oil and 50% for natural gas). Approximately 45% of experts, however, think that oil prices will increase and 40% believe so with regard to natural gas. About two thirds of experts predict coal prices to remain constant, about 30% believe that they will rise and just 3% forecast coal prices to fall in the next six months.

The ZEW Energy Barometer is compiled twice a year based on a survey conducted among 200 energy experts from both the scientific as the economic sectors (utilities, traders, service companies, think tanks, analysts) who are questioned as to their expectations about market developments over both the short (6 months) and long term (5 years).

The ZEW (Zentrum für Europäische Wirtschaftsforzung) is a leading European economic research institute. It works in the field of user-related empirical economic research. In this context it particularly distinguished itself nationally and internationally by analysing internationally comparative issues in the European context and by compiling scientifically important data bases. The ZEW is a non-profit economic research institute associated with the University of Mannheim and supported by the government of the federal state of Baden-Württemberg.

The ZEW is a member of the "Leibniz-Gemeinschaft", one of Germany's largest scientific organisations comprised of 84 non-university research institutes and service facilities.

Zentrum für Europäische Wirtschaftsforschung, Mannheim: Schwerpunkt Energiemarkt - September 2007.

Zentrum für Europäische Wirtschaftsforschung, Mannheim: ZEW-Energiemarktbarometer - Experten erwarten keine Entspannung bei Energiepreisen - October 2007.

Biopact: Coal prices hit records too - time for biomass? - October 03, 2007

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Friday, October 05, 2007

POET receives $80 million grant for cellulosic ethanol project

POET and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announce that they have signed a cooperative agreement for a commercial cellulosic ethanol project in Emmetsburg, Iowa. The agreement finalizes the first phase of a DOE award that was announced in February and will govern all aspects of the project leading up to construction. With the agreement in place, POET will move forward on project preliminary design and engineering, environmental engineering, biomass collection and other activities.

According to the cooperative agreement, phase one of the project will last approximately 20 months. A subsequent phase two agreement will then be negotiated to cover construction which is expected to take two years. Following construction, facility operation is expected to begin in 2011.

Along with five other companies, POET was selected in February by the DOE to negotiate a joint funding relationship to construct a commercial cellulosic ethanol production facility. POET's award is up to $80 million and can�t exceed 40 percent of the project's total cost.

Project Liberty, POET's cellulosic project, will convert an existing 50 million gallon per year (mgpy) dry-mill ethanol plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa into an integrated corn-to-ethanol and cellulose-to-ethanol biorefinery. Once complete, the facility will produce 125 million gallons per year and show the following efficiency increases:
  • delivering 11 percent more ethanol from a bushel of corn
  • reaping 27 percent more ethanol per acre of corn
  • reducing natural gas consumption in the plant by 83 percent
  • reducing water consumption by 24 percent
Twenty-five percent of the output will be from cellulosic corn fiber and corn cobs. Once the transformation is complete, the facility will also produce corn germ meal and corn oil, as well as 80,000 tons of Dakota Gold Corn Germ Dehydrated and 100,000 tons of Dakota Gold HP (a high protein distillers grain feed product) annually as animal feed co-products.

The bioconversion process to be used at the cellulosic ethanol plant draws on two technologies:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

  1. 'BFRAC', an advanced corn fractionation process which separates the corn into three fractions including fiber, germ and endosperm. The endosperm is then fermented to create ethanol while the remaining fractions are converted into new value-added co-products, including POET's trademarked Dakota Gold HP, trademarked Dakota Bran cake, corn germ meal and corn oil. In addition to these high value co-products, the process also results in increased plant throughput and decreased energy consumption.
  2. 'BPX', a patent-pending raw starch hydrolysis process which converts starch to sugar, which then ferments to ethanol without heat. The BPX process not only reduces energy costs, but also releases additional starch content for conversion to ethanol, increases protein content and quality of co-products, increases co-product flowability, potentially increases plant throughput and significantly decreases plant emissions.
In June, POET announced that Jim Sturdevant, a 22-year veteran of the US Geological Survey, will serve as director of the project and that they had successfully produced cellulosic ethanol from corn cobs. POET has purchased additional land adjacent to their Emmetsburg production facility in order to accommodate construction of the cellulosic facility.

POET, the largest dry mill ethanol producer in the United States, is an established player in the biorefining industry through project development, design and construction, research and development, plant management, and marketing. Formerly known as Broin, the 20-year old company currently operates 21 production facilities in the United States with six more in construction or in the midst of expansion. The company produces and markets more than 1.1 billion gallons of ethanol annually.

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World Bank to provide $5 million for biogas plants in rural Nepal

The World Bank has agreed to provide $5 million in assistance to co-finance the setting up of 37,000 biogas plants in rural areas of Nepal. The World Bank administered Global Partnership on Output Based Aid (GPOBA) has signed a grant agreement with the Nepalese government under the fourth phase of the Biogas Support Program (BSP-IV). The Project will be implemented by the Alternate Energy Promotion Center (AEPC). The grant is co-funded by the United Kingdom 's Department for International Development (DFID).

The project aims to replace traditional energy sources used by the rural population, such as fire wood and kerosene, with modern biogas plants. Biogas digesters use anaerobic decomposition of organic material to produce a methane-rich which can be used for cooking and light. GPOBA’s grant will sponsor new biogas plants ranging in capacity from 4m3 to 10m3. Even the smallest plants with a 4m3 capacity produce enough gas to run a cooking stove for nearly 2.5 hours daily.

Switching to biogas has multiple social, economic and environmental advantages:
  • use of the biofuel reduces carbon emissions
  • it decreases the pressures leading to deforestation by relying on household and farm waste instead
  • decreases the frequency of respiratory infections that result from burning sooty fuels in poorly ventilated households - a killer in the kitchen claiming approximately 2 million lives each year (earlier post)
  • in the particular context of rural Nepal, the Community Development Carbon Fund estimates that families will save approximately three hours of labor per day from the switch from gathering fuel wood to biogas - quite an impressive change in the life of these people
  • considerable financial savings occur from not purchasing fuels like kerosene
  • biogas production yields an organic fertilizer; families save by not spending on synthetic fertilizer
Women and girls, who are traditionally responsible for running the household, colleting firewood and cooking, will be among the project's primary beneficiaries. Furthermore, access to biogas will enable families to use gas lanterns after sunset to provide light for children's studies or other household activities:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The Biogas Support Program was started in 1992 by the Netherlands Development Organisation (SNV) together with the Government of Nepal to promote environmentally friendly and affordable energy to remote rural areas. The project has also received substantial funding from KfW. Since 2006, the BSP-IV is benefiting from funding form the World Bank's Community Development Carbon Fund in exchange for reductions of emissions of greenhouse gases.

Since 1992 the Biogas Support Program has helped to install 150,000 biogas plants in rural Nepal. The local non-governmental organisation Biogas Sector Partnership – Nepal (BSP-N) is serving as project implementing agency.

The Global Partnership on Output-Based Aid (GPOBA) is a multi-donor trust fund established in 2003 to develop output based aid (OBA) approaches across a variety of sectors including infrastructure, health and education. OBA subsidies are performance based and are designed to create incentives for efficiency and the long term success of development projects. GPOBA’s current donors are DFID, IFC, the Directorate-General for International Cooperation of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs (DGIS) and AusAid of Australia.

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Philippines in cooperation agreement with India's Praj Industries to develop biofuel sector

The Philippine Department of Agriculture (DA) sealed an agreement with India-based bioenergy company Praj Industries to help develop the country's nascent biofuels industry. Under a Memorandum of Understanding both parties will team up for feedstock development and setting up biofuel production plants.

The biofuel sector will be promoted through the propagation of new farming technologies and investments in the planting of sweet sorghum, cassava and sugarcane to be used as feedstock and in the production of bioethanol and jatropha for biodiesel. Praj will provide assistance and extend its knowledge in identifying varieties of sweet sorghum and jatropha for cultivation trials.

Praj will also provide the design, engineering and supply the biofuel production plants to potential investors in the biofuel sector based on mutually agreed terms and conditions on a case-to-case basis.

For its part, the DA will identify land for feedstock development; encourage and assist farmers in cultivating sweet sorghum, sugarcane, cassava or jatropha; and help in attracting investments for commercial scale feedstock production and construction of biodiesel and bioethanol plants.

The Philippine government expects the ever-growing global demand for crops-based alternative clean fuels to energize Philippine farms, increase the profitability of small holders in the agriculture sector, and reduce the country's dependence on imported energy sources. Last January, President Arroyo signed into law Republic Act 9367 or the Biofuels Act, which aims to ease the country's imports on petroleum products, which are dollar-draining and pollution-generating.

The DA is now in the process of identifying for private sector investments more than 400,000 hectares of land to plant crops that would be used as feedstock and for biofuels production. Of these, about 90,000 hectares are located in the North Luzon Agribusiness Quadrangle; 10,000 hectares in Central Philippines; and 300,000 in Agribusiness Mindanao:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The lands being processed so far already represent 78 per cent of the 600,000 hectares targeted for development this year. These lands would be planted to cassava, oil palm, coconut, sugarcane, jatropha, and other crops used as feedstock for projects that would be set up by private investors cashing in on the biofuels boom in the global market.

Investors are planning to set up plants in the Ilocos region, Cagayan Valley, Western Visayas, Zamboanga Peninsula, Northern and Central Mindanao, and the Davao region either through straight purchases, lease arrangements, contract growing or joint ventures.

In all these arrangements, farmers stand to earn more through profit sharing, guaranteed income packages or straight purchases of harvested crops, and benefit from new planting technologies that would create more jobs and boost production.

Praj is a publicly listed company in the Bombay Stock Exchange and the National Stock Exchange in India. It has provided distillery and brewery wastewater treatment and utilization solutions to over 35 countries worldwide. The company now has diversified its range of solutions such as in fermentation systems that include technology packages for multiple feedstock including cane-molasses, cane juice and filtrate, starch-based raw materials like corn, sorghum, wheat, tapioca, tropical sugar-beet, among others.

Philippines News Agency: RP inks biofuels deal with India-based company - October 5, 2007.

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The bioeconomy at work: Meredian Inc. acquires PHA technology from Procter & Gamble

Meredian, Inc. announced the acquisition of an extensive intellectual property portfolio from Procter & Gamble relating to Polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) technology. Procter & Gamble developed the technology through more than a decade of research, resulting in a highly functional and cost effective material.

Meredian will use the technology to manufacture new biopolymers using renewable resources, further reducing the global dependence on petroleum products in the production of plastics.

are naturally-occurring polymers produced by bacteria. A variety of bacterial species produce PHAs by fermenting biomass under nutrient-limiting conditions. These water-insoluble storage polymers are biodegradable, exhibit thermoplastic properties and can be produced from renewable carbon sources found in plants (schemtic, click to enlarge).

PHA based polymers can be used in many applications, including molded goods, paper coatings, non-woven fabrics, performance additives. As a family of biopolymers, they have functional properties sufficient to replace a significant portion of the 300 billion pounds of petroleum-based plastics used worldwide today.

Meredian expects to begin construction in 2008 on the first of four planned production facilities; the first will be located in the Southeastern United States. Meredian plans to produce over 600 million pounds of biopolymers annually.

Meredian polymers work well in many traditional plastic applications by retaining product quality and convenience while reducing the burden on landfills. Meredian polymers will biodegrade either aerobically or anaerobically. This means the material will be quickly reabsorbed into the natural environment with no adverse ecological or health affects. Degradation occurs in septic systems, commercial waste water treatment systems, composting environments or even cold ocean waters. In these environments, naturally occurring bacteria use Meredian polymers as a food source and accelerate degradation:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

S. Blake Lindsey, President of Meredian, says that given the unique physical property range of existing Meredian biopolymers - DaniMer and Seluma - the company expects to see a wide array of applications, from highly flexible films and fibers to rigid packaging, including many single-use food service and liquid packaging applications.

The combination of biopolymers will enable the company to provide synergies within the technology platforms and will result in one of the world's most versatile biopolymer product lines.

P&G was seeking an enthusiastic company that could efficiently commercialize its intellectual property on polymers. Meredian was selected because of its dedication to biopolymers and ability to take the development work to the next level - delivering finished products to the market.

U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy: Biomass Program - Production of Polyhydroxyalkanoate Polymers.

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Thursday, October 04, 2007

Scientists propose artificial trees to scrub CO2 out of the atmosphere - but the real thing could be smarter

Some scientists suggest the threat of climate change has become so great, that we must begin to consider 'geo-engineering' the planet to mitigate global warming. Several futuristic proposals are on the table, but many of these have been dismissed as too risky (previous post). Two broad categories can be distinguished: geo-engineering 'mirrors' that reflect sunlight back into space to cool the planet, and options based on capturing and storing CO2.

Amongst the first series the following ideas have been suggested: emulating the cooling effects of a large volcanic eruption by filling the atmosphere with sulphur particles (dismissal here), making clouds more reflective by pumping fine salty water particles into them, and building a giant space mirror by launching billions of thin glass plates into space to reflect sunlight away from Earth (which would be absurdly costly).

Carbon capture ideas include the proposal to 'fertilize' the oceans with iron to induce algae blooms that capture CO2 (critique here), and building 'synthetic trees' that suck CO2 out of the atmosphere with the gas consequently stored deep under ground (earlier post).

Artificial trees
The latter idea is now becoming a reality. Frank Zeman at Columbia University believes CO2 could be efficiently extracted from the atmosphere using a relatively simple chemical process involving pumping air from the atmosphere through a chamber containing sodium hydroxide, which reacts with the CO2 to form sodium carbonate. This carbon-containing solution is then mixed with lime to precipitate powdered calcium carbonate – a naturally occurring form of which is limestone. Finally, the 'limestone' is heated in a kiln releasing pure CO2 for storage.

The 'artificial tree' concept is discussed in an article in the current online edition of Environmental Science & Technology. Zeman calculates that one carbon atom would need to be expended as fuel – to pump air and heat the process – in order to capture four carbon atoms from air.

Zeman has no commercial plans for his idea, but Klaus Lackner, a former colleague at Columbia who originally developed the concept, has meanwhile set up a private company called Global Research Technologies to explore the possibilities of making money out of it.

Real trees and carbon-negative energy

According to Jon Gibbins, an expert on energy technology at Imperial College in the UK, Zeman and Lackner's idea faces two major problems: (1) it could provide a justification for continuing to burn fossil fuels, and (2) it does not present a clean energy system as it merely removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. There is however a concept that performs the same function as Zeman's idea but delivers renewable, ultra-clean carbon-negative energy at the same time, which allows us to move away from fossil fuels. This concept, known as 'Bio-energy with Carbon Storage' (BECS) is based on real trees designed to capture and store more carbon, and on advanced bioconversion concepts:
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Gibbins believes it makes more sense to use carbonaceous fuels to generate electricity, capture the CO2 at the power plant, and use the resulting electricity to power cars and trains.
Is it better to burn fossil fuels and capture the carbon dioxide from air, or to decarbonise the power first and put that into transport? If we bite bullet and move on to electricity then we can use electricity from anywhere, including renewable sources. - Jon Gibbins, Imperial College
If the fuels in question are renewable biomass - real trees - the electricity produced becomes carbon-negative. Such BECS systems perform the same function as Zeman's idea, but are more efficient and allow us to make a transition towards carbon-negative electricity for transport, away from fossil fuels.

Zeman claims that his process does not use any more energy than decarbonising emissions straight from power plants. But Gibbins points out that much of Zeman's process is run on electricity, while carbon capture at (biomass) power plants relies on waste heat, making the system potentially more efficient.

The BECS concept offers the possibility to couple biomass production and trade to a global transition to carbon-negative electricity. Unlike other renewables like wind or solar - which are carbon-neutral and merely prevent emissions from occuring in the future - BECS systems take emissions from the past out of the atmosphere and can take us back to lower CO2 levels far more quickly.

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

The prospects for BECS systems are looking good. Recently the UNFCCC announced it would include carbon storage into the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), but only in developing countries where more than 50% of all electricity is generated by coal. Many of these countries have a large potential to produce sustainable biomass close to geosequestration sites. Its inclusion into the CDM means the BECS concept will be eligible for carbon credits which would make it more feasible.

Moreover, recent advances in plant biology have seen scientists designing fast-growing trees with enhanced carbon capturing capacities. A hybrid larch tree with 30% greater carbon sink capacity was developed (previous post), as well as an eucalyptus with 15% increased carbon capturing capacity (more here). Such trees would be used as primary carbon capture 'machines', then transformed into bioenergy (bio-electricity or biofuels) and the carbon captured and geosequestered.

Finally, a major advantage of BECS is that it can be implemented in a decentralised way, increasing its safety (one of the major risks with geosequestration is the potential for CO2 leakage). Geosequestration sites can be selected far away from inhabited regions; there, biomass would be grown and converted into the carbon-negative biofuel, which would then be shipped to power stations there where electricity is needed. If the biomass is converted by using synthetic fuel production methods (gasification coupled to Fischer-Tropsch synthesis), the carbon-negative fuels later used in cities would be ultra-clean and emit virtually no harmfull emissions. Recently a project in this sense was started, initiating the transition to BECS. It is based on producing synthetic fuels from a mixture of coal and biomass, with CO2 emissions sequestered (earlier post). When the coal is left out, a full BECS-system emerges that results in ultra-clean, carbon-negative fuels that can be used for transport, or for the production of electricity.

Image: rendering of a synthetic tree used by the BBC in a documentary about geo-engineering options, which included a discussion of Lackner's idea. Credit: BBC.

Frank Zeman, "Energy and Material Balance of CO2 Capture from Ambient Air", Environmental Science & Technology, ASAP Article, September 26, 2007, doi:10.1021/es070874m

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

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

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

Biopact: Japanese scientists develop hybrid larch trees with 30% greater carbon sink capacity - October 03, 2007

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

Biopact: Simulation shows geoengineering is very risky - June 05, 2007

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Study: tariff reductions in the Doha Round will erode border protection for EU agricultural products

Agriculture is at the centre of the multilateral round of trade negotiations under the World Trade Organization (WTO), the so-called 'Doha Round'. The Global South wants both the United States and the European Union to decrease farm subsidies and abandon tariffs for agricultural products. The developing countries stand united in the G-20, but are confronted with an ongoing dispute between the EU and the US, which holds back progress (earlier post). Market access compared to export competition and domestic support is the most difficult of the three pillars to negotiate. The US is aggressively demanding for significant reductions in tariffs, but the EU is unable to do so because further tariff reductions will erode border protection for some of its important agricultural products.

MTT Agrifood Research Finland has completed an interesting study [*.pdf] to reveal the sensitive agricultural products in the EU due to further tariff reductions in the projected Doha Round. The EU agricultural products are examined by tariff lines at eight digit level. These products are butter, skim milk powder, beef meat, poultry meat, pig meat, white sugar, wheat, barley, and maize. The sensitivity of EU agricultural products to the fluctuation of exchange rates from USD 0.90 per Euro to USD 1.50 per Euro is analysed in conjunction with the different tariff reduction formulas according to the EU proposal, WTO draft proposal, and US proposal for tariff-cuts.

Out of the many proposals submitted to the WTO for the tariff reduction formula, the US proposal is the most extreme and the EU proposal is the most lenient with the G-20 proposal and the WTO draft proposal being in the middle. Naturally, the projected results show that the EU proposal will generate a lower number of sensitive products compared to the WTO draft proposal, and the US proposal will generate the highest number of sensitive products:
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The results reveal that poultry meat has the lowest border protection among the examined EU agricultural products, followed by butter. Poultry meat is sensitive to the tariff reduction formula under the WTO draft proposal in almost all the exchange rate scenarios, except when the Euro is very weak (USD 0.90 per Euro). Likewise, butter is sensitive to the tariff reduction formula under the US proposal in almost all the exchange rate scenarios with the exception of a very weak Euro – USD 0.90 per Euro.

On the other hand, EU cereals such as wheat, barley, and maize are the most resilient to the erosion of border protection due to further reduction in tariffs in the projected Doha Round, followed by skim milk powder in the EU dairy sector. Border protection for cereals remains intact even after implementing the tariff reduction formulas from all the three proposals. In addition, border protection for cereals is not affected by a variety of exchange rate scenarios.

As the second most resilient product, skim milk powder is only sensitive to the tariff reduction formula under the US proposal and when the Euro is very strong – USD 1.50 per Euro. The results also demonstrate that EU agricultural products are very sensitive to the fluctuations of exchange rate. There are no sensitive agricultural products under any of the tariff reduction proposals if the Euro is very weak – USD 0.90 per Euro. On the contrary, a very strong Euro (USD 1.50 per Euro) will create the highest number of sensitive products in the projected Doha Round.

WTO members are entitled to select and designate an appropriate number of sensitive products. Proposals have extended from as little as one percent to as much as fifteen percent of tariff lines. The WTO draft proposal estimated that the number of sensitive products may be between four to eight percent of all agricultural tariff lines. Therefore, the EU may be eligible to designate between 88 to 176 tariff lines as sensitive products. This study has analysed only nine tariff lines out of the 2200 tariff lines for EU agricultural products. The examined EU agricultural products may represent other tariff lines in the same product category, but potential sensitive products at eight digit level have to be analysed individually in order to choose the correct and exact number of sensitive products for the EU.

Ellen Huan-Niemi, "Market access under the World Trade Organisation: Identifying sensitive products in the EU" [*.pdf], MTT Working Papers 146, 23 pages - October 2007

Biopact: Latest Doha talks collapse again, agriculture remains stumbling block - June 21, 2007

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Thermoelectric devices could save energy by tapping waste heat

Energy lost from hot engines and combustion systems could save billions of dollars if it could be captured and converted into electricity via thermoelectric devices, Clemson University physicist Terry Tritt told scientists gathered in Dallas for the NanoTX ’07 conference. Tritt delivered an address at the Alan MacDairmid Memorial Nano Energy Summit on challenges in alternative energy, specifically thermoelectricity used to generate electrical energy from waste heat.

Thermoelectric generators are based on materials that are special types of semiconductors. When coupled, they function as a heat pump: a temperature gradient is applied across a sample, electrons diffuse from the hot to the cold part due to the larger thermal speed of the electrons in the hot region, a charge difference then builds up between the hot and cold region, creating a voltage and producing an electric current (schematic, click to enlarge).

Thermoelectric materials can be used for either cooling or power generation. Although current devices have a low conversion efficiency of around 10 per cent, they are strongly advantageous as compared to conventional energy technologies. The converters have no moving parts and are therefore both reliable and durable.

Such waste heat recovery technologies could increase the efficiency of small bioenergy power systems and even of ordinary biomass cooking stoves (an example of research in this context). Large biomass power systems allow for polygeneration and the use of heat in distributed (district) heating and cooling systems. But small biomass power systems generate equally large amounts of waste heat that can not always be used in such a straightforward way. Thermoelectric generators could recover this waste heat and convert it into more electricity.

Many more applications can be envisioned. One of the more interesting ones involves capturing waste heat from cars' internal combustion engines.
Thermoelectric generators are currently used in NASA’s deep-space probes to convert the heat of radioactive elements to electrical energy, powering these systems for over 30 years. Thermoelectric energy conversion is a solid-state technology that is environmentally friendly. One of the more promising ‘down-to-earth’ applications lies in waste-heat recovery in cars. - Terry Tritt, Clemson University
More than 60 percent of the energy that goes into an automotive combustion cycle is lost, primarily to waste heat through the exhaust or radiator system. Even at the current efficiencies of thermoelectric devices, 7 to 8 percent, more than 1.5 billion gallons of diesel could be saved each year in the U.S. if thermoelectric generators were used on the exhaust of heavy trucks. That translates into billions of dollars saved:
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Clemson research focuses on developing higher-efficiency thermoelectric materials that could increase savings significantly. Research on the electrical and thermal properties of new materials could reduce the world’s reliance on fossil fuels and has shown promise with two classes of materials: low-dimensional systems for enhanced electrical properties and increased phonon scattering that leads to inherently low thermal conductivity.

Tritt heads up the Department of Energy’s Center of Excellence in Thermoelectric Materials Research at Clemson, one of the leading laboratories for thermoelectric materials in the world. The national center focuses on the next generation of thermoelectric materials for power conversion and refrigeration. Researchers in physics, materials science and chemistry screen promising new classes of materials in order to achieve higher-performance thermoelectric materials. DOE recently renewed the program with more than $1 million a year in research funding for the next three years.

NanoTX, presented by Semiconductor Industry Association, highlights advances in nanoscience and explains how nanotechnology is being used today and how it will impact a broad range of industries tomorrow, including electronics, energy, aerospace, defense, biomedicine, robotics, chemicals and more.

Clemson University: Clemson physicist addresses international forum on thermoelectric energy - October 4, 2007.

Thermoelectric News: US DoE awards $3 Million to Clemson - September 29, 2004.

NanoTx '07 conference & expo.

An older but good introduction to the topic of thermoelectric material science can be found in: Terry M. Tritt, "Thermoelectric materials: Holey and Unholey Semiconductors", Science 5 February 1999: Vol. 283. no. 5403, pp. 804 - 805, DOI: 10.1126/science.283.5403.804

C. Lertsatitthanakorn, "Electrical performance analysis and economic evaluation of combined biomass cook stove thermoelectric (BITE) generator", Bioresource Technology, Volume 98, Issue 8, May 2007, Pages 1670-1674, doi:10.1016/j.biortech.2006.05.048

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MyFuel to build two large palm oil biodiesel plants in Malaysia

Malaysia-based MyFuel Ltd plans to invest some 160 million ringgit (€33.2/US$46.9 million) to set up two biodiesel facilities at the Port Klang Free Zone, one of the main ports of Malaysia, located south of Kuala Lumpur. MyFuel has been granted the license to set up the biodiesel plants and expects them to be completed in June of next year.

The palm oil-based methyl ester plants, to be built on a 3.2 hectare factory site on a 30-year lease, will have an output of 100,000 and 250,000 metric tonnes a year. Group managing director George Joukado told Malaysia's state news agency Bernama the plants will be equipped with process equipment from European supplier Desmet Ballestra.

At full production the plants will create annual turnover and spin-offs estimated to exceed 1 billion ringgit (€208/US$293 million).
The extraordinarily high palm oil prices, choppy international biodiesel market conditions and the rise in fossil fuel prices certainly pose a challenge. However, they will not unduly upset the long-term prospects and viability of biodiesel. - George Joukador, managing director MyFuel
According to Joukador, the company has signed supply arrangements with reputable palm oil suppliers and has signed agreements with third parties for marketing and sales to ensure the reliable supply of feed stocks and pre-marketing of end-products:
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It has inked a marketing and distribution agreement with biodiesel brand leader World Energy Alternatives (WEA) under which all WEA purchases of biodiesel from Asia Pacific will be supplied by MyFuel.

MyFuel has two subsidiaries for the Malaysian operation - Biodiesel SP Sdn Bhd and Biodiesel LD Sdn Bhd.

Surging feedstock prices have prompted Malaysia, the world's leading palm oil producer, to put on hold the implementation of a biofuel act aimed at facilitating the commercialization of Malaysian-made palm oil-based biodiesel. However, prices are expected to decrease as new production comes online.

Bernama: MyFuel To Invest RM160 Mln In Biodiesel Facilities - October 3, 2007.

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IISD report challenges EU biofuel subsidies, calls for end to tariff

A new report gives yet another boost to the idea of a Biopact, which consists of wealthy countries in the North importing efficient and sustainable bioenergy and biofuels made in the South, as a way of creating a new trade relationship in which development, poverty alleviation and energy security take center stage. In order for such a pact to succeed, trade reform is needed and subsidy schemes in the EU and the US must be changed.

The European Union's support for biofuels may not be the most cost-effective way for the 27-country bloc to tackle climate change, the new study concludes. Its lead author argues that the EU better import sustainable biofuels made in poor countries like Brazil, because they are highly energy efficient, reduce greenhouse gas emissions far more and are highly competitive compared to biofuels made in the EU. The same researchers, working for the Global Subsidies Initiative (GSI), earlier analysed biofuel subsidies and their trade distorting effects in the US and came to similar conclusions (previous post).

Last year EU governments spent at least €3.7 billion ($5.2 billion) on subsidising biofuel production. Such support is likely to grow in the coming years because the Union has set a strategy of raising the quantity of road fuel generated from biofuels from its present level of 2 percent to 10 percent by 2010.

But the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) in Geneva has queried if allocating large amounts of public funds to EU biofuels is desirable. In a study titled Biofuels At What Cost? Government Support for Ethanol and Biodiesel in the European Union [*.pdf] it calculates that the cost of using ethanol from sugar beet to avoid emitting one tonne of carbon dioxide (CO2) - the main gas blamed for climate change - ranges from slightly less than €600 to €800 ($760 to $1,000).

Producing biofuels from crops grown in the EU is generally an energy-intensive business, which in itself makes use of considerable quantities of fossil fuels. As a result, the study says, the overall saving of fossil fuels brought by biofuels may be low, and introducing carbon or pollution taxes may prove more effective.

Generally, biofuels made from high-sugar crops such as sugar cane or high yielding oil crops like palm oil can contribute to higher savings on fossil fuels than those made from oilseeds or grains. More than 90 percent of the 6 million tonnes of biofuels produced in the EU during 2006 was made from rapeseed oil.

Ron Steeblik from the GSI urged the Union to eliminate tariffs on imported ethanol, a fuel made from sugar. Ethanol with an alcohol content of 80 percent is subject to a tariff of 19.20 euros (27 dollars) per 100 litres. 'Denatured' alcohol, which has a lower content, is taxed at just over half that level.
These taxes are inimical to poor countries like Brazil. This is contrary to the EU's general policy of trying to reduce tariffs. It is far higher than any tariff on industrial goods and is an old-fashioned instrument for protecting agriculture.

Import tariffs on ethanol from Brazil, one of the most efficient producers of biofuels, reduce the amount of sales that can be made by a developing country. The EU's policy is incoherent. If biofuels are so good, why is it taxing them so heavily at the border?
- Ron Steenblik, lead author, Global Subsidies Initiative
The EU executive, the European Commission, is expected to propose a new law setting down the criteria for supporting biofuels by the end of this year:
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Officials are examining how to prevent support for biofuels in cases where their production involves the emission of more greenhouse gases than would eventually be saved by using them instead of pure fossil fuels.

However, there are some who support biofuel subsidies. Lena Ek, a Swedish Liberal member of the European Parliament (MEP), said that "biofuels will be there as part of the solution" to global warming. She asked, therefore, if subsidising them is "really a bad thing."

Ethanol has proven economically beneficial to Brazil, she added. "Brazil has got out of the fossil economy," she noted. "Last year it paid off the debt it owed to the World Bank."

Swedish conservative MEP Anders Wijkman said: "We need subsidies if we want new energy in the market place. But the question is how do we lock ourselves into a production scheme that is really feasible. The logical question is how to ensure the end result really eliminates carbon dioxide."

A European Commission official said that there is a "serious misunderstanding" about the factors motivating biofuels policy in the Union. One widely held view, he said, is that the principal objective is to support the income of crop farmers. "It has nothing to do with that," the official said.

The real issue for the Union, according to the official, is having a "policy in place" to meet an increased demand for biofuels.

But Ron Steeblik said that high subsidies for biofuels "could potentially create a lot of instability for other markets, including the agriculture market."

His colleague at the Global Subsidies Initiative David Runnalls said that the EU should beware of aping the support system for biofuels in the U.S. He argued that it is preferable to support research into biofuels, as has been done in Canada, than to link support for them to the level of production, the method favoured in Washington.

In some parts of America, he said, subsidies account for 2.40 dollars of the price of a three-dollar gallon of biodiesel.

"There is a potentially distorting effect of biofuels wrongly applied in the wrong place and the wrong time," said Runnalls. "We are not opposed to subsidies. What we are opposed to is governments spending them in an ill-advised fashion."

IISD: International Institute for Sustainable Development's Global Subsidies Initiative releases Biofuels – At What Cost? Government support for ethanol and biodiesel in selected OECD countries - October 3, 2007.

Global Subsidies Initiative: Biofuels At What Cost? Government Support for Ethanol and Biodiesel in the European Union [*.pdf] - October 3, 2007?

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

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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The bioeconomy at work: farming diatoms for the next generation of paints, cosmetics and holograms

A plant-like micro-organism mostly found in oceans could make the manufacture of products, from iridescent cosmetics, paints and fabrics to credit card holograms, cheaper and greener. The tiny single-celled ‘diatom’, which first evolved hundreds of millions of years ago, has a hard silica shell which is iridescent – in other words, the shell displays vivid colours that change depending on the angle at which it is observed. This effect is caused by a complex network of tiny holes in the shell which interfere with light waves.

UK scientists working on a project titled 'Optics via cell culture' have now found an extremely effective way of growing diatoms in controlled laboratory conditions, with potential for scale-up to industrial level. This would enable diatom shells to be mass-produced, harvested and mixed into paints, cosmetics and clothing to create stunning colour-changing effects, or embedded into polymers to produce difficult-to-forge holograms.

Manufacturing consumer products with these properties currently requires energy-intensive, high-temperature, high-pressure industrial processes that create tiny artificial reflectors. But farming diatom shells, which essentially harnesses a natural growth process, could provide an alternative that takes place at normal room temperature and pressure, dramatically reducing energy needs and so cutting carbon dioxide emissions. The process is also extremely rapid – in the right conditions, one diatom can give rise to 100 million descendants in a month.
It’s a very efficient and cost-effective process, with a low carbon footprint. Its simplicity and its economic and environmental benefits could in future encourage industry to develop a much wider range of exciting products that change colour as they or the observer move position. What’s more, the shells themselves are completely biodegradable, aiding eventual disposal and further reducing the environmental impact of the process life cycle. - Professor Andrew Parker, leading researcher
Diatoms are classified as eukaryotic algae and represent one of the commonest types of phytoplankton. Each diatom is encased in a silica frustule, or cell wall. Although usually microscopic, some species of diatom may grow to as much as 2mm long. As well as oceans, diatoms can be found in freshwater and in damp soils. In the oceans, they represent an important link in the food chain.

When light strikes a diatom’s shell, tiny holes in the shell’s structure cause multiple reflections, resulting in interference to the light waves. This affects the shell’s colour, as seen by an observer. The precise interference effect depends on the angle at which light strikes the shell (i.e. the angle of observation), hence the shell appears to change colour as it or the observer moves position. This is the same sort of phenomenon that occurs when light reflects from a film of oil on the surface of water – viewed from different angles, the oil’s colours seem to change. While some light is reflected, however, certain wavelengths are transmitted into the cell. The device acts like a ‘photonic crystal’.

The new 'farming' technique developed by the British scientists basically lets nature do the hard work. It involves taking a diatom or other living cells such as those that make iridescent butterfly scales, and immersing them in a culture medium – a solution containing nutrients, hormones and minerals that encourage cell subdivision and growth:
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By changing the precise make-up of the culture medium, the exact iridescent properties of the diatoms or butterfly scales (and therefore the final optical effects that they create) can be adjusted. The researchers estimate that up to 1 tonne/day of diatoms could be produced in the laboratory in this way, starting from just a few cells. Within as little as two years, an industrial-scale process could be operational.
It’s a mystery why diatoms have iridescent qualities. It may have something to do with maximising sunlight capture to aid photosynthesis in some species; on the other hand, it could be linked with the need to ensure that sunlight capture is not excessive in others. Whatever the case, exploiting their tiny shells’ remarkable properties could make a big impact across industry. They could even have the potential to be incorporated into paint to provide a water-repellent surface, making it self-cleaning. - Professor Parker
This advance has been achieved by scientists at the Natural History Museum and the University of Oxford, with funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). The project involved a range of experts from disciplines including biology, chemistry, physics, engineering and materials science.

The 12-month research project ‘Optics via Cell Culture' received EPSRC funding of just over £104,000. The research took place at the Natural History Museum in London and at the University of Oxford.

Image: Salt water centric diatom frustule (skeleton). Diatoms are microscopic, unicellular algae that produce intricate silica (glass) cell walls that overlap like the top and bottom of a box. Credit: Astrographics.

Eurekalert: Nature leads the way for the next generation of paints, cosmetics and holograms - October 3, 2007.

EPSRC: Optics via cell culture.

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Coal prices hit records too - time for biomass?

Record oil prices are receiving a lot of media attention, but a quarter of the world's primary energy demand is met by coal. The most climate-destructive fossil fuel is used to generate around 40 percent of all electricity. And like oil, coal too is now experiencing all time highs. Record prices and tight supplies are piling the pressure on electricity generators so much that several industry players predict some utilities may even be forced to scale down operations. Physical coal prices for delivery into Europe have risen by over 50 percent this year to hit records over $100 per tonne.

The coal market is highly opaque and prices are not straightforwardly correlated to those of other fossil fuels. Some analysts however argue that higher oil prices translate to higher coal prices, because higher oil tends to push up natural gas prices, which in turn drives coal prices. Coal must also adjust upward to reflect the costs of energy-intensive mining. Large miners consume millions of liters of diesel annually to run their heavy mining equipment. If the price of oil and petroleum products rises significantly, companies will face millions of dollars in added costs - an evolution already being felt by Peabody Energy, the largest coal producer in the U.S. Natural gas and coal prices are also correlated because of demand for electricity. Add high freight rates for coal importers and the picture looks even more grim.

The current situation has some analysts worried that utilities and cement producers, also big coal users, may even be forced to scale down operations. One coal producer, quoted by Reuters, said:
The market is having to adapt to coal prices, to freights, which we've never seen before. I do believe that before the end of the year it's possible that some generators in Asia will have to look at turning off their plants because they won't have enough coal.
Physical coal prices last week surged to a record $102.00 a tonne delivered into Europe, from $65.00 in the first quarter, because rampant demand in Asia has sucked in millions of tonnes originally destined for the Atlantic market. Power generators, Europe's biggest coal consumers by far, buy most of their coal on rolling long-term contracts from producers but usually purchase a small proportion from the spot market. Coal-fired generation is used most heavily during the winter months when it is usually the lowest-cost fuel.

Some European regions can switch from coal to biomass, hydro, wind or gas-fired, notably Scandinavia, Germany and Iberia, but most European utilities rely on at least some coal-fired generation. Germany's E.ON AG, Italy's Enel and Spain's Endesa are among the utilities currently seeking coal for Q4 and Q1, market sources said.

One European utility recently paid close to $115.00 a tonne CIF for a South African cargo which it bought to replace delayed shipments of other origins. European cement companies said they also recently bought at prices far higher than those indicated on the globalCOAL trading platform or by published weekly coal indices:
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Xstrata Plc, the world's largest thermal coal producer, recently settled 2008 thermal coal supply contracts with two Korean utilities at as high as $68.50 a tonne, two sources said last week. State-owned utilities Korea South East Power Co and Korea East West Power Co have agreed to buy coal from Xstrata's New Lands coal mine at $68.50 a tonne and $65.50 a tonne for coal from the Rolleston mine, they said.

Reuters quotes a trader as saying 'so many utilities and cement companies are looking. They will pay but they are desperate that nobody finds out.' In the coal sector it is not done to admit that one is 'looking'.

Consumers pay up
A large European industrial consumer of coal said his company had struggled recently to find enough coal of any acceptable origin and had no choice but to pay the price asked by the supplier. 'In Europe anyway, I think you will be able to find enough coal, but it won't be easy and you'll have to pay up,' a further trader said.

Consumers everywhere have had to adjust to paying prices higher than anybody imagined were ever achievable. Record freight rates have boosted delivered prices but free-on-board coal prices at origin have also hit records this year for Australian, Russian and Indonesian coal.

What everybody wants to know is when freights are going to fall, if they're going to fall or if we're just going to have to live with it, a major Indian trader said.
The acceptance of soaring prices by Indian end-users took many traders and producers by surprise. The same trader is quoted as saying:
We used to say India was totally a price-driven market and nobody would buy South African coal for more than $50 FOB but the consumers have had no choice this year," the Indian trader said. I think they will be paying $120 a tonne CIF by the end of the year - they'll have to or have no coal.
South African spot FOB prices are often taken as a good indicator of the cost of coal because its quality is acceptable to most consumers. Spot South African FOB prices are at about $65.00, having stayed at around $60.00 for most of the year but are expected by suppliers and consumers to reach $70.00 within weeks.

Biomass to play a role?
Record coal prices have made some utilities look at buying biomass to co-fire with coal, as 'opportunity fuels'. Some residues from agriculture and forestry - such as pelletized coffee husks or palm kernels - can be shipped efficiently over long distances because they have a relatively high energy density. However, the same high freight rates would apply.

Nonetheless, a working carbon market in Europe, with current prices at around $30 per tonne, may make the use of carbon-neutral biomass attractive for utilities. Supplies would come from the Global South, because they tend to be less costly than biomass produced in Europe.

One power generator in the Netherlands, Essent Energie, recently agreed to purchase several thousand tonnes of coffee husks from Brazilian coffee producers, to co-fire the biofuel in one of its large coal power plants in the Netherlands and to sell the electricity under a green label. However, it is not clear which factor was more important for Essent: the creation of a 'green' corporate image or the fact that biomass has become competitive with costly coal?

Even though international biomass trade is growing rapidly, as yet there is no formally established global market nor any robust trading mechanisms and market information. Moreover, the physical international trade in biomass from the South to the North competes with the potential to use this biomass locally as part of, for example, Clean Development Mechanism projects which result in carbon credits. However, many regions and millions of farmers on the planet produce vast streams of excess biomass that remains available, even when all local energy needs are met by bioenergy, which implies that the rationale for physical trade remains strong.

Reuters: Record coal prices hammer power generators - September 28, 2007.

Dow Jones: Rising Oil Prices Seen Pushing Costs Higher For Coal Miners - September 28, 2007.

Reuters: Xstrata fixes '08 coal contracts with Korean gencos - September 27, 2007.

Essent: World scoop: Green electricity from coffee husks - July 10, 2007.

globalCOAL, the world's largest coal trading floor.

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USDA: high oil prices push up food prices more than corn ethanol

First-generation biofuels like ethanol made from corn and biodiesel from rapeseed have effects on food prices. However, new evidence from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) suggests high oil prices play a much larger role in this trend. The situation is far more complex than some want to believe, because some biofuels even succeed in pushing inflation down. Researchers point at the situation in Brazil: there inflation indices have dropped because of record ethanol output and record low prices for the biofuel (earlier post). Competitive biofuels bring down costs for all the economic sectors that would otherwise have to rely exclusively on very expensive oil products.

However, corn ethanol is another matter, because it is made from a major food crop and because it is much less efficient than sugarcane ethanol. But even here, the biofuel as such only plays a small role in increased food prices. The great irony is that ethanol's very counter-part, petroleum, is more to blame.

Acting USDA Secretary Chuck Conner - reiterating similar findings made by the UN's vice-director general and head of its Environment Agency (earlier post) and by the EU's Agriculture Commissioner (here) - explained today that global weather conditions, including droughts in Australia, as well as rising demand in China and elsewhere drove up wheat prices. More importantly, Conner says, the recent record highs for retail oil prices added to inflation by increasing the costs of everything: from packaging to transportation and processing.

In our contemporary food system, the cost of raw materials (such as corn or wheat) is marginal compared to the larger costs associated with planting, harvesting, shipping, storing, pre-treating, processing, packaging, and distributing food products. Obviously, all these steps are energy-intensive. So when energy costs and oil prices increase rapidly to reach current records, they are likely to trigger inflation.

What is more, high oil prices not only influence the food system, they influence the entire economy and virtually all of its industrial, agricultural and service sectors - thousands of manufacturing, transportation, and industrial processes (obviously, in energy-intsensive developing countries, this 'outrageous' situation - to quote India's Finance Minister - can be truly catastrophic - see here and here). Biofuels for transport and electricity are exactly meant to break this dependence on costly oil:
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And Brazil shows it works. With cheap ethanol - now at a 30% advantage compared to gasoline on an energy equivalent basis - and bioenergy from bagasse, the threat of rapidly increasing costs for these thousands of processes has been brought down.

In the U.S. food prices have increased about 2.7 percent in each of the last three years. But a jump of between 3.5 percent and 4.5 percent is expected this year before retreating a bit to between 3 percent and 4 percent in 2008, Conner said at a conference hosted by the Renewable Fuels Association, which represents the U.S. ethanol industry. Extremely high oil prices are responsible.

Ethanol producers in the U.S., meanwhile, have taken a hit to their bottom lines in recent months because corn prices remain high, while the price of ethanol has slid by 30 percent due to a supply glut. Conner said he would prefer if the ethanol price drop did not happen, but said long-term investments and production goals remain in place.

Neil Koehler, president and chief executive of Sacramento, California-based Pacific Ethanol Inc. blamed the oil industry for not absorbing as much ethanol as it could at a time when crude prices remain above $80 per barrel. Refiners contend they have limited capacity to blend the fuel with gasoline.

Still, ethanol production is booming. Archer Daniels Midland Co., Aventine Renewable Energy Holdings Inc. and other producers added a total of 1.2 billion gallons (4.54 billion liters) of capacity and 15 new plants since March, which matched the total additions in all of 2006, Conner said.

Meanwhile, the government expects U.S. farmers will produce a record 13.3 billion bushels of corn this year, with about 25 percent used for ethanol. But the number of bushels used for livestock feed also will rise slightly to 5.8 billion bushels, he said. (One bushel of corn equals 25 kilograms).

USDA: Transcript of Remarks by Acting Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner to the Renewable Fuels Association - October 2, 2007.

Associated Press: Oil prices, weather conditions driving up U.S. food prices more than ethanol, official says - October 2, 2007.

Biopact: India: 'outrageous' oil price damages economy, as $80pb could be new floor price - September 27, 2007

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

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

Biopact: EU Commissioner: biofuels have limited effect on food prices - May 04, 2007

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Japanese scientists develop hybrid larch trees with 30% greater carbon sink capacity

The Hokkaido Forest Research Institute and Hokkaido Forest Products Research Institute conducted joint research from 2003 to 2005 on an F1 hybrid of Dahurian Larch (larix gmelinii) to identify families and parent trees with high carbon-fixing potential. The research team discovered that trees grown from certain pollen and seed trees had 30 percent greater carbon storage capacity, compared to typical larch trees. The Dahurian Larch is a species found in Eastern Siberia and Northeastern Asia, where it forms the enormous forests of the taiga. A fast growing tree, the larch is widely used in afforestation and industrial plantation projects.

The news is important for the bioenergy community because rapidly growing trees with an enhanced carbon storage capacity will be used as 'carbon capture' machines to be used in carbon-negative bioenergy production. The concept is easy to understand: the trees are planted to store large amounts of CO2, after which they are converted into energy (liquid fuels or electricity), while the CO2 they release during the process, is captured and geosequestered. The result is radical carbon-negative energy.

According to scientists, such 'Bio-energy with carbon storage' (BECS) systems are the most radical weapon in the fight against dangerous climate change. If implemented on a global scale, BECS can take us back to pre-industrial atmospheric CO2 levels by mid-century.

Recently, plant biologists developed Eucalyptus trees with a high carbon storage capacity - ideally suited for BECS systems (earlier post).

The Japanese researchers report that the F1 hybrid of Dahurian Larch is the first hybrid generation between Dahurian Larch as seed trees and larch trees as pollen providers. Features of this generation are high resistance to damage from threats such as field mice and weather, and high seedling survival rate. In addition, it has an excellent growth increment like larch, and higher wood density than larch, Sakhalin fir (Abies sachalinensis), and Glehn's spruce (picea glehnii):
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The carbon fixing potential is calculated from the amount of carbon stored in standing timber. To enhance cost performance and carbon storage, which requires an improved growth increment and density of timber, the F1 hybrid of Dahurian larch is seen as the best choice among trees used in Hokkaido for afforestation.

Since 2006 private companies have been planting Super F1 seedlings bred from Nakashibetsu 3 and 5 seed trees, and production has been at the rate of about 20,000 seedlings per year as of April 2007. With the aim of increasing production to 300,000 per year, the government is also offering technology transfers for seedling production, targeting 11 seedling producers. The seed and seedling protection group within the Forest Development Division of Hokkaido's Department of Fisheries and Forestry is accepting inquiries on the super F1 seedlings.

Japan for Sustainability: Hybrid Larch Trees Developed with 30% Greater Carbon Sink Capacity - October 2007

Conifers.org: Larix gmelinii, description.

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

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GE Energy Jenbacher gas engines installed at South Africa's first CDM biogas plant

GE Energy announces it has supplied three of its ecomagination Jenbacher biogas generator sets to the owner of a process effluent-to-biogas plant that will provide electricity to a gas-to-liquids (GTL) refinery in South Africa.

The plant represents South Africa's first commercial independent power producer (IPP) Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) project, a United Nations carbon-emissions trading program under the Kyoto Protocol. The project is expected to produce approximately 33,000 certified emissions reductions (CERs) annually.
This project will serve as an important regional reference plant to both demonstrate the effectiveness of GE's Jenbacher biogas engines, as well as the economic viability of using alternative energy and CDM funding to help address South Africa�s pressing energy and environmental requirements. Prady Iyyanki, CEO of GE Energy's Jenbacher gas engine business
WSP Energy, a London-based IPP and a subsidiary of the listed WSP Group, developed and owns the 4.2-megawatt (MW) biogas project at the world's first GTL refinery, which is owned and operated by the national oil company PetroSA. The GTL refinery is located on the southern tip of South Africa, near the coastal town of Mossel Bay.

The Jenbacher gas engines will be fueled by methane biogas created from the anaerobic digestion of reaction water collected in PetroSA's process-effluent treatment plant. The three Jenbacher JGS 420 GS-B.L. units will each generate 1.4 MW of electricity, which WSP Energy will then sell to PetroSA under a 15-year power purchase agreement (PPA). The units will be fully operational in October.

The project is GE's first Jenbacher biogas plant in this country. In January 2007, GE announced its Jenbacher gen-sets had been installed to generate electricity at South Africa's first landfill gas-to-energy plants:
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The project offers numerous economic and environmental benefits to PetroSA and the region. By utilizing its own existing on-site energy source, PetroSA will replace 4.2 MW of grid-based power from the local electricity utility. In turn, this eliminates the need to produce an equivalent amount of energy at coal-fired generating plants - a key element of South Africa's CDM focus.

Along with receiving debt financing from the South African Development Bank, the CDM sale of emissions credits helped make the PetroSA project economically feasible for WSP Energy. WSP also has announced it will use a portion of its CER sales proceeds to support a regional poverty alleviation initiative. The program enhances the quality of life for a number of South Africa's poor, using the funds to support the creation of sustainable commercial farming operations.

GE is well represented in South Africa through its regional equipment sales and service provider for Jenbacher gas engines, Agaricus Trading cc., which will support the PetroSA biogas project through a 15-year customer service agreement.

GE Energy's Jenbacher gas engine business is a leading manufacturer of gas-fueled reciprocating engines, packaged generator sets and cogeneration systems for power generation as well as gas engines for mechanical drive applications. GE's Jenbacher gas engines run on natural gas or a variety of specialty waste gases, including biogas and landfill gas.

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Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Dynamotive to invest $105 million to develop second-generation biofuel and electricity complexes for rural Argentina

Dynamotive Energy Systems Corporation, a leading second-generation biofuel company and its subsidiary Dynamotive Latinoamericana S.A., announce they have submitted documents to the Government of Corrientes detailing plans to invest approximately $105 million to develop two self-contained biofuel-to-electricity complexes in this northeastern province of Argentina (more on the company's plans in Latin America, here).

Each complex will be comprised of a 15.7 megawatt electricity generating station powered by the majority of the fuel output of two 200-ton-per-day modular plants producing bio-oil from wood waste and residues from nearby forests and other biomass residue. Excess bio-oil produced at these facilities will be sold into commercial and industrial fuel markets.

Dynamotive is one of the companies to have made most progress in the development of second-generation biofuels. Its production process is based on fast-pyrolysis of biomass. Fast-pyrolysis is a process that heats biomass to 450-600 degrees centigrade in the absence of air, which results in a heavy oil (pyrolysis oil, bio-oil, 'biocrude') that can be used as such instead of heating oil, or further refined into a range of fuels and green chemicals (schematic, click to enlarge). Unique to Dynamotive is its modular concept, which allows for flexible, decentralised biofuel production close to the source of the biomass (earlier post). Recently, the company demonstrated its commercial-scale plant in Guelph, Ontario - the first to do so (here).
Dynamotive’s proprietary fast-pyrolysis technology is a proven and cost-effective method of turning agricultural and forest residues into renewable fuel and electric power. Furthermore, we have pioneered our technology as a readily-transportable series of modules that can create such biofuel-to-electricity complexes virtually anywhere in the world. - Andrew Kingston, chief executive officer of Dynamotive
Dynamotive's activities in Argentina focus on two sites to be located approximately 500 miles from Buenos Aires, in Virasoro and Santa Rosa (map, click to enlarge). They are being secured by the Province of Corrientes. The company said the projects will proceed promptly once existing 10-year agreements-in-principle are finalized for the needed supply and cost of the biomass raw materials, and for the pricing structure of the electricity to be produced and transmitted to nearby industry and communities from the complexes. Other similar projects are being planned for additional locations in Corrientes, in Argentina and elsewhere in Latin America:
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Development and construction of the complexes will be implemented by Dynamotive, jointly with TECNA, a major Argentine engineering firm, and financing will be provided by a group of banks and other private sources. When fully operational late next year, the complexes will have available approximately 340,000 dry tons of biomass annually, providing opportunity for further expansion.

Dynamotive said a joint focus of the development of the complexes is to tackle environmental issues arising from vast stockpiles of decomposing wood waste and substantially increase electricity generating capacity in this forested region of Argentina.

The announcement was made in the city of Gobernador Virasoro by Vice President Raúl Parisi of Dynamotive Latinoamericana and Governor Arturo Colombi of Corrientes Province, at a gathering that included city and provincial officials, including Mayor Rodolfo Fernández and members of the provincial and local cabinets.
Dynamotive’s proposed investment reflects strong support for the progress we are making in Corrientes toward economic growth and environmental protection, two goals to which we are all committed. - Arturo Colombi, Governor of Corrientes Province
The biomass-to-energy facilities are expected to foster progress in the region with widespread positive impact on the provincial economies, the local job market and the environment.

In a development not related to the plans in Argentina, but of interest to the bioenergy community, Dynamotive is also experimenting with biochar ('agrichar', 'terra preta') which could lead to the production of carbon-negative fuels (more here and here). By storing a carbon-rich fraction of the pyrolysed biomass in agricultural soils, a low-tech carbon sequestration technique can be developed. The process has shown to result in increased yields for the (energy) crops that are planted on such improved soils.

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

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

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India to roll out real-time data on all standing crops - towards 'planetary biomass management'

The bioeconomy has the theoretical potential to replace a large amount of fossil fuels. Multiple analyses and projections indicate that global sustainable biomass potentials equate to a maximum of around 1400 Exajoules per year by 2050 (earlier post). Currently, the world consumes around 380EJ of fossil energy. However, in order to tap this potential efficiently, new technologies and policies have to be implemented. Interventions will have to occur in a broad range of sectors, from the way livestock is produced to the manner in which biomass is converted into fuels and energy; from carbon management to trade reform.

One of the crucial strategies needed to ensure that biomass trade between countries and continents happens in a sustainable, carbon-reducing and efficient way is to monitor land-use and emission patterns globally. In a globalized world and in the era of intercontinental biomass trade, the use of green fuels in one region can have a range of unintended social, economic and ecological effects in other places.

Ideally, earth observation data on land use, greenhouse gas emissions, and water use in forestry and agriculture would be combined and inform a kind of 'planetary biomass management' strategy (ealier post). A large amount of this kind of data gathered by different countries and institutions is already available - now it needs to be integrated into a more coherent framework. However, most data are being acquired by highly developed countries, whereas developing nations urgently need access to similar data as they stand to become the largest bioenergy producers.

India is taking a first step towards this aim, and interestingly it is relying on an open source platform to do so. The country's Department of Science and Technology (DST) intends to roll out a mechanism to collect real-time satellite data on the health/stress status of all standing crops in the country, and to advise state governments and other stakeholders on how best to deal with the data.

The real-time monitoring of crops will be an invaluable input to the central and state governments to make timely interventions through critical decisions on support prices, credit availability, import and export policies, insurance schemes, irrigation schedules and, indeed, the use of biomass for energy. All agricultural crops have been mapped for the purpose and a 'biomass index' has been developed:
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This will enable us to monitor crops and take critical decisions. We would also be able to advise the farmer on inputs required to ensure that his crop stays healthy. We believe that informed decision-making in this manner would ultimately leave more money in the farmer’s hands. - Kapil Sibal, Minister for Science and Technology
Data on biomass is collected from a range of remotely sensed data of a number of satellites, both Indian and foreign. There are a number of bands in each satellite which picks up data of biomass on a village-to-village basis. Each band of each satellite has different characteristics.

A DST team has worked on these bands using a technique called 'principal component analysis' to arrive at a composite digital image which combines data from different bands of different satellites. The biomass index has been developed based on this composite digital image.

This provides a complex computational challenge involving the development of suitable algorithms. The biomass index so developed is a numerical quantity, which can be used to identify crops, assess acreage and determine the health or stress of crop.

"It’s all basically collection of data [...] and using an algorithm for the purpose of determining various parameters to come to certain conclusions," Sibal said.

This will be a very innovative method of assessing crop composition, crop productivity and crop health on a weekly basis. It is possible to have almost complete data at the village level. The method has been tested and validated on a pilot basis.

The methodology makes use of data from a variety of satellites and most of this is in public domain and freely available. It is, therefore, cheap and has the advantage of being based on an 'open source' platform.

Business Line: DST plans real-time mapping of standing crops - October 1, 2007.

Biopact: Satellites play vital role in understanding the carbon cycle - April 26, 2007

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UNIDO trials sisal waste for biogas and biofertilizer

Tanzania has registered considerable success in testing the use of sisal waste in generating electricity. An ongoing pilot project managed by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) titled 'Cleaner Integral Utilisation of Sisal Waste for Biogas and Biofertilizers' shows that the sisal residues make for an efficient substrate for anaerobic digestion. The biogas waste stream makes for a bio-fertilizer.

Sisal is an agave that yields a stiff fiber used for a range of products, most notably rope and industrial fibers. In the 1970s, global production was about 800,000 tonnes with Kenya and Tanzania accounting for over 30 percent of the total. Other sisal growing countries are China, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Mozambique. In 2006, global production had plummeted to about 268,000 tonnes. The downtrend in sisal production has been attributed to the emergence of synthetic fibers made from petroleum, to poor marketing arrangements, barriers to free trade, non utilization of the entire sisal plant and inadequate research and development.

However, recent interest in natural fibers as replacements for petroleum-based synthetics has given the African sisal industry renewed vigor. Car manufacturers as well as green product designers are looking back into the crop (earlier post).

The more efficient utilization of the entire plant's waste stream could further contribute to reviving the industry. Until recently only 2% of the sisal plant was considered to be useful. New initiatives, amongst which the UNIDO project, now show that the remaining 98 percent has potential economic value; harvesting and processing residues, discarded in the past, now have use as a biomass feedstock capable of yielding renewable and carbon-neutral energy.

The UNIDO project involves a biogas pilot plant at the Hale Sisal Estate in the Korogwe District in the Tanga region, which was able to yield 150 kilowatts of electricity from the plantation's harvesting and processing residues, enough to power a nearby hammer mill for making pulp.

Mayra Sanchez Osuna, UNIDO's Project Manager said the trials have established the viability of using sisal waste to produce the biogas, electricity and bio-fertilizer:
[this] is the first demonstration project for the total utilization of this commodity in an economically feasible and friendly way adding that the results will be transferred to other interested sisal growing nations to replicate.
Observers say the findings will check the power divide existing between the rural and urban communities. Osuna said that the positive effect was leading to possibility of generating electricity in rural areas from locally available renewable sources:
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More than half of the world population has no access to electricity and with the prices of fuel rising relentlessly the search for alternative energy becomes crucial.

The Hale project is part of the efforts to find for alternative applications of sisal to counter the present slump in sisal fibre sales after the introduction of synthetic fibres in the international markets.

Patricia Scott, UNIDO representative in Tanzania said it became clear that the future of the sisal industry depend on the diversification of its uses.

Counting the advantages of sisal biogas utilization she said it adds value to the sisal waste, it solves environmental problems related to the disposal of the waste, it generates energy to be used in the sisal industry, yields a valuable biological fertilizer, and it reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

The Project cost was estimated at US$1,5 million. Financiers include the Common Fund for Commodities (CFC), UNIDO, the Tanzanian Government and privately owned company Katani Limited.


East African Business Week (via AllAfrica): Dar Plans Power From Sisal Waste - October 1, 2007.

Biopact: The bioeconomy at work: oil crisis boosts African sisal industry - December 18, 2006

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Syntec Biofuel acquires catalyst technology for biomass-to-liquids production

Canada's Syntec Biofuel announces that it has signed a definitive purchase agreement with Montilla Capital Inc. to acquire catalyst technology being developed for converting syngas obtained from biomass and biogas into synthetic biofuels, specifically alcohols (ethanol, butanol, methanol and propanol). The agreement includes all the research and development assets used at their laboratory.

Development and research of the catalysts commenced in 2001 in laboratories at the University of British Columbia, and since 2005 have been further developed in house. Syntec is now in phase two development, refining its catalysts using non-precious metals for long term stability tests under industrial conditions and expects to be ready to file a second patent application within the next 6 months. Syntec has undertaken to raise up US$3 million dollars to ramp up technical staff, purchase equipment and provide working capital for development, testing and quantifying the life of the catalysts prior to commercialization.

Against the backdrop of the current ethanol boom, analysts concur that biofuels produced from food crops like corn or rapeseed are not a long-term solution to oil dependence. Discussions increasingly focus on second generation production technologies that can utilize renewable and waste feed stocks such as wood waste, switch grass, agricultural waste and residues from current ethanol producers (corn stover and sugar bagasse).
The industry recognizes that production of corn to ethanol has a negative impact on consumer food prices and farm land while cellulosic conversion of waste products are going to spawn the next generation of growth in the ethanol industry. [...] With oil prices now exceeding $70 a barrel the use of ethanol as a fuel additive is the only option available to reduce our reliance on imported oil. - Michael Jackson, President of Syntec Biofuel
Second generation bioconversion processes can be grouped into two broad pathways: biochemical and thermochemical conversion. Within the latter category, so-called biomass-to-liquids (BtL) processes are one of the options. They consist of gasifying biomass into a syngas, which is then liquefied via catalytic synthesis into a range of ultra-clean 'synthethic biofuels'.

Syntec Biofuel is developing this process, but with a specific focus on non-precious metal catalysts to synthesize specific alcohols (schematic, click to enlarge). High pressure catalytic synthesis requires substantial energy to operate and the risk associated with the high pressure is significant. Syntec Biofuels instead will utilize low pressure catalytic synthesis, which has been used for methanol production for many decades:
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Unlike the current fermentation processes used for first generation biofuels, Syntec's catalysts will produce biofuels from virtually unlimited biomass sources such as municipal waste, wood waste such as saw dust and bark from lumber mills, corn stover and sugar bagasse from existing ethanol producers, waste gas, such as biogas from landfills, sewage, manure, and producer gas (thermal gasification of biomass or other carbonaceous material such as municipal solid waste).

Syntec's revenue model will be based on Joint Venture projects, licensing fee for use of the Syntec technology and a royalty of approximately 7.5 cents per gallon of alcohol produced plus a commission on the sale of catalysts to licensees.

The Company has agreed to issue 11,000,000 shares in exchange for the Syntec Assets and will assume liabilities not exceeding $350,000. The purchase of the Assets has been approved by the board of Directors of Syntec Biofuel Inc. Syntec’s current business is in the animal food and supplement sector, which the Company proposes to phase out in due course.

The first phase of the development of the catalysts was funded through private equity as well as the Canadian government agencies, National Research Council of Canada and Natural Resources Canada.

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British recycling company to export wood chips to Germany for bioenergy

A huge mountain of wood chippings from Dorset, in the UK, is to be shipped to mainland Europe where it will be used to provide energy to power homes and businesses in Germany. Work on moving the 2,000 tonnes of chippings from Eco Composting’s 13-acre site at Parley, on the outskirts of Bournemouth International Airport, got underway this week.

The company chose to export the biomass rather than sending it to landfill, after its customer, chipboard manufacturer Kronanspan, in north Wales, raised the material quality specification meaning that recycled wood from civic amenity sites can not be used to make chipboard. Record electricity and fossil fuel prices (including coal) and efficient, dedicated biomass power plants in Europe make the trade of such 'opportunity fuels' feasible.

Waste management specialist SITA UK has worked closely with Eco Composting, its sub-contractor, and Gloucestershire-based company Boomeco to find a ‘green friendly’ solution for the disposal of the wood. The wood comes from household recycling centres across Dorset which are operated by SITA UK on behalf of local councils.

The chippings, equivalent to about 100 truckloads, are being taken to Southampton Docks ready for shipment to Europe. On arrival in Germany the wood will be transferred to a biomass plant in the north of the country for burning, generating electricity for homes and businesses.
SITA UK, Eco and Boomeco have worked hard on finding a safe and environmentally friendly solution to the disposal of this wood. It’s good news that it will be used to provide clean and green energy for homes and businesses. Of course, it would be even better news if the wood chippings were to remain on our site and used to provide power for Dorset homes. To date, our plans have met with great support and we’re hopeful planning permission will be granted. - Andy Hill, Eco’s Sales and Marketing Director
Biomass plants were highlighted in last year’s Stern Report on Global Warming as a way of tackling climate change. They burn wood products but in a way that is carbon neutral and, therefore, does not contribute towards global warming.

Eco Composting has officially submitted a planning application to build its own £7 million biomass plant on its existing composting and wood recycling site at Parley. If approved it would be one of the first facilities of its type in the UK. The 25,000 tonne capacity facility would be capable of generating 2.7MW of electricity a year. The electricity would be sent to the national grid at nearby Redhill and be enough to power about 5,000 local homes:
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Currently there is only one other biomass plant operating in the UK although a number are in the pipeline and they have been operating in Europe for five years. According to Hill, they not only make environmental, but economic, sense.

Eco estimate that the wood chippings being shipped to Germany would provide power for about 5,000 homes for six weeks. If permission is granted, Eco’s biomass plant could be up and running by 2009.

Eco Composting is one of the UK’s leading organics recycling firms, annually processing 120,000 tonnes of material on its 14-acre site at Parley, Dorset. End products include turf, enriched topsoil, compost and woodchip. Eco employs 29 staff and recorded a £3.5m turnover in the year to December 31, 2006.

Biomass trade is growing rapidly and is moving beyond regional borders. Spot coal prices have reached all time records in Europe, at over US$100 per tonne (CIF), whereas carbon prices have remained firm. This has prompted some major power companies to import biofuels from other countries. Recently, Dutch power company Essent started importing coffee husks from Brazil, to be used for co-firing at one of its coal plants. It has contracted to import 5,000 tons in a first stage, with an option to purchase a second load of 20,000 tonnes.

Depending on their bulk density, biomass residues from agriculture, forestry and industry can be shipped over long distances competitively. However, freight prices have increased considerably over the past years.

Picture: Andy Hill, Eco’s Sales and Marketing Director, with some of the wood chippings which are bound for Germany. Credit: Eco Composting.

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Monday, October 01, 2007

Ceres and TAES team up to develop high-biomass sorghum for next-generation biofuels

Energy crop company Ceres, Inc. and the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station (TAES) of The Texas A&M University System announced today that they have entered into an exclusive, multi-year joint research and commercialization agreement for high-biomass sorghum. The plants are not designed to produce grain, but rather vast amounts of biomass - the raw material for a new generation of biofuels made from stems, stalks and leaves. If the expectations are met, the new sorghums processed by next-generation conversion technologies could yield a whopping 2000 gallons/acre (18,800 l/ha) of cellulosic ethanol.

Today, sorghum-to-ethanol production uses the grain, like corn, but the plants themselves hold the greatest potential for biofuel production. New thermochemical and biochemical conversion technologies are making it possible to utilize the entire plant, including its carbohydrates that comprise plant cell walls, namely cellulose.

Sorghum is a genus comprising many different tropical grass species. All of them take the so-called C4 pathway to fix carbon dioxide through photosynthesis to make carbohydrates, a far more efficient strategy than that of C3 plants. Sweet sorghum and grain sorghums are cultivated most widely, with the latter used as fodder in the West, and as food in many developing countries (map shows suitable regions for sorghum, click to enlarge). Several species have received a great deal of research attention lately because they are seen as near-ideal crops for cellulosic biofuels and biogas (earlier post). So far, scientists have succeeded in designing more robust, drought-tolerant varieties (here), cultivars with a low lignin content (earlier post), hybrids with high sugar content for ethanol (more here), high-biomass yielding varieties (earlier post), and even sorghums resistant to aluminum toxicity - an achievement of major importance for the developing world (more here).
Sorghum produces high yields, is naturally drought tolerant and can thrive in places that do not support corn and other food crops. Sorghum also fits into established production systems and is harvested the year it is planted, unlike perennial grasses, so it fits well in a crop mix with perennial species and existing crops, like cotton. - Dr. Bill Rooney, Plant scientist of the A&M System's Texas Agricultural Experiment Station (TAES)
As next-generation bioconversion technologies mature, farmers will transition from growing as much grain per hectare to producing as much biomass as they can per hectare, with as little energy and agronomic inputs as possible. This means new crops and specialized hybrids like high-biomass sorghum types will be needed.

A pioneer in developing high-biomass sorghum, Dr. Bill Rooney's first breeding lines - the precursors to hybrids - can approach 20 feet (6 meters) under favorable conditions, and could produce more than 2,000 gallons of ethanol per acre (18,800 liters per hectare) - more than four times the current starch-to-ethanol process:
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To accelerate product development, Ceres and TAES will work together to expand their marker-assisted breeding efforts. Markers allow plant breeders to identify useful traits in seed tissue or when plants are still seedlings. Large numbers of markers provide a roadmap of the sorghum genome, cutting years off development timelines for new products, and making it easier to improve the makeup of the plants to facilitate processing. Markers and biotechnology will be crucial for developing sorghum for cellulosic biofuels.

Peter Mascia, Ceres Vice President of Product Development, said Ceres has Texas-sized expectations for the collaboration. "When we combine their resources with our high-throughput trait development capabilities, we believe we can double the rate of improvement to biomass yields, while expanding the range of the crop for earlier planting in cooler and drier conditions, especially on so-called marginal or unproductive land," he says. Mascia expects that commercial quantities of the initial hybrids will be available in time to meet the requirements of the first cellulosic biorefineries currently being planned.

As part of this agreement, Ceres will obtain exclusive commercialization rights to TAES's high biomass sorghum hybrids developed in the joint research program. The TAES program will receive royalties as well as financial and technology support from Ceres. Other aspects of the collaboration were not disclosed.

Ceres, Inc. is leading developer of high-yielding energy crops that can be planted as feedstocks for cellulosic ethanol production. Its development efforts cover switchgrass, sorghum, miscanthus, energycane and woody crops. Founded as a plant genomics company, Ceres holds one of the world's largest proprietary collections of fully sequenced plant genes. Recently, the company raised $75 million to develop dedicated energy crops (earlier post).

The Texas Agricultural Experiment Station operates upon the foundation that "Agriculture is Life." TAES is a science and technology agency under The Texas A&M University System charged with conducting basic and applied research in agriculture, the life sciences and natural resources. The agency's mission is to generate scientific knowledge that benefits both consumers and the agriculture industry in Texas and beyond.

Picture credit: Dr. William Rooney.

Texas A&M University: Bioenergy Initiative: Designing Sorghum for the U.S. Biofuels Industry [*.pdf], Department of Soil & Crop Sciences

William L. Rooney, Designing Sorghum as a Dedicated Bioenergy Crop, Department of Soil & Crop Sciences, Texas A&M University.

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

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

Biopact: Major breakthrough: researchers engineer sorghum that beats aluminum toxicity - August 27, 2007

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

Biopact: Sweet super sorghum - yield data for the ICRISAT hybrid - February 21, 2007

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

Biopact: Germans research sorghum varieties for biogas production - April 12, 2007

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New survey finds sea change in Americans' views on climate change: action needed now

A growing number of Americans consider global warming an important threat that calls for drastic action, and 40% say that a presidential candidate's position on the issue will strongly influence how they vote, according to a national survey conducted by Yale University, Gallup and the ClearVision Institute.

One of the most surprising findings was the growing sense of urgency, said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change and the study's principal investigator. Nearly half of Americans now believe that global warming is either already having dangerous impacts on people around the world or will in the next 10 years - a 20-percentage-point increase since 2004. These results indicate a sea change in public opinion.

'When do you think global warming will start to have dangerous impacts on people around the world - is it having dangerous impacts now, will it have dangerous impacts in 10 years, in 25 years, in 50 years, in 100 years, or will it never have dangerous impacts?'
The survey's findings further include:
  • 62% percent of respondents believe that life on earth will continue without major disruptions only if society takes immediate and drastic action to reduce global warming.
  • 68% of Americans support a new international treaty requiring the United States to cut its emissions of carbon dioxide 90 percent by the year 2050. Yet, Leiserowitz notes, the United States has yet to sign the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty that would require the United States to cut its emissions 7 percent by the year 2012.
  • a surprising 40% of respondents say a presidential candidate's position on global warming will be either extremely important (16 percent) or very important (24 percent) when casting their ballots. With the presidential primaries and general election near, candidates should recognize that global warming has become an important issue for the electorate.
  • 85% of those polled support requiring automakers to increase the fuel efficiency of cars, trucks and SUVs to 35 miles per gallon, even if it meant a new car would cost up to $500 more; and 82 percent support requiring electric utilities to produce at least 20 percent of their electricity from renewable energy sources, even if it cost the average household an extra $100 a year.
  • majorities of Americans, however, continue to oppose carbon taxes as a way to address global warming - either in the form of gasoline (67 percent against) or electricity taxes (71 percent against).
  • 50% of respondents say they are personally worried - 15 percent say a 'great deal' - about global warming.
Many Americans, however, believe that global warming is a very serious threat to other species, people and places far away, said Leiserowitz, but not so serious of a threat to themselves, their own families or local communities. Nonetheless, they do strongly support a number of national and international policies to address this problem:
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The survey was conducted July 23-26, 2007, using telephone interviews with 1,011 adults, aged 18-plus. Respondents came from Gallup's household panel, which was originally recruited through random selection methods. The final sample is considered to be representative of U.S. adults nationwide, with a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

The Yale Project on Climate Change at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies supports public discourse and engagement with climate-change solutions.

Gallup, Inc., headquartered in Washington, D.C., is one of the world�s leading research companies focusing on studying human nature and behavior. The Gallup Poll has been monitoring U.S. public opinion since 1935, and Gallup now tracks public opinion in over 100 countries worldwide on an ongoing basis.

The ClearVision Institute is a nonprofit organization dedicated to applying entertainment education as a social-change strategy to address climate change through U.S. commercial television.

Yale University, Gallup, ClearVision Institute: American Opinions on Global Warming [*.pdf].

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Caltech Ventures to produce ethanol from cassava in Ghana

Caltech Ventures Ghana Limited, a biofuel company in part founded by members of the Ghanese diaspora, will begin the production of ethanol from cassava at Hodzo, near the city of Ho, next year when its $6.5 million production plant would be ready. The company's total investment in the venture is $10 million, managing director Chris Quarshie told African media.

Cassava is a starch rich energy crop that thrives on relatively poor soils and requires a limited amount of inputs. A major food crop in Western Africa, countries there have however tried to kickstart an industrial cassava sector, which would be highly lucrative. Growing demand for ethanol and record oil prices may at last make the plans more viable. As an energy crop, cassava yields biofuels with an excellent energy balance (earlier post). With current best technologies, some experts estimate that cassava ethanol is commercially viable when oil is above $38 per barrel.

According to the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), one of the Green Revolution institutions and member of the CGIAR, small farmers and the rural poor across the developing world stand to benefit from cassava ethanol (previous post).

Caltech Ventures Ghana Limited has established a 162 hectare cassava seed plantation with plans to expand it to 486 hectares next year. It says 60 percent of the six million litres of ethanol to be produced yearly would be exported. It has also organised a corps of cassava out-growers to provide the needed raw material for take-off. The project has the potential to provide 600 jobs, up from the current 140, when its ethanol plant comes to full production:
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Mr Mawutor Goh, Ho Municipal Chief Executive commended the people for placing their collective interest and that of the country above their individual interests thus paving the way for the company to be established there.

He assured communities in the area that the sustenance of the company would be a catalyst to the rapid development of infrastructure such as good road network towards developing the potentials of the area for the rapid improvement in their standard of living.

Mr Goh urged chiefs in the Ho Municipality to support the company and encourage their compatriots who had the means to invest at home.

Togbe Akpasu VIII, Fiaga of Hodzo, thanked the company for its demonstration of goodwill towards the people and gave an assurance of his people's fullest co-operation towards the smooth operations of the venture.

Accra Daily Mail: Hodzo community commended for investor friendliness - September 24, 2007.

Energy Current: Ghana begins ethanol production next year - September 28, 2007.

Biopact: CIAT: cassava ethanol could benefit small farmers in South East Asia - September 24, 2007

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

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Joint BioEnergy Institute receives early funding from U.S. DOE

The Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI), one of three new U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Bioenergy Research Centers, will receive $6.7 million in initial funding (FY2007) to begin research on biofuels – liquid fuels derived from the solar energy stored in plant biomass. This funding is in addition to $125 million DOE plans to invest in JBEI over the next five years, part of a total $375 million DOE investment in basic biofuels research.

JBEI is a partnership between DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), DOE’s Sandia National Laboratories, DOE’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the University of California campuses of Berkeley and Davis, and the Carnegie Institution. JBEI will be headquartered in a leased building in the East Bay, central to all partners. In the meantime, work will begin in the Potter Street bioscience facility of Berkeley Lab and at other partner institutions.

DOE Under Secretary for Science Raymond L. Orbach, whose Office of Science’s Biological and Environmental Research Genomics:GTL research program is funding the Bioenergy Research Centers, said:
Making biofuels cost-effective will require transformational breakthroughs in basic science. This early infusion of funds will enable JBEI to get underway immediately on the urgent quest for the breakthroughs our nation needs to usher in a new biofuels economy.
Research has shown that harnessing even a tiny fraction of the total solar energy available each year could meet most if not all of the U.S.’s annual transportation energy needs, and scientific studies have consistently ranked biofuels among the top candidates for accomplishing this goal. However, the commercial-scale production of clean, efficient, cost-effective next-generation biofuels will require technology-transforming scientific breakthroughs.
JBEI's focused research program will provide the scientific and engineering advances required to make biofuels a major component of the nation's energy supply. These supplemental funds highlight both the significance of the problem and the urgency to address it. - Harvey Blanch, JBEI’s Chief Science and Technology Officer, Berkeley Lab and UC Berkeley
JBEI researchers intend to meet this challenge through the conversion of lignocellulosic biomass into biofuels. Lignocelluose, the most abundant organic material on the planet, is a mix of complex sugars and lignin that gives strength and structure to plant cell walls. By extracting simple fermentable sugars from lignocellulose and producing biofuels from them, the potential of the most energy-efficient and environmentally benign fuel crops can be realized:
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To promote the rapid commercialization of JBEI results and in keeping with its Bay Area heritage, this DOE Bioenergy Research Center is uniquely organized along the lines of a biotech startup company, with very focused research objectives and a structure to enable it to quickly pursue promising scientific and technological developments. The goal of JBEI is to achieve measurable success within the next five years.
We are delighted that the formal agreement between DOE and the JBEI partners has been completed so that we can begin our work to solve one of the most important challenges of our time. DOE funding will enable JBEI researchers to perform research that can break down the most significant barriers to the development of affordable, renewable, transportation fuels from biomass. - Jay Keasling, JBEI’s Chief Executive Officer, Director of Berkeley Lab’s Physical Biosciences Division and a UC Berkeley Professor of Chemical Engineering
With this new Institute, Berkeley Lab will continue to play a critical role in helping to solve the transportation fuel problem in the United States and the world. - Steve Chu, Director of Berkeley Lab
In addition to JBEI, a second DOE Bioenergy Research Center is being run by a partnership under the leadership of DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and a third by a partnership led by the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Michigan State University.

Berkeley Lab: Bay Area’s Joint BioEnergy Institute Gets Financial Kick-Start from DOE - September 28, 2007.

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Merrill Lynch starts biofuels indexes

Merrill Lynch & Co., the third-biggest U.S. securities firm, has started two indexes tracking raw materials used in the production of biofuels, as record oil prices spur demand for alternative fuels. The MLCX Biofuels Index tracks seven commodities including sugar, corn and rapeseed, and holdings are based on production and calorific potential. The MLCX Biofuels Plus Index includes the seven commodities as well as gasoline and diesel. The company made the announcement to Bloomberg LP, in which it is a passive minority investor.

Governments are encouraging alternative fuels to limit carbon-dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and reduce dependency on oil imports. Crude oil rose to a record $83.90 a barrel on September 20 in New York. The European Union wants biofuels to account for an average of 10 percent of transport fuel by 2020, from 1 percent in 2005.

Merrill's indexes are based on a strategy that buys and sells contracts over 15 days to help reduce losses caused by the so-called contango in the market, the company said. A market is in contango when prices of commodities close to delivery are cheaper than those delivered at later dates. In such a situation, investors holding futures positions have to pay more when renewing monthly contracts, reducing returns. Funds that track commodity indexes allow investors to replicate the gains and declines in the prices of a selection of raw materials without owning them.

The company says that investors seeking to profit from rapid expansion in the ethanol and biodiesel industries typically had to recur to traditional agricultural commodity indices or futures:
Such instruments are vulnerable to very negative roll returns, or negative carry, due to the storage dynamics of the underlying agricultural commodity markets. - Francisco Blanch, Head of global commodity research, Merrill Lynch
The firm’s new indices have been designed to mitigate the negative roll returns inherent to many agricultural commodities markets:
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They also offer additional returns by overweighting crops that produce the most energy in biofuel production, notably sugar and soybeans.

The MLCX Biofuels Index weights commodities according to production levels and calorific potential, in order to reflect their economic value.

The MLCX Biofuels Plus Index adds gasoline and diesel to the commodities in the MLCX Biofuels Index. The MLCX Biofuels Plus Index reflects how current technology and infrastructure is more geared to blending biofuels with conventional fossil fuels than to offering a pure biofuel alternative.

Engineering News: Merrill Lynch launches biofuels indices - October 1, 2007.

Bloomberg: Merrill Starts Biofuels Indexes on Alternative Energy Demand - October 1, 2007.

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Clinton Global Initiative launches two biofuel projects for poverty alleviation

The Clinton Global Initiative is launching two biofuel projects aimed at alleviating poverty. The first, a project with an estimated value of $100 million, involves the production by rural communities of biodiesel from Jatropha curcas in the West Indies. In the second, worth an estimated $300 million, FourWinds Capital Management, in collaboration with local partners and a team of scientific experts, will develop investment programs in closed systems that focus on sustainable tropical biofuel production projects that maximize environmental and social welfare.

Biodiesel in the Caribbean
The Petra Trust and the Governments of St Vincent and Grenadine plan to initiate a wide-ranging public and private partnership in the West Indies region bringing together the Governments of St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG), Guyana and the technology and management expertise of the Petra Group to develop a world leading biodiesel facility.

Employing technology developed by Petra Group in Malaysia, the technology and agricultural programme which will alleviate rural poverty in Guyana, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and provide employment for Haitians.

The commitment is based on a four-step programme. The project would first establish a joint-venture between Petra Group and the Governments of Guyana, St Vincent and the Grenadines to manage, administer and benefit from the biodiesel project. This central corporation would be responsible for developing the business plan, selecting the properties, commissioning the plant, distributing the seeds, transportation, and managing the programme.

The Petra Group would then work with the Government of SVG to establish nurseries on the islands to grow the Jathropa curcas plant. It would provide the first 10-20 million seeds - starting with the pilot nursery of 2 million seeds. These will be grown in state-run nurseries or on individual farmers' small holdings – providing both wealth and employment. The central agency would collect the saplings and then transport the young plants to Guyana to be grown and harvested:
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In Guyana, where there is land in abundance – the project will set up plantations to grow the Jathropha plants. Individual farmers would be offered the saplings – enabling them to create their own small holdings. On larger plantations, where labour may be limited, the projects envisages to employ workers from Haiti travelling to Guyana to work the harvest, thus creating new employment for many Haitians.

The seeds would be collected by the 'Central Corporation' and transported to the biodiesel facility where it would be refined into biofuel and exported. The proceeds of the sale would be split between Petra and the participating Governments – thus ensuring that all parties work together to secure success of the programme. Clearly proving a commercially driven project can be developed in such a way as to ensure significant socio-economic progress without damaging the economic value.

The project will initially provide and source the professional management expertise to set up the programme; but in time it is intended that local people will be trained to take over the development and management of the project. Over the course of the next decade it is expected other refineries could be established across the region and an extensive network of Jathropha nurseries and plantations would be set up.

In addition this project has enormous potential to be replicated in other areas of the world – employing the same public-private partnership and technology expertise.

Sustainable tropical biofuels

The objective of the FourWinds program is to offer viable alternative energy solutions that are net positive for the environment in terms of carbon emissions and biodiversity, and that achieve a balance of nature together with an equitable treatment of local peoples.

In addition to the biofuel component, other elements that are expected to be included in the program are reforestation, biodiversity management, bio-prospecting, land rehabilitation and water table management.

Not all biofuels have been shown to offer net positive benefits for the environment across the production value chain, and many are not truly energy efficient. In addition, the planting of crops for biofuels has led in some cases to deforestation and acreage stress for agriculture land that was traditionally used for food or feed production.

As targets for biofuel use rise, the impact of the type of biofuels produced on both the environment and on the local communities is becoming increasingly critical.

There are many types of materials that can be used for biofuels. They vary not only in yield, but also in labor requirements, energy consumption, water usage, soil stress, biodiversity impact, and carbon efficiency.

Integrating the full system and resources of the environment into a community program can produce more eco-friendly biofuels, but can also provide other sources of return from biodiversity and reforestation to conservation and medicinal applications.

About the Clinton Global Initiative
President Bill Clinton launched the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) in 2005 as a non-partisan catalyst for action, bringing together a community of global leaders to devise and implement innovative solutions to some of the world’s most pressing challenges.

As a non-profit, 501(c)(3) endeavor of the William J. Clinton Foundation, CGI draws strength from a highly diverse membership base that represents the full spectrum of political, ideological, religious, ethnic, and geographic backgrounds. Members include current and former heads of state, top business executives, preeminent scholars, and representatives of key non-governmental organizations working together for a common cause.

The defining characteristics of the Clinton Global Initiative are its action-oriented nature and its track record of converting pioneering ideas into viable solutions with tangible results. CGI members develop ‘commitments to action’, focusing on practical, effective problem-solving measures that can be taken now. Member commitments are comprehensive, formal plans of action with timetables for evaluating progress. They are developed within one or more CGI areas of focus, which change annually to address the most imperative global issues requiring attention. We have designated education, energy & climate change, global health, and poverty alleviation as the areas of focus for 2007.

In this era of remarkable global interdependence, ensuring more equitable access to existing and future resources is a moral and practical imperative for us all.

Clinton Global Initiative: Eco-Integration, 2007 - September 2007.

Clinton Global Initiative: Development of a Jethropha Curcus powered Bio-diesel project, 2007 - September 2007.

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Sunday, September 30, 2007

Microbial fuel cell development speeds up: from biopower in space to the developing world

A few days ago a team of MIT materials science students won first prize in the inaugural MADMEC (MIT and Dow Materials Engineering Contest) with a microbial fuel cell (MFC) that efficiently converts cellulosic biomass into electricity. And in this week's issue of Journal of Power Sources, biological engineers at Oregon State University report they designed an MFC that is capable of generating about 10 times more electricity than previously possible from an air cathode microbial fuel cell of the same size. This presents an occasion to focus on the concept a bit more in depth.

Recent design breakthroughs and efficiency leaps have taken microbial fuel cells out of their experimental status and ready to be used in concrete applications. The devices can clean waste water and deliver renewable energy while doing so. In principle they can be fed virtually any type of biomass, from rotten fruit and cellulose to algae and mosquitos. Electronic gadgets are already being powered by MFCs (earlier post). And thanks to self-sustaining microbial fuel cells, robots could soon perform difficult tasks fully autonomously by feeding on... flies. More importantly, scientists think biological fuel cells will revolutionize energy generation in space, but also in the developing world.

A bio-battery or microbial fuel cell converts chemical energy, available in an organic substrate, directly into electricity. To achieve this, bacteria are used as a catalyst to convert substrate into electrons. The micro-organisms can convert a huge variety of organic compounds into CO2, water and energy. They use the produced energy to grow and to maintain their own metabolism. However, by using a MFC we can harvest a part of this microbial energy in the form of electricity.

Schematic of a microbial fuel cell. Microbes in the anode compartment metabolize organic fuel (in this case glucose) and release electrons, ions and C02. In the cathode compartment electrons combine with ions and oxygen to form water and close the circuit. Credit: IntAct Labs
MFCs consist of an anode, a cathode, a proton or cation exchange membrane and an electrical ciruit. The bacteria live in the anode and convert a substrate such as glucose, acetate but also waste water into CO2, protons and electrons. Under aerobic conditions, bacteria use oxygen or nitrate as a final electron acceptor to produce water. However, in the anode of a MFC, no oxygen is present and bacteria need to switch from their natural electron acceptor to an insoluble acceptor, such as the MFC anode. Due to the ability of bacteria to transfer electrons to an insoluble electron acceptor, we can use a MFC to collect the electrons originating from the microbial metabolism. The electron transfer can occur either via membrane-associated components, soluble electron shuttles or nano-wires.

The electrons then flow through an electrical circuit with a load or a resistor to the cathode. The potential difference (Volt) between the anode and the cathode, together with the flow of electrons (Ampere) results in the generation of electrical power (Watt). The protons flow through the proton or cation exchange membrane to the cathode. At the cathode, an electron acceptor is chemically reduced. Idealy, oxygen is reduced to water. To obtain a sufficient oxygen reduction reaction (ORR) rate a platina-catalyst is sometimes used. However, many researchers have meanwhile developed non-noble metal catalysts.

MFCs can be very large, several cubic meters by volume, or extremely small. Just like ordinary batteries, they can be coupled in series or in parallel. Until recently their energy density remained quite low. But major efficiency leaps are being made.

Efficiency breakthrough
In this week's issue of Journal of Power Sources, biological engineers at Oregon State University report they designed a microbial fuel cell that is capable of generating about 10 times more electricity than previously possible from an air cathode microbial fuel cell of the same size.

This design breakthrough could allow microbial fuel cells to be used more widely as sources of sustainable energy, says Hong Liu, lead author and assistant professor in the OSU Department of Biological and Ecological Engineering.

The new design could ultimately lead to portable systems for power generation that are simultaneously capable of providing reusable water for developing nations and remote areas. The fuel cell design could also significantly reduce the amount of electricity used at large wastewater treatment facilities.

The new design, developed with fellow OSU professor Yanzhen Fan and OSU graduate student Hongqiang Hu, involves sandwiching a cloth layer between the anode and the cathode parts of the microbial fuel cell, a configuration that greatly reduces the internal resistance, resulting in a much higher power density, Liu says.

In lab experiments, Liu’s team successfully generated 1,010 watts per cubic meter of reactor, or enough to power 16 60-watt light bulbs. The highest previous level of sustainable electricity generated from a cubic meter of air cathode microbial fuel cell is less than 115 watts. In experiments done even more recently, Liu and colleagues have generated more than 1,500 watts from the same reactor volume:
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The design improvements could eventually lead to a dramatic reduction in the cost of operating wastewater treatment plants in the U.S. and elsewhere. Five percent of the electricity in the U.S. is used for water and wastewater treatment, mainly to power pumps and other equipment. By incorporating microbial fuel cells in water treatment facilities, the cost of operation could be reduced, Liu says.

Although scaling up microbial fuel cells to help power large wastewater facilities is a long-term goal of Liu’s, she says small scale systems for households in the developing world will be feasible sooner.
It would be useful to build a smaller system for individual households. This is something the world can use very soon, especially in countries like China and India. Our research results are very promising. There is a real future here, and I hope we can make a small contribution to the world. - Hong Liu, assistant professor in the OSU Department of Biological and Ecological Engineering
While microbial fuel cells can't solve all global environmental and energy problems, they can be a great help. They can feed on virtually any type of biomass and generate clean, renewable power on the spot. Their capacity to clean waste water and deliver clean drinking water while simultaneously generating electricity, would allow developing countries to 'leapfrog' towards sustainable water treatment.

Liu’s research is supported in part by a $200,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation through the Sun Grant Initiative, the OSU General Research Fund and the OSU Agricultural Research Foundation (earlier post on this interesting funding initiative that aims to kickstart the bioeconomy).

MIT BioVolt team: Ethan Crumlin G, Andrew Hoy, Joseph Walish DMSE G, Peter Weigele (consultant), John Craven, Gerardo Jose la O' DMSE G, and Jungik Kim (consultant) with two microbial fuel cell prototypes.
Like Liu, the winning MIT students see immediate applications for their MFC in the developing world, where millions of people are still not connected to the grid. Their BioVolt prototype unit, which relies anaerobic organisms to digest cellulose and convert it to electricity and water in a microbial fuel cell, could power households in remote villages in a decentralised manner.

Across the world, biomass materials are currently utilized in vastly inefficient combustion processes (open fires) that lead to harmful smoke pollution and have become a primary factor in respiratory infections. Indoor smoke pollution kills an estimated 2 million women and children each year. Efficient and cost-effective MFCs could prompt households to use other types of biomass instead of wood, and switch to an electric future. This would solve a major health crisis and save forests.

Bio-power in space
The good thing about MFCs is that some of the world's top scientists in the space industry are working on them too, in futuristic settings. NASA researchers think they could power future space habitats (like a Mars base), because they are far more flexible than existing power systems. Their research could find applications in some of the poorest regions here on Earth.

The multiple advantages of biology's mechanisms become apparent when you take things to their extreme - to space. Traditional systems for making electricity in space depend on the hardest of hardware: photovoltaics (solar panels), hydrogen fuel cells, radioisotope thermal generators. These need to be 'manufactured' and hauled along. At a meeting of the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) last fall, Matthew Silver, a space systems engineer who heads IntAct Labs in Cambridge, Mass., presented radical ideas for using biology and bioenergy instead, in a new generation of power supplies.

Unlike the older systems, the proposed devices would be 'grown' instead of 'manufactured'. They generate electrons using microbes that live in mud, or proteins native to the human ear or in photosynthetic bacteria. They would feed on carbohydrates contained in biomass that can readily be produced, stored and handled. In short, they would make the old science fiction concept of the 'carbohydrate economy' a reality.

In theory, biological power systems offer a number of advantages. Existing systems such as solar panels are based on physical and chemical processes that are difficult and costly to manufacture, and difficult to modify once fabricated. Biological systems may offer a high power-to-weight ratio, convenient fuel storage and many of them make useful byproducts like molecular oxygen. But the ultimate promise is this: they might be grown on demand, in space.

Conceptual drawing of a Mars base based on bio-power (click to enlarge). A greenhouse, microbial fuel cells, and algal growing compartments are all visible. Image by Chris Lund.
Credit: IntAct Labs
Some of the most promising bacteria emerging from recent MFC research concerns the genus Geobacter, an anaerobic organism that Derek Lovley, of the University of Massachusetts, discovered in sediment in 1987. To make energy, Geobacter oxidize organic matter, in the process transferring electrons to iron oxide particles in the surrounding soil or muck. In a fuel cell, a graphite electrode would substitute for the iron oxide as the electron acceptor. Because Geobacter and related organisms can create an electric current directly to electrodes, Lovley terms them 'electricigens'.

Basing a fuel cell on microbes offers many theoretical advantages over the hydrogen or methane fuel cell, Lovley says. "A catalyst is not needed, and catalysts are normally expensive and easily fouled." A second advantage comes from the mucky nature of the fuel itself. "The fuel doesn't have to be clean," says Lovley. "It can actually be dirt, or waste products."

As Silver envisions it, a microbial fuel cell could digest human waste and other organic garbage during a trip to Mars. NASA's Waste Processing and Resource Recovery Workshop estimated that a crew of six would, on a low-carb diet, produce 10.55 kilograms of organic waste per day en route to Mars. That quantity of waste, Silver calculates, could produce up to about 1 kilowatt of constant power in a microbial fuel cell. NASA has estimated that life support systems on such a craft would need roughly 1 kilowatt per person during a cruise to Mars.

The carbon dioxide produced by bacterial oxidization of organic waste could be used to grow 'crops' in sunlit chambers, producing molecular oxygen as a byproduct. The feedstock could be algae or other carbohydrate containing plants, that could then be used to feed the microbial fuel cell and make more electricity. A similar process could create electricity on Mars.

While prototype microbial fuel cells have used a single strain of microbe, multiple organisms could increase the power output, particularly if the input were organic wastes. "We presented to NIAC the fact that different bacteria metabolize different things," says Silver. "A microbial fuel cell could use cascading chambers," where the output of one cell becomes the feedstock for a successive cell. For example, when bacteria in the genus Clostridium metabolize sugar, they do not use all the energy available in the sugar. Geobacter, however, can metabolize the waste products of some Clostridium, Silver suggests. Even better, Silver adds, through genetic engineering, "a novel organism could be designed that digests a greater range of inputs."

Using organic material as fuel leads to another advantage of microbial fuel cells for space exploration: organic matter is easy to store. While electricity from a photovoltaic panel must be stored in massive batteries or another complicated storage system, storage requirements for bacterial power units would be minimal, because the microbes could be fed to generate electricity as needed.

Another potential advantage of biological power systems is their "homegrown" potential. The complex material conversions needed to manufacture the power systems could be performed by microorganisms; they would not require the heavy industrial processes used to make PV panels. Even the polymers used to encase various elements could be grown, not fabricated, Silver suggests.

Silver says, "If you design it right, you could imagine having the ability to fabricate your technology on the lunar or Martian surface. Imagine looking at power systems not as something that is extremely valuable, but as something that can be grown as needed."

Back on earth, MFCs have allowed scientists to take important steps towards making robots fully autonomous. To survive without human help, a robot needs to be able to generate its own energy. So Chris Melhuish and his team of robotics experts at the University of the West of England in Bristol developed a robot that catches flies and digests them in a special reactor cell that generates electricity.

Called EcoBot II, the robot is part of a drive to make "release and forget" robots that can be sent into dangerous or inhospitable areas to carry out remote industrial or military monitoring of, say, temperature or toxic gas concentrations. Sensors on the robot feed a data logger that periodically radios the results back to a base station.

The robot's energy source is the sugar in the polysaccharide called chitin that makes up a fly's exoskeleton. EcoBot II digests the flies in an array of eight microbial fuel cells, which use bacteria from sewage to break down the sugars, releasing electrons that drive an electric current (schematic, click to enlarge).

In its present form, EcoBot II still has to be manually fed fistfuls of dead bluebottles, but the ultimate aim of the UWE robotics team is to make the droid predatory, using sewage as a bait to catch the flies.

One of the great things about flies is that you can get them to come to you, says Melhuish. The team has yet to tackle this, but speculates that it is not a major problem; it would involve using a bottleneck-style flytrap with some form of pump to suck the flies into the digestion chambers.

With a top speed of 10 centimetres per hour, EcoBot II's roving prowess is still modest to say the least. Every 12 minutes it gets enough energy to take a step forwards two centimetres and send a transmission back, says Melhuish. But it does not need to catch too many flies to do so, says team member Ioannis Ieropoulos.

In tests, EcoBot II travelled for five days on just eight fat flies - one in each MFC.

So how do flies get turned into electricity? Each MFC comprises an anaerobic chamber filled with raw sewage slurry - donated by UWE's local utility, Wessex Water. The flies become food for the bacteria that thrive in the slurry.

Enzymes produced by the bacteria break down the chitin to release sugar molecules. These are then absorbed and metabolised by the bacteria. In the process, the bacteria release electrons that are harnessed to create an electric current.

Previous efforts to use carnivorous MFCs to drive a robot included an abortive UWE effort: the Slugbot. This was designed to hunt slugs on farms by using imaging systems to spot and grab the pests, and then deliver them to a digester that produces methane to power a fuel cell.

The electricity generated would have been used to charge the Slugbot when it arrived at a docking station. But the methane-based system took too long to produce power, and the team realised that MFCs offered far more promise.

Elsewhere, researchers in Florida created a train-like robot dubbed Chew Chew that used MFCs to charge a battery, but the bacteria had to be fed on sugar cubes.

For an autonomous robot to survive in the wild, relying on such refined foodstuffs is not an option, says Melhuish. EcoBot II, on the other hand, is the first robot to use unrefined fuel. Just do not stand downwind.

From these developments we can retain a few keywords that capture the interesting possibilities offered by microbial fuel cells: autonomy, self-replication, decentralisation, sustainability, renewability and the capacity to feed on an abundance and variety of primary feedstocks.

MFCs show that it's just a small step to connect the harsh environment of outer space to the remote rural areas of the developing world - both need reliable, efficient, decentralised and clean sources of energy.

Yanzhen Fana, Hongqiang Hua and Hong Liu, "Enhanced Coulombic efficiency and power density of air-cathode microbial fuel cells with an improved cell configuration", Journal of Power Sources, Volume 171, Issue 2, 27 September 2007, Pages 348-354, doi:10.1016/j.jpowsour.2007.06.220

Oregon State University: New Microbial Fuel Cell Design Boosts Electricity Production - August 20, 2007.

MIT: Students shape materials for their own devices - September 27, 2007.

David Tenenbaum, "Power in Space: Time for a Biological Solution?", Astrobiology Magazine, May 14, 2007.

Intact Labs: Microbial Fuel Cells.

Chris Melhuish, John Greenman, Ian Horsfield, John Hart, Ioannis Ieropoulos, "Energy autonomy in robots through Microbial Fuel Cells" [*.pdf], IAS Lab, CEMS Faculty,, Applied Sciences Faculty, University of the West of England.

Microbial Fuel Cells, a website entirely devoted to the topic.

Geobacter and microbial fuel cell project
(at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst).

Biopact: The bioeconomy at work: Sony develops most efficient biofuel cell ever, powered by sugar - August 23, 2007

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

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