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    The World GTL Summit will take place between 12 – 14th May 2008 in London. Key topics to be discussed include: the true value of Gas-to-Liquids (GTL) projects, well-to-wheels analyses of the GTL value chain; construction, logistics and procurement challenges; the future for small-scale Fischer-Tropsch (FT) projects; Technology, economics, politics and logistics of Coal-to-Liquids (CTL); latest Biomass-to-Liquids (BTL) commercialisation initiatives. CWC Exhibitions - February 4, 2007.

    The 4th Annual Brussels Climate Change Conference is announced for 26 - 27 February 2008. This joint CEPS/Epsilon conference will explore the key issues for a post-Kyoto agreement on climate change. The conference focuses on EU and global issues relating to global warming, and in particular looks at the following issues: - Post-2012 after Bali and before the Hokkaido G8 summit; Progress of EU integrated energy and climate package, burden-sharing renewables and technology; EU Emissions Trading Review with a focus on investment; Transport Climatepolicy.eu - January 28, 2007.

    Japan's Marubeni Corp. plans to begin importing a bioethanol compound from Brazil for use in biogasoline sold by petroleum wholesalers in Japan. The trading firm will import ETBE, which is synthesized from petroleum products and ethanol derived from sugar cane. The compound will be purchased from Brazilian petrochemical company Companhia Petroquimica do Sul and in February, Marubeni will supply 6,500 kilolitres of the ETBE, worth around US$7 million, to a biogasoline group made up of petroleum wholesalers. Wholesalers have been introducing biofuels since last April by mixing 7 per cent ETBE into gasoline. Plans call for 840 million liters of ETBE to be procured annually from domestic and foreign suppliers by 2010. Trading Markets - January 24, 2007.

    Toyota Tsusho Corp., Ohta Oil Mill Co. and Toyota Chemical Engineering Co., say it and two other firms have jointly developed a technology to produce biodiesel fuel at lower cost. Biodiesel is made by blending methanol into plant-derived oil. The new technology requires smaller amounts of methanol and alkali catalysts than conventional technologies. In addition, the new technology makes water removal facilities unnecessary. JCN Network - January 22, 2007.

    Finland's Metso Paper and SWISS COMBI - W. Kunz dryTec A.G. have entered a licence agreement for the SWISS COMBI belt dryer KUVO, which allows biomass to be dried in a low temperature environment and at high capacity, both for pulp & paper and bioenergy applications. Kauppalehti - January 22, 2007.

    Record warm summers cause extreme ice melt in Greenland: an international team of scientists, led by Dr Edward Hanna at the University of Sheffield, has found that recent warm summers have caused the most extreme Greenland ice melting in 50 years. The new research provides further evidence of a key impact of global warming and helps scientists place recent satellite observations of Greenland´s shrinking ice mass in a longer-term climatic context. Findings are published in the 15 January 2008 issue of Journal of Climate. University of Sheffield - January 15, 2007.

    Japan's Tsukishima Kikai Co. and Marubeni Corp. have together clinched an order from Oenon Holdings Inc. for a plant that will make bioethanol from rice. The Oenon group will invest around 4.4 billion yen (US$40.17 million) in the project, half of which will be covered by a subsidy from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. The plant will initially produce bioethanol from imported rice, with plans to use Hokkaido-grown rice in the future. It will produce 5 million liters per year starting in 2009, increasing output to 15m liters in 2011. The facility will be able to produce as much as 50,000 liters of bioethanol from 125 tons of rice each day. Trading Markets - January 11, 2007.

    PetroSun, Inc. announced today that its subsidiary, PetroSun BioFuels Refining, has entered into a JV to construct and operate a biodiesel refinery near Coolidge, Arizona. The feedstock for the refinery will be algal oil produced by PetroSun BioFuels at algae farms to be located in Arizona. The refinery will have a capacity of thirty million gallons and will produce 100% renewable biodiesel. PetroSun BioFuels will process the residual algae biomass into ethanol. MarketWire - January 10, 2007.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, February 04, 2008

Scientists sequence genome of bacterium that uses near infrared light for photosynthesis; could lead to creation of "super plants"

An international team of scientists has sequenced the genome of a rare bacterium that harvests light energy by making an even rarer form of chlorophyll, chlorophyll d. Chlorophyll d absorbs "red edge", near infrared, long wave length light, invisible to the naked eye. The scientists think that if the genes responsible for this unique capacity were to be embedded into genetically altered higher plants, they could become super solar energy factories with a greatly improved photosynthetic efficiency - which would have "immense agricultural consequences". Findings are published in the Feb. 4, online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Boosting plants' photosynthetic efficiency is one of the most exciting research foci in biotechnology and bioenergy, because there is great room for improvement: plants currently convert only around 0.3 to 0.5% of incoming sunlight into energy, but in theory this can be doubled several times. The consequences of such an intervention would obviously be enormous. Some scenarios show that breakthroughs in this field could make biomass and biofuels virtually 'endless' sources of green energy.
The extension of Chl d absorption into the near infrared, beyond the range of any other oxygenic photosynthetic organisms, could have immense agricultural consequences. If Chl d could be incorporated into higher plants, it has a potential capacity of increasing the energy conversion of sunlight by 5% compared to that of the Chl a-containing organisms. - Phototrophic Prokaryotic Sequencing Project
Plants that harvest near infrared light would be quite futuristic and give them a bit of a cosmic feel. It is no coincidence that when astrobiologists, like the lead author of the paper, imagine what plants would look like on other planets, they point at this capacity of harvesting non-visible, near infrared and full infrared light (weirder types of photosynthesis with black plants are thinkable too). Dr Robert Blankenship of Washington University is part of a NASA working group based at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory called the Virtual Plant Laboratory. He and his colleagues are studying light that comes from stars and extrasolar planets to infer the composition of the atmosphere of exoplanets. At times they use their knowledge and imagination to guesstimate the properties of potential plant life in such other worlds. Now they see a glimpse of this bizarre universe, here on Earth, in the form of a bizarre bacterium.

By absorbing near infrared light, the cyanobacterium Acaryochloris marina - which was only recently discovered and lives symbiotically under the belly of a type of sea squirt in the Great Barrier Reef -, competes with virtually no other plant or bacterium in the world for sunlight. As a result, its genome is massive for a cyanobacterium, comprising 8.3 million base pairs, and sophisticated. The genome is among the very largest of 55 cyanobacterial strains in the world sequenced thus far, and it is the first chlorophyll d - containing organism to be sequenced.

Dr Blankenship, who is the Lucille P. Markey Distinguished Professor in Arts & Sciences and principal investigator of the project, said with every gene of Acaryochloris marina now sequenced and annotated, the immediate goal is to find the enzyme that causes a chemical structure change in chlorophyll d, making it different from primarily chlorophyll a, and b, but also from about nine other forms of chlorophyll.
The synthesis of chlorophyll by an organism is complex, involving 17 different steps in all. Some place near the end of this process an enzyme transforms a vinyl group to a formyl group to make chlorophyll d. This transformation of chemical forms is not known in any other chlorophyll molecules. - Dr Robert Blankenship
Blankenship said he and his collaborators have some candidate genes they will test. They hope to insert these genes into an organism that makes just chlorophyll a. If the organism learns to synthesize chlorophyll d with one of the genes, the mystery of chlorophyll d synthesis will be solved, and then the excitement will begin.

Blankenship and his colleagues from Washington, Arizona State University, and scientists from Australia and Japan received support from the National Science Foundation. Three Washington University undergraduate students and one graduate student participated in the project, as well as other research personnel.
Harvesting solar power through plants or other organisms that would be genetically altered with the chlorophyll d gene could make them solar power factories that generate and store solar energy.
'Super plants'
Consider a seven-foot tall corn plant genetically tailored with the chlorophyll d gene to be expressed at the very base of the stalk, the researchers ask. While the rest of the plant synthesized chlorophyll a, absorbing short wave light, the base is absorbing "red edge" light in the 710 nanometer range. Energy could be stored in the base without competing with any other part of the plant for photosynthesis, as the rest only makes chlorophyll a. The altered corn using the chlorophyll d gene would become a "super plant" because of its enhanced ability to harness energy from the sun, the scientist say:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

That model is similar to how Acaryochloris marina actually operates in the South Pacific, specifically Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Discovered just 11 years ago, the cyanobacterium lives in a symbiotic relationship with a sponge-like marine animal popularly called a sea squirt . The Acaryochloris marina lives beneath the sea squirt, which is a marine animal that lives attached to rocks just below the surface of the water. The cyanobacterium absorbs "red edge" light through the tissues of its pal the sea squirt.

The genome, said Blankenship, is "fat and happy".
Acaryochloris marina lies down there using that far red light that no one else can use. The organism has never been under very strong selection pressure to be lean and mean like other bacteria are. It's kind of in a sweet spot. Living in this environment is what allowed it to have such dramatic genome expansion. - Dr Robert Blankenship
Blankenship said that once the gene that causes the late-step chemical transformation is found and inserted successfully into other plants or organisms, that it could potentially represent a five percent increase in available light for organisms to use.

"We now have genetic information on a unique organism that makes this type of pigment that no other organism does," Blankenship added. "We don't know what all the genes do by any means. But we�ve just begun the analysis. When we find the chlorophyll d enzyme and then look into transferring it into other organisms, we'll be working to extend the range of potentially useful photosynthesis radiation."

Many plant biologists, biotechnologists and bioenergy experts think improving the photosynthetic efficiency of energy crops could be part of a hyper-efficient bioeconomy of the future. Currently, most plants have a convert only between 0.3 and 0.5 percent of the incoming sunlight into energy. But theoretically it is possible to increase this tenfold.

Many projections about the global bioenergy potential are based on the status quo - agriculture and technology as it is today. They do not take biotechnological breakthroughs into account even though they are being made frequently. This is so because (the effects of such) breakthroughs cannot be projected or predicted. But most of the researchers who have assessed the long term potential for bioenergy almost all agree: in a scenario of a highly improved photosynthetic efficiency of plants, the entire energy game would be altered radically, and biofuels and biomass would become virtually endless sources of energy.

Picture of Acaryochloris marina, credit: Phototrophic Prokaryotic Sequencing Project.

[PNAS article not yet available at the time of writing].

Eurekalert: Bacterium sequenced makes rare form of chlorophyll - Living on "the red edge" - February 4, 2008.

Eurekalert: Scientists ponder plant life on extrasolar Earthlike planets - June 7, 2007.

Scott R. Miller, Sunny Augustine, Tien Le Olson, Robert E. Blankenship, Jeanne Selker, and A. Michelle Wood, "Discovery of a free-living chlorophyll d-producing cyanobacterium with a hybrid proteobacterial/cyanobacterial small-subunit rRNA gene", PNAS 2005 102: 850-855; published online before print as 10.1073/pnas.0405667102

Phototrophic Prokaryotic Sequencing Project: Cyanobacteria: Acaryochloris marina.

Article continues

Researchers find large potential for cost-effective biohydrogen production from palm oil waste

A few years ago, we referred to the large potential for the production of bioproducts and next-generation biofuels from the waste biomass that accumulates at palm oil plantations and mills. The palm oil tree is one of the most productive plants on the planet. Currently only the oil in its fruit and kernels is used for commercial purposes. However, this resource constitutes only a tiny fraction (less than 10%) of the total amount biomass that is generated on a plantation - the rest is burned or dumped into the environment as waste.

A group of researchers from the Universiti Sains Malaysia now finds that this vast stream of waste biomass holds a considerable potential for the efficient and cost-competitive production of renewable biohydrogen via a process known as supercritical water gasification (SCWG) - of growing interest to bioenergy researchers. The process yields hydrogen twenty times less costly than H2 from electrolysis of water when the primary energy comes from renewables like wind or solar, and one fifth less costly than H2 obtained from steam reforming natural gas - the most likely candidate for large scale hydrogen production in the future. The chemical and energetic properties of the residual palm biomass, especially its high moisture content, make it a 'perfect' feedstock for the novel gasification process. The energy balance ('EROEI') of the biohydrogen was found to be 9.9, indicating a highly efficient use of the resource. The researchers discuss their findings in a recent issue of the scientific journal Energy Policy.

There is no denying that today's palm oil based biofuels come with their share of problems. They could drive deforestation and when only the oil is used, the fuels could in fact generate more GHG emissions than conventional fossil fuels, because of the emissions resulting from land use change (palm oil biofuel produced from plantations that were established on non-forest land do cut emissions, though). The coproduction of biohydrogen would improve both the greenhouse gas profile of these first generation biofuels as well as their energy balance. Profitable utilization of the residues would also limit the need for further expansion of the palm oil acreage.

Environmental sustainability criteria such as those proposed by the European Commission must ensure that negative land-use effects are minimized. One way of doing so is by converting residual biomass into green energy and thus getting more out of a hectare of land. Depending on which energy product is coproduced, this practise can considerably improve the emissions profile of (first generation) palm oil based biofuels. Both Indonesia and Malaysia, the world's largest palm oil producers, have understood this message and are concentrating on finding ways to use the large amount of residual biomass efficiently and profitably.

Residues and utilization pathways
Besides a small amount of palm oil (around 5 tonnes per hectare), a plantation produces fronds, leaves, trunks, press fibers, empty fruit bunches (EFB), kernel shells and processing waste such as palm oil mill effluent (POME). This biomass generally consists of cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin, but composition varies according to plant species. The composition of some of the most common residues, as well as their tonnage per hectare, is outlined in table 1 (click to enlarge).

Several utilization pathways for these residues have been analysed, with some being used increasingly by plantations and mills. One of the most straightforward ones consists of using the residual biomass as a fuel source to power palm oil processing plants - the fuel replaces coal or natural gas, and because of its abundance a palm oil plant would feed excess green electricity into the grid - a practise similar to that found in Brazil's sugar and ethanol processing plants which use bagasse to power their own operations as well as nearby towns. Several palm oil plants have opted for this pathway. However, the high moisture content of the biomass makes alternative uses more energy efficient.

Bioproducts such as bioplastics and fibre products can be produced from several types of non-oil palm biomass. The utilization of lignocellulosic biomass for the production of liquid fuels - via gasification and Fischer-Tropsch synthesis (biomass-to-liquids), pyrolysis or biochemical transformation - is another possibility. One particularly environmentally damaging waste stream - Palm Oil Mill Effluent (POME) - is now being transformed into biogas more and more often. Several of these projects are part of the Clean Development Mechanism.

Tau Len Kelly-Yong, Keat Teong Lee, Abdul Rahman Mohamed and Subhash Bhatia from the School of Chemical Engineering at the Universiti Sains Malaysia now suggest a more futuristic and efficient pathway: using the large biomass resource as a feedstock for the production of renewable biohydrogen.

Biohydrogen is a fully decarbonised energy carrier, it contains no carbon. This implies that the CO2 released during its production can be captured and sequestered. When such carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies are coupled to biohydrogen production, a carbon-negative fuel is obtained. The net emissions from first generation biofuel (e.g. palm oil biodiesel) and second-generation biofuels (e.g. hydrotreated palm oil biodiesel) would be offset by this coproduced carbon-negative biohydrogen.

This is why Kelly-Yong's research is so interesting. It points to a possible future in which palm oil plantations - provided they are not based on deforested land - would generate "negative emissions". That is, the energy they generate would actively remove historic CO2 from the atmosphere (unlike other renewables, which are merely carbon-neutral and do not add new CO2 to the atmosphere). 'Carbon-neutralised' liquid fuels would be available for export, whereas decarbonized, carbon-negative biohydrogen would be used locally either in electricity production or as a transport fuel. The overall carbon emissions balance of all energy thus generated would be negative.

The potential
The Malaysian team looked at the availability of palm residues on a global scale. They found that the destination of this huge amount of biomass is raising concerns. The supply of oil palm biomass and its processing byproducts were found to be no less than 7 times the availability of natural timber globally. Every year, the oil palm industry generates more than one 184.6 million tonnes of residues worldwide (graph, click to enlarge):
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

After outlining the complications of current bioconversion pathways used on this biomass, Kelly-Yong and collegues say the urgent need for transforming this residue into a more-valuable end product can be met by converting it into biohydrogen via gasification using supercritical water reaction technology. Oil palm biomass is "the perfect candidate as feedstock for the gasification process", they write.

The feedstock has a high energy and moisture content (450%), which is an integral requirement for reactions in SCW reaction and for the generation of renewable energy. The insignificant amount of trace minerals in the biomass composition is another advantage for the reaction. Furthermore, the availability of oil palm biomass all over the year allows continuous operation of the process.

Supercritical water gasification

Supercritical water gasification (SCWG) is a relatively novel gasification method, in which biomass is transformed into a hydrogen-rich gas by introducing it in supercritical water (SCW) (schematic, click to enlarge). SCW is obtained at pressure above 221 bar and temperatures above 374 °C. By treatment of biomass in supercritical water - but in the absence of added oxidants - organics are converted into fuel gases and are easily separated from the water phase by cooling to ambient temperature. The produced high pressure gas is very rich in hydrogen.

Characteristic of the SCW-organics interactions is a gradually changing involvement of water with the temperature. With temperature increasing to 600 °C water becomes a strong oxidant and results in complete desintegration of the substrate structure by transfer of oxygen from water to the carbon atoms of the substrate. As a result of the high density carbon is preferentially oxidized into CO2 but also low concentrations of CO are formed. The hydrogen atoms of water and of the substrate are set free and form H2.

The SCW process consists of a number of unit operation as feed pumping, heat exchanging, reactor, gas-liquid separators and if desired product upgrading. The reactor operating temperature is typically between 600 and 650 oC; the operating pressure is around 300 bar. A residence time of ½ up to 2 minutes is required to achieve complete carbon conversion depending on the feedstock. Heat exchange between the inlet and outlet streams from the reactor is essential for the process to achieve high thermal efficiencies. process overview of biomass gasification in supercritical water The two-phase product stream is separated in a high-pressure gas-liquid separator (T = 25 - 300 °C).

Due to these conditions significant part of the CO2 remains in the water phase. Possible contaminants like H2S, NH3 and HCl are even more likely to be captured in the water phase due to their higher solubility, and in fact in-situ gas cleaning is obtained. The gas stream from the HP separator contains mainly the H2, CO and CH4 and part of the CO2. In a low pressure separator a second gas stream is produced containing relative large amounts of CO2, but also some combustibles. This gas can e.g. be used for internal heating purposes.

The SCW process is in particular suitable for the conversion of wet organic materials (moisture content 70 - 95%) which can be renewable or non-renewable.

The primary gas produced by the SCW process differs significantly from most other biomass gasifiers: gas is produced at very high pressure, hydrogen content is high, no dilution by nitrogen.

The produced gas is clean (no tar, or other contaminants in high pressure gas even if produced in the process) and it always contains high amounts of hydrogen; the amounts of CO and CH4 depend on the operating conditions. Complete carbon conversion is achieved after relative short residence time, and significant amounts of CO are found, whereas methane content is still low. For long residence times gas equilibrium has been established and CO is almost completely absent, but methane content is significantly increased.

Water plays various roles in facilitating the gasification reaction, due to its unique ability and properties. The hot compressed water molecules can participate in various elementary reaction steps as reactant, catalyst and medium.

In the gasification reaction, the biomass under severe conditions is instantaneously decomposed into small molecules of gases in few minutes, at a high efficiency rate. A gaseous mixture of hydrogen, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, methane and other compounds is obtained from the reaction (Ni et al., 2006). The chemistry of the reaction during the gasification under the influence of SCW and pressure is often cited as complicated and complex as it involves multiple reactions that occur simultaneously to produce the gaseous and liquid mixture.

However, 3 main reactions are identified: (1) steam reforming, (2) methanation and (3) water–gas shift reactions (Hao et al., 2003). The reactions are identified as follows :

Biomass + H2O -> H2 + CO; (1)
CO + H2O -> CO2 + H2; (2)
CO + 3H2 -> CH4 + H2O: (3)

In reaction (1), the biomass reacts with water at its supercritical condition in the steam-reforming reaction to produce gaseous mixtures of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Subsequently, the carbon monoxide produced from the first reaction will undergo an inorganic chemical reaction termed as water–gas shift reaction with water to produce more carbon dioxide and hydrogen as shown in reaction (2). It is possible that the carbon monoxide produced from reaction (1) between water and biomass caused the equilibrium of the water–gas shift reaction to shift to the right, ultimately producing more hydrogen in the end product. In the last reaction, methanation will occur where the carbon monoxide will react with hydrogen in the earlier reaction to obtain methane and water as its end product.

The utilization of SCW medium in biomass gasification has several advantages. It can directly deal with high moisture content biomass. Therefore, preliminary treatment such as biomass drying can be avoided, advantageously preventing the high cost related to that process.

Hydrogen production via SCW technology represents a potential source of renewable energy for the future. It is estimated that the cost of hydrogen production via SCW gasification ranges between US $3–7 per GJ or US$ 0.35 per kg, as compared with the most obvious current method - stream reforming of natural gas - the cost of which averages between US $5–8/GJ.

However, the exact costs are expected to differ slightly for different kinds of biomass depending on its origins. In comparison with other conventional and alternative processes for hydrogen production, SCW gasification of biomass is by far the most cost-efficient method to produce hydrogen (figure, click to enlarge). Comprehensive studies have been carried out with great success on this technology, utilizing biomass sources such as corn starch, clover grass, wood dust, organic waste, industrial waste, etc. The results show a high percentage of hydrogen in the end product and very little
production of residues.

Efficiency and energy balance

Kelly-Yong and his collegues analysed the energy efficiency of the gasification reaction when based on palm oil biomass, the efficiency of pure hydrogen production, and the energy balance taking into account all energy inputs for a palm plantation.

Gasification efficiency

In order to calculate the energy efficiency of the gasification reaction, researchers have taken the following definition: the sum of external energy of the desired products divided by the total process inputs. However, for such an analysis often only hydrogen is taken into account as the desired output, without considering other end products.

For their part, the Malaysian researchers defined the desired end product as a mixture of hydrogen, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and also methane. Besides the chemical energy of the mixture gases, it is also vital to include heat recovery into the calculation since it contributes significantly to the efficiency of the reaction.

Comprehensive heat recovery unit can increase the percentage of efficiency of about 10–25% higher compared to those without a recovery unit. In the gasification reaction, heat can be recovered from the energy released from product, and from the the heat of the reaction.

Therefore, Kelly-Yong and collegues define the energy efficiency as the ratio of total chemical energy from products (hydrogen, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and methane) plus the heat released (product and reaction) to the overall chemical
energy contained in the feedstock (biomass and water) plus the energy required for heating of the biomass, in the reaction. For this reaction, it is assumed that process heat is provided by wood combustion with an efficiency of 75%.

With these parameters, the theoretical energy efficiency of the gasification reaction of oil palm biomass, without heat recovery, is around 46.54%. With heat recovery, the energy efficiency is about 72.91%. The real energy efficiency percentages are estimated to be about 10–25% lower than these thermodynamic values.

Pure hydrogen efficiency

The pure hydrogen production efficiency in the gasification reaction is an important parameter that must be accurately studied, the researchers say. There are several methods to determine the magnitude of this efficiency. They chose to consider the lower heating value of input and outputs. Hydrogen efficiency is then defined as the ratio of hydrogen output to the biomass input plus external energy minus energy recovered, as presented.

The maximum theoretical pure hydrogen production efficiency was found to be 34.93% without heat recovery and 57.96% with heat recovery. Real values about 10–25% lower than the thermodynamic values.

Energy balance
The evaluation of the final energy balance (energy inputs versus energy outputs, 'EROEI') for oil palm biomass is also an important parameter. The total energy input needed to obtain the biomass feedstock is estimated (by others) to be 19.2 GJ per hectare per year for an oil palm plantation (seed to processing plant). The gasification of oil palm biomass produces a total energy output of 190.96 GJ per hectare per year. Thus, an EROEI of 9.9 is found.

For the researchers This high ratio is another evidence of the viability of the reaction in transforming the high-energy biomass into higher energy end product.

Hydrogen production potential

After these analyses, the researchers calculated the total potential of biomass waste streams used in large-scale applications of the SCWG technology. Even though this technology requires improvements in energy recovery and the optimization of various parameters to ensure that the reaction is well controlled and is able to reach its maximum conversion, it is already capable of yielding positive energy efficiencies.

To calculate the real potential, the hydrogen percentage in the end product gas mixtures is taken to be 61.29%, and the theoretical maximum yield of hydrogen is about 0.117 kgH2 per kg of biomass. With world oil palm biomass production annually standing at about 184.6 million tons, and taking a 100 and 50% conversion efficiency, between 21.6 and 10.8 million tonnes of hydrogen can be produced every year, respectively.

Currently in 2006, world hydrogen production is estimated to be at about 50 million tonnes and growing at 10% per year. With the inclusion of hydrogen produced from oil palm biomass, world hydrogen production can be increased by up to 43.2% yearly. The increasing expansion of the oil palm plantation acreage in most of the countries where it is cultivated may provide a large source of biomass for hydrogen production.

: empty fruit bunches, one of the residues of palm oil processing.

Biopact wishes to thank co-author Keat Teong Lee for additional information.


Tau Len Kelly-Yong, Keat Teong Lee, Abdul Rahman Mohamed, Subhash Bhatia, "Potential of hydrogen from oil palm biomass as a source of renewable energy worldwide", Energy Policy 35 (2007) 5692–5701, 7 August 2007

K.T. Tan, K.T. Lee, A.R. Mohamed, S. Bhatia, "Palm oil: Addressing issues and towards sustainable development", Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, in press.

Biopact: And the world's most productive ethanol crop is... oil palm - June 21, 2006

On Supercritical Water Gasification, see:

EU sponsored project: SuperH2: Biomass and Waste Conversion in Supercritical Water for the Production of Renewable Hydrogen.

Biomass Technology Group: Biomass gasification in supercritical water.

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CEZ boosts electricity production from biomass, up 52 percent in 2007

CEZ, Central and Eastern Europe's largest power producer, boosted its production of electricity from burning biomass to 249 gigawatt hours (GWh) in 2007, up from 163 GWh a year ago (an increase of 52 per cent). Biomass has become the Czech group's second most important renewable source after hydro-powered plants, and the fastest growing segment. Wind (0.1GWh in 2006) and solar (0.07GWh in 2006) have stagnated over the past years and make up a minimal fraction of CEZ's portfolio, which also includes nuclear power. In the Czech Republic biomass is seen as the renewable with the largest potential to meet the EU's renewables target.

In the first three quarters of 2007, CEZ produced 65.1 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity of which 1.2 TWh came from renewable sources, the bulk from hydropower and bioenergy.

The Czech company is investing heavily in biomass because it is the most competitive renewable with which the EU's renewables targets can be met. The energy group however warned that the EU's recent draft on renewable energy and greenhouse gas reductions could increase power generation costs by an estimated 50 percent by 2013.

It is uncertain how much of that cost CEZ will be able to pass on to consumers, but analysts predict the higher outgoings could stunt investments in new capacity, putting further upward pressure on electricity prices.

The European Commission last month announced a climate action and renewable energy package aimed at cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 20 percent from 1990 levels by 2020. It also set an EU-wide target for renewables to rise to 20 percent of the energy mix by that time, with an individual figure of 13 percent for the Czech Republic.

The Czech government announced it hopes to meet the criteria by stimulating the development of additional hydroelectric and biomass power plants. When it comes to renewable energy production, the Czech Republic currently sits in the middle of the pack of EU member states, with 9.4% of final energy consumption coming from green sources.

The commission further unveiled its proposals for the 2013-2020 phase of the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, under which the power sector will have to pay fully for carbon credits. Analysts said this will have the largest impact on CEZ going ahead. If CO2 credits go to full auctioning, then that CO2 cost will find its way into the power price immediately, said Bram Buring, analyst at Wood & Co.

CEZ, which has a market share of around 70 percent in the Czech Republic, has been allocated 34.3 million credits per year for the current trading period ending in 2012. Many analysts are still working out the likely financial impact of the EU proposals on the Czech power producer. But Josef Nemy, an analyst with Komercni Banka, forecasted generation costs could rise as much as 33.5 bln crowns, or around 500 crowns per megawatt hour of electricity produced, if CEZ has to pay for all its allowances. CEZ currently produces one MWh at a cost of around 1,000 crowns on average.

The increase in electricity prices is expected to be smaller than the increase in costs per MWh because the additional cost will be spread between consumers and producers. The overall impact on utilities, including CEZ, would thus be negative. Generation costs for CEZ could come under further strain as the group builds up capacity for renewable sources. The company, which has set aside 30 bln crowns for investment into renewables, admitted the EU proposals will mean "a significant and very costly increase in production of electricity from renewable sources."

Petr Novak, an analyst in Atlantik FT, said CEZ will likely need to invest more in biomass to meet the targets. But biomass is currently limited by a weak supply chain The total market for biomass producers is not working because it's difficult to process the whole supply chain, but biomass has the most potential among renewables in the Czech Republic, says Novak.

The European Commission estimates the Czech Republic's mid term (2010-2020) bioenergy potential to be around 6.5TWh for electricity from solid biomass, and slightly more than 2 TWh for electricity from biogas. Onshore wind power has a large potential as well (graph, click to enlarge):
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Investment into new costly technology for carbon capture and storage (CCS) is also seen adding to CEZ's cost base. Eva Novakova, CEZ's spokeswoman, says the company has previously estimated that the cost of producing electricity from plants equipped with this technology could rise between 35-81 percent. CEZ does not currently operate any units with carbon capture, but it is working on development projects for the technology and has said it is considering future construction of CO2 separation units.

The combination of more expensive carbon credits, higher renewables output and costlier anti-emissions technology could slow new investments into more capacity in the Czech Republic and the CEE region as a whole, analysts added.

A lack of new capacity and strong demand have been two of the main reasons behind the brisk growth in Czech power prices in recent years.

Graph: Mid term potential for renewables in the Czech Republic. Credit: European Commission, SEC(2004) 547, The share of renewable energy in the EU - Country Profiles
Overview of Renewable Energy Sources in the Enlarged European Union {COM(2004)366 final}.


Forbes: CEZ raises annual production from biomass in 2007 by 52 pct - February 4, 2008.

AFX: CEZ generation costs seen soaring under post-2013 EU emissions reforms - January 30, 2008.

CEZ: Utilization of renewable sources by CEZ Group is constantly growing [*.pdf] - November 2006.

European Commission: Czech Republic Renewables Country Page, at Energy.eu.

European Commission: The share of renewable energy in the EU - Country Profiles: Overview of Renewable Energy Sources in the Enlarged European Union [*.pdf] - SEC(2004) 547 Commission Staff Working Document {COM(2004)366 final}, Brussels, May 26, 2004

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Australian researchers develop process to produce stable bio-crude oil

Researchers from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Australia's national science agency, and Monash University, have developed a chemical process that turns abundant lignocellulosic biomass into a type of bio-crude oil more stable than any other produced so far. The bio-crude oil, also known as bio-oil, can be used to produce high value chemicals and biofuels, including both petrol and diesel replacement fuels. The breakthrough removes one of the major obstacles holding back the development of decentralised production concepts, as the stability of the oil is important in the logistical chain.

Bio-crude oil or bio-oil is a next-generation biofuel obtained from the fast pyrolysis of any type of biomass including waste. Fast pyrolysis is a process in which the organic materials are rapidly heated to 450 - 600 °C at atmospheric pressure in the absence of air. Under these conditions, organic vapours, pyrolysis gases and charcoal are produced. The vapours are condensed to bio-oil. Typically, 70-75 wt.% of the feedstock is converted into oil.

Pyrolysis offers the possibility of de-coupling (time, place and scale), easy handling of the liquids and a more consistent quality compared to any solid biomass. With fast pyrolysis a clean liquid - bio-crude - is produced as an intermediate for a wide variety of applications. One of the main obstabcles to this de-coupling, has been the chemical instability of the bio-oil. This implies logistical chains must be optimised to allow fast processing of the bio-crude into refined products.

Dr Steven Loffler of CSIRO Forest Biosciences says his team made changes to the chemical process, which allowed it to create a concentrated bio-crude which is much more stable than that achieved elsewhere in the world. This makes it practical and economical to produce bio-crude in local areas for transport to a central refinery, overcoming the high costs and greenhouse gas emissions otherwise involved in transporting bulky green wastes over long distances (previous post, here and here).
Our process creates a stable oil that can then be tankered to the biorefinery. - Dr Steven Loffler, Theme Leader CSIRO Forest Biosciences
The process uses low value waste such as forest thinnings, crop residues, waste paper and garden waste, significant amounts of which are currently dumped in landfill or burned. According to Dr Loffler, by using waste, the 'Furafuel' technology as it has been dubbed, overcomes the food versus fuel debate which surrounds biofuels generated from grains, corn and sugar.

The project forms part of CSIRO’s commitment to delivering cleaner energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by improving technologies for converting waste biomass to transport fuels:
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The plant wastes being targeted for conversion into biofuels contain chemicals known as lignocellulose, which is increasingly favoured around the world as a raw material for the next generation of bio-ethanol.

Lignocellulose is both renewable and potentially greenhouse gas neutral. It is predominantly found in trees and is made up of cellulose; lignin, a natural plastic; and hemicellulose.

CSIRO and Monash University will apply to patent the chemical processes underpinning the conversion of green wastes to bio-crude oil once final laboratory trials are completed.

The research to date is supported by funding from CSIRO’s Energy Transformed Flagship program, Monash University, Circa Group and Forest Wood Products Australia.

National Research Flagships CSIRO initiated the National Research Flagships to provide science-based solutions in response to Australia’s major research challenges and opportunities. The nine Flagships form multidisciplinary teams with industry and the research community to deliver impact and benefits for Australia.

Picture: forestry waste and wood as an abundant lignocellulosic feedstock for bio-crude oil, set to end the food versus fuel debate. Credit: CSIRO.

CSIRO: Bio-crude turns cheap waste into valuable fuel - February 4, 2008.

Biopact: Dynamotive demonstrates fast-pyrolysis plant in the presence of biofuel experts - September 18, 2007

Biopact: Dynamotive begins construction of modular fast-pyrolysis plant in Ontario - December 19, 2006

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EU, US, Brazil release report on biofuels specifications to expand trade

The governments of the United States, Brazil and the European Union (EU) — the world’s major producers of biofuels — have released an analysis of current biofuel specifications with the goal of facilitating expanded trade of these renewable energy sources. Spurred by increased market demands, this report was solicited by the U.S. and Brazilian governments and the European Commission (EC) on behalf of the EU, with the work conducted by an international group of fuel standards experts.

Biofuels — derived from biological materials such as plants, plant oils, animal fat and microbial byproducts — are gaining popularity worldwide as both energy producers and users seek ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, move away from dependence on fossil fuels and invigorate economies through increased use of agricultural products. As a result, biofuels are becoming an increasingly important commodity in the global marketplace.

One potential obstacle to achieving greater efficiency in the global biofuels market is confusion over differing—and sometimes conflicting — standards for characterizing the make-up and properties of biofuels. To clarify the current situation and identify potential roadblocks to improved compatibility, the U.S. and Brazilian governments and the EC convened a task force of experts from standards developing organizations (SDOs) to compare critical specifications in existing standards used globally (factors such as content, physical characteristics and contaminant levels that govern a fuel’s quality) for pure bioethanol and biodiesel, two key biofuels.

The "White Paper on Internationally Compatible Biofuels Standards" [*.pdf] they published identifies where key specifications in the standards are:
  • Specifications that are similar among all three regions and can be considered compatible
  • Specifications with differences that could be aligned in the short term (less than 12 months)
  • Specifications for which fundamental differences exist and are deemed irreconcilable
The White Paper was requested by the governments of the United States and Brazil and the EC, and was produced by the joint task force after a six-month review process that considered thousands of pages of technical documents produced by ASTM International, the Brazilian Technical Standards Association (Associação Brasileira de Normas Técnicas or ABNT) and the European Committee for Standardization (Comité Europeén de Normalisation or CEN). Standards developed by these three SDOs are currently being used in support of biofuels commodities trading between nations.

The experts found that these three sets of bioethanol and biodiesel standards, and the specifications they contain, share much common ground and, therefore, impose few impediments to biofuel trade. Nine of the16 ethanol specifications reviewed, the task force states, are “in alignment” and all but one of the remaining specifications could be aligned in the short term. For biodiesel, the report lists six specifications as compatible. It suggests that many of the remaining differences could be handled by blending various types of biodiesel to create an end product that meets regional specifications for fuel quality and emissions:
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In formal transmittal letters to representatives of the standards community, the U.S. and Brazilian governments and the EC on behalf of the EU applauded the efforts of the technical experts and encouraged the SDOs to consider the results of those efforts.

Recognizing that many of the issues relating to variations in specifications can be traced to different measurement procedures and methods, two leading metrology institutes—the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and Brazil’s National Institute of Metrology, Standardization and Industrial Quality (Instituto Nacional de Metrologia, Normalização e Qualidade Industrial or INMETRO)—are collaborating on the development of joint measurement standards for bioethanol and biodiesel to complement the efforts of the SDOs. Initial efforts focus on creating certified reference materials to support development and testing of bioethanol and biodiesel, and analytical measurement methods for source identification (to determine if a fuel comes from a renewable or non-renewable source and the source of origin of biodiesel, e.g., soy, palm oil, animal fat, etc.) by the end of 2008.

The United States, Brazil and the EU are all members of the International Biofuels Forum (IBF) and will continue to engage other IBF governments in future work. The named SDOs will also seek to involve their counterparts in the other IBF member countries—China, India and South Africa—in the effort to make biofuels standards compatible worldwide.

Brazil, the world’s biggest exporter of ethanol, already requires up to a 25 percent blend of ethanol with all gasoline that is sold. The EU has established a bioethanol blend mandate for its member states of 5.75 percent by 2010, and at least 10 percent of all vehicle fuels by 2020. In the United States, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 sets a 7.5 billion gallon goal for national biofuel consumption (usually ethanol) by 2012.


National Institute of Standards and Technology: White Paper on Internationally Compatible Biofuels Standards [*.pdf] - February 2008.

National Institute of Standards and Technology: Fact Sheet [*.pdf] - February 2008.

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