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    BlueFire Ethanol Fuels Inc, which develops and operates carbohydrate-based transportation fuel production facilities, has secured capital liquidity for corporate overhead and continued project development in the value of US$15 million with Quercus, an environmentally focused trust. BlueFire Ethanol Fuels - January 09, 2007.

    Some $170 billion in new technology development projects, infrastructure equipment and construction, and biofuel refineries will result from the ethanol production standards contained the new U.S. Energy Bill, says BIO, the global Biotechnology Industry Organization. According to Brent Erickson, BIO's executive vice president "Such a new energy infrastructure has not occurred in more than 100 years. We are at the point where we were in the 1850s when kerosene was first distilled and began to replace whale oil. This technology will be coming so fast that what we say today won't be true in two years." Chemical & Engineering News - January 07, 2007.

    Scottish and Southern Energy plc, the UK's second largest power company, has completed the acquisition of Slough Heat and Power Ltd from SEGRO plc for a total cash consideration of £49.25m. The 101MW CHP plant is the UK’s largest dedicated biomass energy facility fueled by wood chips, biomass and waste paper. Part of the plant is contracted under the Non Fossil Fuel Obligation and part of it produces over 200GWH of output qualifying for Renewable Obligation Certificates (ROCs), which is equivalent to around 90MW of wind generation. Scottish & Southern Energy - January 2, 2007.

    PetroChina Co Ltd, the country's largest oil and gas producer, plans to invest 800 million yuan to build an ethanol plant in Nanchong, in the southwestern province of Sichuan, its parent China National Petroleum Corp said. The ethanol plant has a designed annual capacity of 100,000 tons. ABCMoneyNews - December 21, 2007.

    Mexico passed legislation to promote biofuels last week, offering unspecified support to farmers that grow crops for the production of any renewable fuel. Agriculture Minister Alberto Cardenas said Mexico could expand biodiesel faster than ethanol. More soon. Reuters - December 20, 2007.

    Oxford Catalysts has placed an order worth approximately €700,000 (US$1 million) with the German company Amtec for the purchase of two Spider16 high throughput screening reactors. The first will be used to speed up the development of catalysts for hydrodesulphurisation (HDS). The second will be used to further the development of catalysts for use in gas to liquid (GTL) and Fischer-Tropsch processes which can be applied to next generation biofuels. AlphaGalileo - December 18, 2007.

    According to the Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística (IBGE), Brazil's production of sugarcane will increase from 514,1 million tonnes this season, to a record 561,8 million tonnes in the 2008/09 cyclus - an increase of 9.3%. New numbers are also out for the 2007 harvest in Brazil's main sugarcane growing region, the Central-South: a record 425 million tonnes compared to 372,7 million tonnes in 2006, or a 14% increase. The estimate was provided by Unica – the União da Indústria de Cana-de-Açúcar. Jornal Cana - December 16, 2007.

    The University of East Anglia and the UK Met Office's Hadley Centre have today released preliminary global temperature figures for 2007, which show the top 11 warmest years all occurring in the last 13 years. The provisional global figure for 2007 using data from January to November, currently places the year as the seventh warmest on records dating back to 1850. The announcement comes as the Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), Michel Jarraud, speaks at the Conference of the Parties (COP) in Bali. Eurekalert - December 13, 2007.

    The Royal Society of Chemistry has announced it will launch a new journal in summer 2008, Energy & Environmental Science, which will distinctly address both energy and environmental issues. In recognition of the importance of research in this subject, and the need for knowledge transfer between scientists throughout the world, from launch the RSC will make issues of Energy & Environmental Science available free of charge to readers via its website, for the first 18 months of publication. This journal will highlight the important role that the chemical sciences have in solving the energy problems we are facing today. It will link all aspects of energy and the environment by publishing research relating to energy conversion and storage, alternative fuel technologies, and environmental science. AlphaGalileo - December 10, 2007.

    Dutch researcher Bas Bougie has developed a laser system to investigate soot development in diesel engines. Small soot particles are not retained by a soot filter but are, however, more harmful than larger soot particles. Therefore, soot development needs to be tackled at the source. Laser Induced Incandescence is a technique that reveals exactly where soot is generated and can be used by project partners to develop cleaner diesel engines. Terry Meyer, an Iowa State University assistant professor of mechanical engineering, is using similar laser technology to develop advanced sensors capable of screening the combustion behavior and soot characteristics specifically of biofuels. Eurekalert - December 7, 2007.

    Lithuania's first dedicated biofuel terminal has started operating in Klaipeda port. At the end of November 2007, the stevedoring company Vakaru krova (VK) started activities to manage transshipments. The infrastructure of the biodiesel complex allows for storage of up to 4000 cubic meters of products. During the first year, the terminal plans to transship about 70.000 tonnes of methyl ether, after that the capacities of the terminal would be increased. Investments to the project totaled €2.3 million. Agrimarket - December 5, 2007.

    New Holland supports the use of B100 biodiesel in all equipment with New Holland-manufactured diesel engines, including electronic injection engines with common rail technology. Overall, nearly 80 percent of the tractor and equipment manufacturer's New Holland-branded products with diesel engines are now available to operate on B100 biodiesel. Tractor and equipment maker John Deere meanwhile clarified its position for customers that want to use biodiesel blends up to B20. Grainnet - December 5, 2007.

    According to Wetlands International, an NGO, the Kyoto Protocol as it currently stands does not take into account possible emissions from palm oil grown on a particular type of land found in Indonesia and Malaysia, namely peatlands. Mongabay - December 5, 2007.

    Malaysia's oil & gas giant Petronas considers entering the biofuels sector. Zamri Jusoh, senior manager of Petronas' petroleum development management unit told reporters "of course our focus is on oil and gas, but I think as we move into the future we cannot ignore the importance of biofuels." AFP - December 5, 2007.

    In just four months, the use of biodiesel in the transport sector has substantially improved air quality in Metro Manila, data from the Philippines Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) showed. A blend of one percent coco-biodiesel is mandated by the Biofuels Act of 2007 which took effect last May. By 2009, it would be increased to two percent. Philippine Star - December 4, 2007.

    Kazakhstan will next year adopt laws to regulate its fledgling biofuel industry and plans to construct at least two more plants in the next 18 months to produce environmentally friendly fuel from crops, industry officials said. According to Akylbek Kurishbayev, vice-minister for agriculture, he Central Asian country has the potential to produce 300,000 tons a year of biodiesel and export half. Kazakhstan could also produce up to 1 billion liters of bioethanol, he said. "The potential is huge. If we use this potential wisely, we can become one of the world's top five producers of biofuels," Beisen Donenov, executive director of the Kazakhstan Biofuels Association, said on the sidelines of a grains forum. Reuters - November 30, 2007.

    SRI Consulting released a report on chemicals from biomass. The analysis highlights six major contributing sources of green and renewable chemicals: increasing production of biofuels will yield increasing amounts of biofuels by-products; partial decomposition of certain biomass fractions can yield organic chemicals or feedstocks for the manufacture of various chemicals; forestry has been and will continue to be a source of pine chemicals; evolving fermentation technology and new substrates will also produce an increasing number of chemicals. Chemical Online - November 27, 2007.

    German industrial conglomerate MAN AG plans to expand into renewable energies such as biofuels and solar power. Chief Executive Hakan Samuelsson said services unit Ferrostaal would lead the expansion. Reuters - November 24, 2007.

    Analysts think Vancouver-based Ballard Power Systems, which pumped hundreds of millions and decades of research into developing hydrogen fuel cells for cars, is going to sell its automotive division. Experts describe the development as "the death of the hydrogen highway". The problems with H2 fuel cell cars are manifold: hydrogen is a mere energy carrier and its production requires a primary energy input; production is expensive, as would be storage and distribution; finally, scaling fuel cells and storage tanks down to fit in cars remains a huge challenge. Meanwhile, critics have said that the primary energy for hydrogen can better be used for electricity and electric vehicles. On a well-to-wheel basis, the cleanest and most efficient way to produce hydrogen is via biomass, so the news is a set-back for the biohydrogen community. But then again, biomass can be used more efficiently as electricity for battery cars. Canada.com - November 21, 2007.

    South Korea plans to invest 20 billion won (€14.8/$21.8 million) by 2010 on securing technologies to develop synthetic fuels from biomass, coal and natural gas, as well as biobutanol. 29 private companies, research institutes and universities will join this first stage of the "next-generation clean energy development project" led by South Korea's Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Energy. Korea Times - November 19, 2007.

    OPEC leaders began a summit today with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez issuing a chilling warning that crude prices could double to US$200 from their already-record level if the United States attacked Iran or Venezuela. He urged assembled leaders from the OPEC, meeting for only the third time in the cartel's 47-year history, to club together for geopolitical reasons. But the cartel is split between an 'anti-US' block including Venezuela, Iran, and soon to return ex-member Ecuador, and a 'neutral' group comprising most Gulf States. France24 - November 17, 2007.

    The article "Biofuels: What a Biopact between North and South could achieve" published in the scientific journal Energy Policy (Volume 35, Issue 7, 1 July 2007, Pages 3550-3570) ranks number 1 in the 'Top 25 hottest articles'. The article was written by professor John A. Mathews, Macquarie University (Sydney, Autralia), and presents a case for a win-win bioenergy relationship between the industrialised and the developing world. Mathews holds the Chair of Strategic Management at the university, and is a leading expert in the analysis of the evolution and emergence of disruptive technologies and their global strategic management. ScienceDirect - November 16, 2007.

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Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Biofuel enzyme developer Verenium achieves technical milestone, receives $500,000 from Syngenta

Verenium Corporation, a developer of next-generation cellulosic ethanol and high-performance specialty enzymes, announced today that it has achieved an important technical milestone associated with a research program with European biotech firm Syngenta AG. As a result of the feat, Verenium will receive a $500,000 payment from Syngenta.

The milestone deals with the development of 'third-generation' biofuel systems, based on crops that grow their own bioconversion enzymes - in this case, they turn corn starch into sugars. This eliminates the need for biorefineries to add separate liquid enzymes to process starch into ethanol, reducing costs (previous post).
This progress in the biosynthesis of starch brings the enormous potential of biofuels another step closer. Traits specifically designed to increase productivity of biofuels linked with Syngenta elite genetics and input traits that protect the crop's yield potential are intended to bring increased productivity for growers and cost-effective sustainable production for biofuels manufacturers. - Ray Riley, head of research and product development in corn and soybeans for Syngenta
A core component of the research effort utilized Verenium's DirectEvolution technology to engineer the properties of a key enzyme - alpha amylase - in the biosynthesis of starch.

The technology is based on the knowledge that proteins are large, complex molecules made up of a unique sequence of smaller subunits called amino acids. There are 20 different naturally occurring amino acids, each having unique chemical properties, which cause the protein to fold up into distinct three-dimensional structures that define their particular function. A change in just a single amino can greatly affect the function of a protein such as an enzyme or an antibody. It is a cell's genes that contain a specific DNA sequence that dictates the order and type of amino acids that make up each protein made by the cell.

Verenium possesses patented, state-of-the-art gene evolution technologies, which it calls its 'DirectEvolution' platform, that enable the optimization of proteins at the DNA level. Two complementary methods comprise Verenium's DirectEvolution platform: Gene Site Saturation Mutagenesis (GSSM) and Tunable GeneReassembly (TGR) technologies. The suite of DirectEvolution technologies provides potentially significant competitive advantages, including the ability to generate the broadest amount of genetic sequence diversity, the ability to make fine changes across an entire gene, and the freedom to use unrelated genes when recombining starting genes. Additionally, both GSSM and TGR technologies are able to modify codons to achieve increased protein expression for manufacturing without changing the fundamental amino acid sequence (schematic, click to enlarge).

GSSM technology creates a family of related proteins that all differ from a parent protein by at least a single amino acid change at any defined position or at each position along the protein sequence. GSSM technology can produce all possible single amino acid substitutions at every position within a protein sequence, removing the need for prior knowledge about the protein structure and allowing all possibilities to be tested in an unbiased manner. The library of variants created using GSSM technology is then available to be expressed and screened for improved properties. The GSSM library can be screened for novel enzymes with characteristics such as increased ability to function at high temperature or a targeted pH range, increased reaction rate or resistance to deactivating chemicals:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Beneficial mutations identified from a GSSM screen can then be combined in a combinatorial fashion using the 'GeneReassembly' process to create a superior version of the parental protein. GeneReassembly technology allows blending of gene sequences independent of sequence homology. Multiple variations can be introduced at precise positions within the genes. The complexity of the variant library can be fine-tuned by the number of parental genes used and the average number of variations used in the reaction. Moreover, the number of variations can be modulated to reflect the resilience of the targeted gene family to mutations. In addition, any structural information available can be incorporated into the sequence design, and codon usage can be optimized during the reassembly process to maximize expression in the selected production host. Verenium’s GeneReassembly method represents the next generation of gene-blending evolution methods.

Verenium applied these DirectEvolution technologies to develop the key enzyme embedded into Syngenta's genetically modified strain of corn that grows the bioconversion enzyme. This corn strain expresses high levels of alpha amylase — a thermal-tolerant digestive enzyme developed by Verenium that turns the corn’s starch into sugar for ethanol. The engineered plants are designed to reduce costs by eliminating the need for mills to add liquid enzymes. The Corn Amylase (Amylase-T) seeds do not increase the yield, rather they make corn easier to process which translates into substantial savings for mill operators. Syngenta has announced that pilot trials have been successfully conducted and that it anticipates launch of this product in 2008.

The company earlier succeeded in utilizing its DirectEvolution suite to reassemble genes from microorganisms found in the deep sea to produce a high-performance enzyme for economical ethanol production - its first commercially available biofuel enzyme, Fuelzyme-LF.

Verenium Corporation
is a leader in the development and commercialization of cellulosic ethanol, an environmentally-friendly and renewable transportation fuel, as well as high-performance specialty enzymes for applications within the biofuels, industrial, and health and nutrition markets. The Company possesses integrated, end-to-end capabilities in pre-treatment, novel enzyme development, fermentation, engineering, and project development and is moving rapidly to commercialize its proprietary technology for the production of ethanol from a wide array of feedstocks, including sugarcane bagasse, dedicated energy crops, agricultural waste, and wood products. In addition to the vast potential for biofuels, a multitude of large-scale industrial opportunities exist for the Company for products derived from the production of low-cost, biomass-derived sugars.

Verenium's Specialty Enzyme business harnesses the power of enzymes to create a broad range of specialty products to meet high-value commercial needs. Verenium's world class R&D organization is renowned for its capabilities in the rapid screening, identification, and expression of enzymes—proteins that act as the catalysts of biochemical reactions.

Verenium operates one of the nation's first cellulosic ethanol pilot plants, an R&D facility, in Jennings, Louisiana and expects to achieve mechanical completion of a 1.4 million gallon-per-year, demonstration-scale facility to produce cellulosic ethanol by the end of the first quarter of 2008. In addition, the Company's process technology has been licensed by Tokyo-based Marubeni Corp. and Tsukishima Kikai Co., Ltd. and has been incorporated into BioEthanol Japan's 1.4 million liter-per-year cellulosic ethanol plant in Osaka, Japan – the world's first commercial-scale plant to produce cellulosic ethanol from wood construction waste.

Schematic: suite of protein and enzyme discovery tools: mutating amino acids, screening improved proteins and combining detected changes to find the most promising protein. Credit: Verenium.

Verenium Corporation: Verenium achieves financial milestone in research collaboration with Syngenta - January 8, 2007.

Verenium: DirectEvolution technology.

Biopact: Syngenta to trial third generation biofuel crop that grows its own bioconversion enzyme - November 12, 2007

Biopact: Diversa and Celunol merge to become Verenium - June 21, 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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UN's FAO: bright future for sustainable biofuels DR Congo

Biopact was originally founded by social scientists from Belgium, with working experience in the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the poorest countries in the world. Several years ago they started looking at ways in which this large African country, coming out of the most gruesome and lethal war since WWII, could benefit from its vast natural resources which, up till now, have been the cause of multiple conflicts. They found that the emerging bioenergy market could offer unique chances for truly sustainable development, socio-economic stabilisation, rural development and mass poverty alleviation in this mainly rural country. Dr. Josef Schmidhuber, senior economist at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), now confirms this vision.

Biopact often refers to the vast agricultural potential in Central Africa and especially in the DRC, a country the size of Western Europe, which contributes much to the estimates by researchers from the International Energy Agency's Bioenergy Taskforces, who put the entire continent's explicitly sustainable bioenergy potential at more than 350 Exajoules per year by 2050 (previous post). Sustainable, that is, without any deforestation and after meeting all food, fiber and fodder needs of growing populations.

The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation now says that, indeed, Congo is one of Africa's most promising biofuels producers due to its vast amount of farmland suited to a range of crops from palm oil to soybeans, from sugarcane to grasses. Better still, the fuels and bioenergy can be produced in a sustainable way, it says, without threatening the DRC's unique rainforests - so large is the non-forest land base (maps, click to enlarge).

Dr. Josef Schmidhuber, senior economist at the FAO, told Reuters the DRC had 80-115 million hectares of unused arable land, 4 million of which could be irrigated. All of the land in question is non-forest land. Congo currently utilizes less than 5 percent of all this potential arable land.
The DRC and many of the African countries have an enormous agri-ecological potential. They have production potential for more than (sugar) cane: palm oil, maize, jatropha, cassava even soybeans - whatever is suited to tropical and highland conditions. - Dr. Josef Schmidhuber, senior economist, FAO
Many countries seeking to produce biofuels have run into problems over the use of land, and environmental campaigners have accused palm oil growers in Indonesia, for instance, of cutting down rain forests to make room for feedstock. Biopact has tried to show that this focus is too narrowminded and that it draws attention away from the vast potential for truly sustainable biofuels across Central Africa. Biofuel production there would have multiple environmental, social and economic benefits to some of the poorest nations on earth, such as the DRC.

Schmidhuber confirms that the environmental fears often raised against biofuels in the tropics need not be an issue in Congo, home to the world's second largest rainforest, given the enormous amount of arable land outside precious rain forest areas.

What is more, using land for energy crops does not come at the expense of food production and would even contribute to protecting the environment because it would allow farmers to become more efficient, instead of relying on destructive and inefficient slash and burn techniques that level rainforests. Producing bioenergy from domestic agriculture could boost productivity, as a lack of energy is a key factor holding back agricultural productivity and food production, Dr. Schmidhuber said.

This is a thesis Biopact has always stressed: without abundant, modern and affordable energy and fuels, food production itself and socio-economic development in general are threatened, with the environment being the first victim (we're not even talking about the environmental impacts of war and underdevelopment, which have wrecked all conservation efforts in Congo. The country's primates, for example, are being killed as a result of a lack of access to modern energy, which forces people into the forests to gather wood for charcoal). This type of energy poverty as well as catastrophically high oil prices can be tackled by efficient biofuel and bioenergy production:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

DRC, in central-eastern Africa, is rich in natural resources with a land area the size of western Europe but years of civil war have hindered economic growth and inward investment. Schmidhuber said it would currently be difficult to produce biofuels for export and Congo would benefit first by providing fuel for domestic consumption.
You have to bear in mind barely 1 percent of the rural population has access to electricity ... There's a need for empowerment and to be sufficient in energy and not just food. - Dr. Schmidhuber
He said capital investment in the sector from abroad depended on the scale of demand, referring to China's well-established interest and investment activity in Congo.
Domestic support seems to be there, there is a government programme that essentially stresses that one should try to explore energy options with the objective to produce motor-fuel and electricity. - Dr. Schmidhuber
Latest World Bank figures show $402 million of foreign direct investment went to Congo in 2005. Other countries with similar potential to supply themselves with biofuels are, amongst others, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi, he added.

Biopact has been studying the bioenergy potential in Congo for a long time and developed several scenarios for their development and impacts on the country's economy. Members of the organisation were also involved in the creation of a 'biomass action plan' to phase out nuclear power in Belgium, by replacing nuclear energy with biomass from the DRC. The plan was launched last year by the Flemish social-democrats (previous post).

Biopact is currently working on a large project that looks at developing a 'fuel corridor' alongside the Congo River and its tributaries, - the country's main transport routes - as a way to improve traffic on these waterways. Fuel shortages inland are frequent and keep millions of farmers in abject poverty, because they cannot bring their products to market, trade and develop. By building decentralised biofuel production units alongside the rivers, which provide local economic opportunities and employment, this situation could be improved upon in a dramatic way.

Reuters: Bright future for biofuels in Congo, UN says - January 7, 2008.

FAO Terrastat: database on land resources.

FAO Land and Water Development Division: Land Suitability Maps for Rainfed Cropping, database and maps.

FAO/IIASA: Global Agro-Ecological Zones, showing the potential for a range of crops.

Wildlife Direct: Congo gorilla protection blog (showing how lack of access to modern bioenergy drives rainforest destructive charcoal production).

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

Biopact: Biomass 'reserve' to reduce risk of uranium shortage - perspectives from Belgium - August 15, 2007

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Study: net energy from switchgrass based cellulosic ethanol much higher than thought

A large scale five-year trial of switchgrass as a bioenergy crop on farmland in the Midwestern United States found that when the perennial is converted into cellulosic ethanol it yields 540% more renewable energy than the non-renewable energy put into producing the fuel. This is a considerbly higher yield than previous estimates which were based on small scale research plots (smaller than 5m²) and on estimated inputs, suggesting switchgrass would result in a net energy production of about 343%. The results from the large scale field trials also prove that mere simulations made by researchers like Pimental and Patzek, often quoted by biofuel critics, are highly inaccurate.

Based on the new results, the scientists write that switchgrass based cellulosic ethanol is a highly energy efficient biofuel, results in strong net GHG emission reductions and provides major other environmental benefits such as soil conservation. Kenneth Vogel at the US Department of Agriculture and the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and his colleagues report their findings in an open access article [*.pdf] in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The research team managed switchgrass as a biomass energy crop in field trials of 3–9 hectares on marginal cropland on 10 farms to determine net energy and economic costs based on known farm inputs and harvested yields. Cooperating farmers in the project were paid for their work and land use and documented all production operations and field biomass yields. The study provided five years of production and management information from each farm, which the researchers used to estimate net energy, petroleum inputs to ethanol outputs, and GHG emissions.

Inputs and Net Energy Value
Agricultural energy inputs - fertilizer, herbicides, diesel fuel, seed - for the switchgrass fields based on actual farm inputs were lower than in previous switchgrass life cycle analysis studies, because diesel usage, fertilizer requirements, electricity rates, and machinery costs in the previous studies were largely based on estimated values, not on real trials.

The NEV (output energy–input energy) from switchgrass in the Great Plains varied with year of production and ethanol yield but exceeded 14.5 MJ/liter ethanol for all harvest years. NEV were consistent across locations, averaging 21.5 MJ/liter ethanol. These results were intermediate to previously simulated switchgrass energy balance studies. Ethanol yield was sensitive to climatic conditions and stand age more than agricultural inputs, which differs from prior studies that assumed a linear response of switchgrass ethanol yield to agricultural inputs.

Switchgrass, a perennial, does not achieve full biomass yield potential until one to two growing seasons after establishment. Proper agronomic practices with normal climatic conditions can result in establishment year biomass yields of 50% of full yield potential. Switchgrass, in long-term evaluations (more than 10 years), has been shown to have consistent biomass yields over time when stands are mature.

Bioenergy efficiency was also evaluated as an ethanol output (MJ)/petroleum input (MJ) ratio (PER) for the production, refining, and distribution phases. All previous switchgrass studies have reported that, under most ethanol yield projections, the amount of energy from ethanol produced from switchgrass biomass exceeds petroleum consumed. In this multifarm trial, switchgrass produced an estimated average 13.1 MJ ethanol for every MJ of petroleum input. The new analysis showed that at ethanol yields of 3500 liter/ha, PER surpassed all previous estimates. Establishment and second-year stands had the lowest PER, a result of tillage, seeding, and harvesting energy costs with reduced biomass yields. There was a linear relationship between ethanol yield and PER for all harvest years. However, linear trends by harvest year declined over time, suggesting that, on mature fields, PER will be consistently high and vary little by ethanol yield (figure 1, click to enlarge).

Ethanol Yield and Net Energy Yield
The annual biomass yields of established fields averaged 5.2-11.1 Mg/ha with a resulting average estimated net energy yield (NEY) of 60 GJ/ha/year (figure 2, click to enlarge). Switchgrass monocultures managed for high yield produced 93% more biomass yield and an equivalent estimated NEY than previous estimates from human-made prairies that received low agricultural inputs.

One of the prime reasons for the improved yield was the actual lower energy inputs for biomass reported in comparison to the estimates previously reported. This highlights, the team notes in its paper, the discrepancies that can occur when analyses are based on small-scale research plots and misassumptions:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

GHG emissions
Life-cycle analysis models have quantified the amount of either GHG emitted from ethanol or GHG displaced by shifting to an ethanol energy source from a petroleum energy source. For switchgrass, studies have estimated the amount of GHG displaced by the amount of harvested material that is converted to ethanol. Others have determined the amount of GHG displaced by the amount of harvested material and by the amount of carbon dioxide sequestered into the soil profile.

The amount of soil carbon sequestration by reintroduction of perennial grasses to a field depends on existing soil C concentration, soil type, climate, precipitation, management, and annual biomass production. Soil carbon levels on low-input switchgrass fields (29 soil types) have been shown to increase over time, across soil depths, and are higher than adjacent cropland fields in the Northern Plains.

Switchgrass managed for bioenergy on multiple soil types in the Northern Plains was carbon-negative, sequestering 4.42 Mg C ha/year into the soil profile. In the new analysis, the amount of GHG emissions displaced using ethanol from switchgrass over conventional gasoline was estimated based on biomass yields by both fossil fuel displacement and the estimated carbon dioxide sequestered as soil C for 100 yr by switchgrass on converted cropland.

Life-cycle analysis estimated that ethanol from switchgrass averaged 94% lower GHG emissions than from gasoline (figure 3, click to enlarge). Switchgrass fields were GHG-positive, -neutral, or -negative, depending on agriculture input amounts (mainly N fertilization) and subsequent biomass yields. Three of the 5 harvest yr showed farms averaging near-GHG neutral levels. GHG emissions of ethanol from switchgrass, using only the displacement method, showed 88% less GHG emissions than conventional gasoline.

Based on the results, the scientists write that switchgrass based cellulosic ethanol appears to be a highly efficient and green energy source. For an alternative transportation fuel to be a substitute for conventional gasoline, the alternative fuel should (i) have superior environmental benefits, (ii) be economically competitive, (iii) have meaningful supplies to meet energy demands, and (iv) have a positive NEV:
The results of this study demonstrate that switchgrass grown and managed as a biomass energy crop produces more than 500% more renewable energy than energy consumed in its production and has significant environmental benefits, as estimated by net GHG emissions as well as soil conservation benefits.
It is expected that biomass conversion rates will be improved in the future because of both genetic modifications of biomass feedstocks and improvements in conversion technology, which should result in improvement in net energy for switchgrass.

Only a fraction of the research effort that has produced significant improvements in corn genetics and management has been available for switchgrass and other potential perennial herbaceous biomass species. The new baseline study represents the technology available for switchgrass in 2000 and 2001, when the fields were planted.

The researchers expect that further improvements in both genetics (hybrid cultivars, molecular markers) and agronomics (production system management practices and inputs) will be achieved for dedicated energy crops such as switchgrass, which will further improve biomass yields, conversion efficiency, and NEV. As an indicator of the improvement potential, switchgrass biomass yields in recent yield trials in Nebraska, South Dakota, and North Dakota (36–38) were 50% greater than achieved in this study.

The scientists conclude by saying that:
The Green Revolution greatly enhanced the capacity of agriculture to increase food supplies throughout the world by the use of improved genetics and management inputs. Green energy goals of nations likewise can be met in part through improved genetics and agronomics. The environmental and ecological effects of the conversion of cropland to CRP were largely positive. It is expected that results will be similar for conversion of land to perennial grasses such as switchgrass for bioenergy. However, environmental and ecological assessments should continue to be made at both the micro and macro scales.

Figure 1. Energy estimates for 10 switchgrass fields managed for bioenergy for the establishment year (filled circle) and second (open circle), third (yellow square), fourth (open square), and fifth years (red triangle), using input and biomass production data from 10 farms in the EBAMM model. (a) Comparison of net energy values (Mj/liter) from the fields based on known agricultural inputs with estimates from two simulated switchgrass studies. NEV are not shown for one study, because they were negative for switchgrass at all ethanol yields due to the misassumption that non-renewable energy will be used for all biorefinery energy needs. (b) PER, which is the biofuel output (MJ) divided by the petroleum (MJ) requirements for the agricultural, biorefinery, and distribution phases, for the 10 fields compared with three simulated studies (blue line, green line, and red line representing the often criticized study of Pimental and Patzek).

Figure 2: Comparison of estimated ethanol yield and NEY from switchgrass fields managed as a bioenergy crop; low-input, high-diversity, human-made prairies (LIHD) on small plots (19); low-input switchgrass (LI-SW) small plots (19); and corn grain yields (ref. 20; 2000–2005) from Nebraska and South and North Dakota). (a) Mean ethanol yield (liter/ha) was greater for the three farms with low mean ethanol yields, mean ethanol yields of all farms, and three farms with high mean ethanol yields (>2 year after seeding) or established switchgrass plots (>9yr after seeding) grown in a higher precipitation zone and was comparable to corn grain ethanol yields for the three states. Conversion of corn grain and cellulosic biomass to ethanol was estimated at 0.4 liter/kg, and 0.38 liter/kg respectively. (b) NEY from established switchgrass fields for all farms was consistently higher than human-made prairies or low-input switchgrass (19) grown in a higher precipitation zone.

Figure 3: Estimated displacement (%) of GHG emissions by replacing conventional gasoline (baseline) with cellulosic ethanol derived from switchgrass. Minimum (grey), mean (blue), and maximum (green) percent GHG displacement for each switchgrass harvest year is based on actual production data from 10 switchgrass fields. Estimated GHG values include the amount of CO2 sequestered in the soil (100 yr) by switchgrass, which was estimated to be 138.1 kg of CO2 Mg aboveground biomass per year.

Schmer, M. R., Vogel, K. P., Mitchell, R. B. & Perrin, R. K. "Net energy of cellulosic ethanol from switchgrass" [*.pdf, open access], PNAS USA 105, 464-469 (2008).

Biopact: Study of energy crops shows miscanthus twice as productive as switchgrass - July 10, 2007

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Oxford Catalysts and Novus Energy in strategic alliance to develop biogas-to-liquids

In a highly interesting development, Oxford Catalysts Group PLC, a catalyst innovator for clean fuels, announces that it has signed a Strategic Alliance Agreement with Novus Energy, LLC, a Minneapolis-based renewable fuels company, to develop technology for the production of fuel-grade alcohols from biogas. Biopact has earlier called advanced anaerobic digestion a 'second generation' biofuel technology, because it efficiently converts a wide range of non-woody types of biomass, including cellulosic substrates, organic waste, manure and dedicated non-food energy crops (such as grass).

By converting the biogas to liquids, decentralised production and wide-scale distribution of an efficient and renewable second-generation biofuel becomes possible. Remote communities with large biomass and/or organic waste resources could produce biogas and have it distributed without the need for gas pipelines, as a liquid. In fact, a large part of the subtropics and the tropics could be viewed as one vast zone containing 'stranded biogas' that is currently not exploited.

Such a decentralised production system would be highly practical in several remote locations that currently produce first-generation ethanol from, for example, sugarcane. These ethanol plants convert only the easily extractable sugars but are left with a large mass of bagasse (fibrous waste). This resource can be used as a fuel in cogeneration facilities, with excess electricity transferred to the grid. But obviously this requires a grid in the first place. In many highly productive agricultural areas of the developing world such a grid is absent. For these situations, the biogas-to-liquids process would be a solution: all biomass from the plantation would be converted directly into methane instead of ethanol, yielding a considerably higher amount of net energy (up to 130% more than conversion of sugars into ethanol and bagasse into power) and then synthesised into liquids ready for shipment.

Oxford Catalysts and Novus Energy will pool their expertise and proprietary technologies to design and deploy exactly such on-site units for the processing of organic wastes into fuel-grade alcohols. Both companies are currently working together under contract to design and build a pilot plant unit which will demonstrate the operation of the combined technologies during the first half of 2008.

Novus Energy's core product, fuel-grade ethanol, can be efficiently produced from the organic waste generated by a variety of food and agricultural processors, landfills and municipal wastewater treatment plants. Novel, patented, anaerobic bio-digester technology applied to the processing of the waste at such sites will produce large volumes of methane-rich biogas, which will then be converted into feedstock for Novus Energy’s novel, patented alcohol production technology. The heart of Novus Energy's 'Renewable Gas-to-Liquid' (RGL) process is based on allowing syngas to flow under specific temperatures and pressures through a catalyst-filled alcohol reactor. After exiting the reactor, gaseous alcohols are removed by condensation, while un-reacted syngas is cycled back to the reactor inlet for reprocessing.

Oxford Catalysts’ technology will provide and improve key links between the biogas generation and the alcohol synthesis steps. The key platform technology to be used in the process is Catalytic Partial Oxidation (CPOx) of methane, based on a novel class of catalysts made from metal carbides which, for certain reactions, can match or exceed the benefits of traditional precious metal catalysts at a lower cost. Applications of these metal-carbide catalysts include the removal of sulphur from crude oil fractions (known as hydro-desulphurisation or HDS), the conversion of natural gas or coal into virtually sulphur-free liquid fuels via the Fischer-Tropsch reaction (known as the GTL and CTL processes respectively), and the transformation of biogas (waste methane) into syngas - the building block of liquid fuels:
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The strategic alliance provides funding for Oxford Catalysts to further develop key steps of the process, and to design subsequent large-scale facilities. Once these plants come on stream, Oxford Catalysts will earn a royalty income based on sales revenue of fuel-grade alcohols from each unit.

Novus Energy has announced plans to roll out dozens of on site facilities in the US over a period of five years or so, designed to deliver clean, locally produced and supplied renewable fuels. Novus Energy is also planning to introduce the technology into Europe, where a similar number of facilities are also planned. According to the Strategic Alliance Agreement, Oxford Catalysts’ role in these plans is projected to generate revenues of up to £100,000 in 2008, rising to an average of up to $750,000 p.a. royalty income per facility (depending on the market price for fuel-grade alcohols at the time) once the full-scale on site units come on stream, with the first such unit expected in 2009-2010.

Fuel-grade alcohols can be made from specially grown crops, such as sugar cane and corn, but these first-generation bio-fuels consume significant amounts of water, land and energy in their production. Not only do they result in a limit reduction of carbon footprint, they also compete with food production leading to unfortunate consequences for food prices worldwide. In contrast, second-generation biofuels, such as those which will be produced by the Strategic Alliance, use organic waste instead, converting it on site into fuel-grade alcohols that are clean, green and truly sustainable.

Novus Energy, [brings] complementary technology and expertise to this exciting and innovative waste-to-energy alliance. Together we will address the rapidly growing need for truly renewable, clean, sustainable transport fuels, and share in the significant revenue potential which this opportunity presents. - Roy Lipski, Chief Executive of Oxford Catalysts

Oxford Catalysts Group PLC designs and develops specialty catalysts for the generation of clean fuels from both conventional fossil fuels and certain renewable sources such as biomass. Its patent-pending technology is the result of almost 20 years of research at the University of Oxford's prestigious Wolfson Catalysis Centre, headed by Professor Malcolm Green, one of the world's most respected inorganic chemists. Oxford Catalysts was founded by Professor Green and Dr Xiao in October 2004 and was admitted to trading on the AIM market of the London Stock Exchange on 26th April 2006, having raised £15m before expenses from a solid base of institutional investors.

Oxford Catalysts' strategy is to license its catalysts for commercial application by entering into co-development partnerships with leading manufacturers, producers and suppliers in the petroleum, petrochemicals, fuel cells, biogas, steam applications and catalysis markets.

Besides metal carbides, the company has a second platform technology which relates to chemical reactions involving a liquid containing a renewable fuel, such as methanol, ethanol or glycerol, and dilute hydrogen peroxide. The company's novel catalyst can be used to release hydrogen gas from this liquid, instantaneously starting from room temperature. This groundbreaking Instant Hydrogen technology has the potential to significantly accelerate the commercial adoption of fuel cells in the portable and other mobile markets, by providing the much needed source of cheap, safe, transportable hydrogen.

Another of the company's catalysts can be used to produce steam at temperatures between 100ºC and 800ºC+ instantaneously starting from room temperature, from a liquid fuel containing dilute hydrogen peroxide and either an alcohol, sugar, glycerol, starch or formic acid. Such Instant Steam could have important applications in a broad range of markets, from cleaning and disinfecting, to green energy in the form of motive power or electricity.

Novus Energy, LLC, a Minnesota (U.S.A.) renewable fuels development company, was organized in 2004 to design, fabricate and rollout high-yield fuel-grade alcohol facilities, using organic waste materials as the fuel feedstock. The Company’s proprietary process generates methane-rich biogas from advanced anaerobic digestion methods, and converts the biogas to ethanol and higher alcohols using a novel renewable gas-to-liquid (RGLTM) process. The company currently has contracts to build refineries at a North Dakota sugar beet processor, a Minneapolis landfill, at an Idaho potato plant, and at an Iowa site converting farm corn stover and hog waste. The first full-scale facility is expected to be operational in 2009-2010.

Oxford Catalysts: Waste-to-Energy Strategic Alliance to Deliver Royalty Income - January 7, 2008.

Biopact: Salzburg AG opens biomethane gas stations in Austria: driving on pure grass - November 24, 2007

Colen, F., Pasqual, A., "Sugar cane (Saccharum sp.) juice energetic potential as substrate in UASB reactor", Energia na Agricultura, 2003, Vol. 18, No. 4, pp. 58-71

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