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    Technip has been awarded by KNM Process Systems Sdn Bhd a contract to provide assistance in the detailed engineering of the fatty acids methyl ester transesterification unit for a biodiesel production plant to be located at the port of Kuantan, Malaysia. This project will be executed by Mission Biofuel Sdn Bhd (investor), KNM (contractor) and Axens (licensor). The unit will produce 250,000 tons of biodiesel per year from palm oil. It is scheduled to go into production in the third quarter of 2008. Technip - March 4, 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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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

New study shows way to fourth-generation biofuels: scientists uncover mechanism that regulates carbon dioxide fixation in plants

A team of Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) funded scientists at the University of Essex has discovered a new mechanism that slows the process of carbon dioxide fixation in plants. The research, to be published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, may ultimately lead to dramatic crop improvements and, they say, "fourth generation" biofuels that remove CO2 from the atmosphere. The scientists reveil a crucial mechanism of the Calvin cycle, which regulates the way plants deal with the ultimate variable: the amount of sunshine they receive.

From first to fourth generation fuels
Biofuel development is currently undergoing a transition from first to second generation fuels that can be made from any biomass source. But scientists are already going beyond the new generation and are thinking of terms of a third, and even fourth-generation (overview in this previous post).

The first generation of biofuels was based on utilizing easily extractible sugars, starches and oils. These carbohydrates and triglycerides come in the form of food: sugar from beets or sugarcane, grains like wheat and maize, or oil from rapeseed or oil palms. These fuels have received their fair deal of criticism, because the perception is that their production is a factor in increased food prices.

A far more sustainable way to make biofuels is to use biochemical and thermochemical conversion methods to turn lignocellulosic biomass into fuels. Some of these techniques, such as gasification and synthesis via the Fischer-Tropsch process are already competitive with oil at over $65. Others are receiving a lot of research attention. If these conversion technologies become cost-competitive and efficient, then the food versus fuel debate is set to end. Lignin and cellulose are the most abundant organic polymers on Earth.

Now a third-generation of biofuels goes a step further: it is based on dedicated crops the properties of which have been designed in such a way that they conform to a particular conversion process. An example would be maize which grows its own cellulase enzymes (previous post), or trees and crops with less lignin which means more cellulose can be converted (more here). These crops have already been developed and many more are under investigation.

The most radical and futuristic biofuels add a component to the production process: the production process is coupled to carbon capture and storage techniques, which allows for the production of carbon-negative bioenergy (contrary to the previous generations, which are merely 'carbon neutral'). In practise this means a transition to a decarbonised biofuel better known as bio-hydrogen the CO2 of which has been captured. Alternatively and perhaps more feasible is a transition to electric transport based on carbon-negative bio-electricity, generated from fourth generation biomass systems.

Crucial to make this transition more efficient is the development of crops that sequester more CO2 than normal plants. Such high-carbon plants withdraw the greenhouse gas from the atmosphere and use it to grow more lignocellulose. When during their conversion into biohydrogen (or bio-electricity) more CO2 is captured and stored, it means they become more carbon-negative. The first crops with a higher CO2 storing capacity have meanwhile been developed: an eucalyptus tree that stores more CO2 and grows less ligning but more cellulose (previous post), and a hybrid larch that sequesters up to 30% more CO2 (earlier post).

The strange world of carbon-negative bioenergy means that more one were to use these fuels in a car, the more one would be fighting climate change: driving more would be good for the planet and help end global warming (previous post). Contrary to other renewables like solar or wind power, which only yield "carbon neutral" energy, carbon-negative biofuels actively remove CO2 from the past from the atmosphere. They generate "negative emissions". Thus they are the most radical tool in the climate fight.

Cracking the Calvin cycle
In a finding that further paves the way for these fourth-generation biofuels and dramatic crop improvements, the scientists from Essex have discovered the mechanism which helps to regulate the way in which plants absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and turn it into sugars.

Plants are dependent on sunlight to capture carbon dioxide, which is turned into important sugars via a process called the Calvin cycle (schematic, click to enlarge). As a result, as the amount of sunlight varies during the day (e.g. through cloud cover or shading from other plants), they must also be able to vary the speed at which they capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This ensures that when there is a lot of sunlight, it is taken full advantage of but that when sunlight drops, so does CO2 uptake. This ability to maximise energy use is important for plants and prevents the loss of important metabolic resources. Because they essentially stay in one place, plants must have many unique abilities to adapt to their environment as it changes around them.

Scientists have been trying to find out how this variable speed control actually works. For the first time they now show how the Calvin cycle can be regulated in response to a changing light environment via a molecular mechanism. There is a special relationship between two enzymes that are involved in the Calvin cycle: phosphoribulokinase (PRK) and glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate dehydrogenase (GAPDH):
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

When light levels decrease, the two enzymes tend to stick together and therefore cannot function, thus slowing the Calvin cycle. The darker it is, the more PRK-GAPDH partnerships are formed and the slower the Calvin cycle becomes. In the light, they break apart rapidly and the Calvin cycle is allowed to speed up.

This fundamental research has thus revealed a novel mechanism and provides a better understanding of the regulation of CO2 fixation in plants. This work will underpin strategies to increase the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed by plants thereby increasing yield for food and biofuel production, and may ultimately feed into the development of "fourth generation" biofuels.
Although this research focuses on the fundamental biological processes that plants use, ultimately, if we can understand these processes, we can use the knowledge to develop and improve food and biofuel crops. - Professor Christine Raines of the University of Essex, Research Leader
Dr Tom Howard, who contributed to the research, added that plants have evolved a fascinating way to cope with variations in their local environments. Unlike animals, they cannot move on to look for new food sources. This research helps to unlock one way that plants deal with the ultimate variable: the amount of sunshine they receive.

Thomas P. Howard, Metodi Metodiev, Julie C. Lloyd, and Christine A. Raines, "Thioredoxin-mediated reversible dissociation of a stromal multiprotein complex in response to changes in light availability", PNAS, March 4 early edition [no link available at the time of publishing; check back later today].

Eurekalert: Scientists uncover a novel mechanism that regulates carbon dioxide fixation in plants - March 4, 2008.

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

Biopact: Japanese scientists develop hybrid larch trees with 30% greater carbon sink capacity - October 03, 2007

Biopact: Scientists develop low-lignin eucalyptus trees that store more CO2, provide more cellulose for biofuels - September 17, 2007

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

Biopact: Scientists release new low-lignin sorghums: ideal for biofuel and feed - September 10, 2007

Biopact: The strange world of carbon-negative bioenergy: the more you drive your car, the more you tackle climate change - October 29, 2007


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