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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, June 05, 2008

DR Congo debates its enormous biofuels potential

The Democratic Republic of Congo is debating the pros and cons of its enormous untapped agricultural potential, in particular for the production of biofuels, while in Rome the international community is discussing the food crisis. Surprisingly, the country's stakeholders are rather optimistic about what biofuels can do for Congo's development.

The DRC, a country the size of Western Europe, is a nation full of contradictions: on the one hand its 56 million inhabitants face the highest malnutrition level in the world, with over 70 per cent of the population being badly nourished or living in hunger; on the other hand, the DRC has one of the largest capacities to grow agricultural products, with tens of millions of hectares of unused land on which highly productive crops can be grown. On the one hand, Congo imports most of its food from the EU, Latin America and Asia, while on the other nearly 50 per cent of its own population are farmers making less than half a dollar a day.

According to agricultural experts, the DRC alone has the agro-ecological capacity to grow food for 2 to 3 billion people. It currently uses less than 5 per cent of its potential arable land. With investments in modern agriculture, the country could thus feed all the new people that will be born between today and 2050 (when the planet will have a population of around 9 billion). The FAO says a very large portion of this potential is highly suitable for the production of sustainable energy crops (previous post, see map, click to enlarge).

So what do the Congolese themselves think of their biofuels opportunity and the risks that go with it? They convened a roundtable, coordinated by the Réseau de Promotion de la Démocratie et des Droits Economiques et Sociaux (PRODDES), supported by the NGO 'Solidarité socialiste'. Present at the debate were experts of WWF, academics from the University of Kinshasa, policy makers of the Ministry of Agriculture and civil society organisations.

The tone at the conference about biofuels was surprisingly positive and optimistic. This can be partly explained by the country's struggle with food production and the disastrous effects of high oil prices.

Congo's hunger problem has worsened sharply because of extremely high fuel prices. Oil products have to be shipped inland to farmers (who make up nearly half of all Congolese), which adds to the already high costs. Rural communities who farm to sell cash crops to the cities are thus struggling to produce food (which requires fuel) and to get their products to market (transport costs have become prohibitive). Once the food has arrived in the cities, it is too expensive for most Congolese. The perverse effect of this situation is that cities import subsidized food from the international market instead - from Europe, the US, Latin America or Asia.

Meanwhile, millions of local Congolese farmers are left in poverty or are forced to migrate to the swelling cities in search of better jobs. This massive trek from rural areas to the urban centres is crippling agriculture and making the country more dependent on international markets for its food and fuels.

Locally produced biofuels can turn this catastrophic situation around, said Alain Rousseaux, coordinator of the Dutch Development Organisation which attended the meeting. Farming communities, who face not the slightest shortage of land, can grow their own fuel, thus limit their food production costs and bring the products to market at a far lower cost than if they were to rely on ultra-costly diesel and gasoline. Likewise, the expensive fossil energy required to process food would be replaced by far less costly biofuels and bioenergy:
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Assuming oil prices stay high, biofuels could also lower the threat of inflation, as fuel is used in all productive sectors of the economy, driving up prices of all products and services. By providing cheaper fuels - and Congo has the agro-ecological potential for the most efficient energy crops - all sectors of the economy would benefit.

The country is also attracting more and more investments in the sugar and palm oil industries. The 'flex factory' model capable of producing both oils and biodiesel, or both ethanol and sugar (as in Brazil), would be very efficient. Moreover, large waste streams from processing sugar cane (bagasse) and palm oil kernels (empty fruit bunches, press cakes, empty shells) that are now left to rot or that are burned off and contribute to climate change, could be used to produce renewable and cost-effective electricity.

Organic waste products from the existing beer and food factories could be used as well for the production of biogas, which can be used for power or as a vehicle fuel.

On the level of the state, biofuels offer many benefits as well. Congo is one of the countryies who, according to the UN, are experiencing the following disastrous situation:
Recent oil price increases have had devastating effects on many of the world's poor countries, some of which now spend as much as six times as much on fuel as they do on health. Others spend twice the money on fuel as they do on poverty alleviation. And in still others, the foreign exchange drain from higher oil prices is five times the gain from recent debt relief.
The UN's statement was made when oil stood at $70 a barrel (previous post). One can only wonder what the state of affairs is with oil at today's $127pb.

Danny Singoma, permanent secretary of the PRODDES said a delegation of the network will shortly visit the terrain to get a sense of opportunities and risks on the ground. The city of Mbandaka, located centrally on the Congo River and the towns in Bandundu province, who produce food for the megacity of Kinshasa, will be visited. These field-trips will result in a report containing policy recommendations for the Ministry of Agriculture.

It seems like the DRCongo is in a pretty similar situation as Brazil. It has huge land resources, a forest that should be protected, a large rural population, and the capacity to grow very efficient energy crops. Biofuels and bioenergy produced in the country would be low cost and highly competitive with current oil and electricity prices, and thus benefit the nation's economic development. What is more, biofuels could actually improve the life of farmers and make them more resilient, as well as making food less costly for the urban populations.


Congoforum: RDC : débat sur les agro-carburants face au spectre de la crise alimentaire - June 5, 2008.

Biopact: UN's FAO: bright future for sustainable biofuels DR Congo - January 08, 2008

IPS: "Landbouw kan Congolese economie lanceren" - February 22, 2008.

Biopact: New Congo government identifies bioenergy as priority for industrialisation - May 03, 2007

Biopact: High oil prices disastrous for developing countries - September 12, 2007

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Researchers present new microbial pathways to bioenergy production

At the 108th General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology in Boston, several researchers presented new ways to use microbes for bioenergy production. Concepts range from capturing and converting the CO2 from ethanol production into biodiesel fuel and fertilizer, to biohydrogen production with bacteria trapped in 'artificial kidneys'. Others looked at producing hydrogen from water and sunlight only, with a bacterium doing the conversion. Craig Venter, not present at the meeting but looking at perhaps the most exciting idea, goes a step further and wants to make synthetic organisms that directly convert CO2 (from coal plants) into methane (previous post).

The American Society for Microbiology Press also released a new book titled Bioenergy, which in 30 chapters explores all kinds of microorganisms and conversion pathways to make renewable bioenergy out of a vast range of feedstocks. The book also compiles the latest information on microbial fuel cells and the potential of microbial electricity production, as well as numerous areas for new research in biofuel production.

Biodiesel from ethanol's CO2

A group of researchers is looking at alternative types of biomass as food for microorganisms to ferment into ethanol. The most attractive feedstocks are known as lignocellulosic biomass and include wood residues (including sawmill and paper mill discards), municipal paper waste, agricultural residues (including sugarcane bagasse) and dedicated energy crops (like switchgrass). The problem is, unlike sugar cane juice or corn, the sugars necessary for fermentation are trapped inside the lignocellulose.

Govind Nadathur and his colleagues at the University of Puerto Rico have been looking at unusual ecosystems and unusual organisms to find enzymes to help extract these sugars.

"Wood falls into the ocean. It disappears. What's eating this biomass? We found mollusks that eat the wood, with the help of bacteria in their stomachs that produce enzymes that break down the cellulose. We found something similar in termites," says Nadathur. They plan on using these enzymes as a key step in a closed, integrated system that would not only produce ethanol, but would also produce sugar, molasses, hibiscus flowers and biodiesel with a minimum of waste.

It all starts with sugar cane and hibiscus flowers, grown on local lands. These produce not only the obvious products such as refined sugar, molasses (which is used to make rum) and flowers, but also a large amount of waste in the form of biomass. Using the enzymes in their library, Nadathur and his colleagues could break down the biomass to sugars and ferment them to ethanol, trapping the carbon dioxide that is produced during fermentation. They then would feed the carbon dioxide to microalgae in ponds that would produce a polymer that could be refined into biodiesel or jet fuel. The spent microalgae could then be harvested and used as fertilizer for the next round of sugar cane and hibiscus, thereby closing the cycle.
There used to be a booming sugarcane industry in Puerto Rico, but in the mid-1990s it died. It could not survive economically. By creating a closed-loop system that utilizes the waste to create additional products and feeds back upon itself, suddenly growing sugar cane becomes economically feasible again. - Govind Nadathur
They are currently working with a company called Sustainable Agrobiotech of Puerto Rico to build a pilot program which they hope to have running by early 2009. Should the pilot program prove successful, there is plenty of adjacent farmland to upscale.

Microbial biohydrogen: technical challenges

Another promising biofuel is hydrogen. Already many car manufacturers are producing hydrogen concept cars and pilot programs using hydrogen-powered buses already are gaining acceptance in Los Angeles, with Burbank announcing the addition of a hydrogen-powered bus to its fleet in the summer of 2008. As more buses come online, there will be a greater need for hydrogen. Unfortunately, current chemical manufacturing processes for hydrogen are not that efficient or use fossil fuels as a source.

Sergei Markov of Austin Peay State University has developed a prototype bioreactor that uses the purple bacterium Rubrivivax gelatinosus to produce enough hydrogen to power a small motor:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Certain purple bacteria, which usually grow in the mud of various ponds and lakes, have the ability to convert water and carbon monoxide into hydrogen gas (note: only a certain set could use CO). The problem was how to effectively supply each bacterial cell in a liquid bacterial soup with gaseous carbon monoxide. - Sergei Markov
The answer was attaching the bacteria to numerous tiny hollow fibers inside an artificial kidney cartridge. Water and gasses can freely diffuse through the fibers, but bacteria, due to their large size, cannot. The hydrogen gas from a small fifty milliliter "artificial kidney bioreactor" has been directly injected into fuel cells and has produced enough electricity to power small motors and lamps. The only drawback is that carbon monoxide is not readily available , but Markov says it can be easily produced from biomass using a specific thermochemical process. There are also other bacteria that produce carbon monoxide.

Hydrogen from water and sunlight

One researcher and her lab, though, are investigating what could perhaps be considered the holy grail of hydrogen production: pure hydrogen from only water and sunlight, with a little bacterial help. Using renewable energy like wind or solar power to power electrolysis is inefficient and costly. Microbial pathways may be more promising.

Pin Ching Maness of the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colorado, is researching cyanobacteria that harness the power of the sun to break the bonds in water, separating the hydrogen from the oxygen. There is a problem. One of the hydrogenase enzymes the cyanobacteria uses in this process is sensitive to O2, which makes sustained hydrogen production extremely difficult.

Luckily a certain purple bacterium use a similar hydrogenase, but one that is tolerant to O2. Maness and her colleagues have identified the genes that the purple bacterium uses to produce the tolerant hydrogenase. They have also identified the genes a particular model cyanobacterium uses to produce the sensitive hydrogenase and have knocked it out. They are currently in the process of cloning the genes for the tolerant enzyme into the model cyanobacterium. The next step is to verify that the genes have been successfully incorporated into the genome and are expressed. Over the next few years additional research will need to be done to ensure all the requirements are there for the construction of an active hydrogenase enzyme.

Methane from smoke stacks
Craig Venter for his part recently announced that his lab is working on the design of a bacterium that succeeds in utilizing the CO2 from coal plants and other industrial processes to make methane.

During his ocean expeditions which collected countless previously unknown microbes from the seas, Venter discovered several microorganisms that naturally metabolize CO2 and molecular hydrogen into CH4. He wants to boost their capacity to do so, and use CO2 captured from power plants to feed them (previous post).

Importantly, the microbes in question are not photosynthetic, which means they can be grown in reactiors that don't need a source of light. This is a major advantage over systems that use algae to capture CO2. These algae have to be grown in photobioreactors, which are expensive, or in open ponds, which limits their productivity and exposes them to competition with other algae.


Eurekalert: Are microbes the answer to the energy crisis? - June 4, 2008.

ASM: New Text Highlights Role of Microorganisms in Alternative Energy Development - May 30, 2008.

Judy Wall, Caroline S. Harwood, Arnold L. Demain (eds.) Bioenergy, American Society for Microbiology Press, 2008, ISBN 978-1-55581-478-6, 454 pages.

Biopact: Venter speaks about synthetic life and alternative fuels - May 30, 2008

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