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    Austrian bioenergy group Cycleenergy acquired controlling interest in Greenpower Projektentwicklungs GmbH, expanding its biomass operational portfolio by 16 MW to a total of 22 MW. In the transaction Cycleenergy took over 51% of the company and thereby formed a joint venture with Porr Infrastruktur GmbH, a subsidiary of Austrian construction company Porr AG. Greenpower operates two wood chip CHP facilities in Upper and Lower Austria, each with an electric capacity of 2 MW. The plants have been in operation since the middle of last year and consume more than 30,000 tonnes of wood chips and are expected to generate over €5 million in additional revenue. Cycleenergy - February 6, 2007.

    The 2008 edition of Bioenergy World Europe will take place in Verona, Italy, from 7 to 10 February. Gathering a broad range of international exhibitors covering gaseous, liquid and solid bioenergy, the event aims to offer participants the possibility of developing their business through meetings with professionals, thematic study tours and an international forum focusing on market and regulatory issues, as well as industry expertise. Bioenergy World Europe - February 5, 2007.

    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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Friday, February 08, 2008

Biogas from vast amounts of food waste: new Food Bank/Industry partnership launched in Ontario

The Ontario Association of Food Banks (OAFB) and StormFisher Biogas, an Ontario-based renewable energy utility, have joined forces to launch Plan Zero, a province-wide social enterprise that will generate renewable electricity from food industry surplus and by-products that are destined for landfills.

Plan Zero will work with food industry producers, growers and manufacturers to direct organic by-products to StormFisher's biogas production facilities - called anaerobic digesters - which accelerate the decomposition of organic matter to create biogas for use in producing electricity, renewable natural gas and heat. Plan Zero will direct a portion of the proceeds from the sale of energy to Ontario's electricity grid to the OAFB.

StormFisher's anaerobic digesters can produce energy using a wide range of organic materials, from used cooking oils to cow manure. The company also formed relationships with farms, food processing facilities, universities and technology providers. Its first three biogas facilities are currently in early development in London, Drayton and Port Colborne (Ontario) and will be operational by 2009.
Today, millions of tonnes of organic by-products generated in Ontario go to landfills unnecessarily. Plan Zero will help food manufacturers improve their environmental efforts and bottom line while supporting food banks in their work to relieve hunger across Ontario. - Ryan Little, Vice President of Business Development, StormFisher Biogas
Plan Zero also provides a way for food industry producers, growers and manufacturers to direct surplus food products to the provincial food bank network. This surplus product will be distributed to food banks in over 100 communities throughout Ontario. Under Plan Zero, StormFisher and the OAFB will secure long-term agreements with food industry producers, growers and manufacturers that are looking for an environmental and economically beneficial alternative for disposing of their organic by-products:
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Plan Zero represents a powerful social enterprise initiative for the food industry as a single gateway for their surplus food and by-products. But this is not just a smart business decision. As a social enterprise, Plan Zero is also a meaningful way for businesses to fight climate change and hunger at the same time. - Adam Spence, Executive Director of the OAFB
Generating electricity from biogas involves capturing the gas produced by the decomposition of organic matter such as food by-products in anaerobic digesters - large holding tanks deprived of oxygen. The decomposition creates a mix of methane and carbon dioxide ("biogas") with the methane subsequently captured and burned to power an electricity generator. The energy created by the generator can then be fed directly into the electrical grid and sold to the Ontario Power Authority (OPA) to supply the province's electricity demand.

As a company that works both with the OAFB and StormFisher, we know the value of putting food that won't be sold to a good use. This is a program that just makes sense. - Chris Swartz, Director of Warehousing, Gordon Food Service Canada

StormFisher has announced agreements to create renewable electricity in partnership with a number of food processing companies in Ontario. One such partnership, with Inniskillin Wines, will create renewable electricity from the winery's grape by-products. About 1,000 to 2,000 tonnes of winery by-products previously destined to a landfill will be given a new use as a fuel. Methane gas produced by the decomposition of grape pomace will be captured and used to generate power for homes in the Niagara region.

StormFischer Biogas: New Food Bank/Industry Partnership to Market Renewable Energy From Food Industry By-Products - January 31, 2008.

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DOE JGI releases new version of metagenome data management & analysis system

Targeting its ever-expanding user community, the U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute (DOE JGI) has released an upgraded version of the IMG/M metagenome data management and analysis system, accessible to the public here. The JGI is a key international research effort analysing genomes from organisms for use in the production of next-generation bioenergy and biofuels.

IMG/M provides tools for analyzing the functional capability of microbial communities based on their metagenome DNA sequence in the context of reference isolate genomes. The new version of IMG/M includes five additional metagenome datasets generated from microbial community samples that were the subject of recently published studies. These include the metagenomic and functional analysis of termite hindgut microbiota (Nature 450, 560-565, 22 November 2007 - previous post) and the single cell genetic analysis of TM7, a rare and uncultivated microbe from the human mouth (PNAS, July 17, 2007, vol. 104, no. 29, 11889-11894).

"IMG/M is a fantastic tool that is incredibly helpful in understanding our data," said Stephen Quake, Co-Chair, Department of Bioengineering at Stanford University, Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and senior author on the PNAS study. "We used IMG/M in numerous ways, both to analyze our data and to understand general properties of other relevant bacterial genomes. I look forward to analyzing our new datasets with IMG/M."

IMG/M will be demonstrated at a workshop on March 26 as part of the DOE JGI Third Annual User Meeting. IMG/M contains all isolate genomes in version 2.4 of DOE JGI’s Integrated Microbial Genomes (IMG) system, which represents an increase of 1,339 reference genomes from the previous version of IMG/M. Now, IMG/M contains 2,953 isolate genomes consisting of 819 bacterial, 50 archaeal, 40 eukaryotic genomes, and 2,044 viruses.

IMG/M provides new tools for analyzing metagenome datasets in the context of reference isolate genomes, such as the Reference Genome Context Viewer and Protein Recruitment Plot that allow the examination of metagenomes in the context of individual reference isolate genomes. New Abundance Comparison and Functional Category Comparison tools enable pairwise function analysis (COG, Pfam, Enzyme, TIGRfam) and functional category (e.g., COG category) abundance comparisons, respectively, between a metagenome dataset and one or several reference metagenomes or genomes, and test whether the differences in abundance are statistically significant:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

IMG/M has been developed jointly by the DOE JGI’s Genome Biology Program (GBP) and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) Biological Data Management and Technology Center (BDMTC). The large-scale pairwise gene similarity computations for all the genomes included in IMG/M have been carried out using ScalaBLAST by the Computational Biology and Bioinformatics Group of the Computational Sciences and Mathematics Division at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, using the William R. Wiley Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL) Molecular Sciences Computing Facility supercomputer.

The U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute, supported by the DOE Office of Science, unites the expertise of five national laboratories - Lawrence Berkeley, Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, and Pacific Northwest - along with the Stanford Human Genome Center to advance genomics in support of the DOE missions related to clean energy generation and environmental characterization and cleanup. DOE JGI’s Walnut Creek, CA, Production Genomics Facility provides integrated high-throughput sequencing and computational analysis that enable systems-based scientific approaches to these challenges.

U.S. Department of Energy, Joint Genome Institute: DOE JGI Releases a New Version of its Metagenome Data Management & Analysis System - February 7, 2007.

Biopact: Scientists sequence and analyse genomes of termite gut microbes to yield novel enzymes for cellulosic biofuel production - November 22, 2007

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New land use techniques boost benefits of biofuels

Several recent studies about the carbon balance of first-generation biofuels, including two analyses published in Science, are based on assessments of current land use practises. These studies are important, but the conclusions drawn from them are often seriously flawed. Moreover, if these conclusions are placed in a neo-malthusian perspective on population and natural resources, they cannot be taken seriously at all because there is no credible basis for neo-malthusianism in the first place.

Let us first note that only a fraction of the current biofuels are produced from crops grown on cleared high carbon land like forests. The vast majority is based on low carbon land, so we are only looking at exceptions here. Scientists analysing the long term potential of explicitly sustainable biofuels have clearly outlined how much low carbon land is available on a global scale, and it is estimated to be more than 1 billion hectares - that is: non-forest land available after all food, fiber and feed needs for growing populations have been met (more here). In short, technically speaking, the planet can relatively easily sustain the production of both food and fuels for a growing population, sustainably.

That said, let's look at the current land use practises analysed in the studies. These practises involve the conversion of 'pristine' systems like forests, woodlands or grasslands, to make way for monocultures of energy crops . Under these practises, the biomass that is cleared is often burned, resulting in large carbon emissions. Biofuels made from low yielding crops grown on this land thus have a large 'carbon debt'. It can take years or decades before biofuels have repaid their debt and begin to reduce emissions (by replacing fossil fuels).

But all these analyses are based on existing, primitive land use practises and on first-generation, inefficient biofuels made from crops like corn or soybeans. They do not take into account new energy crops (e.g. crops that yield far more biomass and are engineered to store far more CO2 than ordinary crops), the use of plantation residues, new bioconversion technologies, and the radical option of capturing and storing carbon from bioenergy production.

Those who use current studies about the carbon balance of today's incredibly inefficient biofuels to conclude that all biofuels are incapable of reducing emissions are making a grave mistake. In fact, new and future land use practises by themselves change the picture entirely, and make biofuels and bioenergy the most radical tool in the fight against climate change. Add new crops and new conversion techniques, and it will be clear that biofuels present major benefits.

New land use practises
Let's explore these new concepts - they are based on developments that are already taking place. The schematic above outlines them in brief.

First of all, a major leap forward towards making biofuels carbon neutral from the very start - cancelling the carbon debt at once - is very simple. It consists of using the original biomass (e.g. woodland or forest) as a bioenergy feedstock. When clearing a forest, it is foolish to burn the wood which is the current practise, because this biomass is itself a highly valuable energy source. Instead of wasting the energy by burning the wood, it will be used as a biofuel feedstock.

Decentralised biofuel production plants that can be located close to the land to be cleared are already here. These plants draw on a process called fast-pyrolysis. It transforms any type of biomass into bio-oil, which can be further upgraded into transport fuels or used in power plants.

Using the biomass of the land clearance as a biofuel feedstock immediately pays back the bulk of the carbon debt that would have resulted from burning this biomass without using the energy contained in it. The only carbon debt left is that resulting from changes in the below-ground biomass, but in most cases this can be offset quite quickly (e.g. when a perennial grassland is replaced by polycultures of perennial energy grasses). Of course, this new land use technique requires the creation of infrastructures (such as roads), but these are likely to benefit local communities greatly.

Virtually no study looks at this simple step. It is however already being implemented. An example comes from old palm oil plantations that are being replaced by new ones. The old biomass stock - entire trees - is being converted into biofuels that replace fossil fuels. A Canadian bioenergy company (Buchanan Renewable Energies) is doing this in Liberia, where it is paying to use old palm forests' biomass as a feedstock for the production of pyrolysis oil. After this first transformation, the cleared land will be used for a new plantation. Fuels from this new plantation have no 'carbon debt'. This concept can (and should) be applied to all new biofuel ventures that convert undisturbed grasslands, wood lands or forests into energy crop plantations.

Carbon negative

This new land use practise is however only a first step towards far more interesting bioenergy concepts. In the future, original biomass will not only be converted into bioenergy or biofuels, but the fuel production process itself will be coupled to carbon sequestration techniques. These come in two forms: either geosequestration (storing CO2 in geological formations) or biochar systems (storing carbon in soils via charcoal or pyrolysis char).

The process works as follows: original biomass (e.g. a woodland) is used for the production of a biofuel such as pyrolysis oil. The local plant may itself already capture and store its own CO2 emissions (a first example of CCS coupled to biofuel production comes from the U.S. where the Midwest Geological Sequestration Consortium recently received $66 million to sequester CO2 from a biofuel plant - more here). The fuel is then sent to a facility where it is used for the production of either electricity and heat, a fully decarbonized biofuel (such as biohydrogen) or a low-carbon biofuel. At this facility, the CO2 is again captured and stored, before the decarbonized form of energy is used by the consumer. The end result is carbon-negative energy that yields negative emissions:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Such carbon-negative fuels and energy is a radical tool in the climate fight. Unlike any other type of renewable energy, it actually removes CO2 from the past from the atmosphere.

Scientists working for the Abrupt Climate Change Strategy group, a think tank with a mandate from the G8 to study options for us to survive abrupt climatic change, calculated that if such systems were implemented on a global scale, we can bring atmospheric CO2 levels back to pre-industrial levels by mid-century (more here).

Besides the option of capturing and storing CO2 from bioenergy and biofuels, a whole series of new developments in all biofuel production steps have to be taken into account.

New crops, new bioconversion techniques

New land use practises were already discussed. Now let's look at developments in the field of energy crops, bioconversion, agronomy and the use of residues. Current biofuel crops like corn or soybeans are truly inefficient because biofuels made from them only utilize a fraction of the biomass grown, that is, easily extractible starch or oil. These first-generation biofuels have no future and are no longer of interest to the bioenergy community.

A large number of plant biologists and bio-engineers has already developed new crops that either yield far more biomass (which immediately clears much of the carbon debt), or that store far more CO2 than ordinary crops, or that contain in them codes for easy bioconversion. We will limit the discussion to a few examples of such crops: high-biomass sorghum (more here), eucalyptus trees with higher carbon storage capacity (here, and another similar crop - a hybrid larch with enhanced CO2 sequestering capacity, here), maize that contains its own bioconversion enzymes (previous post) and low lignin sorghums that can be turned much easier into fuels (here).

Secondly, an enormous number of efficiency leaps in biofuel production processes has emerged over the past years. This process is ongoing. Almost every day Biopact reports about them. Yesterday, scientists reported they have developed a new nano-engineered molecular sieve that dehydrates biofuels much more efficiently - which means less energy is needed, thus lowering the emissions from the production process (more here). Also yesterday, ZeaChem announced it succeeded in improving ethanol yields from wood via a hybrid conversion process based on thermochemical and biochemical transformation into hydrogen (used to power the process) and acetic acid, which is consequently turned into liquid fuel in a highly efficient manner. The yield increase: 50% (earlier post).

This type of evolutions occurs virtually every day and is tilting biofuel production to ever higher efficiency and lower emissions. Sadly, it takes a while before environmentalists, conservationists or researchers become aware of them and take them up in their analyses.

Third, mere agronomic interventions succeed in improving the carbon and energy balance of biofuels. One of the studies recently published in Science gives the example of growing polycultures of native prairie grasses - these polycultures actually store large amounts of carbon in soils, and by themselves become a strong carbon sink. Using the grasses as a bioenergy feedstock results in carbon negative fuels, merely as a result of good agronomic practises and because of the nature of these grasses (previous post). The original researcher who conducted this line of studies, David Tilman, was a co-author of one of the Science papers published today.

Finally, an area in which huge potential can be found is in the utilization of plantation and processing residues from existing agricultural operations and biofuel operations. Recently, we referred to the potential for the production of biohydrogen from palm oil residues. A palm plantation yields farm more biomass than is currently used in the form of oil. If these vast amounts of residues are used productively instead of burned or dumped as waste, the carbon balance of biofuels from the oil is seriously improved (previous post). There is similar potential is virtually all agricultural operations today. The same process can be applied in biofuel operations, where residues and byproducts (such as glycerine in biodiesel) is used as a feedstock for a myriad of green products that replace oil, coal and gas.

In short, we agree with the growing body of researchers who point to the many potential drawbacks of primitive, first-generation biofuels. Biopact has long ago distanced itself from these fuels (an exeption would be fuels like current sugarcane based ethanol in Brazil). We think much more care must be taken to assess the full lifecycle carbon emissions from biofuels, as well as indirect emissions that occur elsewhere on the planet because of the massive use of particular crops in one place (e.g. corn in the U.S. driving the expansion of soy in the Amazon).

But all this should not negate the fact that there is a range of bioenergy and biofuel production concepts that offers major benefits. Neither should the studies based on current inefficient biofuels halt the exploration and development of new crops and bioconversion technologies. The challenges presented by climate change and growing energy insecurity are too important and require continued investments in new technologies.


Scientific literature on negative emissions from biomass:
H. Audus and P. Freund, "Climate Change Mitigation by Biomass Gasificiation Combined with CO2 Capture and Storage", IEA Greenhouse Gas R&D Programme.

James S. Rhodesa and David W. Keithb, "Engineering economic analysis of biomass IGCC with carbon capture and storage", Biomass and Bioenergy, Volume 29, Issue 6, December 2005, Pages 440-450.

Noim Uddin and Leonardo Barreto, "Biomass-fired cogeneration systems with CO2 capture and storage", Renewable Energy, Volume 32, Issue 6, May 2007, Pages 1006-1019, doi:10.1016/j.renene.2006.04.009

Christian Azar, Kristian Lindgren, Eric Larson and Kenneth Möllersten, "Carbon Capture and Storage From Fossil Fuels and Biomass – Costs and Potential Role in Stabilizing the Atmosphere", Climatic Change, Volume 74, Numbers 1-3 / January, 2006, DOI 10.1007/s10584-005-3484-7

Further reading on negative emissions bioenergy and biofuels:
Peter Read and Jonathan Lermit, "Bio-Energy with Carbon Storage (BECS): a Sequential Decision Approach to the threat of Abrupt Climate Change", Energy, Volume 30, Issue 14, November 2005, Pages 2654-2671.

Stefan Grönkvist, Kenneth Möllersten, Kim Pingoud, "Equal Opportunity for Biomass in Greenhouse Gas Accounting of CO2 Capture and Storage: A Step Towards More Cost-Effective Climate Change Mitigation Regimes", Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change, Volume 11, Numbers 5-6 / September, 2006, DOI 10.1007/s11027-006-9034-9

Biopact: Commission supports carbon capture & storage - negative emissions from bioenergy on the horizon - January 23, 2008

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

Biopact: "A closer look at the revolutionary coal+biomass-to-liquids with carbon storage project" - September 13, 2007

Biopact: New plastic-based, nano-engineered CO2 capturing membrane developed - September 19, 2007

Biopact: Plastic membrane to bring down cost of carbon capture - August 15, 2007

Biopact: Pre-combustion CO2 capture from biogas - the way forward? - March 31, 2007

Biopact: Towards carbon-negative biofuels: US DOE awards $66.7 million for large-scale CO2 capture and storage from ethanol plant - December 19, 2007

Biopact: Biochar and carbon-negative bioenergy: boosts crop yields, fights climate change and reduces deforestation - January 28, 2008

References to new crops, bioconversion methods and agronomic advancements can be found throughout Biopact's archive. References mentioned in this article are:

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

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

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

Biopact: Carbon negative biofuels: from monocultures to polycultures - December 08, 2006

Biopact: Tallgrass Prairie Center to implement Tilman's mixed grass findings - September 02, 2007

Biopact: Sun Grant Initiative funds 17 bioenergy research projects - [on high-biomass sorghum] August 20, 2007

Biopact: Ceres and TAES team up to develop high-biomass sorghum for next-generation biofuels - October 01, 2007

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

Biopact: Major breakthrough: researchers engineer sorghum that beats aluminum toxicity - August 27, 2007

Biopact: U.S. scientists develop drought tolerant sorghum for biofuels - May 21, 2007

Biopact: Sweet super sorghum - yield data for the ICRISAT hybrid - February 21, 2007

Biopact: Mapping sorghum's genome to create robust biomass crops - June 24, 2007

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Two studies state the obvious: clearing high carbon land for first-generation biofuels can lead to higher emissions

Two interesting studies published in Science state the obvious again: clearing undisturbed forests or grasslands without using their biomass, to plant low yielding first generation biofuel crops like corn or soybeans on them, increases carbon emissions. A tropical forest stores a lot of carbon, and burning this to make way for oil palms yields large emissions. It can take decades before the biofuel actually makes up for this 'carbon debt'. So far, nothing new.

The problem with the studies is that they stick to old and current practise, and do not look at the concept of utilizing the biomass from the land that is to be cleared, in a productive way as a bioenergy feedstock. This immediately clears much of a biofuel's carbon debt. But then, this practise is not yet used on a large scale, which is why the authors do not mention it (or are not aware of it). Moreover, the studies do not take into account future concepts like carbon-negative bioenergy, which is a system that takes historic CO2 emissions out of the atmosphere by coupling biofuel production to carbon capture and storage (BECS systems) or to biochar (the sequestration of carbon into soils via char).

In short, the studies are important, because they indicate that current agricultural practises used for first-generation biofuels are not sustainable. Instead, the analyses make a strong case for bio-energy with carbon storage (biochar and CCS), for the utilization of pristine biomass as a biofuel feedstock, and for a rapid transition to crops that store more carbon than the biomass that used to grow on the cleared land. They also indicate a clear need for land-use change analyses and research into 'indirect emissions' that must be taken into account when calculating the emissions balance of biofuels.

Analyzing the lifecycle emissions from biofuels, the first study by private conservation group The Nature Conservancy, found that carbon released by converting high-carbon lands such as rainforests, peatlands, savannas, or grasslands often far outweighs the carbon savings from biofuels. Conversion of peatland rainforests for oil palm plantations for example, incurs a "carbon debt" of 423 years in Indonesia and Malaysia, while the carbon emission from clearing Amazon rainforest for soybeans takes 319 years of renewable soy biodiesel before the land can begin to lower greenhouse gas levels and mitigate global warming (see graph).

An author and researcher from The Nature Conservancy comments [note the flawed argument about not utilizing the biomass from the cleared land]:
These natural areas store a lot of carbon, so converting them to croplands results in tons of carbon emitted into the atmosphere. We analyzed all the benefits of using biofuels as alternatives to oil, but we found that the benefits fall far short of the carbon losses. It's what we call 'the carbon debt.' If you're trying to mitigate global warming, it simply does not make sense to convert land for biofuels production. All the biofuels we use now cause habitat destruction, either directly or indirectly. Global agriculture is already producing food for six billion people. Producing food-based biofuel, too, will require that still more land be converted to agriculture. - Joe Fargione, The Nature Conservancy
Indirect emissions
While a number of studies have shown that conversion of particular tropical ecosystems, including peat swamps in Southeast Asia and rainforests in South America, for energy crops result in net emissions, the second study shows that when assessed at a global level, U.S. corn ethanol is also a major CO2 source — not a CO2 sink as usually claimed by the farm industry.
Using a worldwide agricultural model to estimate emissions from land use change, we found that corn-based ethanol, instead of producing a 20% savings, nearly doubles greenhouse emissions over 30 years and increases greenhouse gasses for 167 years. - Timothy Searchinger, et. al.
Their assessment is based on the additional land that needs to be converted abroad as a result of increased corn acreage planted for ethanol production in the United States. These are 'indirect' land-use changes occuring from biofuels production elsewhere:
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"To produce biofuels, farmers can directly plow up more forest or grassland, which releases to the atmosphere much of the carbon previously stored in plants and soils through decomposition or fire," write the authors. "The loss of maturing forests and grasslands also forgoes ongoing carbon sequestration as plants grow each year, and this foregone sequestration is the equivalent of additional emissions. Alternatively, farmers can divert existing crops or croplands into biofuels, which causes similar emissions indirectly. The diversion triggers higher crop prices, and farmers around the world respond by clearing more forest and grassland to replace crops for feed and food. Studies have confirmed that higher soybean prices accelerate clearing of Brazilian rainforest."

In particular, the authors — including researchers from Princeton University, Agricultural Conservation Economics, the Woods Hole Research Center, and Iowa State University — say that U.S. corn ethanol production is having a global effect. As U.S. corn exports declined sharply, production picks up in other countries where yields are lower, requiring conversion of more land for production, and driving global grain prices even higher.

The researchers say the current system has misplaced incentives: farmers are rewarded for the amount of biofuel produced while the resulting carbon emissions are ignored.

"We don't have proper incentives in place because landowners are rewarded for producing palm oil and other products but not rewarded for carbon management," said University of Minnesota Applied Economics professor Stephen Polasky, a co-author of the study. "This creates incentives for excessive land clearing and can result in large increases in carbon emissions. Creating some sort of incentive for carbon sequestration, or penalty for carbon emissions, from land use is vital if we are serious about addressing this problem."

Biofuels that work
Still the authors say that some biofuels do not contribute carbon emissions to the atmosphere because they do not require clearing of native vegetation. These include fuels produced from agricultural waste, weedy grasses, and woody biomass grown on lands unsuitable for conventional crops.

"Biofuels made on perennial crops grown on degraded land that is no longer useful for growing food crops may actually help us fight global warming," said University of Minnesota researcher Jason Hill, a co-author. "One example is ethanol made from diverse mixtures of native prairie plants. Minnesota is well poised in this respect."

The researches recommend that the full environmental impact of biofuel production be evaluated when making decisions on energy sources.

"In finding solutions to climate change, we must ensure that the cure is not worse than the disease," noted Jimmie Powell, who leads the energy team at The Nature Conservancy. "We cannot afford to ignore the consequences of converting land for biofuels. Doing so means we might unintentionally promote fuel alternatives that are worse than fossil fuels they are designed to replace. These findings should be incorporated into carbon emissions policy going forward."

"We will need to implement many approaches simultaneously to solve climate change. There is no silver bullet, but there are many silver BBs," said Fargione. "Some biofuels may be one silver BB, but only if produced without requiring additional land to be converted from native habitats to agriculture."

Fargione, J. el al (2008). "Land Clearing and the Biofuel Carbon Debt." Science, February 7, 2008, DOI: 10.1126/science.1152747

Searchinger, T. el al (2008). "Use of U.S. Croplands For Biofuels Increases Greenhouse Gasses Through Emissions From Land Use Change." Science, February 7, 2008, DOI: 10.1126/science.1151861

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Ceres to supply energy crop seeds to experimental biorefinery: high-biomass sorghum, switchgrass

Energy crop company Ceres, Inc. announces that it will sow thousands of acres of switchgrass, high-biomass sorghum and other energy crops over the next three years near St. Joseph, Missouri to support a next-generation biorefinery being engineered by ICM, Inc., a leading biofuel process technology provider. The demonstration-scale project, which includes participation from academic institutions, government and other technology providers, will produce fuel, known as cellulosic biofuel, from biomass rather than corn. Last week, Department of Energy officials announced up to $30 million in supplemental funding for the planned facility (previous post).

Ceres' primary role will be to supply seed of specially developed energy crop cultivars to nearby farmers, who will grow the plants and harvest the biomass. The company will also provide agronomic recommendations to the overall venture, which will compare numerous raw materials, including Ceres' dedicated energy crops, for their conversion efficiency and fuel yields, as well as their economic viability.

Ceres says higher crop yields and optimized biomass composition can have a dramatic impact on reducing cellulosic biofuel production costs.
This project will be an important proving ground for new technologies, both in the field and at the biorefinery. Ceres will help determine the best mix of crops, the right traits and cultivars, as well as the agronomic practices that maximize biomass yields and conversion efficiency of the biomass to biofuel. - Richard Hamilton, Ceres chief executive
According to Hamilton, the learnings from this small-scale project will have far-reaching impact, allowing participating companies to optimize the biofuel production and delivery chain from seed to pump. He expects energy crop acreage across the U.S. to increase rapidly as best practices are duplicated in other areas.
Once we get crops in the field and biomass moving through a refinery, the industry will start bringing down costs, and ramping up production. Getting there will require the application of new technologies, such as biotechnology, both in the field and at the biorefinery. - Richard Hamilton
Energy crop and agronomic improvements are also expected to result in higher net energy benefits, as well as reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Currently, switchgrass-to-ethanol produces about five times more energy than needed to grow, harvest and process it, and results in 90% less greenhouse gas emissions than petroleum:
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The new Energy Act recently signed by President Bush calls for a minimum of 16 billion gallons of advanced biofuels per year from biomass. Dedicated energy crops converted in next generation biorefineries under development are expected to meet this target.

Ceres, Inc. is a leading developer of high-yielding, dedicated energy crops that can be planted as feedstocks for cellulosic ethanol production. Its development efforts cover switchgrass, sorghum, miscanthus, energycane and woody crops.

ICM engineers, builds and supports the industry's leading ethanol plants. Founded in 1995 and headquartered in a small agricultural community just outside of Wichita, KS, ICM also serves as a leading ethanol industry advocate.

Picture: Ceres' seed bank of tens of thousands of experimental plants, including improved energy crops. Credit: Ceres.

Ceres: Ceres to Supply Energy Crops to Next-Generation Biorefinery - February 7, 2008.

Biopact: U.S. DOE invests $114 million in four small-scale biorefineries for next generation biofuels - January 30, 2008

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