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    Taiwan's Feng Chia University has succeeded in boosting the production of hydrogen from biomass to 15 liters per hour, one of the world's highest biohydrogen production rates, a researcher at the university said Friday. The research team managed to produce hydrogen and carbon dioxide (which can be captured and stored) from the fermentation of different strains of anaerobes in a sugar cane-based liquefied mixture. The highest yield was obtained by the Clostridium bacterium. Taiwan News - November 14, 2008.

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Saturday, November 22, 2008

FAO reports major success: healthy cassava makes comeback in volatile Great Lakes region

After years of massive crop losses caused by a devastating virus, farmers are harvesting healthy cassava again - one of Africa's principal foodstuffs - throughout the Great Lakes region, FAO announced, hailing the achievement as a milestone in its ever stronger partnership with the European Union. The successful cassava campaign is good news for the FAO, which is heavily criticized for its incapacity to combat the food crisis and which is undergoing fundamental reform.

By the last planting season, virus-free cassava planting material had been distributed to some 330,000 smallholders in countries struck by the virus: Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. The improved crop now benefits a total of some 1.65 million people, and its uptake will speed up further.

Having cassava back on the table is of major importance, especially to the region's most vulnerable, who have been hit hard by the recent upsurge in food prices, said Eric Kueneman Chief of FAO's Crop and Grassland Service. He added that boosting the production of local crops like cassava is a pillar of FAO's response to the current crisis, which was caused by commodity speculation.

In the Great Lakes region though, high prices of food and fertilizer are just part of the problem. As the recent violence in eastern DR Congo tragically demonstrates, the region is still grappling with peace. But, especially under circumstances of extreme instability, cassava can make a crucial difference.

Cassava roots can be harvested whenever there is a need, or left in the ground when farmers are driven from their land. Also, cassava is not an easy prey, when land is unattended: thieves will find it very difficult to dig it from the ground.

Disease causes food shortage

"We have come a long way in making this region self-sufficient in cassava again," says Cees Wittebrood of the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid department (ECHO), FAO's major partner in its regional cassava operations, adding, "One of our priorities is to ensure that every farmer can grow for his own subsistence, and collaboration with FAO is key in achieving that."

Each person in Africa eats around 80 kg of cassava per year. So, when an aggressive strain of a virus called Cassava Mosaic Disease (CMD) decimated harvests throughout the Great Lakes region, consequences were disastrous.

In Uganda, for instance, where CMD has destroyed 150,000 hectares of cassava since the early nineties - a loss estimated at $US 60 million per annum - food shortages resulting from CMD led to localized famines in 1993 and 1997. CMD appeared in Burundi in 2002. Yield losses attaining ninety percent were record. Prices sky-rocketed. And it came right on top of a devastating civil war. According to FAO’s 2006 State of Food Insecurity in the World (SOFI) report, undernourishment affected two-thirds of the population in 2001/3, compared to less than half before hostilities begun ten years earlier.

Tackling the epidemic began with a series of disease-free varieties developed by one of FAO's research partners, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Nigeria, which were multiplied in nurseries of a multitude of partners, including national research institutions, local governments and civil society, eventually producing enough planting stakes for mass distribution to the population.

Salvator Kaboneka, an FAO agronomist, explains how it all began on “the mother plantation,” as he calls it, a cassava field in Mparambo, not far from Munyika. Here, on 20 hectares, FAO started planting disease free stems in 2005, initially with Belgian and American support.
Every cassava plant provides at least ten usable cuttings. At that rate, it will take only one more year to replant the 84,000 hectares of cassava this country had prior to the arrival of CMD. The mathematics are as simple as they are striking. The original 20 hectares have grown to 1600. Multiplied by ten, that will be 16,000 after the coming season, and 160,000 by the end of 2008.
At the same time, FAO embarked on a campaign to boost the capacity and efforts of individual countries in the region, launching a regional cassava initiative in 2006 with funding of several donors led by ECHO - the European Union's humanitarian aid agency - , which has contributed € 3.3 million to FAO's different cassava operations since:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Diner's ready

Burundi's northern Cibitoke province lies in the epicentre of the CMD epidemic. Its fields, barren until a year ago, now bustle with green from cassava leaves. "It's sweet, not bitter," says Ernest Nduwimana, a young farmer who lost his father during Burundi's civil war, holding up a huge cassava root he has just unearthed.

The crop was good this year, Ernest says. There is enough to feed his family until the next harvest, which he is already preparing to plant with quality cuttings from his own cassava plants. Then, after a long day, he returns home, where his mother has prepared bugari, a local dish based on cassava flour and served with beans and fish.

EU support

The European Union is one of FAO's most steadfast and generous partners in promoting sustainable rural development to improve the lives of the poor, contributing over US$ 100 million to FAO's field programme in 2007.

Working together on the ground in developing countries worldwide, improving food security in emergencies, employing research to foster food safety and quality, stimulating information-gathering to build policy, sharing know-how and involving partners in policy-making, the EU and FAO fight poverty at its root.

Cassava's potential: food and fuel
At a global conference held recently in Gent, Belgium, the FAO together with cassava scientists and food security analysts called for a significant increase in investment in research and development to boost farmers’ yields of cassava and explore promising industrial uses for the crop, including production of biofuels.

The tropical root crop could help protect both the food and energy security of poor countries now threatened by soaring food and oil prices, the congress concluded. The FAO reiterated what many tropical agronomists and development experts have said about cassava in the past (e.g. CIAT thinks cassava ethanol could benefit millions of the world's poorest farmers).

The scientists, who have formed an international network called the Global Cassava Partnership (GCP21), said the world community could not continue to ignore the plight of low-income tropical countries that have been hardest hit by rising oil prices and galloping food price inflation.

According to them, cassava has a very large potential as a food and industrial crop: at present, average yields are barely 20% of what they should be under optimum conditions and with basic inputs. The crop grows well on poor, degraded soils and in a vast agro-ecological zone.

Cassava is also the cheapest known source of starch, and used in more than 300 industrial products. One promising application is fermentation of the starch to produce ethanol used in biofuel, although FAO cautions that policies encouraging a shift to biofuel production should carefully consider its effects on food production and food security.

Cassava field residues and processing waste - such as peels, mill effluent, and the crop's woody stems - could be converted into biogas, biohydrogen or solid biomass for electricity production.

International Institute of Tropical Agriculture
(IITA) is an international non-profit R4D organization since 1967 supported primarily by the CGIAR.

The regional campaign to combat CMD was developed with technical support of FAO’s Crop and Grassland Service. The service helps FAO member countries achieve sustainable increases in production of crops and grasslands, through plant improvement, application of plant biotechnology, development of integrated production systems, and rational grassland management.

The Global Cassava Partnership for Genetic Improvement (GCP21) is an international alliance of research institutions dedicated to increase research and funding on cassava, and dedicated to develop several biotechnological tools to permit breakthroughs in the coming years, to double the cassava productivity in a 15 year time frame.

ECHO is the European Commission Humanitarian Aid agency, and one of the FAO's most loyal partners.

FAO: Cassava’s comeback - November 13, 2008.

FAO: Cassava for food and energy security - July 25, 2008.

FAO: Ernest’s dream: Farmers in Burundi are planting cassava again, with EU/FAO support - 2007

Biopact: FAO calls for boost to cassava R&D for biofuels and food - 'enormous' potential - July 26, 2008

Article continues

Friday, November 21, 2008

National Geographic documentary on terra preta and biochar: solve multiple environmental crises simultaneously

Biochar, or the sequestration of char in nutrient-poor soils to make them more fertile, is gaining interest from a growing number of conservationists, ecologists, climate activists and anthropologists because it is increasingly seen as one of the few realistic ways to tackle multiple environmental and social crises simultaneously: hunger, soil depletion, deforestation and the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services that go with it, fresh water depletion, land ownership, energy poverty and even climate change. National Geographic is the latest to focus on this almost too-good-to-be-true land use strategy, which is based on the old, very fertile "terra preta" soils that have been discovered in the Amazon.

NG's article 'Superdirt Made Lost Amazon Cities Possible?' is an introduction to a new documentary that analyses how pre-columbian Amazonian societies were built on the ingeniously engineered black soils. The film "Lost Cities of the Amazon" [video fragments here and here] builds on the recent insights that these forests may have been home to vast urban networks that sustained large populations for thousands of years. Scientists now think that the 'black gold' agriculture - the biochar these communities put in their soils - not only was the key to this sustainable way of life, but that it may help save the planet today.
Now scientists are trying to recreate the recipe for the apparently human-made supersoil, which still covers up to 10 percent of the Amazon Basin. Key ingredients included of dirt, charcoal, pottery, human excrement and other waste.

If recreated, the engineered soil could feed the hungry and may even help fight global warming, experts suggest.
Scientists have long thought the river basin's tropical soils were too acidic to grow anything but the hardiest varieties of manioc, a starch-rich root crop.

But over the past several decades, researchers have discovered tracts of productive terra preta—"dark earth." The human-made soil's chocolaty color contrasts sharply with the region's natural yellowish soils.

Research in the late 1980s was the first to show that charcoal made from slow burns of trees and woody waste is the key ingredient of terra preta.

With the increased level of agriculture made possible by terra preta, ancient Amazonians would have been able to live in one place for long periods of time, says geographer and anthropologist William Woods of the University of Kansas, who studies ancient Amazonian settlements.
As a result you get social stratification, hierarchy, intertwined settlement systems, very large scale. And then 1492 happens. The arrival of Europeans brought disease and warfare that obliterated the ancient Amazonian civilizations and sent the few survivors deep into the rain forest to live as hunter-gatherers. It completely changed their way of living. - Professor Woods
Magic Soil?
Today scientists are racing to tease apart the terra-preta recipe. The special soil has been touted as a way to restore more sustainable farming to the Amazon, feed the world's hungry, and combat global warming.

The terra-preta charcoal, called biochar, attracts certain fungi and microorganisms. Those tiny life-forms allow the charcoal to absorb and retain nutrients that keep the soil fertile for hundreds of years, said Woods, whose team is among a few trying to identify the crucial microorganisms:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

"The materials that go into the terra preta are just part of the story. The living member of it is much more," he said. For one thing, the microorganisms break up the charcoal into smaller pieces, creating more surface area for nutrients to cling to, Woods said.

Anti-Global-Warming Weapon?

Soil scientist Johannes Lehmann of Cornell University is also racing to recreate terra preta.

The Amazonian dark soils, he said, are hundreds to thousands of years old, yet to this day they retain their nutrients and carbons, which are held mainly by the charcoal.

This suggests that adding biochar could help other regions of the world with acidic soils to increase agricultural yields.

Plus, Lehmann said, biochar could help reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions released into the atmosphere from the burning of wild lands to create new farm fields. (Learn how greenhouse gas emissions may worsen global warming.)

For example, specialized power plants could char agricultural wastes to generate electricity.

The process would "lock" much carbon that would have otherwise escaped into the atmosphere in the biochar. The biochar could then be put underground, in a new form of terra preta, thereby sequestering the carbon for centuries, Lehmann suggests.

Current Amazonian farming relies heavily on slash-and-burn agriculture—razing forests, then burning all of what's left.

By reverting to the ancient slash-and-char method—burning slowly and then mixing the charcoal into the soil—Amazonian carbon dioxide emissions could be cut nearly in half, according to Woods, of the University of Kansas.

With slash-and-burn, he noted, 95 percent of the carbon stored in a tree is emitted to the atmosphere. Slash-and-char emits about 50 percent, he said.

"The rest is put into different forms of black carbon, most of which are chemically inert for long periods of time—thousands of years."

In addition, the technique would allow many farmers to stay sedentary, Woods said.

Because the soil would apparently remain fertile for centuries, "they don't have to cut down the forest constantly and send it up into the atmosphere," he said.

National Geographic: Superdirt Made Lost Amazon Cities Possible? - November 19, 2008.

National Geographic: Ancient Amazon Cities Found; Were Vast Urban Network - August 28, 2008.

University of California at Los Angeles: Susanna Hecht

University of Florida: Michael Heckenberger

University of Kansas: William Woods

Cornell University: Johannes Lehmann

Article continues

Two breakthroughs in rice science: flood-tolerance and drought-tolerance boost yields

Rice, the world's most important staple crop, recently was the subject of a tremendous speculative boom-and-bust cycle, with prices going through the roof a few months ago, and collapsing today. This volatility leaves both small farmers and entire states vulnerable. However, two scientific breakthroughs in rice crop science may give producers and consumers alike a new weapon against this volatility. They may also go a far way in solving hunger.

In a first development, scientists from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) report that they have found a way to "waterproof" versions of popular varieties of rice, which can withstand 2 weeks of complete submergence. This can double crop output and can save millions of tonnes of rice from losses, which is enough to feed tens of millions of people. In another exciting breakthrough, a PhD student at the University of Alberta found a way to make upland rice double its yield in dry areas, where the crop is grown by some of the world's poorest.

In short, two of the biggest problems - flood intolerance and drought intolerance - associated with the two most common rice growing techniques - paddy and upland - have been solved. Interestingly, the the water-proof crops are not genetically modified, but created by precision breeding.


The waterproof rice crops have passed tests in farmers' fields with flying colors (see time-laps video for a short-cut). Several of these varieties are now close to official release by national and state seed certification agencies in Bangladesh and India, where farmers suffer major crop losses because of flooding of up to 4 million tons of rice per year. This is enough rice to feed 30 million people.

The flood-tolerant versions of the so-called "mega-varieties" — high-yielding varieties popular with both farmers and consumers that are grown over huge areas across Asia — are effectively identical to their susceptible counterparts, but recover after severe flooding to yield well.

A 1-9 November tour of research stations and farms in Bangladesh and India led by David Mackill, senior rice breeder at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), marked the successful completion of the project titled "From genes to farmers' fields: enhancing and stabilizing productivity of rice in submergence-prone environments", funded for the past 5 years by Germany's German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).

The new varieties were made possible following the identification of a single gene that is responsible for most of the submergence tolerance. Thirteen years ago, Dr. Mackill, then at the University of California (UC) at Davis, and Kenong Xu, his graduate student, pinpointed the gene in a low-yielding traditional Indian rice variety known to withstand flooding. Xu subsequently worked as a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Pamela Ronald, a UC Davis professor, and they isolated the specific gene—called Sub1A—and demonstrated that it confers tolerance to normally intolerant rice plants. Dr. Ronald's team showed that the gene is switched on when the plants are submerged:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

A geneticist from UC Riverside, Julia Bailey-Serres, is leading the work to determine exactly how Sub1A confers flood tolerance. "Sub1A effectively makes the plant dormant during submergence, allowing it to conserve energy until the floodwaters recede," said Dr. Bailey-Serres.

Typically, rice plants will extend the length of their leaves and stem in an attempt to escape submergence. The Sub1A gene is an evolutionarily new gene in rice found in only a small proportion of the rice varieties originating from eastern India and Sri Lanka. The activation of this gene under submergence counteracts the escape strategy.

"This project has been a great success, not only in its results but also in the truly international collaboration that made the project possible," said Dr. Mackill, referring to the several national organizations, including the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute, India's Central Rice Research Institute and Narendra Dev University of Agriculture and Technology.
The potential for impact is huge. In Bangladesh, for example, 20% of the rice land is flood prone and the country typically suffers several major floods each year. Submergence-tolerant varieties could make major inroads into Bangladesh's annual rice shortfall and substantially reduce its import needs. - Dr. Mackill
Using modern techniques that allow breeders to do much of their work in the lab rather than the field, Dr. Mackill and his team at IRRI were able to precisely transfer Sub1A into high-yielding varieties without affecting the characteristics—such as high yield, good grain quality, and pest and disease resistance—that made the varieties popular in the first place.
The impact is evident for farm families as well as at a national production level. To be part of this project as it has moved from a lab in California to rice fields in Asia has been inspiring and underscores the power of science to improve people's lives. - Dr. Ronald
Because plants developed through this "precision breeding," known as marker-assisted selection, are not genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the new Sub1 varieties are not subject to the regulatory testing that can delay release of GMOs for several years.

Once Sub1 varieties are officially released within the next 2 years, the key will be dissemination to smallholder farmers in flood-prone areas. IRRI is leading this initiative through a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

From too much water, to not enough of it: Jerome Bernier, a PhD student in the University of Alberta Department of Agricultural, Food and Nutritional Science, has found a group of genes in rice that enables a yield of up to 100 per cent more in severe drought conditions. Doubling the output of these upland rice crops is a major step forward for some of the world's poorest, who try to grow the crop in the most distressed areas.

The discovery marks the first time this group of genes in rice has been identified, and could potentially bring relief to farmers in countries like India and Thailand, where rice crops are regularly faced with drought. Rice is the number one crop consumed by humans annually.

The results of the study were published recently in the plant sciences journal Euphytica. Bernier's research began four years ago and focused on upland rice, which, unlike the majority of rice crops, grows in non-flooded, dry fields. "If drought hits, the yield can drop to almost nothing," Bernier said. He too conducted his research at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, in conjunction with scientists there and in India.

He started with 126 genetic markers and narrowed his search to a group of genes that had the desired impact. In very severe drought conditions, rice strains with the new genes were shown to produce twice as those strains that did not have the genes. The new genes stimulate the rice plants to develop deeper roots, enabling it to access more of the water stored in the soil.

"For subsistence farmers who rely on the crop to feed their families, this extra yield can make a world of difference," said Bernier.

Less loss to drought may also mean an increased supply of rice globally, said Dean Spaner, Bernier's project supervisor and a professor of agricultural, food and nutritional science at the University of Alberta.

The young scientist's research was funded in part by the Canadian International Development Agency and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research.

The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) is the world's leading rice research and training center. Based in the Philippines, with offices in 13 other countries, IRRI is an autonomous, nonprofit institution focused on improving the well-being of present and future generations of rice farmers and consumers, particularly those with low incomes, while preserving natural resources.

IRRI is one of 15 centers funded through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), an association of public and private donor agencies.

Time-lapse video: courtesy of IRRI.

Jérôme Bernier, et al. "Characterization of the effect of a QTL for drought resistance in rice, qtl12.1, over a range of environments in the Philippines and eastern India", Euphytica, Wednesday, October 01, 2008, DOI 10.1007/s10681-008-9826-y

International Rice Research Institute: Waterproof rice provides flood relief for poor farmers - dedicated video page.

International Rice Research Institute: Rice Library and Rice Knowledge Bank.

Article continues

Thursday, November 20, 2008

EU shifts farm subsidies from production to rural development, climate change and bioenergy

The EU's Council has come to an agreement that will help reform the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). It shifts subsidies away from agricultural production and towards conservation, the fight against climate change and bioenergy. A key aim is to make agriculture more responsive to market forces and to avoid overproduction of food. Liberalisation of the milk sector and a phase out of quota was agreed on too. Importantly, the set-aside rule is abolished, as is an energy crop premium.

Negotiations began under the Slovene Presidency with the publication of Commission proposals last May and ended between the 27 Member States late last night, following European Parliament’s opinion which was given the same morning.

The agreement mainly covers the following points:
Shifting money from direct aid to Rural Development: Currently, all farmers receiving more than €5,000 in direct aid have their payments reduced by 5 percent and the money is transferred into the Rural Development budget. This rate will be increased to 10 percent by 2012. An additional cut of 4 percent will be made on payments above €300,000 a year. The funding obtained this way may be used by Member States to reinforce programmes in the fields identified as "key challenges": (1) climate change, (2) bioenergy, (3) water management, (4) biodiversity, (5) innovation linked to the previous four points and (6) for accompanying measures in the dairy sector. This transferred money will be co-financed by the EU at a rate of 75 percent and 90 percent in convergence regions where average GDP is lower.

Phasing out milk quotas: As milk quotas will expire by April 2015 a 'soft landing' is ensured by increasing quotas by one percent every year between 2009/10 and 2013/14. For Italy, the 5 percent increase will be introduced immediately in 2009/10. In 2009/10 and 2010/11, farmers who exceed their milk quotas by more than 6 percent will have to pay a levy 50 percent higher than the normal penalty.

Decoupling of support: The CAP reform "decoupled" direct aid to farmers i.e. payments were no longer linked to the production of a specific product. However, some Member States chose to maintain some "coupled" – i.e. production-linked - payments. These remaining coupled payments will now be decoupled and moved into the Single Payment Scheme, with the exception of suckler cow, goat and sheep premia, where Member States may maintain current levels of coupled support.

Assistance to sectors with special problems ('Article 68' measures): Currently, Member States may retain by sector 10 percent of their national budget ceilings for direct payments for use for environmental measures or improving the quality and marketing of products in that sector. This possibility will become more flexible. The money will no longer have to be used in the same sector; it may be used to help farmers producing milk, beef, goat and sheep meat and rice in disadvantaged regions or vulnerable types of farming; it may also be used to support risk management measures such as insurance schemes for natural disasters and mutual funds for animal diseases; and countries operating the SAPS system will become eligible for the scheme.

Extending SAPS: EU members applying the simplified Single Area Payment Scheme will be allowed to continue to do so until 2013 instead of being forced into the Single Payment Scheme by 2010.

Additional funding for EU-12 farmers: €90 million will be allocated to the EU-12 to make it easier for them to make use of Article 68 until direct payments to their farmers have been fully phased in.

Using currently unspent money: Member States applying the Single Payment Scheme will be allowed either to use currently unused money from their national envelope for Article 68 measures or to transfer it into the Rural Development Fund.

Investment aid for young farmers: Investment aid for young farmers under Rural Development will be increased from €55,000 to €70,000.

Abolition of set-aside: The requirement for arable farmers to leave 10 percent of their land fallow is abolished. This will allow them to maximise their production potential.

Cross Compliance: Aid to farmers is linked to the respect of environmental, animal welfare and food quality standards. Farmers who do not respect the rules face cuts in their support. This so-called Cross Compliance will be simplified, by withdrawing standards that are not relevant or linked to farmer responsibility. New requirements will be added to retain the environmental benefits of set-aside and improve water management.

Intervention mechanisms: Market supply measures should not slow farmers' ability to respond to market signals. Intervention will be abolished for pig meat and set at zero for barley and sorghum. For wheat, intervention purchases will be possible during the intervention period at the price of €101.31/tonne up to 3 million tonnes. Beyond that, it will be done by tender. For butter and skimmed milk powder, limits will be 30,000 tonnes and 109,000 tonnes respectively, beyond which intervention will be by tender.

Payment limitations: Member States should apply a minimum payment per farm of €250, or for a minimum size of 1 hectare or both. Alternatively, they may apply a coefficient on 250€ and 1ha, based on the comparison between the EU average farm size and payment and the national average.

Energy crop premium: The energy crop premium will be abolished.
The outcome of this dossier is the result of intense and effective dialogue and coordination led by the Presidency (currently: France) with the Member States, the European Commission and European Parliament:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The ministers of the 27 also reached an agreement on the proposed free distribution of fruit and vegetables in schools. An innovative project, this new mechanism, whose budget amounts to over €90 million, will contribute to improving the balanced diet of the youngest.

The agreement is part of a substantial reform of the CAP, dubbed a "health check", that has been going on for the past few years. The new changes build on a major CAP reform enacted in 2003, which broke the link between farm production and subsidies.

Critics say the EU's subsidies distort world markets and harm farmers in developing countries, by guaranteeing prices for farmers in the EU.

Before the 2003 reforms, which "decoupled" subsidies from production, the EU was widely criticised for the accumulation of butter mountains and wine lakes.

The CAP is the EU's single biggest expenditure item, accounting for about 45% of its budget. In 2006, total CAP spending was €50 billion, seriously distorting world agricultural markets.

European Commission, DG Agriculture: Agriculture: CAP Health Check will help farmers meet new challenges - November 20, 2008.

Presidency of the Council (France): Agriculture and Fisheries Council: ministers set to conclude the health check of the CAP - November 18, 2008.

Article continues

Nexterra Energy to supply biomass gasification system to Kruger Products paper mill in New Westminster BC

Nexterra Energy Corp. announced that is has been selected by Kruger Products Ltd. to supply a biomass gasification system for its tissue mill in New Westminster, British Columbia. The new system will be the first of its kind in the pulp and paper industry. It will greatly reduce GHG emissions, and save Kruger millions by limiting the use of expensive fossil fuels. Interestingly, the mill is situated right in the heart of the city, with waterfront high rise condos only a few blocks from the mill (picture, click to enlarge). This unusual situation has prompted Nexterra to design one of the cleanest biomass power plants ever.

Kruger Products Ltd. is Canada’s leading paper tissue manufacturer. The company operates facilities in Quebec, Ontario, Alberta, British Columbia, Newfoundland and Labrador, in the United States and the United Kingdom. It has 9,000 employees.

Nexterra’s turnkey gasification system will convert locally sourced wood residue into clean burning syngas that will be fired directly into a boiler in place of natural gas. The Kruger installation will produce 40,000 lbs/hour of process steam and displace approximately 445,000 gigajoules (GJs) of natural gas annually. This is equivalent to the amount of natural gas used to heat 3,500 homes in Canada for a year.

Displacing this amount of natural gas with syngas made from wood fuel will lower the mill’s energy costs by millions of dollars a year, making the mill less reliant on fossil fuels. It will also reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the plant by more than 22,000 tonnes per year, the equivalent of removing nearly 5,500 cars off Canadian roads.

A quick look at some basic facts about the pulp and paper industry show the potential for a transition to highly efficient and clean biomass gasification systems:
  • Canada has 122 pulp and paper mills in operation.
  • The industry employs approximately 47,000 thousand people (number for 2006)
  • British Columbia has 21 pulp and paper mills in operation employing around 8,000 people.
  • The pulp and paper industry is facing tough times: energy costs are the largest expenditure for the P&P industry. For mills, lowering their energy costs can make the difference between continuing or suspending operations.
  • A transition to a biomass technology comparable to Nexterra's gasification significantly lowers operating costs by millions per year, as it intervenes directly in the most important cost-factor for mills (one gigajoule of natural gas costs $6-$10)
  • According to Nexterra, its technology makes the P&P industry more competitive against tough competition from South America, where operating and resources costs are lower, wages are lower, and trees grow faster (roughly 60 years in B.C. versus 7 years there) using 1/5 to 1/8 the land area producers in Canada need
Potential environmental effects:
  • British Columbia’s P&P industry alone produces roughly 1million tons of GHG per year
  • If only 30 per cent of B.C. P&P mills use this technology to displace just 50 per cent of their fossil fuel use, it will reduce GHG emission by 200,000 tonnes annually.
  • Nexterra’s technology uses sustainably sourced wood waste from a wide range of non-forest sources such as construction, tree trimmings, and others.
Interestingly, the technology of direct firing of syngas can displace up to 100 per cent of fossil fuels in industrial boilers and lime kilns. This has implications for other industries:
  • The mining industry can use it in calciners and smelters.
  • Municipalities can use it for energy intensive bio-solids drying at waste treatment plants (in this application, the technology would yield a useful fertilizer and reduce landfill waste)
  • The gypsum industry could use it for dryers (20-30 per cent of their cost too is energy.)
  • Each of these carbon-intensive industries would significantly lower their operating costs and carbon footprint.
Kruger, Nexterra and FPInnovations have formed a consortium to build the new system, the first commercial demonstration of Nexterra’s direct fired gasification solution (schematic, click to enlarge). The project has received support from Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), the British Columbia Innovative Clean Energy (ICE) Fund and Ethanol BC:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Earlier this year, Nexterra announced the successful completion of a two-year testing program to confirm that direct firing of syngas can displace up to 100 per cent of the fossil fuels in industrial boilers and lime kilns (previous post). The Kruger mill is the first to go full scale and commerical with Nexterra's technology. The project is the first to receive B.C. ICE Fund support.
B.C.’s Innovative Clean Energy (ICE) Fund invested in this project because it benefits industry, the environment and the people of B.C. It speaks to the potential of B.C.’s clean technology sector to help our industries lower costs and remain competitive, while also significantly lowering their carbon footprint. - Ida Chong, Minister of Technology, Trade and Economic Development
Jim Dangerfield of FPInnovations said advancements to Nexterra’s gasification technology makes the switch from fossil fuels to syngas an attractive option for many of North America’s pulp and paper mills and other industrial sites.

Nexterra’s direct fired gasification system is a platform technology that can be used in many industrial applications. Replicating the technology at industrial sites throughout B.C. could result in an estimated 200,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emission reductions in British Columbia annually by 2020.

Earlier Nexterra was selected by Johnson Controls for the multi-million dollar biomass gasification system at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) located in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The ORNL recently chose biomass as the renewable energy source to power its campuses (previous post).

About the partners

Kruger Products, a wholly owned subsidiary of Kruger Inc., is Canada’s leading tissue manufacturer. Kruger Inc. is a major producer of publication papers, tissue, lumber and other wood products, corrugated cartons from recycled fibers, green and renewable energy and wines and spirits. The company is also a leader in paper and paperboard recycling in North America. Kruger operates facilities in Quebec, Ontario, Alberta, British Columbia, Newfoundland and Labrador, in the United States and the United Kingdom and has 9,000 employees.

Nexterra Energy is a leading developer and supplier of advanced gasification systems that enable customers to self-generate clean, low cost heat and/or power using waste fuels "inside-the fence" at institutional and industrial facilities. Nexterra gasification systems provide a unique combination of attributes including design simplicity, reliability, versatility, ultra-low emissions, low cost and full automation to provide customers with a superior value proposition compared to conventional solutions. Nexterra is a private company based in Vancouver, B.C.

Founded on April 1, 2007, FPInnovations brought together Feric, Forintek, Paprican and the Canadian Wood Fibre Centre of Natural Resources Canada, to create the world’s largest private, not-for-profit forest research institute. With over 600 employees located across Canada, it united the individual strengths of each of these internationally recognized forest research and development institutes into a single, greater force. FPInnovations is defining the future of forest sector research through: leadership in forestry; innovation in wood products; and creativity in pulp, paper and beyond.

Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) puts innovative science and technology to work so Canada’s natural resources sector can continue to contribute to our quality of life, now and in the future. It implements the Government of Canada’s ecoENERGY initiatives.

The mandate of B.C. Government's ICE Fund is to accelerate the development of new energy technologies that have the potential to solve real, everyday energy and environmental issues and create significant socio-economic benefits for all British Columbians. ICE Fund investments address specific BC energy and environmental problems, showcase B.C. technologies that have a strong potential for international market, support new pre-commercial energy technology, and demonstrate commercial success for new energy technologies.

Ethanol BC is a non-profit R&D funding organization administered by FPInnovations. Grant funding comes from a unique tax shifting mechanism established under regulation by the provincial government. The program effectively allows forest companies operating bee-hive incinerators to pay a portion of their permit fees to Ethanol BC. These funds in turn are used to spur research and demonstration of new technologies that will ultimately utilize mill wood residues that are now being incinerated as waste.

Nexterra: Nexterra Energy to Supply Biomass Gasification System to Kruger Products Paper Mill in New Westminster BC Direct Fired Boiler Application Marks Industry First - November 19, 2008.

Biopact: Nexterra biomass gasification ready to displace up to 60% fossil fuels in lime kilns, 100% in boilers - August 19, 2008

Biopact: Nexterra receives order for biomass gasification system at Oak Ridge National Laboratory - reduces 30,000t GHGs, saves $8.7m per year - September 12, 2008

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Professor Flannery: emissions trading insufficient, world needs biological means to scrub CO2 out of atmosphere

A few days ago some of the world's leading climate scientists wrote that we need to be far more active in cutting carbon emissions, urgently. Currently, atmospheric CO2 levels are at 383ppm and we need to go back to 350ppm if we want to keep the planet liveable. This implies a range of technologies that actively remove CO2 from the atmosphere, such as biochar, reforestation and carbon-negative bioenergy (i.e. biomass coupled to CCS). Now professor Tim Flannery, chairman of the Copenhagen Climate Council and the Australian equivalent of Al Gore, joins in saying we must use biological means to tackle a crisis that could otherwise end in a catastrophe much earlier than expected.

Professor Flannery recently addressed two global warming conferences, during which he warned that the world needs innovative, biological ways to reduce carbon dioxide as emissions trading by itself isn't nearly enough to address the climate crisis. Global warming risks presenting us with a sudden climate shift triggered by events such as a rapid release of methane from melting permafrost. If such an event happens, there is nothing man can do. This is why we need to act now. The potential costs of inaction are far too great.
I suspect that within the next decade, we are likely to see some dramatic climate shift [...] It will be swift and it will have many unintended consequences. The problem is a lot closer than we imagined.
Flannery, who is a professor of Environmental and Life Sciences at Macquarie University, and author of the best-selling book The Weather Makers - The History and Future Impact of Climate Change, urges us to begin applying, on a massive scale, technologies such as the creation of biochar that permanently stores carbon into soils, making them more resilient and fertile at the same time. Producing biochar and making soils double as anthropogenic carbon sinks, would sequester atmospheric CO2 in a stable form for hundreds or thousands of years and can be combined with the production of bioenergy:
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Professor Flannery said that biochar is one of the most straightforward, low-cost and low-impact strategies for mitigating climate change. The technique comes down to enhancing the world's vast natural capacity to suck carbon out of the atmosphere. "There is enormous potential here, and we need that potential if we are to have any hope of beating the problem."

Referring to the need to avoid dangerous climate shifts and their irreversible consequences - such as the feedback loops of a melting of the permafrost or a breakdown of major ice-sheets and loss of albedo - Flannery said that emissions trading schemes are "absolutely necessary" but "will not be sufficient" in themselves.

The new Australian government wants to implement an emissions trading scheme akin to the European ETS, but Flannery said this model has not proven to work optimally, nor fast enough. "There has been no impact in Europe and there is likely to be a small impact if any in Australia in my view," he said.

If we don't invest in biochar or other rapidly replicable carbon sequestration efforts, more radical potential solutions such as injecting sulfur into the atmosphere to lower temperatures may have to be considered to avoid catastrophic climate change, the expert concluded.

Professor Flannery's endorsement of biochar comes simultaneously with Professor James Hansen's support for the idea. This gives a boost to the small 'biochar community' that has sprung up in recent times, and which mainly consists of ecologists, conservationists, soil scientists, agronomists and bioenergy specialists.


Professor Flannery: The Weather Makers: The History and Future Impact of Climate Change - dedicated website.

The Copenhagen Climate Council, a group of scientists and institutions drawing attention to the importance of next year's COP-15 in Copenhagen.

Bloomberg: World Needs Biological Ways of Cutting Carbon, Scientist Says - October 31, 2008.

The Herald Sun: Tim Flannery says emissions trading scheme too little, too late - October 30, 2008.

Biopact: Scientists suggest carbon dioxide levels already in danger zone - urge investments in carbon-negative energy, biochar - November 10, 2008

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The soil as non-renewable resource: acid soils in Slovakia tell somber tale

Increasing levels of nitrogen deposition associated with industry and agriculture can drive soils toward a toxic level of acidification, reducing soil fertility, plant growth and polluting surface waters, according to a new study published online in Nature Geoscience.

The study, conducted in the Tatra Mountains of Slovakia by the University of Colorado, University of Montana, Slovak Academy of Sciences, and the U.S. Geological Survey, shows what can happen when nitrogen deposition in any part of the world increases to certain levels – levels similar to those projected to occur in parts of Europe by 2050, according to some global change models.

On the basis of these results, the authors warn that the high levels of nitrogen deposited in Europe and North America over the past half century already may have left many soils susceptible to this new stage of acidification. The results of this further acidification, wrote the authors, are highly reduced soil fertility and leaching of acids and toxic metals into surface waters.

A long history of human-influenced nitrogen deposition has left soils in the Western Tatra Mountains of Slovakia highly acidic. The study reveals that the increased nitrogen load in the region triggers the release of soluble iron into alpine grassland soils. This iron release is indicative of extreme soil acidification, comparable to conditions seen in soils exposed to acid mine drainage.

Recovery from such extreme chemical change could only occur in geologic time, which is why soil is considered a non-renewable resource, said USGS scientist Jill Baron, who helped analyze and interpret the study results.

In addition to this research, Dr. Baron has investigated the impacts of nitrogen deposition in Rocky Mountain National Park for 26 years. The Rocky Mountains and the Tatra Mountains represent the two ends of the atmospheric deposition effects trajectory, Dr. Baron said. The effects of nitrogen deposition in Rocky Mountain National Park are just beginning to be observed, allowing resource managers the opportunity to help the region recover if deposition is reduced. In the Tatra Mountains National Park, however, soils are far beyond natural recovery in human time frames:
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Much of the eastern U.S. and Northern Europe fall in the middle of the effects spectrum, she added.

Rocky Mountain and Tatra National Parks are sister parks, with scientists and managers beginning to cooperate in studies to understand both. Dr. Baron's work in Rocky Mountain National Park led to the establishment of a nitrogen threshold for the park in 2006, the first time the nation has established a critical load of a pollutant for any park environment.

An agreement in 2007 between the Environmental Protection Agency, National Park Service, and Colorado Department of Health and Environment enabled the agencies to set target loads for reducing nitrogen emissions by 2012 to improve ecological conditions.

Image: Western Tatra Mountains Slovakia. Credit: photo by Zdeno Kostka; courtesy of William D. Bowman, University of Colorado.

William D. Bowman, Cory C. Cleveland, Halada, Juraj Hres and Jill S. Baron, "Negative impact of nitrogen deposition on soil buffering capacity", Nature Geoscience 1, 767 - 770, Published online: 2 November 2008 | doi:10.1038/ngeo339

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

How to turn coal plants into climate-solution machines

Interesting developments in both solar thermal and bioenergy allow us to envision a relatively low-cost future of carbon-negative baseload power. The more energy one would use from this power plant, the more one would be solving the climate crisis. Read that again: the more you consume, the better for the planet. Best of all, 'negative emissions energy' can be done by taking over the enemy: coal-fired power plants into which we plug renewables and CCS.

Climate blogger Joseph Romm spoke with an expert on solar thermal energy, who pointed out that two utilities have just announced they will test the use of solar thermal to add steam into the steam cycle of natural gas plants. The trials will happen under the auspices of the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). But EPRI plans to “add solar thermal technology to coal-powered plants as well.” Why?
In addition to reducing costs and greenhouse gas emissions, EPRI believes that solar thermal technology could also boost coal and natural gas power enough in existing plants to eliminate the need for new infrastructure.
Romm goes on to note that this combination is not quite as cost-effective yet as biomass co-firing, but if it proves to be viable commercially, we can begin to think of coal plants as basic infrastructures that can be transformed into ever cleaner power plants. The end-goal would be power plants that generate carbon-negative energy, that is, energy which helps withdraw CO2 from the atmosphere.

Here's how one would procede:
1. Look for a dirty coal plant located in an optimal place: (1) close enough to a zone suitable for the construction of a solar thermal plant; (2) close enough to a region that provides sustainably sourced biomass; (3) close enough to potential geosequestration sites. The first of these is a prerequisite; the other two are flexible choices, because both biomass as well as captured CO2 can be transported over fairly long distances.

2. Begin with co-firing torrefied biomass pellets. Torrefied biomass - a new kid on the green block - gives the fuel a higher energy density and allows it to be transported over much longer distances than ordinary biomass; it can be stored like coal without the need for new infrastructures; it requires less energy to be crushed than ordinary biomass but also than coal, and can make use of the same grinding infrastructures as those used for coal; torrefied biomass can be readily co-fired at very large fractions. Co-firing torrefied biomass is the most straightforward and affordable way to cut emissions from existing coal plants.

3. When this operation is up and running, add solar thermal steam. The biomass and coal would provide the baseload for the intermittent solar thermal energy.

4. Gradually increase the biomass fraction to a ratio higher than 50% of all the carbon used as fuel in the power plant. So we can keep using coal, but simply much less of it. Keep adding biomass and solar steam until emissions from this power plant begin to near zero. Victory is in sight. We have a carbon-neutral baseload power plant.

5. But carbon-neutrality is not enough. More important actions are still ahead. By now carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technologies should be commercially viable, and carbon prices on the market should allow the technology to be implemented without pushing up costs too much. So we add a CCS infrastructure to our hybrid power plant. This CCS infrastructure would capture and store CO2 from biomass, and make the power plant carbon-negative, instead of merely carbon-neutral.

Research has shown that such a carbon-negative biomass plant can withdraw huge amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere. Whereas ordinary renewables like solar, wind or hydro all add small amounts of CO2 to the atmosphere - between 10 and 100 tons of CO2/GWh -, bioenergy + CCS can withdraw a whopping 1000 tons of CO2 per GWh from the atmosphere (figure, click to enlarge).

Obviously, the strategy of taking over coal-fired power plants and turning them into climate-solution machines would come at an additional cost, but it would allow us to phase out coal, and actively trap and sequester CO2 from the atmosphere. This is a requirement if we ever want to go back to 350ppm, as leading climate scientists say we must.

The alternatives to capturing and storing atmospheric CO2 while generating electricity are all much more expensive (except, perhaps, for biochar produced in dedicated plants, with the char sequestered into soils). The advantages of the above strategy are that existing infrastructures can be used. This could be more feasible than building new ones or than betting our future on risky and exotic geo-engineering concepts.
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President-elect Obama vows action on climate change

US President-elect Barack Obama on Tuesday vowed he would "engage vigorously" in global climate change talks and that denial was no longer an acceptable response to global warming. The approach of the new administration will mark a much-needed and dramatic change from the previous one, which held off any international cooperation on the issue.

Obama said in a surprise video message to a summit of US state governors on climate change here that he would show new leadership on the issue as soon as he takes office in January.

The president-elect also addressed his message directly to delegates at United Nations climate change talks in Poland next month.
While I won't be president at the time of your meeting, and while the United States has only one president at a time, I've asked members of Congress who are attending the conference as observers to report back to me on what they learn there.

And once I take office, you can be sure that the United States will once again engage vigorously in these negotiations, and help lead the world toward a new era of global cooperation on climate change.

Now is the time to confront this challenge once and for all. Delay is no longer an option. Denial is no longer an acceptable response. The stakes are too high. The consequences, too serious.
The message was made available on the Obama-Biden Transition website change.gov.

The United Nations Climate Change Conference in Poznań, to be held from 1 to 12 December, will be a milestone on the road to success for the processes which were launched under the Bali Road Map. The meeting comes midway between COP 13 in Bali, which saw the launch of negotiations on strengthened international action on climate change, and COP 15 Copenhagen, at which the negotiations are set to conclude. [Entry ends here.]
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UNFCCC: emissions in industrialized countries continue to rise - up 2.3% from 2000 to 2006

Two weeks ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference in Poznan, Poland, the UN Climate Change Secretariat in Bonn has reported that greenhouse gas emissions in industrialized countries continue to rise. Data submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) shows that emissions of 40 industrialized countries that have greenhouse gas reporting obligations under the Convention remained in 2006 below the 1990 level by about 5%, but rose by 2.3 percent in the time-frame 2000 to 2006.

For the smaller group of those industrialized countries that have ratified the Kyoto Protocol, emissions in 2006 were about 17% below the Kyoto baseline, but still growing after the year 2000. The initial decrease in Kyoto countries’ emissions mainly came about through the economic decline of economies in transition (countries in eastern and central Europe) in the 1990s.

Meanwhile, the biggest recent increase in emissions of industrialized countries has come from economies in transition - the Eastern European bloc -, which have seen a rise of 7.4% in greenhouse gas emissions within the 2000 to 2006 time-frame. The worst culprit, however, has been Canada. Its emissions since 1990 have shot up 21.3% while they should have fallen 6%.

16 of the highly industrialized countries were on their Kyoto target in 2006, whereas 20 were not (table, click to enlarge).

The figures clearly underscore the urgency for the UN negotiating process to make good progress in Poznan and move forward quickly in designing a new agreement to respond to the challenge of climate change,” said Yvo de Boer, Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC.

The UN'’s top climate change official also noted that accounting data, including emission quotas for the Kyoto commitment period 2008–-2012, have been finalized for almost all Kyoto countries. Such data are already used in emissions trading conducted by countries in accordance with the rules established by the Kyoto Protocol:
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“Emission quotas defined by the Kyoto Protocol are no longer simple numbers on paper – they are part of real-time operation of the global carbon market,” said Yvo de Boer. “We see the carbon market working and this is an important message, not least for the Poznan meeting,” he added.

The UN Climate Change Conference in Poznan (1-12 December) constitutes the half-way mark of a two-year negotiating process, set to culminate in an ambitious international climate change deal in Copenhagen next year.

In Poland, negotiators will take stock of the progress made in the first year of the talks and map out what needs to be done to reach agreement at the end of 2009. The meeting will also be an important opportunity for ministers to determine the key ingredients of a shared vision on long-term cooperation to address climate change.

UNFCC: Press briefing on Key Greenhouse Gas Data and expected outcomes of Poznań - 17 November 2008.

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