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    The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) kicks off the meeting in Valencia, Spain, which will result in the production of the Synthesis Report on climate change. The report will summarize the core findings of the three volumes published earlier by the separate working groups. IPCC - November 12, 2007.

    Biopact's Laurens Rademakers is interviewed by Mongabay on the risks of large-scale bioenergy with carbon storage (BECS) proposals. Even though Biopact remains positive about BECS, because it offers one of the few safe systems to mitigate climate change in a drastic way, care must be take to avoid negative impacts on tropical forests. Mongabay - November 10, 2007.

    According to the latest annual ranking produced by The Scientist, Belgium is the world's best country for academic research, followed by the U.S. and Canada. Belgium's top position is especially relevant for plant, biology, biotechnology and bioenergy research, as these are amongst the science fields on which it scores best. The Scientist - November 8, 2007.

    Mascoma Corporation, a cellulosic ethanol company, today announced the acquisition of Celsys BioFuels, Inc. Celsys BioFuels was formed in 2006 to commercialize cellulosic ethanol production technology developed in the Laboratory of Renewable Resources Engineering at Purdue University. The Celsys technology is based on proprietary pretreatment processes for multiple biomass feedstocks, including corn fiber and distiller grains. The technology was developed by Dr. Michael Ladisch, an internationally known leader in the field of renewable fuels and cellulosic biofuels. He will be taking a two-year leave of absence from Purdue University to join Mascoma as the company’s Chief Technology Officer. Business Wire - November 7, 2007.

    Bemis Company, Inc. announced today that it will partner with Plantic Technologies Limited, an Australian company specializing in starch-based biopolymers, to develop and sell renewably resourced flexible films using patented Plantic technology. Bemis - November 7, 2007.

    Hungary's Kalocsa Hõerõmû Kft is to build a HUF 40 billion (€158.2 million) straw-fired biomass power plant with a maximum capacity of 49.9 megawatts near Kalocsa in southern Hungary. Portfolio Hungary - November 7, 2007.

    Canada's Gemini Corporation has received approval to proceed into the detailed engineering, fabrication and construction phases of a biogas cogeneration facility located in the Lethbridge, Alberta area, the first of its kind whereby biogas production is enhanced through the use of Thermal Hydrolysis technology, a high temperature, high pressure process for the safe destruction of SRM material from the beef industry. The technology enables a facility to redirect waste material, previously shipped to landfills, into a valuable feedstock for the generation of electricity and thermal energy. This eliminates the release of methane into the environment and the resultant solids are approved for use as a land amendment rather than re-entering the waste stream. In addition, it enhances the biogas production process by more than 25%. Market Wire - November 7, 2007.

    A new Agency to manage Britain's commitment to biofuels was established today by Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly. The Renewable Fuels Agency will be responsible for the day to day running of the Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation, coming into force in April next year. By 2010, the Obligation will mean that 5% of all the fuels sold in the UK should come from biofuels, which could save 2.6m to 3m tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. eGov Monitor - November 5, 2007.

    Prices for prompt loading South African coal cargoes reached a new record last week with a trade at $85.00 a tonne free-on-board (FOB) for a February cargo. Strong Indian demand and tight supply has pushed South African prices up to record levels from around $47.00 at the beginning of the year. European DES/CIF ARA coal prices have remained fairly stable over the past few days, having traded up to a record $130.00 a tonne DES ARA late last week. Fair value is probably just below $130.00 a tonne, traders said. At this price, some forms of biomass become directly competitive with coal. Reuters Africa - November 4, 2007.

    The government of India's Harayana state has decided to promote biomass power projects based on gasification in a move to help rural communities replace costly diesel and furnace oil. The news was announced during a meeting of the Haryana Renewable Energy Development Agency (HAREDA). Six pilot plants have demonstrated the efficiency and practicability of small-scale biomass gasification. Capital subsidies will now be made available to similar projects at the rate of Rs 2.5 lakh (€4400) per 100 KW for electrical applications and Rs 2 lakh (€3500) per 300 KW for thermal applications. New Kerala - November 1, 2007.

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Monday, November 12, 2007

Scientists discover record-breaking hydrogen storage materials - absorb 14% by weigth at room temperature

Scientists at the University of Virginia (UVa) have discovered a new class of hydrogen storage materials that could make the storage and transportation of energy much more efficient — and affordable — through higher-performing hydrogen fuel cells. The news is important for the bioenergy community, because, on a well-to-wheel basis, biohydrogen used in fuel cells is the most efficient and cleanest form of hydrogen utilization out of 28 generic fuel production and propulsion options for the gas (see earlier discussion of a large EU well-to-wheel study on hydrogen production, or see graph, click to enlarge).

Bellave S. Shivaram and Adam B. Phillips, the UVa physicists who invented the new materials, presented their findings today at the International Symposium on Materials Issues in a Hydrogen Economy.
In terms of hydrogen absorption, these materials could prove a world record. Most materials today absorb only 7 to 8 percent of hydrogen by weight, and only at cryogenic [extremely low] temperatures. Our materials absorb hydrogen up to 14 percent by weight at room temperature. By absorbing twice as much hydrogen, the new materials could help make the dream of a hydrogen economy come true. - Adam B. Phillips
In the quest for alternative fuels, UVa's new materials potentially could provide a highly affordable solution to energy storage and transportation problems with a wide variety of applications. They absorb a much higher percentage of hydrogen than predecessor materials while exhibiting faster kinetics at room temperature and much lower pressures, and are inexpensive and simple to produce.

The challenge of hydrogen storage is finding a way to store enough of it to make it worthwhile — enough to fuel a vehicle for its required driving range, within the constraints of weight, volume, efficiency, and cost. Current technologies — and their downsides — include:
  • Compressed gases in pressurized tanks, like the ones that transport today's propane and natural gas — which could require large-volume tanks
  • Metal hydrides — which are very heavy and thus reduce a vehicle's driving range.
Hydrogen is a poorly compressing, low-density gas, difficult to liquefy. A storage medium would need to be small, lightweight, and provide a high concentration of hydrogen to the weight of the storage material.

For the automotive industry, this medium also needs to be on board the vehicle, providing sufficient fuel to travel a range of 300 miles on a single tank— without sacrificing space, lifestyle or price. The primary goal is to get the largest amount of hydrogen into the smallest volume.

Yet another important feature is the ability to put hydrogen in the medium and take it out again without expending too much energy. Finally, it also has to be inexpensive, not too sensitive to impurities, and safe. This is a very tall order indeed.

The three most basic approaches to a storage solution are the following:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::
  • Physical storage: developing tanks for either compressed hydrogen gas or liquid hydrogen;
  • Reversible chemical storage: storing the hydrogen in solid materials so it can be released and refilled without physically removing the storage medium from the vehicle
  • Irreversible chemical storage: releasing hydrogen via an on-board chemical reaction with the storage material and replenishing the hydrogen off-board.
The new materials fit in the second category and are based on carbon/metal hybrid materials.
These materials are the next generation in hydrogen fuel storage materials, unlike any others we have seen before. They have passed every litmus test that we have performed, and we believe they have the potential to have a large impact. - Bellave S. Shivaram
The inventors believe the novel materials will translate to the marketplace and are working with the UVa Patent Foundation to patent their discovery.

The U.Va. Patent Foundation is very excited to be working with a material that one day may be used by millions in everyday life, said Chris Harris, senior licensing manager for the UVa Patent Foundation. According to him, Dr. Phillips and Dr. Shivaram have made an "incredible breakthrough" in the area of hydrogen absorption.

Phillips’s and Shivaram’s research was supported by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy.

We will report back as more details about the materials become available.

A quick note on biohydrogen: it may be the cleanest and most energy efficient way of producing hydrogen, the problem is that biomass can be used more efficiently still for the production of heat and electricity. For this reason, some bioenergy advocates are more in favor of a transition towards electric vehicles, because these would allow just as large a range of primary energy sources (including biomass, solar, wind, nuclear, etc...) and are surprisingly efficient and clean compared to hydrogen used in fuel cells. But then, such a transition requires major breakthroughs in battery technology. The jury is still out.

UVa Today: University of Virginia Scientists Discover Record-Breaking Hydrogen Storage Materials for Use in Fuel Cells - November 9, 2007.

Biopact: Hydrogen out, compressed biogas in - October 01, 2006

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Dutch partners agree to build commercial scale biomass torrefaction plant

The Energy Research Center of the Netherlands (ECN), sustainable energy consultancy Econcern and engineering and industrial investor Chemfo announce they have agreed to build a first commercial scale biomass torrefaction plant that will produce second generation biomass-based pellets for multiple applications: BO2pellets.

The three partners bring together an extensive expertise and track record in the development and commercialisation of biomass technologies. The BO2-technology, developed by ECN, produces pellets of so-called torrefied biomass. It is considered a key technology that enables a broad range of biomass streams, such as wood chips and agricultural residues, to be converted in an upgraded sustainable solid biofuel with a high energy density. This type of pellets is sometimes called 'biocoal' (earlier post).

Current first generation pellets have a limited energy density which drives up logistics costs, requires indoor storage and brings difficulties with pulverization. These issues are all solved with the new pellets, which have a higher energy density, can be stored outside and can be pulverized directly in coal mills.

These BO2pellets can thus be used for electricity and heat generation in large-scale coal-fired power plants, in biomass CHP plants or in domestic pellet boilers and stoves. They also have high potential as a feedstock for gasification-based production of transportation fuels.

Torrefaction is a mild pre-treatment of biomass at a temperature between 200-300 °C in the absence of oxygen (schematic, click to enlarge). During torrefaction the biomass properties are changed to obtain a much better fuel quality for combustion and gasification applications. In combination with pelletisation, torrefaction also aids the logistic issues that exist for untreated biomass.

Torrefaction by means of the ECN process leads to an energy dense fuel pellet with a typical bulk density of 750 to 850 kg/m3, a net calorific value of 19 to 22 MJ/kg (as received) and a volumetric density of 14 to 18.5 GJ/m3 (bulk):
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Typically, the torrefaction process has a thermal efficiency of 96% and the total production costs amount 40-50 € per ton of pellets. The logistics costs can be reduced to 50%-66% of the costs involved for first generation wood pellets.

Econcern and Chemfo now join ECN to bring the BO2 technology to market through their joint-venture BO2GO b.v., by agreeing to build a commercial scale plant.

Econcern’s mission is to ensure ‘a sustainable energy supply for everyone’ and consists of companies Ecofys, Evelop, Ecostream and Ecoventures. Together they deliver unique projects, innovative products and services for a sustainable energy supply. The Econcern Group employs about 900 professionals in 19 countries.

The Energy research Centre of the Netherlands concentrates on themes that contribute to a globally sustainable use of energy. This includes the development of technologies for the use of renewable energy, energy storage and energy conversion, including low-emission combustion. ECN can optimally employ the multi-disciplinary nature of its research potential and its particular expertise, experience, and professionalism in the construction and operation of complex research installations. With a staff of over 600 people and an annual budget of € 60 million, ECN has developed a portfolio of proprietary technologies and patents of which some are ready to be commercialised through spin-out companies.

Chemfo BV is the holding company of Mr. Paul Hamm. He is active in international engineering and industrial investment activities, and currently the President of the Dutch Energy Transition Platform for Green Feedstock, a platform initiated by the Dutch Minister of Economic Affairs.

Recently, Belgium's Thenergo, a leading European combined heat-and-power (CHP) clean energy company, announced that it is developing a 5MW electricity and 'biocoal' plant, or 'E-park', in northern Holland. In partnership with Eclair-E, a Dutch CHP sustainable energy supplier and Venture Kapitaalfonds III BV a 100% subsidiary of NV NOM, the investment and development agency for the Northern Netherlands, the E-park will generate annually up to 42,800MWh of power and 75,000 tons of 'biocoal' pellets (previous post).

Earlier we reported that coal prices in Europe have skyrocketed to levels higher than $100 per ton. The situation has recently changed with several contracts for European DES/CIF ARA coal now reaching $130 per ton. If this trend continues (and energy specialists recently surveyed think this will be the case), torrefied biomass pellets, which will receive green electricity credits when burned (at least in many European countries), could soon become directly competitive with some types of coal in Europe.

: the torrefaction process developed by ECN. Credit: ECN.

Energy research Centre of the Netherlands: Econcern, ECN and Chemfo agree to build commercial scale biomass torrefaction plant - November 8, 2007.

Patrick C.A. Bergman, Jacob H.A. Kiel, "Torrefaction for biomass upgrading" [*.pdf], ECN, Published at 14th European Biomass Conference & Exhibition, Paris, France, 17-21 October 2005

Patrick C.A. Bergman, "Combined torrefaction and pelletisation: The TOP process" [*.pdf], ECN Biomass, July 2005.

Biopact: Belgian-Dutch partnership to develop 5MW biocoal project - August 10, 2007

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

Biopact: Centre for European Economic Research survey: experts see rising prices for all energy commodities over the next five years - October 06, 2007

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Syngenta to trial third generation biofuel crop that grows its own bioconversion enzyme

Syngenta, the Swiss seeds and crop protection group, has made a technological breakthrough that could significantly improve the economics of biofuels by streamlining the way corn is converted into ethanol. Michael Pragnell, chief executive, says the company has developed a corn seed that incorporates a key enzyme used to produce ethanol.

The corn amylase enzyme has received US Food and Drug Administration approval for bulk trials after pilot projects showed it could eliminate the need for the enzyme to be added separately in making ethanol.

In short, Syngenta's crop grows its own bioconversion enzymes (schematic, click to enlarge). This is an example of 'third generation' crops and biofuel processes. Earlier, researchers at the University of Michigan achieved a similar feat by embedding cellulase enzymes into corn (previous post).

Syngenta, however, is the first to actually trial the new biofuel crop.
What we've done is to grow the enzyme in the corn. That will accelerate manufacturing by removing the need for enzyme deliveries to biofuel plants. We are now in our first month of bulk trials. - Michael Pragnell, CEO Syngenta
The company says it would take about nine months for tests to prove the seed performed to expectations and the company hoped to have a product on the market for the 2009 growing season.

John Urbanchuk, an agricultural economist with the LECG consulting group, said that when you look at what's happening to world oil prices because of supply and demand, and at increasing environmental concerns, biofuels offer immense potential. This new technology will make the production process much more efficient.

Bulk trials will focus on ensuring the seed has at least similar yields to existing varieties and can function across the range of ethanol production processes:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Other seed and chemical groups, including Monsanto and Du Pont, have been pursuing ways to streamline ethanol production, but Syngenta is the first to win FDA approval.

So far, all the pilot trials have shown a positive yield increase. The seed has been developed using genetic and conventional hybridisation techniques in a process described as "precision hybridisation".

Syngenta is already looking beyond its new seed to scientific advances that could revolutionise biofuel economics further

About 35 per cent of each year's corn harvest is wasted as so-called corn stover. The real holy grail is to identify an enzyme that can convert the waste from the corn crop.

Syngenta calls the "real prize" the development of an enzyme that could also be grown in the crop and that would allow us to convert all that waste into ethanol.

This is where Syngenta faces competition from synthetic biology company Agrivida, which is precisely designing a crop that already contains its own bioconversion enzymes capable of degrading the entire biomass of plant material, including the lignocellulose, into small sugars that can then be readily converted to cellulosic ethanol (more here).

Checkbiotech: Syngenta in biofuels breakthrough - November 12, 2007.

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

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

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China: poverty reduction, energy security more important than capping emissions

People in the wealthy post-industrialised world tend to forget that for developing nations access to abundant and cheap energy resources is crucial in the fight against poverty. Westerners often hope these countries can somehow skip the polluting fossil fuel path which turned Europe, the US and Japan into prosperous regions, 'leapfrog' into a greener, far more efficient and low carbon future, and fight poverty in the process. But is this is a highly idealistic, very tall order indeed.

The economies of developing countries are energy intensive, and without energy security and affordable fuels, all efforts at social development are in vain. We are already seeing the truly catastrophic socio-economic effects of high oil prices on the poorest countries, some of which are now forced to spend up to six times more on importing oil than on health care and poverty alleviation (previous post). Asking such countries to make energy even more expensive by putting a carbon tax on fossil fuels or by capping emissions in order to fight climate change would be unacceptable to many of them. In fact, some energy experts have warned that in the medium term, high energy prices could indeed be more threatening to societies than climate change (more here).

A Chinese top official, Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui, made this crystal clear by saying Beijing will reject binding caps on greenhouse gas emissions at the UNFCCC's global meeting in Bali next month, because developing countries must be allowed to use more energy and consequently raise emissions to fight poverty.
Climate change is caused mainly by developed countries. They should have the main responsibility for climate change and to reduce emissions. [...] Most developing countries are in the process of industrialization and urbanization, and they face the arduous task of poverty reduction. This is why they need a large period of time for continuous energy demand growth with the growth of greenhouse gas emissions. - Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui
China is about to become the world's top greenhouse-gas producer, even though its per capita emissions are still only 35% of the OECD average. However, the People's Republic's stunning economic growth means it will be responsible for the major share in emissions growth over the coming decades, the International Energy Agency said in its World Energy Outlook released earlier this week. The agency projects that in a business as usual scenario, global CO2 emissions will jump from 27 gigatonnes in 2005 to 42 Gt in 2030, with China alone accounting for 42% of the increase. In a high growth scenario, this share will increase to a whopping 49%, more than the rest of the world combined (except India) (graph, click to enlarge, and previous post).

Succesfully fighting climate change will obviously be impossible without China committing to major cuts in emissions. This is why the country is under immense pressure to accept binding limits at a meeting in Indonesia of environment ministers from 80 nations to discuss a possible replacement to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on emission reductions. Nations agreed in Kyoto to cut output of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases to below 1990 levels by 2012. But China, India and other developing economies are exempt:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Vice Foreign Minister Zhang did not say directly what Beijing's position would be at the key meeting in Bali, and he did not take questions from reporters. But a European Union official who met this week with Chinese leaders said they told him in private meetings that Beijing could not accept any binding obligations.

Zhang was speaking at a ceremony to launch a fund to channel money from emissions-reduction credits into environmental projects. The fund will collect a share of Chinese companies' revenues under a system that allows industries in developed economies to offset pollution by paying others to reduce emissions. Beijing has promoted that system among its companies while resisting emissions caps.

Despite its refusal to back binding reduction targets, China has also announced an ambitious plan to promote low carbon renewables, with the bulk of the proposed funding going to hydropower projects. These remain controversial. Biomass and wind power receive a far smaller share. The overall aim of the plan is to meet 15 per cent of the country's energy demand by renewables in 2020 (earlier post).

However, given the sheer pace and scale of China's growth and the coal intensive energy mix which drives this development, such an ambitious renewables policy would have only a marginal effect on offsetting the vast amounts of greenhouse gases it will be releasing over the coming decades.

Economic growth and poverty alleviation versus the fight against climate change. The wealthy countries, whose economies have become less and less energy intensive and who can afford the cost of reducing emissions, do not think there is such a dilemma. But for developing countries, and for China in particular, there is indeed a sharp conflict between these two demands. China has decided to prioritize the first over the latter. And the consequences of this choice will affect all of us.

Perhaps there is only one development on which the world can pin its hopes for turning this situation around, and that is a dramatic increase in prices for both oil and coal, followed by a long and global economic slowdown, and a massive, fast, radical and continued investment in renewables, conservation and energy efficiency.

Graph: projection of China's increasing share in the growth of greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 to 2030. Credit: IEA, World Energy Outlook 2007.

Associated Press: China Signals Rejection of Emission Caps - November 10, 2007.

Biopact: IEA WEO: China and India transform global energy landscape - demand, emissions to grow 'inexorably' - November 08, 2007

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

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

Biopact: Energy experts: high oil prices bigger threat than climate change - October 29, 2007

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