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    Gate Petroleum Co. is planning to build a 55 million-gallon liquid biofuels terminal in Jacksonville, Florida. The terminal is expected to cost $90 million and will be the first in the state designed primarily for biofuels. It will receive and ship ethanol and biodiesel via rail, ship and truck and provide storage for Gate and for third parties. The biofuels terminal is set to open in 2010. Florida Times-Union - October 19, 2007.

    China Holdings Inc., through its controlled subsidiary China Power Inc., signed a development contract with the HeBei Province local government for the rights to develop and construct 50 MW of biomass renewable energy projects utilizing straw. The projects have a total expected annual power generating capacity of 400 million kWh and expected annual revenues of approximately US$33.3 million. Total investment in the projects is approximately US$77.2 million, 35 percent in cash and 65 percent from China-based bank loans with preferred interest rates with government policy protection for the biomass renewable energy projects. Full production is expected in about two years. China Holdings - October 18, 2007.

    Canadian Bionenergy Corporation, supplier of biodiesel in Canada, has announced an agreement with Renewable Energy Group, Inc. to partner in the construction of a biodiesel production facility near Edmonton, Alberta. The company broke ground yesterday on the construction of the facility with an expected capacity of 225 million litres (60 million gallons) per year of biodiesel. Together, the companies also intend to forge a strategic marketing alliance to better serve the North American marketplace by supplying biodiesel blends and industrial methyl esters. Canadian Bioenergy - October 17, 2007.

    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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Friday, October 19, 2007

Microbes share out carbon in the roots of plants, play key role in the carbon cycle

Sugars made by plants are rapidly used by microbes living in their roots, according to new research by French and British scientists, creating a short cut in the carbon cycle that is vital to life on earth.

The green leaves of plants use the energy of sunlight to make sugar by combining water with carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This sugar fuels the plant’s growth, but scientists in the University’s Department of Biology discovered that some of it goes straight to the roots to feed a surprising variety of microbes.

A study led by Professor Peter Young, of the Department of Biology at York and Dr Philippe Vandenkoornhuyse of the University of Rennes in France is published in the latest issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA (PNAS).

In the carbon cycle, plants remove the main greenhouse gas - carbon dioxide - from the atmosphere. Eventually, the carbon compounds that plants make are 'eaten' by microbes and animals or used as fuels by humans, which release carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere. The rapid cycling by microbes demonstrated by the new research is an important link in this process.
Our research identifies microbes in roots that create a short cut in the carbon cycle. This is an important development given current interest in reducing outputs of carbon dioxide and the ‘carbon trading’ that is intended to help this. - Professor Peter Young
The researchers traced the path of the carbon by replacing the normal carbon dioxide in the air around the plants with a version made with C-13, a natural, non-radioactive form of carbon that is slightly heavier than the usual kind. Within hours, microbes in the roots were feeding on sugars laden with C-13 and using it to build their own cells.

The newly-made molecules of DNA and RNA produced by the microbes could be separated from pre-existing ones because the C13 made them heavier. DNA and RNA are large molecules that carry genetic information about the organisms that made them, so it was possible to identify the microbes that made those heavy molecules. These were the “greedy” ones that were consuming the largest share of the sugars provided by the plant:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::
There are rich communities of microbes growing in or around the roots of all plants growing in normal soil. Most do no harm to the plant, and some are very beneficial to it. We looked at two sorts of microbe: bacteria and mycorrhizal fungi. - Professor Young
The researchers found a high diversity of both types of microbe inside the roots of grass or clover plants growing in a pasture, but the “heavy” label revealed that some of these were growing much more actively than others.

Professor Young says it is these active organisms that are important because they are turning sugar back into carbon dioxide, which is released into the atmosphere. The researchers were astonished at the wide variety of active bacteria that they discovered. Many of them had not been seen in plant roots before, and the scientists admit they have no idea how they may affect plant growth.

The role of mycorrhizal fungi (image, click to enlarge) is better known. They are particularly important in carbon cycling, because they pump the carbon compounds out of the root into a massive network of fine fungal filaments in the soil, where it becomes available to other microbes and also to larger soil organisms like worms, mites and insects. In return, the fungus gathers phosphorus from the soil and delivers it to the plant, helping the plant to grow better. The research confirmed that there were many different fungi in the roots of each plant, but revealed, for the first time, which of these fungi were most active.

Picture: the tiny filaments of mycorrhizal fungi extending from a plant's roots illustrate a symbiotic relationship, increasing a plant's ability to collect moisture and nutrients, and playing a key role in the carbon cycle.

Philippe Vandenkoornhuyse, et. al. "Active root-inhabiting microbes identified by rapid incorporation of plant-derived carbon into RNA", Published online before print October 15, 2007, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 10.1073/pnas.0705902104

University of York: Hungry microbes share out the carbon in the roots of plants - October 18, 2007.

Article continues

Bacteria use plant defence for genetic modification - new perspective in GMO debate

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are set to play an important role in future food and fuel production (previous post). The father of the technique of genetically modifying crops, Marc Van Montagu, for example, is a staunch supporter of such plants, because they can improve yields, end hunger in developing countries and unlock a vast potential for the production of sustainable biofuels and bioproducts that allow us to fight climate change (more here). But transgenic crops and GMOs used for bioconversion remain highly controversial, especially in Europe. Scientists from the continent now describe an entirely natural process occuring in plant cells that is similar to how genomes are artificially modified in engineered crops. Their findings, published today in Science, may offer a new perspective in the debate over GMOs.

Bacteria that cause tumours in plants modify plant genomes by skilfully exploiting the plants' first line of defence. Utilising the plant's own proteins, bacterial genes infiltrate first the nucleus then the plant genome, where they reprogramme the plant's metabolism to suit their own needs. This process was recently discovered as part of an Austrian Science Fund FWF project.

The genetic manipulation of plants is both a subject of great controversy in Europe and a tactic already practiced by certain bacteria. The soil bacterium known as crown-gall bacterium (Agrobacterium) manipulates the genetic make-up of plants by inserting its own DNA into the nuclei and, consequently, into the genetic material of the plant cells. The genetically modified plants are then reprogrammed to ensure uninhibited cell division and produce nutrients to feed the bacteria. What was not previously understood is exactly how bacteria genes infiltrate the cell's nucleus - particularly as the defence mechanisms of plant cells react so rapidly to bacterial invasion.

A surprising detail of this process has now been uncovered by the team of Prof. Heribert Hirt working at the Max F. Perutz Laboratories at the University of Vienna and the URGV Plant Genomics Institute near Paris which Hirt joined as future director earlier this year. VIP1, a plant cell protein, is at the heart of their research. It was already known that this protein supports the transport of bacterial DNA known as T-DNA into the nucleus, and yet the exact role of VIP1 was unclear.

Prof. Hirt explains: "We were able to show that VIP1 is a protein that regulates various genes designed to defend against bacterial invasion. However, VIP1 only occurs initially in the cytoplasm of cells and - in order to fulfil its role as a regulator - it then needs to migrate into the nucleus. It is precisely this movement that the bacterium exploits in order to inject its T-DNA into the nucleus." Hirt compares this strategy, which inevitably means that the plants own defences cause its downfall, to the famous Trojan Horse:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The scientist explains further that plants have an immune defence mechanism that is triggered when the plant detects certain molecules of the invader and works by activating genes in the nucleus. Once the invader has been detected, specific protein kinases in the cytoplasm are activated. These are enzymes that regulate the activity of other proteins by adding phosphate groups to them. One of the proteins phosphorylated by these protein kinases is VIP1, which is only granted access to the nucleus after this phosphorylation, so that it can activate the relevant defence genes there.

The following model illustrates the early processes in an infected plant cell. The invasion of T-DNA and the identification of the bacterium as an invader occur simultaneously. While protein kinases phosphorylate VIP1 in the cytoplasm, the bacterial T-DNA adheres to VIP1, thereby enabling it to infiltrate the nucleus unnoticed. The result is the joint infiltration of both friend and foe. Once inside the nucleus, the T-DNA is inserted into the plant genome and the process of tumour formation begins while the activated defence genes simultaneously organise the plant cell's defence mechanisms. It is too late though - the cell has already been transformed.

The fact that genetic modifications occur continuously in nature in this way offers a new angle to look at the controversies over transgenic crops.

Armin Djamei, Andrea Pitzschke, Hirofumi Nakagami, Iva Rajh, Heribert Hirt, "Trojan horse strategy in Agrobacterium transformation - Abusing MAPK-targeted VIP1 defence signalling" , Science, 318, 453 (2007).

Austrian Science Fund FWF: Bacteria Use Plant Defence for Genetic Modification - October 19, 2007.

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

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Neste Oil supports sustainable palm oil for next-generation biodiesel

Leading next-generation biodiesel producer Neste Oil has expressed its view on palm oil as a biofuel feedstock. The company's proprietary technology for producing NExBTL renewable diesel is based on hydroprocessing vegetable oils (earlier post). The process can potentially accomodate a wide range of raw material feedstocks but initially palm oil will be the most widely used type. Neste Oil is also investing in R&D to explore alternative feedstocks including waste wood and non-food plant oils (previous post).

The company wants to ensure that growth in palm based biofuel production is 'ethically sourced' from 'sustainable' palm oil feedstock, 'audited and certified'. These standards would be similar to those now in use in the commercial forestry sector, it says.

Developing countries think such criteria are important but cannot be used as new trade barriers or as a way to deny small palm oil farmers to make a profit. The sector is one of the few to allow extremely poor rural people to make a living with limited means. In Africa, the sector is dominated by small holders and in Asia around 50% of the plantations provide livelihoods to hundreds of thousands of small farmers. The emerging biofuels industry is set to bring them and new entrants unprecedented opportunnities for further poverty alleviation.

Palm oil is a crop that does not allow for an easy compromise between, on the one hand, the hard economic logic of the poor's attempts to climb out of poverty and to join 'modernity' as fast as possible, and, on the other hand, the more complex argumentation of the environmental economist and conservationist from the wealthy West who takes a more global, holistic and long term perspective on sustainable development. However, some scientists have suggested a bridge: conservationists should become palm oil farmers themselves, so they can understand the sector better and fund their conservation efforts with the profits from the crop (earlier post).

Some environmentalists have even gone against the grain and have argued that not investing in palm oil could be far more disastrous to the environment than investments in eco-friendly palm oil production efforts. But the reasoning is quite complex (more here).

In any case, poor countries will never give up on the vast potential for social and economic development brought by palm oil, especially now that palm based biofuels have become competitive with catastrophically high oil prices. For this reason, it is crucial for the West to help create strategies that can limit the environmental effects of the crop's cultivation, but in such a way that its many strong social and economic advantages are maintained.

Obviously, the West, which deforested its own lands rapidly since the Industrial Revolution, must carry the burden of the costs involved in guaranteering sustainable palm oil production. Not the developing countries. Neste Oil supports the application of criteria and says it is determined to set the highest standards for sustainability and meet stringent requirements for auditing and certification - however, it doesn't say whether it is prepared to pay the premium.

Neste Oil supports sustainable palm oil because of its many advantages. It is the most productive biofuel crop (for biodiesel, but also for ethanol which can be produced from abundant palm residues by new bioconversion technologies). Based on its participation in various greenhouse gas calculation working groups - the RTFO process in the UK and the Dutch Cramer Commission on criteria for sustainable biomass (earlier post) - Neste Oil says palm oil is estimated to have a high potential to save greenhouse gas emissions.

Finally, Neste Oil is the first oil company to join the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO):
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The RSPO has over 270 members, representing all phases of production and key stakeholders from civil society – including many NGOs with critical interests in rainforest conservation and protecting the habitat of threatened species including orangutan populations.

Neste Oil believes that innovation and technology can help ensure that increased demand for vegetable oil does not require rain forest devastation. The current output per hectare can be doubled by improving yield through better farming techniques. Furthermore, Neste Oil is looking at ways in which disused land (idle land) can be used to produce vegetable oil. It is estimated that in Southeast Asia alone there is over 20 million hectares 5 of non-rain forest land suitable for sustainable palm oil production currently not in use.

Neste Oil’s view is that renewable diesel is part of the solution to improving fuel efficiency and reducing the detrimental environmental effects of traffic. Better fuels allow more efficient engines and lower fuel consumption. Better quality fuels, such as NExBTL diesel, also permit the reduction of exhaust gases.

NGO members of the RSPO are: WWF (International Secretariat and Indonesian and Malaysian chapters,) Wetlands International, BOS International, PanEco, Global Environment Centre, Oxfam International, Both ENDS, Fauna Flora International, Pesticide Action Network (PAN) Asia-Pacific, Sawitwatch.

Neste Oil: Neste Oil view on palm oil as biofuel feedstock - October 17, 2007.

Biopact: Environmentalist: palm oil not necessarily a failure as a biofuel, ban would be disastrous for the environment - April 10, 2007

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

Biopact: Dutch propose biofuels sustainability criteria: NGOs sceptical, developing world says 'green imperialism' - April 28, 2007

Biopact: And the world's most productive ethanol crop is... oil palm - June 21, 2006

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

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GEM BioFuels raises £3.5 million to expand jatropha plantations in Madagascar

Biofuels firm GEM BioFuels announces it has raised £3.5 million pounds (€5/$7.2 million), with a placing at 60 pence a share to give it a market size of £16.6 million pounds as its shares start trading on AIM today.

The company will use the money to expand its Jatropha curcas plantations in Madagascar and to acquire a seed crushing plant to produce 'crude jatropha oil' (CJO).

GEM BioFuels has been established to supply feedstock to the rapidly growing global biodiesel market. It believes that one of the most significant potential constraints on the growth of this market is the relatively limited supply of biodiesel feedstock, and that this provides a significant commercial and social opportunity.
Feedstock supply is set to become one of the defining issues in the global biodiesel industry. GEM BioFuels has been established to supply crude jatropha oil as a feedstock to this rapidly growing market . By utilising jatropha, which is a non-edible, high-yielding perennial crop that is grown on semi-arid land with low water requirements, GEM BioFuels expects to be able to supply significant quantities of raw material without any negative impact on the environment or the food supply chain. In fact, our operations in Madagascar will be positive for the area of operations from both an environmental and socioeconomic perspective. - Paul Benetti, CEO of GEM BioFuels
GEM BioFuels is initially focusing on the establishment of 'company managed' plantations of Jatropha trees in Madagascar and the extraction of the vegetable oil that is produced from its seeds.

The company has entered into 18 long term land agreements with Madagascan communes in relation to 452,500 hectares (in excess of 1 million acres) to establish plantations, ranging in size from 2,500 - 50,000 hectares with a further 40,000 hectares of natural forest containing substantial numbers of mature Jatropha trees:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

To date the company has planted 13,300 hectares of Jatropha with a further 50,000 hectares expected to be planted between October 2007 and February 2008 and a total of 200,000 hectares being planted by 2010. Based on this, the Group’s production is expected to be 45,000 tonnes per annum (tpa) of CPO in 2009 rising to 210,000 tpa by 2014, as its trees mature.

To date approximately 13,300 hectares have been planted:

In addition GEM BioFuels has an agreement in relation to 40,000 hectares containing natural forest, including significant numbers of mature wild Jatropha trees. Separately, the company also has informal arrangements with a number of individuals for the delivery of wild seed to the group’s storage facility.

GEM BioFuels joins a growing number of new plantation companies who are growing jatropha across the (sub)tropics. Most recently, British firm D1Oils entered into a joint-venture agreement with oil major BP to expand plantations and to develop high yielding jatropha varieties (previous post). The entrance of a large oil company in this sector has given the crop's prospects a boost.

However, Jatropha has its drawbacks, as it can not be harvested mechanically and requires very cheap labor. This poses the question whether harvesters can really be helped to increase their incomes substantially; with a crop like palm oil, which is harvested manually too, the labor required to harvest comparable amounts of oil is far less. Moreover, jatropha oil is toxic and its processing poses some health risks (previous post).

The crop remains a typically underresearched plant. But this is changing rapidly. Leading biotech company Bayer CropScience recently announced it has launched a research program into improving the shrub (more here).

Finally, from an investor's point of view (whether large or very small), a major dilemma emerges: in case oil prices were to drop significantly over the coming years, jatropha plantations could become unprofitable. With palm oil - which functions as a food and fuel crop - this would not be the case, as demand for palm oil as a foodstuff grows continuously in any case. Jatropha oil is not edible, and could face a collapsing market in such a scenario. The capacity to switch from food to fuel production is a major and simple way to hedge against the risk inherent in the uncertainty over medium and long term oil prices.

GEM BioFuels: GEM BioFuels to float on AIM - October 19, 2007.

Biopact: Analysts: labor-intensive Jatropha not a magic bullet - September 12, 2007

Biopact: D1 Oils and BP to establish global joint venture to plant jatropha - June 29, 2007

Biopact: Bayer CropScience to increase yearly R&D budget to €750 million to meet challenges of the bioeconomy - September 11, 2007

Article continues

New technique speeds up transgenic crop design - applications in bioenergy

Scientists have developed a new method of constructing artificial plant chromosomes from small rings of naturally occurring plant DNA which can be used to transport multiple genes at once into embryonic plants where they are expressed, duplicated as plant cells divide, and passed on to the next generation - a long-term goal for those interested in improving agricultural productivity. The technique is set to revolutionize the design of robust energy crops, which speeds up the transition to third and fourth generation biofuels (earlier post). In a first stage, researchers want to apply the method to maize, sugarcane, switchgrass and other biofuel plants.

In an open access article in the current issue of PLoS-Genetics, the team of academic and commercial researchers report that their 'maize mini-chromosomes' (MMC) can introduce an entire 'cassette' of novel genes into a plant in a way that is structurally stable and functional. Early results, the study authors say, suggest that the MMC could be maintained indefinitely.

Daphne Preuss, PhD, professor of molecular genetics and cell biology at the University of Chicago, says the technique has ready applications for energy crops and biofuel production:
This appears be the tool that agricultural scientists, and farmers, have long dreamed of. This technology could be used to increase the hardiness, yield and nutritional content of crops. It could improve the production of ethanol or other biofuels. It could enable plants to make complex biochemicals, such as medicines, at very little expense. - Professor Daphne Preuss
Preuss is chief scientific officer and president of Chromatin, Inc., the makers of the MMCs, which cut one to two years out of any new transgenic project. Preuss, who is taking a leave of absence from the University to bring this technology into the marketplace, says the technique allows researchers to get a better product faster, which saves time, reduces costs, and frees up resources.

The production of transgenic plants, including maize, has historically relied on techniques that integrate DNA fragments into a host chromosome. This can disrupt important native genes or lead to limited or unregulated expression of the added gene.

Currently, to add a single gene, plant scientists create hundreds of transgenic plants in which the new gene is randomly inserted into a plant chromosome. Then they screen the gene-altered plants to find the few that might be suitable for commercial use. If they want to add two genes, they create twice as many new plants, screen for single-gene successes, then cross breed them to get both new genes, a slow and laborious process.

Instead, Preuss and colleagues have constructed MMCs that contain DNA sequences found in maize centromeres, the chromosomal regions needed for inheritance. Rather than inserting the new genes randomly into a plant's natural chromosomes, these mini-chromosomes remain separate:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

As a result, the new genes can be arranged in a defined sequence, with each gene surrounded by the desired regulatory mechanisms. This results in more consistent and controlled expression. The whole cassette of genes is passed on as a group during cell division as well as to the next generation.

In their PLoS paper, the researchers characterized the behavior of the maize mini-chromosome through four generations. Using a gene for red color as a marker, they showed that the added genes are expressed "in nearly every leaf cell, indicating stability through mitosis" - the process in which a cell duplicates its chromosomes to generate two identical daughter cells.

They also show that the MMC is efficiently passed on through meiosis, the creation of gametes, to the next generation, at ratios 'approaching Mendelian inheritance.'

Taken together, the authors conclude, the maize mini-chromosome, once introduced, behaves much like an ordinary chromosome. It remains distinct from the other chromosomes. Its gene cassette is structurally stable from generation to generation. The genes it carries are expressed and it is transmitted through mitosis and meiosis.

This development has not gone unnoticed. Six years ago, Preuss and two of her post-doctoral students at the University, Gregory Copenhaver and Kevin Keith, started Chromatin to refine and apply this technology. On October 10, 2006, the United States Patent and Trademark Office issued Chromatin patent No. 7,119,250, which extends the exclusive right to use these mini-chromosomes to all plants. This includes "a crop plant," the patent states, "a commercial crop plant, a vegetable crop plant, a fruit and vine crop plant, a field crop plant."

On May 22, 2007, biotech giant Monsanto Company purchased non-exclusive rights to use Chromatin's mini-chromosome stacking technology in corn, cotton, soybeans, and canola. Chromatin is in discussions to license this technology to other companies, potentially capturing most of the US corn market.

The timing looks ideal. The US, in order to limit oil imports and reduce greenhouse gasses, hopes to double its use of ethanol in fuels by 2012 and to double that twice over by 2022. Because of increased demand, corn prices rose this summer by about 50 percent over last year.

Preuss and colleagues hope to apply the technology to other plants, including sugar cane and switch grass, which could also serve as biofuel sources. They are also looking at other applications and expanding the gene carrying capacity of their mini-chromosomes. They have successfully delivered mini-chromosomes about six times the size of MMC1, suggesting that this platform can carry 'a large number of genes.'

Image: the autonomous minichromosomes (arrowheads); integrated constructs appear as pairs of FISH signals (arrows); size bar, 5 μm.

Carlson SR, Rudgers GW, Zieler H, Mach JM, Luo S, Eric Grunden, Cheryl Krol, Gregory P. Copenhaver, Daphne Preusset, "Meiotic Transmission of an In Vitro–Assembled Autonomous Maize Minichromosome", PLoS Genetics, Vol. 3, No. 10, e179 doi:10.1371/journal.pgen.0030179

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