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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 13, 2007

European project finds nitrogen damages biodiversity - biomass stripping coupled to bioenergy could offer conservation strategy

Nitrogen pollution from agriculture and fossil fuels is known to be seriously damaging grasslands in the UK. A new study coordinated by the European Science Foundation (ESF) is starting to show that the effect is Europe-wide, confirming that current policies to protect ecosystems may need a re-think. Interestingly, professor David Gowing, project leader, told Biopact that a potential solution is to maintain species richness by 'biomass stripping', which could be coupled to bioenergy production.

Key research
Gowing was one of Carly Stevens' PhD supervisors at The Open University in the UK. When Stevens finished her thesis in 2004, her findings were so significant they were published in Science (abstract). Not only that, they were selected as contributing to one of the top ten scientific breakthroughs of that year – quite something for a PhD student. Stevens had found the first evidence that nitrogen deposition from the atmosphere was depleting numbers of plant species in British grasslands. Gowing and Stevens say "there was experimental evidence that this could happen, but we were the first to show the effect is real and happening now".

Stevens studied acid grasslands – upland pastures with relatively infertile soils. She found that in places where more nitrogen is deposited, there are fewer plant species. The gradient was so pronounced that one species has been lost for each additional 2.5 kg of nitrogen per hectare deposited every year. Nitrogen from man-made sources, like intensive farming and cars, causes significant air pollution in the UK, and some is deposited from the air on to the land. Deposition is highest in densely-populated areas, and in Britain ranges from about 5 to 35 kg of nitrogen per hectare per year.

The approach to protecting wildlife from nitrogen pollution is to calculate critical load values for different ecosystems – how much nitrogen a system can accumulate every year before damage occurs. Infertile habitats, like heathlands and bogs, are the most vulnerable. But Stevens’ research showed that species are being lost even where deposition is ‘beneath’ the critical load for grasslands.
The species aren’t going extinct, but if this is happening everywhere, we are moving towards much more species-poor grasslands, and we have no idea what the knock-on effects of that will be. - Dr Carly Stevens
Europe-wide effect
So last year, Stevens, her UK colleagues Gowing, Nancy Dise and Owen Mountford, and a team of experts from Germany, the Netherlands and France, embarked on a Europe wide project titled 'Biodiversity of European grasslands – the impact of atmospheric nitrogen deposition (BEGIN)', part of the ESF's EuroDIVERSITY Programme. The project’s aim is to see if the effects are the same on a wider range of grasslands, across the entire Atlantic side of Europe. "The low countries and northern Germany are the epicentre of European nitrogen deposition," says Gowing.

70 new grasslands in at least nine countries have been added to the picture, including different types of grassland. So far, the first year’s field results seem to adhere to the pattern, showing that species loss is directly related to long term deposition of nitrogen:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::
The loss in Great Britain is much larger than people had imagined. It’s almost 25% of species at the average deposition rate. If this is occurring across Europe, it will be a very important find. - Dr Nancy Dise, principal investigator
Wildflowers and other broad-leaved species, rather than grasses, are the hardest hit.

The team has started experiments to see if they can establish how extra nitrogen has these effects. They hope to predict what will happen in the future.
Nitrogen deposition in Europe probably peaked in the 1990s, and is coming down now in many places. But it may not be appropriate for policymakers to relax. Having been accumulating nitrogen for 40 years we might be near the edge of the cliff where communities will suddenly change. Perhaps we’ll be able to say: you have another five years of accumulating at this rate, so now is the time to act. - Professor David Gowing, project leader
What should be done?
Gowing and his team are hoping for a clear signal that we can maintain species richness under nitrogen deposition by biomass stripping. That means extra mowing and grazing. This could offer a management strategy for nature conservation.

Biopact asked Gowing how the technique of biomass stripping fits into such a strategy and whether there are any concrete uses for the harvested material.
Biomass stripping is an established technique in Ecological Restoration. It depletes the pool of soil nutrients and thereby lowers the productivity of a site, which is important if the target is to establish a species-rich plant community. In hay meadows, this involves removal of about 6 tonnes per hectare per year of dry matter. In England it is often difficult to sell the biomass, because there are too few cattle to eat it. - Professor David Gowing
Gowing confirmed that the stripped biomass could be used for bioenergy production. But he pointed at several barriers:
Burning the harvested material for energy would be ideal. Currently it is considered too expensive to harvest, dry, transport and burn the material to produce electricity economically. But if the machinery and technology for handling the biomass were improved, then there would be a huge potential resource of biomass from nature reserves to supply power stations. - Professor David Gowing
Decentralised and mobile bioconversion technologies might help tackle some of these barriers. Small, modular and mobile fast-pyrolysis plants that convert the biomass into bio-oil (earlier post) and mobile pellet plants (more here) are currently under development. The concept behind these technologies is simple: convert the bulky biomass into a higher density product close to the place where it is harvested and then transport it more efficiently to a central biofuel production facility or a power plant.

Biopact thinks that, instead of converting existing ecosystems into monocultures of energy crops, it might be more interesting to look into ways to couple bioenergy production to conservation strategies first. An example of such an approach is the Tallgrass Prairie Center's grassland restoration effort currently underway in the U.S. (previous post). A similar approach might be applied to managing Europe's nitrogen poisoned grasslands.

First results of the BEGIN project were presented at the first EuroDIVERSITY conference, held in Paris from 3-5 October 2007. BEGIN is funded under the European Science Foundation’s (ESF) EuroDIVERSITY Programme, which fosters pan-European collaborative research on biodiversity.

The project involves scientists from the Open University, UK; the University of Bordeaux, France; Utrecht University, the Netherlands; the University of Bremen, Germany; Manchester Metropolitan University, UK and the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, Norway. Associated projects are run by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, UK; the University of Lund, Sweden; Katholieke University, Leuven, Belgium; the University of Metz, France; the University of Sheffield, UK; The Institute of Ecosystem Studies, Millbrook, USA; Radboud University of Nijmegen, Netherlands; the University of Minnesota, USA and the University of Bergen, Norway.

Picture: Ox-eye daisies and other wildflowers are dotted around the acidic grassland of Ifton Meadows, Shropshire, UK. Wildflowers and other broad-leaved species, rather than grasses, are hit hardest by nitrogen deposition.

Stevens, C.J., Dise, N.B., Mountford, J.O. and Gowing, D.G., "Impact of nitrogen deposition on the species richness of grasslands" Science, 19 March 2004: Vol. 303. no. 5665, pp. 1876 - 1879 DOI: 10.1126/science.1094678

Stevens, C.J., Dise, N.B. Gowing, D.G. and Mountford, J.O. "Loss of forb diversity in relation to nitrogen deposition in the UK: regional trends and potential controls." Global Change Biology, Volume 12, Number 10, October 2006 , pp. 1823-1833(11)

Open University, Research group on Ecohydrology and Nutrient Cycling: profile of Carly Stevens describing her work on Ecosystem Properties of Acidic Grasslands; profile of prof David Gowing.

European Science Foundation: Nitrogen – the silent species eliminator - October 12, 2007.

European Science Foundation: Biodiversity of European Grasslands the Impact of Atmospheric Nitrogen Deposition (BEGIN).

Biopact: Mobile pyrolysis plant converts poultry litter into bio-oil - August 20, 2007

Biopact: The mobile pellet plant - April 29, 2007

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

Biopact: Tallgrass Prairie Center to implement Tilman's mixed grass findings - September 02, 2007

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U.S. National Science Foundation awards grants to seed plant systems biology - biofuel and bioeconomy-centered projects

The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) has made 26 new awards totaling $85.8 million during the tenth year of its Plant Genome Research Program (PGRP). These awards - which cover two to five years and range from $400,000 to $7.9 million - support research and tool development to further knowledge of genome structure and function. They will also increase understanding of gene function and interactions between genomes and the environment in economically vital crop plants. The new awards - made to 45 institutions in 28 states - include international groups of scientists from Asia, Australia and Europe.

The wealth of genomics tools and sequence resources developed over the past ten years of the PGRP have opened up exciting, new comparative approaches in plant biology. PGRP researchers continue to uncover gene networks that regulate plant development and growth in concert with environmental signals, such as temperature, light, disease and pests.

Amongst the projects of immediate interest to the emerging biofuels and bioeconomy are:

A four-year, $5.5 million project to make a comparative analysis of C3 and C4 leaf development in rice, sorghum and maize, led by Timothy Nelson, which involves Yale University, Boyce Thompson Institute, Cornell University and Iowa State University:
C4-type plants such as maize, sorghum and several promising biofuel feedstocks possess a set of complex traits that greatly enhance their efficiency of carbon-fixation, water and nitrogen use, and performance in high temperatures and light intensities, in comparison to C3-type plants such as rice and many temperate grasses. The key C4 traits are (1) specialization and cooperation of two leaf photosynthetic cell types (mesophyll and bundle sheath) for carbon fixation and photosynthesis, (2) enhanced movement of metabolites between cooperating cells, and (3) very high density of leaf venation. These C4 traits appear to be regulatory enhancements of features already present in less-efficient C3 plants, but regulated in different patterns. Although C4 plants have evolved at least 50 times independently in various taxonomic groups, the molecular basis of key C4 traits is insufficiently understood to permit their introduction into important C3 plants to enhance their performance as agricultural or biofuel feedstocks.

This project will compare the leaves of rice (a C3 grass), maize (a moderate C4 grass) and sorghum (an extreme C4 grass). The abundance and spectrum of gene transcripts, proteins and metabolites will be compared along a developmental gradient from immature tissues at leaf base to mature tissues at the leaf tip. To align the gradients of the three species, markers for developmental time points in gene expression, protein accumulation, sink-source transition and cell wall specialization will be employed. Mesophyll and bundle sheath cells will be obtained from each leaf stage by laser microdissection, and their whole genome RNA transcripts, proteomes (including modifications), and selected metabolites (related to photosynthesis) will be profiled and compared. Two hypotheses will be tested by the comparative analysis of the corresponding C3 and C4 plant datasets: (1) To produce C4 traits, plants use networks of genes, proteins, and metabolites that are already present in C3 plants, and (2) C4 features are plastic and expressed in a degree that depends on environment and developmental stage. This analysis should identify the regulatory points that are potential targets for the production of C4 traits in C3 species.

A four-year, $4.6 million grant to a project led by John Browse at Washington State University to continue research that uses biochemical genomics to reveal components of biosynthesis pathways necessary to produce novel fatty acids in oilseeds:
The goal of this project is to use genomics to access the network of genes and proteins that operate chemical factories to synthesize and accumulate novel fatty acids in seeds. Evolution of new enzyme functions, together with the co-evolution of additional biochemical and cell biological traits, has provided hundreds of potentially useful chemicals in seed oils, including the hydroxylated, conjugated and cyclopropane fatty acids to be studied in this project.

Providing a detailed description of genes and proteins required for optimal pathway function will require the integrated deployment of four strategies: a) Investigate and optimize the activities of enzymes for unusual fatty acid synthesis using bioinformatics and protein engineering. b) Carry out extensive sequencing of seeds sampled through the period of oil synthesis, and use functional genomic screens to identify co-evolved enzymes (and other protein functions) required for incorporation of the novel fatty acid into the oil. c) Perform biochemical analysis of the identified proteins and quantify their contributions to the accumulation of unusual fatty acids through expression in transgenic plants. d) Analyze protein-protein interactions in membranes to gain insight how these pathways are physically organized. Finally, the accumulated knowledge will be tested through experiments to reconstruct the native pathways in transgenic plants using expression of multiple genes and pathway engineering. The discoveries that result from this project will yield an understanding of the underlying principles of how pathways evolved for the synthesis of novel seed oils.

The basic knowledge from this project will enable the design of a new generation of specialty crops that will become the green factories of the future, providing for the production of industrial lubicants, solvent oils and biodiesel.

A four-year, $1.7 million grant to a University of Alaska Fairbanks and University of Minnesota-Twin Cities project led by Matthew Olson to study population genomics of cold adaptation in poplar:
Populus species are economically, ecologically, and environmentally important; they are harvested for paper pulp and particle board production, and hold potential for playing important roles in CO2 biosequestration and biofuel production:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Populus also is the model organism for hardwood tree genomics and physiology. Population genetic tools are increasingly useful for identifying genes that underlie variation in ecologically and economically important traits, but are not presently available in Populus. This project will develop these tools for Populus balsamifera, use them to identify the genetic basis for phenotypic variation in bud set (an important determinant of cold adaptation and growth rate). This research also will test whether the same genes responsible for variation and adaptive evolution of bud set in North American P. balsamifera and European P. tremula.

These objectives will be accomplished through collaboration with Canadian researchers who are establishing long-term common gardens of P. balsamifera. These common gardens will be maintained as a long term resource and are available to the wider scientific community; therefore, the data we generate will greatly facilitate future genotype-phenotype association analyses on additional economically and ecologically important traits (wood density, drought tolerance, etc.). The comparative population genomic analyses of adaptation to northern latitudes will be accomplished through collaboration with colleagues at the University of Umea, Sweden, who are conducting complementary research in European aspen (P. tremula).

A three-year, $2.5 million grant to The Grass Regulome Initiative which will focus on integrating control of gene expression and agronomic traits across the grasses; the project is led by Erich Grotewold and involves the Ohio State University and the University of Toledo (earlier a similar project led by Gronewold - "Engineering phenolic metabolism in the grasses using transcription factors"- received a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy):
An emerging theme in plant systems biology is establishing the architecture of regulatory networks and linking system components to agronomic traits. The goal of this project is to provide a concerted effort to perform comparative transcriptional genomics across several grass crops (maize, sorghum, sugarcane and rice), combining the development of experimental tools and bioinformatic resources to discover and display regulatory motifs. The Grass Regulatory Information Service (GRASSIUS) will be implemented as a public web resource that integrates sequence and expression information on transcription factors (TFs), their DNA-binding properties, TF binding sites in the genome, the genes that TFs target for regulation and the regulatory motifs in which they participate.

A method for the in vivo identification of direct targets for TFs, which should be applicable even in the absence of a complete genome sequence, will be developed and applied towards the identification of direct targets for a small subset of maize, rice, sorghum and sugarcane TFs. Together with the generation of a large centralized collection of plasmids harboring open reading frames for several TFs and antibodies to a subset of them, this project will facilitate the community-wide identification of protein-DNA interactions, essential for establishing the grass regulatory map. The experimental and computational integration of regulatory motifs with QTLs will provide an accelerated translation of findings derived from these studies to issues of agronomic relevance.

Benefiting from the increasing amount of genome sequence available, this proposal integrates genetics, molecular biology, biochemistry, statistics, bioinformatics and computer sciences in establishing the architecture of the regulatory networks that control plant gene expression, in a pioneering effort to launch the comparative transcriptional genomics field to important grass crops.

And 4 major projects on maize genomics (maize artificial chromosomes; functional genomics of maize gametophytes; construction of comprehensive sequence indexed transposon resources for maize; cell fate acquisition in maize).
Plant biologists continue to exploit genomics tools and sequence resources in new and innovative ways. It's exciting to see research involving biologists and mathematicians, computer scientists and engineers, all working to address major unanswered questions in plant biology. These latest projects will also have a significant impact on how we train the next generation of plant scientists to carry out research at the cutting edge of the biological sciences. - James Collins, NSF assistant director for biological sciences.
PGRP is also continuing to support the development of tools to enable researchers to make breakthroughs in understanding the structure and function of economically important plants - from the gene level to the whole plant. Example projects include:
  • A multidisciplinary team of investigators at the University of Wisconsin-Madison will develop cutting-edge technology using cameras, robotics and computational tools to enable high-throughput analysis of traits in mutant or naturally varying plant populations.
  • A project led by the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute is using Arabidopsis and rice genomic resources to produce a plant "interactome," a map of all protein-protein interactions. This map will provide scientists with testable predictions of how genes and the proteins they encode interact to carry out complex functions within a plant cell.
The PGRP, which was established in 1998 as part of the coordinated National Plant Genome Initiative by the Interagency Working Group on Plant Genomes of the National Science and Technology Council, has the long-term goal of advancing the understanding of the structure and function of genomes of plants of economic importance.

National Science Foundation: NSF Awards 26 New Grants to Seed Plant Systems Biology - October 11, 2007.

National Science Foundation: overview of 2007 PGRP Awards.

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IWMI confirms small potential for first generation biofuels in China and India due to water issues

A very basic scenario analysis by Sri Lanka's International Water Management Institute (IWMI) indicates that first generation biofuels made from crops like corn or sugarcane will add to the strain on already stressed water resources in China and India. The IWMI recommends the use of water-efficient crops instead and urges analysts to take water needs of bioenergy production more stringently into account.

The findings are a bit outdated because the Chinese government earlier already decided that it would only utilize water efficient crops like sweet sorghum, grasses, desert pine and cellulosic biomass (previous post and here). These resources are not analysed in the report, prompting a critical reaction by a Chinese bioenergy official.

Global bioenergy potential by 2050, different scenarios. Note China and India's relatively small capacity. Source: IEA Bioenergy Task 40.
Still, IWMI's research confirms data from many earlier projections. The International Energy Agency's Bioenergy Task 40, which has been making the most thorough global assesments of the biofuels potential, found that both China and India's carrying capacity is small, compared to that of other regions. This doesn't come as a surprise given the countries' large populations and limited per capita land resources. In a latest set of projections (Smeets et al., February 2007), scientists of Task 40 found that East Asia's sustainable biofuels potential is between 22 and 194 Exajoules by 2050; that of South Asia only between 22 and 37 Ej (earlier post; map, click to enlarge). Compare this to Africa's (317Ej max) or Latin America's (221Ej max).

IWMI’s research under the 'Comprehensive Assessment of Water Mangement in Agriculture' model shows that at a global average, the biomass needed to produce one litre of biofuel from such crops like maize and sugarcane evaporates between 1000 and 3,500 liters of water, under prevailing first-generation conversion techniques (note that meanwhile, the era of fourth generation techniques drawing on engineered crops has arrived).

IWMI uses the WATERSIM model consisting of two integrated hydrological and economic modules to support its analysis. Using this model it found [*.pdf]that in India more than 60% of the cereals are irrigated. In China, more than 70%. Almost all Indian sugarcane - the crop that India uses to produce ethanol - and about 45% of Chinese maize – China’s main biofuel crop - is irrigated.

Both countries, responding to severe water shortages, initiated large projects to transfer water from water abundant to water short areas. These projects are controversial because of their costs, environmental impacts, and number of displaced people by big dams.

Irrigation plays a dominant role in China’s food production. An estimated 75% of total grain production, 90% of vegetables and 80% of cotton comes from irrigated areas:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

About 70% of total wheat and 60% of total maize are harvested in the Northern region (i.e. the Yellow, Huaihe and Haihe river basins), where more than 60% of the area is irrigated and groundwater resources are already extensively overexploited.

The South imports food from the water stressed Northern region and the international food market. Earlier the water rich South produced a surplus that was exported to the Northern provinces. But with economic development and associated higher opportunity costs for land and labor, agricultural production in the developed South is becoming less attractive to farmers who have more opportunities to work in non-agricultural sectors.

The total volume of water resources in China ranks sixth worldwide, but per capita supplies are only 2200 m3 in 2000, about 1/4 of the world average. Particularly, in the North -Haihe, Huaihe and Yellow river basins- per capita water resources are low, only 290 m3, 478 m3 and 633 m3, respectively and declining groundwater tables due to overdraft are common. Frequent droughts, floods and water logging hazards result in unstable agricultural production and a serious imbalance between water supply and demand). A major water transfer project from South to North currently under implementation will alleviate some of the water shortage problems, but most of the transferred water will be used in the domestic and industrial sector rather than agriculture.
Because of water limitations in the North and land constraints and high opportunity costs to labor in the South, our base scenario foresees limited scope for further improvements in production. The scenario puts a limit on land and water use to prevent further environmental degradation. Maize demand in China will increase substantially to 195 million tons in 2030 (up by 70% from 2000), mainly because of growth in per capita meat consumption as a result of income growth.
Part of the additional demand can be met through productivity growth and slight area increase, but even under optimistic yield growth assumptions imports must increase to 20 million tons from 2 million tons in 2004. Under such a scenario it is quite unlikely that the additional maize demand for biofuel can be met without further degrading water resources or major shifts of cropping pattern at the expense of other crops. More likely, under an aggressive biofuel program China will have to import more maize (or the crop displaced by maize), which will undermine one of its primary objectives, i.e. curbing import dependency.

Irrigation plays a major role in India’s food supply. At present some 63% of the cereal production originates from irrigated areas. Wheat and rice are mostly produced under irrigated conditions while maize and other grains are grown in rainfed areas. Close to 85% of the area under sugarcane -the crop currently most used in bioethanol- is irrigated. It is estimated that the total harvested area amounts to 175 million hectares (in 2005) of which roughly 45% is irrigated. More than half of the irrigated area is under groundwater irrigation, mostly privately owned tubewells.

Total renewable water resources are estimated at 1887 km3, but only half (or 975 km3) is potentially utilizable. Total water resources amount to 2025 m3 per capita (for the year 2000), or only around 1100 m3 of potentially utilizable per capita supplies. Water withdrawals in India were estimated at 630 km3 in the year 2000, of which more than 90% was for irrigation. Spatial variation is enormous. The river basins of the Indus, Pennar, Luni and westerly flowing rivers in Kutsch and Gujarat are absolute water scarce, and much of North India suffers from groundwater overdraft.

To address water scarcity, the government of India is exploring the possible implementation of a series of large scale interbasin transfers to bring water from water abundant to water short areas. This so-called “Linking of Rivers” project is controversial, because it is expensive; it will have adverse impacts on biodiversity and freshwater ecosystems, and will cause the displacement of millions of people. Though parts are under development now, it is unlikely that this project will be fully implemented and operational in the near future. Our base scenario therefore foresees relatively limited scope for further irrigation development. The scenario adopts optimistic assumptions to improve productivity in both irrigated and rainfed agriculture.

Cereal and vegetable demand in India is projected to increase by 60% and 110% respectively from 2000 to 2030. The irrigated harvested area is expected to slightly increase from 75 to 84 million hectares. A major part of these increases will be met through improvements in yields though small increases of imports are inevitable. Sugarcane production increases from 300 to 605 million tons for food purposes. Our biofuels scenario implies that for the production of bioethanol an additional 100 million tons of sugarcane is needed, for which 30 km3 additional irrigation water needs to be withdrawn. This amount will likely come at the expense of the environment or other irrigated crops (cereals and vegetables), which then need to be imported. For many years, the Indian government has focused on achieving national food self-sufficiency in staples.

More recently, as the imminent danger of famines has decreased and non-agricultural sectors have expanded, the national perspective regarding production and trade has changed. But it is unclear if India would choose to import food to free up necessary resources to grow biofuel crops, the report says.

In its discussion of the findings the report concludes that:
If all national policies and plans on biofuels are successfully implemented, 30 million additional hectares of crop land will be needed along with 180 km3 of additional irrigation water withdrawals. Although globally this is less than a few percentage points of the total area and water use, the impacts for some individual countries could be highly significant, including China and India, with significant implications for water resources and with feedback into global grain markets. In fact it is unlikely that fast growing economies such as China and India will be able to meet future food, feed and biofuel demand without substantially aggravating already existing water scarcity problems, or importing grain, an outcome which counters some of the primary reasons for producing biofuels in the first place.
Unless other less water intensive alternatives are considered, biofuels based on such first generation techniques and crops are not environmentally sustainable in China and India.
This analysis assumes no major changes in feedstock. Yet, this may become an important factor in the biofuel discussion. From a water perspective it makes a large difference whether biofuel is derived from fully irrigated sugarcane grown in semi-arid areas or rainfed maize grown in water abundant regions. The use of water-extensive oilseeds (such as Jatropha trees), bushes, wood chips and crop residuals (i.e. straw, leaves and woody biomass) is promising in this respect, though a few caveats are necessary.
The IWMI concludes that biofuel policies should put green energy into a blue context and take water issues into account.

A US study on water withdrawals for corn published recently by the National Research Council similarly concluded that the significant acceleration of first-generation biofuels production could cause greater water quantity problems depending on where the crops are grown.

If the use of corn for ethanol production increases further it may harm water quality could be considerable, the report concluded (previous post).


Charlotte de Fraiture Mark Giordano Liao Yongsong, Biofuels and implications for agricultural water use: blue impacts of green energy [*.pdf], International Water Management Institute, Sri Lanka - October 2007.

Edward M.W. Smeets, André P.C. Faaij, Iris M. Lewandowski and Wim C. Turkenburg, "A bottom-up assessment and review of global bio-energy potentials to 2050", Progress in Energy and Combustion Science, Volume 33, Issue 1, February 2007, Pages 56-106, doi:10.1016/j.pecs.2006.08.001

Energy Current: China: Biofuel will not hit food, water supply - October 12, 2007.

Biopact: Report: increase in corn ethanol production could significantly impact water quality and availability in the United States - October 10, 2007

Biopact: A quick look at 'fourth generation' biofuels - October 08, 2007

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

Biopact: China to boost forest-based bioenergy, helps win battle against desertification - July 17, 2007

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

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Friday, October 12, 2007

Mauritius to create 'flexi-factories' to switch between biofuel and sugar production

Mauritius is restructuring its sugar sector by moving towards 'flexi-factories' that can produce sugar and biofuels depending on the market situation and by stepping up exports of premium cane sugars, a senior official said on Friday during a seminar on African business. The move is intended to save the island state's sugar sector, which is feeling the pinch because of the EU's new sugar policy.
The way we are going is flexi-factories - depending on the cost of petroleum or sugar, we produce more or less (of either). - Ali Mansoor, Financial Secretary of Mauritius
Trade liberalisation and increased competition from other growers pose a huge challenge to Mauritius's sugar sector, which employs around 60,000 people and is the island state's biggest earner of foreign currency.

Europe has traditionally bought more than 90 percent of the Indian Ocean nation's sugar at guaranteed prices, but Mauritius is set to lose its protection in this market as Europe plans to slash its guaranteed sugar prices by 36 percent between 2006 and 2009 as part of reforms to free the sugar market.

Many developing countries from the APC (Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific) region that used to benefit greatly from the EU's sugar protocol fear that the reform will push them out of business. Thousands of their farmers are preparing to abandon production altogether and a large number of indirect jobs is expected to be lost. But the emerging ethanol sector could come just in time to save this vital industry (earlier post).

Mansoor said that Mauritius had noted the potential of biofuels demand and will try to leverage it to cope with the effects of the new sugar policy. The model to be followed is simple: increase production of cane-derived ethanol fuel at 'flexi-factories' when crude oil prices are high, and increase sugar production when crude prices are low:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Factories would also burn sugar processing residue called 'bagasse' as a clean biomass source to generate power, he said. High fossil fuel prices make this feasible.

Mansoor said Mauritius was also responding to the removal of price supports to its sugar industry by producing more top-quality premium cane sugars for export.

The seminar was sponsored by Britain's Department for International Development, Unilever and the World Bank.

It remains to be seen whether the idea of 'flexi-factories' is economically viable. Obviously, when all sugar producers start to reason like this and infrastructures come online, the advantages of the concept could be lost.

The only real hope for the world's sugarcane producers is a free ethanol market and high oil prices. The first factor can be managed - by trying to get developed countries to remove their ethanol tariffs and non-tariff barriers. The latter factor is beyond their control, but as things stand today, it looks like high oil prices are here to stay.

Reuters: Mauritius eyes sugar, biofuel "flexi-factories" - October 12, 2007.

Biopact: Ethanol eases pain of EU sugar reform for African, Caribbean and Pacific countries - April 09, 2007

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Pasturing cows convert soil to a source of methane - keeping them in stables could free up land for biomass production

The cow as a killer of the climate: this inglorious role of our four-legged friends is well-enough recognised because the animals produce vast amounts of methane, which is expelled continuously. Now, however, a team of German scientists from the Institute of Soil Ecology of the GSF – National Research Center for Environment and Health (Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres) and Czech colleagues at the Budweis Academy of Science have been able to show that bovine animals can also boost the production of this potent climate gas in soil. They publish their results in the current issue of Nature - ISME ( Multidisciplinary Journal of Microbial Ecology).

The findings are important for the bioenergy community, because they suggest cows might better be kept in their stables instead of allowing them to graze on winter pastures. This would free up land for the production of biomass crops or for the establishment of carbon sinks. Note, this is our own deduction - the researchers do not state this as such. But others have made the obvious suggestion that the global bioenergy production potential could be significantly increased when a transition towards more intensive cattle production is achieved, notably by keeping the animals inside. The reduction of climate-threatening methane emissions from soils which would result from such a transition, gives the idea more clout.

The scientists found cows create a methane-generating process in soils especially when the animals do not spend the cold season exclusively in the cowshed, but are kept on winter pastures. The study, carried out on a Czech farm, proved that two factors are vital for this process to take place: the amount and quality of organic material from the excrement and the strong compaction of the soil by the weight of the cattle. These changes lead to the fact that methane-producing micro-organisms from the gastro-intestinal tract of the animals can be established in the soil while, simultaneously, the process of methane oxidation is restrained.

Grass lands that are not used intensively for agriculture generally act as sink for the greenhouse gases, methane, carbon dioxide and laughing gas. However, this situation can change if intensive management of the pastures with cattle occurs. Indeed, it is known also that well-aired soils have the potential for producing methane. Hence, the scope of the study should include examination of the extent to which the over-wintering of cattle on pastures stimulates this potential, and grassland soils really becomes a methane spring.

For animal protection reasons, the placing of cattle in winter on pastures - with the possibility of sleeping in a cowshed or of obtaining feed there – becomes increasingly popular.
The over-wintering of bovine animals is quite widespread at least in the ecological agriculture of Central Europe as a whole. The reasoning is that the animals are less susceptible to infectious disease, thanks to the movement outside and, therefore, fewer antibiotics need to be used. However, this connection has not been proved. - Dr. Michael Schloter, lead researcher
The investigation was carried out on an farm in south Bohemia. The area in question comprises approximately four hectares and has been used since 1995 for the over-wintering of about 90 cows from October till the beginning of May:
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According to Schloter, at the end of this season, they could clearly see the consequences of the over-wintering, on the soil. Unlike typical summer grazing, where the animals spread out evenly, the animals on the winter pastures prefer to stay near the feed house. As a result, no vegetation was visible any more in this area, and the ground was strongly compressed. In addition, this area was marked by a very high incidence of organic matter from the excrement of the animals. In more distant areas, the consequences were far less drastic.

The intensive grazing in the areas close to the cowshed led to a clear increase of methane emissions throughout the whole winter. These showed 1,000 times more than the control areas, where no bovine animals were kept. Methane oxidation is the metabolic way that can lead to the breaking down of the methane. Interestingly, the classical process of methane oxidation, which is related to aerobic conditions, was restrained in the intensely grazed areas.

According to Schloter, this is explained by the high quantities of urea in the ground. The scientists were able to show further that methane producing micro-organisms from the gastro-intestinal tract of the cattle could survive in the soil and suppress parts of the autotchtone microflora. The newcomers profited from the environmental conditions in these soil, namely the extensive organic material.

Although in summer and autumn the animals were kept on other pastures, the composition of the microflora barely changed in the strongly over-grazed areas. Indeed, the methane production rates clearly decreased during these months, because the continuous supply of organic material was absent.
We shall continue the project, because we also suspect consequences for the nitrogen cycle. In addition, we have possibly proved a very rare process in the strongly compounded areas, namely the anaerobic oxidation of methane. All in all, it can be said that just about every agricultural measure has its positive and negative consequences. What weighs more in each case, however, is a social, rather than a scientific question. - Dr. Michael Schloter, lead researcher
Radl, V., Gattinger, A., Chronoakova, A., Nemcova, A., Cuhel, J., Simek, M., Schloter, M., Elhottova., D., "Effects of cattle husbandry on abundance, diversity and activity of methanogenic archaea in upland soils", Nature - ISME 1, 447-452 (2007); doi:10.1038/ismej.2007.60

GSF - Forschungszentrum für Umwelt und Gesundheit: Heaps of climate gas - Pasturing cows convert soil to a source of methane - October 12, 2007.

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Nviro Cleantech and CLP Power India to jointly develop reductive thermal process to pretreat coal, biomass

Nviro Cleantech plc, a company active in commercialising clean fuel technologies announced that its subsidiary, Vertus Technology Limited has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with CLP Power India Private Limited to develop its Vertus RTP technology for applications in both biomass and lignite coal treatment.

Vertus RTP, the group’s new 'reductive thermal process', simultaneously eliminates many environmental problems and decreases the consumption rate of coal and biomass so that reserves can be extended. This pre-combustion technology separates fuel and non-fuel components of coal and biomass through a short exposure to an environment of elevated temperature and low oxygen pyrolysis. The equipment for performing RTP is simple to operate. A pilot plant in Europe has been operational for five years evaluating the impact of RTP on both coal and biomass.

Under the agreement the two companies will conduct trials to test and assess the feasibility of developing a pilot production plant in India capable of pre-treating a range of carbonaceous fuels for cleaner power generation. If phase one is successful, Vertus will develop a Vertus RTP plant for use by CLP India. This would be the first established commercial demonstration site for Vertus technology in India, providing CLP India with suitable performance data for possible further development of the Vertus technology in their territory. Work on the agreed test programme will commence immediately, with a series of fuels being analysed at the Vertus laboratory in Hungary:
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CLP India is one of the largest foreign investors in India's power sector and is part of the CLP Group, which operates a vertically integrated electricity supply business in Hong Kong and is a leading private sector power company in Asia Pacific, including Mainland China, Australia, Taiwan and Thailand. The CLP Group is listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange and in 2006 has a market capitalisation of almost US$20 billion.
We are delighted to form a working partnership with such a well established and experienced power generator as CLP India for our first foray into India, and we look forward to establishing a mutually profitable business development pipeline. Following our recently announced JV in China, Nviro now has a presence in two of the world's largest coal-fired power generating countries where its technologies can not only help reduce emissions from traditional fossil fuels, but also emerging biomass energy projects. - Chris Every, CEO of Nviro Cleantech and Chairman of Vertus
In China, Vertus has formed a joint venture with Balama Prima Engineering Limited, a Hong Kong affiliate of Newton Sino Group Limited, to create Balama Nviro Limited. The JV is committed to place the first two Vertus RTP units in China, installing one in a biomass power generating site and the other in a coal fired site.

Nviro Cleantech: Agreement with CLP India - October 12, 2007.

Fairfax: Nviro Cleantech PLC successful AIM IPO completed by Fairfax I.S. PLC - August 6, 2007.

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Brazil proposes to qualify biofuels as environmental goods - causes a stir in Doha trade talks

Brazil last week created a stir in the Doha Round negotiations on liberalising trade in environmental goods, by calling for specific products to be slated for expedited tariff cuts based on a request-offer process - with biofuels included.

The talks must "encourage a larger participation of developing countries in this [environmental goods] commerce and must promote their capacity to develop environmental goods industries, argues the proposal (JOB (07/146)). To this end, it advocates "improved market access for their exports of agricultural environmental goods" as a result of the negotiations. Brazil, which is one of the world's biggest producers of ethanol, said that "biofuels are essentially an environmental good," suggesting that trade barriers on them should be reduced.

Trade diplomats discussed the paper at a 2 October informal meeting of the the WTO Committee on Trade and Environment special (negotiating) session.

The Doha mandate in 2001 instructed Members to negotiate "the reduction or, as appropriate, elimination of tariff and non-tariff barriers to environmental goods and services." However, governments have remained divided on how to determine which products are eligible for accelerated liberalisation.

A group of primarily industrialised countries want Members to create a 'list' of environmental goods. India and Argentina counter that this may not adequately ensure that products are used for environmental purposes. They instead support tariff cuts for goods used towards a negotiated list of specific environmental activities, which might include air pollution control, water management, soil conservation, waste management, and renewable energy.

The Brazilian submission said the environmental goods list currently under discussion consists primarily of "highly sophisticated industrial products [...] quite beyond the capacity of developing countries," echoing criticism by others in the developing world. It claimed this could be rectified with a greater focus on "agricultural environmental goods," which barely figure on the current list. Sources report that many Members, competitive farm exporters and reluctant importers alike, criticised the concept of designating agricultural products as environmental goods. They included the EU, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Mexico, Australia and Argentina.

Brazil's suggestion that biofuels were "essentially an environmental good", and thus deserving of expedited tariff cuts, met with a lukewarm response amongst industrialised countries who protect their own, far less efficient biofuels. Several developed country delegates were less than enthusiastic. Canada raised environmental concerns related to biofuel production. The EU, Korea, and Australia expressed skepticism about the idea, and the US did not comment.

Deep tariff cuts on biofuels are unlikely to find favour in industrialised nations, most of which place high tariffs on ethanol. The US, for instance, places a tariff of over 14 cents per litre on ethanol, in order to protect its own politically influential corn-based ethanol industry. EU tariffs are roughly twice as high, at current exchange rates:
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Northern governments currently receive strong political support for subsidising biofuel production, but the ethanol produced in those countries, generally produced from corn, wheat, and rye, is far less efficient at curbing energy use and greenhouse gas emissions than sugarcane-based ethanol produced in tropical countries such as Brazil. Giving the two different tariff treatment would be problematic, due to strictures against differentiating between products on the basis of 'process and production methods.'

Ronald Steenblik, head of research for the Global Subsidies Initiative, which has heavily criticised subsidies for biofuel production said that "cane-based ethanol from existing cane plantations has good energy balance and greenhouse-gas mitigation properties." Given that "many countries have mandated the use of biofuels for environmental reasons, it is right and proper for Brazil to take them at their word, and ask them to level the playing field" between domestic and imported ethanol, he said.

Sources said that the Brazilian proposal broke new ground by suggesting an alternative method for identifying environmental goods. Although describing the 'integrated' approach backed by India and Argentina as "promising," it said that "if Members come to the conclusion" that tariff reduction commitments on specific products are necessary, they could consider a straightforward request and offer approach to do so.

Over the course of a number of "offer rounds," each country would ask its trading partners to slash tariffs on those agricultural and non-agricultural goods it felt would bring environmental benefits. Countries would then determine whether such liberalisation requests might compromise their own development of environmental or other industries, and indicate the environmental goods on which they were prepared to remove trade barriers.

Delegates report that most developed countries were supportive of the 'request-offer' notion, but some developing country representatives suggested that it would be cumbersome and time consuming. The US described it as "helpful," saying that it was not wedded to the concept of a common list for all Members, so long as the outcome of the negotiations was meaningful. Norway and others asked for more information how the 'request-offer' approach would function.

International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development: Brazil's call for biofuel liberalisation causes stir in environmental goods talks - October 10, 2007.

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Mozambique to tap its large cassava ethanol potential as a tool for poverty reduction

Mozambican scientists and researchers told an International Symposium on Tropical Roots and Tubers that they are determined to develop varieties of cassava appropriate for the production of biofuels and to use the potential of a cassava industry as a tool for poverty reduction and rural development. They were speaking in Maputo on the theme 'Roots and Tubers for the production of biofuels: Challenges and Opportunities'.

The national coordinator of the Roots and Tubers Programme, Fernando Chitio, said that research is being prepared to identify varieties of cassava specifically for the production of ethanol. A cassava-based ethanol industry will be adding value to the crop and provide major opportunitites for poverty reduction amongst the country's small farmers. The International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) confirmed that a 'Green Cassava Revolution' based on the industrial use of starch offers chances for a rural renaissance throughout the tropics, where the plant is currently only grown for food (earlier post).

Likewise, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), one of the leading global agricultural research consortia working towards strengthening the food security of people in the developing world, sees the potential:
Cassava has erupted into the first decade of the third millennium as a crop that can contribute to agro-industrial and small-farmer development in the tropics. One of the most recent advances — using cassava to produce fuel alcohol — has opened multiple opportunities, not least for small farmers.
The CGIAR, in alliance with a Latin American and Caribbean Consortium to Support Cassava Research and Development (CLAYUCA) and with Dutch company Diligent Energy Systems, has begun a unique project in Colombia that explicitly aims to leverage the potential of value added cassava industries as a tool to strengthen the livelihoods of small farmers. They participate in the production of cassava as well as in pre-processing activities, within a context of decentralised biofuel production (earlier post). The example could be replicated elsewhere in developing countries.

The Mozambican scientists will be able to draw on a growing body of research aimed at kickstarting an industrial cassava sector. Some of the brightest minds in biotechnology - like Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution - are working on mapping cassava's genome with the aim of improving it for fuel production (see the U.S. DOE's Joint Genome Institute and its work on cassava, as well as the work at the International Atomic Energy Agency's Plant Breeding and Genetics division, where nuclear and space breeding techniques are used to study the crop for improvement).

Cassava is 'the poor man's crop' because it grows well with modest inputs and in poor soils. When used for the production of ethanol, it offers a fuel with an excellent energy balance (more here). Other ways to add value are to utilize high quality cassava starch for the production of bioplastics and biopolymers (earlier post).

With an annual production of about six million tonnes, Mozambique is the sixth largest producer of cassava in the world. But the country has a much larger potential. It has an abundance of land on which the crop can be grown. Currently it utilizes around 1.1 million hectares of land for cassava, but according to the FAO/IIASA's Global Agro-ecological Zones database, Mozambique has a total of around 27 million hectares of highly to moderately suitable land for rainfed cassava production (map, click to enlarge).

Mozambique is seen by analysts as one of the African countries that contribute considerably to the continent's large biofuel production potential. Researchers affiliated with the International Energy Agency estimate that Mozambique can produce around 7 Exajoules of biofuels sustainably (earlier post):
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The country currently consumes around 590,000 tonnes of oil products per year, the bulk being diesel (IEA data). This equates to around 0.18EJ. Achieving full energy independence is well within reach, with capacity to spare to supply international markets.

When it comes to the availability of land for other crops, the country currently uses around 4.3 million hectares out of a total of 63.5 million hectares of potential arable land, or 6.6 per cent. Moreover, some 41 million hectares of poor quality land are available for the production of energy crops that require few inputs and are not suitable for food production (earlier post).

At the Tropical Roots and Tubers symposium Chitio said that as a raw material for industry, cassava would attract investment and stimulate productivity offering farmers an opportunity to sell it as a cash crop.

The executive director of the Kenya-based African Agricultural Technological Foundation (AATF), Mpoko Bokanga, said with an industrial cassava program, opportunities will be opened to reduce poverty. He also hinted at the potential for cellulosic ethanol based on the production of fuel from cassava residues (peels, stems, leaves).

"The African Continent has major potential to become a true actor in the issue of bio-fuels", Bokanga added, saying that cassava ethanol is a first stage in the cycle of development, because new bioconversion technologies will be developed over the coming decades which will increase the potenital.

Eduardo de Sousa, and Marco Patino, from Brazil, said that each country should not only determine its capacity to produce raw materials for biofuels, but should also continue using the land reserved for agriculture to produce food. In most cases, including Brazil, they claimed, there is enough land for agriculture to produce raw materials for biofuels which could boost food security:
Another important aspect is the fact that industry is the driving force to reduce hunger. As jobs are being created in service sectors to support industry, this will help people out of poverty. Small farmers may sell their cassava and generate financial resources to buy other foodstuffs and still have enough of it for their normal diet.

Agencia de Informacao de Mocambique [via AllAfrica]: Use of Cassava for Ethanol Production Defended - October 11, 2007.

For the land suitability see: FAO/IIASA: Data Sets of selected Global AEZ assessment results at the GAEZ website [check under data > data sets > they download as *.xls files].

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

Biopact: Unique CGIAR project: small farmers in decentralised cassava ethanol production - July 02, 2007

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

Biopact: Notes on biopolymers in the Global South - March 11, 2007

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Argentina's government amends biofuels law to include incentives for sugarcane ethanol

Argentina's president Nestor Kirchner has presented a project to parliament aimed at changing the existing biofuels law in order to include ethanol from sugarcane as a biofuel that should be promoted. The current legislation, adopted in April, only provides incentives for biodiesel. It mandates a 5% blend in the nation's fuel by 2010 and provides tax breaks and incentives for projects aimed at supplying the domestic market that are at least 50% owned by Argentines.

The initial biofuels law didn't provide incentives for ethanol producers, sugarcane growers and sugar producers. But according to the Ministry of Planification, Argentina could be producing 300 million liters of ethanol by 2010 to achieve another 5% blend, representing a market value of $200 million. This production should receive similar incentives as those for biodiesel producers, it says.

The law proposal comes at a time when investors are queuing to enter the country. Earlier this month, hungarian-born investor George Soros announced his intention to invest between US$300 and 400 million in Argentina's ethanol sector.

Argentina is a major agricultural producer with a large potential for the production of sustainable biofuels from sugar cane (map, click to enlarge). According to José Alperovich, the governor of the Northern province of Tucumán, the country's largest sugarcane region, the bill opens a new era:
It is like finding petroleum in Tucumán. We can produce ethanol seven times more cheaply than those who make the fuel from corn. This is going to generate a lot of new employment in the province.
Around 71% of the country's cane production is concentrated in Tucumán. There the crop occupies nearly 40% of the arable area. The sugar industry already constitutes the main economic activity in the province but the new production is expected to add another 20,000 direct jobs.

Other provinces in Northwest Argentina stand to benefit, notably Jujuy and Salta. According to the Minister for Planning:
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The sector will become of fundamental imporance to the gross domestic product of the provinces and will have strong beneficial social and cultural impacts.
Record oil prices are a ballast on the country's budget. The production of bioethanol from sugar cane destined for the internal market will allow the country to decrease its dependence on oil products, and reduce the impacts of oil price shocks.

Argentina is the world's eight largest sugar exporter and registered a record output in this year's campaign with a production of 2.44 million tonnes.

At the beginning of this month, hungarian-born investor George Soros announced his intention to invest between US$300 and 400 million in Argentina's ethanol sector. The new law proposal accomodates these plans and is set to attract further investments.

The country is facing presidential elections and rising food prices (notably those of tomatoes) have become a critical factor. The food price increase is the result of high oil prices. For this reason, the sitting president wants the alternative fuel bill to pass as soon as possible. President Kirchner's wife, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, is expected to win the elections.

Map: land suitability for rainfed sugar cane, high inputs. Source: FAO, Land and Water Development Division.

Agrodiario: El Presidente firmo la ley de bioetanol desde la caña de azucar - October 12, 2007.

Univision: Argentina impulsa la producción de etanol para biocombustibles - October 10, 2007.

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Thursday, October 11, 2007

New thermally rearranged plastic membrane captures carbon dioxide faster and better

A modified plastic material greatly improves the ability to separate global warming-linked carbon dioxide from natural gas, gas wastes from power plants and biogas, according to engineers at the University of Texas at Austin, who have analyzed the new plastic's properties. The membrane breaks a performance barrier thought to affect all plastic membranes. The researchers present their findings in tomorrow's issue of Science.

The development is important in the context of the production of next-generation carbon-negative biofuels and bioenergy for which carbon capture tools and techniques are required (previous post). The new membrane is particularly suitable for the removal of carbon dioxide from natural gas, which makes it very interesting with respect to its potential use in pre-combustion carbon capture from biogas (more here). Several other research teams are working on similar cheap and mass-producible carbon capturing membranes (earlier post, here and here).

Like a sponge that only soaks up certain chemicals, the new polymer described by the Austin scientists permits carbon dioxide or other small molecules to go through hour-glass shaped pores within it, while impeding methane movement through these same pores. The thermally rearranged (TR) plastic works four times better than conventional membranes at separating out carbon dioxide through pores.

Dr. Ho Bum Park, a postdoctoral student in the laboratory of Professor Benny Freeman, found that TR plastic membranes act quicker than the current generation. They permit carbon dioxide to move through them a few hundred times faster than conventional membranes do - even as they prohibit natural gas and most other substances from traveling through their pores for separation purposes.
If this material was used instead of conventional cellulose acetate membranes, processing plants would require 500 times less space to process natural gas for use because of the membranes' more efficient separation capabilities, and would lose less natural gas in their waste products - Professor Benny Freeman
When developed for commercial use, the plastic could also be used to isolate natural gas from decomposing organic waste - biogas -, the focus of several experimental projects in the U.S. The TR plastic could also help recapture carbon dioxide being pumped into oil reservoirs where it serves as a tool for removing residual oil.

Park initially engineered the membrane while at Hanyang University in Korea. As a research assistant in the lab of Professor Young Moo Lee, Park investigated whether plastics made of rings of carbon and certain other elements could work well at separating carbon dioxide out of gas wastes produced by power plants. Separating the greenhouse gas from other gases at power plants must occur at high temperatures, which usually destroy plastic membranes.

Lee and Park not only found that the TR plastic could handle temperatures above 600 degrees Fahrenheit, but that the heat transformed the material into the better performing membrane. The membrane breaks a performance barrier thought to affect all plastic membranes.
I didn't expect that the TR plastic would work better than any other plastic membranes because thermally stable plastics usually have very low gas transport rates through them. Everyone had thought the performance barrier for plastic membranes could not be surpassed. - Dr. Ho Bum Park, lead author
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Freeman is a co-author and holds the Kenneth A. Kobe Professorship and Paul D. and Betty Robertson Meek & American Petrofina Foundation Centennial Professorship of Chemical Engineering. Elizabeth Van Wagner, a graduate student in chemical engineering, also is a co-author in Austin.

Park joined Freeman's laboratory in Austin because of the professor's expertise in evaluating membranes. Park then verified that the TR plastic separated carbon dioxide and natural gas well. Natural gas that is transported in pipelines can only contain 2 percent carbon dioxide, yet often comes out of the ground with higher levels of the gas, requiring this separation step.

According to Freeman, this membrane has enormous potential to transform natural gas processing plants, including offshore platforms, which are especially crunched for space.

To better understand how the plastic works, Dr. Anita Hill and her group at Australia's national science agency analyzed the material using positron annihilation lifetime spectroscopy. The method used at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) suggested the hour-glass shape of the pores within the plastic, which are much more consistent in size than in most plastics.

The pores appear and disappear depending on how often the chains of chemicals that make up the plastic move. "The plastic chains move, and as they do, they open up gaps that allow certain gas molecules to wiggle through the plastic," Freeman said.

Freeman and Park intend to learn more about how these mobile pores behave as they develop the TR plastic for commercial purposes.

Park said, "These membranes also show the ability to transport ions since they are doped with acid molecules, and therefore could be developed as fuel cell membranes. However, a lot of research still needs to be done to understand gas and ion transport through these membranes."

Image: the new polymer membrane mimics naturally occurring pores found within cell membranes. The unique hourglass shape effectively separates molecules based on their shape. Separation is more efficient, requiring less energy. Applications include water and gas purification. The separation of carbon dioxide (gray and red) from methane (gray and white) is illustrated. Courtesy: Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO).

Eurekalert: New membrane strips carbon dioxide from natural gas faster and better - October 11, 2007.

Pictures of the membrane at the University of Texas.

Video presentation at CSIRO.

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

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Quick overview of Choren's biomass-to-liquids production process

Now that two of Europe's leading car manufacturers, Volkswagen and Daimler, have committed to help introduce second-generation synthetic biofuels onto the European market (earlier post), we can quickly present an overview of Choren's biomass-to-liquids production process.

Choren's synthetic biofuel, dubbed SunDiesel, is produced by gasifying biomass into a carbon monodixe and hydrogen-rich syngas, which is then transformed into an ultra-clean fuel via Fischer-Tropsch synthesis. The resulting biofuel can readily be used in existing infrastructures and engines. Any type of biomass can be used as a feedstock - from wood to organic waste - thus minimizing the potential conflict between food and fuel production. With second-generation biofuels, the world's vast sustainable biomass potential can be tapped. Video courtesy of Choren Industries [entry ends here].
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Volkswagen and Daimler become shareholders of BTL company CHOREN, aim to mass introduce ultra-clean synthetic biofuels

Volkswagen Aktiengesellschaft and Daimler AG have each acquired a minority shareholding in CHOREN Industries GmbH. The main goal of the commitment by the two companies is the widespread market introduction of BTL (biomass-to-liquids) fuels, a climate-friendly, second-generation of ultra-clean synthetic biofuels. The fact that two leading car manufacturers are entering this committment is highly significant for the biofuels industry.

Volkswagen and Daimler have been investigating potential applications, the economic feasibility and the energy balance of BTL jointly with CHOREN since 2002. The shareholdings in CHOREN acquired by the two companies are an important step towards the systematic use of second-generation biofuels and support the further project development of world scale BTL production plants: with a planned annual production capacity of some 200,000 metric tones, such plants represent a milestone for the envisaged widespread market introduction.
Volkswagen has been calling for and supporting the development and industrial production of second-generation biofuels, known as SunFuels, for a long time. Compared with the first generation, these second-generation biofuels can in fact as much as triple hectare yields, they do not compete with food production and they help to reduce greenhouse gases by approx. 90%. With this financial commitment, the Volkswagen Group is supporting the industrial-scale realization of biogenic synthetic fuels as part of its 'Driving ideas' campaign, and thus systematically continuing to move closer to sustainable mobility. - Dr. Wolfgang Steiger, Head of Group Research, Powertrains
CHOREN is currently building the world’s first commercial industrial scale BTL plant (Beta plant) at its Freiberg site. From 2008, the plant is expected to produce approximately 15,000 metric tons of fuel a year. This would be sufficient to meet the annual requirements of some 15,000 cars.

The company also plans to build the first reference plant in Germany, a Sigma 1 plant, with an annual capacity of 200,000 metric tons. It is hoped to announce a decision on the location of such a plant by the end of the year. The planned Sigma plants have the potential to contribute significantly towards realizing the German government’s climate protection targets. 10 to 15 CHOREN BTL plants could save up to 3 million metric tons of CO2 by 2020.

CHOREN has developed a three-stage gasification process, called Carbo-V, involving the following sub-processes:
  • low temperature gasification
  • high temperature gasification
  • endothermic entrained bed gasification
During the first stage of the process, the biomass (with a water content of 15 – 20 %) is continually carbonized through partial oxidation (low temperature pyrolysis) with air or oxygen at temperatures between 400 and 500 °C, i.e. it is broken down into a gas containing tar (volatile parts) and solid carbon (char).

During the second stage, the gas containing tar is post-oxidized hypostoichiometrically using air and/or oxygen in a combustion chamber operating above the melting point of the fuel’s ash to turn it into a hot gasification medium.

During the third stage of the process, the char is ground down into pulverized fuel and is blown into the hot gasification medium. The pulverized fuel and the gasification medium react endothermically in the gasification reactor and are converted into a raw synthesis gas. Once this has been treated in the appropriate manner, it can be used as a combustible gas for generating electricity, steam and heat or as a synthesis gas for producing an ultra-clean synthetic biofuel ('SunDiesel') via Fischer-Tropsch synthesis:
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Fischer-Tropsch (FT) synthesis is used to convert the synthesis gas into an automotive fuel. During this process, the reactive parts of the synthesis gas (CO and H2) interact with a catalyst to form hydrocarbons. FT synthesis was developed in Germany in the 1920s and it is particularly used in South Africa on a large scale to produce automotive fuels from coal.

In order to maximize the output of the synthetic biodiesel, the waxes formed during the FT synthesis process are further processed using hydrocracking techniques, a standard process that is used in the petrochemical sector to recycle waste substances at refineries.

SunDiesel is an ultraclean synthetic biofuel which:
  • has a high cetane number and therefore much better ignition performance than conventional diesel fuel,
  • has no aromatics or sulfur and significantly reduces pollutants from exhaust emissions,
  • can be used without any adjustment to existing infrastructure or engine systems,
  • is largely CO2-neutral
Volkswagen and Daimler will be stepping up cooperation to shape the framework for the sustainable market introduction of BTL fuels.
In particular the realization of Sigma 1 needs a calculable and long-term perspective for the sale of BTL beyond 2015. Present considerations which are exclusively based on CO2 for established technologies will not be sufficient for introducing innovations. - Tom Blades, CEO at CHOREN
BTL is an ultrapure fuel, virtually free of sulphur and aromatics which combusts with extremely low emissions and has an excellent CO2 balance. BTL is produced from various types of biogenic feedstock and residue, and thus hardly competes with food and fodder production. No adjustment of existing fuel infrastructure is necessary for the distribution and storage of BTL. In addition, BTL is compatible with current as well as future diesel engine technology.

For quite some time now, Volkswagen has been supporting the socially, ecologically and economically-compatible cultivation of organic resources for the production of second-generation biofuels. This could be achieved by taxation on biofuels oriented to both CO2 efficiency (primary criteria) and sustainability criteria such as the use of fertilizers or pesticides, the protection of rainforests, social standards and employment potential.

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Johnson Controls and Nexterra Energy form strategic alliance for biomass gasification projects

Johnson Controls, Inc., has formed a strategic alliance with Nexterra Energy Corp. to offer biomass gasification solutions to Johnson Controls customers, including higher education, health care, government facilities and industrial operations.

Nexterra's patented gasification technology converts biomass into clean burning syngas that can be used to displace natural gas or fuel oil to generate heat and/or electricity. Under the strategic alliance agreement, the companies will jointly develop and implement biomass gasification projects that will enable customers to reduce energy costs, increase energy security, lower greenhouse gas emissions and become less reliant on fossil fuel by using locally sourced, renewable biomass fuel.

The gasification technology provides a clean, versatile and low cost means of converting wood and other solid fuels into syngas to produce heat and power at plant-scale applications. Nexterra has initially developed gasification systems to displace natural gas at sawmills, panelboard plants, pulp and paper mills, and institutional facilities using wood fuel. Future applications include systems that operate on coal and other low cost fuels.

The core of Nexterra’s technology is a fixed-bed, updraft gasifier (schematic, click to enlarge) whose operation can be described in four steps:
  1. Biomass, sized to 3 inches or less, is bottom-fed into the centre of a dome-shaped, refractory lined gasifier. The metering bin is designed to provide short term fuel storage and to deliver a steady rate of fuel to the gasifier. The metering bin out-feed augers have a variable speed drive that deposits fuel into a horizontal auger conveyor where it is transferred to a vertical conveyor. The vertical auger pushes fuel into the base of the fuel pile inside the gasifier. A constant fuel pile height is maintained in the gasifier over the entire operating range.
  2. Combustion air, steam and/or oxygen are introduced into the base of the fuel pile. Partial oxidation, pyrolysis and gasification occur at 1500 — 1800 °F, and the fuel is converted into “syngas” and non-combustible ash. As fuel enters the gasifier, it moves through progressive stages of drying, pyrolysis, gasification and reduction to ash. Combustion air (20 - 30% of stoichiometric), steam and/or oxygen are introduced through the inner and outer cone into the base of the fuel pile. The process is maintained by simultaneous control of combustion air and fuel feed rate. Combustion temperatures in the fuel pile are tightly controlled and kept below the ash melting temperatures to ensure that there is no formation of “clinker” and that the ash flows freely.
  3. The ash migrates to the base of the gasifier and is removed intermittently through an automated in-floor ash grate. As partially processed fuel passes to the outer cone, it is reduced to non-combustible ash. The ash migrates to the grate at the base of the gasifier where it is removed intermittently through a set of openings. The openings are normally covered by a rotating plate fabricated with the same pattern of openings. When hydraulically activated, the rotating plate aligns its openings with the fixed plate and the ash drops into two ash hoppers. Each ash hopper has two parallel augers to convey the ash to a collection conveyor and an enclosed ash bin.
  4. Syngas exits the gasifier at 500 — 700 °F. The syngas can then be combusted in a close coupled oxidizer with the resulting flue gas directed to heat recovery equipment such as boilers, thermal oil heaters, air-to-air heat exchangers and turbines. The syngas is thus used to produce useable heat, hot water, steam and/or electricity. Nexterra is also developing systems to directly fire syngas into industrial boilers, kilns, dryers and other equipment.
As the cost of fossil fuels such as oil and natural gas increases and concern about their economic and environmental impacts grows, businesses and institutions are demanding alternative sources of clean energy. Nexterra was selected because it has demonstrated that its technology is cost-effective, versatile, easy to operate, and provides real solutions to real energy problems:
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Nexterra's capabilities add to a growing alliance of innovative energy technology partners that complement Johnson Control's existing renewable energy solutions and services.

Johnson Controls uses ingenious approaches to incorporate renewable technologies such as biomass, geothermal, solar and wind power with innovative energy efficiency strategies to provide customers long-term, sustainable solutions.

Most recently Johnson Controls partnered with Nexterra to provide a $20 million biomass gasification system for the University of South Carolina that is scheduled for start-up this fall (picture, click to enlarge). At peak capacity, the plant will generate 60,000 lbs/hr of steam which will be used to heat the campus, as well as 1.38 MW of electricity that will be sold to the grid. This gasification solution will now be replicated across a range of institutional and industrial markets throughout North America.

Nexterra Energy
is a developer and supplier of advanced biomass gasification systems that enable customers to self-generate clean, low cost heat and/or power using waste fuels "inside-the fence" at institutional and industrial facilities. Nexterra gasification systems provide a combination of attributes including design simplicity, reliability, versatility, ultra-low emissions, low cost and full automation.

Johnson Controls: Johnson Controls and Nexterra Energy Form Strategic Alliance to Offer Biomass Gasification - October 11, 2007.

Nexterra: Nexterra Biomass Gasification System Nears Completion at Johnson Controls Cogeneration Plant for University of South Carolina - January 31, 2007.

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Global Energy Inc. subsidiary in agreement to lease 20,000 hectares of land in Ethiopia to grow castor seeds

Global Energy Inc., an alternative energy company focusing on the processing of solid and energy waste into usable products, announced it has entered into lease agreements with the 'Southern Nations, Nationalionalities and People's Regional State' (SNRS), in Ethiopia, for a 50 year lease of 20,000 hectares of rural land to grow biofuel feedstock. The project offers an interesting overview of what a land lease in Africa could look like.

The land is located in the Semien Omo and Debub Omo Zones (southwestern Ethiopia →FlashEarth) and will be used for the purpose of cultivating castor seeds, which can be transformed into biofuels, biolubricants and a large range of other bioproducts (amongst other things, castor oil is used for the production of high-strength bioplastics superior to petroleum based alternatives - earlier post and here). Land is also leased for the establishment of a seed crushing plant through an existing facility on the property.

The agreements were entered into by Global Energy Ethiopia (GEE), a 99.9% owned subsidiary of Global NRG Pacific Ltd., which itself is a 50.1% owned subsidiary of Global Energy Inc. which was formed as a joint venture with Yanai Man Projects Ltd. for the purpose of producing crude castor oil to manufacture biodiesel fuels.

The land lease agreement is subject to strict conditions:
  • The company must pay the SNRS a rental fee of 47 Birr (approximately US$5) or 78 Birr (approximately US$8.50) per hectare per year, depending on whether the leased land is defined as 'second' or 'first class' land, respectively.
  • It must also completely develop the 20,000 hectares within eight years of the execution date of the agreement, including planting and maintaining trees or other oil producing crops.
  • Furthermore, the company must completely develop the 15 hectares leased to it within three years of the execution date of the agreement.
  • The company must perform a survey on the 20,000 hectares within 24 months of the execution date of the agreement.
  • Global Energy Ethiopia has an option to lease additional farmland from the SNRS during the term of the lease agreement (up to an additional 100,000 hectares of farmland) on the same terms as the lease agreement for the 20,000 hectares.
  • The company is not required to make any rental payments on its 20,000 hectare lease agreement until the fourth year of the agreement.
Castor oil is derived from seeds of Ricin communis, a crop grown widely in the subtropics and the tropics. The castor plant is a fast-growing, suckering perennial shrub, part of the Euphorbiaceae family (to which Jatropha also belongs), which can reach the size of a small tree (around 12 m) and requires limited amounts of water and fertilizer inputs. Castor oil plants yield some 1,200 to 2,000 liters of oil per hectare:
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Besides being a biodiesel feedstock, the oil derived from castor seeds has over 1000 patented industrial applications and is used in the following industries: automobile, aviation, cosmetics, electrical, electronics, manufacturing, pharmaceutical, plastics, and telecommunications. The following is a brief list of castor oil uses in the above industries: adhesives, brake fluids, caulks, dyes, electrical liquid dielectrics, humectants, hydraulic fluids, inks, lacquers, leather treatments, lubricating greases, machining oils, paints, pigments, refrigeration lubricants, rubbers, sealants, textiles, washing powders, and waxes.

Other countries, amongst them Jamaica, have decided to promote castor for the production of biodiesel, as the crop requires low amounts of water and fertilizer. It thrives in relatively poor soils and is accessible to poor farmers.

GEE intends in the coming months to enter into community farming agreements with local municipal authorities pursuant to which local farmers will grow castor seeds for the company and for cultivation of the leased lands with modern advanced agricultural systems. GEE also intends to file a request for funding from the Ethiopian Development Bank to fund 70% of the project investment and working capital for the first year.
This agreement represents entry into a rich area in a prime geographic location that holds the potential to garner global revenue while providing a sorely needed end-product. With strong government relations and an infrastructure in place, this joint venture represents one, of many, large projects on the continent of Africa. - Asi Shalgi, CEO of Global Energy Ethiopia.
Global Energy's mission is to commercialize innovative technologies which produce energy from waste and renewable sources, while contributing to a vision of a cleaner environment. The company intends to use of the most efficient and environmentally friendly of all currently available alternative fuel technologies.

Ad Hoc: Global Energy Subsidiary Enters Into 50 Year Lease Agreement With Ethiopian Regional Authority to Farm Castor Seeds for Production of Castor Oil on 20,015 Hectares of Land in Ethiopia - October 11, 2007.

Biopact: Jamaica selects castor beans as biodiesel feedstock - August 13, 2007

Biopact: The bioeconomy at work: robust bioplastic used for off-shore oil riser pipes - April 18, 2007

Biopact: The bioeconomy at work: bioplastic fuel lines to handle aggressive biodiesel - December 13, 2006

Ricin communis profile at the Handbook of Energy crops.

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Water-efficient sweet sorghum: how first-generation biofuels could be made

Here's an interesting example of how first-generation biofuels could be made sustainably. Dr A.R. Palani Swamy, an engineer who returned to India from the U.S., has set up a sweet sorghum-based ethanol plant in his native country with the help of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT). The feedstock requires only one ninth of the water needed to grow sugar cane and only half that of maize; fertilizer inputs are comparably low. For these inputs, the sweet sorghum yields around 3160 liters of ethanol, comparable to the output for maize. What is more, the biofuel feedstock is produced by poor farmers.

With its pro-poor Biopower program, the ICRISAT has been leading efforts to leverage the potential of sustainable biofuel production as a stategy to boost the livelihoods of small farmers, to enhance their food security and to help lift them out of poverty (more here). It draws on crops such as Pongamia and Jatropha and on social organisation models such as self-help groups for rural women and farmer cooperatives (examples). But its main contribution comes from developing a very robust sweet sorghum hybrid (earlier post).

Dr Swamy found support from the ICRISAT's technology commercialisation wing, the Agri-Business Incubator (ABI), which agreed to help his company Rusni Distilleries get off the ground. This helped form a unique combination — the entrepreneur, mentorship from the scientific organisation, an NGO that offered extension services for the sorghum crop, and the marginal farmers.

Besides facilitating the multiplication of seed material, ICRISAT organised melas, village meetings, to popularise the crop. The crucial aspect of establishing linkages with the farmers was organised by the NGO Aakruthi Agricultural Associates of India. It was not easy convincing the farmers initially, says G. Subba Rao, Director of AAI, but eventually they succeeded. The support of the ICRISAT also helped secure statutory clearances as well as investments into the crop.

Dr William Dar, Director-General of ICRISAT, says sorghum, a dryland crop, needs far less water than sugarcane, making it more accessible to the poor and marginal farmers who do not own land suitable for other crops. The ethanol production process from sweet sorghum is also considerably more eco-friendly compared to that from sugarcane molasses, adds Belum V. S. Reddy, Principal Scientist (Breeding) at ICRISAT, who is closely associated with the programme.

Keeping in mind the unfolding demand for alternative fuels, Reddy feels that the water-efficient sweet sorghum, with its sugar-rich stalks, could be the best option for producing ethanol. The biofuel's energy balance is strong, it reduces greenhouse gas emissions considerably and requires far less inputs than any other major first-generation biofuel crop:
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Moreover, molasses-based ethanol distilleries run for only six months, while corn-based ethanol production raises concerns globally as it may adversely impact food security, says Reddy. Sweet sorghum faces none of these problems.

After developing the idea into a workable model at the incubation stage, Dr Palani Swamy set up the plant at Mohammed Shapur in Rangareddy district with an initial capacity of 40,000 litres a day. An engineer, Dr Swamy has built his fermentation tanks in pits. This will insulate the process from the outside temperature, which varies from 44 to 8 degrees through summer and winter.

The most important aspect of the production process is the timing of planting the crop. The whole stock shouldn't be coming in at one time, instead a staggered sowing plan was developed to ensure continuous flow of feedstock.

Reacting to concerns on food security, Dr Dar said ethanol production from sweet sorghum boosts farmer's incomes, which allows them to strengthen their food security. The project has entered into buyback arrangements with the farmers to take the whole output of sweet sorghum stalks.

Now that the combination evolved into a workable, successful model, there are a lot of people showing interest in replicating it in India and abroad. While ICRISAT would assist in the technology part, Rusni Distilleries would help in setting up the plant and back-end operations.

For Mr Belum Reddy, it is not just end of the story for research on sweet sorghum. Research will continue on developing varieties that would give higher sugar yield and suit different geographies.

Dr Palani Swamy believes that it makes a good business model too. It is a sellers market, he asserts. The demand for ethanol will only grow, he adds, pointing at India's moves to increase the blend to 10 per cent from the present five per cent. Swamy, who found it difficult to sell his dream a few years ago, is now a much sought-after man. He is already busy helping other entrepreneurs to set up similar plants.

Image: A farm worker strikes a container to drive away birds at a sweet sorghum farm, showing tall stalks, at the International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics at Patancheru in Andhra Pradesh’s Medak district. Courtesy: ICRISAT.

Hindu Business Line: Ethanol from sorghum: A dream come true - October 11, 2007.

Biopact: ICRISAT's pro-poor biofuel projects provide livelihood and food security to landless farmers in India - August 13, 2007

Biopact: ICRISAT's pro-poor biofuels initiative - video - May 28, 2007

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

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IPC urges EU/US to open markets for more efficient biofuels from the developing world - boost to 'Biopact'

Yet another major agriculture policy think tank has examined the effects of EU and US support for their own first-generation biofuels industries compared to more efficient alternatives from the South, and finds that the measures present major problems: domestic biofuels are not very energy efficient, they do not offer significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, they are not cost effective, they push up food prices and they are based on large amounts of subsidies and protectionist trade barriers.

The International Food & Agricultural Trade Policy Council (IPC) therefor urges both blocks to open their markets for biofuels from the developing world, where they can be produced far more efficiently, cost effectively and offer major opportunities for economic development and poverty alleviation. The IPC thus fully joins the case for a 'Biopact' - a vision now being supported by major energy policy think tanks, agriculture organisations and development economists.

The US and the EU are presently considering significant increases in their biofuels mandates in transportation fuel. IPC's report 'An Examination of U.S. and EU Government Support to Biofuels: Early Lessons' [*.pdf], finds that, in the absence of commercially viable second-generation biofuels, ambitious mandates coupled with high tariffs that serve to largely limit tax incentives to domestic producers risk a disproportionate focus on inefficient US and EU first-generation biofuels.

The report demonstrates that the lack of internationally agreed technical and sustainability standards, as well as a lack of clarity about international trade obligations, can increase this tendency. The report urges the U.S. and EU to adopt policies that serve to promote uses of biomass that are most energy-efficient and show the greatest promise of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, regardless of national origin.

The IPC's report says that, considering the comparative advantage of many developing countries in agriculture, increased US and EU openness to imports could provide economic growth opportunities for those countries with large production capacities. Developing countries can produce biofuels in a more efficient (table 1, click to enlarge) and more cost-effective (figure, click to enlarge) way.

Moreover, these biofuels reduce greenhouse gas emissions far more than fuels made from grains such as wheat and corn (figure 2, click to enlarge). What is more, both the EU and the US have limited land resources needed to expand production, whereas in the developing world there is vast unused potential.

To encourage the efficient production of biofuels from the most appropriate feedstocks, IPC’s report makes following recommendations and warnings:

EU and U.S. mandates, tax incentives, and tariffs:
  • In the absence of viable second-generation biofuels, incentives, tariffs, and standards that are structured primarily to promote domestic production of certain biofuels will retard the procurement and development of other more energy — and cost-efficient — biofuels.
  • Widening the access of imports to U.S. and EU domestic markets would help reduce upward pressure on commodity prices and lower the high costs of biofuels production, decreasing the risk of a backlash against government subsidies.
  • Clarifying how WTO rules apply to the biofuels sector can pave the way for less distorted government support policies.
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International standards are necessary to ensure that biofuels play a productive role in the push for renewable energy sources:
  • Global sustainability standards can point the way towards optimal biofuels and feedstocks. The reduction of greenhouse gases should be the top priority.
  • Without an international consensus on what constitutes sustainable biofuels production, environmental concerns can conveniently be used to cloak protectionist interests.
  • Without widespread agreement on feedstock-neutral quality specifications, divergent technical standards can also be used for protectionist purposes.
The United States and the EU should consider the impact of their biofuels support policies on developing countries:
  • Increased prices and new market opportunities will be welcome by developing countries with good production and export capacity. Rising food prices, however, hit net food importing developing countries especially hard.
  • Considering the comparative advantage of many developing countries in agriculture, increased U.S. and EU openness to imports could provide economic growth opportunities for those countries with large production capacities.
  • Other developing countries should be encouraged to explore the potential for domestic and small-scale biofuels production, which promises to be effective in the ongoing struggle for greater access to more sustainable energy sources and in the fight against poverty. As these countries do not have comparable means to subsidize their biofuels industry, the prospect of trade will facilitate investment.
  • For international sustainability criteria to be effective, they must truly be global and incorporate the interests and concerns of developing countries. Given the possibility that these standards may limit economic growth in developing countries, care must be taken to help developing countries comply.
The costs, energy efficiencies, and net energy balances of biofuels vary widely, depending on the type of feedstock and production process used. Since the utilization of biofuels by the transport sector in the United States and the EU relies on government incentives, these policies should promote those biofuels that have an economic and environmental comparative advantage.

The political reality, however, is that domestic interests, largely agricultural ones, expect to be the primary beneficiaries of generous incentives to achieve ambitious biofuel production targets. Policymakers are not shy about this. They promote biofuels not only for their energy and environmental benefits, but also for their role in strengthening the market for domestically produced agricultural feedstocks.

This IPC’s examination of U.S. and EU incentives and tariffs demonstrates a high level of protectionism on both sides. Ultimately, the objective of promoting domestic production may undermine efforts to rapidly develop the most efficient, sustainable energy resources, it concludes.

The International Food & Agricultural Trade Policy Council promotes a more open and equitable global food system by pursuing pragmatic trade and development policies in food and agriculture to meet the world's growing needs. IPC convenes influential policymakers, agribusiness executives, farm leaders, and academics from developed and developing countries to clarify complex issues, build consensus, and advocate policies to decision-makers.

Charlotte Hebebrand and Kara Laney, "An Examination of U.S. and EU Government Support to Biofuels: Early Lessons" [*.pdf], IPC Issue Brief 26, October 2007

IPC: U.S. and EU policies should expedite sustainable biofuels - October9, 2007.

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Europe launches €940 million Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Technology Initiative

The European Commission has adopted two proposals that will mark a step forward in the development and marketing of clean and safe hydrogen vehicles in Europe. The first is the setting up of the Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Technology Initiative (JTI), an ambitious industry-led integrated programme of research, technology development and demonstration activities.

This Public-Private Partnership driven by European industry will be implemented over the next 6 years with a financial contribution from the EU of €470 million, to be matched by the private sector. The €940 million ($1.3 billion) JTI should accelerate the development of hydrogen technologies to the point of commercial take-off between 2010 and 2020.

Secondly, a number of hydrogen cars are already ripe for market introduction today. Thus, the Commission proposes to simplify their approval so that they will be seen more often on Europe's streets. Both proposals will now be considered by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers.
The introduction of hydrogen vehicles has the potential to make Europe's air cleaner and reduce its dependency on fossil fuels. Setting common standards will support the introduction of these vehicles and ensure high safety for citizens. It will also boost the competitiveness of European manufacturers. - Günter Verheugen, Commission Vice-President, responsible for enterprise and industry
Hydrogen is a clean energy carrier. When used as fuel either in combustion motors or in fuel-cell systems, it does not produce any carbon emissions (carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, unburned hydrocarbons or particulates). Thus, using hydrogen will contribute to the improvement of air quality in cities. Moreover, no greenhouse gases are produced from motor vehicles, although care will have to be taken that the production of hydrogen itself does not lead to an increase in CO2 emissions. This can be achieved by producing hydrogen from non-fossil energy sources or by CO2 sequestration. One of the many possible production pathways relies on renewable biomass as a primary energy source:
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EU wide approval of hydrogen vehicles
At the moment, hydrogen vehicles are not included in the EU vehicle type-approval system. This results in complicated and costly approval procedures and hinders vehicles being placed on the market on a uniform basis throughout the EU. The Commission's proposal will introduce these vehicles into the type-approval framework. Furthermore, hydrogen has different characteristics from conventional fuels. The proposal will guarantee that all hydrogen vehicles put on the market in the EU are at least as safe as conventional vehicles.

Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Technology Initiative
The second proposal is to create a public/private partnership for research, a Joint Technology Initiative, to benefit the development of hydrogen and fuel cells. The JTI will receive €470 million from the EU's 7th Framework Programme, an amount that will be matched by the industrial partners.

Fuel cells are very efficient energy conversion devices. Fuel cells can be applied in a variety of products such as mobile phones and laptops, cars, buses, ships and planes, as well as stationary heat and power generators in the domestic and industrial sector. However, a number of technical and non-technical barriers must still be addressed before these technologies can become widely commercially available. They include, for example, cost and durability of fuel cells, sustainable production of hydrogen, and safe and efficient distribution and storage of hydrogen, particularly for mobile applications.

According to the Commission, the new research cooperation has a number of clear advantages:
  • The JTI will contribute to reduced time to market for hydrogen and fuel cells technologies by between 2 and 5 years.
  • There will be a quicker impact on improving energy efficiency, security of supply, pollution, and on improving potential for reducing greenhouse gases.
  • A pre-defined budget of sufficient critical mass and a 6 year time horizon will raise confidence in public and private investors and allows industry to make long-term investment plans and manage its cash flows.
  • Industry’s lead role, together with the European Commission, in defining priorities and timelines, in consultation with the research community, will ensure that full advantage is taken of the fundamental research capacities in universities and research centres and that RTD and demonstration efforts are integrated under common management.
  • The JTI will create a stronger link between demonstration projects and fundamental and applied research projects, accelerating the pace of learning and moving faster along the experience curve.
The scope and deliverables of the project include:
  • The JTI will implement basic research and industrial applied R&D, demonstration actions and supporting activities, based on the work already done by the European Technology Platform. Perhaps not adding much of useful info
  • The intention with the JTI is to deliver robust hydrogen supply and fuel cell technologies developed to the point of commercial take-off. For the automotive sector, the aim is to achieve breakthroughs in bottleneck technologies and to enable industry to take the large-scale commercialisation decisions necessary to achieve mass market growth in the time-frame 2015-2020. For stationary fuel cells (domestic and commercial) and portable applications, the JTI will provide the technology base to initiate market growth from 2010-2015.
These two proposals adopted by the European Commission on fuel cells and hydrogen technologies are expected to offer long term solutions for sustainable energy and transport systems. These will benefit society by mitigating the adverse effects of climate change and toxic pollutants, and reducing dependency on diminishing oil and gas reserves.

European Commission: The Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Technology Initiative - October 10, 2007.

European Commission: Clean and safe cars: The Commission promotes hydrogen vehicles - October 10, 2007.

European Commission, Enterprise & Industry: Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on type-approval of hydrogen powered motor vehicles and amending Directive 2007/46/EC [*.pdf] - October 10, 2007.

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Report: increase in corn ethanol production could significantly impact water quality and availability in the United States

If projected increases in the use of corn for ethanol production occur in the United States, the harm to water quality could be considerable, and water supply problems at the regional and local levels could also arise, says a new report from the National Research Council. The committee that wrote the report examined policy options and identified opportunities for new agricultural techniques and technologies to help minimize effects of corn biofuel production on water resources.

A National Research Council committee was convened to look at how shifts in the nation's agriculture to include more energy crops, and potentially more crops overall, could affect water management and long-term sustainability of biofuel production. Based on findings presented at a July colloquium, the committee came to several conclusions about biofuel production and identified options for addressing them. The results are published in a report titled 'Water Implications of Biofuels Production in the United States'.

In terms of water quantity, the committee found that agricultural shifts to growing corn and expanding biofuel crops into regions with little agriculture, especially dry areas, could change current irrigation practices and greatly increase pressure on water resources in many parts of the United States. The amount of rainfall and other hydroclimate conditions from region to region causes significant variations in the water requirement for the same crop, the report says. For example, in the Northern and Southern Plains, corn generally uses more water than soybeans and cotton, while the reverse is true in the Pacific and mountain regions of the country.

Water demands for drinking, industry, and such uses as hydropower, fish habitat, and recreation could compete with, and in some cases, constrain the use of water for biofuel crops in some regions. Consequently, growing biofuel crops requiring additional irrigation in areas with limited water supplies is a major concern, the report says (map shows the number of planned ethanol facilities, their water requirements and the availability of water - click to enlarge).

Even though a large body of information exists for the the United States' agricultural water requirements, fundamental knowledge gaps prevent making reliable assessments about the water impacts of future large scale production of feedstocks other than corn, such as switchgrass and native grasses. In addition, other aspects of crop production for biofuel may not be fully anticipated using the frameworks that exist for food crops. For example, biofuel crops could be irrigated with wastewater that is biologically and chemically unsuitable for use with food crops, or genetically modified crops that are more water efficient could be developed.

The quality of groundwater, rivers, and coastal and offshore waters could be impacted by increased fertilizer and pesticide use for biofuels, the report says. High levels of nitrogen in stream flows are a major cause of low-oxygen or "hypoxic" regions, commonly known as "dead zones," which are lethal for most living creatures and cover broad areas of the Gulf of Mexico, Chesapeake Bay, and other regions. The report notes that there are a number of agricultural practices and technologies that could be employed to reduce nutrient pollution, such as injecting fertilizer below the soil surface, using controlled-release fertilizers that have water-insoluble coatings, and optimizing the amount of fertilizer applied to the land:
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A possible metric to gauge the impact of biofuels on water quality could be to compare the amount of fertilizers and pesticides used on various crops, the committee suggested. For example, corn has the greatest application rates of both fertilizer and pesticides per acre, higher than for soybeans and mixed-species grassland biomass. The switch from other crops or noncrop plants to corn would likely lead to much higher application rates of highly soluble nitrogen, which could migrate to drinking water wells, rivers, and streams, the committee said. When not removed from water before consumption, high levels of nitrate and nitrite - products of nitrogen fertilizers - could have significant health impacts.

Nutrient and sediment pollution in streams and rivers could also both be attributed to soil erosion. High sedimentation rates carry financial consequences as they increase the cost of often-mandatory dredging for transportation and recreation. The committee observed that erosion might be minimized if future production of biofuels looks to perennial crops, like switchgrass, poplars or willows, or prairie polyculture, which could hold the soil and nutrients in place better than most row crops. The committee also identified other ways that farming could be improved, such as conservation tillage and leaving most or all of the cornstalks and cobs in the field after the grain has been harvested.

For biorefineries, the water consumed for the ethanol production process - although modest compared with the water used growing biofuel crops - could substantially affect local water supplies, the committee concluded. A biorefinery that produces 100 million gallons of ethanol a year would use the equivalent of the water supply for a town of about 5,000 people. Biorefineries could generate intense challenges for local water supplies, depending on where the facilities are located. However, use of water in biorefineries is declining as ethanol producers increasingly incorporate water recycling and develop new methods of converting feedstocks to fuels that increase energy yields while reducing water use, the committee noted.

The study was sponsored by the McKnight Foundation, Energy Foundation, National Science Foundation, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and National Research Council Day Fund. The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies. They are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter. The Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.

National Academy of Sciences: Water Implications of Biofuels Production in the United States - October 10, 2007.

National Academy of Sciences: Water Implications of Biofuels Production in the United States: Report Brief [*.pdf] - October 10, 2007.

National Academy of Sciences: Increase in Ethanol Production From Corn Could Significantly Impact Water Quality and Availability if New Practices and Techniques Are Not Employed - October 10, 2007.

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Brazilian scientists identify elephant grass as a promising biomass crop; first projects already underway

Studies by the Agrobiology Centre at the state Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa) are finding that elephant grass has great potential as a biomass crop that can be used for the production of green heat, power and electricity. A Brazilian company, Sykue Bioenergia, has already commissioned a first thermoelectric power plant that will be fuelled by the grass. It plans another 10 and aims for carbon credits. The market for the solid biofuel is potentially huge, as it can further be used in the iron, steel, aluminum, chemical and cement industries. Moreover, the highly efficient crop can be grown across the tropics, opening major perspectives for clean development and new export markets in the developing world. Experts see the emergence of a global solid biofuel market, similar to that of liquid biofuels.

Biomass champion
Elephant grass (Pennisetum purpureum - earlier post) is a species of grass native to the tropical grasslands of Africa. It is a tall perennial plant, growing to 2-4.5m tall (sometimes up to 7.5 m), with razor-sharp leaves 30-120 cm long and 1-5 cm broad. It is a cane-like species of grass which utilizes the efficient C4 carbon fixation path, resulting in high biomass productivity. When burned in biomass power plants it can generate 25 times as much energy as the amount of fossil fuel used to produce it. In short, the crop has an extremely strong energy balance. (Compare with the energy balance of corn ethanol, which is around 1 to 1, or sugarcane ethanol at 8 to 1).

The biomass crop can be used as an alternative to coal, which is fetching record prices (earlier post). As a solid biofuel it can be burned either in dedicated, highly efficient biomass power plants, in blast furnaces as an alternative to coal, or co-fired with coal in existing power plants.

According to Vicente Mazzarella, who has been studying elephant grass at the Sao Paulo state government’s Institute for Technological Research (IPT) since 1991, the crop is a champion when it comes to sheer biomass yields. Compare it with the popular eucalyptus tree, planted in Brazil to produce cellulose and charcoal: the tree yields around 7.5 tons of dry biomass per hectare a year and up to 20 tons a year in optimum conditions, while elephant grass yields 30 to 40 tons.

Furthermore, eucalyptus trees take seven years to reach a size worth felling, while elephant grass can be harvested two to four times a year, because of its rapid growth.

And its yield may be increased still further, since the species has hardly been studied and no genetic improvement efforts have yet been carried out. There are close to 200 varieties of elephant grass, and it will take time and effort to identify which ones are best suited to different soil and climate conditions.

Crop research
After 10 years of research, Embrapa’s Agrobiology Centre identified three varieties of elephant grass suited to energy production purposes because of their high yield without nitrogenous fertilisers. For use as a biofuel, the least nutritious varieties are sought, in contrast to its traditional use as animal feed:
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The reason is that nutrients like mineral salts produce ash that can damage iron and steel furnaces, Bruno Alves, an agronomist with the elephant grass research team at Embrapa’s Agrobiology Centre, headed by Segundo Urquiaga.

That is why tests were done using varieties that grow in poor soil, using the minimum amount of fertilisers, but still producing the highest yields of biomass.

The conversion of energy intake into energy storage (the energy balance) of the plant can be improved by biological nitrogen fixation, in which bacteria take nitrogen from the air and convert it to compounds that fertilise plants.

This is an area in which Embrapa’s Agrobiology Centre has accumulated much expertise in the last few decades, inoculating nitrogen-fixing bacteria into beans and sugarcane.

Biological nitrogen fixation limits itself to the nitrogen required by the plant, avoiding the risk of excessive nitrogenous fertiliser use, said Alves. He pointed out that nitrogenous fertilisers require the greatest amount of fossil fuel energy to produce them chemically, and that by avoiding its use, greenhouse gas emissions are also avoided.

Logistics, bioconversion
But elephant grass does present certain difficulties. It likes a lot of water, so its tolerance of the long dry seasons of the Cerrado, the Brazilian savannah where the largest extensions of land are available for cultivation, must be studied, as well as whether it will maintain its productivity level with less humidity.

Drying and compacting the biomass are also a challenge. Green elephant grass is 80 percent water, and it does not dry out in the sun, as eucalyptus does, but rots if left in piles. To dry, it must be cut up into small pieces, and some heat energy applied. Compacting is necessary for storage and transport because of the great bulk of the dry grass.

The ceramic industry, therefore, is likely to be the first user of elephant grass as an energy source. Medium-sized ceramic plants require less than 100 hectares of elephant grass grown nearby, which dispenses with compacting and transport. The dried elephant grass can be used in furnaces directly, instead of wood or natural gas. Other processes needing just heat or steam will soon be able to make use of this alternative fuel.

First grass powered station
A medium-sized electricity company, Sykue Bioenergia, has already commissioned a thermoelectric power plant that will be fuelled by elephant grass. The thermoelectric station will be built in Sao Desiderio in the state of Bahia in northeastern Brazil, by Dedini, an industrial company better known for building sugar mills and distilleries.

The Sykue power plant will cost 80 million reais (43 million dollars) and is due to come onstream in December 2008. It will have a capacity of 30 megawatts and will produce its own elephant grass on a plantation of 4,000 hectares. The company intends to build 10 such power plants soon.

Ana Maria Diniz of Sykue Bioenergia said grass had been chosen to power the new generating plant “due to its capacity to transform solar energy into cellulose via a totally clean, renewable and economically viable production cycle.”

The project will allow carbon credits of a million tons per year to be obtained, which can be sold on the international market to generate extra profits for the companies involved.

Huge market
Making charcoal from elephant grass, to substitute for coke or traditional charcoal made from wood, still needs further research. But environmental pressures and the threat of an energy deficit in Brazil may accelerate its development and stimulate investment from large steelworks and energy companies.

The potential demand for this alternative energy source is huge, said Mazzarella, who indicated five big markets. As well as steelworks interested in a new charcoal that does not contribute to deforestation, there is a group of large consumers of energy, such as the aluminium industry, the chemical and cement industries, and electricity distributors.

Biomass energy implies a key saving for electricity companies because it can supply extra electricity at times of peak demand, which is the most expensive to produce.

The mining industry, which imports coal to process iron ore into iron and steel for export, could use elephant grass compressed into pellets, similar to wood pellets, in its blast furnaces as an economical and environmentally friendly solution.

In Europe, the use of dry, compacted biomass pellets for heating is growing rapidly (earlier post, here and here), and elephant grass could open up export markets for Brazil similar to those for ethanol, Mazzarella said.

IPS: Pasto elefante, nuevo campeón en biomasa - October 2007.

Fuel Alternative: Brazil to produce power from grass - July 24, 2007.

Biopact: E.ON UK submits application for 25MW biomass plant - July 20, 2007

Biopact: Biomass pellets revolution in Austria: 46% less costly than heating oil; most efficient way for households to reduce carbon footprint - October 06, 2007

Biopact: Report: biomass fastest growing renewable in EU, largest potential - September 15, 2007

Biopact: Interpellets 2007: conference looks at wood pellets as an alternative to fossil fuels - August 16, 2007

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Saskatchewan Biofuels Investment Opportunity Program approves $12.5 million in funding for two communally owned biofuel plants

ENSASK Biofuels Ltd. in Tisdale and North West Bio-Energy Ltd. in Unity have both been approved for a conditionally repayable contribution of up to $10 million and $2.5 million respectively under Canada's provincial Saskatchewan Biofuels Investment Opportunity (SaskBIO) Program (earlier post).

North West Bio-Energy Ltd. is a wholly owned subsidiary of North West Terminal Ltd., a farmer-owned inland grain terminal located one mile east of Unity, Saskatchewan. North West Bio-Energy Ltd. was established for the purpose of constructing and operating a 25-million litre per year fuel-ethanol facility.

ENSASK Biofuels Ltd. was established in 2006 to develop a wheat ethanol facility in North eastern Saskatchewan. The facility, scheduled to open in 2009, expects to produce 100-million litres of ethanol per year.
Through projects like ours, the SaskBIO program creates the mechanism to allow farmers and rural communities to participate in and profit from the new opportunities presented by the biofuels industry. - Jason Skinner, General Manager of North West Bio-Energy Ltd.
Communal ownership
The Saskatchewan Biofuels Investment Opportunity Program, administered by the Department of Regional Economic and Co-operative Development, is a four-year, $80 million provincial program that provides repayable contributions of up to $10 million per project for the construction or expansion of transportation biofuels production facilities in Saskatchewan:
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The program was created to provide farmers and communities the opportunity to participate through investment in the value-added biofuels industry, and began accepting applications in August, 2007.

Program applicants must have a minimum of five per cent farmer-community investment, and a minimum production capacity of two million litres per year for both new and expanding facilities.

Stressing the community-ownership factor Premier Lorne Calvert says about the program: "We created SaskBIO to provide an opportunity for farmers and communities to participate in the value-added biofuels industry in Saskatchewan through ownership of biofuels facilities. This program will also ensure that Saskatchewan is an attractive jurisdiction in which to build a sustainable biofuels industry."

Government of Saskatchewan: Biofuels Facilities Approved for $12.5 million in Provincial Funding - October 9, 2007.

Biopact: Saskatchewan commits C$80 million to development of biofuel plants - community ownership - June 14, 2007

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Partnership to build first industrial-scale biodiesel plant leveraging solid catalyst

Benefuel, Inc., a new-generation biodiesel refining and distribution company, announced today that it will build the world’s first industrial-scale biodiesel refinery leveraging a novel solid catalyst that converts low-grade fats and vegetable oils into biodiesel. The plant, planned to be located in Seymour (Indiana), eliminates the need for water in the refining process and produces a market-ready glycerin by-product.

Benefuel will partner with Seymour Biofuels LLC, based in Indiana, to construct a 10-million gallon (37.8 million liter) biodiesel plant that uses Benefuel’s solid, acid catalyst. The catalyst, developed in collaboration with chemical engineers from India’s National Chemical Laboratory, can turn virtually any vegetable oil or high free fatty acid (FFA) animal fat directly into biodiesel without the need for costly pre-processing.
Biodiesel refiners have been looking for a breakthrough that reduces feedstock costs, addresses waste glycerin disposal, eliminates caustics in the processing stream and reduces the environmental impact typically associated with producing biodiesel. The economic benefits of a solid catalyst refinery far exceed those of conventional refineries, dramatically increasing operating margins to create a major shift in how the world produces biodiesel. - Rob Tripp, CEO of Benefuel, Inc.
Traditional biodiesel 'catalysts' are better described as chemical 'reactants', rather than 'catalysts', because they are destroyed during the refining process. Sodium and potassium hydroxides – the most common substances used to transesterify oils and fats into methyl esters - are consumed during production and must be washed out of the biodiesel crude. In addition to being discarded after each batch, caustic reagents must be neutralized with acid before the biodiesel can be recovered and then contaminate the glycerin byproduct with waste salts, which dramatically degrades its commercial value, as well as add costs to the biodiesel process.

Benefuel’s dual metal catalyst (DMC) solves the problem of reactant waste and glycerin contamination. The solid catalyst is not consumed during transesterification, eliminating the need for fuel washing – and making Benefuel the first biodiesel company in the world that places no demand on limited water supplies. Typical biodiesel refineries can require up to five gallons of water per gallon of oil feedstock to wash out spent reactant. A Benefuel refinery requires no process water at all.

Due to the unique nature of the DMC, methyl esters produced in a Benefuel refinery can be immediately blended (without washing) with petrodiesel to make biodiesel blends or used directly as the best B100 in the market.

In addition to high-quality biodiesel, Benefuel’s proprietary refineries also produce a 98 to 99 percent pure, technical-grade glycerin that has a multiple number of uses:
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An operator choosing to use long-chain alcohols (octane) will be able to make biolubricant base oils – all within the same refinery – which can be blended with petroleum base oils to make biodegradable lubricants for the ever-growing lubricant market. The DMC effectively refines a wide range of oil feedstocks, including both vegetable oils and animal fats up to 100 percent free fatty acids (FFA).

The DMC changes the fundamentals of the biodiesel refining equation, enabling a continuous flow fuel-processing model that is not possible in traditional stirred tank reactors (STRs). STRs convert feedstocks to methyl esters in “batches,” requiring significant labor inputs and stop-and-go production. The continuous flow model streamlines the production process and allows for constant output.

Because of this, a Benefuel refinery does not require manual batch testing for quality assurance. Each Benefuel refinery is continuously monitored cutting labor costs and eliminating down time.
You couldn’t ask for a better location for this facility than right here in the heart of soy country. The flexibility and simplicity of the Benefuel refinery will allow us to process a much broader range of feedstock in a much more profitable and environmentally friendly way. The valuable glycerin commodity and use of local feedstock will make this plant a model for distributed fuel production. This brings our energy supply back home. - said James Galyen, a partner in Seymour Biofuels LLC.
Officials with both companies expect to begin production later in 2008.

Benefuel, Inc. is a new-generation biodiesel refining and distribution company whose streamlined production process allows for distributed and scalable biodiesel plants that leverage local resources, enable cost advantages for producers and distributors, and facilitate expansion of the biofuels market.

Seymour BioFuels LLC is a closely held renewable energy investment company. It has completed a feasibility study and plans to construct a new biodiesel facility in Seymour, Ind. Benefuel’s patented technology will allow Seymour BioFuels to use multiple feedstocks and produce a premium, environmentally friendly source of energy. The city of Seymour was selected as the site for the plant because of its access to rail and interstate, as well as its access to local agriculture to be used for feedstock. Seymour BioFuels plans to market its end product to local distributors, thereby eliminating costs associated with bringing in fuel from outside sources. Seymour BioFuels is in the process of securing funding to begin construction of the new plant.

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Hyflux, BP and Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics team up to develop zeolite membranes for dewatering biofuels

Singapore-based Hyflux, petroleum major BP International Ltd and China's Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics (DICP) have announced plans to jointly develop and commercialise the use of zeolite dewatering membranes in the production of biofuels. By increasing the efficiency of the dewatering step, zeolite membranes have the potential to significantly reduce the energy costs of production of biofuels such as bioethanol.

The scope of the agreement covers the fermentation and synthetic alcohol dehydration of ethanol and propanol, and mixtures of alcohols and diols, specifically monoethylene glycol.

The first project of the three-party collaboration involves the dewatering of bio-ethanol using zeolite membranes. Bio-ethanol is produced by fermentation of sugars derived from starchy plants (corn, potatoes), sugar-rich plants (beets, sugar cane) or ligneous or cellulosic plants (wood, straw). Dewatering of alcohol is typically an energy intensive and costly process which involves adding large amounts of heat. Zeolite membrane technology (schematic, click to enlarge) has been proven to be especially cost-effective in the dewatering process and offers very significant energy savings when compared with conventional processes.
DICP is one of the most creative and innovative research institutes in China and has a track record of turning research into commercial application. Most recently we have commercialised our methanol to olefins technology using novel zeolitic catalyst and process development expertise. DICP are experts in zeolite membranes having worked on them for over 15 years. We have developed and patented novel methods for their preparation which has improved the efficiency of the membrane modules and provided an intermediate level of scale-up to show these can now be fabricated in a cost effective manner. - Dr. Tao Zhang, Director of DICP
Zeolites are crystalline structures made up of 'T-atoms' which are tetrahedrally bonded to each other with oxygen bridges. Zeolites are usually aluminosilicates, but other T-atoms such as P, Ga, Ge, B, Be and others can exist in the framework as well. Because of the regularity of the crystalline structure and the pores with angstrom size dimensions, these crystals, when grown together to form a membrane, can operate as separations devices for gas and liquid mixtures.

Zeolite membranes have advantages over other types of membranes in that they are highly stable under thermal cycling, high temperatures, and harsh physical and chemical environments which other membranes cannot withstand. The chemistry of the zeolites can be modified to provide catalytic properties, to change them between hydrophobic and hydrophilic surfaces, to change the pore size and structure (creating different types of zeolites), which make them useful for many different applications:
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The three-party collaboration will draw upon DICP’s technical knowledge in zeolite membrane technology, on Hyflux’s commercial experience in membrane manufacturing, membrane module manufacturing, process design and systems integration, as well as on BP’s worldwide fuel technology expertise, market network and know-how.
Transportation is an important area to address since it accounts for around 20 per cent of global emissions and increased blending of biocomponents offers a real option for progress in this area on a global scale. - Pek Hak Bin, Country President of BP Singapore
Hyflux believes that this is a significant milestone for the group to enter the field of clean energy. The company successfully commercialised its used oil recycling business last year, and the new partnership represents another potential business in the energy sector.

Looking ahead, Hyflux is optimistic about the potential spin-offs of the widespread applications of zeolite technology.
Zeolite membranes can also be effectively used in the dehydration and recycling of solvents. This will give Hyflux an added area of growth, which is to expand into new industrial sectors such as the fine chemicals and specialty chemicals and biochemicals. - Olivia Lum, Hyflux Group CEO & President
BP has extensive experience and investments in biofuel research and development in Europe, India, Australia, China and the USA, and was a pioneer in the area of zeolite membrane technology. In China, BP and DICP have been working together to research new clean energy technologies. BP also spearheaded the “Clean Energy: Facing the Future” programme in 2001 with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Tsinghua University.

Global investment in biofuels accounted for some US$18 billion in 2006. By 2020, the estimated global demand of bio-ethanol is estimated to reach 120 billion litres.

Hyflux is one of Asia’s leading environmental companies, with operations and projects
in Singapore & Southeast Asia, China, the Middle East & North Africa and India. Specialising in membrane technologies, Hyflux is today an integrated solutions provider offering services that include process design and optimisation, pilot testing, fabrication and installation, and engineering, procurement and construction. It is also engaged in the commissioning, operation and maintenance of a wide range of liquid treatment systems on a turnkey or Design-Build-Own-Operate (DBOO) arrangement.

Hyflux currently focuses on four core businesses namely water, industrial manufacturing processes, specialty materials and energy (oil recycling) In 2006, Hyflux was awarded Water Company of the Year by the UK’s Global Water Intelligence at the Global Water Awards. It also made it to Forbes Asia’s Best Under a Billion List 2006.

Founded in March 1949, DICP is a multidisciplinary institute engaging in both fundamental and applied researches of chemistry and chemical engineering. With strong abilities for technological development, DICP has conducted researches in many fields, including catalytic chemistry, engineering chemistry, organic synthetic chemistry, chemical lasers and molecular reaction dynamics, as well as in modern analytical chemistry, especially in chromatography.

Hyflux: Biofuel Joint Development - October 9, 2007.

Biopact: Mitsui Engineering to use zeolite membrane for ethanol dehydration - July 12, 2007

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U.S. DOE to invest $197 million in three large carbon sequestration projects

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announces that it has awarded the first three large-scale carbon sequestration projects in the United States and the largest single set in the world to date. The three projects - Plains Carbon Dioxide Reduction Partnership; Southeast Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnership; and Southwest Regional Partnership for Carbon Sequestration - will conduct large volume tests for the storage of one million or more tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) in deep saline reservoirs.

Biopact tracks developments in carbon capture and storage (CCS) because the technologies prepare the groundwork for applications in the production of carbon-negative bioenergy.

DOE plans to invest $197 million over ten years, subject to annual appropriations from Congress, for the projects, whose estimated value including partnership cost share is $318 million. These projects are the first of several sequestration demonstration projects planned through DOE's Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnerships (map, click to enlarge).

The formations to be tested during this third phase of the regional partnerships program are recognized as the most promising of the geologic basins in the United States. Collectively, these formations have the potential to store more than one hundred years of CO2 emissions from all major point sources in North America.

The projects include participation from 27 states and the Canadian provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. They will demonstrate the entire CO2 injection process - pre-injection characterization, injection process monitoring, and post-injection monitoring - at large volumes to determine the ability of different geologic settings to permanently store CO2.

The projects awarded are the following:
Plains CO2 Reduction Partnership
The Plains CO2 Reduction Partnership, led by the Energy & Environmental Research Center at the University of North Dakota, will conduct geologic CO2 storage projects in the Alberta and Williston Basins. The Williston Basin project in North Dakota will couple enhanced oil recovery and CO2 storage in a deep carbonate formation that is also a major saline formation. The CO2 for this project will come from a post-combustion capture facility located at a coal-fired power plant in the region. A second test will be conducted in northwestern Alberta, Canada, and will demonstrate the co-sequestration of CO2 and hydrogen sulfide from a large gas-processing plant into a deep saline formation. This will provide data about how hydrogen sulfide affects the sequestration process. The Plains partnership includes North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, and Wisconsin, along with the Canadian provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.
  • Total Project Cost: $135,586,059
  • DOE Share: $67,000,000
  • Partner Share: $68,586,059
Southeast Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnership
This partnership, led by Southern States Energy Board, will demonstrate CO2 storage in the lower Tuscaloosa Formation Massive Sand Unit. This geologic formation stretches from Texas to Florida and has the potential to store more than 200 years of CO2 emissions from major point sources in the region. The partnership will inject CO2 at two locations to assess different CO2 streams and how the heterogeneity of the formation affects the injection and containment. Injection of several million tons of CO2 from a natural deposit is expected to begin in late 2008. The project will then conduct a second injection into the formation using CO2 captured from a coal-fired power plant in the region. The results of these projects will provide the foundation for the future development of CO2 capture and storage opportunities. The Southeast partnership covers Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, and southeast Texas.
  • Total Project Cost: $93,689,242
  • DOE Share: $64,949,079
  • Partner Share: $28,740,163
Southwest Regional Partnership for Carbon Sequestration
Coordinated by the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, the Southwest Regional Partnership for Carbon Sequestration will inject several million tons of CO2 into the Jurassic-age Entrada Sandstone Formation in the southwestern United States. The Entrada formation stretches from Colorado to Wyoming and is a significant storage reservoir in the region. The partnership will inject CO2 into the formation after extensive baseline characterization and simulation modeling. The project will test the limits of injection and demonstrate the integrity of the cap rock to trap the gas. Information gained from the project will be used to evaluate locations throughout the region where future power plants are being considered. The Southwest partnership includes the states of New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, and Utah, and portions of Texas, Wyoming, and Arizona.
  • Total Project Cost: $88,845,571
  • DOE Share: $65,437,395
  • Partner Share: $23,408,176
Over the first 12 to 24 months of these projects, researchers and industry partners will characterize the injection sites and then complete the modeling, monitoring, and infrastructure improvements needed before CO2 can be injected. These efforts will establish a baseline for future monitoring after CO2 injection begins. Each project will then inject a large volume of CO2 into a regionally significant storage formation. After injection, researchers will monitor and model the CO2 to determine the effectiveness of the storage reservoir:
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These three projects will double the number of large-volume carbon storage demonstrations in operation worldwide. Current projects include the Weyburn Project in Canada, which uses CO2 captured during coal gasification in North Dakota for enhanced oil recovery; Norway's Sleipner Project, which stores CO2 in a saline formation under the North Sea; and the In Salah Project in Algeria, which stores CO2 in a natural gas field. The successful demonstration of carbon storage in these U.S. geologic basins by the Regional Partnerships will play a crucial role in future infrastructure development and sequestration technology to mitigate CO2 emissions.
Successful demonstration of large volume carbon capture and storage technology plays a key role in achieving President Bush's goals for a cleaner energy future. Coal is vitally important to America's energy security and this technology will help enable our Nation, and future generations, to use this abundant resource more efficiently and without emitting greenhouse gas emissions. - Clay Sell, Deputy Secretary of Energy
The newly awarded projects kick off the third phase of the Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnerships program. This initiative, launched by DOE in 2003, forms the centerpiece of national efforts to develop the infrastructure and knowledge base needed to place carbon sequestration technologies on the path to commercialization. During the first phase of the program, seven partnerships - consisting of organizations from government, industry and academia, and extending across the United States and into Canada - characterized the potential for CO2 storage in deep oil-, gas-, coal-, and saline-bearing formations.

When Phase I ended in 2005, the partnerships had identified more than 3,000 billion metric tons of potential storage capacity in promising sinks. This has the potential to represent more than 1,000 years of storage capacity from point sources in North America. In the program's second phase, the partnerships implemented a portfolio of small-scale geologic and terrestrial sequestration projects. The purpose of these tests was to validate that different geologic formations have the injectivity, containment, and storage effectiveness needed for long-term sequestration.


U.S. DOE: DOE Awards First Three Large-Scale Carbon Sequestration Projects - October 9, 2007.

U.S. DOE: Carbon Sequestration Regional Partnerships.

National Energy Technology Laboratory: Carbon Sequestration Technologies.

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Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Researchers find genetically engineered corn could affect aquatic ecosystems

A study by an Indiana University environmental science professor and several colleagues suggests a widely planted variety of genetically engineered corn - also used to produce ethanol - has the potential to harm aquatic ecosystems. The study is being published online this week by the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Researchers, including Todd V. Royer, an assistant professor in the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs, established that pollen and other plant parts containing toxins from genetically engineered Bt corn are washing into streams near cornfields.

They also conducted laboratory trials that found consumption of Bt corn byproducts produced increased mortality and reduced growth in caddisflies, aquatic insects that are related to the pests targeted by the toxin in Bt corn.

Caddisflies are a food resource for higher organisms like fish and amphibians. If the goal is to have healthy, functioning ecosystems, there is a need to protect all the parts. Water resources are something populations depend on greatly.

Bt corn is engineered to include a gene from the micro-organism Bacillus thuringiensis, which produces a toxin that protects the crop from pests, in particular the European corn borer. It was licensed for use in 1996 and quickly gained popularity. In 2006, around 35 percent of corn acreage planted in the U.S. was genetically modified, the study says, citing U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

Before licensing Bt corn, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency conducted trials to test its impact on water biota. But it used Daphnia, a crustacean commonly used for toxicity tests, and not insects that are more closely related to the target pests:
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Royer emphasizes that, if there are unintended consequences of planting genetically engineered crops, farmers shouldn't be held responsible. In a competitive agricultural economy, producers have to use the best technologies they can get.
Every new technology comes with some benefits and some risks. I think probably the risks associated with widespread planting of Bt corn were not fully assessed. - Todd V. Royer, assistant professor in the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs
There was a public flap over the growing use of Bt corn in 1999, when a report indicated it might harm monarch butterflies. But studies coordinated by the government's Agriculture Research Service and published in PNAS concluded there was not a significant threat to monarchs. Around that time, Royer said, he and his colleagues wondered whether the toxin from Bt corn was getting into streams near cornfields; and, if so, whether it could have an impact on aquatic insects.

Their research, conducted in 2005 and 2006 in an intensely farmed region of northern Indiana, measured inputs of Bt corn pollen and corn byproducts (e.g., leaves and cobs) in 12 headwater streams, using litter traps to collect the materials. They also found corn pollen in the guts of certain caddisflies, showing they were feeding on corn pollen.

In laboratory trials, the researchers found caddisflies that were fed leaves from Bt corn had growth rates that were less than half those of caddisflies fed non-Bt corn litter. They also found that a different type of caddisfly had significantly increased mortality rates when exposed to Bt corn pollen at concentrations between two and three times the maximum found in the test sites.

Royer said there was considerable variation in the amount of corn pollen and byproducts found at study locations. And there is likely also to be significant geographical variation; farmers in Iowa and Illinois, for example, are planting more Bt corn than those in Indiana. The level of Bt corn pollen associated with increased mortality in caddisflies could potentially represent conditions in streams of the western Corn Belt.

Other principal investigators for the study were Emma Rosi-Marshall of Loyola University Chicago, Jennifer Tank of the University of Notre Dame and Matt Whiles of Southern Illinois University. It was funded by the National Science Foundation.

E. J. Rosi-Marshall, J. L. Tank, T. V. Royer, M. R. Whiles, M. Evans-White, C. Chambers, N. A. Griffiths, J. Pokelsek, and M. L. Stephen, "Toxins in transgenic crop byproducts may affect headwater stream ecosystems", Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci., 10.1073/pnas.0707177104, Published online before print October 8, 2007

Eurekalert: Study shows genetically engineered corn could affect aquatic ecosystems - October 8, 2007.

Biopact: GM field trials 'underestimate potential for cross-pollination' - study - June 01, 2007

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Study: adding small amount of dairy and meat to diet results in more efficient land use than full vegetarian diet

A low-fat vegetarian diet is very efficient in terms of how much land is needed to support it. But adding some dairy products and a limited amount of meat may actually increase this efficiency, researchers from Cornell University suggest.

Even though a moderate-fat plant-based diet with a little meat and dairy (red footprint) uses more land than the all-vegetarian diet (far left footprint), it feeds more people (is more efficient) because it uses more pasture land, which is widely available.
This counter-intuitive deduction stems from the findings of their new study, which concludes that if everyone in New York state followed a low-fat vegetarian diet, the state could directly support almost 50 percent more people, or about 32 percent of its population, agriculturally. With today's high-meat, high-dairy diet, the state is able to support directly only 22 percent of its population, say the researchers.

The study, published in the journal Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, is the first to examine the land requirements of complete diets. The researchers compared 42 diets with the same number of calories and a core of grains, fruits, vegetables and dairy products (using only foods that can be produced in New York state), but with varying amounts of meat (from none to 13.4 ounces daily) and fat (from 20 to 45 percent of calories) to determine each diet's 'agricultural land footprint'. They found a fivefold difference between the two extremes.
A person following a low-fat vegetarian diet, for example, will need less than half (0.44) an acre per person per year to produce their food. A high-fat diet with a lot of meat, on the other hand, needs 2.11 acres. Surprisingly, however, a vegetarian diet is not necessarily the most efficient in terms of land use. - Christian Peters, lead author, postdoctoral associate in crop and soil sciences
The reason for the lower land use efficiency of the all vegetarian diet is that fruits, vegetables and grains must be grown on high-quality cropland. Meat and dairy products from ruminant animals are supported by lower quality, but more widely available, land that can support pasture and hay. A large pool of such land is available in New York state because for sustainable use, most farmland requires a crop rotation with such perennial crops as pasture and hay.

Thus, although vegetarian diets in New York state may require less land per person, they use more high-valued land. While meat increases land-use requirements, diets including modest amounts of meat can feed more people than some higher fat vegetarian diets:
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The key to conserving land and other resources with our diets is to limit the amount of meat we eat and for farmers to rely more on grazing and forages to feed their livestock, says Jennifer Wilkins, senior extension associate in nutritional sciences who specializes in the connection between local food systems and health and co-authored the study with Gary Fick, Cornell professor of crop and soil sciences. Consumers need to be aware that foods differ not only in their nutrient content but in the amount of resources required to produce, process, package and transport them, she adds.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average American ate approximately 5.8 ounces of meat and eggs a day in 2005. In order to reach the efficiency in land use of moderate-fat, vegetarian diets, the new study suggests that New Yorkers would need to limit their annual meat and egg intake to about 2 cooked ounces a day.

Christian J. Peters, Jennifer L. Wilkins and Gary W. Fick, "Testing a complete-diet model for estimating the land resource requirements of food consumption and agricultural carrying capacity: The New York State example", Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems (2007), 22: 145-153, doi:10.1017/S1742170507001767

Cornell Chronicles: Diet for small planet may be most efficient if it includes dairy and a little meat, Cornell researchers report - October 4, 2007.

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Petrobras: ethanol sales to exceed gasoline in Brazil by 2020, Petrobras to shrink oil business to focus on biofuels

According to Sergio Gabrielli, chief executive of state-run oil firm Petroleo Brasileiro SA (Petrobras), Brazil could become the first country to consume more biofuels than gasoline in the near future. Brazilians will use more ethanol than the petroleum fuel by 2020 when flex-fuel cars will dominate the country's car fleet. The rapid rise in the sale of flex-fuel cars, which can run on any mixture of gasoline and ethanol, is the main reason behind the expected jump in ethanol sales.

Across most of Brazil, ethanol made from sugar cane is considerably cheaper than gasoline on an energy equivalent basis. Record sugar harvests and ethanol output combined with very high oil prices have tilted the balance firmly in favor of the biofuel. The effect can be felt throughout the economy, as cheap ethanol has contributed to lowering inflation (earlier post). Moreover, as a highly efficient and environmentally sustainable biofuel, Brazilian ethanol is not confronted with the food versus fuel dilemma. In fact, world sugar prices have been falling despite record ethanol output (more here).

In theory, Brazil has the agro-ecological resources to produce enough biofuels to meet the entire world's gasoline demand (here). But some experts counter-intuitively fear abundant and cheap ethanol is becoming a problem for Brazil, as oversupplies cannot be absorbed fast enough by the local market. To avoid becoming a victim of its own success, the country must therefor urgently succeed in opening export markets (earlier post).

Petrobras wants to contribute to this effort. The company expects to become the first major oil producer to shift its core activities away from oil to open the era of bio-based fuels that can be grown over and over again. According to Gabrielli Petrobras is already 'announcing the shrinking' of its business of selling oil products.

Flex-fuel cars were introduced by major carmakers in Brazil in 2003, but sales have shot up spectacularly and now represent 85% of all new car sales (earlier post for 2006 figures). By 2020, Petrobras expects flex-fuel cars to make up 71.5% of Brazil's light-vehicle fleet, up from 12.8% in 2006. The fleet of gasoline cars is headed in the opposite direction, and is expected to shrink to 13.4% from 70.8% in the same period:
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Considering a likely continuation of price advantages for ethanol in the Brazilian market, ethanol will represent 57% of the consumption of flex-fuel cars in 2020, Gabrielli added.

The company recently said it plans to enter ethanol production and will buy stakes in up to 40 Brazilian ethanol mills. The company has already laid out plans to become a major ethanol exporter. Recently it commenced implementing its long term plan's first phase by investing in 20 new ethanol plants (earlier post).

Brazil is the world's second-largest producer of ethanol behind the U.S., and is the world's largest exporter. It also has the highest usage of biofuels of any country, accounting for almost 18% of liquid transport fuel needs, Energy Minster Nelson Hubner said Thursday.

Petrobras expects Brazil to consume 29.6 billion liters of ethanol in 2020, up from 12.5 billion from the 2006-2007 harvest season, Gabrielli said. The country's ethanol exports in the same period are expected to jump to 16.5 billion liters from the current 3.4 billion.

Despite the increasing use of ethanol among light vehicles, Petrobras estimated diesel fuel will retain its position as Brazil's most widely used transport fuel across all vehicle types, accounting for 50.5% of automotive fuels consumed in Brazil in 2020, down slightly from 52.5% in 2006.

The government has mandated that diesel, used mainly by trucks and buses, must be mixed with 2% biodiesel from 2008, rising to a 5% blend from 2013. Biodiesel, made from plants such as soy, castor beans, jatropha or sunflower seeds, is expected to represent 2.6% of automotive fuel sales in 2020.

Compressed natural gas, or CNG, will increase its market share from 4.3% in 2006 to 7.4% in 2020, Petrobras reckons. Brazil and neighboring Argentina currently have the world's largest fleets of vehicles running on CNG.

Petrobras also expects hybrid vehicles to gain a foothold in the Brazilian market early in the next decade, but doesn't think they will start playing a significant role in Brazil for a long time. Hybrid vehicles combine combustion engines running on fuels with electric motors in order to save fuel and reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

: Brazil's President Lula showcasing a tri-fuel vehicle capable of running on ethanol, gasoline, and natural gas.

Dow Jones Newswires: Ethanol Sales To Exceed Gasoline In Brazil By 2020-Petrobras - October 8, 2007.

Biopact: Petrobras starts approving joint ventures worth $1 billion to set up 20 new ethanol plants - September 27, 2007

Biopact: Flex-fuel vehicles in Brazil hit 2 million mark, make up 77% of the market - August 18, 2006

Biopact: Inflation in Brazil decreased more than expected on lower ethanol, food prices - September 21, 2007

Biopact: Experts: Brazil victim of its own biofuels success, as ethanol price collapses - September 21, 2007

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

Biopact: Brazilian ethanol is sustainable and has a very positive energy balance - IEA report - October 08, 2006

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Sempra Commodities signs marketing agreement with Etanalc S.A. for Brazilian ethanol

Sempra Commodities, the commodity-marketing unit of Sempra Energy, today announced it has executed a 20-year agreement with Etanalc S.A. to market the ethanol production from three new ethanol distilleries being developed by Etanalc.

Etanalc expects each ethanol plant will be supported by 30,000 hectares of land and 3 million tons of sugar-cane production, as well as co-generation of electrical energy, using the sugar-cane residue. The first three distilleries will be located in Pedro Afonso, Colinas and Guarai in the state of Tocantins (→FlashEarth), with ethanol production estimated to begin in 2010.

Under this agreement, Etanalc will provide Sempra Commodities with approximately 190 million gallons (4.5 million barrels equivalent) of ethanol per year, after the aforementioned three plants have been operating for three years. Sempra Commodities retains the right to purchase any ethanol produced above anticipated production. Sempra Commodities also expects to be a shareholder in the project:
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As the United States and other countries embrace the development of all forms of renewable energy, we expect the ethanol market to grow rapidly and be a meaningful component of the global energy mix over the next decade. This represents a growth opportunity Sempra Commodities can actively pursue as part of the joint-venture the company is forming with the Royal Bank of Scotland Group. - Bryan Keogh, vice president and treasurer of Sempra Commodities
The joint venture, RBS-Sempra Commodities LLP, which was announced in July 2007 and is slated to be completed in the fourth quarter 2007, is expected to significantly expand Sempra Commodities' market opportunities with new commodity lines and a broader geographic reach.

Ethanol is a non-toxic, water-soluble and quickly biodegradable fuel that, when blended into gasoline, is effective in reducing motor-vehicle emissions. Ethanol comprises about 3.5 percent of the total annual U.S. gasoline consumption of 140 billion gallons. Approximately 46 percent of all U.S. gasoline contains some ethanol content, according to industry sources.

Headquartered in Rio de Janeiro, Etanalc S.A. was formed by Aureo Luiz de Castro for the purpose of developing this project. Brazil is the world's largest exporter of ethanol.

Based in Stamford, Connecticut, Sempra Commodities (comprised of Sempra Energy Trading LLC and its managed companies) is a leading participant in marketing and trading physical and financial commodity products, including natural gas, power, coal, oil, oil-related products and base metals. Sempra Commodities combines trading and risk-management experience with physical-commodity expertise to provide innovative solutions for its customers worldwide. Sempra Energy, based in San Diego, is a Fortune 500 energy services holding company with 2006 revenues of nearly $12 billion.

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Ohio company demonstrates first-ever use of vegetable oil in solid oxide fuel cell

Highly efficient fuel cells are readily associated with hydrogen. But the production of hydrogen is problematic because it requires significant amounts of energy from a primary source. Often this source is a fossil fuel, resulting in large carbon emissions and 'dirty' hydrogen. Moreover, the gas is difficult to store and distribute, and would require the creation of an entirely new distribution infrastructure. For this reason, more and more researchers are looking at utilizing much handier biofuels directly in fuel cells. Such cells are more efficient than gensets based on internal combustion engines or than power plants relying on steam and combustion turbines.

Ohio-based Technology Management, Inc. (TMI) now announces it has successfully demonstrated the world's first kilowatt-scale Solid Oxide Fuel Cell (SOFC) system that generates electricity using vegetable oil from soybeans. The biofuel powered SOFC opens new perspectives for efficient decentralised power generation in off-grid locations utilizing locally produced fuels. This is especially interesting for the developing world.
We believe this is the first time a complete farm scale fuel cell system has ever been shown to convert unblended soybean oil into renewable electricity outside the laboratory. TMI is proud to be among the few companies in the world that are demonstrating that this revolutionary technology is not decades away, but just around the corner. - Benson Lee, president and CEO of Technology Management, Inc.
The project received contributions from the USDA Biomass Initiative Program, the Ohio Soybean Council and Ohio's Third Frontier Project, a $1.6 billion initiative that fosters the creation of high-paying jobs through innovation, research and development and the commercialization of next-generation products. TMI is collaborating with The Ohio State University's Biomass-to-Energy Program as part of an ongoing relationship examining the conversion of various biomass waste and organic matter into on-site electricity and marketable biofuels.

Solid oxide fuel cells use a hard, non-porous ceramic compound as the electrolyte. Since the electrolyte is a solid, the cells do not have to be constructed in the plate-like configuration typical of other fuel cell types. SOFCs are around 50-60 percent efficient at converting fuel to electricity. In applications designed to capture and utilize the system's waste heat (co-generation), overall fuel use efficiencies could top 80-85 percent.

Solid oxide fuel cells operate at very high temperatures—around 1,000°C (1,830°F). High temperature operation removes the need for precious-metal catalyst, thereby reducing cost. It also allows SOFCs to reform fuels internally, which enables the use of a variety of fuels and reduces the cost associated with adding a reformer to the system. SOFCs are also the most sulfur-resistant fuel cell type; they can tolerate several orders of magnitude more sulfur than other cell types. In addition, they are not poisoned by carbon monoxide (CO), which can even be used as fuel.

The design philosophy behind TMI's solid oxide fuel cell system is simplicity, versatility, small scale, unitized, modular market entry design, the ease of maintenance by end users, the efficient organization of internal components, and simplified construction of cells and stacks.
  • The SOFC systems are designed to work for the end user, in their own environment. They are easy to site and operate. One person should be able to maintain the SOFC systems without specialized tools, training, or specialized parts inventory.
  • The systems run on common, available fuels, whether liquid or gaseous and are compact enough to be sited wherever power is needed. Because they can be shipped overnight using common carriers like FedEx and UPS, users will be up and running in hours.
  • The SOFC systems can be added, removed and easily relocated without total systems shutdown. Multiple redundant systems ensure high availability of power and self back-up.
  • Individual systems are intentionally small and compact for ease of shipping and handling by one person. Their modularity allows them to be used as building blocks to produce as much power as is required. Systems can also be added on-the-fly to produce additional power or unplugged and moved to where power is required.
If biofuel-powered fuel cell systems, using renewable fuels like soybean oil, were available to small farms and agri-businesses across the Midwest's farm belt it would allow America's strongest engine for economic growth - the small business - to join with big business to help reduce our nation's dependency on foreign oil and consumption of fossil fuel, says Lee:
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The combination of Ohio's manufacturing, technology and agricultural strengths could create a new industry based on small-scale, on-site, distributed power generation operating on renewable biofuels such as soybeans. And, as the nation's fourth most energy intensive state, Ohio would benefit by being its own best customer.

As one of the few places where all phases of fuel cell development take place, from research and development to component suppliers and final product manufacturing, Ohio provides a supportive business environment for alternative energy companies.

According to the Ohio Business Development Coalition (OBDC), a nonprofit organization that markets the state for capital investment, the demonstration further points to Ohio's standing as a leader in innovative technology in alternative energy.
Ohio is at the heart of next-generation, alternative energy technology advancements. The state is attractive to executives because of its unique mix of micropolitan and metropolitan cities. This combination provides executives the resources and time to pursue their professional goals and personal aspirations without having to compromise one for the other. Ohio truly is the state of perfect balance. - Ed Burghard, executive director for the Ohio Business Development Coalition.
The fuel cell systems have been designed to be compatible with diverse applications and adaptable to unique situations. TMI’s target end users have continuous power applications in the low kilowatt range. The greatest value is for end users in regions with poor or intermittent power availability and weak or non-existent service support or fuel supply infrastructures. In this scenario the small size, ease of maintenance by local workforce and multi-fuel capability presents a very high value proposition over other modalities:

Truck auxiliary power units (APU): High fuel costs and "anti-idling" laws in over 20 states with severe fines when parked trucks fail to turn off their main engines. Early markets include long haul heavy duty trucks which are a major source of noise and air pollution. The picture shows the actual size and proposed location of a 2kW test unit now being engineered. Fuels will be diesel and biodiesel.

On-site stationary power. In rural and remote regions, where grid power is poor or absent, fuel cell systems operating on locally available fuels, including digester biogas provide a reliable alternative. Example applications include:

In developed economies: telecommunications towers and networks requiring high availability premium power, cathodic protection and safety monitoring for natural gas pipelines, and off grid residential and commercial scale buildings.

In third world economies: "village" power to provide clean water and refrigeration, lights for clinics and schools, and battery recharging for handheld electronic devices and supplement solar array battery banks.

Spontaneous Power
. Rapid response situations do not allow any planning for amount of power, location, or, except for the military, fuel availability:

For natural disasters or emergencies situations (e.g. tsunami, earthquakes, Katrina hurricanes, 9-11 terrorists), spontaneous power is needed to support base and satellite emergency relief teams and victims. Particularly when local service support infrastructure may be minimal or absent, the mobility, fuel interoperability and modularity have extremely high value.

For military scenarios: Military mobile command and control centers require quiet, auxiliary power and operation which operate efficiently on military logistic fuel (e.g., JP-8 kerosene). TMI’s system operates on military fuel (JP-8).

The use of biofuels has been demonstrated in other types of fuel cells, most notably ethanol which has been shown to work in Direct Alcohol Fuel Cells (earlier post). Biogas is being used in relatively large SOFC systems in which the methane is reformed first into hydrogen, within the fuel cell system (previous post and here). The EU recently awarded a grant of €5.8 (US$7.5) to a European consortium undertaking a three-year project to develop Large SOFC power plants that run on a multitude of (bio)fuels. The project, "Towards a Large SOFC Power Plant" started on January 1, 2007, with a total budget of €11 (US$14.2) million (earlier post).

PRNewswire: Ohio Demonstrates World's First in Fuel Cell Systems Technology - October 9, 2007.

Biopact: EU grant for biofuel capable SOFC power plants - January 31, 2007

Biopact: Offenburg students test world's first ethanol powered fuel cell vehicle - May 15, 2007

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LS9 secures $15 million in series B funding for development of designer biofuels based on synthetic biology

LS9, Inc., announces the close of its second round of funding with $15 million in new investments. Leading the financing was Lightspeed Venture Partners, with additional contributions from existing partners Flagship Ventures and Khosla Ventures. The funding will support the company’s continued acquisition of experts and rapid commercialization of what it calls its 'DesignerBiofuels' products.

LS9 DesignerBiofuels are a family of fuels produced by microbes that have been specially engineered via recently developed methods of industrial synthetic biology. Starting from raw materials that are natural sources of sugar such as sugar cane and cellulosic biomass, these renewable fuels stand to fundamentally change the biofuels landscape and set the stage for widespread product adoption and petroleum displacement.

LS9 hydrocarbon biofuels have higher energetic content than ethanol or butanol and have fuel properties that are essentially indistinguishable from those of gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel.

Synthetic biology is a disruptive science field that involves rapid screening of genetic material and selecting and recombining it to build artificial organisms from scratch. Recent breakthroughs include the creation of a DNA-based memory loop in yeast cells (more here), and the alteration of a bacterium from one species into another by transplanting one bacterium's genome into that of another (previous post). Soon, a leading researcher will announce the creation of the first fully artificial life-form ever (see here).

However, many biofuel companies apply the techniques used in synthetic biology merely to modify existing microorganisms in such a way that they perform bioconversion tasks more efficiently (two examples, here and here):
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As a principal investor, Peter Nieh, General Partner of Lightspeed Venture Partners, will take a seat on the company’s board of directors. He said:
LS9 is the clear market leader for renewable production of hydrocarbons. We are very impressed by their differentiated technology, strong intellectual property, and compelling economics. LS9 will be a valuable addition to our clean energy portfolio, and we look forward to working with them to extend their lead with respect to these second-generation biofuels.
According to LS9 President Robert Walsh LS9 was the first company to focus on recombinant production of hydrocarbon biofuels. The new funds will allow for the construction of a a pilot facility, for the commercialization on a massive scale and for bringing DesignerBiofuels products to market in the next two or three years.

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Monday, October 08, 2007

A quick look at 'fourth generation' biofuels

The confluence of developments in plant biology and biotechnology, in carbon capture and storage techniques and in innovative bioconversion methods makes it possible to begin to imagine a 'fourth generation' of biofuels and bioenergy systems. The first steps towards such fuels are already being taken.

Major research organisations have found that over the long term, there is vast potential for sustainably produced bioenergy. Scientists working for the IEA's Bioenergy Task 40 put it at a maximum of around 1300 Exajoules by 2050 (current global fossil fuel use is around 380Ej per year). This biomass potential is explicitly based on a 'no deforestation' scenario and on the fact that all food, fiber and fodder needs of growing populations and livestock must be met first. After taking these requirements into account, the researchers find vast potential especially in Africa (320Ej) and Latin America (220Ej) (more here). In short, there will be no shortage of the primary natural resource - biomass - needed to make the transition towards a post-oil, low carbon future.

These optimistic scenarios do not take into account potential breakthroughs in biotechnology, such as the design of high yielding dedicated energy crops. But developments in this field are going very rapidly: high biomass crops, trees with increased carbon storage capacity, drought tolerant energy crops, grass species that beat the major problem of acidic soils, new plants with particular properties catering to a specific bioconversion process (e.g. low lignin trees, maize with embedded enzymes for rapid conversion) have already 'seen the light'.

The combination of such crops with advanced bioconversion techniques that allow for the capture and storage of carbon dioxide make it possible to yield a 'fourth generation' of ultra-clean carbon-negative fuels and energy.

Let us have a look at how the different generations follow each other. First generation biofuels are known for their manifold problems: when made from grains such as corn or canola, they have negative impacts on food prices (this is not the case with sugarcane) and when relying on a crop like palm oil they threaten biodiversity; their carbon balance is bad in that they don't reduce the main greenhouse gas much or because conventional farming techniques (e.g. releasing nitrous oxide) offset the reduction (this, again isn't the case for sugarcane ethanol); their overall energy balance isn't that strong either (some have found that for corn ethanol it can even be negative; for sugarcane, the balance remains good). Finally, these first generation biofuels rely on relatively inefficient conversion technologies such as fermentation by conventional yeast strains or on transesterification by alkali catalysts.

Second generation fuels involve a change at the bioconversion step and get rid of the apparent fuel versus food dilemma. Instead of only using easily extractible sugars, starches or oils as in the previous generation, these techniques allow for the use of all forms of lignocellulosic biomass. Grass species, trees, agricultural and industrial residues can all be converted via two main pathways: a biochemical and a thermochemical route. The first relies on dedicated enzymes and/or microorganisms that can break down cellulose and lignin to reach the sugars contained in the biomass. This pathway yields 'cellulosic ethanol'. Similar (engineered) microorganisms can also transform biomass into gaseous fuels like biogas and biohydrogen, via a process known as anaerobic digestion. Breakthroughs in synthetic biology may yield artificial biological organisms that perform these tasks in a highly efficient manner (earlier post).

The thermochemical route converts biomass via processes such as gasification and fast-pyrolysis. Gasification allows for the production of very clean synthetic biofuels, by liquefying the syngas via Fischer-Tropsch synthesis - combined, this pathway is known as 'biomass-to-liquids' (BTL). It remains relatively energy intensive, but the integration of processes promises increased efficiency. In fast-pyrolysis, biomass is rapidly heated (450-600°C) in the absence of air to yield a heavy fuel oil type liquid - bio-oil or pyrolysis oil - that can be further refined into a range of designer fuels or used as such. Alternatively, bio-oil and its residue (char) can be treated as a feedstock for BTL fuel production (previous post):
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Synthetic biofuels and cellulosic ethanol have an excellent carbon balance and may reduce carbon dioxide emissions by up to 90% compared to petroleum based fuels. Moreover, they are ultra-clean and reduce emissions of the other major pollutants (NOx, SOx).

Combined, the potential of fuels based on biochemical and thermochemical biomass conversion is large. The World Energy Council recently estimated these fuels could replace approximately 40 percent of all petroleum based transport fuels, by 2050 (more here). The IEA Bioenergy Task 40 sees a far larger potential (up to 260 Ej by 2050, which would come down a replacement of all petro-fuels for transport (previous post).

Whereas the second generation intervenes at the bioconversion step, the third generation of biofuels is based on advancements made at the source - the production of biomass. This generation takes advantage of new, specially engineered energy crops. There is significant progress to be made in this respect. Recent advancements in plant biology, the emergence of extremely efficient and fast breeding techniques (molecular breeding), the rapid advancements in the field of genomics, and classic design of transgenic crops promises to result in plants with properties that make them more suitable for conversion into bioproducts. Major research initiatives and organisations, such as the U.S. Dept. of Energy's Joint Genome Institute (JGI), are expected to deliver. Some of the world's leading biotech scientists, including Norman Bolaug, Craig Venter and Marc Van Montagu are involved.

Recent examples offer a glimpse of what we can expect in the near future. Just recently, scientists designed eucalyptus trees with a low lignin content, which allows for easier conversion into cellulosic ethanol (earlier post); likewise, one of the fathers of modern bio-engineering (now involved in the JGI) designed poplars with a lower lignin content (more here). Scientists at the Agricultural Research Service in the U.S. did the same for sorghum and have already made the cultivar available. It is seen as an ideal crop for cellulosic biofuels and co-production of feed (here).

Crop scientists are also succeeding in increasing the biomass yield of energy crops. So far they succeeded for sorghum (earlier post and here), with new major partnerships focusing on this same plant, seen by many as an ideal biofuel crop (more here). Crops with higher sugar content (sweet sorghum) that nonetheless thrive in more arid conditions have been developed and are being test-grown with ethanol production in mind (see here and here). Sticking to sorghum, scientists at Texas A&M University's Agricultural Experiment Station (TAES) are breeding a drought tolerant sorghum that may yield between 37 and 50 tons of dry biomass per hectare (15 to 20 tons per acre) (earlier post).

In a special case, researchers created a corn crop which already contains the enzymes needed to convert its biomass into fuels. This is an example of radical 'third generation' crops. The scientists relied on the emerging field of synthetic biology to discover the principles needed to allow for the design of the crop (earlier post). For his part, the most well known personality in the field of synthetic biology and genomics, Craig Venter, has partnered with the Asiatic Center for Genome Technology to sequence the genome of palm oil trees, which will lead to a crop more suitable for the biofuels industry (here). Norman Borlaug is sequencing cassava, a plant already used for efficient first generation biofuels, but which can be improved further by increasing its starch content (previous post).

Finally, in what must be seen as a breakthrough of major importance, scientists succeeded in overcoming the problem of acidic soils by designing a crop (sorghum) that can grow in such an environment. Half of the world's soils are acidic, the bulk of them in the tropics and sub-tropics. This crop and similar ones promise to make available a very large part of the world's land earlier deemed largely problematic for agriculture (more here).

This is just a short overview of the potential of new breeding, engineering and sequencing techniques that are being increasingly used to make designer crops. Note that not all of these are transgenic; molecular breeding techniques simply make it more easy to select robust crops and allows their release in a matter of months, instead of years.

These developments are being replicated in the design of food crops. If both sectors (food and fuel crops) continue to deliver breakthroughs, ever less land will be required to grow both food and energy. This may increase the initial estimations of the long term biomass potential (see above), because these projections did not take into account advancements in plant biology and biotechnology.

The use of such dedicated energy crops makes an impact on both its carbon and energy balance. With higher yields and easier bioconversion, less energy is needed to grow, harvest and transform a given amount of biomass.

A particular development in plant biology must be mentioned, because it takes us straight to the 'fourth generation' of biofuels. Two teams of scientists recently announced they have succeeded in designing trees that store significantly more carbon dioxide than their ordinary counter parts. The feat has been achieved for eucalyptus (earlier post), a prime biomass crop suitable for cultivation in the tropics , and for Dahurian Larch (here), found in Northeastern Asia and Siberia.

In fourth generation production systems, biomass crops are seen as efficient 'carbon capturing' machines that take CO2 out of the atmosphere and lock it up in their branches, trunks and leaves. The carbon-rich biomass is then converted into fuel and gases by means of second generation techniques. Crucially, before, during or after the bioconversion process, the carbon dioxide is captured by utilizing so-called pre-combustion, oxyfuel or post-combustion processes. The greenhouse gas is then geosequestered - stored in depleted oil and gas fields, in unmineable coal seams or in saline aquifers, where it stays locked up for hundreds, possibly thousands of years.

The resulting fuels and gases are not only renewable, they are also effectively carbon-negative. Only the utilization of biomass allows for the conception of carbon-negative energy; all other renewables (wind, solar, etc) are all carbon-neutral at best, carbon-positive in practise. Fourth generation biofuels instead take historic CO2 emissions out of the atmosphere. They are tools to clean up our dirty past.

According to scientists who looked at this concept of 'bio-energy with carbon storage' (BECS) within the context of a strategy to counter 'abrupt climate change', these systems, if applied on a global scale, can take us back to pre-industrial levels of atmospheric CO2. The concept would be more efficient than techniques that are limited to scrubbing CO2 out of the atmosphere without tackling the source of the problem: the combustion of fossil fuels. BECS intervenes at the source and replaces fossil fuels with renewable biomass; the systems scrub CO2 out of the atmosphere while delivering clean energy. As such, they are seen as one of the only low-risk geo-engineering methods that could help us tackle climate change without powering down our societies. (An overview of BECS systems can be found at the Abrupt Climate Change Strategy group, which has researched the basics: see their liberary, here).

The fact that fast-growing, high yielding trees are being designed that sequester more carbon dioxide, makes the promise of carbon-negative biofuels and bioenergy even more interesting.

Developments in 'carbon capture and storage' (CCS) technologies are being made in the coal industry. But when these techniques are applied to biomass, a new dimension opens up: that of decentralised production. In the case of coal, the application of CCS is tied to the location of coal plants and sequestration sites, or to the presence of mineable coal deposits and CO2 burial sites. In the first case, this means geosequestration will occur relatively close to inhabited places (cities). This presents risks.

Biomass on the contrary can be grown virtually anywhere. So CCS applied to biomass allows for an ideal scenario: the production of biomass close to a sequestration site that is far away from inhabited regions (many of these sites have already been identified). The carbon-negative fuel would be produced locally and then shipped to end users. Alternatively, biomass can be densified locally (pellets, bio-oil) and then transported to CCS facilities (either coal plants coupled to CCS where the biomass can be co-fired, or dedicated bioenergy plants). In any case, bioenergy with carbon storage allows for a decentralised approach, which is less likely the case for coal.

These fourth generation biofuels - fuel production coupled to CCS - are not a fantasy. The first step towards them is already being taken. Recently a the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (DOE/NETL) and the U.S. Air Force (USAF) released a report which focused on the production of fuels made from combining the liquefaction of both coal and biomass, and then coupling the system to carbon sequestration technologies. It's a mouthful, but the concept comes down to: coal+biomass-to-liquids (CBTL) + carbon capture and storage (CCS), or CBTL+CCS (more here). The CBTL process consists of the production of so-called synthetic fuels, obtained from the gasification of feedstock, with the gas then liquefied via Fischer-Tropsch synthesis into an ultra-clean synthetic fuel. During the process, carbon dioxide is captured and then stored in geological formations such as depleted oil and gas fields or saline aquifers. The project is now being carried out by a team of Princeton researchers (earlier post). This is a first concrete project en route to pure biomass based carbon-negative synthetic fuels.

In conclusion, biofuel technologies are evolving rapidly. They have received some bad press because current production is dominated by inefficient first generation techniques that exert pressures on food markets and that present environmental problems. But a combination of plant biology, carbon capture techniques and novel bioconversion processes is set to open an era of fuels that will not only be abundant, highly energy efficient and clean, but that will be the single biggest weapon in the fight against climate change. Fourth generation carbon-negative biofuels are actually machines that take CO2 out of the atmosphere; they clean up our dirty past.

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

Biopact: Scientists propose artificial trees to scrub CO2 out of the atmosphere - but the real thing could be smarter - October 04, 2007

Biopact: NETL and USAF release feasibility study for conceptual Coal+Biomass-to-Liquids facility - August 30, 2007

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

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

Biopact: Ceres and TAES team up to develop high-biomass sorghum for next-generation biofuels - October 01, 2007

Biopact: Third generation biofuels: scientists patent corn variety with embedded cellulase enzymes - May 05, 2007

Biopact: Sequencing the cassava genome to boost biofuel potential - September 01, 2006

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

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

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

Biopact: Capiz region to trial high yield sweet sorghum for ethanol - March 30, 2007

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

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

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

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

Biopact: World Energy Council: advanced biofuels can replace over 40% of petrofuels by 2050, most promising solution to reduce GHG emissions - October 08, 2007

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

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

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World Energy Council: advanced biofuels can replace over 40% of petrofuels by 2050, most promising solution to reduce GHG emissions

Passenger vehicle transportation and aviation are expected to remain dependent on oil for the foreseeable future, but alternative fuels and propulsion systems will increase their penetration considerably, a study published by the World Energy Council (WEC) says. The WEC report on 'Transport Technologies and Policy Scenarios to 2050' outlines the results of an analysis conducted by a group of international WEC transport experts and gives concrete policy recommendations to develop sustainable transport systems. The experts identified next-generation biofuels as the most promising option to ensure a transition towards sustainable mobility.

The study looks at the prospects for alternative liquid fuels, hydrogen, (plug-in) hybrids, electric vehicles and other technologies. For non-liquid fuels and propulsion technologies (hydrogen, battery-electric cars) biomass is seen as a leading renewable primary energy source to be used for the production of renewable hydrogen and green electricity.

Large potential for next-generation biofuels
In 2050, gasoline and diesel are likely to remain the dominant fuels, the study states, but the portion of advanced biofuels such as biomass-to-liquids (BTL, also known as 'synthetic biofuels') and cellulosic ethanol are set to grow considerably.

Theoretical fossil energy reduction potential ratio of different fuels and propulsion technologies.
The study sees the highest potential for reduction in petroleum and fossil energy, and therefore greenhouse gases, in biofuels. Under a set of breakthrough scenarios biofuels can replace 300% of all petrofuels, but a more likely scenario is a 50% global penetration of BTL in diesel fuel with a 50% overall diesel passenger vehicle penetration in 2050 and a total BTL plant efficiency of 60%. This would result in a reduction of 22.4% of all petroleum used in transport by 2050. Cellulosic ethanol can replace 21.6% of global fossil transport fuels. Hybrids, plug-in hybrids, electric vehicles and fuel cell vehicles have a far smaller reduction potential (table, click to enlarge).

The WEC also sees BTL fuels and cellulosic ethanol achieving the greatest reductions in GHG emissions as they reduce CO2 emissions by up to 90% (graph, click to enlarge). Other synthetic fuels such as gas-to-liquids (GTL) and coal-to-liquids (CTL) increase accessibility and availability by diversifying the fuel supply base and, in particular with GTL, are already available and economically viable. These fuels have the same physical properties as BTL and therefore exhibit the same advantages in distribution and use.

On a life cycle basis, GHG emissions from GTL are comparable to those from conventional diesel fuel. GHG emissions from CTL without carbon capture and storage are approximately double those from conventional diesel fuel. The development and production of CTL and GTL also contribute to technological experience and understanding of synthetic fuels in general, which will benefit the development of BTL in the long term.

In particular, the WEC sees significant benefits in BTL fuels. Their contribution to reduced petroleum consumption is immediate, they can be used in new and existing vehicles, they are not limited by new infrastructure requirements and they can contribute in all transport sectors which consume liquid fuels (land passenger and freight as well as shipping and aviation). Other advanced biofuels are under development and may present viable long-term options with lower primary energy consumption.

Due to their currently increasing penetration and the investments made in their production, conventional first generation biofuels such as ethanol from sugar cane or corn and biodiesel (or hydro-treated vegetable oil, which has similar properties to BTL) from oil-bearing plants can be expected to retain some market share in the long term.

Since there is a large number of biofuels in production or under investigation, it is important to ensure the most efficient solutions prevail. For a longterm sustainable penetration, biofuels must be drawn into production according to market forces and viable, consistently applied GHG intensity and sustainability standards, without discrimination, rather than chosen according to government mandates. The WEC sees global free trade in biofuels as 'essential':
Further support for the market through free global trade in biofuels is essential, both to ensure the most energetically effective biofuels have access to the market and to assist in the economic and energy development of lower income countries.
Propulsion technologies
The WEC expects internal combustion engines (ICEs) to remain dominant, but advanced concepts for internal combustion will emerge, including processes such as homogeneous charge compression ignition (HCCI), with the objective of combining the advantages of diesel and gasoline:
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Hydrogen fuel and fuel cell vehicles are expected to gain a market foothold by 2035 and grow towards 2050. On-board electric power utilisation in personal transport will also increase, in particular in OECD and richer developing countries, which have more economic capacity to absorb the cost premium over conventional vehicle concepts.

This will initially be manifested as increased hybridisation. A significant presence of pure electric vehicles powered by batteries and/or fuel cells is a potential scenario, assuming that progress on the necessary technologies and their costs is sufficient to enable a commercially viable product.

Improvements in efficiency and reductions in consumption will likely remain based on the diesel engine, which is currently dominant in this sector.

Innovations in engine performance will be shared with the passenger vehicle diesel sector and include variable valve timing and new combustion techniques such as HCCI. Hybridisation, which has already penetrated in certain applications, can be expected to increase in popularity. In particular, urban buses have found a niche hybrid segment, which will likely expand. Certain short-haul and even long-haul trucks may also be considered for some type of hybridisation, due to the significant amounts of braking energy that can be recuperated. Alternative and biofuels also apply to this sector.

Aviation fuels
In aviation, engine and materials technologies and flight management measures will potentially be available which can improve aircraft efficiency by over 30%. Set against the expected 200% growth in air travel by 2050, efficiency improvements can serve to dampen the projected increase in consumption.

Aviation fuel presents a particular opportunity for alternative fuels, since aviation fuel (kerosene) can be, and is already, made using the synthetic Fischer-Tropsch process, which can use gas, coal or biomass as a feedstock (GTL, CTL and BTL fuels).

Hydrogen and fuel cells
One particular technology that holds significant longterm potential for reduction in fossil energy consumption, as well as CO2 and criteria exhaust emissions, is hydrogen, which offers the long-term promise of emissions-free driving. Hydrogen and fuel cells have the potential to contribute significantly in the passenger vehicle sector if the substantial challenges of fuel cell cost, hydrogen storage, hydrogen production and hydrogen delivery can be overcome.

Current fuel cell vehicle concepts demonstrate that the potential exists for fuel cell vehicles to provide convenient personal transport in the kind of vehicles to which consumers are accustomed. Therefore, the motivation to overcome the obstacles mentioned above is significant and solutions are being developed by manufacturers, engineers and governments.

The commercial vehicle sector appears to have less potential in applying hydrogen and fuel cell technology, due in part to the large space necessary for fuel storage, especially on long-haul trucks. However, the eventual maturity of hydrogen technology in the passenger vehicle sector is a foundation on which this sector may also be able to build in the long term, and indeed the use of fuel cells as auxiliary power units in trucks has already been tested.

A long-term hydrogen strategy must be based on sustainable hydrogen production and consider the well-to-wheel energy and emissions in relation to conventional forms of propulsion. Local production of hydrogen using renewable energy is already being developed and applied in many regions. However, for hydrogen fuel to comprise a substantial proportion of the transportation market, the energy required to produce it must be derived from the general power grid.

Therefore, a hydrogen economy must go hand in hand with widespread sustainable power generation to provide a successful future scenario. Assuming adequate supply, significant technical advances and investments are necessary in the distribution and delivery of hydrogen fuel.

Battery technologies
Battery electric vehicles (BEVs) have potentially greater energy savings potential than hydrogen fuel cells, due to the higher energy efficiency of batteries. However, battery technology and cost must improve substantially to provide the performance, range and affordability demanded by consumers. In particular, significant increases in energy storage density are required in order to store sufficient energy on board for adequate vehicle range, if BEVs are to penetrate the mainstream.

Electric powertrains are initially likely to make advances in small vehicles for city driving (city electric vehicle – CEV), in which range and top performance are of lesser importance and since economic incentives for low emission vehicles in cities are becoming more popular. A number of commercial companies are already offering vehicles to this CEV niche whilst others are offering electric vehicles as a sporty premium product.

Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) offer most of the benefits of BEVs with the convenience and range of conventional internal combustion engines. These combine a reduced ICE and a high power battery, such that pure electric driving is possible over a range high enough for many daily applications, allowing overnight charging from an electric socket.

The presence of two full powertrains in a PHEV means that for this technology to become viable for the mass market, substantial reductions in the cost of the electric powertrain are essential. For both BEVs and PHEVs, enhanced battery durability for these deep discharge applications (as opposed to shallow discharge in current hybrids) is necessary, in order for the battery to last as long as an expected vehicle lifetime of many years.

Recommendations for sustainable mobility
According to the WEC, policymakers must first agree on the overall objective, whether it be a reduction in energy consumption or greenhouse gas emissions. From there, technological development must be complemented by rational policy that will encourage and enable the technologies to emerge. The common thread in policymaking is that the market must be allowed to identify and advance the most efficient methods to reach the stated objective. Conversely, selecting specific technologies through direct mandates or beneficial treatment runs the strong risk of selecting inappropriate technologies and therefore not contributing adequately to the objective.

1. An integrated approach: in order to meet the defined objective, an integrated approach is the most efficient overall concept, which applies a holistic methodology rather than concentrating only on one element of a solution, for example technologies. The integrated approach incorporates all relevant stakeholders in the chain of energy production and use, to apply effective energy saving measures and technologies. These stakeholders include actors in equipment manufacturing, commercial businesses, consumers and policymakers.

The approach addresses the behaviour of business and private consumers in their vehicle purchasing decisions, vehicle use and behaviour. Fuel suppliers have a role due to the energy content of their fuels. The technology and investment applied by the equipment manufacturers determines the efficiency of their vehicles. Governments and other policymaking bodies have a responsibility for the transportation infrastructure and environment as well as the incentive structure for certain types of public behaviour. It must be ensured that for all stakeholders a productive market is in place which financially rewards behaviour leading to higher efficiency.
2. Incentives for takeholders:
2.1. Vehicle manufacturers: vehicle, engine and component technologies do indeed comprise a major element of this approach. Therefore, effective policy can take the form of incentives through the tax system for fuel and vehicle technologies which reduce energy consumption or GHG emissions. Such incentives must be applied in a way that provides a consistent incentive to reduce consumption or GHG emissions (depending on the priority objective). For example, a tax that varies in a proportional fashion with vehicle consumption rating creates such an incentive. The marginal tax level should be sufficient to provide an incentive to purchase a vehicle despite the higher initial cost of its efficiency technologies, but not so high as to distort the market or make purchases unaffordable. Such taxes need not mean a higher overall tax burden, since taxes based on consumption or emissions can be offset by reductions in other taxes, for example by replacing vehicle registration taxes.

In addition, government financial support for bringing new technologies to market is appropriate if objectively assessed and effectively targeted. Such support can be provided as an investment at any point in the technology value chain, from basic research, product development, production facilities, entrepreneurship and product marketing. It should be directed to those products and the point in the value chain which is objectively assessed to provide the greatest incremental leverage in meeting the long- term energy objective compared to incremental investment.

2.2. Infrastructures: Governments should also invest in infrastructure for both private and public transport to minimise congestion, ensure convenience and mobility, support economic growth and contribute to the energy objectives.

2.3. Consumers: consumers should be educated as to the consequences of their transportation decisions, in particular by sufficient labelling of, and information on, personal vehicles, fuels and public transport options. In addition, consumer education is required on the efficiency of use of energy consuming products. In transportation this specifically refers to driving style in personal and commercial vehicles, in which less aggressive driving, more efficient gear changes, predictive behaviour (when approaching traffic lights or congestion) and switching off when idle can reduce per-vehicle consumption significantly.

2.4. Fuel suppliers: The fossil energy and carbon content of fuels is a further element in total energy consumption. As is currently under discussion in the EU, the US Federal Government and at the US state level (California), carbon intensity standards for transportation fuels are being developed. These policies set targets for reducing the fossil and carbon content of fuels and the fuel suppliers will select the most efficient methods for reducing CO2 emissions. This can be expected to promote the use of biofuels with low well-to-wheel CO2 emissions, as well as reduce the energy intensity of producing conventional and alternative fuels. Incentives through the tax system or otherwise can also apply to fuels, as long as these are applied consistently, without discrimination and proportional to the energy or environmental objective that is being sought.
3. Standards
Common standards within and between major markets are essential to support technical and market development. In particular, standards relating to conventional and alternative fuels are a key element in energy and climate policy, including the carbon intensity standards described above. Standards relating to conventional, alternative and biofuels are already in place and include quality norms which ensure that the fuels are compatible with the existing vehicle stock and with new vehicles.

Applied to biofuels, these regulate their physical and chemical characteristics and the proportion that can be blended with petroleum based fuels. They should remain sufficiently rigorous to ensure increased penetration of biofuels is consistent with vehicle reliability. Ideally, such standards should be aligned between major global markets. In addition, standards for biofuels should include sustainability criteria relating to land use and social factors, which are developed and applied consistently and without discrimination to all biofuels.

These standards thereby support the market in its economic selection of the most efficient solutions whilst contributing to the achievement of the energy objective. Indeed, such standards are being considered in parallel to fuel quality and carbon intensity.

Further support for the market through free global trade in biofuels is essential, both to ensure the most energetically effective biofuels have access to the market and to assist in the economic and energy development of lower income countries.
The latter point is very important because with it the WEC joins those who call for the abolishment of the current tariffs in place in the EU and the US, which prevent much more efficient and sustainable biofuels produced in the South to enter the market. With advanced biofuels, biomass productivity and cost of the primary feedstocks remains a key factor; countries in the tropics and the semi-tropics have many agro-ecological advantages here, which they should be allowed to exploit to the fullest. This way, biofuels can not only become a strong weapon in the fight against climate change, but a tool for development in poor countries.

Applying the integrated approach
The integrated approach incorporates all the measures described above and therefore commits all stakeholders to contribute to achieving the energy solution. Each element of the approach can be a stand-alone item. However, the approach achieves the most by ensuring that the task of reducing energy consumption is equitably distributed between the sectors and stakeholders involved.

Since the costs of energy reduction are different in each sector, and indeed vary between measures applied within each sector, the most effective overall result is achieved by concentrating on the least-cost measures.

Theoretically, the ideal way to determine the least cost methods and to bring them into being is to ensure a consistent economic incentive for energy reduction across all sectors. Due to the complexity of each sector and the different ways in which price signals are communicated (through vehicles, fuels, ticket prices etc), such a consistent incentive is difficult to identify. It has been suggested by economists and policymakers that carbon taxes or emissions trading schemes can be an effective solution and indeed emissions trading has been introduced in the European Union to cover GHG emissions from certain sectors.

In the absence of such a consistent market signal, any policy decisions which incentivise or regulate actions in the transport sector should be subject to independent and objective assessments. It must be recognised that in the long term, micromanagement of energy policy will create overcomplexity andinefficiency and all policy options must support a longterm strategy to ensure a functioning market, which is then incentivised and enabled to achieve the energy objectives. This ensures that the burden is shared equitably between sectors, that the costs for society are minimised and that the most effective and efficient measures are identified and receive encouragement.

The methods described by the WEC support the integrated approach and ensure that the energy objective is targeted in a way that brings the maximum benefit to users of transport and to society as a whole. This promotes in the most effective way the achievement of sustainable energy for all.

World Energy Council: Transport Technologies and Policy Scenarios to 2050 [*.pdf], October 2007.

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Scientists succeed in producing ethanol from highly polluting olive mill wastewater

Scientists from the Department of Biotechnology and Biological Sciences, at the Faculty of Science of the Hashemite University in Jordan have succeeded in pretreating olive mill wastewater by means of enzymes found in a fungus, in such a way that it becomes a promising substrate for the production of bioethanol.

Highly polluting olive mill wastewater (OMW) generated by the olive oil extraction process is the main waste product of this large industry. Approximately 54 billion liters of OMW are produced annually worldwide with the majority of it being produced in the Mediterranean basin.

The uncontrolled disposal of OMW is becoming a serious environmental problem, due to its high organic chemical oxygen demand (COD) concentration, and because of its high content of microbial growth-inhibiting compounds, such as phenolic compounds and tannins. The improper disposal of OMW to the environment or to domestic wastewater treatment plants is prohibited due to its toxicity to microorganisms, and also because of its potential threat to surface and groundwater. However, due to the current lack of appropriate alternative technologies to properly treat OMW, most of the wastewater in the Mediterranean area is discharged directly into sewer systems and water streams or concentrated in evaportation ponds where it degrades and releases greenhouse gas emissions.

M. I. Massadeh N. Modallal from Jordan's Hashemite University found OMW can be upgraded by removing or reducing its phenolic compounds after which its carbohydrate fraction can be used as a substrate to produce biofuels. They report their findings in this week's issue of Energy & Fuels.

Phenolic compounds can be degraded by a few microorganisms, such as white-rot fungi, which produce a variety of enzymes that are capable of oxidizing phenols. The scientists investigated the capability of Pleurotus sajor-caju (often used in mycoremediation solutions) to degrade phenols of OMW preconditioned by different treatments, namely, thermally processing (at 100 °C) diluted and undiluted OMW and thermally processing pretreated OMW with hydrogen peroxide:
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Results showed that the fungi removed phenolic compounds from OMW cultures, under all different conditions examined. The degradation of phenols reached up to 68% for the thermally processed OMW, 50% for the diluted OMW, 53% for the thermally processed OMW treated with hydrogen peroxide, and 58% for the thermally processed undiluted OMW.

The impact of such biological conversion upon lowering the phenols content of OMW was tested by yeast fermentation of the product to produce ethanol because yeast cells are very sensitive to a high phenol concentration.

Ethanol production was enhanced by the pretreatment of OMW with Pleurotus sajor-caju. The maximum ethanol production of 14.2 g/L was obtained after 48 hours of yeast fermentation using 50% diluted OMW that was thermally processed and pretreated with the microorganism.

According to the results obtained, bioconverted OMW by Pleurotus sajor-caju is a promising substrate for the bioethanol production process, with additional benefits of its use with regard to environmental and economical aspects.

Approximately, 1.8 million tons of olive oil are produced annually worldwide where the majority (98%) of it is produced in the Mediterranean basin. If the 54 billion liters of OMW resulting from this industry were to be converted into ethanol using the new method, some 650 million liters of bioethanol could be produced, while solving a major environmental problem.


M. I. Massadeh and N. Modallal, "Ethanol Production from Olive Mill Wastewater (OMW) Pretreated with Pleurotus sajor-caju", Energy & Fuels, ASAP Article, October 5, 2007, doi: 10.1021/ef7004145

Basheer Sobhi, Sabbah Isam, Yazbek Ahmad, Haj Jacob, Saleeba
Ahlam, "Reducing the Environmental Impact of Olive Mill Wastewater in Jordan, Palestine and Israel" [*.pdf], R&D Center, the Galilee Society.

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Craig Venter to announce creation of first synthetic life form

According to The Guardian Dr Craig Venter, the DNA researcher involved in the race to decipher the human genetic code, has built a synthetic chromosome out of laboratory chemicals and is poised to announce the creation of the first new artificial life form on Earth.

The announcement, which is expected within weeks and could come as early as today at the annual meeting of his scientific institute in San Diego, California, will herald a giant leap forward in the development of designer genomes. It is certain to provoke heated debate about the ethics of creating new species.

Synthetic biology could unlock the door to new bioenergy sources and techniques to combat global warming (earlier post, here, and here), but can also be used for potentially threatening applications, such as the production of bio-weapons. Bio-ethicists say the breakthrough presents an enormous challenge to society to debate the risks involved.
[This is] a very important philosophical step in the history of our species. We are going from reading our genetic code to the ability to write it. That gives us the hypothetical ability to do things never contemplated before. - Dr Craig Venter
The Guardian reveals that a team of 20 top scientists assembled by Venter, led by the Nobel laureate Hamilton Smith, has already constructed a synthetic chromosome, a feat of virtuoso bio-engineering never previously achieved. Using lab-made chemicals, they have painstakingly stitched together a chromosome that is 381 genes long and contains 580,000 base pairs of genetic code.

The DNA sequence is based on the bacterium Mycoplasma genitalium (image) which the team pared down to the bare essentials needed to support life, removing a fifth of its genetic make-up. The wholly synthetically reconstructed chromosome, which the team have christened Mycoplasma laboratorium, has been watermarked with inks for easy recognition.

It is then transplanted into a living bacterial cell and in the final stage of the process it is expected to take control of the cell and in effect become a new life form. The team of scientists has already successfully transplanted the genome of one type of bacterium into the cell of another, effectively changing the cell's species (earlier post). Dr Venter said he was '100% confident' the same technique would work for the artificially created chromosome.

The new life form will depend for its ability to replicate itself and metabolise on the molecular machinery of the cell into which it has been injected, and in that sense it will not be a wholly synthetic life form. However, its DNA will be artificial, and it is the DNA that controls the cell and is credited with being the building block of life:
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Dr Venter said he had carried out an ethical review before completing the experiment. 'We feel that this is good science,' he said. He has further heightened the controversy surrounding his potential breakthrough by applying for a patent for the synthetic bacterium (earlier post).

Bio-ethicists say the move presents an enormous challenge to society to debate the risks involved.
Governments, and society in general, is way behind the ball. This is a wake-up call - what does it mean to create new life forms in a test-tube? [Venter is creating a] chassis on which you could build almost anything. It could be a contribution to humanity such as new drugs or a huge threat to humanity such as bio-weapons. - Pat Mooney, director of a Canadian bioethics organisation, ETC group
Dr Venter believes designer genomes have enormous positive potential if properly regulated. In the long-term, he hopes they could lead to alternative energy sources previously unthinkable. Bacteria could be created, he speculates, that could help mop up excessive carbon dioxide, thus contributing to the solution to global warming, or produce biofuels such as butane or propane made entirely from sugar.
We are not afraid to take on things that are important just because they stimulate thinking. We are dealing in big ideas. We are trying to create a new value system for life. When dealing at this scale, you can't expect everybody to be happy. - Dr Craig Venter
Earlier some of the world's leading scientists released a manifesto - the Ilulissat Statement - in which they call for more support for the emerging field of synthetic biology.

The Guardian: I am creating artificial life, declares US gene pioneer - October 8, 2007.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunday, October 07, 2007

Towards carbon-negative bioenergy: U.S. Senator introduces biochar legislation

This week Biopact will zoom in on the latest developments in carbon-negative biofuels and bioenergy. Over the coming days we will be looking at the science behind the concept, at results of field experiments, at information resources and documentaries, and at new educational initiatives. By way of introduction, we present new legislation recently introduced to promote biochar research in the United States.

Biofuels and bioenergy are often presented as 'carbon-neutral' because the carbon dioxide emitted by their use is taken up again as new energy crops grow. Like wind or solar power, they do not add CO2 to the atmosphere. But the bioenergy community has long gone beyond this concept and has begun looking at the production of carbon-negative fuels and energy instead. These do not merely avoid new emissions from entering the atmosphere, they effectively take CO2 from the past out of the atmosphere.

Carbon-negative bioenergy can be obtained via two ways: a high-tech and a low-tech process. The high-tech pathway involves transforming biomass into energy and fuels, while capturing the CO2 and sequestering it in its gaseous form into geological sites such as depleted oil and gas fields, unminable coal seams or saline aquifers. They draw on 'carbon capture and storage' (CCS) techniques currently being developed by the coal industry.

The low-tech route consists of transforming biomass into useable fuels while keeping part of the carbon locked into an inert form, called biochar ('agrichar'). This biochar is then simply added to agricultural soils, in which the carbon can be sequestered safely for hundreds, possibly thousands of years. The discovery of ancient 'terra preta' soils demonstrates that carbon effectively remains locked up for a very long period of time.

More and more research shows that soils amended with the char have very beneficial effects on crop growth. The enhanced nutrient retention capacity of biochar-amended soil not only reduces the total fertilizer requirements but also the climate and environmental impact of croplands. Char-amended soils have shown 50 - 80 percent reductions in nitrous oxide emissions and reduced runoff of phosphorus into surface waters and leaching of nitrogen into groundwater. As a soil amendment, biochar significantly increases the efficiency of and reduces the need for traditional chemical fertilizers, while greatly enhancing crop yields. Experiments have shown yields for some crops can be doubled and even tripled (previous post).

Biochar thus offers the promise of carbon-negative biofuel production sustained by a cycle in which crop production is boosted, emissions lowered, and reliance on synthetic fertilizers reduced. Moreover, unlike CCS it is a cost-effective carbon sequestration method: under a basic scenario sequestering biochar from biofuels produced by pyrolysis would be competitive when carbon prices reach US$37 (carbon currently fetches €21.55 on the European market, that is $30.5, and prices are expected to increase strongly in the near future).

The great advantage of biochar is the fact that the technique can be applied world-wide on agricultual soils, and even by rural communities in the developing world because it is relatively low tech. It is hoped that at the upcoming UNFCCC summit in Bali, experts will include biochar as a strategy to fight climate change that would be eligible for carbon credits under the Clean Development Mechanism.

The biochar concept has meanwhile received formal political support. In order to speed up biochar research the U.S., Colorado's Senator Ken Salazar (D) recently introduced 'The Salazar Harvesting Energy Act of 2007' [*.pdf], focused on carbon-negative bioenergy production. The bill (S.1884) is awaiting discussion in the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee. The following is a summary of the legislation as it relates to biochar:
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Carbon-Negative Biomass Energy and Soil Quality Initiative for the 2007 Farm Bill

Biochar and Bioenergy Co-Production: Protecting the Soil Resource and Combatting Global Climate Change
Bioenergy production from agricultural and forestry biomass can boost U.S. energy independence, create additional income streams for agriculture and rural communities, and help combat global climate change by displacing fossil fuel use. Policies to promote bio-energy production from agricultural products must preserve the soil resources necessary to support adequate U.S. food and fiber production, which provide the basis for a continued strong U.S. economy.

The biochar provisions in S.1884 promote commercial development of technologies that will simultaneously create clean, renewable energy from agricultural and forestry biomass products, while protecting and restoring soil resources and helping to address global climate change. Unlike most carbon-neutral biomass energy systems, biochar technology is carbon-negative: it removes net carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and stores it in the form of stable soil carbon 'sinks', improving soil fertility, water retention, productivity and crop yields.

The Biochar Process
Energy and biochar can be co-produced from biomass using thermal processes. Biochar production processes can potentially utilize virtually any agricultural or forestry waste biomass, including wood chips, corn stover, rice or peanut hulls, tree bark, papermill sludge, and animal manure, for instance.

Under proper production conditions, the biochar can retain up to 50% of the feedstock carbon in a porous charcoal structure. The biochar product is a fine-grained, porous charcoal substance that, when used as a soil amendment, effectively removes net carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In the soil, biochar provides a habitat for soil organisms, but is not itself consumed by them. Thus, biochar does not disturb the carbon-nitrogen balance, but holds and slowly releases water, minerals and nitrogen to plants. When used as a soil amendment along with manure or fertilizer, the char significantly improves soil tilth, productivity, and nutrient retention and plant availability.

The energy produced from the remainder of the biomass is used to heat the pyrolysis unit and/or provide energy for on-farm use, such as heat and electricity for lighting, fans, refrigerators, milking machines, etc. The co-production of biochar from a portion of the biomass feedstock will reduce the total amount of energy that can be produced, but basic soil science research indicates that even at today�s energy and fertilizer prices the net gain in soil productivity is worth more than the value of the energy that would otherwise have been derived from that charcoal. Once the cost of carbon emissions starts to rise and the value of CO2 extraction from the atmosphere is also considered, the balance will become overwhelmingly attractive.

The two predominant biochar production processes under development are externally heated pyrolysis and downdraft gasification. At small scales, downdraft gasification with air can produce a gas that is immediately burned in an engine to make heat and electricity. This will be practical on farms and at agricultural processing plants at scales from 5kW to 5MW of electricity. At the local or regional agricultural co-op scale, processing 800 to 1000 tons of biomass per day, externally heated pyrolysis or oxygen gasification can be used to make synthesis gas. Syngas can be catalytically converted into liquid fuels including methanol, mixed alcohols that perform like ethanol as a vehicle fuel, ammonia, dimethyl ether, or even Fischer-Tropsch diesel at a larger refinery scale.

An Example of an Agricultural Biochar Production System
An example of a fully-developed system that would be supported by S.1884 is the development of an intermediate scale pyrolysis or thermochemical conversion system which produces energy for on-farm use. The pyrolysis or gasification system can produce bio-oils for transport to a central location for conversion to liquid or gaseous fuels; and/or gases that can be used to produce heat and electricity for on-farm uses. The biochar produced will have specific surface chemistries that, when applied to soils, will sequester carbon while improving agricultural productivity and replacing some chemical fertilizer inputs. The permanently sequestered carbon can be traded and sold in greenhouse gas markets. The system will effectively manage and use on-farm byproducts such as lignocellulosic residue and animal wastes. The system can also be integrated with chemical conversion and biological conversion in an intermediate scale biorefinery.

S.1884: Specific Biochar Provisions in The Harvesting Energy Act of 2007

Title I - Energy
o Renewable Energy Systems and Energy Efficiency Improvements: (pg. 3 of S.1884) Provides a total of $150 million for pyrolysis and thermochemical conversion systems to be acquired by agricultural producers, in Section 9006 of the Farm Bill. Annual funding of $30 million is authorized for each of FY 2008-2012.
o Bioenergy Program/Feedstock Residue Management Program: (pg. 7 of S.1884) Provides assistance to cellulosic biorefineries in the form of transition payments in preparation for bioenergy operations; requires that land conversions for such operations ensure the protection and enhancement of soil quality and the prevention of soil erosion and nutrient leaching, and other impacts. Provides a total of $1.458 billion over the 5-year period FY 2008-2012
o Research and Demonstration Grants for Biochar Production Systems: (pg. 11 of S.1884) Creates a competitive grants program for research and development to develop and commercialize biochar production systems on multiple scales, including on a single farm, local community, and cooperative scale. Provides a total of $50 million, with annual funding of $10 million for each of FY 2008-2012.

Title II - Direct Payments for value-added and Renewable Energy Enterprises
o Direct Payments for Qualified Value-added Enterprises: (pg. 15 of S.1884) Provides direct payments of up to $10,000 per producer to match equity investments in value-added enterprises, to include the production and use of biochar as a soil amendment. Authorizes such funds as are necessary to carry out this section for each of FY 2008-2012.

Title III - Conservation
o Biochar Demonstration Projects: (pg. 18 of S.1884) Provides that demonstration projects on a farm and cooperative scale be carried out to demonstrate the advantages of using biochar production systems to improve renewable energy production and protect and enhance soil quality; and for demonstration projects that demonstrate the manner in which biochar may be used to generate agricultural credits for carbon trading within greenhouse gas emissions reduction programs. Promotes high-priority biochar research and demonstration projects in three areas: biochar production and commercialization; biochar�s behavior in the environment; and economic and life-cycle analyses of biochar systems. Provides upwards of $100 million for the section, by authorizing �not less than� $20 million for each of FY2008-2012.
o Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP): (pg. 22 of S.1884) Provides funds for bioenergy production, including the installation of biochar production units

Title V - Research, Development, and Education
o High-priority Research and Extension Initiatives: (pg. 24 of S.1884) Provides upwards of $100 million in research grants to promote biochar technology for adding biochar to soil to improve soil fertility, nutrient retention, and carbon sequestration; and the movement of the technology from a pre-commercial to a fully-commercial state. Authorizes not less than $20 million per year for each of FY 2008-2012.
o Renewable Energy Research, Education and Educational Program: (pg. 28 of S.1884) Requires the Secretary of Agriculture to establish standardized protocols for market-based trading of greenhouse gas emissions reductions from soil carbon sequestration; to provide information on economic opportunities available to producers from such markets; and to provide grants to land-grant colleges and universities to develop curricula and training related to renewable energy fields. Such sums as are necessary are authorized for this section.

Renewable Electricity and Renewable Fuels Research and Development: (pg. 30 of S.1884)
Creates a joint USDA/DOE research program that includes a quantification and verification of the carbon sequestration benefits of various bioenergy and agricultural crops and practices, including the development of models to estimate the carbon sequestration benefits for different crops on different soils; and an additional research and development program to study, among other things, methods to sustainable increase agricultural and forestry crop energy yields while enhancing environmental benefits, in particular improving soil quality and air quality; methods of developing small-scale and distributed renewable energy technologies; and biochar�and other potential non-fossil-fuel-based renewable fertilizers to integrate energy production or agricultural management practices with enhance soil quality and long-term carbon sequestration. Provides up to $300 million per year for each of FY 2008-2012.

S.1884 - The Salazar Harvesting Energy Act of 2007 [*.pdf], introduced July 26, 2007.

An excellent introduction to biochar can be found in Johannes Lehmann: "A Handful of Carbon" [*.pdf], Nature, Vol 447, pp. 143-144, 10 May 2007.

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