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    Taiwan's Feng Chia University has succeeded in boosting the production of hydrogen from biomass to 15 liters per hour, one of the world's highest biohydrogen production rates, a researcher at the university said Friday. The research team managed to produce hydrogen and carbon dioxide (which can be captured and stored) from the fermentation of different strains of anaerobes in a sugar cane-based liquefied mixture. The highest yield was obtained by the Clostridium bacterium. Taiwan News - November 14, 2008.

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Saturday, February 02, 2008

Scientists unveil mechanical gas capture and storage technique based on nanovalves

A team of Canadian chemists has unveiled an innovative process for capturing and storing gases based on nano-scale molecular valves, with potential applications in biogas and hydrogen, as well as in managing greenhouse gases in industrial operations. The invention is described in a paper published in the current online version of Nature Materials.
This is a proof of concept that represents an entirely new way of storing gas, not just improving on a method that already exists. We have come up with a material that mechanically traps gas at high densities without having to use high pressures, which require special storage tanks and generate safety concerns. - George Shimizu, professor of Chemistry at University of Calgary
The "molecular nanovalves" are based on the orderly crystal structure of a barium organotrisulfonate. The researchers developed a unique solid structure with this material that is able to convert from a series of open channels to a collection of air-tight chambers. The transition happens quickly and is controlled simply by heating the material to close the nanovalves, then adding water to the substance to re-open them and release the trapped gas.

Metal–organic frameworks have demonstrated functionality stemming from both robustness and pliancy and as such, offer promise for a broad range of new materials. The flexible aspect of some of these solids is intriguing for so-called 'smart' materials in that they could structurally respond to an external stimulus.

It is on the basis of such a stimulus-responsive framework that the gas capture device was developed: an open-channel metal–organic framework that, on dehydration, shifts structure to form closed pores in the solid. This occurs through multiple single-crystal-to-single-crystal transformations such that snapshots of the mechanism of solid-state conversion can be obtained.
Notably, the gas composing the atmosphere during dehydration becomes trapped in the closed pores. On rehydration, the pores open to release the trapped gas. For this reason, the new material represents a thermally robust and porous material that is capable of dynamically capturing and releasing gas in a controlled manner:
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The researchers from the University of Calgary and the Steacie Institute for Molecular Sciences (National Research Council of Canada) say it represents a novel method of gas storage that could yield benefits for capturing, storing and transporting a range of important gases more safely and efficiently.

The paper includes video footage of the process taking place under a microscope, showing gas bubbles escaping from the crystals with the introduction of water.
The process is highly controllable and because we're not breaking any strong chemical bonds, the material is completely recyclable and can be used indefinitely. - Shimizu
The team intends to continue developing the nanovalve concept by trying to create similar structures using lighter chemicals such as sodium and lithium and structures that are capable of capturing the lightest and smallest of all gases - hydrogen and helium.

These materials could help push forward the development of hydrogen fuel cells and the creation of filters to catch and store gases like CO2 or hydrogen sulfide from industrial operations, says co-author David Cramb.

Capturing and storing (or transforming) greenhouse gases from industrial operations is becoming increasingly important for a transition towards a future low-carbon world. For biofuels in particular, capturing CO2 from the production process is important to improve the greenhouse gas balance of the fuel. The new gas capture technique also has potential applications in capturing and storing biomethane, a fuel obtained from the anaerobic digestion of organic waste.


Brett D. Chandler, Gary D. Enright, Konstantin A. Udachin, Shane Pawsey, John A. Ripmeester, David T. Cramb & George K. H. Shimizu, "Mechanical gas capture and release in a network solid via multiple single-crystalline transformations", Nature Materials, advance online publication Published online: 20 January 2008, doi:10.1038/nmat2101.

University of Calgary: Rounding up gases, nano style - February 1, 2008.

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TU Delft launches bionanoscience initiative

The Technical University of Delft, in the Netherlands, announces it is creating a new Bionanoscience department. Bionanotech concerns research at the meeting point of biology and nanotechnology and is as yet largely unexplored. It is expected to become one of the key scientific fields of the 21st century with potential applications in medicine, industrial biotechnology, biofuels, agriculture and many other fiels. Over the next decade, TU Delft is set to invest €10 million derived from strategic assets in the new Bionanoscience department, which will form part of the university’s Kavli Institute of Nanoscience. Last week, the Kavli Foundation also agreed to help support the initiative financially by donating US$5 million.

Bionanoscience is the discipline where biology and nanoscience meet. The molecular building blocks of living cells are the focus of bionanoscience. The nanotechnology toolkit enables the precise depiction, study and control of biological molecules. This creates new insights into the fundamental workings of living cells. Furthermore, it is increasingly possible to use the elements of the cell, to the extent that – in a new disruptive field like synthetic biology – gene regulation systems, artificial biomolecules and nanoparticles can be developed and applied within the cells.

The incorporation of new biological building blocks in cells is highly promising for applications in, for instance, medical science and industrial biotechnology. This link to synthetic biology makes bionanoscience highly relevant in the quest to design dedicated bioconversion organisms for the efficient production of bioproducts and biofuels (more here).

Science at the interface of nanotechnology and biotechnology is also seen as having a wide range of potential applications in agriculture and bioconversion: from nanoprocessing biomass for cellulosic ethanol, to the development of nano-catalysts and nano-channels for plant oil based fuels; from cellulose nano-crystals and fibre-enhanced bioplastics, to the design of micro-dosing technologies for nutrients, fertilisers and pesticides, to intelligent nano-bio-sensors and environmental sensors that improve agriculture and make it more sustainable (previous post).

TU Delft's Faculty of Applied Sciences’ new Bionanoscience department will explore the full spectrum from nanoscience to cell biology to synthetic biology, and as such will naturally and strategically complement the activities of the existing Nanoscience and Biotechnology departments.

Investment in biologically oriented fundamental research and its potential applications is of great strategic importance to TU Delft:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

This research field is new and has a bright future, and the research into individual cells is at the cutting edge of science and technology. Cell biology is becoming increasingly an engineering discipline: the traditional approach of the biologist is rapidly changing into that of the engineer. This is the motivation behind TU Delft’s strategic decision to add bionanoscience to its research portfolio and by doing so enhance its international position and profile.

In addition to TU Delft’s €10m contribution, last week the Kavli Foundation also decided that it is willing to donate US$5m to the bionanoscience initiative. The new department will work closely with the Nanoscience and Biotechnology departments and will ultimately be the same size as the existing departments in the Faculty of Applied Sciences. To this end, the next few years will see an intensive recruitment drive to attract about 15 top scientists to the department.

Initial steps have already been taken towards creating structural European cooperation: the prestigious European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg has indicated its willingness to work together with TU Delft bionanoscientists. EMBL is a major potential partner, in particular in view of the EMBL’s expertise in the field of molecular cell biology. Further discussions on cooperation will be held with representatives from EMBL during a Kavli-EMBL workshop in Delft on 12 and 13 February.

AlphaGalileo: TU Delft launches bionanoscience initiative - February 1, 2008.

Biopact: A quick look at nanotechnology in agriculture, food and bioenergy - December 13, 2006

Biopact: Scientists create first synthetic bacterial genome - importance for biofuels - January 25, 2008

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Friday, February 01, 2008

A380 test flight on GTL fuel kicks off Airbus alternative fuel program - includes biofuels

EADS today announced that an Airbus A380 aircraft has successfully completed the world’s first ever flight by a commercial aircraft using a liquid fuel processed from gas (Gas-to-Liquids - GTL). The flight from Filton, UK to Toulouse, France, lasted three hours. This test in the first stage of a programme to evaluate the environmental impact of alternative fuels in the airline market, which includes research into Biomass-to-Liquids fuels (BTL - synthetic biofuels).

The A380, today’s most fuel efficient airliner, is powered by Rolls Royce Trent 900 engines. Shell International Petroleum provided the Shell GTL Jet Fuel. The tests are running in parallel to the agreement signed in November 2007 with the Qatar GTL consortium partners and the results will be shared.

The A380 was chosen because the aircraft is already the environmental benchmark in air travel. It has four engines including segregated fuel tanks making it ideal for engine shut down and re-light tests under standard evaluation conditions. During the flight, engine number one was fed with a blend of GTL and jet fuel whilst the remaining three were fed with standard jet fuel.

This test flight initiates Airbus’ alternatives fuels research programme. GTL could be available at certain locations to make it a practical and viable drop-in alternative fuel for commercial aviation in the short term. GTL has attractive characteristics for local air quality, as well as some benefits in terms of aircraft fuel burn relative to existing jet fuel. For instance, it is virtually free of sulphur. Synthetic fuel can be made from a range of hydrocarbon source material including natural gas or biomass, via the Fischer-Tropsch process.

Testing GTL today will support future second generation biofuels, but which are not presently available in sufficient commercial quantities. Airbus says it will study viable second generation biofuels when they become available:
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Fuel and environment are key challenges aviation is facing and for which technology and international research collaboration open up new horizons. Our alternative fuels roadmap requires innovation, diversity of ideas and options that need to be explored. This takes bold cross industry and cross border collaboration and that's what we are showing today with our groundbreaking first test flight with alternative fuels. It is part and parcel of Airbus' commitment to providing leadership as an eco-efficient enterprise. - Tom Enders, Airbus President and CEO
Airbus's trial comes at a time when Virgin Atlantic is expected to test the world's first large civilian aircraft on biofuel. It announced the test flight will take place this month. The aircraft will be a Boeing 747. Virgin has not disclosed which biofuel it will be utilizing on that historic occasion.

With Airbus' test flight today and its announcement that it too will research next-generation biofuels, all major aircraft manufacturers (Airbus, Boeing, Embraer and others) now have initiated programs to research renewable biofuels for aviation.

In December, the United States Air Force conducted the first ever transcontinental flight of a large aircraft - a C17 - on a synthetic fuel. The flight followed successful tests of the fuel blend in C-17 engines in October, and was the next step in the Air Force's effort to have its entire C-17 fleet certified to use the mixture. Air Force officials certified B-52 Stratotankers to use the mixture in August, and hope to certify the fuel blend for use in all its aircraft within the next five years (previous post).

EADS: Airbus Completes First Test Flight With Alternative Fuel On Civil Aircraft - February 1, 2008.

EADS: Airbus A380 Commences Alternative Fuel Test Flight Programme - February 1, 2008.

Biopact: USAF C-17 makes first ever transcontinental flight on synthetic fuel blend - December 18, 2007

Biopact: Virgin Atlantic to test biofuel in 747 in early 2008 - October 16, 2007

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British Columbia launches Bioenergy Strategy: electricity self sufficiency with biomass, zero GHG emissions from power, 50% biofuels by 2020

British Columbia's govrnment announced the launch of the province's comprehensive Bioenergy Strategy [*.pdf]. The framework aims to make the Canadian province entirely electricity self-sufficient by 2016 by relying on biomass. The emphasis on bioenergy will also lead to meeting the target of achieving zero new emissions from energy generation projects. Moreover, bioenergy and biofuels are to make up 50 per cent of all renewable fuels in the province by 2020.

The plan covers investments over the coming decennium into the broadest range of bioenergy sectors: bio-electricity, bioproducts, organic waste-to-energy, next-generation liquid biofuels such as cellulosic ethanol and gasification based biofuels, biohydrogen and biogas (timeline, click to enlarge).

According to the government, the Bioenergy Strategy will create new opportunities for rural communities; spur new investment and innovation; help British Columbia reach the goal of achieving full energy security, and help it fight climate change in a drastic way.

The BC Bioenergy Strategy includes:
  • Establishment of $25 million in funding for a provincial Bioenergy Network for greater investment and innovation in B.C. bioenergy projects and technologies
  • A target for B.C biofuel production to meet 50 per cent or more of the province’s renewable fuel requirements by 2020, which supports the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from transportation
  • The establishment of funding to advance provincial biodiesel production with up to $10 million over three years
  • Development of at least 10 community energy projects that convert local biomass into energy by 2020
  • Issuing a two-part Bioenergy Call for Power – the first part will be issued shortly, the second part by July 1, 2008 – focusing on existing biomass inventory in the forest industry and offering opportunities for smaller energy producers with projects that are immediately viable
  • Establishment one of Canada’s most comprehensive provincial biomass inventories that creates waste to energy opportunities
  • Support for methane capture from the province's largest landfills
  • Incentives to utilize waste wood from phased-out beehive burners to produce clean energy
  • Support for wood gasification research, development and commercialization
The plan further aims to develop the province’s bioenergy resources to enhance both the environmental and economic benefits for its people by collaborating with the Western Climate Initiative and the Pacific NorthWest Economic Region, creating First Nations bioenergy opportunities and providing energy providers with information to develop new opportunities.

The proposed Bioenergy Network will:
  • Support wood gasification research, development and commercialization in collaboration with the University of Northern British Columbia, University of British Columbia, Forest Products Innovation, the National Research Council, the forestry and energy sectors, industry and other partners.
  • Advance biorefining for multiple, value-added product streams, such as biochemicals, in conjunction with bioenergy production in new facilities and/or at existing industrial operations by working with the BC Bioproducts Association, First Nations, agricultural and forest sectors.
  • Encourage the development of pilot and demonstration projects with industries and communities in key biomass resource areas.
  • Support research into socially and environmentally responsible dedicated energy crop production and enhance enzymatic and other biotechnology solutions for biomass-to-energy conversion.
  • Advance the development of biofuels, such as cellulosic ethanol and renewable diesel from algae and other resources, through the Green Energy and Environmentally Friendly Chemical Technologies Project and other initiatives.
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The network will strengthen the development of world-class bioenergy research and technology expertise in British Columbia. This will include the creation of at least one academic leadership chair in bioenergy.
There is an abundance of bioenergy opportunities, such as using biomass created out of the mountain pine beetle outbreak that can stimulate investment and economic diversification while producing clean energy. - Gordon Campbell, British Columbia's Premier

B.C. has half of Canada’s entire biomass electricity-generating capacity. This strategy helps forest-dependent communities and brings opportunity to the agriculture sector as it looks at recovering maximum value from beetle-killed timber, wood wastes, and agricultural residues to generate renewable energy. - Rich Coleman, Forests and Range Minister
Additionally, the bioenergy strategy will help facilitate the closure of beehive burners and divert the waste stream for energy production, increase production and utilization of biofuels including biodiesel and facilitate production of anaerobic digestion bioenergy to address waste anagement
challenges posed by the agricultural industry. The Province will also work with industry to develop new fine particulate standards for industrial boilers to improve air quality.

B.C. leads Canada in energy production from biomass. Over 800 megawatts of biomass electricity capacity is installed in the province, enough to power 640,000 households. Pulp and paper mills meet over a third of their electricity needs through cogeneration of electricity and steam on site. In 2007, the B.C. wood pellet industry produced over 900,000 tonnes of wood pellets, of which 90 per cent was exported for thermal power production overseas.

Encouraging the emerging bioenergy industry and developing new and innovative uses for beetle-wood is part of the provincial Mountain Pine Beetle Action Plan.

British Columbia, Office of the Premier, Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources, Ministry of Forests and Range: New Bioenergy Strategy Advances Innovation - January 31, 2008.

British Columbia Energy Plan: British Columbia Bioenergy Strategy [*.pdf].

British Columbia Energy Plan: Bioenergy Information Guide [*.pdf].

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Welcome to the Anthropocene?

An international team of geologists is proposing that since the Industrial Revolution humankind has so changed the earth that it has brought about an end to one epoch of earth’s history and marked the start of another. They believe that human dominance has so physically altered the earth itself that the Holocene epoch has ended and we have entered a new epoch - the Anthropocene.

In the open access article "Are we now living in the Anthropocene?", published in the journal GSA Today, the scientists examined phenomena such as changes in the patterns of sediment erosion and deposition, major disturbances to the carbon cycle and global temperature, ocean acidification and wholesale changes to the world’s plants and animals.
Human activity has become the number one driver of most of the major changes in Earth's topography and climate. You can’t have 6.5 billion people living on a planet the size of ours and exploiting every possible resource without creating huge changes in the physical, chemical and biological environment which will be reflected dramatically in our geological record of the planet. - Dr Andrew Gale, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Portsmouth
The Holocene epoch the researchers think is now ending, is a geological period which began approximately 11,550 years ago. It is part of the Neogene and Quaternary periods and can be considered as an interglacial in the current ice age. In 2002, Paul Crutzen, a Nobel Prize–winning chemist, however suggested that we had left the Holocene and had entered a new Epoch — the Anthropocene — because of the global environmental effects of increased human population and economic development.

Members of the Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society of London now amplify and extend the discussion of the effects referred to by Crutzen and then apply the same criteria used to set up new epochs to ask whether there really is justification or need for a new term, and if so, where and how its boundary might be placed. In their paper, the scientists present the scholarly groundwork for consideration by the International Commission on Stratigraphy for formal adoption of the Anthropocene as the youngest epoch of, and most recent addition to, the earth's geological timescale.

Human influence altering the Holocene
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the global human population was some 300 million at A.D. 1000, 500 million at A.D. 1500, and 790 million by A.D. 1750 and exploitation of energy was limited mostly to firewood and muscle power. Early to mid-Holocene increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide ranged from 260 to 280 ppm, a factor in the climatic warmth of this interval, the result of forest clearance by humans. Human activity was not absent in the creation of Holocene strate, but it did not create new, global environmental conditions that could translate into a fundamentally different stratigraphic signal.

In contrast, from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution to the present day, global human population has climbed rapidly from under a billion to its current 6.5 billion (Fig. 1, click to enlarge), and it continues to rise. The exploitation of coal, oil, and gas in particular has enabled planet-wide industrialization, construction, and mass transport, the ensuing changes encompassing a wide variety of phenomena, which can be summarised under the following headings:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Changes to Physical Sedimentation
Humans have caused a dramatic increase in erosion and the denudation of the continents, both directly, through agriculture and construction, and indirectly, by damming most major rivers, that now exceeds natural sediment production by an order of magnitude.

Carbon Cycle Perturbation and Temperature
Carbon dioxide levels (379 ppm in 2005) are over a third higher than in pre-industrial times and at any time in the past 0.9 million years. Conservatively, these levels are predicted to double by the end of the twenty-first century. Methane concentrations in the atmosphere have already roughly doubled. These changes have been considerably more rapid than those associated with glacial-interglacial transitions. Global temperature has lagged behind this increase in greenhouse gas levels, but temperatures in the past century rose overall, with the rate of increase accelerating in the past two decades. Temperature is predicted to rise by 1.1 °C to 6.4 °C by the end of this century, leading to global temperatures not encountered since the Tertiary.

Biotic Change
Humans have caused extinctions of animal and plant species, possibly as early as the late Pleistocene, with the disappearance of a large proportion of the terrestrial megafauna. Accelerated extinctions and biotic population declines on land have spread into the shallow seas, notably on coral reefs. The current rate of biotic change may produce a major extinction event. The projected temperature rise will certainly cause changes in habitat beyond environmental tolerance for many taxa.

The effects of these temperature changes will be more severe than in past extinction waves because, with the anthropogenic fragmentation of natural ecosystems, “escape” routes are fewer.
The combination of extinctions, global species migrations, and the widespread replacement of natural vegetation with agricultural monocultures is producing a distinctive contemporary biostratigraphic signal. These effects are permanent, as future evolution will take place from surviving (and frequently anthropogenically relocated) stocks. - Jan Zalasiewicz, et. al.
Sea-level change
Pre-industrial mid- to late Holocene sea-level stability has followed a 120m rise from the late Pleistocene level. Slight rises in sea level have been noted over the past century, ascribed to a combination of ice melt and thermal expansion of the oceans. The rate and extent of near-future sealevel rise depends on a range of factors that affect snow production and ice melt. In its latest report, the IPCC predicted a 0.19–0.58 m rise by 2100.

This prediction however does not factor in recent evidence of dynamic ice-sheet behavior and accelerating ice loss possibly analogous to those preceding “Heinrich events” of the late Pleistocene and early Holocene, when repeated episodes of ice-sheet collapse caused concomitant rapid sea-level rise. Current predictions are short-term, while changes to the final equilibrium state may be as large as a 10–30 m sea-level rise per 1 °C temperature rise.

Ocean acidification
Relative to pre-Industrial Revolution oceans, surface ocean waters are now 0.1 pH units more acidic due to anthropogenic carbon release. The future amount of this acidification, scaled to projected future carbon emissions, its spread through the ocean water column, and its eventual neutralization (over many millennia) has been modeled: projected effects will be physical (neutralization of the excess acid by dissolution of ocean-floor carbonate sediment, hence creating a widespread non sequence) and biological (hindering carbonate-secreting organisms in building their skeletons), with potentially severe effects in both benthic (especially coral reef) and planktonic settings.
The sensitivity of climate to greenhouse gases, and the scale of (historically) modern biotic change, makes it likely that we have entered a stratigraphic interval without close parallel in any previous Quaternary interglacial. - Jan Zalasiewicz, et. al.
The scientists conclude that the Anthropocene might evolve into a “super-interglacial” , with Earth reverting to climates and sea levels last seen in warmer phases of the Miocene or Pliocene, most likely achieved via a geologically abrupt rearrangement of the ocean-atmosphere system. Such a warm phase will likely last considerably longer than normal Quaternary interglacials. It is not clear that an equilibrium comparable to that of pre-industrial Quaternary time will eventually resume, they write.

Figure: Comparison of some major stratigraphically significant trends over the past 15,000 yr. Trends typical of the bulk of immediately pre-Holocene and Holocene time are compared with those of the past two centuries. Credit: Zalasiewicz J, et al., GSA Today.


Zalasiewicz J, Williams M, Smith A, Barry TL, Coe AL, et al. (2008), "Are we now living in the Anthropocene", GSA Today: Vol. 18, No. 2 pp. 4–8

AlphaGalileo: Man's impact on the planet brings about new epoch in earth's history - January 31, 2008.

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Study: biofuels industry added 10% to Iowa's GDP in 2007

A study prepared for the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association (IRFA) details the dramatic impact the growing renewable fuels industry has on Iowa’s economy. Biodiesel and ethanol production and the construction of new biorefineries proves to be a major force in driving Iowa’s economy forward, especially in rural communities. The sector added as much as 10% to Iowa's GDP in 2007. The report titled "Contribution of the Biofuels Industry to the Economy of Iowa" [*.pdf], was prepared by economist John Urbanchuk, a director with LECG, LLC.

Its main findings are that the sector has added substantial value to agricultural commodities produced in Iowa, has brough a large number of jobs, and has made a significant contribution to the state's economy. Based on the size of the biofuels industry at year-end 2007, ethanol and biodiesel:
  • Added $12.7 billion, or about 10 percent, to Iowa GDP
  • Generate $2.9 billion of household income for Iowa households
  • Supported the creation or retention of more than 96,000 jobs through the entire Iowa economy
  • Generated nearly $790 million in state tax revenue
Details are outlined in table 1 (click to enlarge).

Critics will say that these dramatic benefits are only possible because the sector is heavily subsidised (previous post). Moreover, it is unclear how heavy the indirect social and environmental costs of the mainly corn-based ethanol industry in Iowa are: the international effect of increased food prices, especially on the urban poor in maize importing countries, must be taken into account.

What is more, the potential local environmental costs - such as water depletion, nitrogen runoff, etc - as well as the effects of the complex "displacement effect" should not be underestimated. This displacement effect, which consists of indirect land-use changes, seems to be playing out in Brazil, where deforestation recently shot up in a rush to produce more soybeans as the U.S. shifts land from soy to corn (previous post). However, these effects are difficult to measure or to establish with certainty.

Nonetheless, the IRFA sees the numbers as proof of the fact that the biofuels industry is capable of bringing major local social and economic benefits:
Corn and soybean prices are up. Land values are up. Household income is up. State tax revenue is up. The common denominator is renewable fuels. John Urbanchuk’s report paints a dramatic picture of the far-reaching positive impacts of producing biodiesel and ethanol in Iowa. But the best news is that we’re just getting started. The new 36-billon gallon federal renewable fuels standard will drive the industry forward and Iowa will remain front and center. - Monte Shaw, IRFA Executive Director
Nationally, total ethanol capacity expanded 37 percent to 7.5 billion gallons. Iowa is the largest biofuels producer accounting for 31 percent of U.S. ethanol and 20 percent of biodiesel production capacity. At the end of 2007 Iowa’s 28 operating ethanol plants had operating capacity of more than 2 billion gallons and its 14 biodiesel plants had 318 million gallons of capacity. In addition, three ethanol plants are expanding production and 14 new ethanol plants and two new biodiesel plants are under construction. When completed, these new plants will increase Iowa’s biofuel production capacity by nearly 70 percent:
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With its new Energy Bill, the United States has set itself on a track to become a major biofuels producer that will ensure 20% of all transport fuel consumption comes from renewable, bio-based fuels by 2022.

Under the bill, the Renewable Fuels Standard increases to 36 billion gallons (136 billion liters) by 2022, roughly the equivalent of between 1.8 and 2 million barrels of oil per day. Of that amount, corn ethanol production is capped at 15 billion gallons per year starting in 2015 (56.8 billion liters), a three-fold increase of current production levels; the remainder is expected to be provided by 'advanced biofuels', the majority of which are cellulosic biofuels. In the final year of the standard (2022), cellulosic biofuels should contribute more (16 billion gallons) than does corn ethanol (15 billion gallons) (previous post).

In an earlier report, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) showed that the biofuels industry in the U.S. has brought farm income to all-time record highs. The USDA's Economic Research Service (ERS) showed in its annual Agricultural Income and Finance Outlook, that net farm income reached $87.5 billion in 2007, up $28.5 billion from 2006 and exceeding the 2004 record (more here).

John M. Urbanchuk, Contribution of the Biofuels Industry to the Economy of Iowa [*.pdf], report prepared for the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, LECG LLC, January 2008.

IRFA: Renewable Fuels Power Iowa Economy ) New Study Outlines Dramatic Increases in Job Creation and Household Income as Renewable Fuels Industry Grows - January 31, 2008.

Biopact: US becomes biofuel nation as Congress approves Energy Bill - December 19, 2007

Biopact: Scientist: U.S. corn subsidies drive deforestation in the Amazon - January 04, 2008

Biopact: Subsidies for uncompetitive U.S. biofuels cost taxpayers billions - report -
October 26, 2006

Biopact: USDA: Biofuels lead to all-time record farm income in the United States - December 17, 2007

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Thursday, January 31, 2008

Oxford Catalysts announces expansion of catalyst research capacity: towards ultra-clean synthetic biofuels

New catalysts could hold the key to developing cleaner and greener synthetic (bio)fuels. As part of its mission to produce such fuels, Oxford Catalysts announces it is expanding its laboratory facilities and investing in additional analytical equipment to speed up the development of new catalysts, including new Fischer Tropsch (FT) and hydrodesulphurisation (HDS) catalysts. These types of catalyst play an important role in processes such as gas-to-liquids (GTL) and coal-to-liquids (CTL) which are used to convert feedstocks such as natural gas and coal into liquid fuels. FT catalysts are also important in the emerging field of biomass-to-liquids (BTL) which yields ultra-clean synthetic biofuels from lignocellulosic biomass.
Developing new catalysts can be a time consuming process, and each catalyst has to be custom-made for a particular application to suit a customer's requirements. Having this expanded lab facility will allow us to carry out the necessary testing to provide our customers with the essential information they need about a catalyst more quickly. It will also help us to develop further new and innovative catalysts at a rate that will allow us to meet demand for new applications within the clean fuels area as they continue to arise. - Derek Atkinson, Business Development Director, Oxford Catalysts
The expansion, due to begin at the end of January 2008, will involve a total investment of over £1 (€1.34/$1.98) million, and will more than double the floor space of the existing laboratory facilities. As part of the project, Oxford Catalysts has already purchased two Amtec Spider16 high throughput screening gas phase reactor systems. These are due to be brought into operation in March and April 2008. To supplement the rigs it already owns, it also plans to purchase three additional rigs, including a small scale Fischer-Tropsch (FT) rig, a reforming test rig, and a hydro-desulphurisation test rig, along with associated analytical and catalyst preparation equipment:
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In addition, Oxford Catalysts will be taking on the necessary technicians and catalyst preparation chemists needed to support the new equipment, as well as employing additional senior technology managers. In all, scientific staff numbers are expected to rise from the current 15 to around 23. The expansion is expected to be completed by July 2008. In the meantime, Oxford Catalysts will be posting regular progress updates on its website.

Fischer-Tropsch (FT) fuels are based on a reaction that is the key step in the process of converting natural gas (mainly methane), coal or biomass into virtually sulphur-free liquid fuels, such as gasoline or diesel. It uses hydrogen gas and carbon monoxide – known as syngas – to make waxes which are then split into liquid fuels. Oxford Catalysts' FT catalysts are carbide-based.

Trials at the University of Oxford showed that in comparison with the leading industrial catalysts, the FT carbide catalysts had a greater cost effectiveness, double the productivity on a weight-for-weight basis, higher quality output, a tolerance to higher levels of water and carbon dioxide, making them particularly well-suited to CTL and BTL, where such contaminants are typically found.

Oxford Catalysts produces specialty catalysts for the generation of clean fuels, from both conventional fossil fuels and renewable sources such as biomass. Core products include catalysts for the following markets: petro/chemicals: removing sulphur from gasoline/diesel and converting natural gas or coal into ultra-clean liquid fuels; fuel Cells: generating hydrogen-on-demand from methanol starting at room temperature or from conventional hydrocarbon fuels by reforming at higher temperatures; biogas Conversion: transforming waste methane into the chemical building blocks of liquid fuels; portable steam: creating superheated steam instantaneously from methanol and hydrogen peroxide.

AlphaGalileo: Stepping on the gas: accelerating catalyst development for cleaner fuels - January 30, 2008.

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Scientists outline novel approach to ecosystem management: beyond imagined 'pristine' biomes

Traditional ecosystems in which communities of plants and animals have co-evolved and are interdependent are increasingly rare, due to human-induced ecosystem changes. As a result, historical assessments of ecosystem health are often inaccurate. Conservation and restoration efforts and public perceptions about "pristine" biomes based on these inaccuracies could lead to misguided ecosystem management practises. A novel approach must therefor be developed, says a team of scientists who present such a new vision in a paper posted this week on Frontiers e-View, the online prepress publication site of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, published by the Ecological Society of America.

The researchers suggest that such efforts should focus less on restoring ecosystems to their imagined "original state" and more on sustaining new, healthy ecosystems that can cope with current environmental change. Their work is congruent with that of a growing group of environmental researchers who say traditional ecology pays too much attention to increasingly rare "pristine" ecosystems while ignoring the overwhelming influence of humans on the environment. New environmental science therefor tends to look at ecosystems as "anthropogenic biomes" instead (previous post).

Timothy R. Seastedt (University of Colorado at Boulder), Richard J. Hobbs (Murdoch University in Australia) and Katharine N. Suding (University of California at Irvine) looked at ecosystem management studies from the past 12 years to develop a new approach to managing ecosystems in the face of increasing human impacts.
The focus of ecological study should not simply recognize change, but should acknowledge that current systems have already been transformed and are in the process of transforming further. - Seastedt et al.
Historically, ecosystems have passed through discrete stages over time, based on a cycle of predictable disturbances. The authors define this variation as the historical range of variability for a particular geographic area. Many human factors contribute to moving an ecosystem away from its historical range of variability, including the composition of gases in the atmosphere, climate change, invasions of non-native species, extinctions and land fragmentation effects.

In the modern era, human activities augment and promote these disturbances, affecting ecosystems more rapidly and with a broader scope than traditional disturbances. Major permanent ecosystem changes are therefore much more likely. Environmental changes of this magnitude often produce "novel ecosystems", combinations of animals, plants and environmental regimes that have never occurred before.
Most ecosystems are now sufficiently altered in structure and function to qualify as novel systems, and this recognition should be the starting point for ecosystem management efforts. Under the emerging biogeochemical configurations, management activities are experiments, blurring the line between basic and applied research. - Seastedt et al.
As the authors point out, "In managing novel ecosystems, the point is not to think outside the box, but to recognize that the box itself has moved, and in the 21st Century, will continue to move increasingly rapidly."

Problems with traditional ecology
Management experts traditionally looked at so-called "pristine" systems when devising management strategies for novel ecosystems, the goal being to restore ecosystems to their presumed historical state. However, the authors of this paper see two problems with this approach. First, such untouched ecosystems are rare if not completely absent from our planet, and therefore cannot be used for comparison:
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Second, current management practices often try to fix past mistakes by focusing on one aspect of an ecosystem, such as eradicating invasive species. The authors point out, however, that in many cases this approach results solely in the removal of a negative factor and does nothing to improve the health of the ecosystem. For example, once an invasive plant species is removed, if no further action is taken, there is plenty of room for other invasive species to colonize the area.

The solution, according to the authors, involves acknowledging the current level of change in an ecosystem and using innovative approaches to ensure that the novel ecosystem is resilient to further change. As an example, the authors cite a rare tall-grass ecosystem in which selective grazing by cows can be an effective replacement for seasonal fires that are actively suppressed due to the proximity to a highway.

Currently, however, enthusiasm and funding are in short supply for these types of management efforts, since policy makers and the public tend to demand short-term results rather than looking at the longer term benefits. The researchers conclude that ecologists should assume the role of liaison between lawmakers and managers:
Scientists provide an appropriate interface between stakeholders and managers. Awareness among stakeholders, policy makers, and managers of the realities of current and future ecosystem changes is essential to generate management strategies that have positive rather than neutral or negative outcomes. - Seasteadt et al.

The Ecological Society of America is the world's largest professional organization of ecologists, representing 10,000 scientists in the United States and around the globe. Since its founding in 1915, ESA has promoted the responsible application of ecological principles to the solution of environmental problems through ESA reports, journals, research, and expert testimony to Congress.

Picture: restored tallgrass prairie in the U.S. Scientists urge ecosystem managers to go beyond imagined "pristine" conditions and instead make existing systems integrate with change and more resilient to it. Credit: Tallgrass Prairie Center.

Timothy R Seastedt, Richard J Hobbs, and Katharine N Suding, "Management of novel ecosystems: are novel approaches required?", Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, Volume preprint, Issue 2008 (January 2008) pp. 0000–0000, DOI: 10.1890/070046

Eurekalert: Scientists outline novel approach to ecosystem management - January 31, 2008.

Biopact: Environmental researchers propose radical 'human-centric' map of the world - November 26, 2007

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India lauches first biofuels and bioenergy science centre at University of Mumbai to develop advanced fuels

India's Department of Biotechnology (DBT) at the Ministry of Science & Technology has funded [*.doc] the establishment of the country's first Centre of Energy Biosciences (CEB). The CEB, which is funded at Rs24 crore (€4.1/$6.1 million) and aims to raise an additional Rs16 crore (€2.7/$4 million), has received the specific task of developing cutting-edge biofuels, bioenergy and biohydrogen technologies capable of converting lignocellulosic biomass into transportation fuels. The centre will aim to develop bio-based renewables in order to reduce India’s rising dependence on petroleum fuels and to cut down emissions of greenhouse gases.

The Centre of Energy Biosciences will establish advanced pilot biofuel plants and create research partnerships with leading biotechnology, industry and academic organisations from India, the United States and other countries. Plant biotechnology, enzyme technology, metabolic engineering, and life cycle and technology assessments are focus areas. The CEB is to be established at the University Institute of Chemical Technology (UICT), the University of Mumbai's leading scientific institution.

The problem
Liquid petroleum fuel demand makes up more than 30% of India's total energy consumption of which petrol and diesel consumption together add up to about 65 million tons per year.

According to the UICT, a good part of this demand can be met through biomass resources. Primarily an agricultural economy, India produces about 200 million tons of waste biomass per year unfit for animal and human consumption. This lignocellulosic waste biomass, coupled with specially developed high yield energy crops that can be grown on India’s 30 million hectares of waste but marginally cultivable land, can together yield enough alcohol to meet country’s liquid fuel demand.

However, technologies that can be used to make the required alcohol fuels from waste biomass in an economically and ecologically sustainable manner are still under development. The DBT-UICT Centre of Energy Biosciences has therefor been given the specific responsibility of developing new cutting edge technologies and to integrating technology components developed elsewhere in the country under various research schemes, all with the aim of providing liquid biofuel for the country.
Lignocellulosic waste biomass can become the truly renewable source of bioethanol intended to be next generation liquid fuel. But the technology available today is only in pieces. We will set up a pilot scale plant incorporating all components of the technology to bring down cost capital as well cost of production. - Professor G D Yadav, co-director Centre of Energy Biosciences
Research partnerships
The technical program of the CEB is to be coordinated by Dr. Arvind Lali and will involve active scientific collaboration with industrial and academic partners. While the UICT will be involved in design, scale-up and in bringing all technologies together, India's MAHYCO Research Centre will assist in the development of new biomass and crop varieties; Novozymes South Asia Pvt. Ltd. India will help in enzyme development; the School of Chemical Engineering, Purdue University, USA and the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Centre for Resilience, Ohio State University, USA, will assist with bioconversion of sugars into fuels and is to provide mathematical modelling tools for it. Another bioconversion partner is Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, India:
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These collaborations will be in the specific areas of plant biotechnology, enzyme technology, metabolic engineering, and life cycle and technology assessment. Focus of the research and technology development program at the CEB will be on creating a vibrant bioscience and bioengineering platform for developing and demonstrating viable technologies for bio-alcohols, biodiesel, biohydrogen and other biofuels production.

The UICT has a proven track record of productive association with chemical and biotech industry and with many novel concepts currently under development it is confident of making significant contributions in the area of biofuel technologies in a short time. As a result of the Centre being established and valuable IPR being generated, UICT also expects to garner increasing participation from both private and public investors in its biofuel technology development program in the near future.

Part of the Centre's task is to support the development of India's own bio-based knowledge economy by keeping local science, research and development inside the country:
Unless technology and knowledge is generated by a particular country, the industry and wealth generated is not economical for that country. Our students should take up our own problems. This is what is meant by knowledge economy. - Professor J. B. Joshi, UICT Director
The CEB emerged as a result of the vision and efforts of Dr. M.K. Bhan, Secretary DBT and Dr. Renu Swarup, Advisor DBT, will function under the leadership of Dr. J.B. Joshi, Director of the UICT and Dr. G.D. Yadav.

UICT: DBT funds India's first Center of Energy Biosciences at UICT [*.doc] - s.d. [January] 2008.

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Native American tribes and grad students receive $3 million to tap forests and farms for biofuels in Washington

The University of Washington has launched a $3 million program that will team doctoral students, faculty and local Native American tribes to transform local forestry and agricultural waste into new generations of biofuels. The award for graduate education was awarded by the National Science Foundation.

The program's goals are to create a new generation of PhD graduates in sustainable energy, and develop local sources of renewable fuels. The students will learn to consider not only economic benefit, but the environmental and social implications of their designs. The program therefor takes a social, economic and environmental lifecycle or 'cradle-to-cradle' approach to bioenergy and biofuels from the very start.

The IGERT award, for Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training, funds six interdisciplinary doctoral students each year for five years. Program partners include the University of Washington's College of Engineering, the College of Forest Resources and the American Indian Studies Program.

The bioenergy experts in the making will follow a curriculum that includes topics like 'Sustainability & Design for Environment', 'Sustainable Resources in Indigenous Communities', 'Economics of Conservation', 'Plant-Microbe Interactions', 'Bio-fuel processing', 'Life Cycle Assessment', 'Engineering, Resource Management and Culture', and 'Technology Assessment in Indigenous Communities'. The centerpiece of the program is a two quarter multidisciplinary design and resource management project that will involve collaboration with Washington State Native American communities.

Local resources
Biofuels, energy sources from plants, are popular because they’re often domestically produced, renewable, and close to 'carbon-neutral' - meaning the plants suck up the same quantity of CO2 while growing that they release when converted into fuels and burned. But right now, biodiesel and ethanol are generally made from plants such as corn or soy imported from other states, or tropical oils imported from other nations. The new BioEnergy IGERT program will try to identify local alternatives.

A major emphasis will be forestry waste from the state's large forests (map, click to enlarge), the branches and debris that normally get burned or left behind to cause a fire hazard, and residue from paper mills. Students will also look at agricultural waste such as leftovers from apple and wheat crops. Converting these products to fuel creates a new source of energy and also reduces the quantity of material going to landfills and emissions from burning waste.

Transforming these wastes into a liquid fuel that fits in a gas tank is not easy. The alternative to first generation fuels based on easily extractible sugars, starches or oils, is cellulosic products, like wood or agricultural waste, which we can’t eat, but have repeating sugars embedded in their structures. These complex sugars are much more difficult to extract. But it is not impossible.

Cellulosic biofuels

According to Dan Schwartz, professor of chemical engineering and leader of the interdisciplinary group that has received the multimillion-dollar award, wood can be processed into a product that resembles brown sugar or molasses. These technologies do exist, he says, but they are not yet economical, nor can they be operated at sufficient scale right now:
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Students in the program will work on these types of engineering challenges for sustainable energy. They will also consider social and environmental impacts. The program emphasizes 'cradle-to-cradle' analyses that compare the overall impact of different energy sources. How much energy does it take to harvest and process the resource? Where does it go when it’s burned as fuel? Is it reducing the food supply? What would it take to do it on a large scale? Are there social benefits, such as increasing local employment?
Understanding the energy and environmental impacts of biomass production, transportation and conversion into biofuels allows us to engineer systems that maximize the benefits of switching to biofuels. - Joyce Cooper, associate professor of mechanical engineering who performs life-cycle assessments
Native Americans
Another major emphasis of the grant is working with Native American communities. Native Americans are underrepresented in doctoral programs and the project will recruit students from those communities, Schwartz said. Partners include the Yakama Nation in southern Washington and the Quinault Indian Nation on the Olympic Peninsula.

Washington state tribes’ natural resources are more valuable than those of tribes in any other state except for Alaska and California, said Tom Colonnese, director of the UW’s American Indian Studies program and member of the program board. The Yakama Nation, located on 1.2 million acres in south-central Washington, controls more forestry resources than any other Native American tribe in the country.

While each doctoral student in the program will work on a traditional thesis, each year’s class will work together on a group project on one of the Native reserves, solving an energy-related problem identified by one of the tribes.

Phil Rigdon, director of natural resources for the Yakama Nation and a graduate of the UW’s College of Forest Resources, said tribe members are discussing their options for sustainable energy. Plans include installing small-scale hydropower and wind energy projects. The collaboration with the UW may produce energy from forest and agricultural wastes.
We have significant natural resources, and to be able to convert some of that to energy would help our economy as well as provide jobs for our community. Working with people at the UW who are technically capable of the engineering is an important link to make this happen. - Phil Rigdon, member of the BioEnergy IGERT program's advisory board
Students will be asked to incorporate not just engineering constraints, but also address environmental, social and labor concerns in their designs. "We want appropriate energy technologies" Schwartz emphasized. "Whenever you hear someone present an energy solution and say, ’This is the solution,’ you know it’s wrong because there is no one solution for every situation"

The results could be applied to other forest- or agricultural-based communities in the state. And the skills the students learn will be prized by future employers, Schwartz believes.

This year the committee got additional funding from the University of Washington, enabling it to accept eight graduate students who began classes in January. Students can major in any of the participating colleges. This class includes three students in the College of Forest Resources and five in the College of Engineering. The students’ skills and interests range from plant ecology, to remote sensing to map forest resources, to chemical engineering techniques for converting biomass into other products. The inaugural class includes two Native American students.

This is the eighth IGERT award for the University of Washington, which has won more of the interdisciplinary training grants than any other institution in the country. Previous IGERT programs were focused on nanotechnology, urban ecology, international environmental issues and astrobiology.

Map: Land cover map of Washington State. This false color image uses data from the Landsat satellite; forests in green and deserts in red. The light blue regions are the highest mountains in Washington. Credit: NASA/Landsat.

University of Washington: Graduate students and Native American tribes will tap forests, farms for biofuels - January 30, 2008.

University of Washington: Bioresource-based Energy for Sustainable Societies - project website.

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Outlook Resources to acquire 75% of biomass densification company Prairie Bio Energy

Canada's Outlook Resources Inc. announces that it has reached an agreement to acquire 75% of the outstanding common shares of Prairie Bio Energy Inc., of La Broquerie, Manitoba. Prairie Bio Energy has developed a proprietary densification process for the production of biomass 'fuel cubes', a renewable fuel alternative to traditional coal, propane and natural gas for heating and power generation.

Bioeconomy Park

Outlook's current projects seek to introduce normally uncorrelated business initiatives or "tenants" into a single cluster or 'Bio-Economy Park' location. Prairie Bio Energy's biomass densification process is seen as fitting well within this structure. The 'Park' concept allows ecological relationships to be developed between individual business units allowing them to operate symbiotically through the sharing and exchange of resources within the Park. These ecological relationships are meant to create an opportunity for higher overall efficiencies between the Bio-Economy Park tenants because of their increased capacity to exploit a resource sharing opportunity.

Additionally the by-products and waste streams of renewable biofuels and bioenergy production can be mostly, if not completely, eliminated amongst the Bio-Economy Park's group of tenants as the waste from one component becomes input energy, nutrients or a source of feedstock for another. This integrated approach thus forms the key to experimenting with 'cascading' and 'circular' resource strategies.

Biomass in Canada
Biomass energy, or bioenergy, is the energy stored in non-fossil organic materials such as wood, straw, vegetable oils and wastes from the forestry, agricultural and industrial sectors. Like the energy in fossil fuels, bioenergy is derived from solar energy that has been stored in plants through the process of photosynthesis. The principal difference is that fossil fuels require thousands of years to be converted into usable forms, while properly managed biomass energy can be used in an ongoing, renewable fashion. Municipal solid waste and sewage sludge can also be considered as biomass.

In Canada, biomass energy accounts for 540 PJ (petajoules) of energy use. It already provides more of Canada's energy supply than coal (for nonelectrical generation applications) and nuclear power, accounting for 5% of secondary energy use by the residential sector and 17% of energy use in the industrial sector, mainly in the forest industries. Including lumber and pulp and paper, forestry accounts for 35% of Canada's total energy consumption; the forest industries meet more than one-half of this demand themselves with self-generated biomass wastes. The forest industries have been increasing their use of wood wastes that otherwise would be burned, buried or landfilled. Principal uses include firing boilers in pulp and paper mills for process heat and providing energy for lumber drying.

Prairie Bio Energy's approach to utilizing biomass is focused on the design of novel densification techniques. Its briquetting technology results in a 7/8inch fuel cube that utilises the lignin in the biomass as a binder. The primary components of the fuel cubes include a mixture of wood by-products and flax shives. The energy content is approximately 7900 BTU (British Thermal Unit) per pound, making the fuel is equivalent in energy to lignite coal. The fuel cubes have an average density of 33 pounds per cubic foot and a moisture content of 5-6%:
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With the acquisition of Prairie Bio Energy, Outlook Resources plans to produce a renewable fuel product from biomass more commonly known as Biomass-fuel or Refuse-Derived-Fuel. Management believes this approach will result in Outlook being particularly well positioned to process a variety of industrial and agricultural processing wastes or by-products in a manner that allows for the production of higher value products to be used as a source of renewable, carbon neutral fuels.

Outlook intends to grow the company through the construction and operation of both RDF/Biomass-fuel densification plants in addition to the development of environmentally conscientious, land based aquaculture facilities built and operated in an environmentally sustainable manner.

The transaction includes an exchange of Outlook Resources shares for Prairie Bio Energy shares and a combination of cash and notes payable. The transaction is subject to the completion of due diligence, TSX Venture Exchange approval and to Outlook raising a minimum of $2 million dollars.

Prairie Bio Energy was founded in 2004 by Stephane Gauthier and Eugene Gala, P. Eng. The business employed 5 people and culminated in the establishment of a 100 ton per day biomass fuel cubing line that was operated from Prairie Bio Energy's 20,000 square foot research and development facility located on an 80 acre agricultural property, one hour east of Winnipeg. Patent applications have been filed in Canada and the U.S. for the Prairie Bio Energy densification process.

Stephane Gauthier, President and Eugene Gala, Executive Vice President & COO will continue to lead Prairie Bio Energy as the company moves forward with Outlook Resources on the development of a commercial scale, 400 ton per day biomass cubing production facility. All of the current employees will be retained and the operations will be expanded over the next six months to facilitate additional business currently being finalized. Outlook is currently negotiating a long term lease on suitable premises for the proposed production facility.

Outlook will acquire 75% of the voting equity of Prairie Bio Energy in consideration for the issuance of 4,067,702 common shares of Outlook priced at $0.06 per share, the payment of $744,000 of debts owed to shareholders of Prairie Bio Energy and the assumption of the liabilities of Prairie Bio Energy. The founding shareholder group, including Stephane Gauthier and Eugene Gala, will retain a 25% interest in Prairie Bio Energy. The share consideration will be subject to a voluntary escrow until December 31, 2008 subject to earlier release upon Prairie Bio Energy meeting certain milestones.


Outlook Resources: Outlook to Acquire 75% Ownership of Prairie Bio Energy - January 28, 2008.

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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Nobel Laureate Steven Chu sees a biofuels revolution

Late last year, Professor Steven Chu held a talk at the World Affairs Council of Northern California in which he explains his work on advanced generations of biofuels and how science and technology could make the green fuels part of an entirely new, sustainable energy paradigm. Some of the world's best scientists - amongst them 43 Nobel Laureates - are working in Chu's Lab on bioenergy, renewables and global warming because the energy and climate challenges we face require a Manhattan Project approach, he says.

Professor Chu, who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1997, says no one nation can effectively reverse the growing problems caused by our changing climate and growing energy consumption. Coordinated global efforts - between governments, international organisations, and civil society - can help us conserve and develop new energy resources, as well as ensure the continued growth of emerging and developed nations.

Biofuels might play an important role in this development. Rapid scientific advances in biotechnology and plant sciences make the efficient production of renewable energy from non-food biomass - that is, cellulose, the world's most abundant organic compound - possible. Increases in the photosynthetic efficiency of plants will soon emerge, but the ultimate challenge will be to develop 'synthetic plants' with very high conversion efficiencies. Such artificial photosynthetic machines, inspired by nature, will make hydrocarbons out of sunlight, water and carbon dioxide.

But before we get there, emerging advanced biofuels are likely to be applied on a world changing scale. The Nobel Laureate questions many of the conventional neo-malthusian views on the availability of natural resources. Instead, he says, there is a large enough carrying capacity - land, water, sunshine, soil and seeds - and institutional capacity to generate highly efficient, genuinely sustainable biofuels, food and fiber products for the population. With enough political will and the right policy choices, a secure energy and climate future based on biofuels becomes possible.

Current biofuels come with their problems and the dependence on food crops is not sustainable nor desirable. Scientists like Chu are therefor working to develop new biomass conversion technologies that could end the food versus fuel dilemma, and serve communities in poor countries. The Nobel Laureate refers to an energy crop like Miscanthus, which yields 10 times more fuel than corn, requires no fertilizer or water, reduces erosion by a factor of 100 and requires no till. It grows its own nitrogen fixing bacteria and improves soil properties. These crops will become the feedstocks of the future. Chu is working on novel and efficient ways to breakdown the cellulose of these plants, which would make biofuels abdunant and cheap. Genomics and genetic engineering of microbes (such as those found in termite guts) will accomplish the task.

In his talk, Chu also referred to the most comprehensive report written so far about the future of energy this century, the panel for which he co-chaired. It is the report titled 'Lighting the Way: Toward A Sustainable Energy Future', published by 13 National Science Academies, written by the world's leading energy scientists and discussed here. In it, the scientists warn for a potential energy crisis of unprecedented proportions, and call for the immediate implementation of new technologies and fuel sources - like biofuels and carbon-negative bioenergy - that can avert it. They conclude that biofuels hold great promise for simultaneously addressing climate-change and energy-security concerns. In all these efforts, the interests and needs of the poor - some 2 billion people without access to modern energy - should be met first.

Steven Chu is a Professor of Physics and Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of California, Berkeley and director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Video courtesy of Fora.tv: Steven Chu, A New Energy Paradigm. Fora.tv hosts transcripts, downloads and a discussion forum for this video.
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Engineered E. Coli strain boosts biohydrogen production from sugar 140 times compared with wild type

Scientists at the Texas A&M University's chemical engineering department have genetically engineered the Escherichia Coli bacterium and boosted its capacity to produce biohydrogen from sugar. Professor Thomas Woods, of the Artie McFerrin Department of Chemical Engineering, modified a strain which produces up to 140 times more hydrogen than is created in a naturally occurring process. His findings about the potential of this gaseous biofuel are presented in an open access article in Microbial Biotechnology. The professor sees a future based on local and decentralised biohydrogen production, with the sugar feedstock being transported to mini-factories where the bacteria ferment it into the pure energy-rich gas.

Wood acknowledges that there is still much work to be done before his research translates into any kind of commercial application, but his initial success could prove to be a significant stepping stone on the path to the hydrogen-based economy that many believe could contribute greatly to cleaner mobility, the uptake of renewable, bio-based energy and strengthen energy security.

Renewable, clean and efficient hydrogen is the key ingredient in fuel-cell technology, which has the potential to power everything from portable electronics to automobiles and even entire power plants. Today, most of the hydrogen produced globally is created by a process known as electrolysis through which hydrogen is separated from the oxygen. But the process is expensive and requires vast amounts of primary energy - one of the chief reasons why the technology has yet to catch on. Alternatively, hydrogen can be produced by reforming fossil fuels (oil, coal, natural gas), but in that case the fuel isn't renewable nor clean and would lead to large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions during its production. The cleanest and most efficient way to produce hydrogen is from biomass - either via gasification or fermentation (previous post).

Wood's work with E. coli and biohydrogen is on track to solve the current problems surrounding hydrogen production. It takes the fermentation pathway (schematic, click to enlarge). By selectively deleting six specific genes in E. coli's DNA, the scientist and his collegues have basically transformed the bacterium into a mini biohydrogen-producing factory that's powered by sugar. Scientifically speaking, Wood has enhanced the bacteria's naturally occurring glucose-conversion process on a massive scale.
These bacteria have 5,000 genes that enable them to survive environmental changes. When we knock things out, the bacteria become less competitive. We haven't given them an ability to do something. They don't gain anything here; they lose. The bacteria that we're making are less competitive and less harmful because of what's been removed. - Professor Thomas Woods
With sugar as its main power source, this strain of E. coli can now take advantage of existing and ever-expanding scientific processes aimed at producing sugar from energy crops.
A lot of people are working on converting something that you grow into some kind of sugar. We want to take that sugar and make it into hydrogen. We're going to get sugar from some crop somewhere. We're going to get some form of sugar-like molecule and use the bacteria to convert that into hydrogen. - Professor Woods
Biological methods such as this - E. coli producing hydrogen through a fermentative process - are likely to reduce energy costs since these processes don't require extensive heating or electricity. They are an alternative to thermochemical and electrolysis-based hydrogen production:
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One of the most difficult things about chemical engineering is how you get the product, Wood explained. In this case, it's very easy because the hydrogen is a gas, and it just bubbles out of the solution. You just catch the gas as it comes out of the glass. That's it. You have pure hydrogen.

Decentralised production
There also are other benefits. As might be expected, the cost of building an entirely new pipeline to transport hydrogen is a significant deterrent in the utilization of hydrogen-based fuel cell technology. In addition, there is also increased risk when transporting hydrogen. The solution, Wood believes, is converting hydrogen on site.

The main thing we think is you can transport things like sugar, and if you spill the sugar there is not a huge catastrophe, Wood said. The idea is to make the hydrogen where you need it.

Of course, all of this is down the road. Right now, Wood remains busy in the lab, working on refining a process that's already hinted at its incredible potential. The goal, he said, is to continue to get more out of less.
Take your house, for example. The size of the reactor that we'd need today if we implemented this technology would be less than the size of a 250-gallon fuel tank found in the typical east-coast home. I'm not finished with this yet, but at this point if we implemented the technology right now, you or a machine would have to shovel in about the weight of a man every day so that the reactor could provide enough hydrogen to take care of the average American home for a 24-hour period. - Professor Woods
The scientists are now trying to make bacteria that don't require 80 kilograms but closer to 8 kilograms.

Schematic: sketch of fermentative hydrogen production in Escherichia coli. Hydrogen is produced from formate by the formate hydrogen lyase (FHL) system [hydrogenase 3 and formate dehydrogenase-H (FDHH)], which is activated by FhlA (that is regulated by Fnr) and repressed by HycA. Evolved hydrogen is consumed through the hydrogen uptake activity of hydrogenase 1 and hydrogenase 2. Formate is exported by FocA and/or FocB and is metabolized by formate dehydrogenase-N (FDHN) which is linked with nitrate reductase A and formate dehydrogenase-O (FDHO). Cyanobacterial hydrogenases (HoxEFUYH) derived from Synechocystis sp. PCC 6803 inhibit the activity of E. coli hydrogenase 1 and hydrogenase 2 resulting in enhanced hydrogen yield.


Toshinari Maeda, Viviana Sanchez-Torres, Thomas K. Wood, "Metabolic engineering to enhance bacterial hydrogen production" [open access], Microbial Biotechnology 1 (1), 2008, 30–39, doi:10.1111/j.1751-7915.2007.00003.x

Texas A & M University: Wood envisions "E. Coli" as future source of energy - January 29, 2008.

Biopact: Biohydrogen, a way to revive the 'hydrogen economy'? - August 20, 2006

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U.S. DOE invests $114 million in four small-scale biorefineries for next generation biofuels

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announces that it will invest up to $114 million, over four years, (Fiscal Years 2007-2010) for four small-scale biorefinery projects to be located in Commerce City, Colorado; St. Joseph, Missouri; Boardman, Oregon; and Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin. Building on America's goal of making cellulosic ethanol cost-competitive by 2012, these ten-percent of commercial-scale biorefineries will use a wide variety of feedstocks and test novel conversion technologies to provide data necessary to bring online full-size, commercial-scale biorefineries.

On average, commercial-scale biorefineries input 700 tons of feedstock per day, with an output of approximately 20-30 million gallons a year (MMGY); these small-scale facilities will input approximately 70 tons of feedstock per day, with an estimated 2.5 MMGY.

Due to an overwhelming response to this solicitation, the Department anticipates selecting a second round of small-scale projects later this spring, bringing DOE total investment up to $200 million should a second round of selections be made. Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman made the announcement while delivering keynote remarks at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Biofuels Dialogue Series, “Outlook for an Emerging Global Biofuels Market.”

Expected to be operational in four years, the selected small-scale biorefineries projects will produce liquid transportation fuels such as cellulosic ethanol, as well as bio-based chemicals and bio-based products used in industrial applications. Combined with industry cost share, more than $331 million will be invested in these four projects. DOE is also working with these companies, and other research partners, to develop methods for reducing water and fertilizer needs associated with production of these fuels. With all of these projects, the amount of fossil fuel used to produce the biofuels is significantly less than that associated with gasoline – on average as much as 90 percent less over the lifecycle.

The following four projects were selected:
  • ICM Incorporated [*.pdf] of Colwich, Kansas; DOE will provide up to $30 million. The proposed plant will be located in St. Joseph, Missouri, and will utilize diverse and relevant feedstocks including agricultural residues, such as corn fiber, corn stover, switchgrass and sorghum. ICM, Inc. will integrate biochemical and thermochemical processing and demonstrate energy recycling within the same facility. This project stands to broaden the company’s focus from corn-based to energy crop-based ethanol production. ICM, Inc is a privately held company with the mission of sustaining agriculture through innovation, primarily through the engineering and construction of ethanol biorefineries. ICM co-participants/investors include: AGCO Engineering; NCAUR-ARS-Peoria; CERES, Inc; Edenspace Systems Corporation; DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory; Novozymes North America, Inc; South Dakota State University; Sun Ethanol, Inc.; and VeraSun Energy Corporation.
  • Lignol Innovations Inc. [*.pdf], of Berwyn, Pennsylvania; DOE will provide up to $30 million. The proposed plant, co-located with a petroleum refinery, will be located in Commerce City, Colorado, and using biochem-organisolve, will convert hard and soft wood residues into ethanol and commercial products, co-located with a petroleum refinery. Lignol Innovations is a U.S.-based company with a publicly traded Canadian parent based in Vancouver, British Columbia. Lignol has acquired and since modified a solvent-based pre-treatment technology that was originally developed by a subsidiary of General Electric. Lignol Innovations participants/investors include: Suncor Energy; and Parker Messana & Associates.
  • Pacific Ethanol Inc. [*.pdf], of Sacramento, California; DOE will provide up to $24.3 million. The proposed plant will be located in Boardman, Oregon, and will convert agricultural and forest product residues to ethanol using BioGasol's proprietary conversion process. Pacific Ethanol is a leading producer of low-carbon renewable fuels in the Western United States. The company is headquartered in Sacramento, California, and planning to add cellulosic conversion capability to their corn-based ethanol facility in Oregon. Pacific Ethanol’s investors/participants include: Biogasol LLC; and DOE’s Joint Bioenergy Institute (DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories).
  • Stora Enso [*.pdf], North America, of Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin; DOE will provide up to $30 million. The proposed plant will be located in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin, and proposes to take wood wastes and convert it to Fischer-Tropsch diesel fuel. NewPage Corporation of Miamisburg, Ohio, recently acquired Stora Enso North America, the original applicant for this funding opportunity announcement. NewPage Corporation is the largest printing paper manufacturer in North America, based on production capacity with more than $4.3 billion in pro-forma net sales for the last twelve months ended September 30, 2007. The company’s product portfolio includes coated freesheet, coated groundwood, supercalendered and specialty papers. Stora Enso’s partners include: TRI; Syntroleum; U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory; and the Alabama Center for Paper and Bioresource Engineering at Auburn University.
The DOE's announcement is part of over $1 billion DOE has announced within the last year for multi-year biofuels research and development projects, strategically located across the nation (map, click to enlarge). These small-scale projects also complement the Department’s February 2007 announcement, where projects were selected to receive up to $385 million over four years for the development of six commercial-scale biorefineries (previous post):
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The full-scale biorefineries focus on near-term commercial processes, while the small-scale facilities will experiment with diverse feedstocks using novel processing technologies. Both small- and commercial-scale projects seek to advance the Administration’s long-term strategy of increasing the nation’s energy, economic and national security by reducing our nation’s reliance on foreign oil through increased efficiency and diversification of clean energy sources. They also further the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which requires that renewable fuels supply at least 36 billion gallons of U.S. motor fuel by 2022 and meet interim supply targets for specific advanced fuels (previous post).

Negotiations between the selected companies and DOE will begin immediately to determine final project plans and funding levels. Funding is subject to appropriations from Congress.
These project proposals were innovative and represent the geographic diversity that we strive for when making the widespread use of clean, renewable fuels commercially viable. Spurred by the President’s ambitious plan to reduce projected U.S. gas consumption by twenty percent by 2017, our goal is to aggressively push these technologies forward to get them out into the marketplace as quickly as possible, so they can have a real impact. Advanced biofuels offer tremendous promise for helping our nation to bring about a new, cleaner, more secure and affordable energy future. - U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman
Cellulosic ethanol is an alternative fuel made from a wide variety of non-food plant materials (or feedstocks), including agricultural wastes such as corn stover and cereal straws, industrial plant waste like saw dust and paper pulp, and energy crops grown specifically for fuel production like switchgrass. By using a variety of regional feedstocks for refining cellulosic ethanol, the fuel can be produced in nearly every region of the country. And because these fuels rely on non-edible portions of crops, and agricultural residues and forest wastes, they have the added advantage of not competing with food crops. Though it requires a more complex refining process, cellulosic ethanol contains more net energy than traditional corn-based ethanol, and has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 85 percent relative to gasoline. E-85, an ethanol-fuel blend that is 85-percent ethanol, is already available at nearly 1,350 fueling stations nationwide and can power millions of flexible fuel vehicles already on the roads.

U.S. DOE: U.S. Department of Energy Selects First Round of Small-Scale Biorefinery Projects for Up to $114 Million in Federal Funding - January 29, 2008

Biopact: US becomes biofuel nation as Congress approves Energy Bill - December 19, 2007

Biopact: U.S. Dept. of Energy awards $385 million to 6 cellulosic ethanol plants, out of $1.2 billion - March 01, 2007

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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Carbon-negative energy revolution a step closer: Carbon8 Systems to capture CO2 from biomass through carbonation

The bioenergy community is excited about a new start-up that could play a key role in the mass introduction of carbon-negative bioenergy systems. Scientists from the University of Greenwhich who formed Carbon8 Systems have developed a technique that allows power producers to capture CO2 simply by turning it into limestone via a carbonation process. If the system is applied to biomass power plants instead of coal plants, the company says, 'negative emissions' are obtained. Negative emissions from energy means that CO2 is pulled out of the atmosphere. What is more, for tropical and subtropical countries that lack large limestone deposits - a key soil amendment to make acidic soils more productive - the process could result in an extremely important synergy that allows farmers to boost (energy) crop yields.

Renewables like solar, wind, hydropower or even a source like nuclear energy are all 'carbon neutral' at best. That is: they do not add new emissions to the atmosphere and have a relatively small carbon footprint over their lifecycle. But this is a weak result compared to carbon-negative bioenergy. Socalled 'Bio-energy with carbon capture' (BECS) systems go much further: they actively take CO2 from the past out of the atmosphere. This is so because as biomass grows it stores atmospheric CO2 in its tissue. When the biomass is combusted for electricity generation or transformed into a decarbonized fuel like biohydrogen, and consequently the CO2 resulting from this transformation is captured and stored, the result is a negative emissions balance.

This makes such bioenergy systems by far the most important tool in the climate fight. Table 1 (click to enlarge) shows the difference in emissions between electricity from fossil fuels, from carbon-neutral renewables like wind or solar, and from carbon-negative biomass. Whereas a kWh of coal-based electricity generates up to 1000g/CO2, and one based on photovoltaics around 100g/COeq, a kWh of carbon-negative bio-electricity yields minus 1030 g/CO2. In other words: the hyper-green energy removes the climate destructive gas from the atmosphere.

There are two main pathways to capture and store carbon from bioenergy systems. One is high tech and involves capturing CO2 from biomass power stations through a set of complex techniques, after which the greenhouse gas is transported via pipeline or ship and sequestered in geological formations such as depleted oil & gas fields, or saline acquifers. The other technique is based on storing biochar in soils, which could lead to a highly beneficial cycle of improved agriculture.


But now, a third option is emerging: capturing CO2 from power plants, gasification based biohydrogen reactors or waste incineration facilities and using it as a feedstock to produce limestone. Dr Paula Carey and Dr Colin Hills, both geologists from Greenwich, created Carbon8 Systems in 2006. They are commercialising the technology. (A competitor would be Carbon Sciences, Inc. but it currently only focuses on coal).

Dr Paula Carey says the process is in fact very simple and known as carbonation. Industrial waste, such as the ash obtained from municipal incinerators, or biomass ash from power plants, contains calcium silicates which react vigorously with CO2 to produce calcium carbonate, or limestone as it is more commonly known. This process occurs naturally but because of the relatively low concentrations of CO2 in the air the reaction can take years.

The researchers developed a process based around the mixture of calcium silicates, water and the right concentration of CO2 that speeds the reaction up so it takes only about 15 minutes. The result comes in the form of limestone pellets (picture), ready for use as a raw material in other industrial sectors (construction materials, cosmetics, etc). Carbon 8 Systems has a certain degree of patent coverage for the process and is now working to commercialise the technology. (Note: no word yet about the energy intensity of the process).

Asked whether the carbonation technique could also be applied to CO2 from biomass energy plants, Dr Carey replied:
Absolutely. What we are looking at is a genuinely carbon negative process. If you consider the advantage of biomass projects are that they are carbon neutral as emitted carbon had been absorbed as the biofuel grew then adding a technology that captures the CO2 when it is emitted and takes it permanently out of circulation is a carbon negative process.
Limestone and acid soils
Biopact would add that with the technique a new and highly interesting synergy could be emerging for developing countries in the tropics and the subtropics. As is well known, vast tracts of land in Asia, Africa and Latin America are dominated by highly problematic acid soils, often burdened by aluminum toxicity, which is known to result in poor agricultural yields. Around half the world's arable land suffers from acidity. However, there is a simple technique to increase the Ph of these soils: adding lime. However, many developing countries have a lack of this resource, which limits the scope for this most basic intervention.

Acidic soils worldwide: aluminum toxicity in acidic soils limits crop production in as much as half the world's arable land
Now if these countries were to produce carbon-negative bioenergy from locally grown energy crops in a decentralised manner and apply the carbonation process, they would obtain a large enough stock of limestone that can be applied to the acid soils, thus boosting crop yields. The lime pellets can easily be pulverized to obtain a product similar to agricultural lime. An amazing synergy based on this system would then emerge in which climate change is fought in the most radical way with negative emissions (for which carbon credits become available), access to rural electricity for poor communities is boosted, while agricultural output is increased, food insecurity tackled and pressures on land, water and forests reduced:
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The importance of lime for tropical agriculture should not be underestimated. In the 1970s and 1980s, Brazil, for example, based most of its agricultural zoning and planning efforts on the presence of lime deposits. Lime availability was seen as the key limiting factor and determined where which type of crops could be grown. The same logic is true for most other tropical countries with vast acid soil resources.

Other applications
According to Dr Carey other applications are for incinerators that produce CO2 from the chimney while also producing the ash needed to capture much of that CO2. Applying the technology to an incinerator means you would not only cut carbon emissions, the process would also treat the waste ash and make it less hazardous and the net result is limestone which can be reused as aggregate for the construction industry.

When it comes to the reduction in carbon emissions that could be achieved with this technology, Carbon 8 Systems estimates that 70,000 tonnes of ash would absorb between 10,000 and 20,000 tonnes of CO2. Beyond that the only constraint on how widely you could apply the technology would be the availability of the ash and the demand for the aggregate.

Commercialisation of the carbonation process is being worked on. The biggest challenge is capturing the CO2 from the chimney, though carbon capture systems for doing that are absolutely feasible and the company's scientists are working on developing the technology. When it comes to using the process to just treat the hazardous ash they can simply use bottled CO2. The researchers conducted a field trial last week using this process, following up on trials they did several years ago. They are also working with a waste company to get a full pilot using bottled CO2 up and running in the next two to three months.

Realistically speaking Carbon 8 Systems is thinking in terms of saving millions of tonnes rather than tens of millions of tonnes for the UK, due to the limitations in terms of availability of ash and demand for the end product. But the potential application of the technology is still huge, they think. It would be expensive retrofitting any system to existing incinerators, but it is expected that more incinerators and biomass power plants will be built.

Dr Carey is the commercial director of Carbon8 Systems as well as an academic a the University of Greenwich. She has a research background in geology and natural materials for the construction industry.

Map: Aluminum toxicity in acidic soils limits crop production in as much as half the world's arable land, mostly in developing countries in Africa, Asia and South America. Credit: Cornell University Chronicle Online.

VNU Net: To capture CO2, just add calcium silicate - January 29, 2008.

FAO Problem Soils Database: Acid Soils.

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NFC to invest up to $80 million in reforestation-for-energy project in Uganda

Commercial tree planting is not a conventional type of business in Uganda but the New Forest Company (NFC), a UK-based firm, is signalling the growing attractiveness of the sector by announcing an investment that could reach $80 million over the coming years. The reforestation projects will supply woody biomass for power generation as well as timber for the construction industry. The concept shows that, contrary to the opinion of some bioenergy adversaries, biomass production is most often not based on deforestation, but rather on the opposite: reforestation and afforestation.

Deforestation is a growing problem in Uganda, with poor households relying on highly inefficient energy technologies for heating and cooking - burning wood fuels on open fires, leading to a loss of 90% of the energy contained in the fuel. A transition to modern energy would greatly reduce deforestation rates. A Ugandan government forest policy says because of this reliance on woodfuel and inefficient technologies, the country needs to recover 20 per cent of its lost forest cover, which equates to about 250,000 hectares of new trees to be planted by 2015. This opportunity, combined with rising commercial energy costs, the efficiency of modern biomass power production, and the growing related market for timber, prompted NFC to launch a massive investment campaign since 2005, expecting to raise 4.3 million trees, mainly Pine and Eucalyptus species.

During a tour of a plantation in Mubende by officials from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Uganda Investment Authority, NFC's CEO Julian Ozanne said that in a first step, the company is to invest $30 million in plantations in Mubende, Bugiri and Kiboga. The target there is to plant 65,000 acres of land, mainly for the timber market. So far 7,250 acres have received trees. This year, an additional $11 million should bring the total to 15,000 acres in the three districts.

In the meantime, NFC is working with British energy company Aldwych International which has already received a licence from the energy ministry to put in place a 50MW biomass power plant. NFC's plantations would supply the green electricity plant, pushing up its total investment to between $70 - $80 million over the next 10 years. For this project to succeed, the company needs to obtain a power purchase agreement from the government, so that the plant will be connected to the national grid.

Ozanne urged the government to support the project in order to diversify energy sources and to stop relying on hydro power only, which has become an unreliable source of energy. According to NFC, renewable biomass power offers reliable baseload energy and creates considerably more jobs than hydropower.

According to Meredith Bates, the company's corporate responsibility manager, NFC has so far created 1,600 jobs and forecasts another 2,500 in the next five years, operates in three districts of Mubende, Bugiri and Kiboga. According to Bates, the workforce is highly motivated and productive, for many of the rural workers and contractors this is their first real job so there is considerable training required to help make the transition to full time employment.

Bates added that the NFC's reforestation projects are underwritten by carbon credits, which require sound environmental land use management in compliance with the Clean Development Mechanism:
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Our business mixes commercial plantation forestry with protection and regeneration of indigenous tree species and the promotion of bio-diversity and environmentally sustainable land use management. - Meredith Bates, NFC corporate responsibility manager
Besides carbon credits, timber plantations offer attractive rates of return in the order of 15-18 percent (more with well grown Eucalypts), says Bates. Besides the bioenergy market, Uganda's rapidly growing construction industry is pushing up demand for timber and other timber products providing a huge market for tree dealers and timber vendors. The regional market in Southern Sudan and Rwanda will also come in hardy to provide wider and new markets.

Planting is the first step being undertaken to create volume. In the next phase, NFC will build a processing plant that will include a modern saw mill and a pole-treatment factory. The development of supply chains for biomass as a fuel will be developed later when the government approves the power project.

During the tour in Mubende, IMF's senior resident representative, Abebe Aemro Selassie, said the company had mobilised private equity for a sustainable forestry project. "This is a positive development that has created jobs", he said.

Picture: reforestation and afforestation through eucalyptus plantations; the trees grow fast and yield high amounts of biomass that could become crucial for developing countries making a transition to more efficient energy systems.


New Vision (Kampala - via AllAfrica): Forest Company to Invest $30m - January 28, 2008.

The Monitor (Kampala - via AllAfrica): Tree Planting Promises Hefty Fruits for UK Firm - January 28, 2008.

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Suez to build 150MW coal-biomass power plant to supply Chilean copper mine

European energy giant Suez Energy International and Antofagasta Minerals S.A., a Chilean industrial group, have signed an agreement for the supply of up to 150 MW and related energy for the new Esperanza mine starting in 2011. For this demand, Suez will build a second power unit at the Central Termoeléctrica Andina (CTA) in Mejillones. The power station will use circulating fluidised bed technology and will be able to burn renewable biomass and other fuels.

Circulating fluidized bed (CFB) combustion is a relatively new and evolving technology that has become a very efficient method of generating low-cost electricity while generating electricity with very low emissions and environmental impacts. In the CFB combustion process, crushed fuel is mixed with limestone and fired in a process resembling a boiling fluid. The limestone removes the sulfur and converts it into an environmentally-benign powder that is removed with the ash. Fluidized bed boilers are capable of burning a wide range of fuels cleanly, including biomass fuels.

Suez' second unit will be identical to a first one it already built at the CTA, for which construction started in the 4th quarter of 2007. It will equally be connected to the Sistema Interconectado del Norte Grande ('Northern Grid'). The plant will be built in Mejillones, some 1,400 kilometers north of the Chilean capital Santiago.

Chile is racing to build electrical generating capacity to feed its booming mining sector, which produces about a third of the world's copper. The new plant will be coal-fired and possibly co-fire biomass. It is part of Chile's solution to shortages of natural gas, which has been supplied by Argentina to run northern generating facilities.

Central Termoeléctrica Andina’s environmental impact study has already been approved. For the construction, an Engineering, Procurement and Construction contract was signed with the Spanish company Cobra for both units of the CTA project:
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Notice to Proceed for the second Suez unit has been given to Cobra and the construction will begin in the forthcoming weeks. The estimated construction time is around 3 years. An average of 700 persons will be employed during the construction phase.
Taking into account the energy context of Chile, we think it is crucial to invest in different energy solutions. Apart from the coal stations we are constructing now, we will start in the coming months the construction of our LNG project in Northern Chile, which will secure a reliable source of natural gas for the existing gas-fired plants. - Dirk Beeuwsaert, CEO of SUEZ Energy International
The Esperanza mine will be one of Chile's first major greenfield copper projects - ones built from scratch - in years. Esperanza, located in Chile's Atacama Desert near Antofagasta's active El Tesoro Mine, is expected to be ready for operation in the fourth quarter of 2010 and will add an annual production of some 195,000 tonnes of copper, 229,000 ounces of gold and 1.556 million ounces of silver to Chile's mining roster.

In Chile, SUEZ Energy International also has a stake in the electricity companies Electroandina and Edelnor as well as in the company Gasoducto NorAndino.

Antofagasta has three business divisions: Mining, Transport and Water, with the first of those being the most important. Antofagasta plc is one of the largest international copper producing companies in the industry. Today its activities are mainly concentrated in Chile where it owns and operates three copper mines, Los Pelambres, El Tesoro and Michilla, with a total production of 466 thousand tonnes in 2006, at an average cash cost of 40.2 c/lb. The Group's mining division, Antofagasta Minerals, is also actively involved in exploration particularly in Chile, Ecuador, Colombia and Pakistan.

Suez: SUEZ Energy International continues its expansion in Chile [*.pdf] - January 28, 2008.

Power Engineering International: Suez to build second coal/biomass unit at Chile mine - January 29, 2008.

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EU climate package provokes threats of trade war

The EU finds itself on a collision course with its major trading partners after the Commission announced it was considering forcing importers to pay pollution charges on carbon-heavy imports.
There would be no point in pushing EU companies to cut emissions if the only result is that production, and indeed pollution, shifts to countries with no carbon disciplines at all. - José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission
Carbon equalisation
The European Commission's plans to tighten Europe's greenhouse gas reduction regime, presented in the dirctive of 23 January 2008, recognised the risk that new legislation would put European companies at a competitive disadvantage compared to countries with less stringent climate protection laws, such as the US, China and India.

According to the Commission, this situation could cause large "carbon leakages", whereby companies move their activities to other regions of the world in order to keep costs down.

To address this threat, the draft legislation includes proposals to impose restrictions on imports unless an international agreement subjecting all industrialised countries to similar climate change mitigation measures is reached.

According to the proposal, such a "carbon equalisation system" could take the form of an obligation for foreign companies doing business in Europe to obtain emissions permits alongside European competitors.

The Commission's threat of climate-related trade sanctions aimed at putting EU and third country producers on a level footing appears mainly targeted at convincing governments in Washington and Beijing to adhere to a global deal on climate change. Indeed, the EU executive has confirmed that it will not decide on the introduction of any such measures before 2011.

However, the mere fact that the EU is considering such action has already caused outrage among its trade partners.

Trade war threats
The United States has warned it would "vigorously" resist any move to introduce a tax on American products based on its position in climate change negotiations. Last week, US Trade Representative Susan Schwab accused the EU of using the climate as an excuse for protectionism.

Legal experts remain divided on whether the EU's proposed measures would be compatible with international trade regulations, as the WTO has no clear provisions on the subject. On the one hand, border adjustment measures could be considered to contravene WTO rules prohibiting discrimination between countries or between "like products". On the other, WTO law also states that countries may deviate from these rules if it is for the protection of animal, plant or human health or for the conservation of natural resources.

A spokesman from the US Mission to the EU told reporters that while the US was encouraged to see that the EU's new climate package does not introduce any trade-restrictive action on imports, the US would be "vigorous in resisting calls for any form of trade protectionism as a response to climate change."

Even though an EU member, Britain seems to side with the US.
We are against any measures which might look like trade barriers […] There is always the danger that the protectionists in Europe - and they do exist - could use this as a kind of secret weapon to bring about protectionism. - British Energy Minister Malcolm
France, however, is continuing to push for protection against unfair international competition to avoid massive delocalisation of EU companies. The establishment of a border adjustment mechanism is a "fundamental element" of the package and France will work "very closely" with the European Commission between now and 2011 on proposals to set up the scheme, insisted French Minister of Ecology and Sustainable Development Jean-Louis Borloo:
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According to the Financial Times, Ujal Singh Bhatia, India's ambassador to the WTO, warned against the risk of retaliation and litigation from the EU's trade partners if it goes ahead with trade restrictive measures. He said: "Unilateral measures at this stage would create contentiousness and lead to charges of protectionism […] If the countries imposing such measures invoke Gatt provisions to justify them, the dispute settlement mechanism in [the] WTO would face serious challenges and create divisions along North-South lines."

However, British Liberal MEP Chris Davies welcomed the idea of tariffs, saying they would create a level-playing field for business: "It makes more likely an emissions trading scheme on a worldwide basis, if manufacturers in China know they are not going to gain entry."

But business leaders fear that imposing "climate tariffs" could provoke trade retaliation. Folker Franz, a senior policy adviser at BusinessEurope, the European employers' organisation, said: "If you impose import measures on others, the others might do the same." As an alternative, he said the EU should promote the clean development mechanism – a scheme which allows European companies to invest in carbon-reduction projects in the developing world.

Trade Unions within the EU, however, believe that establishing a border adjustment mechanism is essential and are upset that the Commission is delaying the measure. ETUC General Secretary John Monks stressed: "There is a way of keeping employment and the planet from being the losers: a compensation mechanism such as a carbon tax on imports, which would equalise carbon costs for all companies, whether they are based in Europe or outside its borders. Under such a system, a considerable effort could be demanded of European industry while keeping heavy industry and jobs in Europe." He added: "The Commission's postponement of that decision is a mistake, since it has acknowledged the dangers of relocation and 'carbon leakage'."


European Commission: Questions and Answers on the Commission's proposal to revise the EU Emissions Trading System - January 23, 2008.

French Ministry for Sustainable Development: Proposition de la Commission européenne sur les objectifs « climat-énergie » à l’horizon 2020 - January 23, 2008.

American Chanber of Commerce to the EU: Position Paper on Climate Change [*.pdf] - January 23, 2008.

European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC): Climate change package: the Commission makes important proposals but it is necessary also to guarantee jobs in Europe in a globalised context - January 23, 2008.

BusinessEurope: New Energy and Climate Rules: Uncertainties regarding competitiveness must be resolved [*.pdf] - January 23, 2008.

International Institute for Sustainable Development: Unpacking the Wonder Tool: Border Charges in Support of Climate Change [*.pdf] - November - December 2007.

Financial Times: Carbon import tax could provoke trade war - January 23, 2008.

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Monday, January 28, 2008

Report: bioplastics could capture 30% of the plastics market by 2020

According to a new market study, the bioplastics market is achieving a fast growth of 8 to 10% per year. The bio-based materials currently cover approximately 10 to 15% of the plastics market, but that share could grow to 25 or even 30% by 2020. The study, by Helmut Kayser Consultancy, also sees the car industry turning green by incorporating ever more bio-based materials in the manufacture of vehicles.

Biopact readers know that researchers have found that bioplastics and renewable, bio-based bulk chemicals from energy crops in general constitute one of the most efficient and potentially most cost-effective uses of biomass and land resources - more so than liquid biofuels in a range of cases (previous post). It seems like this knowledge is increasingly being translated into concrete market activity.

According to the Helmut Kaiser report, the market for bioplastics itself is huge, reaching over US$1 billion in 2007 and will be worth over US$10 billion by 2020. More and more companies are entering and investing in the market with new applications and innovations in the automotive and electronics industry leading the market boom. Over 500 bioplastics processing companies are operating today, with more than 5000 expected by 2020.

For the renewable bioplastics industry, "nontoxic" is the key image, sustainable and environmentally friendly production the driving force. Less than 3 percent of all waste plastic worldwide currently gets recycled, compared with recycling rates of 30 percent for paper, 35 percent for metals and 18 percent for glass, according to an earlier study by Helmut Kaiser Consultancy.

The world’s oil resources are depleting at an amazing speed, the report says. Sustained high prices provide a major incentive for the bioplastic sector to break through for good. Fossil fuels are exhaustible and due to a growing and wealthier global population, these resources will not be sustainable in the future. Conventional plastics are produced from byproducts of the fossil fuel processing industry. They do not degrade in nature and are a leading cause of the destruction of marine biodiversity. In contrast, bioplastics offer a sustainable and nature-friendly alternative the raw materials of which are limitless when new bioconversion technologies emerge. Most importantly bioplastics are most often easily biodegradable, compostable or recyclable.

Technically speaking, bioplastics have overcome most of their initial problems and are now just as durable, workable and flexible as normal plastics.

One of the future advantages of bioplastics can be found in the use of plant sources as renewable materials for a 'cascading' resource strategy: after their useful life, the bio-based products could be further recycled into 'new' biomass feedstocks for thermal, organic or chemical transformation processes that yield entirely new, unrelated products:
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The production of bioplastics is not only more environmentally friendly, but also results in lower lifecycle emissions. Like biofuels, they cut greenhouse gas emissions, especially carbon dioxide. In the future, when efficient biomass production and supply chains become available, this GHG reduction advantage might grow further. [See this article for an overview of the lifecycle emissions of green bulk chemicals as compared with those of biofuels.]

According to Helmut Kaiser Consultancy, Europe will become one of the most important markets for bioplastics, due to its limited amount of crude oil reserves. In recent years, bioplastics have been used in the food and packaging industry, medical, toys and textile industries there.

With new innovations expected in the near future, more and more applications for bioplastics will emerge, especially in the automobile industry and electronics sector, in which plastics play a major role. Car companies know that plastic parts made from plants will appeal to 'green' customers and customers who care. Toyota is one of the leading companies in research and usage.

Bioplastics production companies own relatively small dedicated plants and are still in the early stages of development. In the future, they could become integrated in true 'biorefineries' that produce a wide range of products from biomass - from fuels and green platform chemicals, to fiber products and biopolymers.

The Helmut Kaiser study discusses the structure of the bioplastics market, its development worldwide by region, applications and technologies. The markets that are covered include bioplastic manufacturing, bioplastics processing, bioplastic distribution, recycling and the use of renewable raw materials.


Helmut Kaiser Consultancy: Bioplastics Market Worldwide 2007-2025.

Biopact: Researchers find bio-based bulk chemicals could save up to 1 billion tonnes of CO2 - December 17, 2007.

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Biochar and carbon-negative bioenergy: boosts crop yields, fights climate change and reduces deforestation

A key book on the ancient soil improvement technique known as 'terra preta' has just been published. Compiled by Dr Christoph Steiner, who did extensive field work into the technique in Brazil,"Slash and Char as Alternative to Slash and Burn", yields a wealth of insights into the properties of these amazingly fertile 'dark earth soils', into the way they cycle nutrients, into their soil biology, chemical qualities and effects on plant growth. The work also suggests ways to replicate the technique today, with major potential benefits for mankind.

Terra preta soils are based on storing charcoal into the ground, which enhances the fertility, water retention qualities, and chemical and structural properties of the soil. New ways of producing char can be combined with the production of renewable carbon-negative bioenergy, through a process called pyrolysis (schematic, click to enlarge). Pyrolysis involves heating biomass in the absence of air or with very small, controlled amounts of oxygen. The process results in three main products: syngas, tar and char. Depending on the temperatures and amount of oxygen supplied to the system, the fractions of these products can be altered. The syngas can be used to generate electricity or biofuels, whereas the char fraction - called 'biochar' or 'agrichar' - becomes the soil amendment.

Energy and agricultural systems based on biochar could help tackle four of the world's most pressing issues all at once:
  1. they could allow resource poor farmers in the tropics to improve agricultural yields considerably and thus fight poverty and food insecurity;
  2. they can reduce global carbon emissions on a massive scale by creating a stable carbon sink: as plants take CO2 from the atmosphere, store it in their tissue and are then turned into biochar sequestered in soils, the carbon stays locked up for centuries, possibly millenia;
  3. they allow for the production of renewable carbon-negative bioenergy, either in the form of electricity or liquid fuels, and can thus bring energy to millions of the world's rural households who currently lack access to modern energy;
  4. they could become one of the keys to slowing tropical deforestation - itself a major source of greenhouse gas emissions - by prompting millions of shifting cultivators to change their current practise of 'slash and burn' agriculture to 'slash and char' instead. Shifting cultivation is caused by the rapid depletion of soils, forcing farmers to clear forest for new land every few years; in contrast, biochar amended soils would boost soil fertility, bring the farmers higher yields, thus limiting their need to take new land into cultivation.
The amazing potential of these synergies is being recognized by a rapidly growing group of scientists from across the world. They recently created an association called the International Biochar Initiative, aimed at disseminating the knowledge about this agroenergy system. They also strive towards recognition of the carbon sequestration technique by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which is being urged to take it up into the post-Kyoto protocol on climate change. If it did, poor farmers in the developing world would receive carbon credits for storing char into their infertile soils, while enjoying the multiple additional benefits of the system. However, this recognition will only occur with more research into biochar.

This is why Dr Steiner's book is so important: it is a key addition to the growing body of scientific knowledge on terra preta and char amended soils. Based on his PhD thesis, defended before the Faculty of Biology, Chemistry and Geosciences at the University of Bayreuth in Germany, it provides data from actual field trials at several sites in Brazil. Cropping experiments on poor, highly weathered soils there showed that, in combination with fertilizers, char can boost crop yields significantly. Besides discussing the complex agronomy of these results in depth, Steiner also explores indigenous knowledge systems surrounding terra preta, looks at the economics of the system and offers suggestions for integrated applications.

His conclusion hints at a possible future of addressing the intertwined issues of climate change, energy and agriculture in developing countries, through biochar:
Energy from crop residues could lower fossil energy consumption and CO2-emissions, and become a completely new income source for farmers and rural regions. The biochar byproduct of this process could serve to recycle nutrients, improve soils and sequester carbon. [...A] mixture of driving forces and technologies has the potential to use residual waste carbon-rich residues to reshape agriculture, balance carbon and address nutrient depletion.
The work of Dr Steiner and a growing group of terra preta experts is leading to a new vision based on coupling the production of biochar to bioenergy production and carbon markets. First of all, traditional charcoal production could be made more energy efficient and economic:
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Instead of relying on wood, biochar would be made from the vast streams of residual biomass that are currently not used productively. These crop residues are often burned by farmers on their fields, which causes major air pollution (especially in places like Northeast China and India). The practise also results in the release of vast quantities of carbon emissions into the atmosphere. In the process, the energy contained in this abundant source of biomass, gets lost.

New biomass conversion techniques, such as slow pyrolysis, are excellent for using these residues efficiently for the production of clean energy and would thus tackle a major environmental problem. These systems allow for the simultaneous production of both a large fraction of char and energy from the combustible, hydrogen syngas. The syngas can be used to fuel generators or turbines for electricity, or can be converted into liquid fuels via the Fischer-Tropsch process. Ideally, small, village-scale pyrolysis and energy generation systems would be designed that allow farming communities to produce their own decentralised electricity as well as the new black gold that can be turned into a carbon sink that offers a boost to their crop yields.

Depending on how much char is returned to the soil, the fuels and energy from the system can effectively become carbon-negative. That is, their use implies one actively removes CO2 from the atmosphere. Other renewables like wind or solar power are 'carbon neutral' at best, in that they do not add carbon emissions but do not remove the climate destructive gas from the atmosphere either. In contrast, carbon-negative bioenergy goes beyond carbon neutrality, by yielding 'negative emissions'.

Carbon-negative bioenergy leads to quite counter-intuitive effects: the more you were to use of it, the more you would be solving the climate crisis. The more miles you drive a car running on carbon-negative biofuel or bio-electricity, the more you would be cleaning up the atmosphere...

On the basis of this exciting agro-energy system, an interesting future becomes imaginable: depending on prevailing market conditions - the price of carbon and the price of electricity or fuels -, farmers will decide dynamically how much of a given biomass stream they will return to soils in the form of biochar, and how much they will turn into energy products they can sell or use locally. For the first operation they receive carbon credits which can be sold, for the latter they receive the price of the particular energy product they chose to produce.

Dr Christoph Steiner is a leading consultant on biochar amended soils. He presented his insights at the Bali Climate Conference, where they received positive feedback. His work and services can be found at Biochar.org. Steiner featured in a BBC documentary about terra preta titled "The Secret of El Dorado" as well as in the film "Terra Preta - Das schwarze Gold des Amazonas", by Peter Adler.

Schematic: biochar based carbon-negative bioenergy system: CC, Biopact, 2008.

Picture: Dr Steiner, during the filming of "Terra Preta - Das schwarze Gold des Amazonas", analysing cassava plants that got a growth boost because of char amended soils. Credit: Christoph Steiner, Biochar.org.

Steiner, Christoph: Slash and Char as Alternative to Slash and Burn. Soil charcoal amendments maintain soil fertility and establish a carbon sink, Cuvillier Verlag, Bayreuth, December 2007.

Christoph Steiner: Slash and Char as Alternative to Slash and Burn - English Summary [*.pdf], Dissertation, Faculty of Biology, Chemistry and Geosciences, University of Bayreuth, Germany, November 2007.

BBC: "The Secret of El Dorado" available at Google video.

Peter Adler: "Terra Preta - Das schwarze Gold des Amazonas".

International Biochar Initiative.

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Arcadis opens landfill gas plant in Sao Paulo, launches new project in Rio, fetches carbon credits

Netherlands-based Arcadis, an international consultancy, design and engineering company, today announced the official opening of its Sao Joao landfill gas installation and power plant by the mayor of Sao Paulo, Gilberto Kassab. The degassing installation - owned by Arcadis' affiliate Biogás Energia Ambiental - extracts methane gas generated by the 80 hectares Sao Joao landfill. In a world's first, the carbon credits obtained from the project were recently auctioned over the internet. Of all carbon credits from landfill gas issued globally by the UNFCCC, Arcadis takes an 80 percent share.

The biogas from the Sao Joao landfill is used as a biofuel to feed a 24 megawatt power plant the operation of which was started on January 25th. In addition, Arcadis announces the development of a third biogas installation near Rio de Janeiro. This installation is based on the same principle and similar in capacity to Sao Joao. It will generate biogas from the vast Gramacho landfill (picture).

Together, the Sao Joao and Bandeirantes landfill methane gas output is used to generate 340 million Kwh of electricity annually, sufficient power for more than 120,000 households. As a result, the equivalent of 12 million tons of CO2 will be saved in the coming years, which according to the Kyoto Treaty, gets the joint venture 12 million carbon credits. Half of these are shared with the Municipality of Sao Paulo.

These carbon credits were recently sold on the world’s first Certified Emission Reductions (CERs) spot market auction managed and promoted by a regulated exchange - the Brazilian Mercantile & Futures Exchange. The event represented an important initial step in the organization and development of a global market for environmental certificates. The auction was carried out via the Internet. The successful bid came from Belgian-Dutch Bank Fortis, which offered €13.1 million (US$18.5 million, or 16.20 €/tonne) for carbon credits worth the equivalent to 808,405 tonnes of CO2 (previous post):
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Meanwhile, of the remaining 6 million carbon credits that are kept by Biogás Energia Ambiental, a contract for the sale of 5 million of these credits was already signed with the German bank KfW until 2012. Once Gramacho is accredited under the Kyoto protocol, it will generate carbon credits for which Biogás can again seek long term contract buyers.
[...] we assist many municipalities and companies in reducing their carbon footprint, but the scale at which this happens in the land fill gas installations is especially impressive. According to UNFCCC information about 80% of the total of carbon credits issued so far for landfill projects has been derived from the Bandeirantes Project. Sao Joao and Gramacho will add soon to further increase these significant contributions. - Harrie Noy, CEO of ARCADIS:
Arcadis is an international company providing consultancy, engineering and management services in infrastructure, environment and facilities, to enhance mobility, sustainability and quality of life. Arcadis develops, designs, implements, maintains and operates projects for companies and governments. With more than 12,000 employees and over $ 2 billion in gross revenue, the company has an extensive international network that is supported by strong local market positions.

Photo: Gramacho, near Rio de Janeiro. Credit: "Jardim Gramacho" - Marcos Prado.

Arcadis: ARCADIS opens landfill gas plant and announces additional capacity - January 28, 2008.

Biopact: Fortis Bank buys €13.1 million worth of carbon credits from biogas project in Brazil, at first internet auction - September 27, 2007

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Sinopec reportedly to invest $5 billion in biofuels in Indonesia

Sinopec, China's top oil company, reportedly will cooperate with an Indonesian enterprise to set up biofuel plants and to grow energy crops in Indonesia, with a major investment of US$5 billion. Indonesia's national news agency Antara reported about the project, which would become Sinopec's second large overseas biofuel investment.

The plants and plantations are set to be located in Indonesia's Papua and East Kalimantan regions, and will be used for extracting biodiesel from crude palm oil and jatropha curcas oil. Sinopec will cooperate with PT Puri Usaha Kencana to build the plants as well as to crop oil palm and Jatropha curcas. According to Al Hilal Hamdi, chairman of Indonesia's National Biofuels Task Force, the project is likely to begin this year.

Over the past years, China's state-owned oil company has hinted often at this possible mega-investment. But as oil prices temporarily declined, the issue went off the agenda. Now, with persistent high prices and the oil crisis being felt by ordinary Chinese, it is back.

In January 2007, another oil major, the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Indonesian government under which it intends to invest $5.5 billion in the development of the biofuel sector in Indonesia, announcing the establishment of 3 biodiesel processing plants in Kalimantan (earlier post).

For China, biofuels produced overseas are not so much seen as a way to reduce its transport sector's greenhouse gas emissions, but more as a matter of sheer energy security and access to affordable liquid fuel sources, crucial for its economy:
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Besides Sinopec and CNOOC, several other Chinese state-owned and private enterprises have announced large biofuels investments in, amongst other countries, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Mozambique and Congo. Most of these investments have gone unnoticed because China is quite discreet about them.

Sinopec is becoming a large player on the world's energy stage and is building its presence in Indonesia. In 2007, it was the successful bidder for the Indonesian National Petroleum Corp's residue hydrotreating catalyst project. The residue hydrotreating catalyst technology is used for the utilization and deep processing of low-grade or heavy crude oil.

Since 2006, Sinopec has speeded up its overseas investment. In 2006, it acquired six international refinery projects worth of US$3.08 billion. In December 2007, Sinopec signed agreement with the Brazilian government for the US$6.5 billion GASCAC gas pipeline project, which will be completed in five years. It is the largest overseas engineering service project of Sinopec Group by the end of 2007.

Other investments

Meanwhile, also in Indonesia, Bronzeoak from Britain plans to invest US$270 million to produce ethanol from sweet sorghum. Bronzeoak will cooperate with the Satria Group to build a factory and plantation in the regency of Belu and Central Timor in East Nusatenggara.

The Sampoerna Group for its part reportedly plans to break the ground to mark the construction of an ethanol plant in Wonogiri, Central Java, before the end of the first quarter of this year. Sampoerno is a leading tobacco producer.

Sustainability problems

Sinopec's plan could accentuate an increasingly heated issue in the biofuels debate, namely that of the 'displacement effect': a country like Indonesia would produce biofuels for exports to Europe, from existing plantations, which are seen as yielding climate friendly fuels under the new EU sustainability rules. While at the same time it would be producing fuels and food products from new plantations for export to non-EU countries, like China. If the latter plantations are based on deforestation, the EU's sustainability rules would have resulted in this displacement effect and would prove to fuel environmental damages.

It is too early to tell whether the effect will play out in this case, because details about Sinopec's plantation plans are unavailable. However, discussions about this theoretical problem will grow larger as more biofuel projects come on line in forest-rich tropical countries.


China Knowledge: Sinopec to invest US$5 bln in Indonesian biofuel project [*cache] - January 24, 2008.

TradingMarkets: China's Sinopec to invest $5 bln on Indonesian biofuel project - January 22, 2008.

MarketWatch: Sinopec to reportedly invest $5 bln in Indonesia biofuel project - January 22, 2008.

PetrolWorld: Indonesia: Sinopec Investing us$5bn in Biofuel Project - January 22, 2008.

Biopact: CNOOC to build 3 biodiesel plants in West Kalimantan - May 07, 2007

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Bacteria in water buffalo's rumen may help produce cellulosic biofuels

According to a Filipino- American scientist, bacteria in the rumen of a subspecies of water buffalo could help produce lignocellulosic biofuels. Dr. Fiorello Abenes, a professor emeritus of animal and veterinary sciences at CalPoly Pomona University in California, says the Carabao's rumen fluid contains organisms that can help transform rice stubble and straw and other types of non-food biomass into bioethanol.


The natural conversion of biomass in the buffalo's pouch could constitute the first fermentation step that breaks down the difficult cell walls of lignocellulosic biomass, to release the sugars contained in it. It could thus become the 'mother liquor' of ethanol, and make the first and most difficult step in the production of cellulosic ethanol more affordable. A large group of scientists across the world is researching ways to achieve the same goal, but their strategies are mostly based on expensive enzymes, chemical or physical hydrolysis or even synthetic organisms.

When effective techniques are found to convert lignocellulose - the planet's most abundant molecule found in all plants - we enter a world of almost 'endless' biofuels. Waste biomass from forestry and agriculutre is so abundant that its use for biofuels would end the fuel versus food debate.

The theoretical basis for Abenes' findings was discussed in a lecture at the Institute of Graduate Studies at the Central Luzon State University. Results were validated by experiments conducted at the Philippine Carabao Center (PCC).
The experiments confirmed the ability of the model to produce ethanol using rumen microorganisms as first stage fermenters, followed by yeasts in the final fermenting stage.- Dr. Fiorello Abenes
Abenes, who obtained his doctoral degree in animal science at the University of Connecticut in 1975, worked for many years as regional swine specialist in Alberta, Canada, and at the Dairy Training and Research Institute of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations before moving to CalPoly Pomona University. He retired at 55 years old in that university in 2005 and is now engaged in various private enterprises in the United States. Abenes graduated with the degree of agricultural education from the CLSU in 1969. He was among the first Filipinos staying abroad who responded to the government’s Balik-Scientist program in 1975.

Abenes thinks it will not be too difficult to make the bacteria from the buffalo's pouch available on a large scale: "We can extract the rumen fluid from carabao and multiply [it] many times for commercial production of ethanol from biomass,” he said.

The process

In his lecture at the CLSU, Abenes said the carabao is a model for a way to convert lignocellulose to ethanol. Current high tech approaches are too expensive under Philippine conditions, he says.

The carabao is known for its ability to subsist on low quality forage, including rice stubble and straw. This ability is conferred upon the animal by the rumen that digests cellulose and hemicellulose, turning them into methane and volatile fatty acids (VFAs):
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The methane is expelled when the carabao belches while the VFAs are parceled between the host animal and the microorganisms. The host animal uses the VFAs as a source of energy. The microorganisms use them to support its life functions by synthesizing glucose.

Abenes said the feasibility of the method, as suggested by 'the carabao paradigm', has been validated in experiments conducted by the PCC. He said the rumen fluid can turn lignocellulose into fermentable carbohydrates and the fermentable carbohydrates can be turned into alcohol using common yeast.

Abenes, who conducted the experiment with PCC scientist Perla Florendo, said because of the promising results of the experiment they submitted a paper to a national science and technology contest in energy research and development. The researchers have no illusion about winning any prize due to the limited scope of the project but its submission at least documents that the first research in this area was conducted at PCC and CLSU.

He said preliminary calculations based on theoretical models have indicated that as much as 117 liters of alcohol can be distilled from 1,000 kg of biomass materials.

Given the natural abundance of biomass, the use of 85 percent ethanol for flexible fuel vehicles (FFV) may be possible, he said. There is now a technology for the conversion of vehicles using engine fuel to FFV at an affordable cost, he added.

Rural boost

Abenes said the commercial production of ethanol using the carabao model can involve residents of rural areas. They can be part of the factory assembly line by performing the tasks involved in the digestion process (in bioreactor containers) of the biomass material with the use of the rumen fluid that will be supplied to them.

The alcohol from the “bacterial beer” collected from the participating rural residents can be further refined through a solar distiller, he said. The distiller is now being designed by engineers from CLSU, he said.

Abenes also said residents who will be involved in this project can have added income, making the project a boost to rural economy.

Inquirer: Carabao may be key to biofuel, says scientist - January 26, 2008.

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Sunday, January 27, 2008

Brazilian law proposal would make mechanised sugarcane harvesting obligatory

Brazilian MP Fernando de Fabinho (Democrat for the state of Bahia) has introduced a law proposal that aims to phase out manual sugarcane harvesting within ten years and that ensures stricter evaluation and penalisation procedures for companies that still set fire to their plantations (which is needed for manual harvesting). The proposal is part of a growing number of proactive steps taken by Brazilian lawmakers to ensure that the country's vibrant sugarcane ethanol sector retains its position as the leading biofuel exporter.

The Project of Law 1712/07 states that "mechanised harvesting tackles two key problems at once: it eliminates the necessity of burning cane fields, and exempts workers of almost inhuman labor." The social and environmental balance of sugarcane ethanol would thus improve substantially.


Today around 30 per cent of Brazil's sugarcane acreage is harvested mechanically, but the share is growing very rapidly. This makes sugarcane ethanol more efficient and gives it a stronger energy balance (which is already impressive, with a net energy return of 8 to 1). Mechanisation also means an end to burning cane fields, which is a practise responsible for regional air pollution and emissions. Sugarcane ethanol that relies on burned cane achieves a reduction of carbon emissions of around 80%. With burning phased out, this reduction would increase further.

Mechanisation would also make the industry far more socially sustainable. But the trend towards mechanisation is rapidly leading to the unemployment of a growing number of unskilled laborers. And this is creating a social problem of a worrying magnitude. On the one hand, these low and unskilled laborers come from very poor backgrounds and are not able to find jobs other than doing the backbreaking work of cutting sugar cane. But on the other hand, if they lose their employment on the plantations due to mechanisation, they end up in a truly problematic situation and are often forced to join the growing numbers of people living in the mega-slums of Brazil's large cities.

This trend is worrying many. Recently, Secretary of Labor Guilherme Afif, of São Paulo state, where most of the sugarcane is grown, warned that no less than 700,000 laborers might lose their jobs. São Paulo may become a social war zone because of biofuels, he said. His cabinet therefor launched a study to analyse in depth the effects of this rapid modernisation and mechanisation on the labor market. The state-wide survey is being conducted.

Afif intends to use the results of the analysis to create a program aimed at facilitating the reintegration of these workers into other markets by training them into a specific niche - ideally, they will be employed in the expanding ethanol industry. The program is seen as urgent and will be implemented in the 645 municipalities of the State.

Possible solutions
This is the ideal held by most policy makers: training the unemployed former manual laborers into becoming relatively skilled workers who can be employed at the new ethanol factories that are springing up, as truckers and as operators of the new planting and harvesting machines. Some are optimistic about a scenario that states that if the ethanol industry expands rapidly enough, it can take in these large numbers of laborers, now skilled.

Policy workers of the Lula government and sociologists have suggested other possible solutions. One deals with making the establishment of a percentage of new sugarcane plantations slightly more challenging, for example by locating them on modestly difficult terrain that would normally not be chosen for a plantation, but that has the suitable agro-ecological conditions nonetheless, such as mild slopes. Establishing plantations there would require more skilled labor. The idea foresees a set of incentives to compensate companies operating in these zones:
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Law proposal
Fernando de Fabinho's legislative intervention goes in the same direction. His proposal states that the federal government will have to stimulate the change in the production methods through a set of mechanisms, and must create instruments to provide courses and training for to transform the laborers into skilled workers.

The Executive will have to edit a plan of action containing the set of the measures to be implemented, with the corresponding forecast of fiscal and credit resources, as well as a time table of implementation for each one of the measures.

Speeding up the transition to mechanisation will require extra investments and incentives to companies, which is why the law proposal suggests to integrate pluri-annual plans with expenditures into over-arching budgetary laws as well as in the annual budgetary laws, so that a strong financial framework emerges.

de Fabinho proposes to tie new licences for companies that want to expand sugarcane growing operations or for new concessions for companies entering the sector, to them phasing out the practise of sugarcane burning.

The proposal has meanwhile moved to the plenary of the House of Representatives and will now be submitted to a special commission dedicated to analysing and refining the proposal.

Thanks to EthanolBrasil.

eCâmara: Proposição: PL-1712/2007 (8/8/2007), Proposição Sujeita à Apreciação Conclusiva pelas Comissões - Art. 24 II: Dispõe sobre a mecanização da colheita da cana-de-açúcar e toma outras providências, Fernando de Fabinho - DEM /BA.

Agência Câmara: Colheita mecanizada de cana pode ser obrigatória - January 17, 2007.

Ethical Sugar, a Paris-based NGO involved in making the world's sugarcane industry more socially just by creating a social dialogue between different interest groups.

Biopact: Brazilian biofuels update [Mechanisation and employment] - May 28, 2007

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Rentech on track to produce synthetic (bio)fuels this spring

Rentech, Inc. recently announced that its Product Demonstration Unit (“PDU”) at its Rentech Energy Technology Center (“RETC”) in Commerce City, Colorado remains on track for fuel production in spring 2008. Rentech’s PDU is designed to produce synthetic ultra-clean diesel and aviation fuels from natural gas and various coals and types of biomass on a demonstration scale.

The Rentech Fischer-Tropsch (FT) gas-to-liquids (GTL), biomass-to liquids (BTL), and coal-to-liquids (CTL) technology is a three-step process, also known as 'indirect liquefaction', whereby:
  1. Carbon-bearing resources such as natural gas or coal are converted into synthesis gas, a combination of hydrogen and carbon monoxide.
  2. The synthesis gas is then sent through a FT reactor containing a catalyst where it is converted back to an ultra-clean liquid hydrocarbon.
  3. This initial product is upgraded into diesel fuel and jet fuel.
Rentech utilizes a patented and proprietary iron-based catalyst in its Fischer-Tropsch reactors. The Rentech catalyst was chosen to be used over cobalt catalyst for two very specific reasons: (1) The qualities of iron catalyst make it the most flexible catalyst, able to convert synthesis gas made from the widest range of hydrocarbon feedstocks with excellent economic efficiency; (2) specific to CTL, iron catalyst can tolerate low levels of sulfur contamination and ammonia compounds that may get into the synthesis gas and still maintain economic levels of conversion. Cobalt catalysts on the contrary have little or no resistance to poisons that may be contained in the synthesis gas produced from coal and once contaminated must be replaced.

According to Rentech, significant progress has been achieved as the PDU nears completion. All major equipment has now been installed at the site. In addition, over four thousand pounds of the Rentech catalyst have been manufactured, tested and are onsite and ready to be loaded into the reactor immediately prior to start-up of the process. Catalyst has also been loaded into the steam methane reformer, enabling the activation of the equipment and the production of synthesis gas for the process:
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In addition, successful testing of Rentech’s proprietary wax catalyst separation system has been conducted at RETC.

Over the next few weeks, as more systems are completed and turned over to the operations group, the Company will be completing pressure tests on the piping systems and will continue instrument loop checks. The finalization of the testing will enable Rentech to launch production of ultra-clean synthetic fuels at the PDU this spring.

D. Hunt Ramsbottom, President and CEO of Rentech, said the PDU will provide significant value to the company by enabling it to demonstrate its process and provide ultra-clean synthetic fuels to potential customers, including the Air Force, this year for testing purposes.

As part of a collaboration effort with the Southern Research Institute of Birmingham, Pall Corporation, and Thermochem Recovery International, Rentech was recently selected by the U.S. Department of Energy as one of four biomass-to-liquids projects receiving a combined $7.7 million in research funding (previous post).

Rentech, Inc. aims to transforms under-utilized domestic energy resources into valuable and clean alternative fuels and chemicals. These energy resources include coal, petroleum coke, biomass and municipal solid waste.


Rentech: Rentech’s Product Demonstration Unit Remains on Track for Fuel Production in Spring 2008 - January 17, 2008.

Biopact: US DOE to invest $7.7 million for four biomass-to-liquids projects; more than $1 billion for biofuels this year - December 05, 2007

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