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    Ethablog's Henrique Oliveira, a young Brazilian biofuels business expert, is back online. From April to September 2007, he traveled around Brazil comparing the Brazilian and American biofuels markets. In August he was joined by Tom MacDonald, senior alcohol fuels specialist with the California Energy Commission. Henrique reports about his trip with a series of photo essays. EthaBlog - October 24, 2007.

    Italy's Enel is to invest around €400 mln in carbon capture and storage and is looking now for a suitable site to store CO2 underground. Enel's vision of coal's future is one in which coal is used to produce power, to produce ash and gypsum as a by-product for cement, hydrogen as a by-product of coal gasification and CO2 which is stored underground. Carbon capture and storage techniques can be applied to biomass and biofuels, resulting in carbon-negative energy. Reuters - October 22, 2007.

    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.

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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Carbon-negative bioenergy recognized as Norwegian CO2 actors join forces to develop carbon capture technologies

Great news for the bioenergy community: carbon-negative biomass energy is beginning to penetrate the minds of some leading energy and engineering companies as well as scientists. Norway's SINTEF (Scandinavia's largest independent research organisation), Aker Kværner (a leading energy engineering firm), and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) have announced they are to cooperate on the development of new amine based CO2 capture technologies. The scientists say the new agreement could produce cuts in emissions that would make a real difference on a global scale. They explicitly focus part of their research on capturing flue gases from biomass power plants, which opens the era of carbon-negative energy.

The institutions compare their efforts to a Norwegian version of the Apollo Program. They have received support from the Norwegian state, which is investing part of its oil & gas money into the project, and massive backing from the Norwegian Industry employers organisation, the Norwegian Federation of Trade Unions and the country's environmental organisations. The market for CO2 capture technologies is potentially so large, that a one percent share would mean a turnover of NOK 240 billion (€30.9/US$44.2 billion) by 2100, which is why Norwegian society would be well repaid for these investments.

We have written extensively about so-called 'bio-energy with carbon storage' (BECS) systems, which consist of capturing and sequestering the carbon not from coal and gas, but from biomass used in power stations and fuel production plants (more here). Scientists who developed the BECS concept within the context of 'abrupt climate change' scenarios, see it as one of the few realistic geo-engineering options to reduce greenhouse gas emissions drastically and globally. If negative emissions systems were to be implemented on a global scale, we could bring back atmospheric CO2 levels to pre-industrial levels by mid-century and largely prevent the potentially catastrophic impacts of climate change.

Carbon-negative energy can only be obtained from biofuels and biomass. Renewables like solar, wind or even nuclear power are all 'carbon-neutral' in theory, slightly 'carbon-positive' in practise (schematic, click to enlarge). That is, over their lifecycle they add few or no emissions to the future. But this may be too weak an offer as global emissions are growing more rapidly than expected and are already exceeding the IPCC's worst-case scenario (earlier post). This means we will need energy systems that can begin to capture and remove emissions from the past. BECS systems do exactly that: as biomass grows, it takes CO2 out of the atmosphere; if this carbon-neutral fuel is combusted and its carbon emissions captured and then locked up permanently, we have a system that takes historic emissions out of the atmosphere. In short, most renewables prevent new emissions from occuring, but BECS systems effectively clean up our dangerous and dirty past.

For BECS systems to become feasible two main developments are in order: an efficient global biomass market will have to emerge which will require the establishment of vast energy plantations with high yielding biomass crops which act as carbon capture machines, planted at strategic locations (hence the 'geo-engineering' label), and secondly, efficient and cost-effective carbon capture technologies will have to be engineered.

The Norwegian research agreement will focus on the latter, important need. A central aspect of their cooperation is a plan for SINTEF and NTNU to develop and test more efficient chemicals - amine mixtures - for scrubbing CO2 from flue gases. The chemicals will be specially adapted to Aker Kværner’s concept for CO2 capture from coal- and gas-fired power stations, which is called 'Just Catch' technology. This technology will be able to reduce emissions by up to 90%. However, for the revolutionary carbon-negative bioenergy power systems, the company is developing 'Just Catch Bio'.

Breaking a monopoly
Nils Røkke, director of gas technology research at SINTEF, and Hallvard Svendsen, a professor of chemistry at NTNU, say that by signing a contract with Aker Kværner on the chemical side, they are helping to qualify the company to supply CO2 capture plants to the world market, on which there is virtually a monopoly today. With its cost-effective technology the Norwegian company will be able to force prices down and ensure that CO2 capture is adopted more rapidly:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The calculations made by SINTEF and NTNU show that the world will need about 7,500 capture plants for coal- and gas-fired power stations by 2100, as well as greater use of biomass, and more efficient energy utilisation, if we are to prevent the world’s annual mean temperature from rising by more than two degrees.

According to figures from SINTEF and NTNU, annual cuts in the CO2 emitted by 2.5 percent of these plants would be equivalent to total current Norwegian CO2 emissions as well as the annual CO2 emissions produced by our oil and gas exports at present.

Røkke and Svendsen believe that the potential for Norwegian industry to make a contribution to efficient CO2 capture technology is not being paid enough attention in the national debate about environmental matters. “Of course we should also be implementing measures that will reduce this country's own emissions. But it is as a technology supplier on the world market that Norway can contribute to CO2 cuts that will make a difference on a global scale,” say the two.

Scrubbing flue gases
Today, only a few international companies are capable of supplying plants that capture CO2 from coal- and gas-fired power stations. These are solutions that are based on 'scrubbing' CO2 out of the stations’ flue gases, using water-soluble chemicals called amines.

SINTEF and NTNU are to develop similar and alternative chemicals for Aker Kværner in the course of the new cooperation agreement. The plan is to develop new chemical systems that will be more efficient, more stable and less damaging to nature than the amines in current use.
We have a very good point of departure. Thanks to strategic long-term research funding from the Research Council of Norway and Gassnova, as well as our participation in several EU projects, we have built up a high level of expertise in this field at SINTEF and NTNU. We have sown a lot of seed, which we hope will contribute to what we see as Norway’s equivalent of the USA’s moon landing, and our vision of Norwegian technology leadership in climate technology.- Nils Røkke and Hallvard Svendsen
Spin-off chemical company
The agreement signed with the two reseach institutions and Aker Kværner includes plans for establishing a jointly owned company that will own the rights to the new chemical systems and sell them to Aker Kværner and other users.

The agreement also includes plans for further expansion of the laboratories that SINTEF and NTNU use in their CO2 capture research. This will strengthen the global toolbox for developing efficient, new and cheap climate technologies, claim the two research institutions.

SINTEF and NTNU have also been estimating the value of a future market for CO2 capture plants. The point of departure for their calculations is that around 7500 such plants could be constructed by 2100.

A one percent share of such a market would mean a turnover of NOK 240 billion (€30.9/US$442 billion) by 2100, so Norwegian society would be well repaid for its investments in research in this field, say Røkke and Svendsen.

The 'Just Catch' technology
Aker Kværner has been developing its own CO2 capture technology since 1991, and has been an active driving force behind efforts to develop new green power generation solutions. In 2005, the company decided to go in for Just Catch technology in a big way. Aker Kværner has established a major development project in collaboration with 12 industrial partners and Gassnova.

That project has enabled the company to identify several technical improvements that would be capable of reducing both the construction and operating costs of such CO2 capture plants, says Oscar Fredrik Graff, gas technology director at Aker Kværner.

According to Graff, the technical improvements identified by the company can be summarised as follows:
  • Development and testing of optimum amine mixtures for different CO2sources
  • Efficient integration of heat into the process
  • Selection of new types of pumps and heat exchangers
  • More compact and efficient plants
  • Minimising the environmental impact of the plant.
It is on the first of these items that Aker Kværner is about to expand its ongoing cooperation with SINTEF and NTNU.

Great expectations
In the course of the past six months the company has considered a number of different partners in amine development. It analysed several international players in this field, and finally came to the conclusion that SINTEF and NTNU could offer the best support in this task. Choosing the best amine mixture is vital in plants of this sort. The right choice will offer stable operating conditions, and reduce energy requirements and other operating costs.

Aker Kværner already has around 40 engineers working on the development of the 'Just Catch' technology, in addition to partners and other suppliers engaged by the company.

Carbon-negative bioenergy: 116% scrubbing
Aker Kværner is developing a special version of its 'Just Catch' technology that uses biomass to produce the energy needed for CO2 capture.

The scrubbing plant would normally use energy from the power station. By scrubbing both the power station’s flue gases and those from the bio-energy plant, the scrubber will also remove 'natural' CO2, that is the CO2 that the woody biomass fuel would otherwise have released in the course of its natural breakdown. This solution, known as 'Just Catch Bio', is thus potentially capable of removing 116% of the CO2 emissions from a gas-fired power station.

This is only the first step towards full blown BECS systems, because the 'Just Catch Bio' capture technology can be further modified to work on power plants that run entirely on biomass. Over their entire lifecycle - including the production of the biomass fuels -, such carbon-negative energy systems may produce energy which removes up to 150 per cent of CO2 (see the Abrupt Climate Change Strategy group's analyses of BECS).

One advantage of 'Just Catch' technologies is that they can be retrofitted to existing power stations, including biomass plants. If the cuts in CO2 emission that many countries are aiming for are to have any credibility, they will require flue gases from existing plants to be scrubbed on a large scale. This will open up a large market for this technology, says Graff.

The 'Just Catch' technology can be adapted to be utilized on a wide range of sources of CO2, such as those from gas- and coal-fired power stations, biomass, refineries and the cement industry.

Schematic: credit Biopact, CC.

SINTEF: Norwegian CO2 actors join forces - October 24, 2007.

Aker Kværner: Just Catch technology.

Biopact: Growth in carbon emissions accelerating; exceeding worst case scenario - October 23, 2007

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

Euractiv: 'Carbon-capture trials safest way forward' - Laurens Rademakers, Biopact - April 3, 2007.

Abrupt Climate Change Strategy group: overview of studies on carbon-negative bioenergy and its potential to reduce atmospheric CO2 levels.

Article continues

Future electricity grid could become a type of Internet with personal 'uploads' and 'downloads'

In the future everyone who is connected to the electricity grid will be able to upload and download packages of electricity to and from this network. At least, that is one of the transformations the electricity grid could undergo. Dutch postdoc researcher Jos Meeuwsen (Technical University Eindhoven) developed three scenarios for the Dutch electricity supply in the year 2050. The starting point is that in this year, 50% of the consumption will originate from sustainable sources - mainly from imported and/or locally generated biomass and wind power.

Due to the security of supply and the connection with the European market, electricity networks will always be necessary says Meeuwsen. Further, due to an increasing demand for electricity it is important to include all possible energy options (including coal and nuclear energy) in the scenario development. The exact form of future networks will largely depend on the primary energy mix chosen. In all cases engineers face new and considerable challenges in the areas of network and system integration and the development and implementation of new technology. Moreover, in all scenarios the total network capacity must increase. Small-scale networks will adapt characteristics from the current large-scale networks, such as the possibility of 'two-way traffic' and the responsibility to maintain a stable system.

Demand follows supply

In particular, the number of ways in which the total electricity supply system can be held in balance in the future will need to be expanded as more electricity is generated from sustainable sources. This might even mean a paradigm shift from the current 'permanently matching supply to demand' to 'continuously matching demand to supply'. Meeuwsen foresees a step-by-step integration of energy technology, ICT and power electronics that might result in an electricity system that exhibits many similarities with the Internet. Everyone connected to the system could then, within certain limits, upload and download packages of 'electrical energy' whenever they want. An important condition is, however, the technical feasibility of the centralised and/or decentralised storage of large amounts of electricity.

Three scenarios
Meeuwsen's three different scenarios for the future of the electricity grid mainly differ in the size of the electricity generation facilities:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The scenario 'super networks' consists of large-scale production locations, transportation via high voltages, a considerable import of sustainable energy in the form of biomass and energy from offshore wind farms. The 'hybrid networks' scenario also includes large plants with high voltages that originate from offshore wind parks and large biomass stations. Additionally, small-scale generation takes place in and around cities and villages (wind, biomass and solar energy). Finally, in the 'local' scenario the number of local generators (in the form of micro-cogeneration units, solar energy panels, small-scale biomass plants at neighbourhood level and land-based wind turbines) is the greatest, yet large industrial processes and small consumers still make partly use of electricity from large-scale production resources.

The postdoctoral research 'Electricity networks of the future: Various roads to a sustainable energy systems' is part of the programme 'Transition and transition paths: the road to a sustainable energy system' [*Dutch] funded by the NWO/SenterNovem Stimulation Programme Energy Research. The programme aims to develop knowledge in the natural sciences and humanities for the transition towards a sustainable energy supply.

NWO: Electricity grid could become a type of Internet - October 15, 2007.

NWO SenterNovem: Transitions and transition paths: the road to a sustainable energy system.

Article continues

Brazil launches project to develop dedicated ethanol generators to power isolated rural communities

Ethanol Brasil's Marcelo Coelho reports about a project [*Portuguese/.pdf] launched by the University of São Carlos (USP) aimed at developing small dedicated and efficient biofuel generators that can supply electricity to isolated rural communities. The modular and mobile gensets will have a capacity of 15kW and will be adapted to run on hydrated ethanol, an abundant and highly competitive fuel. The project is managed by the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the USP and funded by the National Council on Scientific and Technological Development. Brazil's succesful development of the flex-fuel engine for vehicles could well be replicated for electricity generators, because these flex-fuel engines form the starting point for the project.

In many developing countries, the majority of people live in small isolated rural communities cut off from modern energy supplies. Around 1.6 billion people have no access to electricity, this most basic of services, which has a serious impact on their social and economic development opportunities. Most recently, the world's leading energy scientists, in a key report about the future of energy, sketched the situation and urged the international institutions, governments, NGOs, and business communities to make access to modern energy for these communities a top priority. There is a strict correlation between the 'Human Development Index', which measures education, health and social development, and the 'Energy Development Index', the scientists said. Providing electricity and modern fuels to the poor is therefor key to achieving the Millennium Development Goals. Without access to modern energy, development and poverty alleviation efforts are doomed to fail.

The catch-22 for developing countries, and their governments, is that as long as rural communities are not economically prosperous there is no reason to connect them to a grid (or so the logic goes); but as long as they do not have access to electricity, they can never prosper. The InterAcademy Council's report therefor urges all stakeholders to help these countries and communities to 'leapfrog' into a new logic, based on renewables. Because of their decentralised nature, renewables can be introduced and scaled to fit the needs of remote communities. With biofuel systems, local biomass resources can be utilized, and, in theory, rural villages can become their own fuel producers. The case for renewables becomes stronger with ever increasing petroleum prices.

It is within this context that the Brazilian project is interesting. In the project description, lead researcher Antonio Moreira Dos Santos gives an example of the difference dedicated biofuel gensets can make:
When, for example, small milk producers have no access to electricity, they can not pasteurize their milk nor conserve it because of a lack of refrigeration capacity. This limits their chances of producing for a market larger than their own needs. Moreover, many cases show that electricity supplies are intermittent or of bad quality. For small milk producers the damaging effects on their production are clear: refrigeration and pasteurisation equipment fails, destroying production.
The example can be replicated across sectors. Moreira says the gensets under development will be used for such activities as irrigation, food processing, water pumping and purification, and in fertilzer, herbicide and insecticide applications. Other uses are in education, health care and general household electricity:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The project will convert a group of four and one of two 15kW gasoline generators to run on hydrated ethanol. It will study the compression, ignition and lubrication requirements and adapt the carburetor to ensure the best performance. The gensets will be evaluated for thermodynamic performance and for the effects of ethanol on the mechanical parts. Combustion properties of the fuel, in combination with other (bio)fuels will be examined, as well as their emissions.

A range of bio-based lubricating oils will be compared with petroleum-based alternatives, and their performance in the modified gensets.

The researchers chose to study generator groups so that a sufficient electric load can be generated and because this way the durability of the system can be studied better.

The project draws on earlier Brazilian studies, such as an analysis of the development of experimental bi-fuel engines (biodiesel-bioethanol), a study and simulation of the exhaust and intake of ethanol in turbo-fed engines, and the great number of studies dealing with the emissions and combustion properties of ethanol and gasoline mixtures in combustion engines.

According to the researchers, the project has great social, economic and environmental relevance. By drawing on renewable, locally produced biofuels and biolubricants, lower emissions can be expected; air pollution can be reduced locally; the livelihoods and agricultural output of remote communities can be strengthened; and new jobs can be created, especially in poor regions in the North, Northeast and Center-West of the country. Once developed, the gensets can be used in other developing countries.

EthanolBrasil: Geradores de energia elétrica movidos a etanol - October 24, 2007.

Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico: Desenvolvimento de grupos geradores de energia elétrica de pequeno porte movido à etanol para atender comunidades rurais isoladas [*.pdf]- USP / Departamento de Engenharia Mecânica de São Carlos.

Biopact: Leading scientists: energy crisis poses major 21st century threat, action needed now - October 23, 2007

Article continues

CAST evaluates production of cellulosic biomass for biofuels

The Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST), an international consortium of 38 scientific and professional societies, has released an interesting analysis titled 'Convergence of Agriculture and Energy: II. Producing Cellulosic Biomass for Biofuels' [*.pdf], in which it explores the research and policy interventions needed to transit to future bioenergy systems based on dedicated biomass crops. Focus is on the situation in the U.S., but recommendations can no doubt be extended to other bioeconomies in the making. This 'bioeconomy' is in its infancy and therefor relatively inefficient. But this also implies major improvements in biomass resource development, supply and conversion systems, crop genetics, and agronomic management practices can be made.

Current biofuel production in the United States relies primarily on conversion of corn grain to ethanol, but future systems are expected to depend more extensively on plant biomass, says Task Force Chair Dr. Steve L. Fales, Associate Director of Iowa State University's Office of Biorenewables Program. In addition, current cropping systems generally are designed to optimize grain production and are not designed to harvest all the aboveground portion of the plant for cellulose-containing biomass. Significant, immediate national investments are needed, along with changes in policy, to address challenges limiting the sustainable production and efficient use of cellulosic biomass as a fuel feedstock to meet anticipated U.S. demand.

The analysis covers several critical questions about current and future feedstock supplies, about which type of production methods should be used to maximize agronomic systems, about the characteristics that should distinguish crops developed specifically for production of biomass and about improvements in the feedstock supply system. Questions dealing with ways to educate the public on the comprehensive principles of biomass-to-ethanol production are addressed as well.

The Bush Administration outlined a portfolio of recommended technologies, processes, and practices for bio-based energy production that targets improved rates of feedstock conversion and greater efficiency in energy use. The plan also states that a significant portion of the nation’s 2017 energy supply, especially transportation fuel, will come from conversion of biomass feedstock to liquid fuels. Considering just the biomass-derived fuels contribution, roughly 250 million tons or more of grain and cellulosic biomass per year will be needed to reach the 10-year goal, and 650 to 700 million tons per year of biomass to reach the 2025 goal (graph, clik to enlarge).

The massive amounts of feedstock needed to accomplish these biofuel goals currently are not being harvested for energy or simply are not available. Bold and optimistic assumptions in some reports indicate future production systems have the capacity to meet the projected feedstock demand. Nevertheless, for the projections to become reality, production, harvest, and processing practices for cellulosic feedstock must be sustainable and profitable for the biomass producer and the biorefinery operator.

For this reason, biomass resource development, supply and conversion systems, crop genetics, and agronomic management practices must be improved to meet the challenge of an agricultural system that produces food, feed, fiber, and fuel. Near-term obstacles for the emerging cellulosic ethanol industry are the inefficiencies associated with immature feedstock production practices, marketing and logistics systems, and conversion processes. In other words, all aspects of the industry are new and inherently inefficient. CAST outlines which type of investments, policy interventions and research efforts are needed to make the future bioeconomy work.

R&D and policy needs
Achieving a sustainable energy future will require major new investments in research and development (R&D), as well as key policy initiatives to overcome existing technical, ideological, and economic obstacles. Table 1 (click to enlarge) shows several research, development, policy, and educational actions that are needed to grow, harvest, and deliver the quantities of biomass needed to achieve the ambitious fuel-offset goals:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Existing R&D efforts are spread across federal agencies, state governments, universities, and private industry. Developing a comprehensive, coordinated, widely accepted and publicized set of goals and completing an overall national strategic plan with realistic goals and assigned responsibilities may be the most important short-term actions needed. The coordinating efforts at the federal agency level, as summarized in the National Biofuels Action Plan (2006), are acknowledged, but broader integration and more specific delineation of responsibilities are necessary.

Actions are needed in several focus areas to ensure production and delivery of feedstock in the volumes needed to achieve established goals. Actions can be categorized as 'immediate' (measures that are critical within the next 10 years to promote and foster development of biomass feedstock and ethanol production systems), and 'continuing' (measures necessary to sustain a cellulosic bioeconomy and to achieve longer-term energy policy objectives).
Focus Area: Resource Assessment
The validity of estimates in the 'Billion Ton Vision' has been discussed in the literature, but the estimates need to be verified and regionalized. The biofuel industry will need reliable, realistic appraisals of current and future feedstock supplies in addition to evaluation of the supply stability. These assessments must occur at two levels. First, state- or region-specific inventories of current and projected feedstock production capacity are needed. Second, national crop yield databases must be expanded to include biomass yield data for all major and prospective cellulosic feedstock crops. Data should be reported on an agro-ecoregion/soil resource basis. Reliable biomass inventories and projections will aid business planning and policy development greatly.

Focus Area: Agronomic Systems
Research is needed to identify sustainable biomass feedstock production systems. These production practices must maintain or enhance soil fertility, productivity, and soil organic carbon (SOC) and must control erosion. Although both traditional and renovated versions of current production systems are needed to grow the massive amount of feedstock required, the ideal approach may involve cultivated perennial crops that decrease tillage frequency, increase biomass partitioned below ground, and exhibit beneficial ecosystem services such as improved wildlife habitat and enhanced air and water quality. To be a viable source of biomass, these production methods also must offer high yields and high efficiency of input use.

Agronomic systems will be location specific, but maximizing the efficient use of inputs (e.g., light, water, carbon dioxide [CO2], nutrients, and pesticides) will be common to all systems. Key to development of these systems will be the expansion of agronomic trials for each major agro-ecosystem and the creation of scientifically based modeling tools to predict the impact of management changes associated with bioenergy cropping systems. This major research investment is needed to develop (1) the baseline data and information to devise site-specific practices that optimize yields while controlling erosion and maintaining or improving SOC, and (2) the use of harvesting systems capable of collecting biomass at appropriate rates on sites with diverse characteristics.

Focus Area: Crop Development
Although progress can be made by adapting current crop species and varieties to sustainable feedstock production systems, gains needed to produce the amounts of biomass, and in turn ethanol, targeted for the next 10 to 20 years will require cultivars specifically designed for this purpose. Priority must be given to developing biomass crops with high yield, input use efficiency, and composition customized to the selected processing method. Any new plants identified for biomass production should pose little, if any, risk of becoming invasive.

Because most plant breeding work during the past 50 years has focused on improved grain yield of commodity crops such as corn and soybean, there has been relatively little effort to improve or develop biomass energy crops—beyond comparatively minor efforts to enhance yield in forage crops. Public support for improvement of “forage and minor crops” has essentially disappeared. For example, despite the U.S. government’s championing switchgrass as a prominent biomass feedstock, the species has received relatively little support and attention by the plant breeding community because of inadequate funding.

Lack of current support is not a reflection of limited potential for yield improvement, but simply a failure of public agencies to put forward a cohesive, coordinated interagency plan for addressing critical aspects of recent energy security plans or goals. In addition to increased yield and quality, improvement is needed in tolerance to stresses such as low soil fertility, low temperature, drought, and salinity. Plant breeding is a long-term undertaking, frequently requiring 10 years (or longer for perennials) to bring a new variety to market. But increased knowledge of the genetic, physiological, and biochemical principles underlying specific traits, combined with new genetic enhancement tools such as marker-assisted breeding and quantitative trait loci mapping, has the potential to accelerate the breeding process. New biomass crop development is needed and must include a commitment to, and investment in, building scientific capacity in plant genetics, physiology, biochemistry, genomics, breeding, and production systems for these new or evolving crops.

Focus Area: Feedstock Supply Logistics
Feedstock supply-system logistics encompasses those operations necessary to move biomass from the land to the biorefinery. Collectively, these harvesting, transporting, and preprocessing activities represent one of the largest challenges to the success of this industry. Although actual costs depend on a host of factors, feedstock production and logistics currently constitute an estimated 35 to 65% of the total production costs of cellulosic ethanol, whereas logistics associated with moving the biomass from the land to the biorefinery can comprise an estimated 50 to 75% of those costs. If feedstock logistics costs exceed 25% of the total biomass ethanol production costs in the mature industry, very little margin remains in the system for biomass producers and biorefinery operators. Improvements in feedstock supply system equipment capacities, equipment efficiencies, and biomass quality will lead to enhanced conversion and, in turn, create revenue to be shared among the feedstock producer, supplier, and refiner.

Supply-logistics costs vary substantially among regions, depending on weather, cropping systems, transport load limits and other regulations, crop and feedstock type, and storage method. For example, regional differences in load limits can change supply-logistics costs by more than $2.00 dry ton-1. Improvements in feedstock density and flow characteristics are crucial to optimize collection and handling activities, decrease supply-system energy use, standardize biomass format, and maximize revenue in the biomass ethanol production system. Capital investments and policy/permitting issues for new biomass logistics equipment will rival the investment needed to construct biorefineries. Policy issues include financial programs, air quality, fire codes, road load limits, and many others.

Focus Area: Education and Extension
The public needs information to evaluate the benefits and costs associated with moving from a petroleum-based to a bio-based economy. Extension education programs on cropping options and practices for biofuels production and harvest will be essential components of a secure energy future. General educational programs should include all aspects of bioenergy, including “food and feed vs. fuel” issues, environmental considerations, and life-cycle net energy returns. In addition, the public needs to be educated on the carbon footprint of different transportation fuels, as well as the need for energy conservation as an essential component of a successful national energy strategy. It is critical that the public and policymakers understand, and accept, that working only on supply-side issues will not solve energy problems.

Decreased demand through conservation and improved efficiency in energy-using systems also are needed. A bio-based energy economy will require a workforce with skills and knowledge to operate equipment and processing plants designed to convert biomass to fuel. Scientists and engineers trained in plant biology, physiology, and breeding, as well as genomics, agronomy, soil science, and ecology will be needed to sustainably expand the feedstock supply. Public support for research in these fields must be expanded. As new crops and agronomic systems are developed, extension and outreach programs will be needed to educate farmers.
CAST Executive Vice President John M. Bonner concludes:
To advance agro-ecosystem production beyond that achievable with existing practices, new knowledge, new systems, and new genetic resources must be created, and the environment for continued discovery must be ongoing.
Demand for biofuel feedstock will dramatically increase the amount of crop dry matter required to satisfy both new and traditional uses for crop output. Simply adjusting the allocation of crop biomass among competing demands will not generate enough feedstock to achieve renewable energy goals. Policies and national goals must be set to address the root cause of the challenge, which is limited feedstock supply.

Shifting focus and resources to a more productive end—increasing overall capacity of crop production systems—will increase the potential for dry matter demands to be met. A new energy strategy must include maximizing the capture and use of light and CO2 available on every unit of arable land and then using the dry matter in the most efficient manner. Increasing the efficient capture and use of solar radiation and all crop production inputs will increase the pool of biomass that can be allocated to competing demands (food, feed, fiber, and fuel). These advances must be accompanied by improved harvest, transport, and storage systems, which will be critical to the efficient use of the biomass produced.

Well-designed policy and educational efforts will foster rapid adoption of current agronomic knowledge to expand the productivity and efficiency of input use. New knowledge and technology will be needed to ensure that sustainable biomass production capacity will increase with the demand for feedstock as the industry expands. The simple objective must be to maintain a healthy, productive green canopy on the land at all times. To advance agro-ecosystem production beyond that achievable with existing practices, new knowledge, new systems, and new genetic resources must be created, and the environment for continued discovery must be ongoing.

The report was written by Steven L. Fales, Dept. of Agronomy, Iowa State Univ. Ames, Iowa; W. W. Wilhelm, USDA–ARS, Lincoln, Nebraska and J. Richard Hess, Bioenergy Program, Idaho National Laboratory Idaho Falls, Idaho and reviewed by Don Erbach, USDA–ARS (Retired), Beltsville, Maryland; William D. Provine, DuPont Central Res. & Dev. DuPont Biofuels, Wilmington, Delaware and Kenneth Vogel, USDA–ARS Lincoln, Nebraska.

CAST is an international consortium of 38 scientific and professional societies. It assembles, interprets, and communicates credible science-based information regionally, nationally, and internationally to legislators, regulators, policymakers, the media, the private sector, and the public.

CAST: Convergence of Agriculture and Energy: II. Producing Cellulosic Biomass for Biofuels [*.pdf] - Commentary QTA2007-2 - November 2007.

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FAO launches $3.7 million bioenergy study in developing world: biofuels can make countries food secure

As oil prices soar and biofuel production becomes more attractive, especially to poor countries, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) is leading an effort to study the potential for poor farmers to participate in the sector. The three-year US$3.7 million project will help policy-makers assess the potential effects of bioenergy production on food security and land-use in developing countries. Three case studies will be investigated: Tanzania, Peru and Thailand.

Biofuel production to earn revenue could go 'hand-in-hand' with efforts to make countries food secure says Andre Croppenstedt, an economist with the Agricultural Development Economics Division of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

Many organisations think biofuels offer a historic opportunity for farmers in Africa to diversify their crops, gain more income and thus boost food security and social development. Croppenstedt explains why this is so:
Biofuel production need not compete with food production. If biofuel demand generates increased incomes for farm households, and this in turn is invested in raising productivity of all farm activities, including food production.

Assuming that households typically do not only grow one or the other, then biofuels could provide a stimulus to agricultural productivity, perhaps similar to the experience of cotton farmers in some Sahelian countries.
African countries have a large sustainable bioenergy potential. Projections by scientists working for the International Energy Agency's Bioenergy Task 40 estimate its upper limit to be between 317 and 410 Exajoules of energy by 2050 (earlier post and here). The projections show the potential left after meeting all food, fiber and fodder requirements of rapidly growing populations and in a 'no deforestation' scenario. This explicitly sustainable potential is roughly equivalent to the world's total current fossil fuel consumption (coal, oil and gas), which stands at around 400 Ej.

In short, in theory the African continent can supply domestic and world markets with renewable bioenergy and fuels. But in order to tap this potential in a sustainable manner and to ensure that local populations benefit, good planning and strong policy frameworks are required. The FAO's study aims to help design these policy measures.

'Devastating' oil prices
Biofuels are a must for developing countries because the alternative - sticking to using oil products - is set to damage their economies. According to the FAO, recent oil price increases have had 'devastating' effects on many of the world's poor countries: of the 50 poorest, 38 are net importers of petroleum and 25 import all their petroleum requirements; some now spend up to six times as much on fuel as they do on health, while others spend double the amount allocated to poverty reduction on fuels, according to a report titled 'Sustainable Bioenergy: A Framework for Decision Makers', released earlier by the UN.

Last year 13 African countries formed the Pan-African Non-Petroleum Producers Association, formed to mitigate the effects of these catastrophic oil prices. The goal of the association is to develop a biofuels industry in the continent as an alternative (earlier post). Many of these poor countries lie in tropical zones where relatively low-cost and highly productive biofuel crops already grow and can be expanded:
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"The gradual move from oil has begun," says Alexander Muller, Assistant Director-General of Sustainable Development at the FAO. "Over the next 15 to 20 years we may see biofuels providing a full 25 percent of the world's energy needs." While the move is good for reducing greenhouse emissions, soaring oil prices have encouraged most countries to go green by switching to greater use of biofuels.

Global production of biofuels has doubled in the last five years and will likely double again in the next four, according to the UN framework. Among the countries that have enacted new pro-biofuel policies in recent years are Argentina, Australia, Canada, China, Colombia, Ecuador, India, Indonesia, Malawi, Malaysia, Mexico, Mozambique, the Philippines, Senegal, South Africa, Thailand and Zambia.

On the other hand, the demand for biofuels is already having an impact on the prices of the world's two leading agricultural biofuel feedstocks: maize and sugar. For sugar the increase is good news, because most of it is produced in developing countries like Brazil and India, as well as in Africa. Millions of farmers there have suffered under low prices for years, and the slight increase in the sugar price is welcomed. Moreover, for poor sugar producers, biofuels offer a major chance to survive the EU's Sugar Reform. But for maize, the situation looks different: the commodity is produced mainly in the U.S. and receives large subsidies with the result that poor farmers in the South cannot compete. The shift to subsidized ethanol enhances this effect and results in more corn flowing to biofuel production.

For this reason, organisations, including the Global Bioenergy Partnership (earlier post) have called on the U.S. and the E.U. to remove both biofuels subsidies and trade barriers. This would result in imports of biofuels from developing countries and reduce pressures on maize.

The FAO project will also analyse the land-use effects of bioenergy production. "In the absence of comprehensive analyses and policies, commercial production of biofuels may target high-quality lands - due to better profit margins and high soil requirements of first-generation crops - such that biofuels, as the 'next big cash crop', will be grown on the best lands, leaving cereals and subsistence crops to the low-quality lands," the UN earlier noted.

This is one aspect the FAO project intends to monitor while it tries to mainstream food-security concerns as countries develop bioenergy policies. The Bioenergy and Food Security project has begun assessments in three countries: Tanzania in Africa, Peru in South America and Thailand in Southeast Asia.

Croppenstedt, who was involved in the assessment in Tanzania, said the priority at the moment was to ensure that any rural land acquired for biofuel production had not previously been used for growing food crops. "Obviously, it is key to get it right at this stage, that is, to make sure farmers are not left landless."

The Tanzanian government was concerned that sugar plantations should not displace or make subsistence farmers landless, and farmers who aimed to supply a biofuel feedstock should not monocrop, Croppenstedt said. He added:
From what we have heard it would seem that some plantations use unused land, or rather, previous plantation land that has since been abandoned.
At this stage all the investors the FAO had spoken to in Tanzania were keen not to comprise food security, and wanted to "promote intercropping or to advise setting aside only part of the land for biofuel feedstock production. Investors stressed that sustainability would imply easier access to land and finance in the future, implying that they had an incentive to get it right."

Land acquisition is a complicated process in Tanzania and could delay biofuel production. "Most land in Tanzania is either owned by the villages or is designated as national land; land designated as national land is more easily leased," says Croppenstedt.

"As I understand, the palm oil plantation would take 10 to 15 years before it is fully operational; the jatropha plantation is going to be planted in stages, and only if yields are high enough will they go ahead, and this should take 5 to 10 years before becoming fully operational; the sugar cane plantation we learned about plans to be fully operational by 2010," he said.

One of the investors planned to outsource biofuel crop production. "This type of approach will create jobs and allow smallholders to join the biofuel market," Croppenstedt said.

Rural development
Many African leaders have been inspired by the success of another developing country, Brazil, which started making biofuel 30 years ago and is now the world's largest producer of bioethanol: about 1.5 million Brazilian farmers are involved in growing sugar cane for fuel.

A barrel of bioethanol is currently half the price of a barrel of oil, according to the FAO, and a million Brazilian cars run on fuel made from sugar cane. This is a cost saving that many countries - developing and developed - would like to emulate.

"As in Brazil, African countries should also develop a domestic market for biodiesel," said Croppenstedt. Biofuel could also be used for small-scale rural electrification. "In Tanzania there are efforts being made to introduce generators that use SVO [straight vegetable oil] in rural areas. The feedstock is jatropha."

The generators, promoted by TaTEDO, a non-governmental development organisation, can provide power for machinery, recharge batteries and bring electricity to village shops, and to households for some hours at night. "The communities have passed by-laws to guarantee the supply of jatropha seed for the generators [run by a selected/trusted 'entrepreneur' and supervised by a community 'bioenergy' council]," said Croppenstedt.

"Although we do not know enough about jatropha, some of the agronomists we talked to say it does well being intercropped with beans," he added. "At the moment farmers seem to grow the plant in hedges."

Competition with the West
Even though African countries have a very large sustainable biofuel potential "there is much slack in terms of productivity in African agriculture - little irrigation, very limited use of fertiliser - and hence there must be much scope for improvements in productivity," Croppenstedt commented.

But the stumbling block is infrastructure development. "Transaction costs are typically very high in African countries, and this is a hurdle for both biofuel development and stimulating food production," he added. "How will they compete with biofuel prices elsewhere in the world?"

The US and Europe are already offering subsidies to benefit domestic farmers producing biofuel crops and have also imposed import tariffs to protect them. "This has led to the strange irony of virtually unimpeded trade in oil, while trade in biofuels is greatly restricted," the UN framework document pointed out.

Most agricultural experts agree that opening international markets to biofuel would accelerate investment and ensure that production occurred in locations where costs were lower, such as poor countries in Central America and sub-Saharan Africa.

Picture: palm oil is one of the most promising first-generation biofuel crops for Africa. Credit: FAO.

IRIN: Food to eat or to run your car? - October 23, 2007.

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

Biopact: A look at Africa's biofuels potential - July 30, 2006

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