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    Leading experts in organic solar cells say the field is being damaged by questionable reports about ever bigger efficiency claims, leading the community into an endless and dangerous tendency to outbid the last report. In reality these solar cells still show low efficiencies that will need to improve significantly before they become a success. To counter the hype, scientists call on the community to press for independent verification of claimed efficiencies. Biopact sees a similar trend in the field of biofuels from algae, in which press releases containing unrealistic yield projections and 'breakthroughs' are released almost monthly. Eurekalert - October 16, 2007.

    The Colorado Wood Utilization and Marketing Program at Colorado State University received a $65,000 grant from the U.S. Forest Service to expand the use of woody biomass throughout Colorado. The purpose of the U.S. Department of Agriculture grant program is to provide financial assistance to state foresters to accelerate the adoption of woody biomass as an alternative energy source. Colorado State University - October 12, 2007.

    Indian company Naturol Bioenergy Limited announced that it will soon start production from its biodiesel facility at Kakinada, in the state of Andhra Pradesh. The facility has an annual production capacity of 100,000 tons of biodiesel and 10,000 tons of pharmaceutical grade glycerin. The primary feedstock is crude palm oil, but the facility was designed to accomodate a variety of vegetable oil feedstocks. Biofuel Review - October 11, 2007.

    Brazil's state energy company Petrobras says it will ship 9 million liters of ethanol to European clients next month in its first shipment via the northeastern port of Suape. Petrobras buys the biofuel from a pool of sugar cane processing plants in the state of Pernambuco, where the port is also located. Reuters - October 11, 2007.

    Dynamotive Energy Systems Corporation, a leader in biomass-to-biofuel technology, announces that it has completed a $10.5 million equity financing with Quercus Trust, an environmentally oriented fund, and several other private investors. Ardour Capital Inc. of New York served as financial advisor in the transaction. Business Wire - October 10, 2007.

    Cuban livestock farmers are buying distillers dried grains (DDG), the main byproduct of corn based ethanol, from biofuel producers in the U.S. During a trade mission of Iowan officials to Cuba, trade officials there said the communist state will double its purchases of the dried grains this year. DesMoines Register - October 9, 2007.

    Brasil Ecodiesel, the leading Brazilian biodiesel producer company, recorded an increase of 57.7% in sales in the third quarter of the current year, in comparison with the previous three months. Sales volume stood at 53,000 cubic metres from August until September, against 34,000 cubic metres of the biofuel between April and June. The company is also concluding negotiations to export between 1,000 to 2,000 tonnes of glycerine per month to the Asian market. ANBA - October 4, 2007.

    PolyOne Corporation, the US supplier of specialised polymer materials, has opened a new colour concentrates manufacturing plant in Kutno, Poland. Located in central Poland, the new plant will produce colour products in the first instance, although the company says the facility can be expanded to handle other products. In March, the Ohio-based firm launched a range of of liquid colourants for use in bioplastics in biodegradable applications. The concentrates are European food contact compliant and can be used in polylactic acid (PLA) or starch-based blends. Plastics & Rubber Weekly - October 2, 2007.

    A turbo-charged, spray-guided direct-injection engine running on pure ethanol (E100) can achieve very high specific output, and shows “significant potential for aggressive engine downsizing for a dedicated or dual-fuel solution”, according to engineers at Orbital Corporation. GreenCarCongress - October 2, 2007.

    UK-based NiTech Solutions receives £800,000 in private funding to commercialize a cost-saving industrial mixing system, dubbed the Continuous Oscillatory Baffled Reactor (COBR), which can lower costs by 50 per cent and reduce process time by as much as 90 per cent during the manufacture of a range of commodities including chemicals, drugs and biofuels. Scotsman - October 2, 2007.

    A group of Spanish investors is building a new bioethanol plant in the western region of Extremadura that should be producing fuel from maize in 2009. Alcoholes Biocarburantes de Extremadura (Albiex) has already started work on the site near Badajoz and expects to spend €42/$59 million on the plant in the next two years. It will produce 110 million litres a year of bioethanol and 87 million kg of grain byproduct that can be used for animal feed. Europapress - September 28, 2007.

    Portuguese fuel company Prio SA and UK based FCL Biofuels have joined forces to launch the Portuguese consumer biodiesel brand, PrioBio, in the UK. PrioBio is scheduled to be available in the UK from 1st November. By the end of this year (2007), says FCL Biofuel, the partnership’s two biodiesel refineries will have a total capacity of 200,000 tonnes which will is set to grow to 400,000 tonnes by the end of 2010. Biofuel Review - September 27, 2007.

    According to Tarja Halonen, the Finnish president, one third of the value of all of Finland's exports consists of environmentally friendly technologies. Finland has invested in climate and energy technologies, particularly in combined heat and power production from biomass, bioenergy and wind power, the president said at the UN secretary-general's high-level event on climate change. Newroom Finland - September 25, 2007.

    Spanish engineering and energy company Abengoa says it had suspended bioethanol production at the biggest of its three Spanish plants because it was unprofitable. It cited high grain prices and uncertainty about the national market for ethanol. Earlier this year, the plant, located in Salamanca, ceased production for similar reasons. To Biopact this is yet another indication that biofuel production in the EU/US does not make sense and must be relocated to the Global South, where the biofuel can be produced competitively and sustainably, without relying on food crops. Reuters - September 24, 2007.

    The Midlands Consortium, comprised of the universities of Birmingham, Loughborough and Nottingham, is chosen to host Britain's new Energy Technologies Institute, a £1 billion national organisation which will aim to develop cleaner energies. University of Nottingham - September 21, 2007.

    The EGGER group, one of the leading European manufacturers of chipboard, MDF and OSB boards has begun work on installing a 50MW biomass boiler for its production site in Rion. The new furnace will recycle 60,000 tonnes of offcuts to be used in the new combined heat and power (CHP) station as an ecological fuel. The facility will reduce consumption of natural gas by 75%. IHB Network - September 21, 2007.

    Analysts fear that record oil prices will fuel general inflation in Kenya, particularly hitting the poorest hard. They call for the development of new policies and strategies to cope with sustained high oil prices. Such policies include alternative fuels like biofuels, conservation measures, and more investments in oil and gas exploration. The poor in Kenya are hit hardest by the sharp increase, because they spend most of their budget on fuel and transport. Furthermore, in oil intensive economies like Kenya, high oil prices push up prices for food and most other basic goods. All Africa - September 20, 2007.

    Finland's Metso Power has won an order to supply Kalmar Energi Värme AB with a biomass-fired power boiler for the company’s new combined heat and power plant in Kalmar on the east coast of Sweden. Start-up for the plant is scheduled for the end of 2009. The value of the order is approximately EUR 55 million. The power boiler (90 MWth) will utilize bubbling fluidized bed technology and will burn biomass replacing old district heating boilers and reducing the consumption of oil. The delivery will also include a flue gas condensing system to increase plant's district heat production. Metso Corporation - September 19, 2007.

    Jo-Carroll Energy announced today its plan to build an 80 megawatt, biomass-fueled, renewable energy center in Illinois. The US$ 140 million plant will be fueled by various types of renewable biomass, such as clean waste wood, corn stover and switchgrass. Jo-Carroll Energy - September 18, 2007.

    Beihai Gofar Marine Biological Industry Co Ltd, in China's southern region of Guangxi, plans to build a 100,000 tonne-per-year fuel ethanol plant using cassava as feedstock. The Shanghai-listed company plans to raise about 560 million yuan ($74.5 million) in a share placement to finance the project and boost its cash flow. Reuters - September 18, 2007.

    The oil-dependent island state of Fiji has requested US company Avalor Capital, LLC, to invest in biodiesel and ethanol. The Fiji government has urged the company to move its $250million 'Fiji Biofuels Project' forward at the earliest possible date. Fiji Live - September 18, 2007.

    The Bowen Group, one of Ireland's biggest construction groups has announced a strategic move into the biomass energy sector. It is planning a €25 million investment over the next five years to fund up to 100 projects that will create electricity from biomass. Its ambition is to install up to 135 megawatts of biomass-fuelled heat from local forestry sources, which is equal to 50 million litres or about €25m worth of imported oil. Irish Examiner - September 16, 2007.

    According to Dr Niphon Poapongsakorn, dean of Economics at Thammasat University in Thailand, cassava-based ethanol is competitive when oil is above $40 per barrel. Thailand is the world's largest producer and exporter of cassava for industrial use. Bangkok Post - September 14, 2007.

    German biogas and biodiesel developer BKN BioKraftstoff Nord AG has generated gross proceeds totaling €5.5 million as part of its capital increase from authorized capital. Ad Hoc News - September 13, 2007.

    NewGen Technologies, Inc. announced that it and Titan Global Holdings, Inc. completed a definitive Biofuels Supply Agreement which will become effective upon Titan’s acquisition of Appalachian Oil Company. Given APPCO’s current distribution of over 225 million gallons of fuel products per year, the initial expected ethanol supply to APPCO should exceed 1 million gallons a month. Charlotte dBusinessNews - September 13, 2007.

    Oil prices reach record highs as the U.S. Energy Information Agency releases a report that showed crude oil inventories fell by more than seven million barrels last week. The rise comes despite a decision by the international oil cartel, OPEC, to raise its output quota by 500,000 barrels. Reuters - September 12, 2007.

    OPEC decided today to increase the volume of crude supplied to the market by Member Countries (excluding Angola and Iraq) by 500,000 b/d, effective 1 November 2007. The decision comes after oil reached near record-highs and after Saudi Aramco announced that last year's crude oil production declined by 1.7 percent, while exports declined by 3.1 percent. OPEC - September 11, 2007.

    GreenField Ethanol and Monsanto Canada launch the 'Gro-ethanol' program which invites Ontario's farmers to grow corn seed containing Monsanto traits, specifically for the ethanol market. The corn hybrids eligible for the program include Monsanto traits that produce higher yielding corn for ethanol production. MarketWire - September 11, 2007.

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Tropical maize could become biofuel 'super' crop in the US, similar to sugarcane

Plant geneticists and crop scientists from the University of Illinois who are studying tropical maize have found that when the crop is grown in the US, it does not produce grain, but stores far more sugar in its stalks instead. These findings could make it the ultimate US biofuels crop, and could open the gate to a production process as efficient as that of Brazil's sugarcane based ethanol sector.

Early research led by Fred Below shows that the tropical maize, when grown in the Midwest, does not store energy in grain, but stores it more efficiently in its stalks instead. For this reason it requires few crop inputs such as nitrogen fertilizer, chiefly because it does not produce any ears. It also is easier for farmers to integrate into their current operations than some other dedicated energy crops because it can be easily rotated with corn or soybeans, and can be planted, cultivated and harvested with the same equipment US farmers already have. Finally, tropical maize stalks are believed to require less processing than corn grain, corn stover, switchgrass, Miscanthus giganteus and the scores of other plants now being studied for biofuel production.

What it does produce, straight from the field with no processing, is 25 percent or more sugar - mostly sucrose, fructose and glucose - in its stalks. Without ears, these plants concentrate sugars in their stalks instead of in grain as in ordinary corn. Those sugars could have a dramatic affect on Midwestern production of ethanol and other biofuels.
Corn is a short-day plant, so when we grow tropical maize here in the Midwest the long summer days delay flowering, which causes the plant to grow very tall and produce few or no ears. Midwestern-grown tropical maize easily grows 14 or 15 feet (4-4.5 meters) tall compared to the 7-1/2 feet (2.2 meters) height that is average for conventional hybrid corn. It is all in these tall stalks. In our early trials, we are finding that these plants build up to a level of 25 percent or higher of sugar in their stalks. - Fred Below, University of Illinois crop scientist
The maize differs from conventional corn and other crops being grown for biofuels in that the starch found in corn grain and the cellulose in switchgrass, corn stover and other energy crops must be treated with enzymes to convert them into sugars that can be then fermented into alcohols such as ethanol. The tropical maize stalks won't require such complex and costly bioconversion methods - the sugars contained in them can just be 'squeezed out' and fermented, in a way similar to how ethanol is made from sugarcane.
In terms of biofuel production, tropical maize could be considered the 'Sugarcane of the Midwest'. The tropical maize we're growing here at the University of Illinois is very lush, very tall, and very full of sugar. - Fred Below
Storing simple sugars also is more cost-effective for the plant, because it takes a lot of energy to make the complex starches, proteins, and oils present in corn grain. By storing sugars in stalks, these energy savings per plant could result in more total energy per acre with topical maize, since it produces no grain.

Early trials also show that tropical maize requires much less nitrogen fertilizer than conventional corn, and that the stalks actually accumulate more sugar when less nitrogen is available. Nitrogen fertilizer is one of major costs of growing corn. Below explained that sugarcane used in Brazil to make ethanol is desirable for the same reason:
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it produces lots of sugar without a high requirement for nitrogen fertilizer, and this sugar can be fermented to alcohol without the middle steps required by high-starch and cellulosic crops. But sugarcane can't be grown in the Midwest.

The tall stalks of tropical maize are so full of sugar that producers growing it for biofuel production will be able to supply a raw material at least one step closer to being turned into fuel than are ears of corn.
Growing tropical maize doesn't break the farmers' rotation. You can grow tropical maize for one year and then go back to conventional corn or soybeans in subsequent years. Miscanthus, on the other hand, is thought to need a three-year growth cycle between initial planting and harvest and then your land is in Miscanthus. To return to planting corn or soybean necessitates removing the Miscanthus rhizomes. - Fred Below
Below is studying topical maize along with doctoral candidate Mike Vincent and postdoctoral research associate Matias Ruffo, and in conjunction with University of Illinois Associate Professor Stephen Moose. This latest discovery of high sugar yields from tropical maize became apparent through cooperative work between Below and Moose to characterize genetic variation in response to nitrogen fertilizers.

Currently supported by the National Science Foundation, these studies are a key element to developing maize hybrids with improved nitrogen use efficiency. Both Below and Moose are members of the Illinois Maize Breeding and Genetics Laboratory (), which has a long history of conducting research that identifies new uses for the maize crop.

Moose now directs one of the longest-running plant genetics experiments in the world, in which more than a century of selective breeding has been applied to alter carbon and nitrogen accumulation in the maize plant. Continued collaboration between Below and Moose will investigate whether materials from these long term selection experiments will further enhance sugar yields from tropical maize.

University of Illinois: Tropical Maize for Biofuels - October 16, 2007.

Eurekalert: If corn is biofuels king, tropical maize may be emperor - October 15, 2007.

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Green roads: engineers investigate biofuel co-product lignin for use in road construction

Scientists and engineers from the Iowa State University are looking at ways to strengthen difficult soils by adding lignin, a fibrous co-product of cellulosic biofuel production, so that better roads can be build on them. Soil around the Midwest is mostly soft clay and till deposited by glaciers, says Halil Ceylan, an Iowa State assistant professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering. It's hardly the bedrock engineers would like for a good, solid roadbed.

And so the soil under Iowa's roads often has to be mixed with chemicals that bind and stabilize soil particles. That improves soil strength and makes for better roads. While stabilizing soils for road construction is standard practice around the Midwest, there are limits to its effectiveness. Ceylan said costs can be high and current practices only work with certain soil types and site conditions. So civil engineers are always looking for better, cheaper and more efficient ways to get the job done.

That has Ceylan and Kasthurirangan Gopalakrishnan, a research scientist in civil, construction and environmental engineering, experimenting to see whether lignin, a co-product of producing ethanol from plant fibers, could be a good soil stabilizing agent.

Lignin is a complex chemical compound, the glue that holds plant fibers together. It is the most abundant organic polymer on Earth after cellulose. Lignin fills the spaces in the cell wall between cellulose, hemicellulose and pectin components (figure, click to enlarge). It is actually not one compound but many - all are complex, amorphous, three-dimensional polymers that have in common a phenylpropane structure, that is, a benzene ring with a tail of three carbons.

Cellulosic ethanol production breaks down these tough cell walls to free the sugars contained in cellulose which can be fermented into fuel; the co-product is the strong, fibrous lignin. Using lignin to stabilize soil make sense. There is not a lot of value in it when it's removed from corn stalks, switchgrass or other energy crops feeding the production of cellulosic ethanol:
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As researcher Andy Aden of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado recently told National Geographic magazine, "The old joke is you can make anything from lignin but money."

Ceylan said previous Iowa State studies of lignin from the paper-making industry found it to be a cementing agent that could be of value for soil stabilization. But nobody has determined if that's also the case for lignin from ethanol production. Ceylan thinks it will be.

"It is expected that the lignin derived from lignocellulosic biorefineries will see similar success, if not better," he wrote in his proposal for a Grow Iowa Values Fund grant.

To find out, Ceylan and his research team will head to the soils engineering lab in Iowa State's Town Engineering Building where they'll prepare soil samples containing various percentages of lignin. The mixtures will be tested and evaluated for strength, stability and other properties.

The researchers hope they come up with a new technology that's good for road builders, good for drivers, good for the environment and good for the cellulosic ethanol industry.

The research could also be a big help to the people who build and maintain Iowa's roads, especially as ethanol plants increase truck traffic through rural areas.

"When I talk to county engineers they're very concerned about increased traffic," Ceylan said. "Roads are designed according to traffic forecasts and suddenly there is a lot more truck traffic. This can be a cause of distress to the highway system. But, maybe we can also get the benefit of soil and road stabilization from these plants."

Their Iowa scientists' research is partially supported by a $93,775 grant from the Grow Iowa Values Fund, a state program that promotes economic development. The Iowa Highway Research Board, Grain Processing Corp. of Muscatine and Iowa State's Office of Biorenewables Programs are also supporting the project.

Iowa State University: Iowa State engineers hope to build better roads by using ethanol co-products - October 15, 2007.

Article continues

Genencor launches first ever commercial enzyme for cellulose ethanol

Genencor, a division of Danish company Danisco A/S, announced the launch of Accellerase 1000, the first ever commercially available biomass enzyme developed specifically for second generation biorefineries. Accellerase 1000 contains a potent complex of enzymes based on a genetically modified strain from Trichoderma reesei, a cellulolytic filamentous fungus, that reduces lignocellulosic biomass into fermentable sugars - an indispensable step for the production of cellulosic ethanol.

Accellerase shows the following properties [*.pdf]:
  • Enhanced saccharification performance on a variety of feedstocks (graph, click to enlarge).
  • Ability to operate in simultaneous saccharification and fermentation (SSF) processes (graph, click to enlarge), two step sequential hydrolysis and fermentation (SHF) processes or hybrids of the two.
  • High ß-glucosidase activity to minimize residual cellobiose, which may lead to a higher saccharification and ultimately to a faster ethanol fermentation. Yields may also be improved.
  • Unclarified product. The remaining nutrients from enzyme production are available to the yeast in addition to the fermentable sugars produced by saccharification.
  • Minimal formulation to ensure that enzyme formulation chemicals do not interfere with saccharification carbohydrate profile analysis or subsequent yeast fermentation.
The enzyme complex contains a potent combination of enzymes which effectively modify and digest non-starch carbohydrates, the structural material of lignocellulosic biomass. Lignocellulosic material is composed mainly of cellulose, hemicellulose, and beta-glucans which are associated with each other and also with lignin, pectins, proteins, starch, and lipids. This product is capable of efficiently hydrolyzing lignocellulosic biomass into fermentable monsaccharides.

Accellerase contains high levels of betaglucosidase to ensure almost complete conversion of cellobiose to glucose. It is produced with a genetically modified strain derived from Trichoderma reesei. The production host is inactivated at the end of the controlled fermentation.

Genencor has been developing its biomass enzymes for well over 10 years. The effort was partially supported by contracts with the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL):
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Commercial interest in second generation biorefineries, driven in part by the goal to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases and increase energy independence, has accelerated over the past two years in the USA and around the world. Accellerase 1000 will fill a large unmet need for reliable biomass enzyme supply to pilot and demonstration plant developers who are actively working on process development, scale up and integration.

Accellerase 1000 is the first in what the company expects to be a family of products tailored to different biomass feedstocks and system conditions. The key features that are expected to be important at commercial scale are already built into this first product.

The biofuels industry is at an inflection point with the development of cellulosic ethanol plants at the pilot and demonstration scale, said Jack Huttner, vice president of biorefinery business development. Every biorefinery developer needs to know how enzymes will work in their system. This product aims to address that need and to start a dialogue with potential partners about customized solutions and supply at the industrial scale.
Enzymes, such as those developed by Genencor, will serve as catalysts to the commercial-scale viability of cellulosic ethanol, a clean source of energy to help meet President Bush’s goal of reducing our reliance on oil. Ethanol from new feed stocks will not only give America more efficient fuel options to help transform our transportation sector, but increasing its use will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. - Andy Karsner, US DOE Assistant Secretary
Product information and technical applications information is available on the website. Accellerase 1000 will be available for sample and sale immediately.

Genencor: Accellerase 1000 product datasheet.

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Brazilian president calls on Africa to join biofuels revolution

Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva called on Africa to join a biofuels revolution to democratize access to energy across the continent, to ensure its social and economic development and to guarantee energy sovereignty. The call comes at a time when crude prices hit fresh records. High oil prices are outright catastrophic for the economies of the poorest countries (previous post).

By moving away from fossil fuels African countries can help tackle climate change without sacrificing economic growth, the left-leaning president said. Think tanks and organisations including the UN's FAO have said biofuels, with the right policies, can also alleviate poverty and end hunger as farmers find a new major market for which demand can only increase (more here, here and here). African scientists see biofuels as a key component for achieving the Millennium Development Goals (previous post).

According to researchers working for the International Energy Agency's Bioenergy Task 40, the African continent has the largest long term sustainable bioenergy potential. Under an optimal scenario, the continent could produce around 350 Exajoules of bioenergy by 2050, after meeting all food, fiber and fodder needs of growing populations and without deforestation. Global maximum potential is estimated to be around 1300Ej (map, click to enlarge). The world currently consumes 380Ej of fossil energy (more here and, for Africa, here).

Lula, whose country has become the world's leading ethanol producer, is starting a four-nation tour of Africa, offering technical and scientific assistance from Brazil in developing biofuel technology. He arrived Monday in Burkina Faso to meet with President Blaise Compaore.
Brazil invites Burkina Faso and all of Africa to join the biofuels revolution. With biofuels we can democratize access to energy in Africa. We need to add a new source of energy capable of responding to Africa's economic and social needs. - Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva
While several African countries, including South Africa, Senegal and the Democratic Republic of Congo, have launched biofuel projects in recent years, the industry remains relatively rare in Africa. Lula announced Brazil and the West African Monetary Union (UEMOA), whose seat is in Ouagadougou, would cooperate to facilitate the production of biofuels in Burkina Faso.

Brazil has been the most active player on the continent, offering scientific, technical and financial aid to launch biofuel production (more here). President Lula sees biofuels as a tool with which to strengthen South-South cooperation and as an instrument to bring social development and alleviate poverty in developing countries:
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The Brazilian president flies Tuesday to Brazzaville for a brief stay in Congo. Wednesday he is due in South Africa for the second summit of the India-Brasil-South Africa (IBSA) group of nations, set up to promote South-South cooperation as well as ties between their own countries. IBSA earlier announced interest in biofuels as a tool to boost energy sovereignty across developing nations (more here).

Lula further called on developing countries to stick together in WTO trade negotiations, in which biofuels have come to play a key role. Brazil recently obtained a major victory in the fight against subsidies, with the WTO ruling against American cotton subsidies. Lula spoke in Burkina Faso, Africa's largest cotton producer. The Brazilian leader wraps up his African tour Thursday in Angola.

Agência Brasil: África não terá desenvolvimento se paz não for alcançada, diz Lula - October 15, 2007.

AFP: Lula chama África a aderir à 'revolução dos biocombustíveis'

AFP: Brazil's leader calls on Africa to embrace biofuels production - October 15, 2007.

BBC: Lula promotes biofuels in Africa - October 15, 2007.

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

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

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

Biopact: African Union, Brazil and UNIDO organise first High-Level Conference on Biofuels in Africa - July 23, 2007

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

Biopact: India and Brazil sign key bioenergy pact on eve of IBSA Summit - September 13, 2006

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

Article continues

Virgin Atlantic to test biofuel in 747 in early 2008

British entrepreneur and serial investor Richard Branson has revealed more details about his Virgin Group's hopes to produce clean biofuels by around the start of the next decade and said early next year will test a jet plane on renewable fuel.

Virgin hopes to provide clean fuel for buses, trains and cars within three or four years, he told a Mortgage Bankers Association meeting in Boston. Earlier this year, Virgin Trains launched the first scheduled passenger service with a train operating on biodiesel (more here).

In the meantime, Virgin will be conducting a test jet flight on renewable fuels. "Early next year we will fly one of our 747s without passengers with one of the fuels that we have developed," Branson told the annual conference. The fuel in question is likely to be biobutanol which can be made from lignocellulosic biomass (more about this biofuel here, here and here). Earlier, a company spokesman said the test will certainly not involve the use of synthetic biofuels, because these have already proven to work in jet engines.

Virgin is developing biofuels for aircraft in conjunction with Boeing Co and engine-maker GE Aviation, a unit of General Electric Co. Previously, Branson had said the company would test the fuel sometime next year and that some people had said it would be late in the year.

Air New Zealand has said it plans to test a flight on a combination fuel of biofuel and kerosene in late 2008, but Virgin is trying to beat that airline by testing biofuels first (earlier post).

Biofuels have witnessed explosive growth this year amid record oil prices and concern about global warming. Cutting emissions of heat-trapping gases from transportation sources is more difficult than cutting them from stationary sources like power plants. Power stations can switch from coal, the heaviest greenhouse gas emitter, to cleaner burning natural gas or to biomass. But for airplanes there is virtually no alternative to oil, except synthetic fuels made from fossil sources and biofuels:
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Branson said jets may have problems using ethanol, the most common biofuel, which is made mainly from corn in the United States and sugar cane in Brazil. He said ethanol freezes at 15,000 feet and that biobutanol, a fuel similar to gasoline (earlier post), may be a better alternative. It is also less corrosive than ethanol.

Branson pledged last year to spend all the profit over the next 10 years from his 51 percent stake in Virgin's airline and rail businesses on fighting global warming.

He also created Virgin Fuels, which is investing $400 million over three years in renewable energy initiatives, as part of the pledge.

Virgin Fuels has invested in a small number of U.S. ethanol projects and hopes eventually to produce branded biofuels, the company's managing partner said earlier this year.

Reuters: Virgin Atlantic 747 to test biofuel in early 2008 - October 15, 2007.

Scenta: Take off for Virgin biofuels - October 15, 2007.

Biopact: Boeing, Air New Zealand and Rolls-Royce to conduct biofuel flight demonstration - September 28, 2007

Biopact: ABF, BP and DuPont in joint venture to build $400 million bioethanol, biobutanol plants in the UK - June 26, 2007

Biopact: Fuel testing shows biobutanol performance similar to unleaded gasoline - April 20, 2007

Biopact: DuPont outlines commercialisation strategies for biobutanol, cellulosic ethanol - February 22, 2007

Biopact: Virgin launches first biodiesel train in Europe - June 07, 2007

Article continues

Brazil, West Africa win cotton case - US faces billions in fines

In a major decision that could benefit hundreds of thousands of small farmers in the Global South, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) today upheld its earlier ruling saying that US cotton subsidies are illegal. The US could face billions of dollars in trade sanctions for failing to scrap these payments made to American cotton growers. The WTO ruling is a victory for Brazil's cotton industry and for West African states which say the payments gravely harmed their producers.

Brazil hailed the ruling, saying US subsidies had hit world prices, hurting farmers in Brazil and small holders elsewhere, in particular in some of the poorest countries who launched the appeal for US subsidy cuts first: Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali. In some of these countries, cotton makes up 70% of all export earnings (a good story on how these subsidies destroy the livelihoods of small farmers in West Africa and the countries' economies at large, can be found here).

US subsidies for its 25,000 cotton farmers - $12.5 billion between 1999 and 2003 - have encouraged overproduction, resulting in the flooding of the world market by cotton sold at prices less than it costs to produce. This has depressed prices to levels at which competitors struggle to survive. With low labour costs and small manageable plots, more than a million cotton farmers in West and Central Africa are among the lowest-cost producers in the world. But even they can no longer cope.

The landmark ruling is relevant to the bioenergy community because Brazil recently launched a similar case against US biofuel subsidies (more here). Likewise, these payments run into the billions of dollars per year (earlier post; note the EU is going about in a similar manner). If these trade-distorting handouts, together with biofuel import tariffs, were to be abandoned, consumers would see the real price at the pump. US and EU biofuels would no longer be competitive and smaller producers in the developing world could begin to exploit their comparative advantages and start producing their far more efficient biofuel feedstocks. This could greatly help reduce poverty, put an end to the utilization of corn and wheat which are food crops on which poor countries depend, and even help in combating food insecurity amongst the vast rural populations of the South (here, here and here).

Brazil leads the G20, a group of developing countries who want to get rid of the immense agricultural subsidies and trade barriers imposed by the EU and the US. These barriers keep millions of small farmers in the South in poverty and in some cases are even to blame for massive dependency on foreign food imports - countries in Africa and elsewhere, who should be major food exporters, have been reduced to a status of perpetual dependency with crippled domestic farm sectors as a consequence.

Agricultural subsidies in the EU and the US are also the key stumbling block for progress in the Doha Round of trade negotiations. The announcement that Brazil was bringing the cotton case back before WTO arbitrators was made shortly after the July 2006 collapse of the talks, which aim to add billions of dollars to the world economy and help poorer countries develop their economies through new trade flows.

The ruling in the cotton case was released confidentially to US and Brazilian officials in Geneva today. The office of the US Trade Representative in Washington confirmed the news, saying the US was "very disappointed". US officials believe the payments comply with international trade rules. Washington is expected to make an appeal against the ruling:
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Roberto Azevedo, the Brazilian foreign ministry's trade chief, said that the three-member WTO compliance panel had upheld the findings of its interim report released in July.

The Brazilian government claims the U.S. retained its place as the world's second-largest cotton grower by paying out $12.5 billion in government subsidies to American farmers between August 1999 and July 2003.

Critics of the subsidies say they drive down prices, making it impossible for small farms to compete in international markets, and more difficult for poorer countries to develop their economies by selling their agricultural produce abroad.

The WTO-proposed draft released in July calls on the US to make an 82 percent cut in trade-distorting handouts to American cotton farmers as part of a new global trade pact.

Washington has rejected the cuts, which were first proposed by the West African cotton-growing countries claiming to have been most harmed by the subsidies.

Brazil has reserved the right to impose annual sanctions of up to $4 billion on the United States but would probably seek less in retaliatory measures because the US has removed some of the offending subsidies.

Picture: cotton farmers in Burkina Faso, where 350,000 small producers are competitive but have seen their livelihoods destroyed by trade-distorting subsidies.

AP: WTO Rules Against US Cotton Subsidies - October 15, 2007.

AFP: US 'disappointed' as WTO rules against cotton subsidies - October 15, 2007.

BBC: African cotton farmers' despair: Burkina's white gold fails to deliver wealth - July 25, 2006.

UN: "Mounting opposition to Northern farm subsidies - African cotton farmers battling to survive", in: Africa Recovery, Vol.17, 1 (May 2003)

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

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

Biopact: IISD report challenges EU biofuel subsidies, calls for end to tariff - October 04, 2007

Biopact: Brazil initiates WTO case against U.S. ethanol and farm subsidies - August 20, 2007

Biopact: IPC urges EU/US to open markets for more efficient biofuels from the developing world - boost to 'Biopact' - October 11, 2007

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

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