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    Mongabay, a leading resource for news and perspectives on environmental and conservation issues related to the tropics, has launched Tropical Conservation Science - a new, open access academic e-journal. It will cover a wide variety of scientific and social studies on tropical ecosystems, their biodiversity and the threats posed to them. Tropical Conservation Science - March 8, 2008.

    At the 148th Meeting of the OPEC Conference, the oil exporting cartel decided to leave its production level unchanged, sending crude prices spiralling to new records (above $104). OPEC "observed that the market is well-supplied, with current commercial oil stocks standing above their five-year average. The Conference further noted, with concern, that the current price environment does not reflect market fundamentals, as crude oil prices are being strongly influenced by the weakness in the US dollar, rising inflation and significant flow of funds into the commodities market." OPEC - March 5, 2008.

    Kyushu University (Japan) is establishing what it says will be the world’s first graduate program in hydrogen energy technologies. The new master’s program for hydrogen engineering is to be offered at the university’s new Ito campus in Fukuoka Prefecture. Lectures will cover such topics as hydrogen energy and developing the fuel cells needed to convert hydrogen into heat or electricity. Of all the renewable pathways to produce hydrogen, bio-hydrogen based on the gasification of biomass is by far both the most efficient, cost-effective and cleanest. Fuel Cell Works - March 3, 2008.

    An entrepreneur in Ivory Coast has developed a project to establish a network of Miscanthus giganteus farms aimed at producing biomass for use in power generation. In a first phase, the goal is to grow the crop on 200 hectares, after which expansion will start. The project is in an advanced stage, but the entrepreneur still seeks partners and investors. The plantation is to be located in an agro-ecological zone qualified as highly suitable for the grass species. Contact us - March 3, 2008.

    A 7.1MW biomass power plant to be built on the Haiwaiian island of Kaua‘i has received approval from the local Planning Commission. The plant, owned and operated by Green Energy Hawaii, will use albizia trees, a hardy species that grows in poor soil on rainfall alone. The renewable power plant will meet 10 percent of the island's energy needs. Kauai World - February 27, 2008.

    Tasmania's first specialty biodiesel plant has been approved, to start operating as early as July. The Macquarie Oil Company will spend half a million dollars on a specially designed facility in Cressy, in Tasmania's Northern Midlands. The plant will produce more than five million litres of fuel each year for the transport and marine industries. A unique blend of feed stock, including poppy seed, is expected to make it more viable than most operations. ABC Rural - February 25, 2008.

    The 16th European Biomass Conference & Exhibition - From Research to Industry and Markets - will be held from 2nd to 6th June 2008, at the Convention and Exhibition Centre of FeriaValencia, Spain. Early bird fee registration ends 18th April 2008. European Biomass Conference & Exhibition - February 22, 2008.

    'Obesity Facts' – a new multidisciplinary journal for research and therapy published by Karger – was launched today as the official journal of the European Association for the Study of Obesity. The journal publishes articles covering all aspects of obesity, in particular epidemiology, etiology and pathogenesis, treatment, and the prevention of adiposity. As obesity is related to many disease processes, the journal is also dedicated to all topics pertaining to comorbidity and covers psychological and sociocultural aspects as well as influences of nutrition and exercise on body weight. Obesity is one of the world's most pressing health issues, expected to affect 700 million people by 2015. AlphaGalileo - February 21, 2008.

    A bioethanol plant with a capacity of 150 thousand tons per annum is to be constructed in Kuybishev, in the Novosibirsk region. Construction is to begin in 2009 with investments into the project estimated at €200 million. A 'wet' method of production will be used to make, in addition to bioethanol, gluten, fodder yeast and carbon dioxide for industrial use. The complex was developed by the Solev consulting company. FIS: Siberia - February 19, 2008.

    Sarnia-Lambton lands a $15million federal grant for biofuel innovation at the Western Ontario Research and Development Park. The funds come on top of a $10 million provincial grant. The "Bioindustrial Innovation Centre" project competed successfully against 110 other proposals for new research money. London Free Press - February 18, 2008.

    An organisation that has established a large Pongamia pinnata plantation on barren land owned by small & marginal farmers in Andhra Pradesh, India is looking for a biogas and CHP consultant to help research the use of de-oiled cake for the production of biogas. The organisation plans to set up a biogas plant of 20,000 cubic meter capacity and wants to use it for power generation. Contact us - February 15, 2008.

    The Andersons, Inc. and Marathon Oil Corporation today jointly announced ethanol production has begun at their 110-million gallon ethanol plant located in Greenville, Ohio. Along with the 110 million gallons of ethanol, the plant annually will produce 350,000 tons of distillers dried grains, an animal feed ingredient. Marathon Oil - February 14, 2008.

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Japanese firm to produce ethanol from tropical sago palm

Japan-based Necfer Corp. (New Century Fermentation Research Ltd.) plans to build a demonstration plant in Malaysia to manufacture bioethanol from sago palm trees — possibly the first such endeavor in the world. Sago is a highly efficient energy crop, producing large amounts of starch and yielding more ethanol per hectare than any other currently grown biofuel crop. Necfer has developed its own dedicated fermentation technology to convert the resource into biofuel.

The true sago palm (Metroxylon sagu) has been described as mankind's oldest food plant with the starch contained in the trunk used as a staple food in southeast Asia (earlier post). Traditionally, hunter-gatherers use a complex and labor-intensive process of felling the tree, splitting it open, removing the starch and cleaning out its poisonous substances, after which it is ready to be consumed (picture, click to enlarge). The carbohydrate itself is very nutritious and some of us may have even tasted it because some modern starch products (tapioca flour) are made from it. As these sago-growing hunter-gatherers migrate to the cities, they abandon their healthy starch-rich diet and choose for fat and sugar food habits that don't differ much from ours.

But the sago palm remains, in the wild. The International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI), which strives towards diversifying the world's agricultural crop base and maximizing the potential of less known plant species, considers the palm to be a typical 'underutilized' crop. It published an easily accessible but comprehensive study about sago [*.pdf], in its series about "neglected and underutilized species". The study shows the potential of the crop, where and how it is currently used, which barriers there are to increasing its use, and which environmental problems could be associated with its cultivation.

One of the potential uses of the sago palm's starch is renewable bulk chemicals, biopolymers (previous post) and ethanol. Throughout its lifecyle, the tree with its very high photosynthetic ability accumulates large amounts of starch in its trunk, reaching a maximum when it is about 15 years old, right before its (single) inflorescence occurs. In the wild, around 5 tonnes of starch per hectare can be harvested, but plantations show yields of up to 30 tons per year.

Necfer aims to harvest on average 15-20 tons of starch per hectare per year, equatating to around 8,000 to 10,000 liters of ethanol per hectare - more than any other current biofuel system is capable of, including sugarcane. Sago starch is of such a quality that ethanol conversion efficiencies of up to 72% can be obtained (for hydrated ethanol). It is thus one of the most productive energy crops suitable for liquid fuels. Add that residual biomass can be used as a feedstock for the production of power and heat.

Necfer was founded by Ayaaki Ishizaki, professor emeritus of Kyushu University, and uses the “Ishizaki process” — a fermentation process based on the bacterium Zymomonas. According to Necfer, Zymomonas is a bacterium with a much higher growth and fermentation rate than yeast:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

It is not clear whether Necfer's venture will evolve around a new sago plantation, but one thing is certain: the crop suffers from a lack of research and development, most notably in crop improvement, phytopathology and plantation management techniques. Despite yearly symposia on sago, the palm has a long way to go before it will be used on a large scale.

Here and there, things are moving, though. The Malaysian government has started a 50,000 hectare plantation with sago palms in Sarawak, and considers it to be a crop with large potential for the development of a biofuels industry. Sago is set to become the second pillar of Malaysia's bioenergy program [*.pdf].

The crop grows in a select type of humid low-land forest, especially in Papua New Guinea, Malaysia and Indonesia. Its large-scale cultivation would almost certainly involve deforestation, leading to sustainability problems.

Picture 1: sago palm logs ready to be processed at a large mill in Sarawak, Borneo, Malaysia. Courtesy: Pelita, Malaysian Land Custody and Development Authority, Sago Development website.

Picture 2: people in Papua New Guinea using the traditional technique to harvest and clean sago starch.

Kyodo: Venture firm to build sago bioethanol plant in Malaysia - January 24, 2007.

Michiel Flach, Sago palm, Metroxylon sagu Rottb. [*.pdf] Promoting the conservation and use of underutilized and neglected crops. 13. IPGRI International Plant Genetic Resources Institute.

Biopact: Sago, an interesting but underutilized ethanol crop - June 25, 2006

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


Blogger Andrew said...

Sago is NOT a staple food in southeast Asia; is IS a staple food in the Pacific island of Papua. Already subject to several other programs design to eliminate the Melanesian people (see Yale Law School report "Indonesian Human Rights Abuses in West Papua: Application of the Law of Genocide to the History of Indonesian Control"

The Necfer Corp. plan would simply accelerate this genocide.

11:15 PM  
Blogger Biopact team said...

But Andrew, Necfer is investing in Malaysia. Is it driving a genocide there too? Apparently not, because as you say, the Malay don't see sago as a staple food. Sago has become an industrial crop there.

12:29 AM  
Blogger Jeremy said...

Thank you for referencing one of our publications, but please note that the name of the organization is now Bioversity International (not IPGRI) with web site at http://www.bioversityinternational.org/

10:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tepung sagu is used as flour although the demand might not be high now. Sago is also used as dedak or animal feed for poultry and other animals.
I am very sure exploitation of sago will lead to collision with the economy of the poor rural people.

Now with foodstuff getting expensive it is better to convert sago to food...not biofuel

It has always been a bad practice in fermentation technology when the raw materials is food for the people. Ishizaki should know when he worked with Aji No Moto the number of times alternative source for carbohydrates the company is scouring. But at least Aji No Moto produces food

3:27 PM  

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