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    The Andersons, Inc. and Marathon Oil Corporation today jointly announced ethanol production has begun at their 110-million gallon ethanol plant located in Greenville, Ohio. Along with the 110 million gallons of ethanol, the plant annually will produce 350,000 tons of distillers dried grains, an animal feed ingredient. Marathon Oil - February 14, 2007.

    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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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Norbord opens biomass power plant at Scottish fibreboard factory - bioenergy meets almost 70 percent of company's total energy needs

UK Energy Minister Malcolm Wicks has opened a multi-million pound biomass unit at the European headquarters of wood-products manufacturer Norbord, near Stirling in Scotland. The company will use the green energy to power its Cowie factory, drastically cutting the level of emissions from the power unit. Renewable biomass now meets more than 65 per cent of the multinational company's total energy needs and has cut emissions nearly by half over the past five years.

The bioenergy plant will utilize abundant residues from the Cowie factory: bark and wood residue from the manufacturing process. The total amount of biomass now used in green power plants at Nordborg's factories is 1 million tons, equivalent to two million barrels of oil per year.

The company said it had invested £2.5 million (€3.4/US$4.9 million) in new environmental protection measures, including this new biomass power and heat generating unit. By using biomass, emissions were greatly reduced over the last five years: from more than 420,000 tons of CO2 per year in 2002 to 261,000 tons in 2006. The new green energy facility will push these reductions further.

Norbord has been able to slash its reliance on fossil fuels by relying on waste biomass instead. The use of fossil fuels dropped by 40 per cent over the last five years, and now makes up only a fifth of all energy used at the company's mills and factories. Biomass contributes 67 per cent (graph, click to enlarge).

Energy Minister Wicks congratulated Norbord on its impressive green efforts.
Using biomass in this way will reduce carbon emissions and thereby play an important role in tackling climate change. The new plant at Cowie is a real success story, utilising waste wood and residues that would normally end up in landfill. The investment they have made, and commitment shown, is commendable. - Malcolm Wicks, Great Britain's Energy Minister
Steve Roebuck, director of health, safety and environmental affairs at Norbord, said it was time biomass material was diverted from landfill sites. At present there is a huge amount of available biomass currently going to landfill that is being ignored. This waste degrades and generates harmful greenhouse gas emissions, while it can be used for the production of green electricity and heat:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Waste should only go to landfill after all recyclable parts have been recovered and then the rest burned to produce energy, Roebuck said. He added that this source should be used in preference to virgin biomass material, which should be used and then recycled, only being combusted for energy generation when it has reached the end of the recycling chain.

The biomass to be used in its factory will come from bark and wood residue in the manufacturing process with none being purchased from outside sources.

Rapid growth
Biomass is a rapidly growing energy sector in the UK, mainly because it is the most competitive of the renewables and relies largely on existing infrastructures. The world's largest biomass plant is under construction in the country: a 350MW power facility that will provide energy to not less than half of all homes in Wales.

The £400 million plant to be located in Port Talbot will meet the electricity needs of around 1.5 million people in a sustainable, renewable and carbon-neutral way. When completed, the 350MW biomass plant will produce about 70% of the Welsh Assembly Government's entire 2010 renewable energy target. This makes it the region's single strongest weapon in the fight against climate change.

Energy giant E.ON runs several biomass co-firing operations, is building a 44MW plant in Lockerbie, capable of providing energy to 70,000 homes in Scotland, while another one, rated at 25MW is in the pipeline and to be build near Sheffield. It will power 40,000 homes. The renewable energy plants burn a combination of recycled wood and specially grown energy crops such as willow or tropical elephant grass (Pennisetum purpureum). E.ON operates three coal fired power stations in the UK (Ratcliffe, Kingsnorth and Ironbridge), and in al three of them biomass is co-fired. The type of fuels that are being burnt include waste cereal pellets, olive cakes and wood.

Scottish and Southern Energy plc, the UK's second largest power company, recently 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 cogeneration energy facility fueled by wood chips, biomass and waste paper.

Sembcorp Industries (Sembcorp) brought a 30MW biomass power plant online in November last year. The £64 million (€90.7/$132.5 million) plant utilizes no fossil fuels at all and generates green energy for industries located at the manufacturing site in Teesside, in the Northeast of England. Feedstocks range from waste wood to biomass obtained from dedicated energy crops.

Many other, smaller biomass power initiatives are underway, with companies using the resource to lower their emissions footprint. A recent example would be British Sugar's multimegawatt biomass cogeneration plant, used to power its sugar processing operations.

According to the recently published UK Biomass Strategy, the total amount of virgin wood available to England, Scotland and Wales for use as fuel is set to increase by 55% over the next decade, from 1.1 million oven dry tonnes to 1.7 million oven dry tonnes per year. Waste wood and biomass resources are larger still.

Norbord Inc. is an international producer of wood-based panels with assets of $1.5 billion. The company has 15 plant locations in the United States, Europe and Canada and is one of the world’s largest producers of oriented strand board (OSB). In addition to OSB, Nordbord manufacture particleboard, medium density fibreboard (MDF), hardwood plywood and related value-added products.


Norbord: environmental policy and data.

BBC Scotland: Company opens new biomass plant - February 13, 2008.

Biopact: UK approves world's biggest (350MW) biomass plant: will power half of all homes in Wales - November 21, 2007

Biopact: UK's largest biomass plant approved, biomass task force created - June 16, 2007

Biopact: E.ON UK submits application for 25MW biomass plant - July 20, 2007

Biopact: UK outlines Biomass Strategy: large potential for bioenergy, bioproducts - May 28, 2007

Biopact: UK opens first large scale 30MW biomass power station - November 13, 2007

Article continues

MIT physicists make breakthrough in understanding superconductivity

MIT physicists have taken a step toward understanding the puzzling nature of high-temperature superconductors, materials that conduct electricity with no resistance at temperatures well above absolute zero. If superconductors could be made to work at temperatures as high as room temperature, they could have potentially limitless applications and help solve part of the energy and climate crisis. But first, scientists need to learn much more about how such materials work.

Using a new method, the MIT team made a surprising discovery that may overturn theories about the state of matter in which superconducting materials exist just before they start to superconduct. The findings are reported in the February issue of Nature Physics.

Understanding high-temperature superconductors is one of the biggest challenges in physics today, according to Eric Hudson, MIT assistant professor of physics and senior author of the paper. Most superconductors only superconduct at temperatures near absolute zero, but about 20 years ago, it was discovered that some ceramics can superconduct at higher temperatures (but usually still below 100 Kelvin, or -173 Celsius).

Such high-temperature superconductors are now beginning to be used for many applications, including cell-phone base stations and a demo magnetic-levitation train. But their potential applications could be much broader. If you could make superconductors work at room temperature, then the applications are endless, said Hudson.

Superconductors are superior to ordinary metal conductors such as copper because current doesn't lose energy as wasteful heat as it flows through them, thus allowing larger current densities. Once a current is set in motion in a closed loop of superconducting material, it will flow forever.

In the study, the MIT researchers looked at a state of matter that superconductors inhabit just above the temperature at which they start to superconduct.

When a material is in a superconducting state, all electrons are at the same energy level. The range of surrounding, unavailable electron energy levels is called the superconducting gap. It is a critical component of superconduction, because it prevents electrons from scattering, thus eliminating resistance and allowing the unimpeded flow of current.

Just above the transition temperature when a material starts to superconduct, it exists in a state called the pseudogap. This state of matter is not at all well understood:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The researchers decided to investigate the nature of the pseudogap state by studying the properties of electron states that were believed to be defined by the characteristics of superconductors: the states surrounding impurities in the material.

It had already been shown that natural impurities in a superconducting material, such as a missing or replaced atom, allow electrons to reach energy levels that are normally within the superconducting gap, so they can scatter. This can be observed using scanning tunneling microscopy (STM).

The new MIT study shows that scattering by impurities occurs when a material is in the pseudogap state as well as the superconducting state. That finding challenges the theory that the pseudogap is only a precursor state to the superconductive state, and offers evidence that the two states may coexist.

This method of comparing the pseudogap and superconducting state using STM could help physicists understand why certain materials are able to superconduct at such relatively high temperatures, said Hudson. Trying to understand what the pseudogap state is is a major outstanding question, he added.

Lead author of the paper is Kamalesh Chatterjee, a graduate student in physics. MIT physics graduate students Michael Boyer and William Wise are also authors of the paper, along with Takeshi Kondo of the Ames Laboratory at Iowa State University and T. Takeuchi and H. Ikuta of Nagoya University, Japan. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and the Research Corporation.

Image: Electrons, when scattered by static random disorder, form standing waves that can be imaged using scanning tunneling microscopy. Such interference patterns, observable by the recently developed technique of Fourier transform scanning tunneling spectroscopy (FT-STS), carry unique fingerprints characteristic of the electronic order present in a material.


Kamalesh Chatterjee, M. C. Boyer, W. D. Wise, Takeshi Kondo, T. Takeuchi, H. Ikuta, E. W. Hudson, "Visualization of the interplay between high-temperature superconductivity, the pseudogap and impurity resonances", Nature Physics, 4, 108 - 111 (01 Feb 2008) Letters

Eurekalert: MIT reveals superconducting surprise: A better understanding of material could bring 'endless applications' - February 12, 2008.

Article continues

Ethtec begins construction of integrated cellulosic ethanol biorefinery

Australia’s EthTec (Ethanol Technologies Limited) has begun work on a A$20 million (€12.2/US$18 million) pilot cellulosic ethanol plant in New South Wales that will use wood residues (including pine), bagasse and other lignocellulosic materials as feedstock. The company is 51% owned by Willmott Forests Ltd.

Ethtec has a world-wide exclusive licence from Apace Research Limited to further develop and commercialize technologies developed by Apace for the production of cellulosic ethanol. In collaboration with the University of Southern Mississippi, the Tennessee Valley Authority and the University of New South Wales, Apace has developed and demonstrated its cellulosic ethanol technology at laboratory and mini-pilot plant scale.

Willmott Forests made its investment in Ethtec in 2007. It sees this as an opportunity to add value to the traditionally lower value wood products from both the forest floor and at the sawmill, such as mill residues, wood waste, woodchip and potentially pulpwood logs. The company has access to abundant feedstock to assist in the commercialisation of the pilot plant which, if this technology is proven, will bring benefits in the form of additional revenue to both its forest operations and its timber processing operations.

Ethtec’s larger-scale pilot plant is a four-phase project to further develop and commercialize the Apace Research technology. The individual new technology processes and the associated phases of the pilot plant project are:
  • Phase one (late 2008): hydrolysis of lignocellulosics. This phase involves a new hydrolysis process that converts the hemicellulose and cellulose components of the fiber to sugars at a significantly lower cost than competing methods, according to the company. These sugars have a ready market in the production of renewable chemicals and bioplastics, and as an alternative in some traditional sucrose markets.
  • Phase two (mid 2009): alternative sugars and lignin production; sulfuric acid production
  • Phase three (early 2010): fermentation.
  • Phase four (late 2008 - early 2010): simultaneous ethanol recovery and liquid effluent treatment. Phase four of the pilot plant project can be undertaken at the same time as phase one, and involves a new process of simultaneous ethanol recovery and liquid waste treatment. If successful, this new process will eliminate the liquid waste stream and thereby significantly reduce the environmental impact of ethanol distilleries, according to the company.
By using induced phase separation, the ethanol recovery essentially eliminates the need for the conventional distillation technology, thus significantly improving the energy balance of ethanol production, with accompanying reduction in greenhouse gas emissions:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The new integrated process is expected to have immediate application world-wide in all new and existing ethanol distilleries that utilise traditional sugar, corn or starch feedstocks. There are more than 300 of these plants worldwide, either in operation or in the final stages of construction. The current annual global production of ethanol using traditional methods is approximately 50 billion litres.

Willmott Forests is an integrated company that plants, manages, harvests, processes, supplies and replants softwood resource for a commercial benefit in a sustainable manner. It has been committed to the establishment of Pinus radiata for over 25 years, and has established itself as a market leader in the proven and recognisable long term softwood plantation industry. Willmott Forests is the largest developer of newly established softwood pine plantations in Australia. It owns Ethec, Bioforest Ltd and Bioenergy Australia Ltd.


Transport & Logistics News: Patented fibre-to-ethanol technologies in AU$20 million trial - February 12, 2008.

Willmott Forests: WFL takes strategic stake in Ethanol Technologies [*.pdf] - March 16, 2007.

Article continues

Anthropologists caution against essentialism in discussion about social sustainability of biofuels

A group of environmentalists has published a report in which they say palm plantation companies in Indonesia are "tricking" people who live "close to nature", into giving up their land. "Happy natives" who, paradisiacally, live off the "bounty of the forest", are being "cheated" on by outside forces and end up in misery as a result. Social negotiations are not part of the process, we are only witnessing a clear-cut battle of powerful outside forces versus passive "victims". This is the undertone of the text titled "Losing Ground", by Friends of the Earth, Sawit Watch, and LifeMosaic. With its usual histrionic language, Friends of the Earth says the EU's biofuel policy is fueling a human rights "disaster" in Indonesia.

Biopact's cultural anthropologists warn that this way of representing a complex social process is in danger of being deeply essentialist, exoticist and ultimately paternalist. It could do a great disservice to the very people the environmentalists are writing about. Friends of the Earth reduces the density of social negotiations, there in Indonesia, to a clear-cut battle of powerful agents versus weak, passive "indigenous" natives "without history" who live "in sync with nature", who cannot speak for themselves and have no agency of their own. This discourse full of binary oppositions must be deconstructed. After this exercise, the anthropologists instead call for a deeper debate about modernity, globalisation, agency and social change - the fundamental forces in which the drive towards biofuel production must be placed.

They also urge researchers to inform a more genuinely critical analysis by data obtained from research that relies on a stronger analytical framework and on the techniques of ethnography, which are most suited to assess the complex social effects of biofuel production on people in an objective way. Journalism, anecdotal evidence and simple interviews - as used by the authors of "Losing Ground" - will not suffice and merely result in representations that confirm the underlying views of the analyst.

Participants in this debate need a broad view on the history of modernity, the politics of representation and a self-reflexive attitude. They need to ask basic questions about themselves: who is talking, in whose name? Are we really representing the deeper views and desires of the people we are writing about? Is a discourse based on the modernist and universalist principle of "human rights" the best framework to assess the social impacts of an economic activity (leading philosphers doubt this; see e.g. Zizek on the "Obscenity of Human Rights" or Bricmont's "Imperialisme humanitaire")? How can we ensure that the people who are affected - both positively and negatively - by the biofuels industry are heard in an objective way? Do the negative effects of the social transformations brought about by modernity outweigh the positive effects? Is activism in favor of the environment and human rights really as good for nature and society as is often believed (again, scientists are not so sure; they even find the contrary)? What are the ideological underpinnings of our own discourse on social and economic change in the developing world?

It is important to understand, from the start, that biofuels as such are neither bad nor good. They are merely a material product that can be used by societies to perform useful tasks and services. It is the way in which biofuels are produced that needs be scrutinised. And here, a wide range of ideological perspectives emerges.

Biofuels can be produced within the framework of a modernist, capitalist system, and contribute to the perpetuation of that system which thrives on affordable energy and transport. This production method involves intensive monoculture and profit-driven agriculture that leads to a concentration of power in the hands of those who control the means of production. This model leads to great technological and social transformations, such as the ones reported by Losing Ground: local populations are dislocated and become part of an abstract universe called "modernity"; migrations from rural to urban areas take off; people become part of a more complex, globalised society.

This socio-economic paradigm has the potential to fuel social inequalities and considers people to be abstract "free labor", part of an anonymous labor market. Local people undergo a process of alienation and are forced to cope with new views on work, leisure and life. However, modernity also brings economic, social and cultural services many people appear to be aspiring to all over the world: it offers opportunities for social mobility, "modern" health care, education, and economic prosperity.

When modernity arrives, local lifeworlds are "deterritorialised" - quite literally in this case - and consequently "reterritorialised" by new perspectives on life, dominated by consumerism, individualism and the abstract forces of capitalist economics and modern representational politcs.

However, researchers analysing this process often make the mistake of looking at the people who undergo it, as passive subjects who are incapable of interpreting what is happening to them; incapable of making their own version of modernity, of acting upon and transforming the forces they encounter into a socially manageable system. This mistake then often leads to outside analysts and activists thinking they need to "protect" and "represent" these passive subjects - the "victims" of modernity. There are many instances in which this role is legitimate, but just as many in which it says more about the "defenders" than about the people they claim to be representing:

A more robust, critical and objective analysis of the transformations brought about by modernity consists of relying on analytical techniques developed by ethnography and anthropology. This social science has itself gone through a process of intense self-reflection and self-questioning:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The history of anthropology is tightly linked to the very transformations it now analyses: from being a social science in the service of empire and colonies (used to investigate the lives of local populations, with the intent of using the knowledge to subject them), to a modern science with methods and techniques that allow for an objective representation of what people in other cultures really want, think and feel when confronted with modernity and globalisation.

The value of anthropological analysis precisely lies in the fact that it continuously questions its own methods of questioning, while it performs its tasks. This "feedback" mechanism is at work during the ethnographic phases and during the analytical phases. Anthropology works in several research rounds: learning the cultural codes and language of the people being researched, questioning them via careful and intensive participant observation, then retreating to analyse the ethnographic data and screen them for bias, and finally repeating the process several times over.

It has been shown that these techniques lead to representations that capture local realities in all their complexities. Very seldom do they result in the simplistic, black and white stories such as the one found in Losing Ground or in mainstream media. The far more complex and nuanced findings obtained by anthropologists explain the fact that they do not easily "take sides". It is also explains why they have begun to analyse precisely those organisations and activists who do take sides. They are often found to be representing everything except the views of the people they write about and whose interests they claim to be defending. Instead, when activists are analysed, anthropologists uncover a reality which shows that they are part of a very particular universalist deeply modernist process themselves.

Earlier we referred to an interesting anthropological analysis of the way in which farmers in India cope with genetically modified seeds. In this debate, activists and media reduce a complex reality to simplistic stories about "good" farmers versus "bad" multinationals. The farmers are victims of evil outside forces and completely passive, dominated subjects. End of the story. Or so the activists thought. Enter the anthropologist, who spent five years amongst the farmers and found a world in which they suddenly appear to be highly active, well organised individuals who understand what they are doing perfectly well; instead of a black and white story, he "discovered" an intense process of continuous social negotiations, smart grassroots politics, unexpected coalitions between farmers and multinationals, and so on. Obviously he also found many negative aspects of the farmers' new relationship with the multinationals, but he refused to depict his research subjects as naive, passive victims who are incapable of defending their own interests.

This type of analyses is urgently needed in the discussion about the social effects of the emerging biofuels industry in the developing world. Biopact urges social analysts interested in participating in the debate to use ingredients that are needed for a genuine critique of biofuels: self-reflection, a broad perspective on the history of modernity, and the use of robust anthropological analytical frameworks with which to gather and analyse the views of the people affected by the sector.

Modernity as a development pathway is certainly up for debate. There are other ways to produce biofuels and to use them (if any are needed at all): strategies which stress local control over resources and a socially corrected distribution of their benefits without falling into a naive ideology of autarky; strategies which empower local communities economically and enhance their capacity to cope with the forces of globalisation. But part of this quest to transit towards more post-modern, smart way of organising modern societies and their energy habits, is the need for a more critical analysis of the broad forces that are at work, and of the way in which local populations really cope with them. Reducing this debate to a moralistic story of good and evil, does a disservice to all those involved, including the people in Indonesia who are negotiating their way through this jungle of new opportunities and perils.

Picture: Kelbung is a little village in the western interior of Madura, an island near Java. The village is inhabited by people who used to live in Kalimantan but were moved from their land and brought back to the island of their ancestors in Java.

Friends of the Earth: EU fuelling human rights disaster in Indonesia - February 11, 2008.

Slavoj Zizek, "The Obscenity of Human Rights: Violence as Symptom" - Lacan.com, 2005.

Jean Bricmont, Impérialisme humanitaire. Droits de l’homme, droit d’ingérence, droit du plus fort? (Préface de François Houtart), Octobre 2005, 256 pages.

Biopact: Scientists: environmental crises do not lead to conflict - neomalthusian theory challenged - December 13, 2007

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Researchers propose system to capture vehicle CO2 emissions by on-board fuel processing

Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have developed a strategy to capture, store and eventually recycle carbon from vehicles to prevent the pollutant from finding its way from a car tailpipe into the atmosphere. They envision a zero emissions car, and a transportation system completely free of fossil fuels but powered by renewables instead. They compared their concept with other proposed mobility concepts, in particular electric cars and hydrogen vehicles, and found it to have a range of advantages.

Technologies to capture carbon dioxide emissions from large-scale sources such as power plants have recently gained some impressive scientific ground, but nearly two-thirds of global carbon emissions are created by much smaller polluters — automobiles, transportation vehicles and distributed industrial power generation applications (e.g., diesel power generators).

The Georgia Tech team’s goal is to create a sustainable transportation system that uses a liquid fuel and traps the carbon emission in the vehicle for later processing at a fueling station. The carbon would then be shuttled back to a processing plant where it could be transformed into liquid fuel. Currently, Georgia Tech researchers are developing a fuel processing device to separate the carbon and store it in the vehicle in liquid form.

The concept is outlined in a paper in Energy Conversion and Management. The research was funded by NASA, the U.S. Department of Defense NDSEG Fellowship Program and Georgia Tech’s CEO (Creating Energy Options) Program.
Presently, we have an unsustainable carbon-based economy with several severe limitations, including a limited supply of fossil fuels, high cost and carbon dioxide pollution. We wanted to create a practical and sustainable energy strategy for automobiles that could solve each of those limitations, eventually using renewable energy sources and in an environmentally conscious way. - Andrei Fedorov, associate professor in the Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering at Georgia Tech and a lead researcher on the project.
Little research has been done to explore carbon capture from vehicles, but the Georgia Tech team outlines an economically feasible strategy for processing fossil or synthetic, carbon-containing liquid (bio)fuels that allows for the capture and recycling of carbon at the point of emission. In the long term, this strategy would enable the development of a sustainable transportation system with no carbon emission.

Georgia Tech’s near-future strategy involves capturing carbon emissions from conventional (fossil) liquid hydrocarbon-fueled vehicles with an onboard fuel processor designed to separate the hydrogen in the fuel from the carbon. Hydrogen is then used to power the vehicle, while the carbon is stored on board the vehicle in a liquid form until it is disposed at a refueling station. It is then transported to a centralized site to be sequestered in a permanent location currently under investigation by scientists, such as geological formations, under the oceans or in solid carbonate form.

Note that if biofuels are used in the system, a carbon-negative cycle emerges that actively removes CO2 from the atmosphere. The more one were to drive the car, the more one would be cleaning up the atmosphere and fighting climate change (previous post).

In the long-term strategy, the carbon dioxide will be recycled forming a closed-loop system, involving synthesis of high energy density liquid fuel suitable for the transportation sector:
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Georgia Tech settled on a hydrogen-fueled vehicle for its carbon capture plan because pure hydrogen produces no carbon emissions when it is used as a fuel to power the vehicle. The fuel processor produces the hydrogen on-board the vehicle from the hydrocarbon fuel without introducing air into the process, resulting in an enriched carbon byproduct that can be captured with minimal energetic penalty. Traditional combustion systems, including current gasoline-powered automobiles, have a combustion process that combines fuel and air — leaving the carbon dioxide emissions highly diluted and very difficult to capture.

The researchers had to look for a system that never dilutes fuel with air because once the CO2 is diluted, it is not practical to capture it on vehicles or other small systems, said David Damm, PhD candidate in the School of Mechanical Engineering, the lead author on the paper and Fedorov’s collaborator on the project.

The Georgia Tech team compared the proposed system with other systems that are currently being considered, focusing on the logistic and economic challenges of adopting them on a global scale. In particular, electric vehicles could be part of a long-term solution to carbon emissions, but the team raised concerns about the limits of battery technology, including capacity and charging time.

The hydrogen economy presents yet another possible solution to carbon emissions but also yet another roadblock — infrastructure. While liquid-based hydrogen carriers could be conveniently transported and stored using existing fuel infrastructure, the distribution of gaseous hydrogen would require the creation of a new and costly infrastructure of pipelines, tanks and filling stations.

The Georgia Tech team has already created a fuel processor, called CO2/H2 Active Membrane Piston (CHAMP) reactor, capable of efficiently producing hydrogen and separating and liquefying CO2 from a liquid hydrocarbon or synthetic fuel used by an internal combustion engine or fuel cell (schamtic, click to enlarge). After the carbon dioxide is separated from the hydrogen, it can then be stored in liquefied state on-board the vehicle. The liquid state provides a much more stable and dense form of carbon, which is easy to store and transport.

The Georgia Tech paper also details the subsequent long-term strategy to create a truly sustainable system, including moving past carbon sequestration and into a method to recycle the captured carbon back into fuel. Once captured on-board the vehicle, the liquid carbon dioxide is deposited back at the fueling station and piped back to a facility where it is converted into a synthetic liquid fuel to complete the cycle.

Now that the Georgia Tech team has come up with a proposed system and device to produce hydrogen and, at the same time, capture carbon emissions, the greatest remaining challenge to a truly carbon-free transportation system will be developing a method for making a synthetic liquid fuel from just CO2 and water using renewable energy sources. Renewables can be biomass, wind or solar. The team is exploring a few ideas in this area.


David L. Damm and Andrei G. Federov, "Conceptual study of distributed CO2 capture and the sustainable carbon economy", Energy Conversion and Management, Article in Press, Published online doi:10.1016/j.enconman.2007.11.011

Georgia Tech: Carbon Capture Strategy Could Lead to Emission-Free Cars - February 11, 2008.

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

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