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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.

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Friday, August 29, 2008

Anthropologists discover ancient 'garden cities' in the Amazon - rainforest not 'pristine'

Anthropologists and archaeologists have discovered large urban centers in a remote area of the Amazon river basin. The discovery strengthens the theory that, instead of being a 'pristine' uninhabited ecosystem, the rainforest was in fact once heavily populated with large communities living in densely populated towns. The Upper Xingu region, where the scientists found the settlements, shows networks of roads connecting towns and villages, and signs of extensive farming, terra preta soils, wetland management, and possibly fish farms. The findings are reported in Science.

Anthropologist Michael Heckenberger of the University of Florida teamed with the local Kuikuro people in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso to uncover 28 towns, villages and hamlets that may have supported as many as 50,000 people within roughly 7,700 square miles (20,000 square kilometers) of forest — an area slightly smaller than New Jersey. The larger towns boasted defensive ditches 10 feet (three meters) deep and 33 feet (10 meters) wide backed by a wooden palisade as well as large plazas, some reaching 490 feet (150 meters) across.

The remains of houses and ceramic cooking utensils show that humans occupied these cities for around 1,000 years, from roughly 1,500 years to as recently as 400 years ago. Satellite pictures reveal that during that time, the inhabitants carved roads through the jungle; all plaza villages had a major road that ran northeast to southwest along the summer solstice axis and linked to other settlements as much as three miles (five kilometers) away. There were bridges on some of the roads and others had canoe canals running alongside them.

The remains of the settlements also hint at surrounding large fields of manioc, or cassava (a starchy root that is still a staple part of the Brazilian diet) as well as the earthen dams and artificial ponds of fish farming, still practiced by people who may be the present-day descendants of the Kuikuro.

Although such "garden cities," as Heckenberger describes them in Science, do not match the dense urbanism of contemporary Brazilian metropolises such as Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo, they do blend seamlessly into the jungle and maximize use of limited natural resources. They also suggest that the rainforest bears the marks of intense human habitation, rather than being 'pristine':
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

But, ultimately, these cities died; most likely a victim of the diseases brought by European explorers in the early 16th century, according to Heckenberger. Two thirds or more of the original human inhabitants of Brazil are believed to have been killed by such disease, and the forest quickly swallowed the cities they left behind.

As a result, later European explorers had no idea that a civilization had once flourished in the Amazon, despite clues in kilometer-long earthworks and unusually fertile so-called terra preta soil. The 500 or so Kuikuro may have known of their ancestors' exploits—and they may have drawn the attention of Fawcett and other explorers—but only now can the "lost cities" of the Amazon claim to have been found.

The discovery adds credence to the theory which says that vast parts of the Amazon rainforest were once densely populated and managed, instead of 'virgin'. Romantic ideas about the 'untouched', 'wild' nature of these forests date back to the 19th century but have always contradicted earlier accounts of explorers. Once European populations, living in industrialized societies, became alienated from nature, they started projecting their desires about 'pristine' ecosystems on other places - like the Amazon.

The findings in the Upper Xingu also demonstrate that the notoriously difficult tropical forest soils can be managed in such a way that they can sustain food production for large populations. Ancient Amazonian communities must have had highly optimised farming and soil management techniques in order to feed such large populations. The famous 'terra preta' soils - now seen as a solution to world hunger and climate change under the form of 'biochar' - could have been the key to this sustainable farming system.

Charles C. Mann, "Ancient Earthmovers of the Amazon", Science, 29 August 2008: Vol. 321. no. 5893, pp. 1148 - 1152, DOI: 10.1126/science.321.5893.1148

David Biello, "Ancient Amazon Actually Highly Urbanized", Scientific American, August 28, 2008.

Scientific American: slideshow.

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Austin Energy's $2.3 billion biomass energy contract approved

In one of the largest renewable energy deals of this year, the Austin City Council has given Austin Energy, its city-owned electric utility, approval to enter into a $2.3 billion contract to purchase all power produced over a 20-year period by a proposed 100-megawatt biomass power plant. The purchase power agreement will move Austin closer to its goal that by 2020, some 30 percent of the power generated by Austin Energy will come from renewable resources. The biomass plant delivers the baseload for Austin Energy's intermittent renewables.

The biomass plant will be built in Sacul, Texas, about 10 miles northwest of Nacogdoches and will be the largest of its type in the United States. The facility will burn wood waste from logging and mill activity as well as urban wood waste from clearing, tree trimming and pallets. All fuel sources for the plant must meet Texas Renewable Energy Credit standards and Texas Forestry Best Management Practices. It is projected to go on line by the spring of 2012.

Advantages of the biomass plant
The biomass plant will provide a firm source of renewable energy, available 24/7. Power from the facility provides a hedge against rising natural gas prices and potential carbon tax legislation. It also provides a hedge against transmission congestion which has begun to significantly increase the cost of transporting wind generated power from west Texas to other areas of the state.
A firm supply of renewable energy is critical if Austin is to meet the 30 percent renewables goal. That goal will be difficult to reach without a power source that is available during peak demand periods. - Roger Duncan, Austin Energy General manager
The cost of the biomass power would be recovered by Austin Energy through the fuel charge or through the utility’s green power program, GreenChoice. Recovering costs through the fuel charge is projected to result in up to a $1.50 decrease to a projected $2.50 increase in the electric bill of the average residential customer beginning in 2012, depending on the cost of other fuels particularly natural gas.
The projection is that natural gas prices will continue to escalate over the long-term. The higher natural gas prices rise, the more this project will save our customers since the biomass-generated power effectively replaces natural-gas-fueled generation for the utility. - Roger Duncan, Austin Energy General manager
In addition, the cost of power from the plant will be reduced if a federal Production Tax Credit is extended by Congress. It would be further reduced if a State Fuel Grant program approved by the Texas Legislature is funded through subsequent legislative action:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The biomass energy contract will increase Austin Energy renewables to 18% in 2012.

In addition to the goal to meet 30 percent of energy sales through renewable resources by 2020, the Austin City Council has set a goal to offset the need for a 700 MW power plant by that date through energy efficiency. It has also set a goal to cap CO2 emissions from generation and to offset current emissions as well as emissions from future generation through either the purchase of CO2 credits or other means. These goals again support the Austin Climate Protection Plan, one of the most comprehensive and aggressive greenhouse gas reduction programs enacted by any city in America.

The biomass plant would be built and managed by Nacogdoches Power LLC, a joint venture between Energy Management Incorporated of Boston and BayCorp Holdings of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The Group has developed and owned or operated more than 1,000 MW of generation in the past including biomass, biodiesel, hydroelectric, natural gas and nuclear. The group has also been selected to develop a biomass project for Gainesville (Florida) Regional Utilities.

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

ESA: Arctic ice on the verge of another all-time low

Following last summer's record minimum ice cover in the Arctic, current observations from the European Space Agency's Envisat satellite suggest that the extent of polar sea-ice may again shrink to a level very close to that of last year. Scientists from the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI) in Germany have also demonstrated that the Northwest Passage is open once again, by sailing through it with their research vessel the Polarstern.

Envisat observations from mid-August depict that a new record of low sea-ice coverage could be reached in a matter of weeks. The animation above is a series of mosaics of the Arctic Ocean created from images acquired between early June and mid-August 2008 from the Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar (ASAR) instrument aboard Envisat. The dark grey colour represents ice-free areas while blue represents areas covered with sea ice.

Current ice coverage in the Arctic has already reached the second absolute minimum since observations from space began 30 years ago. Because the extent of ice cover is usually at its lowest about mid-September, this year's minimum could still fall to set another record low.

Each year, the Arctic Ocean experiences the formation and then melting of vast amounts of ice that floats on the sea surface. An area of ice the size of Europe melts away every summer reaching a minimum in September. Since satellites began surveying the Arctic in 1978, there has been a regular decrease in the area covered by ice in summer – with ice cover shrinking to its lowest level on record and opening up the most direct route through the Northwest Passage in September 2007.

The direct route through the Northwest Passage - highlighted in the image above by an orange line - is currently almost free of ice, while the indirect route, called the Amundsen Northwest Passage, has been passable for almost a month. This is the second year in a row that the most direct route through the Northwest Passage has opened up.

Our ice-breaking research vessel 'Polarstern' is currently on a scientific mission in the Arctic Ocean. Departing from Iceland, the route has taken the ship through the Northwest Passage into the Canadian Basin where geophysical and geological studies will be carried out along profiles into the Makarov Basin to study the tectonic history and submarine geology of the central Arctic Ocean. In addition, oceanographic as well as biological studies will be carried out. Polarstern will circumnavigate the whole Arctic Ocean and exit through the Northeast Passage.
- Prof. Heinrich Miller, Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI), Bremerhaven, Germany

The polar regions, especially the Arctic, are very sensitive indicators of climate change, says Prof. Miller from AWI. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has shown that these regions are highly vulnerable to rising temperatures and predicted that the Arctic would be virtually ice-free in the summer months by 2070. Other scientists claim it could become ice-free as early as 2040. Latest satellite observations suggest that the Arctic could be mainly ice-free even earlier:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Scientists at AWI place particular emphasis on studying Arctic sea-ice, and along with in-situ studies of sea-ice thickness change satellite data have been used extensively - not only for the regular observation of changes in the Arctic and Antarctic, but also for optimising the operation of Polarstern in regions covered by sea ice.

The Arctic is one of the most inaccessible regions on Earth, so obtaining measurements of sea ice was difficult before the advent of satellites. For more than 20 years, ESA has been providing satellite data for the study of the cryosphere and hence revolutionising our understanding of the polar regions.

Satellite measurements from radar instruments can acquire images through clouds and also at night. This capability is especially important in areas prone to long periods of bad weather and extended darkness – conditions frequently encountered in the polar regions.

By making available a comprehensive dataset from its Earth Observation satellites and other ground and air-based capabilities, ESA is currently also contributing to one of the most ambitious coordinated science programme ever undertaken in the Arctic and Antarctic - the International Polar Year 2007-2008.

Further exploitation of data collected over the Arctic since 1991 is part of an ESA Initiative on Climate Change that will be proposed to the ESA Member States at its Ministerial Conference in November 2008. The proposal aims to ensure delivery of appropriate information on climate variables derived from satellites.

In 2009, ESA will make another significant contribution research into the cryosphere with the launch of CryoSat-2. The observations made over the three-year lifetime of the mission will provide conclusive evidence on the rates at which ice thickness and cover is diminishing.

Images courtesy of ESA.

ESA: Arctic ice on the verge of another all-time low - August 28, 2008.

ESA: Envisat overview.

ESA: CryoSat 2.

International Polar Year

Biopact: Satellites witness lowest Arctic ice coverage in history, Northwest Passage opens up - September 14, 2007

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

ACS podcasts on the future of clean energy: from artificial photosynthesis to biomass co-firing

Meeting the world's growing energy needs while responding to global warming during the 21st Century will be one of the biggest challenges humanity has ever faced, say scientists in a set of interesting but basic podcasts produced by the American Chemical Society for its Global Challenges/Chemistry Solutions series. However, there are many renewable energy solutions and revolutionary energy concepts that are becoming ever more feasible, they say.

Raymond L. Orbach, Ph.D., the U.S. Department of Energy's Under Secretary for Science, notes that meeting this challenge will demand "transformational breakthroughs in basic science," meaning revolutionary discoveries rather than common step-by-step scientific advances.

Orbach cites as one example the development of artificial versions of photosynthesis, the natural process that plants use to produce energy from water and sunlight. Artificial photosynthesis — "photosynthesis without the plant" — could theoretically open the door to fueling cars of the future with water rather than pricey gasoline. Artificial photosynthesis units would split water into hydrogen and oxygen, producing clean-burning hydrogen fuel, the podcast explains.

Other scientists featured in the climate-change podcasts include:
  • William Morrow, Ph.D., of Carnegie Mellon University, who describes new technology that mixes switchgrass with coal to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Co-firing biomass with coal is interesting because it makes use of existing energy infrastructures. New processing techniques, like torrefaction, can produce a renewable fuel that can displace all coal in an existing power plant. Interestingly, using switchgrass for the production of electricity to be used in electric vehicles, reduces 2 to 3 times as much CO2 than if this switchgrass were to be used for the production of cellulosic biofuels to be used in cars with internal combustion engines.
  • Harry Gray, Ph.D., of the Caltech Center for Sustainable Energy Research, who discusses the potential of solar energy.
  • Jerald L. Schnoor, Ph.D., editor of ACS' Environmental Science & Technology, and a professor at the University of Iowa, who predicts that nuclear energy may play a larger role in meeting future energy needs.
  • Michaël Grätzel, Ph.D., of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, who describes achieving a record light-conversion efficiency of 8.2 percent with solar cells that in certain ways mimic plants.
The "Confronting Climate Change" podcasts focus on stopgap and permanent solutions to the release of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Those solutions range from revolutionary scientific advances such as artificial photosynthesis or seqestering biogenic carbon, to simple societal changes such as consumers foregoing red meat once a week for chicken, fish or vegetables.

The podcasts are available without charge for listening on computers and downloading to portable audio devices at iTunes (requires iTunes software) and other podcasting sites. They also can be accessed on ACS's Global Challenges web site. The site provides audio links and full transcripts of each podcast. Additional resources on each Global Challenges topic also are available, on the site, including information for consumers, students, and educators.

The American Chemical Society — the world's largest scientific society — is a nonprofit organization chartered by the U.S. Congress and a global leader in providing access to chemistry-related research through its multiple databases, peer-reviewed journals and scientific conferences.


American Chemical Society: Confronting Climate Change - Part 1.

American Chemical Society: Confronting Climate Change - Part 2.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Researchers develop drought-tolerant corn varieties

Scientists from AgriLife Research, part of the Texas A&M University System, have developed drought-tolerant maize varieties that yield well. The crops are not genetically modified, but are obtained by crossing temperate and tropically adapted varieties. Dr. Wenwei Xu, lead researcher, seeks to develop drought-tolerant plants that perform well under reduced irrigation.

With the continuing decline of the water level at one of the world's largest aquifers - the Ogallala Aquifer which is located beneath the Great Plains in the U.S. - and with increasing cost of pumping water, the use of drought-tolerant and high-yield corn hybrids is a key for sustainable corn production under limited irrigation, the breeder says.

The researchers hope to reduce the amount of water required for corn by at least 10 percent, which would make a serious difference on water withdrawal rates.

A field day was held recently at the North Plains AgriLife Research Station near Etter to demonstrate the differences between the parent plants and the offspring, or crosses.

Already the AgriLife Research program out of Lubbock has released four inbred lines of corn and numerous others are in the process for release.
The new multiple-stress-tolerant corn lines can be used to produce corn hybrids adapted to Texas and other southern states. They can be a powerful tool to save water and produce crops with yield and grain quality under stressful environments. - Dr. Wenwei Xu, breeder at AgriLife Research
The research station at Etter is one of three test sites in Xu's program. The others are located at Halfway and Lubbock. About 500 hybrids are being evaluated this year for either grain yield or silage yield and quality.

Xu said there has been an increasing demand for silage corn in the Texas High Plains, and producers need new hybrids adapted to the local environment. Corn produced in the U.S. is primarily based on two races of maize, but there are more than 250 races identified around the world:
Most of our breeding efforts start by crossing tropical corn with temperate elite lines. Then we select for desirable traits to broaden genetic diversity and introduce useful genes from exotic corn to improve stress tolerance, agronomic productivity, disease resistance, insect resistance and value-added grain characteristics. - Dr. Wenwei Xu
Xu said some of the experimental hybrids they are working with have produced the same silage yield under irrigation equaling 75 percent evapotranspiration as with 100 percent evapotranspiration irrigation.

Evapotranspiration is the loss of water from the soil both by evaporation and by transpiration from the plants, and is reported on a daily basis through the Texas High Plains Evapotranspiration Network:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Bruce Spinhirne, AgriLife Research associate based in Lubbock, said they reduced the irrigation on a few hybrids by 50 percent and had a severe yield and quality limitation, so they followed that by the 75 percent water application.

Those results are due in part to the use of stored moisture in the soil profile, Spinhirne says. At 75 percent (evapotranspiration), you have 3 to 4 inches of available moisture that is used, where if you are watering at 100 percent, it is wasted, the researcher adds.

The average silage yield of 20 corn hybrids at two locations (Etter and Halfway) was 26.84 tons per acre under 75 percent evapotranspiration irrigation, just slightly lower than the 27.49 tons per acre under 100 percent evapotranpiration irrigation, Spinhirne said.

However there were significant differences among hybrids in each environment. One of the experimental hybrids produced the same amount of silage in both locations when irrigation was reduced from 100 percent to 75 percent.

The researchers think that developing and using new corn hybrids with improved tolerance to drought and other stresses is important and a viable water-saving approach.

Wenwei Xu, Bruce Spinhirne, Thomas Marek, Brent Bean, and Dennis Pietsch. Silage Corn Hybrids for the Texas High Plains [*.pdf], Texas Agricultural Experiment Station.

2007 State Silage Corn Performance Test at Etter [*.pdf].

AgriLife Research: AgriLife Research breeder develops drought-tolerant corn - August 22, 2008.

More information on the corn and silage trials can be found here.

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Monday, August 25, 2008

Researchers call for public investment in new generation of fertilizers

About 75% of all fertilizers and fertilizer technology used around the world today were developed or improved during the 1950s to 1970s by scientists and engineers at the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in the United States, says John Shields, a former TVA official. Shields is now Interim Director of IFDC, an International Center for Soil Fertility and Agricultural Development, based in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and he calls for a similar, renewed public investment to tackle the challenges of the future.

An investment of $41 million in fertilizer research through 1981 returned an incredible $57 billion to U.S. agriculture. This doesn't include benefits of the technology to the rest of the world. But inadequate public funding caused closure of the TVA fertilizer research program in the early 1990s. Today, publicly funded fertilizer research and development has essentially ceased—and so has the flow of new and more efficient fertilizers and fertilizer manufacturing technologies.

In order to tackle the interrelated challenges of increasing food, fiber and fuel production for a growing world population, while mitigating and taking into account the effects of climate change, the scientists from the IFDC now call for a renewed investment in fertilizer research.
TVA's fertilizer program is recognized as one of the most effective research and development programs of any U.S. agency. Its benefits to the world far outweigh the public investment that the United States made in fertilizer research and development It's time to launch a radical initiative to develop a new generation of energy-efficient fertilizers to help avert hunger and famine. - Dr. Amit Roy, IFDC President and CEO
TVA Achievements
The Tennessee Valley Authority is a federally owned corporation in the United States created by congressional charter in May 1933 to provide navigation, flood control, electricity generation, fertilizer manufacturing, and economic development in the Tennessee Valley, a region particularly impacted by the Great Depression. The TVA was envisioned not only as an electricity provider, but also as a regional economic development agency that would use federal experts and funds to rapidly modernize the region's economy and society. Its fertilizer research program proved to be one of the most successful (government) investments of all time.
TVA technology fueled the sweeping advances of U.S. farmers in food and fiber production in the 60s to 80s. Today, fertilizers are responsible for more than a third of total U.S. crop production. The $57 billion return from a $41 million investment included about $49 billion from use of high-analysis fertilizers and $8 billion from process development and improvement. That's a benefit:cost ratio of more than $20 to $1. - John Shields, Interim Director of IFDC
TVA developed high-analysis fertilizers with high nutrient content as well as more efficient manufacturing processes. The fertilizers include urea, diammonium phosphate (DAP), triple superphosphate (TSP), sulfur-coated urea, and liquid fertilizers. TVA improved the manufacturing processes for ammonium nitrate and other products that help commercial producers provide efficient fertilizers to farmers worldwide. TVA's ammonium-granulation and bulk-blending technologies improve the efficiency of the manufacture of many mixed fertilizer grades. TVA generated most of the fluid fertilizer and dry bulk-blending technology used in the United States today.

TVA followed promising new fertilizers from conception to production to national acceptance by farmers and the fertilizer industry. Its program was based on fundamental research, followed by process development and technology transfer.

After agronomic tests and pilot plant production proved that a new TVA fertilizer product or manufacturing process performed well, TVA produced enough tonnage to introduce it into U.S. agriculture. TVA then stopped work on that project and moved to develop newer and more promising technologies:

Calls for new fertilizer research

Dr. Norman Borlaug, 1970 Nobel Laureate, who served on the IFDC Board of Directors from 1994 to 2003, is concerned about the state of the fertilizer industry itself. With the price of energy increasing, we need to find cheaper, more effective ways to nourish food crops, he says:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Borlaug thinks the price tag for increasing productivity in Africa might be quite high unless new fertilizers are developed. The fertilizer industry therefor needs to do everything in its power to minimize that cost. Farmers are paying way too much for fertilizer products because we are transporting millions of tons of material that is not nutrient and because much of the nutrients in applied fertilizers are never used by the crop. Nutrient losses to the environment are high with consequences for global warming and water pollution, Borlaug says.

According to Borlaug, work should begin now on the next generation of fertilizer products using advanced techniques such as nanotechnology and molecular biology, especially in conjunction with plant genetics research. 'Smart' fertilizer products that will release nutrients only at the time and in the amount needed should be developed, he thinks.

Peter McPherson, President of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges (NASULGC) and current Chairman of the IFDC Board, adds that the world needs a major research effort to improve the effectiveness of fertilizer production and use. Fertilizer is a commodity industry and it is unlikely the industry alone will undertake the research. Some public investment is probably required, McPherson says.

During the U.N. Food Summit in June 2008 in Rome, more than 180 world leaders addressed the food crisis and stressed the urgent need "to decisively step up investment in science and technology for food and agriculture."

IFDC Facilities
The scientists think the need for increased food is escalating, but new agricultural technology is not keeping pace. An effective research program to develop a new range of fertilizers should therefor be a key element of any long-term strategy to alleviate the food crisis.

Most fertilizer products used today were developed when energy seemed abundant and cheap. But with rising prices there's a need to develop a new generation of fertilizer products that use plant nutrients more efficiently.

Such innovations will require investments in research—but such costs would be miniscule compared to the benefits for humanity.
IFDC is in a unique position to meet this challenge. We're the world's only agency with the necessary facilities and expertise. We have both the physical and human resources to do the job. IFDC has a complex of six pilot plants for research and training in fertilizer development and production plus a highly qualified team of scientists and engineers. We also have the international contacts to build support for a new, vigorous fertilizer research and development program. We can pick up where TVA had to cease. - Dr. Amit Roy, IFDC President and CEO
Image: TVA developed 75 percent of the fertilizers used worldwide today -- but research and development in fertilizer technology has almost ceased since the program closed in the early 1990s. Credit: IFDC

Eurekalert: TVA fertilizer technology used worldwide -- but few new products since 1970s - August 25, 2008.

IFDC: Focus on fertilizers and food security - Issue 1; June 2, 2008.

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Scientists develop cheap catalyst for hydrogen production from biofuels

Scientists from Ohio State University have developed a very cheap non-precious metal catalyst that converts biofuels like ethanol into hydrogen with an efficiency of up to 90%. This development opens up a future of decentralised, on-the-spot hydrogen production for use in fuel cell cars. What is more, it makes the prospect of a carbon-negative transportation fuel more realistic.

The rationale behind converting biofuels to hydrogen is simple: you no longer need an expensive hydrogen transportation infrastructure, because you can transport the fuel safely in the form of the biofuel and turn it into hydrogen wherever you want; using hydrogen in fuel cells is also far more efficient than using biofuels in internal combustion engines.

Best of all, when the carbon dioxide that is released during the conversion process is captured and sequestered, a truly carbon-negative fuel is obtained. The more you were to use of this fuel, the more you were to combat climate change, because you would be actively removing CO2 from the atmosphere (earlier post, and see schematic).

Umit Ozkan, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Ohio State University, says that the new catalyst is much less expensive than others being developed around the world, because it does not contain precious metals, such as platinum or rhodium. Rhodium is used most often for this kind of catalyst, and it costs around $9,000 an ounce. The new catalyst costs around $9 a kilogram - that's about 35,000 times less.

The new catalyst allows us to over come the many practical issues that need to be resolved before we can use hydrogen as fuel - how to make it, how to transport it, how to create the infrastructure for people to fill their cars with it.
Our research lends itself to what's called a 'distributed production' strategy. Instead of making hydrogen from biofuel at a centralized facility and transporting it to gas stations, we could use our catalyst inside reactors that are actually located at the gas stations. So we wouldn't have to transport or store the hydrogen - we could store the biofuel, and make hydrogen on the spot. - Professor Umit Ozkan
The catalyst is inexpensive to make and to use compared to others under investigation worldwide. Those others are often made from precious metals, or only work at very high temperatures. Precious metals have high catalytic activity and - in most cases - high stability, but they're also very expensive. The scientists' goal from the outset was to come up with a precious-metal-free catalyst, one that was based on metals that are readily available and inexpensive, but still highly active and stable. This sets Ozkan's team apart from most of the other groups in the world.

The new dark gray powder is made from tiny granules of cerium oxide - a common ingredient in ceramics - and calcium, covered with even smaller particles of cobalt. It produces hydrogen with 90 percent efficiency at 660 degrees Fahrenheit (around 350 degrees Celsius) - a low temperature by industrial standards.

Whenever a process works at a lower temperature, that brings energy savings and cost savings. Also, if the catalyst is highly active and can achieve high hydrogen yields, one doesn’t need as much of it. That will bring down the size of the reactor, and its cost:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The process starts with a liquid biofuel such as ethanol, which is heated and pumped into a reactor, where the catalyst spurs a series of chemical reactions that ultimately convert the liquid to a hydrogen-rich gas.

One of the biggest challenges the researchers faced was how to prevent "coking" -- the formation of carbon fragments on the surface of the catalyst. The combination of metals - cerium oxide and calcium - solved that problem, because it promoted the movement of oxygen ions inside the catalyst. When exposed to enough oxygen, the carbon, like the biofuel, is converted into a gas and gets oxidized; it becomes carbon dioxide.

At the end of the process, waste gases such as carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and methane are removed, and the hydrogen is purified. To make the process more energy-efficient, heat exchangers capture waste heat and put that energy back into the reactor. Methane recovered in the process can be used to supply part of the energy.

Though this work was based on converting ethanol, Ozkan's team is now studying how to use the same catalyst with other liquid biofuels. Her coauthors on this presentation included Ohio State doctoral students Hua Song and Lingzhi Zhang.

The research was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.


Ohio State University: A Better Way to Make Hydrogen from Biofuels - August 20, 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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Sunday, August 24, 2008

Report: world wastes 50% of all food

As we have often stressed, the bioenergy debate is not about a lack of resources (land, water), but about the way in which production chains are optimised and waste streams reduced. A new report by the Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), and Stockholm Water Management Institute (SIWI), shows indeed that the world produces more than enough food to sustain the global population, but warns that a staggering half of all this food is currently wasted. And so is the water needed to produce it. The good thing about these dramatic findings is that there is ample room for a variety of waste-reduction strategies.

According to Saving Water: From Field to Fork - Curbing Losses and Wastage in the Food Chain [*.pdf], tremendous amounts of food, and thus water, are discarded in the fields, during processing, in transport, in supermarkets, restaurants and in people's kitchens. Jan Lundqvist, who heads the scientific programme at SIWI, says the losses of all the food that farmers grow is an incredible 50 percent on a global scale.

Developing vs. developed countries
Food wastage depends largely on the society in which it was grown and consumed (illustration, click to enlarge).

In poor countries most food is lost at the producers' end: food gets lost in the fields or due to lack of storage and cooling systems or poor transport mechanisms.
In many areas of the world you simply cannot store food efficiently, because it is not handled well. - Jakob Granit, SIWI project director
In many developing countries, food losses due to crop losses and lack of infrastructures are 25% for grains and up to 50% for fruits and vegetables. Poor farmers are highly inefficient when it comes to harvesting and processing their products, but they are also defenseless against crop losses caused by pests and disease. Investing in basic farm inputs and in storage, cooling, processing and transportation facilities can make a tremendous difference.

The experts also stress the need for a Green Revolution in Africa, which can reduce losses tremendously, not only by introducing more efficient crops, but by investing in support systems including credit, subsidies, price policies, extension services and infrastructural investments, e.g. in (agriculture) schools, roads and canals:
An African Green Revolution would need to concentrate on the supportive measures. Implementing a Green Revolution in Africa would also, in theory, make room for considerable acreage to be devoted to bioenergy crops without jeopardizing food security or marginal lands. - Saving Water: From Field to Fork
In richer societies, most waste happens at the consumer level, while changing diets and an increased appetite for water-intensive foods like dairy products and meat, especially beef, in these regions amplifies the water drainage, the experts say.

In the United States, for example, 30 percent of all food, worth 48.3 billion dollars (€32.5 billion), is thrown away each year:
[This] corresponds to 40 trillion litres of irrigation water, enough water to meet the household needs of 500 million people. - Saving Water: From Field to Fork
In urban settings, we have lost touch with realities, the experts say. People do not know where food comes from, they do not know what it takes to produce food, the report stresses. For example, it takes between 10 and 15 tonnes water to produce a single kilo (2.2 pounds) of beef. If you throw away half of that kilo, that means you've thrown away 7.5 tonnes of water:
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What can be done?
With reference to the targets for Millennium Development Goals and with due consideration to the magnitude of losses and the potential gains, a reduction by 50 percent of losses and wastage in the entire food chain from field to fork – including agricultural and post harvest practices – seems realistic, the authors say.

They make several suggestions for interventions to achieve this aim, but these initiatives must be part of a broad-scale agenda.

More food with less water
First of all, large quantities of water are lost in the field. Roughly there are two ways of capturing this water. First, capturing a larger share of the rainfall and make it accessible for productive transpiration. Second, changing the way water is used in crop production by maximizing the benefits per unit of water consumed in rainfed and in irrigated agriculture.

Several strategies to improve the water productivity, or “crop per drop”, are available. Related to this option, it will be increasingly important to have a strategy for where food is best produced. Climate change and the associated escalated water scarcity will make agricultural production very difficult or very costly in large parts of the world whereas opportunities will be improved in areas blessed with a water abundance of dependable water availability.

Saving water throughout the food chain
The sheer magnitude of losses, wastage and over-consumption means that we have the ability and options to reduce gross food demand and agricultural water supply without affecting food security. Most losses occur after food is produced in the field. As water has already been evaporated, successive losses down the food chain add up to considerable unproductive water use.

The amount of water that can be saved by reducing food waste is much larger than that saved by low-flush toilets and water-saving washing machines. It’s time for us to move beyond thinking about how we meet quantities, and to start looking at the type of foods we produce and how we benefit from them, the authors say.

A combination of policy measures will be necessary: investment support in post-harvest technologies, scrutiny of the role of the food-processing industry and supermarkets, as well as pricing mechanisms and strategic efforts to visualize and educate the public on practically contributing to reducing food wastage.

Schools and public institutions could be focused entry points for such a strategic effort, as general awareness campaigns have proved to be rather ineffective. To successfully address losses in the food chain it will be necessary to involve various sectors and actors.

Involving stakeholders

The business community increasingly sees the need to protect water resources to safeguard future production. Earlier this year, serious concerns about water scarcity affecting the industrial sector were expressed at the World Economic Forum. Attention was drawn to its potential negative ramifications on future economic wealth and political security. Special concern was raised to limits of sustainable water use being reached or breached in many world breadbasket regions. The meeting concluded with a “call for action”, with the following focus points:
  • Water governance for transparent/fair allocation to users and sound incentives for efficient water use
  • Water for agricultural use (“more crop per drop”; 70 percent of water withdrawn worldwide)
  • Water for industry (water efficiency within operations)
  • Water for energy (the deepening link between water resources and climate change)
  • Water for human purposes (sustainable and affordable access to safe drinking water and sanitation)
  • Water for the environment (to ensure sustained ecosystem security).
Several business leaders see a triangle of related issues critical to the sustainability of their businesses: climate change–water–food.

With an increasing distance between field and fork, consumers are losing touch with farm practices, and often do not realize that food production comes from living things that require natural resources to grow. Food is undervalued as a commodity, and waste seems harmless. Awareness-raising and environmental education are crucial, with target groups such as schools, hospitals and offices a good point to start.

Price incentives also have a role to play. Recent hikes in food prices raise concerns related to food security, particularly for poor consumers who buy food in the market. On the other hand, price increases are beneficial to farmers and send a clear signal to consumers that food is valuable and should not be unnecessarily wasted. It’s time to curb wasteful behavior, and as consumers we all have a role.

A first step is getting inefficiencies in the food chain onto the political agenda. In the 1970s and 1980s there were several studies conducted on global and regional post-harvest losses but the topic now seems to be off the agenda. There are relativly few people who deal with these issues. Recent studies are scarce and often refer back to older works, but sketchy evidence shows huge losses. To effectively reduce food losses, information on where, how much and why losses occur is essential. Without awareness backed up by good estimates, policy design will be difficult.

Illustration: Main types of food losses and wastage. Credit: Britt-Louise Andersson, SIWI.

Stockholm Water Management Institute: Saving Water: From Field to Fork - Curbing Losses and Wastage in the Food Chain [*.pdf] - May 2008.

Stockholm Water Management Institute: 50 Percent of Food is Wasted Causing Water, Food and Hunger Crisis, Says SIWI, FAO and IWMI - August 21, 2008.

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