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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, March 24, 2007

Researchers develop bioplastic that breaks down into biodiesel after use

Another interesting development is underway in the 'bioeconomy': in an effort to develop a new source of sustainable energy, researchers at New York's Polytechnic University have bioengineered a fuel-latent plastic that can be converted into biodiesel after its use.

The new plastic is made from plant oils and has remarkable properties, such as being tougher and more durable than petroleum-based polyethylenes. Additionally, the bioplastic can be placed in a simple container where it is safely broken down to liquid fuel, ready for use in cars. The concept thus shortcuts a costly waste-management process and simplifies fuel logistics. The innovation clearly illustrates the cyclical nature of the bioeconomy: the 'waste'-stream of one bioproduct becomes the feedstock for another bioproduct. In such a circular, cradle-to-cradle concept, there is no real 'waste'.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has awarded the researchers US$2.34 million to advance this innovative technology. The military is very interested because, when on campaign, army units produce vast waste-streams that are not treated and pollute the environment, whereas fuel logistics are often problematic. With the new plastic, both problems are solved at once.

The commercialization of the technology will also lead to a new source of green energy for households worldwide.

Professor Richard Gross, director of Polytechnic University's National Science Foundation (NSF) Center for Biocatalysis and Bioprocessing of Macromolecules (CBBM) developed the new bioplastic using vegetable oils. He also partnered with DNA 2.0, a biotechnology company specializing in gene synthesis, to develop enzymes that can both synthesize and break the fuel-latent plastic down into biodiesel after its use:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

"Polytechnic University has a long history of innovation, and we are confident Professor Gross' research will revolutionize how we produce and consume biofuels," noted Jerry M. Hultin, president of Polytechnic University. "Gassing up at the pump could be part of the past thanks to the possibility of this research."

The process of converting biogengineered fuel-latent plastics into biodiesel is of interest to DARPA since the U.S. military can use this technology on the frontline.

"Military units generate substantial quantities of packaging waste when engaging in stationary field operations. If we can turn this waste into fuel, we will see a double benefit - we will reduce the amount of waste that we have to remove, and we will reduce the amount of new fuel that we must deliver to the units," explained Khine Latt, program manager for DARPA's Mobile Integrated Sustainable Energy Recovery program.

The next phase of the research will entail developing a more efficient low-cost process for both manufacturing the bioplastic and converting it into biodiesel. The personal generation of biodiesel is an important step in developing green technologies and reducing waste.

Bioplastics are most often associated with sugar and starchy feedtocks, from which polylactic acid is obtained, the building block for a particular kind of biodegradable plastic (earlier post). But more and more, plant oils are being used as well (an example).

Article continues

Algae company AlgoDyne invests in miscanthus

AlgoDyne Ethanol Energy Inc., the biofuel company that earlier said it found a technology to harvest algae blooms from the open ocean (previous post), has meanwhile acquired approximately 800 acres (324ha) of agricultural land in Saskatchewan to grow terrestrial biomass. The company now announces it has decided to increase the total amount of land to up to 3000 acres (1215ha) to grow bioenergy crops such as miscanthus.

At the Biopact we give algae companies the benefit of the doubt, even though we remain skeptical about the feasibility and efficiency of large-scale biofuel production from micro-organisms (earlier post). AlgoDyne is not the first company to silently invest in ordinary energy crops as it discreetly phases out the algae venture.

Again, the company says it made a 'discovery', this time that by applying certain aspects of its proprietary enzyme technology gained from its micro-algae research to grain crops and especially to miscanthus, the EROI (Energy Return on Investment) of ethanol from land grown biomass can be increased significantly to a sustainable economic level. There is no patent or any published information backing up this 'discovery' of enzymatic cellulose conversion.

AlgoDyne will establish its own biomass distribution network to supply the ever increasing demand for biomass for ethanol production:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

AlgoDyne says its main focus still lies on the development of micro-algae as the primary source of biomass for ethanol production. The Company has gained strong evidence (never published or demonstrated) for the "vast superiority of micro-algae regarding the YPE (yield per effort) / EROI compared to land grown biomass". The company is determined to exploit the boom in grain crops "to expand research on its disruptive technology to produce ethanol from micro-algae."

Miscanthus is a genus of about 15 species of perennial grasses. Miscanthus giganteus has been trialed as a biofuel in Europe since the early 1980s. It can grow to heights of more than 3.5m in one growth season. Its dry weight annual yield can reach 25t/ha (10t/acre). The rapid growth, low mineral content and high biomass yield of Miscanthus make it a favorite choice as a biofuel. After harvest, it can be burned to produce heat and power turbines. The resulting CO2 emissions are equal to the amount of CO2 that the plant used up from the atmosphere during its growing phase, and thus the process is greenhouse gas-neutral.

Article continues

Friday, March 23, 2007

An in-depth look at Brazil's "Social Fuel Seal"

Even though the Brazilian biofuels revolution has been a scientific, agronomic and technological success, it has not been a very equitable one. Professor Ignacy Sachs, economist at the EHESS, green geopolitical thinker, éminence grise of development economics, and expert [*.pdf] on the social effects of Brazil's ethanol industry, is formal: the sector has strengthened an age-old tradition with roots going back to the colonial era, in which the increasing concentration of capital, land and power, and the commodification of rural labor go hand in hand. Segments of Brazil's civil society share Sachs' vision on the ethanol industry (amongst them Brazil's socially engaged Catholic Church) and are calling for stronger interventions by the left-leaning Lula government.

Sugarcane ethanol as it is currently produced may well be environmentally sustainable and highly efficient (earlier post), doubts clearly remain over its equally important social sustainability (earlier post): labor conditions for sugarcane cutters and planters are poor (even though new laws on safety are changing this situation), wage levels are basic (but here too, new minimum wages have seriously improved the fate of the workers) and the industry stimulates seasonal labor and internal migrations. On the other hand, increased mechanisation - 1 in 3 plantations are now harvested mechanically - takes away the chance for many rural poor to make a living alltogether, and transforms them from rural into urban migrants who join the millions of poor living in the favelas of Brazil's mega-cities.

The left-leaning Brazilian government is now trying to create a rupture in this complex situation by implementing unique legislation that offers the opportunity to make biofuels the motor of a process in which the redistribution of wealth and the fight against rural poverty are key, and which provides secure livelihoods to poor farmers. The goal is to create a win-win synergy between industrial biofuel producers' needs to be competitive and small family-run farms whose livelihoods are otherwise threatened. Mind you, the policy is new and concrete results still have to prove its viability. But at first sight, the compromise looks promising.

'Social fuel'
The core of the new policy is the so-called 'Social Fuel Seal' - an instrument that gives biodiesel producers incentives to source their raw materials from smallholders and family farmers. The farmers in turn receive technical assistance and agricultural training, organised by an extension service financed by the biofuel producer that goes beyond mere feedstock production and that enhances food production and security. Under the Social Fuel Seal both biodiesel producers and family farmers can tap into special credit lines, whereas small farmers enjoy a strong body of social rights that empower them during contract and price negotiations. They are assisted and stimulated to create 'Family Farmer Cooperatives' that act as the intermediary between the smallholders and the biodiesel producers. In fact, the system itself contains a mechanism that makes biodiesel producer prefer to work with such cooperatives.

The Social Fuel Seal is tied to Brazil's new National Biodiesel Program, and was crafted precisely to break with the problems inherent in the older Bioethanol Program. The Seal is quite refined and directly intervenes in the most crucial aspect of biodiesel production: feedstock costs and modes of production. The system takes into account regionally determined social inequalities and the geographically specific agro-ecological potential for biodiesel feedstock production. It can become a model for other developing countries aiming to launch biofuel programs.

What follows is an in-depth look into this social policy, based on the original legislation. The Biopact team translated the most significant texts in its series of Biofuel Policy Documents, which can be downloaded for free (see below).

Incentives: tax breaks
The idea behind the Social Fuel Seal is simple: biodiesel producers receive tax breaks if they source feedstocks produced by small farmers. The progressive tax breaks are determined by (1) the kind of farmer the producer sources from, (2) by the region in which the farmers produce their oil-rich crops, (3) by the specific crop (this distinction is made because investments in particular crops - like castor or jatropha which grow well in semi-arid zones - logically imply investments in particular regions associated with these agro-ecological conditions; the same regions are correlated with social inequality levels) and (4) by the share of feedstocks sourced from the particular categories of farmers as a percentage of the total amount of raw materials used by the biodiesel producer.

Depending on the combination of these categories, the tax breaks are progressive and can be represented in the following matrix (which is just one example):

The table shows that biodiesel producers who conform to the criteria of the Social Fuel Seal and who source from the poorest category of farmers in the most problematic regions can enjoy a full tax exemption. The breaks in question apply to the following taxes:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

  • The federal social security contribution, levied on the gross revenue of the biodiesel company ("Cofins"), which is fixed at 7.6%.
  • The federal social inclusion contribution, part of a Social Integration Program ("PIS/PASEP"), equally levied on the company's gross revenue, fixed at 1.65%.
More information on the Brazilian system of social contributions and taxes can be found in this basic overview [*.pdf].

In practise, and as things stand today, this comes down to the following numbers per cubic meter of biodiesel: a producer without the Social Fuel Seal, who doesn't source from either kind of regionally categorised small farmers, pays R$39.65 PIS/PASEP and R$182.55 COFINS (or US$19.2 and US$88.4, or a total of around US$110 per ton). If he sources from the best category, he saves US$ 110 per ton - which is a highly attractive proposition.

Several major biodiesel producers in Brazil have joined the program. Testimony to the fact that the Social Fuel Seal's regionally and socially determined tax break scheme is quite refined, can be found in a map which shows the regional distribution of biodiesel producers who joined the program in 2006 (click to enlarge).


Obtaining the Social Fuel Seal
But there are costs involved for the biodiesel producer - he will have to weigh them off against the benefits of the tax break. If a biodiesel producer wants to obtain the Social Fuel Seal, he must adhere to the following strict criteria:
  • he must enter into formal contracts with the feedstock producers and follow a strict contract negotiation procedure
  • he must allow the presence of a rural union representative during all negotiations; this representative can be delegated by the Family Farmers Cooperative, or, in case the producer sources from individual farmers, by a government-recognised rural union appointed for this task (note that the biodiesel producer will prefer to negotiate with Cooperatives, in order to cut back on red tape and cumbersome contract negotiations with individual producers; this system stimulates the creation of Family Farmer Cooperatives)
  • he must provide clearly described extension services, technical assistance and agricultural training aimed at helping the farmer increase production, not only of biofuel feedstocks, but of an integrated fuel-and-food production system; he can organise this himself, but in that case an easy but strict procedure must be followed that guarantees high quality services to the family farmers; alternatively, he can outsource these tasks to trustworthy (and certified) institutions.
  • his must allow a yearly evaluation of the project by external agencies, managed by the Ministry of Rural Development
A relatively complex calculus proves that, as biodiesel prices (tied to oil prices) and consequent profits stand today, the biodiesel producer will choose for the Social Fuel Seal and the costs that go with it (extension services, training, etc...), as the highly fined-tuned tax break system makes the option attractive.

The Social Fuel Seal further breaks down the amount of feedstock the producer must minimally source from small farmers, relative to the geographical zone he operates in and sources from. The zones are refined and correlate strongly with socio-economic indicators (such as income inequality, poverty, educational and health status, etc...). Three broad regions are identified (and further refined by the PRONAF - see below). The quantities involved can be expressed both as a percentage of the value of the crops, or in absolute numbers, as a metric quantity (tons). The methods depend on which crops are involved and the combination of feedstocks the biodiesel manufacturer wishes to use.
  • The semi-arid North and the Nordeste - this is by far Brazil's poorest region and has been the subject of many attempts to create policies that effectively fight poverty here; if the producer wants to obtain the Social Fuel Seal and the best tax breaks, he must source 50% of his biodiesel feedstocks from (small farmers) from this zone
  • The South-East and South: fertile but relatively poor regions; if the producer wants to obtain the Social Fuel Seal and the best tax breaks, he must source 30% of his biodiesel feedstocks from (small farmers) from this zone
  • The North and Center-West region - Brazil's most fertile regions for the biodiesel crops covered by the legislation; if the producer wants to obtain the Social Fuel Seal and the best tax breaks, he must source 10% of his biodiesel feedstocks from (small farmers) from this zone
External controls on the feedstock 'traffic' are enhanced by relying on highly sophisticated sampling techniques, on field research (yield prognoses and risk assessments) and on satellite data, all carried out by some of Brazil's most prestigious agronomic institutions (such as EMBRAPA).

All feedstock sales and acquisitions are carefully registered by both parties, biodiesel producer and small farmer.

The producer's project is evaluated on a yearly basis but is normally granted the Social Fuel Seal for a period of five years. A simple concession, evaluation, renewal and cancellation procedure has been created. Additionally, he must inform the agricultural cadaster of his activities (related to land use and raw material sourcing), which installs a certain level of transparency.


Who are the small farmers?
The farmers who are the subject of the policy are clearly defined: they are registered within a framework called "Programa Nacional de Fortalecimento da Agricultura Familiar" - "National Program to Strengthen Family-run Agriculture" (PRONAF), managed by the Ministry of Rural development. A well organised data-stream identifies each farmer, the contracts he entered into, his social position and his training needs.

A clear profile of each farmer is thus available, which allows the administration to classify him according to a particular category. This category is then used to calculate the tax breaks for the biodiesel producer.

The farmers are assisted and stimulated into joining their forces by creating Family Farmer Cooperatives. It is reasonable to assume that the biodiesel producer prefers to negotiate with such a Cooperative: what he pays in terms of losing a bit of his negotiation power, he wins in cutting red tape and in time lost by contracting with individual farmers.

The farmers in question are typically smallholders who own between 1 and 4 hectares of land, often just enough to support themselves. With training and better inputs - foreseen under the program - they improve their food security while producing biofuel feedstocks on the side. What is more, they are stimulated to acquire more land, given the fact that they enjoy minimum prices and well defined, advantageous supply contracts, which strengthens their capacity to plan over a longer term, make better informed decisions on what to grow, and ultimately to invest savings into more land.

There are examples of biodiesel producers using the Social Fuel Seal, who have actively negotiated better land deals for the small farmers they contract.

Farmers from Brazil's poorest, semi-arid region, the Nordeste, are the main beneficiaries of the program. It is here that biodiesel crops like jatropha and castor thrive well and require relatively low inputs. Importantly, these crops are highly suitable for small, integrated systems that strengthen food production. Since they are perennial crops, they can act as shades for legumes. Clear scientific evidence has established that win-win synergies appear when intercropping schemes are used (to go short and to stick with just this example: the perennial crops in question produce and enhance fungi growth, which is beneficial for legume cultivation, whereas legumes fix nitrogen which stimulates the growth of the perennial shrubs).

The biodiesel producer's extension service focuses on such integrated systems. The different crops and their implied potential for integration in food-and-fuel systems, is clearly described in the legislation. It is one more - albeit implicit - criterion used to determine the level of the tax break.


Credit lines
Both the small farmers and the biodiesel producer can tap special credit lines and low interest loans from designated banks and financial agents. For the small farmer, a system of micro-credits was created for the production of oil-rich crops (the lines are crop-specific) within the framework of the PRONAF. This institution already offers credits to assist small farmers in their normal agricultural activities; the new credit-line does not compete with the existing one.

PRONAF is integrated in a broader set of highly effective social programs aimed at reducing rural poverty (see below).


Advantages of the system
Besides the attractive tax-breaks, the Social Fuel Seal can be used by the biodiesel producer as a marketing instrument. Even though there are no studies yet on the appeal of the 'brand' and the concept, it is reasonable to assume that it offers a great marketing advantage.

We do have some references in this regard: studies on the value of sustainably produced palm oil, in which 'sustainable' was explicitly illustrated with references to small integrated food-and-fuel systems used by typical smallholders, show that the concept has a considerable marketing strength. Experts predict that as biofuels from the tropics and the developing world become more important, the commercial value of such a label will increase likewise. This provisional evidence was produced by the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil - an ongoing dialogue between civil society and industry - and its smallholder taskforce. See this study - Towards better practice in smallholder palm oil production - [*.pdf] and more specifically the chapter on smallholders and biofuels.

For the farmers, the advantages of the Social Fuel Seal are obvious as well:
  • they receive clearly negotiated supply contracts, with a clearly indicated time-frame and prices
  • their contracts are negotiated collectively (via the Cooperative) and in the presence of experienced social actors (a rural union representative)
  • they enjoy mandatory extension services and training;
  • they can rely on the protection of a sophisticated registration, monitoring and evaluation system;
Moreover, the training and technical assistance obligation is crafted in such a way that food and income security are strengthened beyond the more incomes obtained from biofuel feedstock production.

Finally, the system strengthens the creation of cooperatives, and consequently offers the advantages inherent in this organisation form: a democratic decision making process, low entrance and membership barriers and stronger positions during negotiations.


In short, at first sight, the Social Fuel Seal has found an interesting and fine balance between on the one hand the many criteria that need to be fulfilled in order to be able to speak of biofuels that are genuinely 'socially sustainable', and on the other hand, the need for biodiesel producers to remain competitive.

Professor Sachs, with who we opened this article and who inspired the Lula government, has given careful thumbs up for this program. As a leading figure in the analysis of the relationships between the world food and energy system, and of the social effects of rapid agro-industrial expansion in the Global South, his fiat is important (some of Sach's publications are classics in development economics; they include Brazilian Perspectives of Sustainable Development of the Amazon Region, Global Ecology: Transition Strategies for the Twenty­-first Century, and Food and Energy: Strategies for Sustainable Development.)

In Sach's mildly philosophical view, biofuel production, like agriculture, is centered around resources and modes of production that are so primordial to man that they embed a kind of 'social memory', not only of capitalism and colonialism but of pre-capitalist and pre-colonial modes of production. Collective land tenure, nature, farming and social and territorial 'rootedness' form the core of this archetypal order of things. Man's relationship with these material conditions is 'primordial' in the sense that if a 'disaster' ever were to strike a society, a community's resilience and survival depends on these conditions.

Sachs thinks that, precisely for this reason, the biofuels future may open the doors to a radically alternative development paradigm, - pointing to explicitly post-capitalist and post-colonialist modes of production - in which cooperation between social actors, forms of communal land ownership, a redistribution of wealth and sustainability are central. Such a paradigm leads to more social equality and the de-commodification of (rural) labor.

The question obviously is: is the 'Social Fuel Seal' really a first, small step towards such a future? And will such a mechanism ever be strong enough to counter a purely economic, market-driven logic of production and accumulation? It remains an open question.

To complement this brief analysis of the Social Fuel policy, we quickly want to look at existing efforts to fight poverty in Brazil, and especially in the regions where it is traditionally and explicitly prevalent - the Nordeste - and for different classes of people - in this case, small, family operated farms and their poor owners. These efforts are tightly linked to the social biofuels program.


The broader context: Brazil's poverty alleviation programs
The Brazilian government has created several socio-economic programs aimed at re-anchoring small farmers in their environment and at reintegrating poor populations into the formal economic fabric of the country. These programs, such as the “Bolsa Familia” (Family Allowance) and the “Salario Familia” (Family Wage) are much more effective tools to fight poverty and reduce income inequality than classic recipees such as raising the minimum wage, according to a recent study by the Institute of Applied Economic Research (IPEA). It is interesting to quickly look at these programs, because they are the building blocks for Brazil's 'Social Fuel Seal'.

When it comes to fighting extreme poverty, the Family Allowance program is seven times more efficient than increasing the minimum wage, points out Paulo Mansur Levy, Director of Macroeconomic Studies at IPEA and coauthor of “An Agenda for Economic Growth and Poverty Reduction in Brazil.” In other words, the Family Allowance program has a similar impact on extreme poverty as an increase in the minimum wage, but uses 85 percent less resources. Levy added that the program’s impact on moderate poverty is 2.5 times more efficient than wage increases.

In terms of income inequality, the Family Allowance cash transfer program is 5 times more effective than a minimum wage increase. Likewise, the Family Wage is also clearly superior to minimum wage increases in all these scenarios, though its impact is smaller than that of the Family Allowance program, Levy said.

The limited effectiveness of using minimum wage increases as a social policy is not all that surprising, according to Levy, given that minimum wage increases apply to everyone; they are not focused specifically on target populations. The fact is that less than 15 percent of poor families have at least one family member working at the minimum wage rate.

Another reason that minimum wage increases do not reach many people living in poverty is that less than 10 percent of workers with incomes close to the minimum wage rate live in extremely poor families, and only 22 percent of workers earning the minimum wage are heads of poor households, according to the study.

Social policies are more effective at fighting poverty due to integration with other policies and their specific focus, Levy said, referring to both programs, which take into account individual income and the number of children in the household.

To eradicate poverty, poor families must become capable of meeting their basic needs autonomously, Levy said. Social programs such as the Family Allowance and Family Wage programs create conditions that allow poor families to take advantage of opportunities to improve their skills and to make the most of them.

Although many families living in poverty probably could not cover their basic needs without the help of these social programs, the support is not intended to be permanent. Rather, it provides an incentive to get out of poverty and helps them learn how to support their families on their own.


Conclusion
The social sustainability of biodiesel production has become the object of legislation and of concrete projects in Brazil. The policy draws on insights obtained from other poverty alleviation programs.

Whereas the by now widely known ProAlcool program symbolises the past, with its vast industrially run monocultures and its armies of impoverished sugarcane cutters, the new Biodiesel Program symbolises a new era: one of small-scale agriculture and cooperatively run production units, tightly linked to improving the material conditions of the country's poorest.

Ultimately, a convergence between the two modes of production might emerge in the future and result in an ideal order of things that takes into account all conflicting factors that drive large-scale biofuel production.

The land area that is currently up for the social experiments is around 1.5 million hectares and will supply a mandated mixture of 2% biodiesel to the Brazilian market. This pales in comparison with the ethanol program and expansion.

Besides state-run oil company Petrobras, several private companies are already participating in the Social Fuel Seal system. Amongst them the Companhia Refinadora da Amazônia, Brasil Ecodiesel, Soyminas Biodiesel Derivados e Vegetais Ltda, who, together, are cooperating with more than 20,000 rural families registered in the scheme, many of whom are united in 'Family Farmers Cooperatives'.

It is too early to assess the merits of this recently developed system. We do however think it represents an elegant balance between the many conflicting factors at play in producing biofuels in the tropics. Brazil's deep-running social inequalities and contemporary conflicts stemming from its complex history which traditionally opposed large landowners and small farmers, will not be solved by the Social Fuel scheme. But it might offer a first step. If concrete results show the system's effectiveness, Brazil has one more field of expertise to share with developing countries in a South-South relationship.

Jonas Van Den Berg & Laurens Rademakers, CC

More information
The Biopact Team has been collecting a set of some of the most interesting policy documents and legislative texts dealing with biofuel production in the developing world. Brazil's experiences and experiments are of particular interest, because of the country's long-running and large-scale programs.

For this article, we drew on three documents that outline the Social Fuel Seal policy. Translations of the official texts can be freely downloaded. They are:

-Decreto N° 5.297, de 6 de Dezembro de 2004: Dispõe sobre os coeficientes de redução das alíquotas da Contribuição para o PIS/PASEP e da COFINS incidentes na produção e na comercialização de biodiesel, sobre os termos e as condições para a utilização das alíquotas diferenciadas, e dá outras providências [*.pdf], English translation [*.pdf]

-Ministério do Desenvolvimento Agrário: Instrução Normativa no. 01, de 05 de Julho de 2005: Dispõe sobre os critérios e procedimentos relativos à concessão de uso do selo combustível social [*.pdf], English translation [*.pdf]

-Ministério do Desenvolvimento Agrário: Instrução Normativa no. 02, de 30 de Setembro de 2005: Dispõe sobre os critérios e procedimentos relativos ao enquadramento de projetos de produção de biodiesel ao selo combustível social [*.pdf], English translation [*.pdf]

Note: these are working translations.


Ignacy Sachs, "Biofuels are coming of age", [*.pdf] Keynote address at the International Seminar "Assessing the Biofuels Option", IEA Headquarters, Paris, IEA / UN Foundation / Brazilian Government, June 20, 2005

Miguel Clüssener-God and Ignacy Sachs, Brazilian Perspectives of Sustainable Development of the Amazon Region, Man and the Biosphere Series.

Brazil's official website on the Programa Nacional de Produção e Uso de Biodiesel.

A handy leaflet outlining the biodiesel program, in English [*.pdf].

Basic overview of the Selo Combustível Social scheme [*Portuguese].

Website of the PRONAF - "Programa Nacional de Fortalecimento da Agricultura Familiar" - (National Program to Strengthen Family-run Agriculture), with which the small farmers are registered and which manages part of the scheme and its dedicated credit lines; the PRONAF's biodiesel section.

The second part of the documentary "Biocarburants: la révolution brésilienne"/"Sprit aus Zucker", which we discussed earlier, is entirely devoted to the Social Fuel Seal. It shows a 'Family Farmers Cooperative' at work in the arid Nordeste, cultivating Jatropha as a biodiesel feedstock, in an intercropping system with legumes.

Article continues

Space-breeding and nuclear techniques to improve cassava as an energy crop

The Spring issue of Universitas Helsingiensis has a feature on how the latest biotech and nuclear techniques are being used to improve cassava, identified as a promising biofuel crop. The text is an abriged version of a lecture delivered by S. Mohan Jain at the Plenary Session of the 1st International Conference on Cassava Breeding, organised by Brazil's Ministry of the Environment and the University of Brasilia (1–5 December 2006, Brasilia, Brazil).

The author works at the Plant Breeding and Genetics division of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and was awarded a 2005 Nobel Peace Prize certificate for his work as a member of staff of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the winner of the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize.

Mohan Jain outlines different breeding techniques - from classic plant tissue culture and somatic embryogenesis over innovative breeding techniques in space to nuclear techniques for inducing useful mutations - and indicates why cassava makes for an ideal bioenergy feedstock. Earlier we already referred to a program by the U.S. Department of Energy's Joint Genome Institute, where Norman Borlaug, father of the 'Green Revolution' is sequencing the crop's genome, in order to improve it with an eye on bioenergy production (earlier post). Improved cassava is set to make vast parts of the developing world prime biofuel producers.

A tropical root crop
Cassava (Manihot esculenta) is a perennial root crop, cultivated all over the tropics for its starchy tuberous roots as a valuable source of calories, and is planted on about 16 million hectares of land. The crop adapts well to a variety of soil and climatic conditions, is drought tolerant and has the ability to be grown on depleted and marginal soil.

The total annual cassava root production worldwide is 184 million tonnes, out of which 50% production is in Africa, 30% in Asia and 20% in Latin America. The average yield varies widely, e.g. 7–10 tonnes/ha in Ghana, which is far below, for example, that of India (26 tonnes/ha) and Thailand (37 tonnes/ha). The low yield in cassava-growing countries is due to poor fertilisation, drought, severe infection of the planting material (stem cuttings) with African cassava mosaic virus (ACMV), East African cassava mosaic virus (EACMV), and the newly identified virus named South African cassava mosaic virus (SACMV), diseases, poor-quality cultivars and the short shelf-life of tuber roots. Yields in these regions can be substantially improved. Cassava is an important source of carbohydrate in adverse climatic conditions. The crop is valued in many areas as a food staple.

In Accra, Ghana, the President launched the President’s Special Initiative (PSI) under which the government will promote cassava starch. The cassava project will create a ready market for 25,000 farmers, and about 70,000 jobs would be created. In Nigeria, a similar project is underway, also called the Presidential Cassava Initiative (earlier post).

In addition, the tuberous roots of cassava can be left in the ground for several years prior to harvesting, providing security against famine. Cassava also has the highest rate of CO2 assimilation into sucrose of any plant measured, and has great potential for enhancing carbohydrate allocation to sink tissues. It is also increasingly being used in processed food and fodder products and by the chemical, pharmaceutical, paper and textile industries.

Cassava nutrition
Cassava is poor in providing sufficient nutrition to its consumers. The tubers are the main source of carbohydrates (35%), and provide a negligible amount of proteins. Fresh leaves have a much higher amount of proteins (7%) than tuber flesh (0.5–1.5%). Starch is the main carbohydrate source in root tubers, and is present in very low levels in fresh leaves. Future efforts are needed to improve cassava nutrition both in root tubers and fresh leaves by using mutagenesis and the latest biological tools, such as molecular biology. The selection of appropriate genetic material should be made from the natural and induced germplasm for the development of new cassava varieties high in nutritional values so that malnutrition and related diseases, e.g. Konzo, could be addressed. Konzo is a neuro-logical disorder and leads to spastic paralysis of the legs; and is attributed to high levels of dietary cyanide in cassava.

Cassava as a biofuel crop
In Brazil, sugar cane is a major bioenergy crop and has made this country a world leader in bio-ethanol production. Cassava has the potential to become another major bio-energy crop together with sugar cane. It is an attractive fuel crop because it can give high yields of starch and total dry matter in spite of drought conditions and poor soil. Energy requirements of cassava represent only 5–6% of the final energy content of the total biomass, showing an energy profit of 95%, assuming complete utilisation of the energy content of the total biomass:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Alcohol production from cassava has an overall efficiency of 32%. Cassava could become an industrial crop by developing cultivars with different starch compositions. Useful variations in native starch quality – altering the proportion of amylase to amylopectin, for instance, which changes the physiochemical properties of the polymer – could open new market niches at better prices. Molecular tools would be of great value in identifying the genes responsible for starch synthesis.

Dr. Li’s research group, Beijing, China, has developed a new sweet sorghum mutant variety Yuantian No. 1 by seed irradiation with gamma radiation. This variety has 20% more sugar than the parental lines and is an excellent source both as a feed and as a bio-energy crop, or a bio-ethanol producer.

In Thailand, a research group reported the official release of a new Thai cassava cultivar Rayong 9 with improved starch and ethanol yields. This cultivar is a successful plant type, producing good-quality stakes with a high rate of germination, as well as a large number of stakes from each plant. In Brazil, a new class of cassava (Manihot esculenta Crantz) has been identified and their storage roots show unusual free sugar accumulation and novel starch, and accumulate over 100 times more free sugar (mainly glucose) than commercial varieties.

A group in the USA suggested that transportation biofuels such as synfuel hydrocarbons or cellulosic ethanol, if produced from low-input biomass grown on agriculturally marginal land or from waste biomass, could provide much greater supplies and environmental benefits than food-based biofuels. They found that ethanol, produced from corn, yields 25% more energy than the energy invested in its production, whereas bio-diesel produced from soybeans, yields 93% more. Cassava can grow under harsher climatic conditions, and would be ideal for transport biofuel.

Biotechnology
Plant tissue culture refers to the growing and multiplication of cells, tissues and organs of plants on defined solid or liquid media under aseptic and controlled conditions. The micro-propagation technique for rapid shoot proliferation can be achieved from any part of the plant such as the shoot tip, tiny stem cuttings, roots, and auxiliary buds. Normally, commercial companies use micro-propagation extensively in large-scale plant multiplication. However, the high cost of in vitro plant production, the low volumes produced, the degree of labour intensiveness, and tissue-culture-derived plant variations all hinder the rise in profits of commercial enterprises, and therefore it is highly desirable to modify the techniques to overcome these problems for the supply of high-quality planting material to small and large commercial cassava growers.

Somatic embryogenesis
Somatic embryogenesis is an ideal technique for the clonal propagation of woody and fruit plants and genetic gain can now be achieved through it. The formation of somatic embryos from somatic cells by a process resembling zygotic embryogenesis is one of the most useful features of plants and offers a potentially large-scale propagation system for superior clones. Normally, the initiation of embryogenic cultures is done by culturing immature zygotic embryos, sometimes with mature zygotic embryos, and offshoots. The maintenance of embryogenic cultures is critical for preventing tissue-culture-derived variation. Also, it is critical to cryopreserve immediately after embryogenic cultures are initiated to prevent variation and preservation of elite germplasm. Well-developed somatic embryos are germinated to regenerate plants (somatic seedlings), which are acclimatised, and then finally transferred to the field. Somatic embryogenesis is highly genotypic dependent, and it would be useful to modify the culture medium accordingly. For large-scale production of somatic embryos, a ‘bioreactor’ system works well, e.g. the ‘temporary immersion system’ (RITA bioreactor). The low cost of production of somatic embryos and the high germination rate are highly desirable for large-scale production in a bioreactor. This system has yet to be tried in cassava.

Nuclear techniques for mutagenesis
Nuclear applications in food and agriculture have contributed greatly to enhancing agricultural production of seed and vegetative propagated crops (see IAEA). Even though nuclear technology has greatly benefited agriculture, it still has immense potential in the genetic improvement of cassava and other crops. More than 2300 mutant varieties have officially been released in many countries (see the joint FAO/IAEA database on mutant varieties.).

Both chemical and physical mutagens are used to induce mutations. Among them, gamma rays and ethyl-methane sulphonate (EMS) are widely used for mutation induction. Fine embryogenic cell suspension cultures are most suitable for inducing mutations by transferring the cultures onto filter paper and then plating them on agar-solidified culture medium for gamma irradiation. Initially the LD50 (lethal dose) dose is determined, which is used as an optimal dose for mutation induction. Irradiated cells are further cultured in the fresh medium for the development, maturation, and germination of mutated somatic embryos. This approach provides mutated somatic seedlings in a short period of time and also prevents chimeras, which otherwise requires the plants to be multiplied up to the M1V4 generation for chimera dissociation. Alternatively, shoot tip or bud wood can be irradiated and the plants multiplied up to the M1V4 generation to produce pure mutants by dissociation of chimeras.

Sung and Somerville (USA), working on Arabidopsis thaliana, have discovered a mutation, called “pickle”, in plants that mimics what happens in seeds, which typically is the accumulation and storing of proteins and oils. This mutation in plants causes the accumulation of large amounts of oils, proteins, and starch in the taproot. This finding could also make possible the creation of more nutritious root crops with a better balance of oil, protein, and starch, e.g. in cassava and other root crops.

Space-breeding concept
Space conditions can induce mutations of plant seeds, and can be helpful in accelerating crop breeding. It may be possible to obtain rare mutants that may make a significant breakthrough in important economic characteristics of crops, such as yield and quality, which are difficult to get using other breeding methods on the ground. The plant seeds are sent into space in a space rocket, and when the rocket is back on earth, the plant seeds or in vitro shoot cultures or microspores are studied to ascertain the influence of cosmic rays on the generation of new mutants.

There are only a few countries involved in this type of work, and China is one of them. Since 1987, 13 recoverable satellites have been used by Chinese scientists and researchers to carry more than 80 kilograms of plant seeds belonging to over 70 species, involving their main cereal, fibre, oil, vegetable, and melon and fruit crops. Through ground planting and selecting experiments by breeders in more than 50 research units covering more than 20 provinces, cities and regions in China, good results have been achieved. More than 20 mutant varieties have been developed and officially released. In rice, a new variety EYH No. 1 has been released that gave a total yield 14.5 tonnes/ha.

Space breeding involves a big investment and good technological support. The opportunities for conducting a space experiment are very limited. It is important to simulate on the ground the conditions of space in order to conduct research work which would reveal how space-induced mutations occur and then to apply the mechanism to plant breeding.

Future prospects
Cassava mutants could be developed to produce value-added biomass for cost-effective production of bio-ethanol. The use of this crop as a source of bio-energy would generate employment, enhance the economic status of its growers, protect the environment, and most likely cut the consumption of fossil fuel. Arable land for growing cassava may have to be increased for bio-energy production, as would the export of bio-ethanol to energy-hungry countries such as China and India. Brazil has already started producing bio-ethanol from cassava. African countries should also follow Brazil and they could become a major source of bio-ethanol production. This can be achieved through biotechnology and mutation, and also the exploitation of natural cassava germplasm/genetic variation for breeding. Biotechnology is an additional tool to assist plant breeders, and can be helpful in reducing the time to develop a cultivar.

To date, a lack of communication between plant breeders and biotechnologists has hindered crop improvement; however, as growers are now faced with maintaining sustainable crop production under climate change conditions and an ever-growing human population such cooperation becomes essential.

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Vinod Khosla predicts exponential growth of biofuels, to replace 25% of world fuel demand

Top venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, the founder of SUN Microsystems and a major investor in both Brazilian biofuels (earlier post) and cellulosic ethanol (earlier post), says that the biofuels industry is poised for exponential growth and that biofuels made from cellulose appear to be the most promising alternative fuels over the long-term. Cellulose, one of the most abundant organic materials on earth, can be converted into liquid fuels either via a biochemical or a thermochemical conversion process.

During keynote speeches at the World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology and Bioprocessing, Khosla echoed the analysis made by Dr. Jens Riese of McKinsey & Co. who highlighted the significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions achievable with cellulose-based biofuels.

In a speech titled “The Role of Venture Capital in Developing Cellulosic Ethanol,” Khosla outlined the range of technologies currently being commercialized to convert cellulosic biomass to transportation fuels. Khosla said that the U.S. Department of Energy’s recent grants to cooperatively fund biorefineries that produce ethanol from cellulose is an acknowledgment that the technology is moving faster than expected. He said that a 100 percent replacement of petroleum transportation fuels with biofuels is achievable, and predicted that ethanol from cellulose technology will be cost competitive with current ethanol production by 2009.

Khosla also stated that ethanol from cellulose can significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions, even achieving a net gain in greenhouse gas reduction. Khosla is the head of Khosla Ventures, a company that actively invests in breakthrough scientific work in clean technology areas, such as biorefineries for energy and bioplastics, solar, and other environmentally friendly technologies.

Dr. Jens Riese of McKinsey & Co. also addressed the World Congress plenary session with a speech titled “Beyond the Hype: Global Growth in the Biofuels Industry.” Riese predicted that global annual biofuel capacity would double to 25 billion gallons over the next five years and could reach 80 billion gallons – meeting 10 percent of world transportation fuel demand, enough to replace the annual oil production for fuel of Saudi Arabia – by 2020. According to McKinsey & Company’s model, biofuels can economically replace 25 percent of transportation fuel with crude oil above $50 per barrel. He concluded that the race is on to build a biofuels industry and that companies should invest now:
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Further, Riese pointed out that ethanol from cellulose is the most cost-effective way of achieving greenhouse gas reductions, following measure to reduce demand for energy. Riese is a partner at McKinsey & Co., a leading global management consulting firm and is a top expert in industrial biotechnology.

“We are excited to see industry leaders echo our long-held enthusiasm and optimism about the exciting opportunities presented by ethanol from cellulose,” said BIO’s Brent Erickson. “Indeed, we are optimistic about the opportunities presented from multiple sources of ethanol as a means to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and our environmental footprint.” BIO supports the production of ethanol from all feedstocks. Agricultural biotechnology is helping to increase corn yields, while industrial biotechnology is helping to convert corn starch and crop residues into ethanol more efficiently. With ongoing advances in biotechnology, biofuels can help America meet nearly half its transportation-fuel needs by the middle of this century.

The World Congress is hosted by the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), the American Chemical Society, the National Agricultural Biotechnology Council, the European Federation of Biotechnology, BIOTECanada and EuropaBIO.


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Lack of fuel may limit nuclear power expansion - MIT

The debate over bioenergy must be seen as part of the broader discussion on climate change and energy security. The most primitive of fuels - biomass - has become interesting because of its relative low costs compared to fossil fuels and renewables like wind or solar (earlier post). But the main argument in favor of a move towards green and sustainable energy is of course the urgent need to lower carbon dioxide emissions.

With these arguments in mind, some environmentalists have begun to look at nuclear energy once again. In some European countries, phase-out plans for nuclear power plants are up for discussion again. Wouldn't it be better to keep our reactors running for a bit longer, given high fossil fuel prices and climate change? In other countries, most notably Germany, the nuke-stop is final, and the country has started investing massively in renewables to make the transition to a post-nuclear energy landscape.

The complex discussion may hinge on the sheer economics of nuclear fuel. According to Thomas Neff, a research affiliate at MIT's Center for International Studies and uranium market expert, limited supplies of uranium for nuclear power plants may thwart the "nuclear renaissance".

Over the past 20 years, safety concerns dampened all aspects of development of nuclear energy: no new reactors were ordered and there was investment neither in new uranium mines nor in building facilities to produce fuel for existing reactors. Instead, the industry lived off commercial and government inventories, which are now nearly gone. Worldwide, uranium production meets only about 65 percent of current reactor requirements.

That shortage of uranium and of processing facilities worldwide leaves a gap between the potential increase in demand for nuclear energy and the ability to supply fuel for it. This is especially true in the United States.

"Just as large numbers of new reactors are being planned, we are only starting to emerge from 20 years of underinvestment in the production capacity for the nuclear fuel to operate them. There has been a nuclear industry myopia; they didn't take a long-term view," Neff says.

Only a few years ago uranium inventories were being sold at US$10 per pound; the current price is US$85 per pound. Uranium has become the most expensive primary energy resource:
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Neff has been giving a series of talks at industry meetings and investment conferences around the world about the nature of the fuel supply problem and its implications for the so-called "nuclear renaissance," pointing out both the sharply rising cost of nuclear fuel and the lack of capacity to produce it.

Currently, much of the uranium used by the United States is coming from mines in such countries as Australia, Canada, Namibia and, most recently, Kazakhstan. Small amounts are mined in the western United States, but the United States is largely reliant on overseas supplies. The United States also relies on Russia for half its fuel, under a "swords to ploughshares" deal that Neff originated in 1991. This deal is converting about 20,000 Russian nuclear weapons to fuel for U.S. nuclear power plants, but it ends in 2013, leaving a substantial supply gap for the United States.

Further, China, India and even Russia have plans for massive deployments of nuclear power and are trying to lock up supplies from countries on which the United States has traditionally relied. As a result, the United States could be the "last one to buy, and it could pay the highest prices, if it can get uranium at all," Neff said. "The take-home message is that if we're going to increase use of nuclear power, we need massive new investments in capacity to mine uranium and facilities to process it."

Mined uranium comes in several forms, or isotopes. For starting a nuclear chain reaction in a reactor, the only important isotope is uranium-235, which accounts for just seven out of 1,000 atoms in the mined product. To fuel a nuclear reactor, the concentration of uranium-235 has to be increased to 40 to 50 out of 1,000 atoms. This is done by separating isotopes in an enrichment plant to achieve the higher concentration.

As Neff points out, reactor operators could increase the amount of fuel made from a given amount of natural uranium by buying more enrichment services to recover more uranium-235 atoms. Current enrichment capacity is enough to recover only about four out of seven uranium-235 atoms. Limited uranium supplies could be stretched if industry could recover five or six of these atoms, but there is not enough processing capacity worldwide to do so.

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Thursday, March 22, 2007

CarbonTracker: powerful new tool to track atmospheric carbon dioxide by source

Scientists from NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory announced the launch of a new tool to monitor changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by region and source. The tool, called CarbonTracker, will enable its users to evaluate the effectiveness of their efforts to reduce or store carbon emissions.

The online data framework distinguishes between changes in the natural carbon cycle and those occurring in human-produced fossil fuel emissions. It also provides verification for scientists using computer models to project future climate change. Potential users include corporations, cities, states and nations assessing their efforts to reduce or store fossil fuel emissions around the world.

Increasingly, observations of the Earth are demonstrating a remarkable impact on our understanding of human and natural systems. We are transitioning this understanding gained from intensive research into operations that benefit the environment and the economy.

CarbonTracker distills an accurate assessment of greenhouse-gas increases or decreases. The resolution will increase to observe differences in concentration on finer geographical scales over time as data become available. Using the limited data that currently exist, the model can characterize emissions each month among U.S. regions, such as the West or the Southeast. As the observation network becomes denser, however, policymakers will be able to check the CarbonTracker Web site to compare emissions from urban centers. For instance, the resolution will be fine enough to determine the difference in net emissions from Sacramento as compared to San Francisco:
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CarbonTracker’s initial applications are primarily for scientists, and to attract new partners in NOAA’s efforts to expand greenhouse gas observations in the United States and globally. NOAA and its partners are encouraging the addition of new monitoring sites around the United States and around the world to increase the resolution of point sources. Ultimately the site will provide easy-to-use information on local scales for policymakers, business leaders, teachers, and the public.

“CarbonTracker’s potential is enormous,” said Pieter Tans, head of NOAA/ESRL’s Carbon Cycle Greenhouse Gases group, who developed the tool. “We are moving into an era where emissions could have a price tag. If carbon trading, emissions reduction and sequestration schemes become more common around the globe, society will need the ability to compare their relative value. Accurate and objective information on changing atmospheric concentrations will be essential for both research and impact assessments.”

Until now, scientists have relied on limited direct records of atmospheric carbon dioxide, mainly from remote locations. Also, previously available computer models could not maximize the utility of the information derived. Only analyses of very broad global patterns of carbon dioxide emissions and uptake were possible. Estimates of local carbon emissions have used proxy data, such as reported point-source inventories, gasoline sales records, and other tallies from energy organizations and nations monitoring greenhouse gases, but there has been no way to verify what was actually released into the atmosphere.

CarbonTracker uses many more continuous observations than previously taken. The largest concentration of observations for now is from within North America. The data are fed into a sophisticated computer model with 135 ecosystems and 11 ocean basins worldwide. The model calculates carbon release or uptake by oceans, wildfires, fossil fuel combustion, and the biosphere and transforms the data into a color-coded map of sources and storage “sinks.” One of the system’s most powerful assets is its ability to detect natural variations in carbon uptake and release by oceans and vegetation, which could either aid or counteract societies’ efforts to curb fossil fuel emissions on a seasonal basis.

“Only the atmosphere itself can give us the real answer on all sources and sinks,” said Wouter Peters, who led the development of CarbonTracker at NOAA/ESRL and also is affiliated with the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Environmental Sciences. “This information will be critical. How atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases change in the future is one of the key uncertainties in the global climate models and the biggest driver behind climate change.”

NOAA collaborates with partners in France, Australia, Brazil and other nations to measure greenhouse gases globally. Through a longstanding collaboration, Environment Canada has provided a quarter of the data for North America. However, the global network is still sparse. Using today’s data, the system can distinguish surface emissions on a broad scale, but plans are underway to refine observations and modeling of carbon sources on much smaller scales.

NOAA’s Earth System Research Lab is the only institution measuring atmospheric greenhouse gases globally and provides more than half of the world’s data. The network includes individuals gathering air samples in flasks that are then shipped to the Boulder lab for analysis, aircraft carrying automated samplers to grab air from higher altitudes, and sensors atop tall towers transmitting data via telephone.

CarbonTracker is a NOAA contribution to the North American Carbon Program, a multi-agency effort to quantify, understand, and predict the continent’s carbon cycle. CIRES is a partnership between NOAA and the University of Colorado.


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Singapore's first jatropha biodiesel plants eye exports to China

A new joint-venture, Van Der Horst Biodiesel, is planning to build Singapore's first biodiesel plant that uses Jatropha curcas and not palm oil as feedstock.

The plant on Jurong Island is the project of a joint venture between the Institute of Environmental Science and Engineering, which is linked to Nanyang Technological University, and Van Der Horst Engineering. It will see an investment of around S$40 (€19.7/US$26.3) million and have an annual capacity of 200,000 tons per year.

The move is seen as a boost for the local biodiesel sector and Van Der Horst said it is planning a second plant in Johor.

Currently, all biodiesel firms in Singapore use palm oil as a raw material to produce fuel. But Van Der Horst Biodiesel is seeking to be the first to use a new feedstock – the oil-rich nuts from the Jatropha curcas plant.

Jatropha has advantages over palm oil, which is commonly produced in Indonesia and Malaysia. Professor Tay Joo Hwa, Director and CEO, Institute of Environmental Science and Technology, said: "Jatropha can grow in very harsh environment. And we're not using that as a food source so it doesn't compete with the food and farmland."

"And because we have the plantation, and we have the technology, the cost of the feedstock will be much lower than the cost of other feedstock, such as palm oil in this part of the world and rapeseed in Europe."

Van Der Horst plans to secure land in Cambodia and China for the planting of the Jatropha nut:
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The company plans to ship the biodiesel to major markets in China and the region.

Peter Cheng, CEO, Van Der Horst Biodiesel, said: "Within the region, we already have several parties wanting to take up all our production. We have the oil companies in Cambodia and also the oil companies in China."

Industry experts expect biodiesel to replace a significant portion of the diesel market over time. Most recently, the European Union mandated the use of biofuels – of which biodiesel is a component – to form 10 percent of its transport fuel.

Van Der Horst expects the United States, Japan and Korea to follow suit by legislating the use of biofuels in the next few years.

Biodiesel is an up-and-coming alternative energy industry and Singapore has attracted enough biodiesel investments to become a major biodiesel production base by 2008. Industry experts project that Singapore will be producing 1.5 million tonnes of biodiesel by next year.

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Paraguay launches plan to become major biofuel exporter

Paraguay is to launch a biofuel plan aimed at cutting dependence on oil, and to export renewable fuels to world markets. The country has no oil reserves of its own and has to rely on expensive imports to meet its fuel needs. High import bills are a heavy burden on the country's development. But Paraguay has a considerable biofuel production potential and is keen on exploiting it.

The country plans to export at least US$50 million worth of biofuels within four years as part of a wider bioenergy project that aims to attract foreign investment, the government said.

As part of the plan, the Paraguayan government also wants to replace imports of conventional fuels by US$ 150 million over the same time frame, Industry and Commerce Minister Jose Maria Ibanez told the Reuters Latin American Investment Summit in Asuncion.

"Agro-energy is the big issue worldwide at the moment and Paraguay is a country with great potential. We've got millions of hectares available for farming," Ibanez said.

Some key facts about the country's land and land-use:
  • Paraguay's total land area has an arable land base of around 21.5 million hectares, of which it currently uses 3.1 million hectares or 14.5%
  • Some 21% of the country's total land area is made up of forests, of which 2.7 million hectares are dense, pristine rainforest (see the EarthTrends database on forests, grasslands and drylands)
  • Paraguay's annual deforestation rate is around 0.5%
  • 65% of the country's total land area consists of savannas and grasslands, suitable for energy crop production
  • Around 12.7 million hectares of land are suitable for the production of sugarcane (map, click to enlarge), according to the AEZ methodology (International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, GAEZ database)
Based on assessments of Paraguay's biofuel potential, Ibanez said: "We're developing a national plan with a goal of close to 300 million liters between now and 2011. It's an enormous opportunity for foreign investment."

Six firms from neighboring Brazil, the United States and Japan have already shown their interest in working with Paraguayan businesses to set up sugar cane-processing plants for ethanol production:
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Biofuels, which include ethanol, and diesel made from vegetable oils, are increasingly seen as a cleaner, renewable energy alternative to fossil fuels.

In 2006, Paraguay imported fuels and lubricants worth US$691 million - roughly the same as the country earns from annual exports of soy products. Paraguay is the world's No. 4 soy exporter and the oilseed is its top foreign currency earner.

Paraguay is one of South America's poorest countries and officials recognize that it still has a reputation for corruption, despite efforts to fight graft and attract outside capital.

"Corruption is still a problem, but it isn't one of the main difficulties for investment anymore because it's no longer a common practice," Ibanez said. "We've made a lot of progress."

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India's Ministry of Oil in favor of biofuel imports, ties with Brazil

In a bid to arm-twist local suppliers of ethanol, India's petroleum ministry is pushing for allowing imports of ethanol, reversing the earlier policy of relying on local production. It is also in favour of allowing imports of biodiesel.

The announcement comes at a time when both the Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) - the largest marketer of petroleum products in the country - and government-owned refiner and marketer Bharat Petroleum Corporation Ltd showed interest to tie up with Brazilian oil major Petrobras to collaborate on ethanol projects, including ethanol imports. Both companies have been asked to explore opportunities in Brazil for the creation of distilleries.

Last year, at the IBSA Summit, Brazil and India signed a biofuel pact allowing the Asian country to invest in its Latin American partner (earlier post). Part of the pact was a bilateral agreement about land sales and leases, which offers Indian producers very favorable conditions for the establishment of energy plantations in Brazil (earlier post).

"Imports may be allowed in the consumer interest to ensure that sufficient quantities are procured at economic rates, and prices of petrol and diesel do not become captive to domestic price spikes in respect of ethanol and biodiesel", the petroleum ministry has said in a Cabinet note.

India's ethanol-blending programme, which was to be rolled out in the country from November 2006 onwards, has been a non-starter, with just about 10 states freezing contracts with ethanol suppliers.

The main issue of contention is the price. This is despite the fact that at a time consensus on the price of ethanol seemed to be emerging between oil firms and the Indian Sugar Mills Association.

Ethanol suppliers in the country are asking for minimum prices of 26-27 rupiah (US$0.59-0.62) per litre of ethanol, while the oil companies are working on an all-India reference price of 21.50 rupiah (US$0.49) per litre.

Imports of biofuels would secure supplies to the Indian market, but dilute the bargaining power of local producers:
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"There have been instances in the past when domestic ethanol suppliers have diverted supply to other users when prices of ethanol had increased. The did this in spite of a penalty that they have to pay if they breach supply commitments. We do not want such situations," a petroleum ministry official said.

The sugar industry says at 5 per cent blending, the country would require 682 million litres of ethanol in 2006-07, and the demand could rise to 1.3 billion litres with 10 per cent blending. According to industry estimates, India currently has about 120 ethanol-producing distilleries, which can manufacture 1.2 billion litres of ethanol every year.

Interestingly, the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, which has drafted the biofuel policy, has said in the same note that the primary thrust of the biofuel policy remains indigenous production.


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Polyploid technology brings high yield energy crops

Earlier we reported on a new plant breeding technique based on metabolic profiling that allows scientists to select and clone high yield plants fast (earlier post). Now an Australian biotech company, BioFuelGenomics, is commercialising a plant cloning technique based on polyploidisation that allows plant breeders to constantly advance the normal growth rates of biomass crops by between 30% and 40% per annum. The technology enables the creation of adaptive polyploids or the spontaneous doubling of a plant’s genetic material. No genetic engineering is involved.

Polyploidisation is an evolutionary event that occurs naturally in plants, but until now has not been able to be replicated in the laboratory for plant species. Polyploids are cells or organisms that contain more than two copies of their chromosomes and that outperform their diploid parents (picture, click to enlarge).

Polyploids result in:
  • faster growing trees;
  • stronger trees;
  • higher yielding trees and gigantism;
  • decrease resources used by polyploided plants; and
  • additional carbon absorption
The BioFuelGenomics adaptation process creates polyploids at will, however the groundbreaking part of this process is the ability to create adaptive polyploids, where entire gene clusters are rearranged in order to cope with specific environmental and physical conditions (genomic architecture).

The process involves the DNA profiling of elite mother stock trees and processing them through the tree adaptation process. The end result is a new plant with the same physical characteristics, yet significantly greater genetic material and therefore growth potential than the mother stock. BioFuelGenomics technology does not introduce foreign DNA and as such, adapted trees are not classified as genetically modified organisms:
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As an illustration of the benefits over a 20 year period, an existing plantation may complete 3 rotations of trees for harvest. Using BiofuelGenomics technology the rotation can be increased to 5 turns in 20 years and the unit cost of production can be reduced significantly.

If this technology works in practise, it is set to revolutionise the producion of bioenergy based on fast-rotation crops.

BiofuelGenomics relies on a perfected laboratory application of the naturally occurring evolutionary event, i.e. the ability to consistently create stable polyploids (plants with duplicate sets of chromosomes), allowing accelerated plant growth. This technique was developed by Australian biotech company Arbour Technologies Pty Ltd on which BiofuelGenomics' "Tree Adaptation Process" is based.

The Tree Adaptation Process has now been completed for the following species: acacia crassicarpa, elaeocarpus grandis, paulownia fortunei, araucaria cunninghamii, pinus radiata, agathis robusta and toona ciliata. Arbour Technologies is currently working on the modification of biofuel plants for the biodiesel industry.

Polyploidy
A naturally occurring phenomenon, polyploidy generally occurs in pioneer plant species during times of environmental stress. Polyploids are found in most of our food crops, however due to the long reproductive cycle of tree crops natural polyploids are extremely rare.

Polyploids contain more chlorophyll, photosynthesise at a faster rate and therefore grow faster than conventional plants.

Much scientific work has been conducted to produce polyploid events, however to date, few polyploid events have resulted in "stable plants" (that is, they created the polyploid event using mutagens but the plants did not thrive). One of the best known and most commercially successful polyploid events was the creation of the seedless watermelon.

There are many examples of existing polyploids, particularly in the food category, where multigenerational intensive breeding has occurred. Examples such as - maize, watermelons, wheat, cotton, potatoes, cabbage, leek, strawberries, pansies, oat, peanuts, sugar cane, bananas, tobacco and apples.

Independent verification
The University of Queensland has completed an independent examination of the ploidy level, genomic stability and growth performance of a range of adapted tree species.

The report compared measurements of plant morphology (height, growth, stem diameter, number of branches, total biomass, leaf area, etc) as well as plant physiology (net photosynthesis rate, transpiration rate, stomatal conductance, fluorescence, chlorophyll content, etc).

Results confirm polyploids outperformed their diploid parents, specifically showing:
  • Significantly greater leaf elongation rates
  • Significantly greater leaf size
  • Significantly greater stomatal conductance
  • Significantly greater photosynthetic rate
  • Significantly greater electron transport rate
  • Significantly greater plant biomass
  • Significantly greater flower/fruit mass
  • Significantly greater nuclear DNA content
  • Significantly higher chlorophyll levels
  • All of the above whilst utilising less resources than their diploid parents.
  • 'all clone lines of the ten species tested had extremely high genomic stability, demonstrating that mass clonal production programmes should result in phenotypically stable clone lines'
  • 'Selected clone lines were morphologically different, exhibited better growth, had an increased photosynthetic rate and different biochemical properties than their diploid parents'
BioFuelGenomics has an Exclusive Worldwide Marketing License for the Biofuel Industries, with the exceptions of the oil palm industry [Biopact note: because the technique has already been used and licences by another company that succeeded in creating clonal palms that yield 30% more oil]. Other related corporations hold the other respective exclusive marketing licenses in Timber and Pulping trees, Land Remediation, Medical and Pharmaceutical, Food and Fibre, as well as the amenity horticulture industry.


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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Jacques Delors suggests the creation of a European Energy Community

As Europeans prepare to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the European Union, Jacques Delors, former president of the Commission and father of the Treaty of Maastricht that turned the 'European Community' into a real Union, suggests the EU builds a genuine European Energy Community as a way to overcome the sense of crisis that has kept the continent in its grip for quite a while now.

When the Founding Fathers of modern Europe signed the Treaties of Rome in 1957, they created the 'European Atomic Energy Community' and the 'European Economic Community' which aimed to strengthen peace through economic cooperation, amongst countries that had just come out of a World War that had destroyed their societies and left their economies in ruin. A few years before, in 1951, six European countries - Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxemburg and the Netherlands - had created the European Coal and Steel Community to manage their heavy industries collectively. From the very beginning, energy and economic cooperation were the building blocks of what would later become the EU.

Five decades later, with 27 member-states, 500 million prosperous inhabitants living in peace, and the world's largest economy, the Union celebrates its achievements, but also reflects on its future. A cloud of doubt has gathered over the continent, after the Iraq War caused a rift in the Union between those who were right and those who were wrong, and after the French people voted 'Non' during the infamous referendum on the European Constitution. People in France think the EU has become too liberal economically while its social unification is lagging behind. They feel that Europe's unique social models are threatened by the forces of globalisation - and the Constitution as it was presented to them reinforced that sense of danger. It's a perception shared by many European citizens.

Meanwhile, European leaders have understood the message. The Berlin Declaration that will mark the EU's 50th anniversary, is expected to give fresh impetus to the stalled constitutional debate. Not only will it outline the EU's historic achievements in terms of peace, freedom, prosperity and solidarity, it will stress the need to defend a more social Europe in negotiations over its future.

Former President Jacques Delors understands this sense of crisis and calls for the EU to be more ambitious in its attempts to unite citizens behind a new vision. On the question what urgent measures should be undertaken in order achieve this, Delors recommends the creation of a genuine European Energy Community, modelled on the concept of the early European Coal and Steel Community.

He said that such a European Energy Community will contribute to strengthening a feeling of unity as it allows Europeans to create an entirely new kind of economy, one based on sustainability, hyper-efficiency, clean energy, and environmental responsibility. According to Delors, climate change, low carbon energy and a green future are building blocks of a unifying discourse the underlying values of which are shared by many citizens:
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At first sight it might seem strange to choose energy, of all things, as the core of a new collective vision for the future of Europe. But on further reflection it may make sense: energy touches the kernel of the way our societies work - economically, socially, (geo)politically and environmentally. By radically changing this kernel, all the issues connected to it take on a new color as well.

The abundance of fossil fuels was the core of an economic model that made an unsustainable consumer lifestyle possible for a while (the 20th century). This paradigm implied an industrial model and a mentality in which nature, people and social relations are expendable, exchangeable and depletable. Climate change proves that, at least when it comes to nature, such a vision is disastrous for our future.

Politically and geopolitically speaking, the fossil fuel paradigm has fueled some of the world's dirtiest conflicts. The war in Iraq is just the latest example - global terrorism its consequence.

So by radically rethinking our energy paradigm, we are forced to rethink our productive, economic and social relations - on a European and on a global scale. This is why Delors' suggestion for a European Energy Community goes beyond energy and hints at new mentalities, new modes of production and consumption, and a more holistic, sustainable relation with nature.

If Europe were to speak with one voice on the international stage, it would also be much stronger to convince others to join the attempts to create a greener and climate secure future.

A European Energy Community would have very practical uses as it would strengthen the Union's positions in talks with the producers of oil and gas, with rapidly emerging economies, and with the U.S. over climate change, sustainable development and a shift towards a low carbon economy. In an era of volatile energy prices, geopolitical troubles, and the inconvenient truth of global warming, the idea is most welcome.

More information:
MPT: Jacques Delors suggests creation of European Energy Community - March 21, 2007
RTBF: Jacques Delors intarissable sur l’Europe - March 17, 2007
Forum de Paris: L’Europe par l’énergie - Jan 11, 2007
Le Monde, L’énergie pour relancer l’Europe - Nov. 7, 2006.

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FAO project promotes Brazilian technology for agriculture in Africa

A new FAO project in Kenya and the United Republic of Tanzania is forging links between farming communities and Brazilian firms specialized in production of equipment used in conservation agriculture (CA). The objective of that South-South cooperation is to boost agricultural production in both countries by encouraging a shift to CA techniques, which optimize the use of farm labour and could also help reduce widespread land degradation.

Under the three-year, Germany-funded project, up to 4,000 farmers are to be trained through participatory field schools in conservation agriculture practices, including reduced or no-tillage (NT) and the use of permanent soil cover.

Conservation agriculture encompasses a set of complementary agricultural practices based on three principles:
  • minimal soil disturbance through reduced or no-tillage in order to preserve soil organic matter
  • permanent soil cover (cover crops, residues and mulches) to protect the soil and suppress weeds without need for chemical herbicides
  • diversified crop rotations and associations, which promote soil micro-organisms and disrupt plant pests and diseasesmain principles of no-tillage and conservation
Since dedicated CA implements - such as knife-rollers and direct seeders - are not widely available, the project will take Kenyans and Tanzanians to Brazil to study CA technologies and will design strategies for developing a sustainable equipment supply chain in the subregion. Lessons learned will be "up-scaled" and disseminated throughout Africa.

FAO says conservation agriculture offers Kenyan and Tanzanian farmers a pathway to sustainable agriculture and rural development, which hinges on sustainable land management and better use of available farm labour.

In Tanzania, where the economy is based mainly on small-scale farming and livestock, an estimated 44 percent of the rural population lives below the poverty line. In neighbouring Kenya, the incidence of rural poverty is around 50 percent, despite strong recent growth in the farm sector:
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In both countries, land degradation is a major constraint on the productivity of labour and other external inputs. In addition, farming communities have been seriously weakened by migration to urban areas, the rapid spread of the HIV/AIDS, and the persistence of debilitating diseases such as malaria. The reduction in farm labour availability is forcing farmers to abandon traditional methods of land preparation and other farm operations, and many now plant seed directly into unprepared land immediately after the onset of wet season rains.

"While farmers and extensionists often regard such practices as a poor way of farming, planting without ploughing uses less human labour and animal power," says Josef Kienzle, of FAO's Agricultural and Food Engineering Technologies Service. "So, far from being a 'coping mechanism', no-tillage cultivation has the potential - if carried out in conjunction with other appropriate agronomic practices - to become an important part of strategies to improve food production and stabilize threatened rural livelihoods."

The benefits of no-tillage on small farms are well known in Brazil, which has pioneered conservation agriculture in tropical and subtropical farming systems. The first prototype NT seeder and a prototype knife-roller for residue management were designed in 1985 by Agronomic Institute of Paraná State (IAPAR). Research over the following years bore fruit in 1992, when the Paraná government launched a large-scale evaluation of CA systems and ordered 50 seeders and other equipment from a local manufacturer.

With that political backing, and the support of government and private extension services, other small industries began producing CA equipment and developing new designs tailored to different types of soil, crops and animals. Direct seeding was soon recognized as an excellent means of natural resource conservation, which attracted financial support from the federal government for a programme that encouraged farmers to adopt the innovations.

Economic advantages. Evaluations have confirmed the economic advantages of no-tillage over conventional tillage systems. Trials conducted between 1997 and 1999 showed that the maize yields of no-tillage farmers were 3.5% higher and overall income 11.3% higher. "The most striking differences were observed for returns to labour," says IAPAR's Fátima dos Santos Ribeiro. "Since it requires less labour and distributes labour inputs more evenly across the year, no-tillage systems have a clear advantage."

One study in Brazil's Central-Southern region found that bean production required around 140 hours of labour per hectare using no-tillage methods, compared to 190 h/ha under conventional tillage. In fact, surveys show that, for farmers, the reduction in labour requirements is the most important benefit of no-tillage, ahead of erosion control and even yield increases.

To transfer and adapt that experience to East Africa, the new FAO project will build on the achievements of a pilot CA programme in Kenya and Tanzania, implemented between 2004 and 2006, that created 90 Farmer Field Schools to train farmers and extensionists in CA and sustainable land management. As part of that programme, FAO helped procure a limited quantity of CA equipment from southern Brazil manufacturers.

"In this new phase," says Josef Kienzle, "we will be facilitating the creation of a further 200 field schools, and Brazil has now become a full development partner. An important aim is to help East African equipment manufacturers learn more about Brazilian experience in building a self-sustaining input supply chain for CA equipment, and to promote direct private sector and dealer relationships between Brazil and East Africa."

After an initial study visit by Kenyan and Tanzanian farmers, equipment manufacturers and suppliers to Brazil, Brazilian manufacturers will tour East Africa to gain first-hand knowledge of the small farm sector and the equipment supply chain, with an eye to developing collaborative ventures. The project will explore different approaches to no-till equipment supply in Africa, ranging from direct importation, local assembly and local manufacturing with imported components, to full local production and joint ventures.

Image: In Tanzania, a trainer demonstrates the use of a Brazilian-made direct seeder. Courtesy: FAO.


More information:


FAO's regional partner in the Kenya-Tanzania conservation agriculture project is the African Conservation Tillage (ACT) Network, a Nairobi-based association of farmers, input and machinery manufacturers and suppliers, researchers and extensionists. Founded in 2000 with GTZ support, the network promotes CA as a means of improving food security and rural livelihoods in the region. See the ACT website.

The Conservation Agriculture for Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development project in Kenya and Tanzania
FAO's Conservation agriculture website
FAO Magazine Spotlight: Conservation agriculture - Feb. 2006
FAO Magazine Spotlight: Zero tillage - Jan. 2001
FAO Magazine Spotlight: "Cover crops" save soil in Brazil - May 2001.


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Farming in tropical rainforest can preserve biodiversity, ecological service and bring incomes

For the first time a large, truly multidisciplinary team of scientists has studied the complex tradeoffs between incomes for poor farmers in the tropics, biodiversity loss and the way ecosystems cope with deforestation. The results are interesting in the context of biofuel production in the tropics. They show that while conversion of tropical forest for agriculture results in significant declines in biodiversity and carbon storage, farming cash crops such as cacao under the partial shade of high canopy trees can provide a way to balance economic gain with environmental considerations.

The team consisted of a dozen scientists from mainly German universities, in particular the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, the University of Hohenheim and the University of Bayreuth. Other researchers were from the Bogor Agricultural University and the Tadulako University, both in Indonesia, and from the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium. Results are published in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Losses of biodiversity and ecosystem functioning due to rainforest destruction and agricultural intensification are prime concerns for science and society alike. Potentially, ecosystems show nonlinear responses to land-use intensification that would open management options with limited ecological losses but satisfying economic gains. However, multidisciplinary studies to quantify ecological losses and socioeconomic tradeoffs under different management options are rare. The group of scientists from the social sciences (cultural anthropology, sociology and economics) and plant biologists therefor joined forces to evaluate opposing land use strategies and their socioeconomic outcomes in a focused case-study.

Their object of research was the cacao agroforestry system as it is commonly found in Sulawesi, Indonesia. Field studies were conducted at the margins of Lore Lindu National Park (LLNP) in Central Sulawesi. Sulawesi, an island east of Borneo and northeast of Bali and Java, has high levels of endemic biodiversity which is increasingly threatened by deforestation.

The researchers used data on species richness of nine plant and animal taxa, six related ecosystem functions, and on socioeconomic drivers of agroforestry expansion. Interestingly, they also took into account rarely considered cultural factors, such as culturally driven expectations about risk and wealth that go far beyond rational economics or the analysis of pure market forces. These cultural factors played a big role in the expansion of cacao cultivation by 230% in the last two decades.

The results of the study indicate the following:
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  • Transformation from near-primary forest to agroforestry had little effect on overall species richness, but reduced plant biomass and carbon storage by approximately 75% and species richness of forest-using species by approximately 60%.
  • In contrast, increased land use intensity in cacao agroforestry, coupled with a reduction in shade tree cover from 80% to 40%, caused only minor quantitative changes in biodiversity and maintained high levels of ecosystem functioning while doubling farmers' net income.
  • Unshaded systems further increased income by approximately 40%, implying that current economic incentives and cultural preferences for new intensification practices put shaded systems at risk.
"We found that a soft intensification of agroforestry that decreases canopy cover by shade trees from 80% to 40%, will double the farmers' income while leaving biodiversity and ecosystem services on a similar level," Dr. Teja Tscharntke, a co-author of the paper and a professor of agroecology at University of Goettingen. "This is an example of a win-win or small loss-big gain situation that we need more to identify sustainable conservation strategies."

The researchers say that while the environmental payoffs of shade-grown cacao are evident, economic incentives are needed to encourage this style of farming. They note that premium "shade-grown" coffee could serve as a model to generate higher income for farmer using agroforestry techniques. Steffan-Dewenter and colleagues add that education and awareness campaigns could further the cause.

"Encouragement of cultural preferences for shaded cacao agroforestry systems and education of local farmers about unappreciated ecosystem services provided by shaded systems could further promote the implementation of certification schemes," the authors write. "Such market-based incentives will crucially determine whether shaded agroforestry systems remain important refugia for tropical biodiversity and sources of essential ecosystem services."

"These findings are the result of fruitful collaboration among ecological and socioeconomic groups and among Indonesian and German researchers," added Tscharntke. "The key was to identify the drivers and effects of land use. From this we were able to develop concepts of sustainable land use."

The scientists conclude that low-shade agroforestry provides the best available compromise between economic forces and ecological needs. Certification schemes for shade-grown crops may provide a market-based mechanism to slow down current intensification trends.


Biofuels and agroforestry
The results are particularly useful for sustainable biofuel projects that rely on agroforestry, instead of on monocultures and/or deforestation. Several research efforts are underway to study the feasibility of making fuels out of non-plantation forestry products - such as oil seeds harvested in pristine rainforests. For an example of these efforts we refer to a pilot project in Brazil based on utilising wild babassu nuts.

According to the researchers of this project, there is a large potential for energy production from the shells of these nuts (up to 260 MW of biomass energy for poor forest communities). Babaçu is a palm tree native to Brazil, widely grown there and provides an important industrial and economical resource because of the oil extracted from the kernels.

The oil is similar to coconut oil and is gradually conquering that market. Since the trees are not grown in plantations, but are used as they stand in the wild (in the Amazon), its nuts are harvested manually by some of Brazil's poorest communities. They are often left with huge waste-streams of shells after they have removed the oil-rich kernels (which is done manually as well). Unicamp's Faculty of Mechanical Engineering studied the potential for using this waste in efficient co-generation plants, and sees a great opportunity in it for rural electrification. Each year, some 2.9 million tons of babassu shell are wasted (earlier post, scroll down).

Similar projects are underway in Cameroon (involving oil-rich Karité nuts) and Gabon, whereas in China, perennial crops like Jatropha curcas are studied for their reforestation capacity as well as their potential to act as shade-crops for legumes in intercropping systems. In such systems (not a typical agroforestry system since it involves new forests), the jatropha trees would function as carbon sinks, their seeds would provide biodiesel feedstocks, and the shade would protect legume cultures. The idea is to create integrated systems that can be managed by smallholders (earlier post).

More information:
Ingolf Steffan-Dewentera, et al, "Tradeoffs between income, biodiversity, and ecosystem functioning during tropical rainforest conversion and agroforestry intensification" [*abstract], PNAS, March 20, 2007 | vol. 104 | no. 12 | 4973-4978.
Mongabay, Farming in the rainforest can preserve biodiversity, ecological services, May 5, 2007.


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Disappointing yields dampen switchgrass enthusiasm

Governments both in the EU and the US view switchgrass and other herbaceous energy crops as plentiful and low-cost alternatives to corn or sugarbeets for making the next generation of biofuels.

As sources of cellulose, such dedicated energy crops can be used as feedstocks for the production of cellulosic ethanol and for synthetic biofuels obtained from the gasification of biomass. The dream of these temperate regions of the planet is to turn their vast prairies and grasslands into energy plantations.

Crude economics
But the price of the switchgrass and similar feedstocks must be kept low enough so that (next-generation) biofuel plants can afford to buy them. Some interesting data from Iowa State University now show that, as things currently stand, the economics of switchgrass do not work out.

The US Energy Department hasn't specified a cost target for switchgrass but does have one for corn: US$35 per ton - needed to keep biofuels competitive. If the experience of switchgrass growers in Iowa is a guide, ethanol plants are going to have to pay a lot more than that for switchgrass.

Farmers in four southern Iowa counties have been growing switchgrass as part of the Chariton Valley Biomass Project, a cooperative effort between the Chariton Valley Resource Conservation and Development Inc., Alliant Energy, Prairie Lands Biomass LLC, and the U.S. Department of Energy.

What they have found is that it costs farmers about US$60 a ton to grow, harvest and bale the grass, including the price of seed, fertilizer and herbicides. It costs another US$25 for storage and transportation costs, and then farmers will need an additional US$30 to US$40 a ton in profit to make it worth their while. In short, cellulose ethanol and synthetic biofuel producers would face feedstock costs of between US$115 and US$120, more than three times those of corn.

A question of yields
Low yields are to blame for the unfavorable economics. Switchgrass yields in the Iowa project have averaged about 3 tons per acre (7.4 tons per hectare), way below what would be necessary to make an ethanol plant competitive: 8 to 12 tons per acre (20 to 30 tons/ha), according to Mark Downing, who analyzes bioenergy markets for the Energy Department.

We can't stress enough that real switchgrass yields - not hoped for, desired or projected yields - are marginal compared to those of tropical grass species, such as sugarcane, sorghum or gynerium sagittatum. In Brazil, in 2005, the average sugarcane yield was 80 tons/ha; many plantations easily yield 120 tons/ha. Trials with new sweet sorghum hybrids in the Philippines showed average yields of 110 tons/ha (earlier post). And plantations of gynerium sagittatum show 50 tons/ha on average. In short, from a purely economic point of view, producing biomass and biofuels in the (sub)tropics makes much more sense than attempting it in the North.

The biomass feedstock cost is the single most important factor determining the viability of biofuels projects. It informs all further decisions on investments in harvesting technologies and logistics - such as transporting, pre-processing and storing. It determines design, scaling and expansion options and opportunities for biofuel plants. It indicates how much land will have to be dedicated to supply a plant of a particular scale. It determines the environmental footprint of the venture. It opens or closes opportunities to create efficient cogeneration facilities that can power the biofuel plant. It determines the risk levels of a biofuel venture as it competes with fossil fuels with their volatile prices, and so on.

Stuck in cornfields?
Switchgrass has been hyped because supposedly it would yield large amounts of affordable biomass and consequently cellulosic ethanol or synthetic biofuels:
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The hope was that by utilising such a dedicated energy crop, land requirements would be reduced. Unfortunately, the first large-scale trials now prove that indeed, much of the enthusiasm was not based on realistic assessments.

Mike Duffy, an Iowa State University economist who has analyzed the project, puts the production costs of switchgrass at US$50 a ton. "There's no $35-a-ton switchgrass," conceded his collegue, Mark Downing. His department is undertaking a study, which will include the use of satellite imagery, soil carbon measurements and climate data, to decide whether and where it might still be feasible to grow the herbaceous energy crops.

He said the high cost of Iowa land is a major impediment to biomass crop production in the state. "That's going to be really tough, to get a farmer to get out of corn and produce switchgrass," he said.

It is not unreasonable to assume that in both the US and the EU, farmers will stick to producing crops like corn for biofuels. Betting on switchgrass may prove to be too risky. But sticking to corn would obviously be disastrous from an environmental perspective - because these fuels have a very low energy balance even though they are commercially viable - and perhaps even more so from a social point of view, because these are food crops that should be consumed as such.

At the Biopact, we obviously present a far more realistic and sustainable alternative, on which we base our entire concept: natural resources and agro-climatic factors leading to good biomass yields, and the need for economic development in the South, make biofuel and biomass production there not only most feasible commercially, but also from an environmental and social point of view.

As many scientists, economists and think tanks have come to understand, Europe and the US should import these fuels, instead of making their own, which contribute marginally to fighting climate change, strengthening energy security or relieving poverty. There is not reason to perpetuate the European and American mirage of 'energy independence', on which so much of the switchgrass hype was based. Interdependence and a diversification of biofuel supplies, opening world markets for biofuel trade from the South and ending the market distorting US/EU subsidies for bad biofuel crops such as corn, is the way forward.

Image: harvesting switchgrass, yields of which are way below expectations. Courtesy of the Chariton Valley Biomass Project.

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Venezuela and IADB clash over $200 billion biofuels plan

Quicknote geopolitics
During the 48th annual meeting of the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) in Guatemala City, the IADB launched a proposal to invest a massive US$200/€150 billion by 2020 for the mass production of biofuels in the hemisphere and to reduce the continent's oil dependence.

Meeting participants took a strategic look at the risks and opportunities in a future of diminishing fossil fuels and greater global warming, at a seminar sponsored by the German government.

However, the proposed injection of US$200 billion prompted a negative reaction by Venezuela, the continent's major oil exporter. "Suggesting an investment of US$200 billion is incredible when, even at this moment, two out of five Latin Americans do not have access to power supply," Venezuelan Finance Minister Rodrigo Cabeza minister told reporters.

IADB President Luis Alberto Moreno countered by saying that "biofuels are a chance for the region to tap into its natural resources, as part of an activity that involves development of technological innovation sites, investment in infrastructure, streamlining of rural sectors and jobs creation".

Biofuels as such aren't the real issue, because Venezuela itself is creating bilateral cooperation agreements with, among others, Brazil and especially Cuba, for the production of the climate-neutral fuels. With Cuba, it recently agreed to cooperate on the construction of 11 ethanol plants (earlier post), while at home, President Hugo Chavez has initiated a plan to build 17 such biofuel production facilities (earlier post). He even invited South-East Asian producers to establish plantations in the country (previous post).

What is at stake is Venezuela's attempt to control the energy politics of South-America. Interference by a multilateral organisation like the IADB - perceived to be loyal to U.S. interests, not surprisingly since U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson was present at the meeting and vowed strong support for the biofuels plan - is seen by Venezuela's left-wing government as 'neo-imperialism'. It forms a threat to the country's attempts to forge a broad left-wing alliance in Latin America, in which energy is used as a geopolitical weapon.

A similar reaction came from the country when U.S. President Bush signed a biofuel cooperation agreement with Brazil earlier this month. Brazil, the genuine regional superpower, has recently distanced itself from President Hugo Chavez's increasingly agressive attempts to control the debate over biofuels and energy security in Latin America [entry ends here].
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Italy and Brazil to join biofuel efforts in Africa

Another typical 'South-North-South' cooperation agreement is in the making between Brazil and Italy, whose state-owned energy companies want to join forces to tap Africa's huge sustainable bioenergy production potential (earlier post).

Similar agreements have been made between France and Brazil, the UK and Brazil and recently the US and Brazil. In their crudest form, this kind of pacts usually looks as follows: the partner from the North brings in financial and technical resources, the Brazilians contribute their invaluable scientific, agronomic and technological expertise on biofuels, and the African partner offers the investment opportunity.

For the time being, most of these agreements are organised bi- and trilaterally, even though the Biopact still thinks the EU should leverage its collective power to create a much more ambitious accord, in which it would couple its development policies to its energy and trade policies and create a Euro-African synergy aimed at increasing energy security and supplies of low carbon fuels for Europe and opening up the opportunity to help lift millions of farmers on the continent out of poverty. There are some indications that such a vision is beginning to reach the highest levels of European decision making (earlier post).

The Italo-Brazilian talks involve state-run oil company Petrobras and Italian energy firm Eni SpA. The goal is to build a presence in Sub-Saharan Africa aimed at exporting biofuels to Italy. Brazil itself already has a dedicated biofuel task force in Accra, Ghana, and is building alliances on the continent, fast.

Eni executives met with officials from Petroleo Brasileiro SA last week and will meet again next week regarding possible cooperation in biodiesel and ethanol Petrobras Downstream Director Roberto Costa said.

The main focus of Eni officials was the construction of biodiesel plants in Mozambique and Angola. Both these countries have a very large sustainable biofuel potential. We indicated this earlier (for Angola, and for Mozambique).

Eni is also seeking international alliances in biofuels, especially in countries where it has exploration and production activities, including Angola and Congo. This last country too has the potential to become a 'biofuel superpower' (earlier post).

Costa made the comments ahead of Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi's visit next week to Brazil to meet with President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva:
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Petrobras and Eni are also interested in sharing their experiences in the refining of heavy oil, Costa said.

Italy's government has a stake of about 30 percent in Eni, while the Brazilian government owns 60 percent of Petrobras.

Brazil is the world's largest exporter of ethanol and its second-biggest producer, after the United States.

Brazil, Latin America's largest nation, is also ramping up production of biodiesel, and will require a 2 percent blend of biodiesel in regular diesel starting next year. The percentage will rise to 5 percent by 2013.

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Pure Biofuels announces land lease plan for 60,000 hectares for oil palm in Peru

Pure Biofuels today announced its plans to lease 60,000 hectares near the city of Pucallpa in central Peru for the cultivation of African oil palm to provide feedstock for its Callao Port biodiesel production facility on the coast near Lima.

The city of Pucallpa is located near the Brazilian border, some 500km (300miles) inland from the Callao port. The land, currently classified as 'empty and degraded', is being made available to Pure Biofuels under a sanction agreement with the government of Peru. The company expects to complete its application process and finalize its lease in the coming months.

"The lease of this land provides Pure Biofuels with a unique, vertical self-supply capability that will help sustain our production capacity at levels unattainable by other producers in the region," stated Pure Biofuels’ President, Luis Goyzueta.

The biofuel maker is confident that the African Palms it intends to cultivate will find a healthy environment in the central Peruvian forests. It’s a hearty plant that thrives in the tropical environment. "Our ability to self-supply our feedstock will contribute to our independence and protection from outside market conditions and commodity price fluctuations and will undoubtedly help Pure Biofuels prosper".

The biofuel producer's production facilities in Callao consist of three 17.5 million gallon (66 million liter) per year modules, with an annual production capacity of 52.5 million gallons (almost 200 million liters) of biodiesel per year. The plant is being built on a 47,000-square-meter parcel of waterfront land located a short distance from the La Pampilla Refinery, one of Peru’s largest oil refineries:
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With a 50 million gallon per year facility, Pure Biofuels hopes to make a significant impact on the amount of diesel fuel used in Peru, and, more importantly, it says it can help contribute to the energy independence of all of South America.

If its plans are realised, Pure Biofuels would indeed be one of Latin America's larger biofuel companies. The flagship project, the Callao Port biodiesel refinery near Lima, Peru, is scheduled to commence production during the fourth quarter of 2007.

The Callao Port refinery will process biodiesel from Pure Biofuels' own crude palm oil feedstock, whereas the firm has also secured memorandums of understanding with local fuel distributors for all of Callao Port's annual biodiesel production.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

German biogas company to make gas from sugarcane residues in India

One of the world's leading biogas companies, Biogas Nord AG, based in Bielefeld is taking its first step into the robustly growing Indian renewable energy market. The company received the first contract for the construction of a large biogas plant for the sugar factory Shree Tatyasaheb Kore Warana SSK Ltd. in the Indian state of Maharashta.

The sugar factory in Warana offers the ideal conditions for the operation of a biogas plant. The factory produces approximately 40,000 tons of press cake (bagasse) per year, from which biogas can be produced on a large scale. At the same time, high-quality fertilizer is left behind, and the methane gas emissions that would otherwise be produced can be avoided.

Biogas Nord is going to plan, deliver, and install the new plant and put it into service once completed. The construction of the current biogas plant will begin in approximately three months, will be finished by the end of this year and put into service at the beginning of the coming year. The biogas produced at the sugar factory should replace the fossil fuels it uses for its operations.

The highly efficient biogas plants installed by Biogas Nord AG are based on a flow-storage process. This involves the operation of several tanks (fermenters) with biomass substrate continuously flowing through them (see picture, click to enlarge).

The contract, worth €1.8 million euros, was signed and the foundation stone for the biogas plant was laid in the presence of the Minister for Economic Affairs from North Rhine-Westphalia, Christa Toben, and of Vinay V. Kore, Minister of the State of Maharashta responsible for renewable energy. Mr Kore recently visited North Rhine-Westphalia and was convinced of the potential for large-scale biogas production.

Discussions were held on further biogas plant developments with other sugar factories in the state. There are 165 sugar factories in Maharashta, representing more than half of the total sugar factories in India:
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Biogas Nord AG is one of the largest German technology providers in the biogas sector. The services of the company and its currently over 130 employees encompass all areas of biogas technology, from concept development, detailed planning, plant construction and operation to service and support. The company has already grown very strongly in the last several years. Since 1995, it planned and built over 150 biogas plants.

About fifty other biogas plants are currently in the construction, approval, or planning phase in Germany, the Netherlands, Belarus, USA, England, Italy, Spain, Cuba, and Thailand.

The installed electrical output of BIOGAS NORD biogas plants is more than 50 MW, which can supply 70,000 households with electricity or heat from renewable energy.

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Scientists develop analytical system to monitor trace elements in biomass gasification

In recent years there has been significant and high-profile interest in the use of biofuels as possible alternatives to fossil fuels, as part of a move to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Although combustion accounts for most biofuel use, there has also been significant research into biofuel gasification, a transformation step needed to make synthetic biofuels (earlier post, and here).

However, the behaviour of trace elements during gasification can be problematic, with environmental concerns over toxic components, and process problems caused by alkali metal corrosion and fouling.

David Poole and colleagues at the University of Sheffield and SPECTRO Analytical Instruments, Germany have been conducting experiments to continuously monitor the concentration of various trace elements in the raw gasification gas from an experimental reactor (click to enlarge), in an effort to determine which elements are volatilised. They published their results in the Journal of Analytical Atomic Spectrometry [open access article].

Results of initial tests indicate that the concentration of some elements in the gas phase are extremely high, far higher than in combustion processes, and therefore are of significant concern. Owing to to problems with tar formation in the gasification process, the analysis proved extremely challenging, and further development of the sampling and pre-treatment procedure would be required to obtain more accurate, reliable, and long-term continuous monitoring results.

The German and British scientists also developed a portable, self-contained analytical laboratory for the continuous monitoring of the trace elements that are released during biofuel gasification. The system uses an inductively coupled plasma-optical emission spectrometer to measure the concentration of up to 70 elements simultaneously:
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'Gasification is of growing interest as this can increase the energy efficiency of biofuel use,' said Poole, 'but the behaviour of trace elements during gasification can be problematic, with environmental concerns over toxic constituents such as lead, cadmium and arsenic, and process problems caused by others such as potassium and sodium.'

High concentrations of potassium and sodium were detected, which, according to Poole, could result in fouling and corrosion of gasification plants. The heavy metals measured were not detected at significantly high concentrations. The researchers will continue to optimise and improve their analytical system, and plan to develop more automated and robust systems.

More information:

David J. Poole, Vida Sharifi, Jim Swithenbank, Paul Kilgallon, Nigel Simms, John Oakey and Dirk Ardelt, "Continuous analysis of elemental emissions from a biofuel gasifier", J. Anal. At. Spectrom., 2007 DOI: 10.1039/b616798e

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US-EU forum on transatlantic energy technology development

The European Commissioner for External Relations and European Neighbourhood Policy, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, has attended an EU-US Ministerial Troika meeting in Washington yesterday, alongside German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier representing the current EU Presidency, and High Representative Javier Solana. The agenda was dominated by external relations issues, after which Ferrero-Waldner attended a meeting bringing together US and European scientists, financiers and entrepreneurs to launch a US-EU Energy Tech CEO Forum to intensify Trans-Atlantic energy technology development. Amongst the entrepreneurs present were Vinod Khosla of Khosla Ventures, who has been investing heavily in cellulosic ethanol in the US and in Brazil.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice opened the Forum by summing up the challenges for the future of energy supplies, energy security and global sustainability. Not surprisingly, the recently closed biofuels cooperation agreement between the US and Brazil was put forward as a sign of a new energy paradigm. In her speech, Ferrero-Waldner announced that the EU will host an international conference on biofuels on the 5th and 6th of July in Brussels that will be attended by President Barroso and President Lula.

A summary of the main points of the speeches offers an insight into how strentghened transatlantic ties on technology development, science, and energy policy may ultimately benefit poorer countries. And perhaps more importantly, this synergy may bring rapidly developing countries like China and India into a global partnership to tackle climate change:
  • Energy is truly a global challenge - making a decisive impact on issues as diverse as security, diplomacy, development, and climate change. No one nation can address the global energy crisis alone. We need to work together to seize new opportunities to develop cleaner and more efficient sources of energy and to prevent the global and rapidly growing demand for energy resources from generating unnecessary confrontation in the years ahead.
  • This is one of President Bush's highest priorities, and he has identified five key goals that will drive our policies at home and serve as the beginning of our consultations with allies abroad. We seek: (1) to diversify world energy sources through free, open, competitive markets; (2) to encourage a variety of energy sources, including renewable and alternate fuels; (3) to use energy wisely through efficiency and conservation; (4) to expand strategic energy reserves; (5)and to protect the world's critical energy infrastructure.
  • President Bush recently visited Brazil and launched a new partnership with the Brazilian Government in the area of biofuels [earlier post]. This agreement will transform the way we work together (1) to promote a critical alternative energy source, (2) deepening research and investment, (3) helping developing countries in our hemisphere and beyond to fuel their growth, (4) and working to enable more countries to supply energy for themselves and for others.
  • The goal [of the Brazil biofuels cooperation agreement] is to promote the democratization of energy - increasing the number of energy suppliers, which expands the market, boosts competition, and reduces the chance of supply disruption.
  • We are approaching an inflection point in history when science, technology, policy and free markets are all converging on new approaches to supply affordable, reliable and clean sources of energy. To seize this opportunity fully, we need to change the shape of the table, ensuring a seat not just for policymakers, but for leading scientists and most especially for the private sector. That is exactly what we are doing today, Americans and Europeans together, to spur new and innovative approaches.
  • The United States and Europe are in a unique position to advance our common energy agenda both across the Atlantic and across the world. We share a common heritage which has generated many of the world's great entrepreneurs and many of its leading economies. We have the deepest and most innovative capital markets, seeding and growing many of the world's most innovative companies. We also have world-leading technical capacity to solve intractable challenges.
  • Our discussion today will target three key areas of transatlantic cooperation. (1) First, we will canvass the most promising opportunities for increasing government-to-government collaboration. (2) Second, we will explore how we can build better and more extensive public-private partnerships. (3) And finally, surrounded by the leaders of many of the most prominent companies in the energy industry, we will discuss opportunities among the private sector participants to push the edge of the envelope of energy technology innovation.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, whose country is holding the rotating presidency of the EU, stressed that climate change and technology transfers to non-Western countries will be crucial to ensure a clean and secure energy future:
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  • This forum once again bears out, or is going to bear out, that issues to do with climate policy have very much moved to the center of international politics. There is a link between energy policy -- in external energy policy, climate protection, that is indeed a central topic for us in Europe and not only for us in Europe really, but it's become a very important topic in the United States of America, too.
  • We touched on the overall context of this subject matter the weekend before last and when we met at the EU summit meeting. And the decisions that were then taken reflect this discussion. I think it's fair to say that as far as our positions are concerned on a future policy and energy and climate, we have indeed made major headway here.
  • Only last week when we met with our ASEAN counterparts in Nuremberg, we met with countries who based their hopes on the fact that in the end they will not only become objects of appeal but that they will be integrated and included in these joint efforts undertaken by the United States of America and the European Union to do more for climate protection to further develop energy technologies.
  • And that then at a later point in time those technologies will also be made available to regions like Asia. I think that that is something that when we intensify the cooperation between the United States of America and Europe that is something that we can indeed attend to. I think it's going to be decisive for cooperation.
  • Both sides of the Atlantic are very active when it comes to the public but also to the private funds. A lot of these funds go into these areas. We are doing much more than we used to do in order to promote research and development of new technologies.
  • When it comes to cooperation between the United States and Europe, I think we can try to attend to reducing unnecessary red tape and bureaucracy, making tendering procedures easier so that the innovative potential can be tapped in a better way than has been the case so far and we can cooperate even more than we've done so far.
EU Commissioner for External Affairs, Benita Ferrero-Waldner:
  • When we work together, the European Union and the United States, then I think we can also bring in other very important players. I was in China and India recently and I mentioned also, very high on my agenda, these questions. And as you said with ASEAN there is great interest also with other players.
  • First on technology, I think we must bring to the markets new options for renewable energies and also for low emissions transport. And by the third quarter of this year, the commission indeed will table a very comprehensive directive -- you have heard about it already -- on the use of renewables, including on biofuels, heating and cooling, and also renewable electricity. And with our U.S. partners, we have recently also agreed to put second-generation biofuels at the top of our joint research agenda as already has been mentioned. And we are working on streamlining our respective procedures in order to cut off the red tape, very important.
  • We are on a track to a low-carbon economy and during this year, we shall complete specific legislative proposals to reduce CO-2 emissions, particularly in new vehicles. We shall further complete specific legislation on carbon captures and also storage.
  • Second point on targets. Our experience shows that voluntary targets alone, unfortunately, cannot do the job. Hence, the landmarks decisions of 9th March, when we, the European Union, entered into binding commitments on CO-2 reductions and renewables. And these targets are ambitious, but we think they are doable. While setting caps and limits, we are also committed to market-based instruments, notably the emissions trading system or the version of cap-and-trade.
  • Market-based instruments help companies to channel investment to those areas where the impact is highest and costs are lowest. Before the summer, therefore, the commission will complete the ongoing review of the EU emissions trading system. And ETS, as we call it, will then enable the European Union to collectively meet our obligations under the Kyoto protocol. This system will provide companies with a long-term regulatory certainty, which is important for U.S., we know, to implement investments in the most efficient manner. And we would like to invite the U.S. Government to consider creating jointly with us a common carbon market and transparent and compatible rules. And may I remind you that it was indeed the U.S. that successfully pioneered the cap-and-trade in fighting acid rain.
  • My third and last point, international cooperation. If we join forces, as I said at the beginning, I think we have a great chance to bring the other international actors in there. And meanwhile, I think there is tremendous scope for our joint EU-U.S. cooperation, but we also can work together with countries like China, India, Ukraine, and Russia. And in our bilateral strategy, the energy dialogue -- I must say we can share information about complimentary approaches. We can go out to the Caspian Sea region, the Black Sea region, and we are very keen to do that together.
Condoleezza Rice added that the United States has had an Asia-Pacific partnership, which includes China and India, in an effort to marry concerns about economic development, environmental stewardship, and energy supply. It is a model the thinks works very well because the point that China and India will have to somehow be a part of any effort is obviously a very important one. The Europeans are more in favor of a truly global and multilateral partnership, headed by the United Nations.

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Monday, March 19, 2007

EU Commission launches major program to 'open up' Central African Republic

The European Commission has announced a major programme to support governance and the opening-up of the Central African Republic (CAR), potentially a major biofuels producer.

European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid Louis Michel recently visited the CAR to take stock of the security situation, promote political stabilisation in the country and obtain commitments from the government in the matter of governance.

While there, he signed two financing agreements: one concerns €55 million for a comprehensive programme of institutional support and measures to open up the country, including the construction of a section of the Bouar-Garoua Boulai road, and the other €13.6 million for a programme to reduce multilateral and domestic arrears. These two operations make the Commission the CAR’s biggest donor.

The CAR is a large landlocked country (see map, click to enlarge) with a great untapped agricultural potential. It has one of the lowest population densities in the world (6.5 inhabitants/square kilometer). The CAR's 4 million inhabitants' average arable land availability is around 19 hectares per person, the highest ratio after Gabon and the DRCongo (see the FAO's Terrastat database).

Agriculture forms the backbone of the CAR's economy providing 55% of its GDP, and the sector employs around 70% of the country's population, which mainly lives in the countryside. Urbanisation in the CAR progresses very slowly, in contrast with other African countries. But despite the country's agricultural potential, its people belong to the poorest of the world, with an estimated yearly income of only US$300 per person. Large-scale bioenergy production offers a possible way out.

One of the main obstacles to the Central African Republic's development is its landlocked status, its lack of transport infrastructures and the high fuel import bills that drain its treasury. These factors strengthen each other and result in a negative synergy that keeps the CAR closed off from the outside world and its people in poverty. Transport fuels are extremely expensive in the country, because they have to be shipped in over the Congo and Ubangi rivers, and shortages are very frequent.

Given these factors, the CAR is one of those countries where the creation of a decentralised biofuels industry makes absolute sense. Locally produced transport fuels would reduce energy import bills and make it possible to gradually start exporting agricultural products, not in the least biofuels and biomass. The sustainable biomass production potential of the CAR is high, as a recent study by the EU's UCLOS project showed. The former french colony is one of those countries that make sub-Saharan Africa's long-term bioenergy potential so large (earlier post).

The CAR currently depends on international aid to survive economically and on NGOs for services the state is not capable of offering for lack of funds. Large-scale bioenergy production for exports could help end this dreadful situation.

In order to make this possible, basic investments in agriculture but especially in transport infrastructures are urgently needed. The country's main arteries, the Ubangi and Sangha rivers, are navigeable for most of the year, but it is the Congo river, in the DRCongo, which is the main bottleneck and requires most investment. Luckily, both the EU - with an extremely useful €5 billion infrastructure fund for Africa - and the World Bank are contributing to opening up these rivers, which are the backbone of Central African economies. Both institutions are very active in stabilising the region and reviving it, after it came out of a decade long civil war. Infrastructure, energy and agriculture are the key words in this large investment strategy. If these resources are put to good use, conditions are favorable to get a biofuels industry off the ground.

The following is a rough overview of indicators of the CAR's agricultural potential - the country currently uses less than 5% of its arable land - which we think can be illustrated with the help of some very basic maps:
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A main advantage of the CAR is the fact that its population density is extremely low, and its population is relatively evenly spread out over the country's territory, meaning it has an abundant land resource and a fairly low risk profile when it comes to potential social conflicts over land:



Secondly, and importantly, the country is made up largely of savanna, grasslands and scattered secondary forest. The precious ecosystem of the Congo Basin's rainforest is confined south of the Ubangi river, which means the CAR does not have to confront the controversial issue of deforestation, that often accompanies the biofuels debate. A map of the extent of the Congo Basin's rainforest makes the point (click to enlarge).

The CAR has a varied subtropical climate with the South being permanently humid, the largest, central part having a rainy and a dry season, with the upper North-east of the country being hot, dry and plagued by desertification. The country's main rivers are looked at as a great resource for irrigation. In the 1960s, they were the object of an (overly ambitious) plan to divert their water into Lake Chad. The copious amount of water from the Ubangi would revitalize that dying lake and provide livelihoods in fishing and enhanced agriculture to tens of millions of food insecure Central African and Sahelian people. Recently, the idea has regained attention because the cost and the technical hurdles faced by the proposal are supposedly quite manageable, compared to what it can achieve in uplifting the fate of those poorest of the African poor.

When it comes to the basic land suitability for different crops in the CAR, we refer to the following maps (all made by the Biopact, drawing on the FAO's database of Land Suitability Maps for Rainfed Cropping). Even though it remains to be seen which type of crops would make the best mix for the CAR's biofuel future, the maps, based on the agro-ecological zoning methodology, show the basic potential for different widely grown sugar and starch rich crops that can be seen as feedstocks for liquid biofuels. All maps show the suitability for rainfed cropping, with high inputs. The potential for crops under irrigation is not taken into account.

The exact hectarages and the potential yields for the crops can be found at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis's (IIASA) database of Global Agro-Ecological Zones (produced in collaboration with the FAO).

According to these datasets, the CAR has a total land area of 45.3 million hectares suitable for agriculture, out of a total territory of 61.8 million hectares. Of this land base, 29.8 million hectares are very suitable and suitable, 11 million ha are moderately suitable and 4.5 million are marginally suitable for rainfed agriculture under high inputs. The suitable area does not change much as inputs decrease (meaning low-input agriculture is feasible on a large scale). (Note: all datasets from the IIASA are formatted as *.xls files).

Sweet potato


Interestingly, 42.9 million hectares of the CAR's land base are very suitable to moderately suitable for sweet potatos, under rainfed conditions (click to enlarge). Sweet potato could become a driver of a true carbohydrate economy and is a seriously underutilized tropical sugar crop. However, some concrete projects are underway to produce ethanol from the plant's tubers and some of the world's leading companies (such as Toyota) are exploring its potential as a source for the production of lactic acid, from which bioplastics can be made (earlier post).


Cassava
40.7 million hectares of the CAR's land base are very suitable to moderately suitable for cassava, under rainfed conditions (click to enlarge). We have reported frequently on the potential for cassava to drive a bio-ethanol economy with the added advantage that, just like sugarcane, the crop yields an abundance of biomass residues that can be used for electricity generation (and later for cellulosic ethanol or for synthetic biofuels, if the conversion technologies for these second-generation fuels become commercially viable).

Sorghum
Some 25.2 million hectares of the CAR's land base are very suitable to moderately suitable for sorghum, under rainfed conditions (click to enlarge). The CAR would be a country where the ICRISAT's sweet sorghum hybrids for ethanol would grow well (earlier post).




Soybeans
31.5 million hectares of the CAR's land base are very suitable to moderately suitable for soybeans, under rainfed conditions (click to enlarge).





Sugarcane
Finally, according to the IIASA some 32.9 million hectares of the CAR's land base are very suitable to marginally suitable for sugarcane, under rainfed conditions (click to enlarge). It must be noted that of this total, only 4.4 million hectares are 'suitable', 12.7 million ha are classified as 'moderately suitable' and 15.8 mio ha are 'marginally suitable'. The main reason is sugarcane's relatively high water needs. Sweet sorghum holds a far better potential in the CAR.

Tree crops
Vast parts of the Central African Republic are also suitable for plantation trees such as eucalyptus and acacia - for which no AEZ maps and exact numbers are available. But there are some good data on this from a recent study carried out by European research organisations who looked at the sustainable production potential for woody biomass that could fuel energy intensive industrial sectors such as steel making, identified the country as one of the most interesting in sub-Saharan Africa.

In short, this brief overview of some of the indicators of the CAR's agricultural situation clearly indicates that the country can in theory become a strong bioenergy producer. If the growing food, fiber, fodder and fuel needs of the CAR's steadily growing (but still very small population) are met, the country still has a large resource base left for green energy production, which it can export.

But there is of course a wide gap between purely theoretical projections and assessments relying on natural factors (land, climate, etc...) and the economic, concrete potential, which is determined by man-made factors: from the political stability and investment climate in a country over its infrastructures to the way its leaders manage their country.

It is on this front that Louis Michel's initiative must be situated. The European Commissioner known for making Central Africa the prime focus of his policies said during his trip: “I am delighted to be making this visit, which is the first by a European Commissioner to the Central African Republic in over 30 years. The European Commission is proud to be assisting political change in the country. It is time to build on the achievements. I am delighted to see the inclusive dialogue that has been initiated between the government, opposition parties and civil society. We are aware of the difficult regional situation, which is exacerbated by the Darfur crisis, and want to give a tangible demonstration of our solidarity with the Central African Republic.”

Under the 9th European Development Fund (EDF, 2002-2007), the European Commission has focused on infrastructure, macroeconomic support and strengthening sound management of public finances. A further €15.5 million has been committed from the Peace Facility for Africa to help finance the multinational force (FOMUC) mandated by the Central African Economic and Monetary Community (CEMAC) until 30 June 2007. In particular, 2007 will see the commitment of €8 million for a support project for the health sector.

The country's initial allocation of €109 million under the 10th EDF (2008-2013) will be used to develop secondary towns and the surrounding areas by restoring the government’s authority and decentralised services (education, health, water, sanitation, tracks, infrastructure, communications networks, justice, policing and energy).

Cooperation with the CAR had been partially suspended in the wake of March 2003’s coup d’état. Close consultations ensued between the European Union and the CAR under Article 96 of the Cotonou Agreement. The Commission provided €3 million to help finance the organisation of elections in 2005. Full cooperation was restored in July 2005.

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Bleak future for coal, unless CCS becomes feasible - MIT report

The coal industry has been receiving several blows over the past few months, with the UN saying coal can only continue to fuel the future if carbon capture and storage (CCS) techniques (illustration, click to enlarge) are implemented massively (earlier post). Likewise, a top NASA scientist said he wanted no more of the climate destructive fuel at all (earlier post). And now a new study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reiterates that the fossil fuel faces a bleak future unless CCS is developed on a commercial scale and fast.

Leading academics from an interdisciplinary MIT panel issued the report that examines how the world can continue to use coal, an abundant and inexpensive fuel, in a way that mitigates, instead of worsens, the global warming crisis. The study, "The Future of Coal--Options for a Carbon Constrained World" advocates that the U.S. - the world's second largest coal consumer - assume global leadership on this issue through adoption of significant policy actions.

Led by co-chairs John Deutch, Institute Professor, Department of Chemistry, and Ernest J. Moniz, Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics and Engineering Systems, the report states that carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) is the critical enabling technology to help reduce carbon dioxide emissions significantly while also allowing coal to meet the world's pressing energy needs.

At the Biopact, we track developments in the technology and the political debate around CCS, because ultimately, the technique offers an avenue towards the creation of the greenest of all possible energy systems, namely 'Bio-Energy with Carbon Storage' (BECS). Using CCS to store carbon dioxide from fossil fuels, comes down to a climate-neutral operation. BECS however is the only concept that provides energy while being radically carbon negative. Using such a system would allow societies to continue to consume energy, while at the same time taking more and more CO2 out of the atmosphere. By using climate-neutral biomass instead of coal, and by storing the emissions of the burned biomass underground using CCS, plants become machines that capture carbon from the past. Scientists think BECS can take us back to pre-industrial CO2 levels in a matter of decades.

In order to make BECS work, biomass must become an affordable, abundant and easily tradeable energy source. Luckily, all these requirements can be met. According to some projections, biomass is already the cheapest of all fuels (both fossil and renewable) (earlier post). Add the vast and untapped potential of sustainable energy plantations in the (sub)tropics (which the EU recently studied), and the emergence of efficient international biomass trading (earlier post), then it is clear BECS might become feasible.

But CCS must first become viable as a sequestration technique. According to Deutch, "As the world's leading energy user and greenhouse gas emitter, the U.S. must take the lead in showing the world CCS can work. Demonstration of technical, economic and institutional features of CCS at commercial scale coal combustion and conversion plants will give policymakers and the public confidence that a practical carbon mitigation control option exists, will reduce cost of CCS should carbon emission controls be adopted and will maintain the low-cost coal option in an environmentally acceptable manner."

Moniz added, "There are many opportunities for enhancing the performance of coal plants in a carbon-constrained world--higher efficiency generation, perhaps through new materials; novel approaches to gasification, CO2 capture and oxygen separation; and advanced system concepts, perhaps guided by a new generation of simulation tools. An aggressive R&D effort in the near term will yield significant dividends down the road and should be undertaken immediately to help meet this urgent scientific challenge."

Key findings in the MIT study include:
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  • Coal is a low-cost, per BTU, mainstay of both the developed and developing world, and its use is projected to increase. Because of coal's high carbon content, increasing use will exacerbate the problem of climate change unless coal plants are deployed with very high efficiency and large-scale CCS is implemented.
  • CCS is the critical enabling technology because it allows significant reduction in carbon dioxide emissions while allowing coal to meet future energy needs.
  • A significant charge on carbon emissions is needed in the relatively near term to increase the economic attractiveness of new technologies that avoid carbon emissions and specifically lead to large-scale CCS in the coming decades. We need large-scale demonstration projects of the technical, economic and environmental performance of an integrated CCS system. We should proceed with carbon sequestration projects as soon as possible. Several integrated large-scale demonstrations with appropriate measurement, monitoring and verification are needed in the United States over the next decade with government support. This is important for establishing public confidence for the very large-scale sequestration program anticipated in the future. The regulatory regime for large-scale commercial sequestration should be developed with a greater sense of urgency, with the Executive Office of the President leading an interagency process.
  • The U.S. government should provide assistance only to coal projects with carbon dioxide capture in order to demonstrate technical, economic and environmental performance.
  • Today, Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle appears to be the economic choice for new coal plants with CCS. However, this could change with further research development and demonstration, so it is not appropriate to pick a single technology winner at this time, especially in light of the variability in coal type, access to sequestration sites and other factors. The government should provide assistance to several "first of their kind" coal utilization demonstration plants, but only with carbon capture.
  • Congress should remove any expectation that construction of new coal plants without carbon dioxide capture will be "grandfathered" and granted emission allowances in the event of future regulation. This is a perverse incentive to build coal plants without carbon dioxide capture today.
  • Emissions will be stabilized only through global adherence to carbon dioxide emission constraints. China and India are unlikely to adopt carbon constraints unless the United States does so and leads the way in the development of CCS technology.
  • Key changes must be made to the current Department of Energy research development and demonstration program to successfully promote CCS technologies. The program must provide for demonstration of CCS at scale; a wider range of technologies should be explored; and modeling and simulation of the comparative performance of integrated technology systems should be greatly enhanced.

The report is available online at web.mit.edu/coal.

About the MIT study: A group of MIT faculty has undertaken a series of interdisciplinary studies about how the United States and the world would meet future energy demand without increasing emissions of greenhouse gases. The first study, "The Future of Nuclear Power," appeared in 2003.

Generous financial support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Energy Foundation, the Better World Fund, the Norwegian Research Council and the MIT Office of the Provost is gratefully acknowledged. Shell provided additional support for part of MIT's studies in China.

More information:
MIT's dedicated website on the interdisciplinary study 'The Future of Coal'.

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The bioeconomy at work: Dow develops propylene glycol from biodiesel residue

The Dow Chemical Company announced a significant milestone in its pursuit of plant-based chemistries, with the introduction of monopropylene glycol derived from renewable, biological resources. Its 'Propylene Glycol Renewable' (PGR) is made from glycerin (glycerol) generated during the manufacture of biodiesel, produced from vegetable oils.

The use of biofuel byproducts as a feesdstock for hydrocarbon alternatives is important to increase the value of biofuel production and to make it more competitive with fossil fuels. Propylene glycol is normally made from propylene, a major petrochemical compound synthesised from oil. Now we have a green alternative - another step forward in the emerging 'bioeconomy'.

Glycerin is becoming abundant because of increasing biodiesel production, especially in Europe. Once considered a valuable co-product, crude glycerol is now actually seen as a waste product with an attached disposal cost. Researchers have therefor been looking into utilizing it as a feedstock for new products and markets. Some scientists suggest it makes for an excellent poultry feed additive, others see it as a suitable biogas feedstock (earlier post), whereas still others are trying to make liquid fuel out of it (previous post).

Dow joins the group and has found its own high-value product for glycerin. The chemical giant is currently conducting PGR trials with customers and anticipates having limited commercial quantities available in mid-2007. PGR will be used in such applications as unsaturated polyester resins (UPR) for boat hulls and bathroom fixtures as well as aircraft deicers, antifreeze for automobiles, recreational vehicles and marine and heavy-duty laundry detergents.

According to Mady Bricco, global product director for the Propylene Oxide/Propylene Glycol division, says that in addition to being manufactured from what is essentially a by-product of the biodiesel process, the production of PGR can be expected to provide additional environmental benefits when compared to propylene-based PG. For example, laboratory tests indicate that manufacturing PGR will consume considerably less fresh water than conventional PG:
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"PGR provides environmental benefits and is cost competitive. It also offers the same outstanding characteristics in terms of quality and performance as our existing PG products," says Bricco. "This breakthrough technology underscores Dow's commitment to deliver products and process technologies that bolster the company's sustainable chemistry aspirations. At the same time, PGR further strengthens our performance business portfolio, delivering an important building block material for a variety of industrial applications."

"We are excited to be at the forefront in developing this innovative, sustainable product. Manufacturers in several downstream industries are demanding the ability to provide more sustainable products to their customers," said Bricco. "Using PGR will enable customers to exercise their commitment to technologies that consume less fossil fuel and other finite resources."

Demand for PG continues to rise, accompanied by a parallel interest in sustainable products, which indicates that the industry is ripe for the introduction of PGR. The PGR product will provide Dow with flexibility in a variety of market conditions as the Company will offer two industrial-grade PG products from two different raw material systems.

"Offering conventional industrial grade PG (PGI) and PGR at the same time will allow Dow to provide customers with greater PG cost stability and predictability," said Bricco. "PGR pricing is independent of the volatility associated with hydrocarbon and energy costs. Meanwhile, we will continue to grow our conventional PGI offering in tandem with the new PGR product, which will liberate Dow from potential, future variability in seed oil and glycerin costs. From an economic standpoint, the dual offering gives Dow and its customers a distinct competitive advantage."

As the world's largest producer and marketer of PG, with more than 60 years of experience in the manufacture of PG, Dow now adds a sustainable product that complements its full PG product offering at economics that make sense in today's marketplace. In addition, customers will experience the same reliable and dependable performance from PGR that they associate with Dow's current industrial grade PG.

Dow has contracted with Dow Haltermann Custom Processing (DHCP), a Dow business unit comprised of operations within The Dow Chemical Company and Johann Haltermann, Ltd. to produce PGR from the crude glycerin generated from the production of biodiesel. DHCP will conduct pilot trials and eventually full-scale production of PGR at its Houston location.

Biodiesel is an alternative diesel fuel made through a chemical process called transesterification where glycerin is separated from vegetable and seed oils such as sunflower, soybean and canola and recycled cooking oil. The process generates methyl esters (biodiesel) and glycerin.

Image: biodiesel production is achieved by transesterifying vegetable oils. Glycerin settling at the bottom of a batch of biodiesel. Biodiesel production results in a fraction of 10% glycerol, making it an important byproduct.

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'Centre For Jatropha Promotion and Biodiesel' offers fuel plantation 'package'

The Rajasthan-based 'Centre For Jatropha Promotion & Biodiesel' (CJP) is attracting attention with its off-the-shelf packages for those who want to establish a biofuel plantation.

The CJP promotes Jatropha programs and activities it hopes will lead to energy independence and the greater use of cleaner transportation fuels, especially in the developing world. The transition from fossil fuels to farm grown renewable fuels relies on the dedication, theoretical and practical skills of the coming generation. Constant growth within the renewable energy industries, institutes and organizations has also created tremendous scope for personal and professional opportunities, which the CJP tries to kickstart.

So far, the CJP is the only global organization providing advanced level training with enhanced technology in the field of jatropha promotion for biodiesel production. By integrating technical and managerial issues, CJP has developed 'Jatropha Agricultural Training' package to deliver competences through qualified trainers with a practical 'hands on' approach.

The organisation further designs and implements the establishment biofuel farms in which Jatropha curcas crops are grown and exploited within a structured agri-supply chain. CJP offers research activities on byproducts and provides support/services to analyse and guide the entire "Soil to Oil" development and establishment of the biofuel crop.

The CJP gives us a glimpse of how it thinks the basic economics of jatropha farming work out. The numbers on a plantation of 10,000 ha can be summarised as follows:
  • Low value land area: 10,000 ha
  • Crop yields: 87,500 tons
  • Biodiesel Production: 37.8 million liters/10 million gallons per year
  • With an investment of US$15 million , sales of US$24 million can be expected with a net profit of around 45%.
It assists growers with implementing the following steps to create what the CJP calls 'failsafe jatropha fuel farms':
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::
  • Soil and land prospection
  • Feasibility study
  • Formation of Business Plan
  • Appointment of Consultant
  • Farm Designing
  • Sourcing of elite planting stock
  • Execution of Plantation
  • Crop care
The CJP offers small growers the following basic advice: you need a well-prepared business plan because this is the backbone of your company. It takes time and proper attention to set every detail in your business plan. Your success shall be well written in there. A business plan forces you to address all aspects of starting a Jatropha based business. It is a road map of your of your business to follow a living business. It proves that you have considered all aspects and states how you are addressing them. Such a plan is important for securing financing and investors.

Obviously the CJP also sells its expertise for the preparation of dedicated business plans in the sector.

The CJP organises more of its successful 'Jatropha Hi-tech Training Program' sessions that take place in Rajasthan, India. The next ones are scheduled to start from 23rd April, 2007. The maximum number of participants in each course is limited to 50. The package cost includes cost of Lodging, boarding, training material and lectures. Participants will be responsible for their own travel arrangements, such as, air travel, visa and so on. Airfares and visa costs will not be provided. The last date of registration is April 5, 2007

More information can be found at the Center's website.

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Hawaii researchers to study tropical oil crops for biodiesel

A group of research institutions from Hawaii has announced the launch of a project to study the oil yields of local, tropical crops for biodiesel, such as kukui nuts, avocado, coconut and jatropha.

The Hawaii Agriculture Research Center and the University of Hawaii-Hilo forestry and agriculture college, the only biodiesel producer in the state, a construction supply company that will run equipment emissions tests on the fuel, as well as the Oceanic Institute, which will separately study plant leftovers for use as fish food, are the partners.

The project could further spur agricultural and biodiesel production in Hawaii while reducing imports and use of fossil fuel. The collaboration amongst the groups is deemed necessary to kickstart a viable biodiesel industry on the islands. Results from the study will be interesting for other (sub)tropical countries.

Four tree crops - kukui nuts, avocado, coconut and jatropha - will be tested to see which ones yield the most oil and which oils are most suitable for conversion into fuel to either replace or blend with diesel. The research will also focus on studying the efficiency and value streams of byproducts (such as presscakes and glycerine as feed for aquaculture) and the potential to integrate the cultivation of oil crops with other agricultural activities:
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Identifying the best crops will help farmers and agricultural businesses grow feedstock in sufficient quantities. This will help Pacific Biodiesel - the Maui-based company that uses virtually all the available waste cooking oil in the state to make the alternative fuel - expand production, and possibly motivate others to enter the market. Businesses that use diesel to power vehicles and equipment, like project participant Grace Pacific, would benefit. Hawaii's environment would also see fewer harmful pollutants.

If plant residues can be converted for use as aquaculture or livestock feed, ranchers and others who raise food animals could see their costs decrease significantly.

Though small, the one-year project holds great potential for cutting the state's reliance on fossil fuels, adding biodiesel to the tools for sustainability.

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Sunday, March 18, 2007

Of satellites and sugar: extra notes on the Brazilian revolution

We wish to present some interesting new facts on Brazil's ethanol sector, as they are presented in the excellent documentary titled "Biocarburants: la révolution brésilienne"/"Sprit aus Zucker", made by Pierre-Olivier François and Christian Popp. The film was recently shown on ARTE (earlier post). Because the TV-channel has decided not to release an online version, we transcribed and translated some highlights.

Magical yeast: towards decentralised production
We start with a development that is most remarkable, because it is set to transform the ethanol industry by allowing a move towards highly efficient, small-scale and decentralised production, away from large industrial production systems that are only open to big investors.

Cristiano Santo Waldisser, engineer at a large ethanol plant, takes us through the classic ethanol production process: he shows how yeast feeds on the sugar juice and ferments it into alcohol, CO2 and water, which are recuperated by the washing columns. After this fermentation stage, water and yeast are separated from the ethanol. This requires an infrastructure of centrifuges (to sieve out the fermentation residues) and of distillation columns, in which water is removed by evaporation. This straightforward process consumes only 1/8th of the energy needed to distill gasoline from crude oil, says Waldisser.

But biotechnologists from the State University of São Paulo (Unicamp) have found a new processing technique, which makes the distillation of ethanol far more efficient and less costly still. The technique will be revolutionising the decentralised production of ethanol.

Gonçalo Amarante Pereira [picture], biologist at Unicamp: "we developed a genetically modified yeast strain which separates itself from the mixture once it detects an absence of sugar. In other words, when all sugar juice has been fermented into ethanol, the yeast literally drops to the bottom of the tank, and the pure ethanol floats on top ready to be distilled. This completely eliminates the need for industrial centrifuges, lowers production costs significantly, reduces the energy inputs needed for decanting the ethanol, and thus increases the fuel's final energy balance."

More importantly, Pereira notes, this development signifies that everyone can now have his own small ethanol factory. There is no longer a need for large and costly industrial infrastructures. The new yeast makes highly efficient small-scale, localised and decentralised ethanol production possible. The development is being received with great enthusiasm, because it entirely eliminates the need for isolated regions to transport and import costly fossil fuels. The decentralised production technique holds the potential to transform the Global South's energy landscape radically.

Fatih Birol, Chief economist of the International Energy Agency (IEA), explains the importance of this development: "Poor countries in the South need biofuels even more than wealthy ones, because their economies suffer under high fuel import bills. This fragilises developing countries, especially in Africa, where funds that could otherwise be invested in urgently needed interventions, such as the construction of new infrastructures, investments in education, health and poverty alleviation, are now poured into imports of expensive fossil fuels."

"The Brazilian technologies can be introduced in these countries and adapted to local conditions. The highly efficient and decentralised production process, resulting in biofuels that are considerably cheaper than imported petrofuels, thus reduces their import bills and their energy dependence. After all, this is precisely the reason why Brazil invested in the sector itself, after the first oil shock, when it launched its famous Pro-Alcool plan."

Of satellites and sugar
The documentary also shows us how the sugarcane industry in Brazil relies on careful planning. Nilson Zaramella Boeta, chief scientist at the Sugar Cane Technology Center (CTC) shows how agronomists and scientists work with earth observation satellites. The satellites track each sugarcane plantation, the qualities of which can be observed in great detail. This allows for very precise agronomic interventions.

Sitting in front of a large monitor with a high resolution map of a set of plantations, Boeta illustrates how observed biomass yield data can be correlated to a myriad of factors (soil quality, pests, diseases...). Spotting sugarcane from space allows for a highly targetted agriculture, in which sugarcane varieties can be precisely matched to different soils. By comparing the performance of a cane variety across different soils, clues are obtained that inform breeding programs for new varieties. And farmers can make much better decisions on which type to plant where, how much and what kind of fertiliser and pesticide must be applied to which plot, with an unparalleled precision.

Hermógenes Moura Machado, earth observation engineer at the CTC gives an example of how the eye in the sky contributes to efficient pest, disease and soil management. Satellite images of a new plantation started showing a small bright patch in the center of the field after the second year of planting - this indicated low yields. The rest of the plantation performed well. The CTC then sent the information to its field engineers who analysed the problem on the ground. They found an anomaly in the soil and treated the spot with a tiny but highly concentrated dose. The problem disappeared the next year. This kind of extremely focused interventions allows Brazilian producers to economize greatly on the product, to reduce costs, and to preserve the environment because only the problematic hotspots are treated instead of the entire plantation. The spread of diseases, pests and soil degradation is prevented early on.

Earth observation not only allows for highly rational and efficient planning for farmers. It is also a great tool for those who are developing new sugarcane varieties. Tadeu Andrade, agronomist and soil scientist at the CTC, shows how two types of soil were identified in a single plantation area. One, very fertile, will produce vast quantities of cane naturally, the other one is more problematic. Using satellite data, the soil scientists check the extensive library of cane varieties and determine which one suits which soil type best. This adaptative planting is pushed forward into the extreme: some plantations have many different cane varieties in a single field, all adapted to the highly localized qualities of the soil. This form of adaptation sidesteps the need for general soil treatments and thus increases the sustainability of the plantation. The result: the plantation with its different soils in Tadeu Andrade's example now maximizes yields, with an average production of to 120MT/ha.

The CTC's plant breeding division aims to select varieties that are suitable for different, even poor, soil types and which need less water. Currently, it relies on classic plant breeding principles, that have proved to be quite successful. Standing in a vast greenhouse with cane seedlings, a CTC agronomist explains that plants are selected visually first. The most promising ones are then grown in trial plots, with each variety being tested in different types of soils and under different growing conditions. The most successful ones are then homologated and commercialised. Over the past 4 years, the CTC has analysed hundreds of varieties this way and selected 9 ultra-high-yield varieties suitable for different soil types.

Towards hyper-efficiency with bagasse and cellulosic ethanol

In many plantations, the traditional practise of burning the sugarcane's leaves, tips and stalks before the harvest, continues to this very day. Even though the resulting ashes contain nutrients which fertilize the soil, the practise of burning cane fields pollutes the atmosphere, and wastes a valuable source of energy. For this reason, the tradition is being discouraged and a new paradigm is taking hold:
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The agricultural and processing residues of sugarcane are now seen as a biomass resource of prime importance because it outcompetes fossil fuels, even the cheapest amongst them, namely coal. In most ethanol plants, bagasse - the fibrous residue remaining after the canes are crushed - is now burned in cogeneration plants that generate energy which powers the entire production process. In fact, bagasse has a high calorific value and is so abundant that ethanol plants have become power plants in themselves. The average plant in Brazil delivers enough electricity to the grid to power a city of 60,000 people.

Nowadays, all ethanol factories in Brazil are self-sufficient in energy, and together they produce an amount of electricity equal to that of a large nuclear power plant. In the immediate future, this amount will increase ten-fold.

The use of bagasse makes the energy balance of Brazilian ethanol quite strong. But things don't stop here. A new vision and increased research efforts will double the efficiency of ethanol once again. The code-word: cellulosic ethanol.

Technological advancements will make it possible to convert the cellulose-rich vegetal residues of sugarcane that are currently wasted, into liquid fuels. The document takes us to Dedini, the company which has manufactured the bulk of Brazil's 346 biofuel refineries.

José Luiz Olivério, Vice-President of Dedini SA, explains that today, only 1/3rd of all the harvestable energy contained in sugarcane is used. The other two thirds are just begging to be utilised efficiently. Besides producing bio-electricity, Dedini wants to make bio-ethanol from the cellulosic biomass that is untapped. The efficient production of cellulosic ethanol from cane residues will lead to an energy system with an unparalleled efficiency. Whereas today one hectare of sugarcane is transformed into 6400 liters of ethanol on average, the emergence of cellulosic ethanol will allow the production of not less than 12000 liters.

This means that producing transport fuels from sugarcane becomes more efficient than oil production. What is more, agronomic and biotechnological progress will lead to even better sugarcane varieties, higher yields and far lower processing costs (see the genetically modified yeast strain which removes the need for centrifugation). All realistic assessments show that, ultimately, sugarcane will become the core around which an entire bio-based economy will be build. This green economy will be hyper-efficient, yield fuels with a better energy balance than those of the petroleum industry, and will result in the manufacture of many different, environmentally friendly products, such as bioplastics.

Dedini has already begun its first cellulose ethanol production trials utilizing the bagasse, stems, tips and leaves of sugarcane. Olivério thinks large-scale, industrial production is 10 to 20 years away. Reflecting on his role as an industrialist, he ends with a wise note: "in the end, it is not the industrialists who bring all this wealth. It is nature and the farmers. Our role is simply to make sure we do not waste this valuable resource."

The people who will actually make the breakthrough in cellulosic ethanol can be found in the laboratories. Gonçalo Amarante Pereira, biologist at Unicamp: "We are looking into creating enzymes that break down cellulose and release sugars that can then be fermented into ethanol. We have identified serveral such enzymes from micro-organisms that can be found, for example, in the guts of termites. These insects are known for their capacity to turn even the hardest type of ligno-cellulosic biomass into sugar-rich pulp. By identifying the enzymes responsible for this process, we can begin to develop specific types suitable for cellulosic ethanol production."


Flex-fuel technologies
The irony of history: before becoming the President of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva used to be a worker at the very Volkswagen factory that built the first production flex-fuel vehicle which transformed Brazil's energy landscape.

Roger Guilherme of VW Brasil explains the history behind this development. When oil prices declined in the 1990s, consumers stopped buying ethanol. But from 2000 onwards, when gasoline prices increased again, they were once more demanding the biofuel. However, they were not interested in buying a car that works on ethanol or gasoline only - they wanted both, they demanded flexibility, the option to choose their own blend of fuels according to current prices for both fuels, and each time they fill their tank. The concept of the flex-fuel engine allowed precisely that, and sales skyrocketed. 80% of all petrol cars sold in Brazil today are flex-fuel. All 7 large auto-manufacturers make them.

The flex-fuel system is based on a simple electronic device that measures the alcohol-gasoline ratio of the blend in the tank. The system then calculates the optimal operation of the engine by regulating the injection, the combustion and the oxygen intake according to the blend. This 'intelligent' system monitors the engine's performance every 10 milliseconds.

The added costs for the flex-fuel injection system and the on-board computer are negligeable.

A green and red revolution
Christian Sobottka, chief engineer of fuel systems at Bosch's automotive technology division, makes a philosophical observation: "the definition of the word revolution is the transformation of the status quo into a radically new paradigm, by the simplest means possible. The confluence of simplicity and radicality do the trick. In this sense, Brazil's biofuels represent a genuine revolution."

And it is a green revolution, he adds. The use of Brazilian ethanol lowers both NOx and carbon monoxide emissions, and is climate-neutral when it comes to carbon dioxide emissions, because the CO2 coming out of the tailpipe of an ethanol-powered car is taken up again through the sugarcane's photosynthesis.

Finally, it is a social revolution, because the affordable fuel, which is consistently cheaper than gasoline, has led to a true democratisation of mobility in Brazil. The document shows three poor people who use 100% ethanol in their unadapted, 20-year old cars. The savings they make are quite important, relative to their income level.

Social and environmental sustainability
The film addresses some of the crucial environmental and social aspects of the biofuel industry in Brazil. It starts by looking at the labor issue. Two out of three sugarcane plantations in Brazil are still harvested manually. But mechanisation is increasingly taking over. An single harvesting machine has the productivity of 50 workers. This opens a serious dilemma and exposes a weakness of the Brazilian ethanol sector.

The sugarcane industry employs millions of cutters who used to receive low wages and who perform a job that is very hard and often dangerous. The document shows a group of cutters who talk about their fate.

On the one hand, the leftist government of Brazil has implemented legislation which improves the working conditions and safety of the cane cutters considerably, strengthens their syndical rights, and has made social dialogue between company and workers compulsory. Finally, the Lula-government has increased wages for the migrant laborers and has introduced a registration system that prevents cutters from being exploited by employers.

But on the other hand, at the very moment labor rights and working conditions are undergoing a revolution, increased mechanisation is threatening these achievements.

Fatih Birol, Chief economist of the IEA, takes a global perspective and addresses the food versus fuel dilemma. To make biofuels work on a global scale, he says, strong political control and a new economic paradigm is needed. The countries in the North want to replicate Brazil's example, but they can never achieve the same efficiencies. This means they are using land to grow biofuel crops that would better be utilized for food production. On a planetary scale, biofuels can only be produced efficiently in the tropical and subtropical latitudes.

A new energy relationship between nations is therefor needed that must be based on these fundamental and unchangeable parameters of the planet's ecosystem. Countries with temperate climates but favorable conditions for food production should invest in the food sector and import biofuels from the countries with tropical climates. In the US, maize is used for the production of ethanol with a very low energy bilan. But maize is a staple food for many people. Wouldn't it be better for the US to supply food markets with maize, and import far more efficient ethanol from the developing world with the proceeds? Both parties would greatly benefit.

Nilson Zaramella Boeta from the CTC highlights the strict environmental policy choices made by the Brazilian government. He explains that, originally, the semi-arid Nordeste is the birth place of sugarcane in Brazil. It was later brought to the humid climate of the South. "Today we have a policy in which we automatically exclude the Amazon, the Pantanal and the Atlantic natural reserves from future sugarcane expansions. Automatically excluded. We only keep zones that are suitable for sugarcane and that are relatively low in biodiversity."

"Compared to Europe and the US, Brazil has quasi-infinite arable land available for the expansion of its plantations. Without touching the rainforest or the natural reserves, the country can expand the acreage for sustainably exploited sugarcane plantations by an area 6 times that of France (or 330 million hectares) . In other words, Brazil can produce 60 times more ethanol than it does today, in an environmentally sustainable manner."

[Note: we think this is a very optimistic assessment. If Brazil were actually to utilize 330 million hectares with an average projected yield of 12000 liters of ethanol per hectare, this would roughly equal an output of 3.96 trillion liters per year, or 47.8 million barrels of oil equivalent per day. More than four times the amount of oil produced by Saudi Arabia... We have seen many estimates of Brazil's sustainable potential for the medium and long term future, but none are this high.]

The bulk of sugarcane is currently gorwn in São Paulo state, in the South-east of Brazil. The total acreage is around 5.5 million hectares or 0.6% of the country's territory. The country produces some 16 billion liters per annum. A comparison between European ethanol made from sugar beets and ethanol made from sugarcane shows that the competitive advantage is exceptional: the first type of fuel costs around €0.80 per liter, whereas sugarcane ethanol costs €0.20 per liter.

This lower cost and the much higher efficiency of Brazilian ethanol is due to exceptional yields of the sugarcane plant, but also because of large investments in science, technology and careful planning.

A problem with biofuel production in Europe and the US is the environmentally unfriendly way in which it is produced. By 2010, the EU wants to increase its consumption of biofuels six-fold. But this requires 20% of all arable land in the EU to be converted into biofuel plantations that yield relatively low amounts of energy. To make the best of it, a serious increase in the use of pesticides and fertilisers will be needed.

Organic ethanol
Tadeu Andrade, agronomist CTC: "Brazil is now going beyond these problems by opening yet another new avenue: organic ethanol production. We are now researching ways to reduce the amount of fertilisers and pesticides for sugarcane to levels that would qualify its production as 'organic'."

Andrade: "We have already found biological pest management techniques that effectively remove the need for pesticides entirely. The main threat to sugarcane comes from the stem-borer, which lays its larves inside the canes where they feed on the sugar to grow. This pest used to be fought by heavy pesiticide applications. But we have now developed a biological pest management system based on natural predators which efficiently combat the problem."

"Similarly, research into the production of bio-fertilisers derived from the ashes from burned bagasse and fermentation residues, is progressing well. We can use residues from the cane as fertiliser, simply because the plant yields so much biomass. Developing such a system by relying on crops grown in Europe and the US is not feasible."

Finally, Andrade notes that more than 2000 sugarcane varieties have been domesticated by man over the course of centuries: "This large library allows us to select and breed varieties that are adapted to poorer soils and climates, where we can still obtain good yields if we use an entirely organic production system."

Making the world sweeter with GMOs?
Glaucia M. Souza, biochemist at the University of São Paulo: "Whereas one research direction in Brazil is focusing on the potential for organic bioenergy production, researchers at Unicamp are looking into genetically modifying sugarcane."

"During its long history of domestication, crossing and breeding, sugarcane varieties have become sweeter and sweeter. The reason behind this phenomenon is the big mystery that occupies the minds of the scientists here at Unicamp."

They are trying to find out which specific gene is responsible for the ever higher sugar-content of sugarcane. They have selected 100 genes and introduced them into other plants to study their effects. If the magic 'saccharose-gene' were to be identified, the scientists see a future in which it is introduced it into a wide variety of crops, including maize and oranges.

Glaucia M. Souza says that, "ultimately, if societies choose so, we can create a very sweet world. The sweetness of sugar will lead us to abandon the climate destructive hydrocarbon era and open that of the carbohydrate [sugar] economy."

The vision of a transgenic, sweet world is of course highly controversial, both in Brazil and in Europe. But the pressure coming from large biotech conglomerates is great and the battles will have to be decided in parliaments...

ProBiodiesel...
The film's second part delves into Brazil's recently launched ProBiodiesel program. It shows how the government is implementing a policy promoting integrated food-and-fuel production amongst small farmers in Brazil's most impoverished regions. A pilot project is highlighted in which a cooperative of smallholders in the Nordeste province grows biodiesel feedstocks for Petrobras, and is assisted with food production to increase both its food and income security.

The national ProBiodiesel program draws on the vast experience gained from the ProAlcool plan which is more than 3 decades old. The Lula government is turning the new program into an opportunity to experiment and open the last frontier of the biofuel future: the potential it holds to redistribute wealth amongst Brazil's and the developing world's rural poor.

Brazil is already gazing across the Atlantic, where it sees Africa, beckoning...

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