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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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