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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, April 28, 2007

New class of enzymes discovered that could increase efficiency of cellulosic ethanol production

In a breakthrough that could make the production of cellulosic ethanol less expensive, Cornell University researchers have discovered a class of plant enzymes that potentially could allow plant materials used to make ethanol to be broken down more efficiently than is possible using current technologies.

Biofuels such as corn ethanol or rapeseed biodiesel are unsustainable, because they have a very weak energy balance and do not reduce greenhouse gas emissions much. For this reason, scientists are looking into developing 'second-generation' biofuels, made from cellulose, which is a far more abundant feedstock than the oil and sugar currently obtained from grains, canes and oil seeds. Cellulose is the most abundant biological material on earth.

Even though 'first-generation' biofuels made from tropical feedstocks, such as sugarcane or cassava already do have a strong energy balance and reduce CO2 emissions considerably, utilizing the cellulosic waste biomass obtained during their production as a feedstock for ethanol would likewise increase these balances even further and make tropical biofuels extremely energy efficient.

However, the production of biofuels from cellulose in mass quantities is still quite costly. The development of thermochemical conversion technologies - which involve gasification or pyrolysis of biomass - is making good progress, even though cost and downstream processing into useable fuels remains an obstacle. The same is true for the biochemical conversion path, which is based on the use of enzymes to break down the cell walls of plants and to release the sugars they contain that can then be fermented into alcohol.

With current technologies, this critical step of breaking down cell walls relies on microbial enzymes called "cellulases" to digest the cellulose. The microbial enzymes have a structure that makes them very efficient at binding to and digesting plant cell wall material called lignocellulose (a combination of lignin and cellulose).

But now, a new class of plant enzymes with a similar structure has been discovered, potentially offering researchers new properties for producing ethanol even more efficiently. A team working with Jocelyn Rose, Cornell assistant professor of plant biology, published its paper [*abstract] on the new class of enzymes in the April 20 issue of the Journal of Biological Chemistry. Breeanna Urbanowicz, a graduate student in Rose's laboratory, was the paper's lead author.
"The bottleneck for conversion of lignocellulose into ethanol is efficient cellulose degradation. The discovery of these enzymes suggests there might be sets of new plant enzymes to improve the efficiency of cellulose degradation." - Jocelyn Rose, Cornell assistant professor of plant biology
For an enzyme to break down cellulose, a structure called a cellulose-binding module attaches to the cellulose. Once attached, a catalyst then breaks the cell wall material into small units, which can then be turned into ethanol. While researchers have known that plants have cellulase-like enzymes, it was previously thought that they did not have a cellulose-binding module, and so could not attach to cellulose or digest it very effectively -- until now:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

"This is the first example of a cellulose-binding domain in a plant cell wall enzyme," said Rose. While the new enzyme was found in a tomato plant, Rose and colleagues have evidence of a set of such plant proteins in many species that potentially could be used for biofuel production. Biofuel research may also help uncover exciting new uses for these enzymes, said Rose. Researchers may, for example, breed for plants with high levels of these proteins.

Though the scientists stress that more study is needed to understand how plants use this class of enzymes, Rose speculates that they may be needed when growing tissues rapidly expand and require loosening of tightly bound strands of cellulose, called microfibrils, that make up a cell wall's structure. The binding enzymes may also be part of the process of breaking down tissues, e.g., when fruits -- such as tomatoes -- soften.

Among others, co-authors included Carmen Catalá, a research associate previously working in the Department of Plant Biology, who originally identified the gene for the tomato enzyme, and David Wilson, Cornell professor of molecular biology and genetics.

Image: This schematic diagram shows the newly discovered class of plant enzymes with a cellulose-binding module (shown in blue), sticking to a plant cell wall. The binding module of the enzyme helps the catalytic region of the enzyme (shown in more detail in gray in the pullout part of the picture) break down the crystalline cellulose. Courtesy: Daniel Ripoll and Chris Pelkie/Cornell Theory Center.

More information:
Breeanna R. Urbanowicz, Carmen Catalá, Diana Irwin, David B. Wilson, Daniel R. Ripoll, and Jocelyn K. C. Rose, "A Tomato Endo-beta-1,4-glucanase, SlCel9C1, Represents a Distinct Subclass with a New Family of Carbohydrate Binding Modules (CBM49)" [*abstract], J. Biol. Chem., Vol. 282, Issue 16, 12066-12074, April 20, 2007

Cornell University: Newly discovered plant enzymes could lead to more efficient -- and less costly -- ethanol production from cellulose - April 24, 2007.



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IEA Chief: "no silver bullet to cut greenhouse gas emissions"

Speaking at a meeting of the UN's Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) in which energy security, efficiency and climate change took central stage, International Energy Agency (IAE) chief Claude Mandil warned there was no "silver bullet" which by itself would cut greenhouse-gas emissions that drive dangerous climate change.

Mandil set a target of an early cut of a billion tonnes of emissions per year and said a full range of measures - which he said included renewable energy, carbon storage, nuclear power and energy efficiency - should be harnessed. His statements come on the eve of the publication of the report on mitigating climate change to be released early May by Working Group III of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The unsustainable present
Current fossil-fuel dominated energy demand increases carbon dioxide (CO2) by one billion tonnes every two years, according to IEA data. Energy demand will grow by more than 50 percent by 2030 if the pattern of consumption remains unchanged. "This is not sustainable," Mandil reiterated.

Even very basic energy savings like phasing out wasteful incandescent light bulbs from 2008 and better street lighting could make significant inroads, the IEA chief argued. The global cost of lighting could be reduced by 2.6 trillion dollars by 2030 and a cumulative 16 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide could be saved, according to the agency. "The difference could reach one-third of lighting costs in 2030," Mandil said. "The additional investment costs would easily be offset by consumption savings."

However, none of the technological steps could be implemented on the kind of scale needed to tackle greenhouse gas emissions on their own, he cautioned. About 78 percent of CO2 savings were likely to come from more efficient use of energy and 22 percent from cleaner energy sources by 2030, according to the agency.

Mandil said that to avoid one billion tonnes of greenhouse gases a year, the world would need to replace 300 convention coal-fired power plants with zero emission electricity generation every year, or build 150 one-gigawatt nuclear power plants. That is also the equivalent of multiplying the United States's current solar power capacity by about 1,300 every year or 200 times the US wind farm capacity.

Carbon capture and storage
So-called carbon capture and storage (CCS) techniques - which involve pumping carbon dioxide underground - are still largely untested and very costly with current technology. CCS is also contested in some scientific quarters, with experts fearing that storage chambers could be breached by earthquake or porous geology, spewing the CO2 into the atmosphere. (Which is why the Biopact thinks using CCS with carbon neutral biofuels is the safest way forward to test the technology - see our text at EurActiv; such a 'Bio-Energy with Carbon Storage' concept would also result in a carbon-negative energy system).

Mandil said 1,000 large carbon sequestration plants would have to be built annually to meet climate change targets. "But we're afraid that in 2030, carbon capture and sequestration technologies would not be available at an affordable cost on a large scale at that time," he said.

Thierry Desmarest, chairman of French oil giant Total which has a pilot CCS unit in Lacq in southwest France (earlier post), said it costs $100 a metric ton to capture and store CO2. An important objective would be to divide this cost by one-half or one-third, Desmarest told the forum in Geneva. CCS used in combination with biogas would be considerably less costly (previous post).

Biofuels to play major role
IEA chief Mandil said that biofuels had the potential to play a major role, but here again the challenge would be to reduce cost. "It will not be possible in the long term to sustain in the future with sustained subsidies," he said. Both Mandil and the IEA's Chief Economist earlier called on the EU and the US stop subsidizing their inefficient biofuels, to lift their trade barriers on imported biofuels, and to source the green fuels there where they can be produced cost-effectively and efficiently (earlier post):
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Brazil and the United States, the two largest producers of ethanol, accounting for about 70 percent of world output, last month signed a broad agreement to work together to advance biofuels technology and set common standards for ethanol trade (earlier post).

Gregory Manuel, special advisor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said the United States was working with India, China, South Africa and the European Commission "to bring a standard to biofuels use such that the exponential potential for biofuels can be carried through with maximum efficiency". We reported on this recently launched effort, here.

The United States was looking at bringing the benefits of biofuels to certain countries, starting in the Western Hemisphere, but also in Africa and south-east Asia, he said. "The sustainability issues are critical and are integrated into that approach," Manuel said. The United States was also working with Brazil on research and development, "bringing second generation biofuels to the marketplace, hopefully faster than predicted," he said.

Global effort and US commitment needed
The chairman of French oil group Total, also addressing the meeting, welcomed Europe's role in spearheading movement on climate change but underlined the need for a global response. "That has to be welcomed, but that pioneering venture will only work if the United States and major emerging nations, which produce the most (greenhouse gas) emissions commit themselves to an equivalent effort," Thierry Demarest said.

The Total chief warned that unless that happened, the European effort could harm its industry's competitiveness in the longer term. The UN's Kyoto protocol set targets for industrialised countries to trim outputs of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other gases that trap solar heat, unbalancing the planet's delicate climate system, by 2012.

However, the United States and Australia have stayed out of the binding agreement, while efforts to draw up a post-2012 deal drawing in developing countries are mired in problems.

More information:
Reuters: No silver bullet to cut emissions: IEA chief - April 28, 2007.

France24: AFP News Brief: No silver bullet to combat climate change: IEA chief - April 28, 2007.

United Nations Economic Commission for Europe: Sixty-second session 25-27 April 2007, Palais des Nations, Geneva.

United Nations Economic Commission for Europe: Sustainable Energy Policies: the Key to Energy Security in the UNECE Region - Speakers Briefing Note [*.pdf], April 27, 2007.



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Dutch propose biofuels sustainability criteria: NGOs sceptical, developing world says 'green imperialism'

The Netherlands is going to import large quantities of biomass from the South and recognizes that green fuels offer an opportunity for sustainable development. In order to prevent the occurence of possible negative effects on the environment and the communities in biomass producing countries, a Dutch commission has been working on the development of sustainability criteria for biofuels during the past year.

The 'Cramer Commission' recently released its final report [*.pdf/Dutch] with recommendations to the government. Drawing on the report, the Dutch ministers for international aid and for the environment conclude that bioenergy and biofuels for exports, if produced sustainably, offer major chances for development in the South [*Dutch]. Environmentalist and development organisations in the Netherlands think the criteria and the certification mechanisms are not stringent enough. Whereas developing countries for their part call the report and the work by the NGOs an exercise in 'green imperialism'. Clearly, the issue of sustainability criteria evokes a wide range of responses from different stakeholders.

The 'Cramer Criteria' were written in consultation with a consortium of Dutch organisations, including oil major Shell and multinational Unilever, who both oppose the introduction of biofuels, for obvious reasons. Environment Minister Jacqueline Cramer received the report which recommended stringent criteria for the use of biomass materials such as grains, sugar and cellulose, increasingly used to generate power and produce biofuel. The report proposes that Dutch companies who import these feedstocks must prove, via a certifiable track and trace system, that the products comply with the following criteria (for the period between 2007-2010) (some comments by Biopact in italics):
  • 'CO2 balance of the biofuel': the balance is calculated across the entire chain (field to fuel tank/power plant, including CO2 released during transport from the South to the Netherlands). For biofuels used for electricity production, a minimal CO2 reduction of 50% must be obtained; for liquid biofuels a minimal reduction of 30% (this means that Dutch companies cannot import ethanol made from corn as it is currently produced in, for example, the US; nor biodiesel made from rapeseed as it is currently produced in, for example, Canada and China; both these fuels have a CO2 balance that does not meet the 30% reduction target; ironically, none of the biofuels produced domestically in the Netherlands achieve a 30% reduction, but the Cramer Criteria only deal with imported biofuels)
  • 'Food security': there should be no local food scarcity in the location from which the biomass is sourced, nor scarcity of energy, medicines and building materials because of biomass production (this causality criterium - that scarcity of one of these goods was caused because of biomass production - will be extremely difficult to prove, because it requires an entire analysis of the local economy and its trade flows)
  • 'Nature and biodiversity': biomass importing companies must report on the effects of biomass production on biodiversity; there should be no impacts on 'valuable' protected nature reserves and conservation areas (countries in the developing world regularly change the status of protected areas to exploit them economically; it is of course their sovereign right to do so, but the question is: are the Dutch criteria applicable to areas the Dutch themselves consider to be 'valuable' or do they apply to such areas as they are defined by the host country or by international organisations?)
  • 'Welfare and wellbeing': biomass importers must report on the social effects of the biomass they source or produce in the host country; basic local rights must be respected (it will be very difficult to measure social effects of welfare and wellbeing; in principle, it is possible to imagine a scenario in which biomass production has immediate and perceived negative effects on the welfare and wellbeing because of the way it is produced, but increased incomes for local people may negate these and result in positive longterm effects, such as less poverty, better social services, higher incomes; the temporality of these effects is a major problem (they occur only a long time after a project is initiated); moreover, taxes paid to governments by biomass producing companies are invested in the welfare of the people of the country as a whole, making it extremely difficult to measure these macro-economic impacts)
  • 'Labor': labor conditions conform to local laws, workers must have the right to organise themselves in a union (these are standard ILO criteria to which all companies doing business in the South should adhere)
  • 'Environmental care': biomass producing companies must abide by all local environmental laws with regard to pollution, noise, odor and emissions control and fertiliser management ("compliance with US GMO laws" was removed from the final text because it would have implied that genetically modified bioenergy crops are allowed)
  • 'Soil quality and nutrient balances': all biomass producers must comply with local regulations dealing with the preservation of soil quality; moreover, they may not contribute to soil erosion and must even improve the quality of soils (these criteria are more stringent that those applied to agriculture in the EU or the US)
  • 'Water quality' : all biomass producers must comply with local laws regarding water quality
From the year 2010 onwards, some of the criteria will be sharpened. Similar efforts to craft a set of social and environmental sustainability rules for biofuels were recently proposed by researchers from the University of California, Berkeley (earlier post). Meanwhile, in Brazil, a "Social Fuel Seal" has already become law, guaranteeing that biodiesel is produced in a way that benefits poor farmers and their families (see our in-depth look at this system).

Developing world's position: 'Green imperialism'
Some in the developing world describe a system of criteria imposed by the West as an exercise in 'green imperialism', and say the rules constitute yet another series of non-tariff barriers to trade that may be disputed at the World Trade Organisation. Dutch Minister for international aid and development Bert Koenders has recognised this fact and says he is working towards creating a negotiation framework with developing countries.

According to countries in the South, the wealthy North -- whose industrialisation was entirely based on the use of abundant and cheap but polluting fossil fuels which they burned for over two centuries and on a model that has resulted in total deforestation (96% in the US/90% in Europe) and the use of a heavily subsidised agronomic production model that relies on the mass use of fertilizers and pesticides -- is now imposing rules on poor countries telling them they cannot deforest nor use their resources to grow fuels that can compete with fossil fuels the reserves of which were entirely used up by the West. Moreover, both the EU and the US already subsidize their own farmers in what is arguably one of the world's biggest injustices, keeping millions of farmers in the developing world in poverty; in this context, the imposition of import criteria on a product for which producers in the South have a natural competitive advantage is perceived as yet another injustice of major proportions:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

For this reason, developing nations feel their economic strategies are once again being dictated by the West. Many countries in the South have a large biofuel export potential from which they could derive considerable export revenues, but they have expressed fears that countries in the North will use 'sustainability criteria' as a weapon to negate this opportunity. Imposing criteria on the poor countries without compensating them for the additional costs brought by these criteria will not make much of an impression (earlier post).

Biopact would however advise developing countries with a large biofuel potential to look at such criteria as a tool that may work in their favor. They can retain their sovereignty over the development path they wish to embrace, but can finally force the West to put its money where its mouth is. Deforestation allowed wealthy countries to industrialize rapidly. Added to this is their use of enormous quantities of fossil fuels, which have caused global warming and threaten the viability of the planet. Obviously, developing countries want to grow economically and industrialize too, just like the rich nations; if the West wants to ensure that this development is not based on its own mistakes (mass-deforestation, massive use of fossil fuels), then it should simply pay the South to embrace a more sustainable model. If it doesn't, the West has no legitimacy whatsoever and developing countries have a strong case to bring before the courts, proving that the sustainability criteria imposed on them are non-tarrif barriers to trade and hence to development. Alternativelty, they can sell their biofuels to rapidly developing countries like China, who do not impose such criteria.

In short, the burden of the sustainability model the West wants to see implemented in poor countries (but never applied to itself), is not on the South, it is entirely on consumers and governments in the North, whose economies were founded on mass-deforestation and the mass-use of climate destructive fuels.

Complicating the picture is the fact that reserves of the handiest of all energy sources - petroleum - is depleting rapidly ('Peak Oil'). This results in ever rising oil prices. Developing countries can not benefit from the same cheap and abundant energy source that has allowed the West to become what it is today, namely a highly mobile, highly industrialised region that dominates global trade. Biofuels offer a chance to use liquid fuels, which are so crucial to economic growth, even if oil production is declining. But in order to off-set this missed opportunity, the West has the historic obligation to help countries in the South to make the transition towards new fuels (such as biofuels). If the rich countries want to see this transition happening in a sustainable way, they should, once again, bring up the funds. This much is obvious. Biofuels are not interesting per se because they can be green, they are interesting in the first place because they can compete with costly oil - the vast bulk of which was used up by the West for its development when the resource was still cheap and abundant.

There can be only one conclusion: ensuring that biofuels are produced sustainably is crucial to all of us, in order to conserve the few remaining virgin ecosystems that still exist on this planet. But the ones who should bring up the funds needed to do so are obviously not the countries in the South, who have a sovereign right to develop and to industrialise according to the development path of their choice, but the rich countries in the North.

We therefor urge the Dutch government and the stakeholders in the Netherlands who helped prepare the Cramer Report, to give a clear signal to developing countries with a large biofuels potential, indicating that they will help carry the burden of high fossil fuel prices and that they will massively compensate these countries to slow-down deforestation. If such a signal is not given, developing countries are right in calling the Cramer Report an exercise in 'green imperialism'.

It is very difficult to estimate the scale of the funds needed to successfully implement such compensation mechanisms (also known as 'avoided deforestation'/'compensated reduction' in the case of tropical forests) and to offset the burden of costly fossil fuels. However, there is a considerable body of historic evidence showing the effects of cheap and abundant oil on the capacity of an economy to grow, as well as economic evidence showing how deforestation in the US and Europe fuelled their development. The International Energy Agency as well as most international economic think tanks should be able to calculate how much the North should pay to the South in order for it to refrain from using 'unsustainably' produced, but cheap and abundant biofuels, which are the sole alternative to rapidly depleting oil. The amount will obviously be in the trillions of dollars, because the burden is historic: the West has been using climate destructive but cheap fossil liquid fuels for over 100 years. The world has consumed roughly 1 trillion barrels of oil to date, the vast bulk of it by the West.

The question is: will consumers and governments in the North be prepared to give up a considerable amount of their wealth to fuel development in the South? Given past and failed promises by the West (like the promise to spend 0.7% of its GDP on international aid), the picture does not look good.

The Dutch government's position: chances for poor countries to develop
During the release of the final report, Dutch Ministers Cramer (environment) and Koenders (international aid) stated that biomass and bioenergy offers chances to improve the environment in the developing world and for poor countries to grow economically by exporting green fuels.

Both ministers will now start to craft policies that include the recommendations of the commission. Cramer wants to negotiate rules with companies and wants to get a law passed by 2008 forcing biomass importing companies to report via a standard procedure to see whether they implement the criteria. She also wants to help with the creation of an international certification system.

Minister Koenders wants to start a dialogue with developing countries that stand to benefit from bioenergy production, in particular when it comes to poverty alleviation. On the one hand, biomass and biofuels offer a chance to strengthen local energy security, while on the other, biofuel exports can bring huge revenues, certainly in this era of ever rising oil prices. Bioenergy industries in the South also offer a unique opportunity to bring employment and diversification of production amongst the vast rural masses.

Koenders stresses that biofuels criteria should not become a non-tariff barrier to trade and that it should not negate the opportunity for the South to export. He therefor wants to engage in a dialogue with the governments of developing countries and with local stakeholders. He also wants to encourage private companies to invest in the development of bioenergy production chains in which smallholders can play a role.

Dutch NGO position
The Dutch NGOs for their part think the Cramer Criteria are a good first step, but want to impose much more stringent rules, without any realistic compensation mechanism for the poor countries who stand to suffer from the lost opportunity of exporting less sustainably produced fuels.

In practise, the NGO also say, it will be difficult to track the origin of biofuel feedstocks because they can go through a series of trading steps. Moreover, even if a biofuel feedstock is produced sustainably on a particular plantation, pressures on land can result in unsustainable production elsewhere. These interactions are very difficult to monitor.

Furthermore, the non-governmental organisations stress that biofuels should not be looked at as the single source of energy to build a post-oil future on. Even though biofuels are the most competitive of all renewable energy sources, investments into wind and solar energy should also be made.

According to the Dutch NGOs, liquid biofuels are not the most optimal use of biomass. Combustion is more efficient. Biomass should better be used to generate electricity that can be used to power electric cars. Scientifically speaking this is correct, but it is a naive view from an economic and environmental point of view. Battery electric cars have their own environmental burden that should be taken into account (disposal of waste batteries, mining minerals for batteries, etc...), and the costs of full electric cars are still prohibitive. A mass-transition to electric cars would suck up funds that could otherwise be invested in, for example, a mechanism to avoid deforestation in the South, which will continue unabated if the West does not intervene.

Finally, the NGOs stress that energy savings and 'negawatts' should be the top priority in the fight against climate change, and not the investment in renewables per se.

Strangely enough, these same organisations do not mention the major advantage of biofuels, namely their capacity to be used in radical carbon-negative energy systems, such as 'Bio-Energy and Carbon Storage' (BECS), preferrably used in combination with biogas (earlier post). Contrary to solar or wind power, such systems can effectively take our historic CO2 emissions out of the atmosphere and take us back to pre-industrial levels by mid-century. Besides negawatts, BECS systems are the most effective weapon in the fight against climate change.

More information:
The Cramer Report, Projectgroep Duurzame productie van biomassa: Criteria voor duurzame biomassa productie Eindrapport van de projectgroep “Duurzame productie van biomassa” [*.pdf/Dutch], July 2006

Final Report: Toetsingskader voor duurzame biomassa - Eindrapport van de projectgroep “Duurzame productie van biomassa” [*.pdf/Dutch], April 2006

Joint Statement by Dutch NGOs on the Cramer Report: Opiniestatement Toetsingskader voor duurzaam geproduceerde biomassa (Cramer Criteria) [*.pdf/Dutch], s.d., April 2007.

Joint Statement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the VROM (Ministry for the Environment): "Cramer en Koenders biomassa kans voor milieu en ontwikkelingslanden" [*Dutch] - April 27, 2007.



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Friday, April 27, 2007

EU to study and support Guyana's biofuels sector

A two-member delegation from the European Union (EU) is in the South American country of Guyana to identify possible areas where the EU may be able to support the country’s biofuel plans, which have gained momentum over the last few weeks.

The two officials are traveling to the six regions in the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries, who enjoy a special relationship with the EU when it comes to sugar exports. Guyana was identified as the first country for study within the Caribbean. The two experts determined that Guyana has a very interesting set of biofuel projects and policies, and that in the coming years, there will be plenty of efforts globally to develop bioenergy. They related that the information gathered will be used to advise policy makers in the EU. The Union may then assist Guyana in acquiring biofuel technologies and in the creation of export markets and appropriate policy frameworks.

Bernard Duhamel and Jean Raux, the two experts from France, met with Agriculture Minister Robert Persaud to discuss the core elements of Guyana’s biofuel plans. Persaud told the EU officials that Guyana prefers to look at sugarcane production for ethanol and utilise coconut as a potential for biodiesel.

Persaud gave assurances that Guyana intends to use land that is currently uncultivated. He said that Guyana is currently examining five investment proposals and has identified 50,000 hectares of land in Canje, Region Six, for cane cultivation. He said that the investor will have to bear the cost of development of the land within the cost model, adding that there is an existing infrastructure for shipping. "Primarily we see this as private sector investment and, at the end of the day, it is the investor that will have to come and run the numbers," Persaud stated.

He pointed to the recent biofuel study conducted by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), entitled "Biofuel Potential in Guyana" (earlier post). The report concluded that present conditions of the energy and agro-industrial sector of Guyana provide an excellent opportunity for the production and use of ethanol as a source of fuel in the country:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The report stated that when considering costs, available technology and energy productivity, sugar cane, directly as juice or as molasses, presents the most attractive option. In time, other possibilities may be considered.

In the most conservative scenario, using final molasses, producing 8.8 litres of ethanol per tonne of processed sugar cane, the report estimated that 30.8 million litres of ethanol may be obtained annually from the sugar cane industry in Guyana. This would be nearly 3 times the anticipated demand of 11.5 million litres, if a mixture of gasoline with 10 percent ethanol was to be used in Guyana’s vehicles.

Guyana's President Bharrat Jagdeo has established an Inter-Ministry/Agency Working Group on Biofuels/Agro-energy.

The ECLAC report advised that the promotion of ethanol as a source of fuel in Guyana requires the collaboration of all institutions and stakeholders arriving at an operational mechanism for the introduction of ethanol within the energy sector.

For such an initiative to be successful, the report stated, clear timelines should be established and commitments obtained. There should also be the component of building public awareness as well as involvement of the local science and technology community.

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UK bioenergy consortium receives £6.4 million to continue to lead SUPERGEN Bioenergy

Aston University led a successful, multi-million pound bid to continue the UK’s largest Bioenergy R&D consortium, SUPERGEN Bioenergy, for a further four years. The project is funded by the country's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), which grants £6.4 (€9.4/US$12.8) million to allow the constortium to build on the findings of the first four years of the project and extend the work into promising new areas of bioenergy including renewable transport fuels and biorefineries.

Research and development under SUPERGEN Bioenergy focuses on nine themes that span the entire bioenergy chain: biomass resources including characterisation and pretreatment; nitrogen; thermal conversion; power and heat; transport fuels and biorefinery; ammonia; and system analysis, complemented by a dissemination and collaboration theme (image, click to enlarge).

“We decided to continue to concentrate on our core strengths in thermal processing of biomass, especially since this is the clear direction bioenergy is taking in Europe, rather than diluting resources to focus on new areas,” said SUPERGEN Bioenergy manager Tony Bridgwater of Aston University.

Work developed in the first four years of the project will be expanded. SUPERGEN II will devote more attention to lower cost and more varied sources of biomass, like rape straw and bark, because growing competition for high quality biomass is expected to drive up the price in future.

SUPERGEN Bioenergy II welcomes three new academic partners – Forest Research, Imperial College and Policy Studies Institute – to total ten organisations. Jenny Jones of Leeds University will oversee the financial management. Industrial partners are set to increase from six to eleven companies. One or more industry mentors will support each of the theme leaders to manage and direct activities.

“Biomass is unique because it is the only source of renewable fixed carbon and thus the world’s only renewable source of conventional transport hydrocarbon fuels and renewable chemicals. SUPERGEN Bioenergy II aims to optimise the use of the UK’s limited biomass and support UK industry to develop competitive technology for home use and export,” said Tony Bridgwater:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

“It takes about one per cent of the agricultural land to supply one per cent of the electricity demand, so a real impact from bioenergy is achievable, and SUPERGEN Bioenergy’s research will help to make it possible,” said Jenny Jones.

SUPERGEN publishes British Bioenergy News, a biannual newsletter on the latest bioenergy developments in the UK.

SUPERGEN also runs the Bioenergy Research Forum where industry and researchers meet every 6-8 months to discuss and exchange information on bioenergy. Anyone interested in bioenergy can join the meetings and apply to become an associate member of SUPERGEN free of charge.

The new Consortium has been expanded to a total of 10 academic members as follows:

- Aston University (Management)
- University of Leeds (Finance)
- Cranfield University
- Forest Research
- Institute for Grassland and Environmental Studies
- University of Manchester
- Imperial College
- Policy Studies Institute
- Rothamsted Research
- University of Sheffield

The group will be supported by 12 industrial partners to ensure relevance and provide direction. This will include 6 current industrial partners (E.ON UK Ltd, Alstom, Rural Generation, Biomass Engineering, Coppice Resources Limited & Bical) plus 6 new industrial partners, to be announced at a later date.



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Researchers discover structural changes in pretreated biomass that may boost cellulosic ethanol production

Researchers from Purdue University have discovered that particles from cornstalks undergo previously unknown structural changes when processed to produce ethanol, an insight they say will help establish a viable method for large-scale production of ethanol from cellulosic biomass - so-called 'second generation' biofuels.

Their research demonstrates that pretreating corn plant tissue with hot water - an accepted practice that increases ethanol yields 3 to 4 times - works by exposing minute pores of the plant's cell walls, thus increasing surface area for additional reactions that help break down the cell wall.

Using high-resolution imaging and chemical analyses, the researchers determined that pretreatment opens reactive areas within the cells of the corn stover - another name for postharvest corn remnants, like leaves and stalks - that were previously overlooked. In the next step of processing, these enlarged pores are more easily attacked by enzymes that convert cellulose into glucose, which is in turn fermented into ethanol by yeast.

The research, further described in a study published April 26 in the journal Biotechnology and Bioengineering, applies to cellulosic ethanol in general, regardless of the feedstock.

Plant's cell walls are rigid structures made up of a variety of polymers, including cellulose and hemicellulose, which can be converted into sugars that are then made into ethanol. However, cellulose and hemicellulose are held in place by a variety of compounds like lignin, a strong cellular glue that resists treatment and protects cellulose from being broken down. The scientists found that after pretreatment opens corn's tiny pores, enzymes not only removed more cellulose and hemicellulose from the cell wall, but also removed it at a faster rate:
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"This brings together the tools that link the processing technology to the plant tissue physiology," says Nathan Mosier, assistant professor of agricultural and biological engineering at Purdue University. "It helps us understand, on a fundamental level, what the processing is doing and how we can improve it."

Producing ethanol from cellulose would be advantageous over existing industrial processes in several ways, said Michael Ladisch, the study's co-author and a professor of agricultural and biological engineering. Currently, almost all industrial ethanol derives from either starch found in corn grain or from sugar cane. This limits U.S. ethanol production, which is almost entirely from corn grain, to a grain supply that already is in demand for a variety of uses.

"Cellulosic ethanol would allow industry to expand beyond the limits brought about by corn's other uses, like sweetener production, animal feed and grain exports," Ladisch said. For these reasons, cellulosic ethanol also would likely put less pressure on food prices.

The new process has the potential to become more efficient, with a larger potential supply of plants that can be grown more economically than traditional row crops. What's more, research in plant science has yielded - and will likely continue to yield - new types of energy crops with larger pools of usable cellulose.

However, the catch is that cellulose is not easily freed from the cell wall's complex, rigid structure, and, to date, cellulosic ethanol has not been commercially viable. Ladisch said this study should help change that. "This study will help us translate science from the lab to an industrial setting and will help produce cellulosic ethanol economically," he said.

Cellulosic ethanol comes from plant biomass, another term for the tissue of recently dead plants, or plants that grow and die annually. This distinguishes the current supply of plant biomass - to be used for cellulosic ethanol - from plant matter that died eons ago and through time created our current supply of carbon fuels, namely coal and oil. This is why plant biomass is often labeled as renewable, since it can be grown each year, and why petroleum is referred to as non-renewable - once it's gone, it cannot be replaced.

Mosier and Ladisch are currently at work on a variety of projects related to ethanol production, such as how to best scale up from laboratory operations.

They have conducted research in this area for years. The hot liquid water pretreatment process used in this study was originally developed in the Laboratory of Renewable Resources Engineering at Purdue, which Ladisch directs.

Image (click to enlarge): A magnified image of a cornstalk particle shows the many tiny pores that pretreatment - a phase of the ethanol production process - opens up. These pores create more surface area for subsequent reactions to take place and give enzymes better access to cellulose, the source for cellulosic ethanol. Researchers said this information could help in establishing an economic method for industrial production of cellulosic ethanol. (Purdue University photo/Meijuan Zeng)

More information:
Meijuan Zeng, Nathan S. Mosier, Chia-Ping Huang, Debra M. Sherman, Michael R. Ladisch, "Microscopic Examination of Changes of Plant Cell Structure in Corn Stover Due to Hot Water Pretreatment and Enzymatic Hydrolysis" [*abstract], Biotechnology and Bioengineering, Volume 97, Issue 2 , Pages 265 - 278.



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Credibility of Stanford University ethanol research tainted by ExxonMobil Ties?

A week ago, a Stanford University researcher surprised the academic world by claiming that the use of ethanol increases health risks, compared to gasoline. These findings went against a large body of earlier independent research.

For this reason, the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights (FTCR), a leading non-partisan, non-profit consumer watchdog group, decided to have a look into the matter and found that the research credibility of the scientist is seriously undercut by the school's ties to oil major ExxonMobil Corp.

In his study (earlier post) Mark Z. Jacobson, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, found that "a blend of ethanol poses an equal or greater [environmental health] risk than gasoline, which already causes significant health damage." His paper published in the online edition of Environmental Science and Technology said the research, based on computer models, was partly funded by NASA. The model is controversial because it assumes full conversion to ethanol use rather than partial.

ExxonMobil has given US$100 million to fund Stanford's Global Climate and Energy Program (GCEP). Though the ethanol study was not funded by that program, Jacobson had a three-year grant from GCEP to study the impact of replacing fossil-fuel motor vehicles and electric power plants with hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and power plants. He is featured throughout a brochure about the Global Climate and Energy Program.

"It's difficult to accept a controversial study throwing cold water on the accepted idea that blended ethanol is a good solution to our energy problems when the university well that produced the study has been poisoned by Big Oil's money," said John M. Simpson, an FTCR advocate:
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The science behind Jacobson's ethanol study could well be valid, FTCR said. However, the public cannot accept the results at face value when ExxonMobil has funded a major energy research program at the university and research results are in line with the giant oil firm's corporate goals, FTCR said.

ExxonMobil Chairman Rex Tillerson is dismissive of ethanol's prospects, recently telling Fortune Magazine, "I don't have a lot of technology to add to moonshine."

Jacobson said his ethanol work was not influenced by the corporate funding to the GCEP. "I completely oppose ExxonMobil and what it stands for," he said. He added that the results for the hydrogen research funded by GCEP, "resulted in me showing how unhealthful gasoline was relative to hydrogen, so it is certainly not a benefit to the oil companies."

Under the GCEP agreement ExxonMobil could control any patented results of hydrogen research, FTCR noted.

"That's the problem when a university's administration takes Big Oil's cash and becomes part of Big Oil U.," said Simpson. "Even the very best work by its faculty members is greeted with justifiable skepticism from the public. It's in the best interests of faculty and students alike to resist this corporatization of higher education."

The GCEP is managed and controlled by its corporate sponsors, not the university, FTCR noted.

ExxonMobil has given $100 million to the GCEP. Other sponsors are Schlumberger, Toyota and General Electric. ExxonMobil, along with the other partners, receives five-year exclusive rights to any discoveries resulting from the research, meaning they can bury promising discoveries if they wish. The program is overseen by a management committee comprised of the corporate sponsors. The university has no vote on the committee, meaning that the research agenda can be set by the sponsoring firms. The committee can decide what patents will be sought.

BP has proposed a similar $500 million deal with UC Berkeley that would create the Energy Biosciences Institute. That deal would bring 50 BP scientists to campus to do proprietary research and is under fire by many faculty members and students. The Berkeley administration hopes to sign the deal this summer.

At Stanford, ExxonMobil -- known for undermining scientists who linked greenhouse gases to global warming -- is touting its relationship with the university in a major advertising campaign. Objecting to ExxonMobil's greenwashing campaign, movie producer Steve Bing, who attended Stanford and had donated $22.5 million to the school, protested recently by canceling a $2.5 million pledge and any future donations.


The fact that private oil companies are trying to discredit or downplay the role of biofuels in our future energy mix, is not new. Independent analysts estimate that the green fuels can replace between 50 and 100% of all petroleum used, by 2050. So it does not come as a surprise to see oil majors fearing for their future. From the Philippines to Venezuela, from Australia to the Netherlands, everywhere Big Oil is funding marketing and lobbying campaigns against biofuels.

The situation looks very different when state-run oil companies are involved. The best example comes from Brazil, where PetroBras has helped launch a successful biofuels industry that now benefits the company. The same is true in China, where state-run CNOOC is investing heavily in the fuels.

On the other hand, big agribusiness tends to operate the same way as Big Oil: it pushes overly optimistic research on biofuels, creating unrealistic expectations.

Given the enormously hight stakes and the huge flows of money and profit that is involved in this sector, we urge all readers to be sceptical about research that is either too blindly in favor or against biofuels.


The Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights (FTCR) is a leading non-profit, non-partisan consumer watchdog group. It also has a dedicated segment focusing on energy issues.



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The EU's SustainPack project: where nanotech, biotech and communication converge

Environmentally conscious shoppers may soon be able to cross non-recyclable packaging off their list as European researchers work towards reducing the carbon emissions caused by our throwaway society - with modified natural fibre based, intelligent packaging. Some of the plastics and materials they are developing combine rather exotic materials: a molecule found in the exoskeletons of crabs and crustaceans, clay-particles engineered on a nano-scale, DNA footprints to identify materials or photosensitive nano-particles that form organic screens to be used for communication capabilities.

Being the biggest project of its kind, the EU's 'SustainPack' research effort is a four year research programme with a budget of €36/US$49.2 million aimed at developing radically sustainable packaging. The SustainPack project is comprised of a consortium of 35 partners from 13 EU memberstates, representing packaging research associations, academia and industry. Its purpose is to establish fibre-based packaging as the dominant player in the packaging area within a decade. It will achieve this by applying nanotechnology and biotechnology solutions to deliver lean and added value fibre-based packaging options for users and consumers.

Burying everyday items such as plastic drinks bottles, carrier bags and other overwrapped goodies in the ground may seem innocent enough, but each plastic bottle will take 450 years to degrade. A country like the UK landfills around 28 million tons of waste every year and this amount is destined to double over the next twenty years if we don’t change our ways. In fact the amount of CO2 gases emitted during the manufacture of packaging waste in 2006 was estimated to be about the same as the amount produced by seven million petrol cars.

This environmental burden is no longer acceptable. With SustainPack, the EU wants to move away from the petro-based waste economy towards a bright green and intelligen bioeconomy, by focusing research on six areas: market needs and sustainability research, materials and degradable coatings development to enhance product uses, and 3D and interactive packaging in an intelligent communication environment:
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The demands on packaging are continually changing, influenced by a variety of factors ranging from increases in functionality, to improvements in economics and meeting environmental and legislative measures. In a changing and expanding market-place, the potential for fibre based packaging is massive, but in order to capture this potential to its full fibre based packaging materials need to perform better with less fibres have built in barrier properties, be active and interactive, and provide new structural design opportunities.

Let us have a look at one of the projects under SustainPack, a potentially worldchanging effort. Materials experts at Sheffield Hallam University are developing nano-clay particles (image, click to enlarge) that will act as additives to increase the strength of the natural fibre based packaging.

Professor Chris Breen from the university’s Materials and Engineering Research Institute explains:

“The typical consumer in Europe uses ten to twenty pieces of packaging everyday, so where the waste packaging ends up should be at the forefront of our minds. It is expected that Britain will run out of approved space for landfill sites in five to ten years time and as the Government struggles to reduce CO2 emissions, renewable packaging stands out as an attractive proposition.

“Developing sustainable packaging that can compete effectively with packaging derived from petrochemical-based polymers is extremely challenging. Sustainpack is addressing this challenge by creating a European research community focused on sustainable packaging which will pressure retailers to accept natural packaging as the way forward.

“Sheffield Hallam’s expertise is being used to develop nanoclay particles which will significantly improve the barrier properties and mechanical strength of the new biopolymer films and coatings. One of the more unusual modifiers that we are using to make the nanoclays more compatible with, and disperse throughout the biopolymer films, to effectively repel water molecules is a molecule called chitosan which is derived from the shells of crustaceans, such as crabs and lobsters."

Companies such as Sainsbury's and Smurfit-Kappa, one of Europe's largest manufacturers of packaging products, are already actively participating in the project. Sheffield Hallam is now collaborating with SustainPack's partners to develop sample packages which can be used to demonstrate the capabilities of the new materials.

Image: 3D molecular structure of an exfoliated nanoclay-polymer composite.

More information:

Sheffield Hallam University: Europe to 'pack in' more fibre - April 16, 2007.

SustainPack project page.

EU Commission DG of Research: Nanosciences, Nanotechnologies, Materials and New Production Techniques, website.


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Thursday, April 26, 2007

The end of a utopian idea: iron-seeding the oceans to capture carbon won't work

For a while, some scientists thought they had found a simple 'quick fix' to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere via a biological process. The idea was to seed iron into the oceans to stimulate the growth of algae. The phytoplankton trap carbon dioxide via photosynthesis, and store it in their cells. After a while, the algae drop down to the ocean floor and take the carbon with them, where it remains for a long time. However, earlier experiments and economic studies showed that this 'geo-engineering' strategy doesn't pay off; large quantities of iron are needed to result in a small effect, making the technique too expensive.

By comparing the natural process with the artificial iron-seeding technique, scientists from France's leading research institute, the CNRS, have now been able to show exactly why the mimicked process is not efficient. At the same time, they found clues to a question that has been debated for a long time amongst paleoclimatologists: that of the role of iron circulation in the oceans during the climate changes observed in the period between glacial and interglacial eras.

A 47 strong research team of French, Belgian, Dutch and Australian oceanographers and biogeochemists from the international oceanographic mission KEOPS ('KErguelen Ocean and Plateau compared Study') set out in 2005 to analyse the process as it occurs near the Îles Kerguelen in the Southern Ocean. They published their results in the April 26 issue of the journal Nature and found that a much more complex stream of nutrients released according to a specific timing pattern is needed to trigger algae bloom formation that effectively captures and transfers carbon to the ocean floor, than merely adding iron. They conclude that geo-engineering the oceans won't work.

Two ocean pumps
Oceans are the most important carbon sinks on the planet. Two major mechanisms allow these vast reservoirs to extract carbon from the atmosphere: the 'physical pump' and the 'biological pump'. The 'physical pump' is a mechanism that, because of the natural ocean circulation, gradually forces carbon-rich surface waters to the deep, where the carbon remains locked. In the 'biological pump' (image, click to enlarge), carbon gas is taken up via photosynthesis into the cells of micro-organisms or in the calcium carbonate shells of sea creatures, which sink to the ocean floor as waste or when they die.

For more than a century already, a third of the anthropogenic carbon emitted into the atmosphere has been taken back by the oceans. Surprisingly, this work is done exclusively by the 'physical pump'. The 'biological pump' does not contribute to this process and simply continues its old cycle as it existed before the industrial age. However, the biological system is not operating at its maximum capacity. In vast parts of the world's oceans, the biological pump even works in slow motion, because of a lack of micro-organisms. The Southern Ocean in particular is poor in phytoplankton, despite the fact that the waters there consist of very nutrient-rich salts. So what exactly is holding the micro-organisms back from proliferating there? This was the crucial question for the research team:
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It is a question of major importance, because if we could tap the potential of these oceans to store more carbon via the biological cycle, then we could help fight global warming.

Between 1993 and 2005, around 12 oceanographic expeditions have allowed scientists to ascertain that phytoplankton in the great seas, and particularly in the Southern Ocean, lacked iron and started blooming when more iron was artificially added to their environment. However, the hypothesis that there is such a thing as a top-down transfer of carbon from the micro-organisms that thrive on the surface and that sink towards the bottom of the ocean, has so far not been proved.

Mother nature knows best
The KEOPS mission sailed out to find out. Contrary to the previous campaigns, this mission focused on the natural processes that drive phytoplankton blooms in the nutrient-rich waters near the Îles Kerguelen. This location was not chosen randomly: satellite images revealed that each year in the summer a very localised algae bloom emerges, a phenomenon that can only be explained by the presence of iron. Would this region of the Southern Ocean be a privileged zone for the 'biological pump' to operate?

The KEOPS researchers found that, indeed, the occurence of these blooms is the result of a continuous and natural flow of iron in the surface waters: via a series of complex steps, this iron is pumped up from deep water layers to the surface. This natural fertilisation process was then compared to artificial fertilisation campaigns. The result: the carbon transfer from the surface to the bottom of the ocean was found to be twice as large in the natural process. The total efficiency of the fertilisation - defined as the relation between the quantity of carbon transferred to the bottom of the ocean versus the amount of added iron - was at least ten times higher than artificial iron seeding.

Answers to old questions
The researchers found that this huge difference is due to the fact that a far wider range of natural nutrients are involved in creating algae blooms and carbon transfers than was previously found. It also answers the question asked by other scientists as to why iron seeding is not cost-efficient. For the time being, we cannot mimic the complex flow of nutrients needed to drive the process.

These discoveries have important repercussions in the quest to validate a paleoclimatic scenario which says that a part of the variations in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere between the Ice Age and interglacial periods was caused by modifications in the processes by which iron circulates in the oceans.

The findings also shed new light on the impacts of climate change on the important 'biological pump' that continuously traps and transfers carbon gas.

The end of the iron-seeding idea?
Finally, the researchers think their results mean the end of the 'geo-engineering' utopia that consists of artificially seeding the oceans with iron: the very intricate and slow but highly regulated process of iron addition as it occurs in the natural process, combined with the complexity of the composition of nutrients, make it almost unreplicable. For the process to occur, each location has its own interaction of different nutrient flows and a finetuned timing, which make it impossible and even unwarranted to try to replicate it in a standard way elsewhere.

The effectiveness of artificial iron-seeding as a way to induce carbon trapping algae blooms is put into question. But more importantly, the secondary effects of such a geo-engineering strategy on other marine creatures are not yet known.

The iron seeding idea is made impossible by a catch-22: on the one hand, the results from small-scale experiments cannot be extrapolated to proposed large scale efforts, precisely because of the intricacies and complexity of very localised circumstances that determine the effectiveness of the effort, whereas on the other hand, skipping small scale tests and immediately implementing large scale campaigns poses the risk of unwanted secondary effects on the biodiversity of vast swathes of the oceans.

The KEOPS mission was supported by the Institut national des sciences de l'Univers (INSU/CNRS), with the logistical support of the Institut polaire français Paul-Émile Victor (IPEV). Working on board of the Marion Dufresne, the science team was headed by Stéphane Blain, researcher at the Laboratoire d'océanographie et de biogéochimie de Marseille (LOB/COM, CNRS / Université Aix-Marseille 2).

Translated and adapted by JVDB from CNRS: Fertiliser les océans : la fin d'une utopie? - April 26, 2007.

More information:
Stéphane Blain et al., "Effect of natural iron fertilization on carbon sequestration in the Southern Ocean", [*abstract], Nature, 446, 1070-1074 (26 April 2007) | doi:10.1038/nature05700

Nature: "Only mother nature knows how to fertilize the ocean - Natural input of nutrients works ten times better than manmade injections" - April 23, 2007.

The Scientist: "Iron Seeding Just Doesn't Pay" [*abstract], The Scientist, 5 July, 2004, 18(13):26

Sixteen laboratories from across the world participated in the KEOPS mission, which has its own website.




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Biochar soil sequestration and pyrolysis most climate-friendly way to use biomass for energy

The ancient technique of burying charcoal into agricultural soils has gained attention over the years as a way to sequester carbon dioxide and fight climate change. Earlier we referred to scientists who are studying this tradition as it existed in the Amazon rainforest, where human-made and very fertile soils were discovered filled with char ("terra preta", "dark earth" - earlier post).

Many biomass researchers are now looking into the 'biochar' or 'agrichar' technique to use it in combination with modern biofuels. Called 'geosequestration of biochar' or 'black-carbon sequestration', the technique is different from carbon capture and storage (CCS), in that the first carbon sequestration concept involves burying the carbon in soils that can be used to grow crops, whereas the latter technique merely involves storing CO2 underground in geological formations like saline aquifers or depleted oil and gas fields.

So biomass allows for the design of two types of carbon-negative energy systems: (1) Bio-Energy with Carbon Storage (BECS) involves burning biomass/biogas in power plants, capturing the carbon, and storing it in dedicated sites (earlier post and here); (2) Growing crops to use part of their biomass as a fuel source, while the rest of the crop is turned into charcoal that is not used for energy, but that is sequestered into the soil, a process that enhances soil fertility, making the biofuel crops grow even better. In principle, a combination of the two techniques can be imagined.

For the time being, several countries in the EU are trying to supplant some coal-burning by burning biomass such as wood pellets and agricultural residues. Unlike coal, biomass is carbon-neutral, releasing only the carbon dioxide that the plants had absorbed in the first place. Eventually, BECS could be applied to such systems.

But a new research paper [*abstract] published online in the journal Biomass and Bioenergy argues that the biochar technique may be an even better route in the fight against global warming. An optimal system would consist of heating the biomass in an oxygen-starved process called pyrolysis, extracting methane, hydrogen, and other byproducts for combustion and energy, while burying the resulting carbon-rich char that is another byproduct from biomass pyrolysis.

Even if this approach would mean burning more coal - which emits more carbon dioxide than other fossil-fuel sources - it would yield a net reduction in carbon emissions, according to the analysis by Malcolm Fowles, a professor of technology management at the Open University, in the United Kingdom. Burning one ton of wood pellets emits 357 kilograms less carbon than burning coal with the same energy content. But turning those wood pellets into char would save 372 kilograms of carbon emissions. That is because 300 kilograms of carbon could be buried as char, and the burning of byproducts would produce 72 kilograms less carbon emissions than burning an equivalent amount of coal:
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Such an approach could carry an extra benefit. Burying char enhances soils, helping future crops and trees grow even faster, thus absorbing more carbon dioxide in the future. Researchers believe that the char, an inert and highly porous material, plays a key role in helping soil retain water and nutrients, and in sustaining microorganisms that maintain soil fertility.

Johannes Lehmann, an associate professor of crops and soil sciences at Cornell University and an expert on char sequestration, agrees in principle with Fowles's analysis but believes that much more research in this relatively new area of study is needed. "It heads in the right direction," he says.

Interest in the approach is gathering momentum. On April 29, more than 100 corporate and academic researchers will gather in New South Wales, Australia, to attend the first international conference on black-carbon sequestration and the role pyrolysis can play to offset greenhouse-gas emissions.

Lehmann estimates that as much as 9.5 billion tons of carbon - more than currently emitted globally through the burning of fossil fuels - could be sequestered annually by the end of this century through the sequestration of char. "Bioenergy through pyrolysis in combination with biochar sequestration is a technology to obtain energy and improve the environment in multiple ways at the same time," writes Lehmann in a research paper to be published soon in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

Image: Heating biomass such as wood pellets (right) in an oxygen-free environment produces char (left) and byproducts such as methane that can be burned. Research shows that turning biomass into char and burying the char is a good way to avoid releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Credit: U.S. Department of Energy

More information:

Malcolm Fowles, "Black carbon sequestration as an alternative to bioenergy" [*.abstract], Biomass & Bioenergy, Volume 31, Issue 6, June 2007, Pages 426-432 (available online, 6 March 2007) doi:10.1016/j.biombioe.2007.01.012

Johannes Lehman, John Gaunt, Marco Rondon, "Bio-char sequestration in terrestrial ecosystems - A review" [*.pdf], Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change (2006) 11: 403–427

Johannes Lehman's site: Bio-char or Agri-char: the new frontier, Cornell University.
The Terra Preta mailing list.



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Satellites play vital role in understanding the carbon cycle

The global carbon cycle plays a key role in climate change and is of intense importance to policy makers, but significant knowledge gaps remain in our understanding of it. Several scientists at the Envisat Symposium this week have highlighted research projects using European Space Agency (ESA) satellites to understand better this complex process.

The total number of carbon atoms on Earth is fixed – they are exchanged between the ocean, atmosphere, land and biosphere. The fact that human activities are pumping extra carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, by fossil fuel burning and deforestation, is well known. Because of this, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations are higher today than they have been over the last half-million years or so. Scientists are now using satellite instruments to locate sinks and sources of CO2 in the ocean and land.

First instrument to measure global greenhouse gas emissions
Dr Michael Buchwitz from the Institute of Environmental Physics (IUP) at the University of Bremen in Germany presented global carbon dioxide measurements based on observations from Envisat’s SCIAMACHY instrument from 2003 to 2005.

The SCIAMACHY (Scanning Imaging Absorption Spectrometer for Atmospheric Chartography) instrument is the first space sensor capable of measuring the most important greenhouse gases with high sensitivity down to the Earth’s surface because it observes the spectrum of sunlight shining through the atmosphere in ‘nadir’ looking operations on a global scale.

Buchwitz explained that he and his colleagues first measure the absolute carbon dioxide (CO2) column in number of CO2 molecules per area above the Earth’s surface. Then, they measure the oxygen (O2) column that can be easily converted into an ‘air column’. As seen in the image above (click to enlarge), both figures are essentially identical, as he had expected.

“There are, however, tiny differences and this is the CO2 source/sink information we are interested in,” Buchwitz said. “To see this we compute the CO2/O2 ratio which can be converted into a column averaged CO2 mixing ratio.”

Dr Paul Monks from the University of Leicester is using SCIAMACHY data to measure how much CO2 is being taken up by plants. Using 20,000 individual measurements a month, he is monitoring CO2 drawn down over Siberia, North America and Northern Europe:
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According to Monks, this view from space is providing the first evidence of the Earth ‘breathing’ by allowing scientists to witness the biology drawing down CO2 during the growing season and then releasing some of it back.

“The exciting new area breaking from this sort of data is that we begin to be able to look at the tropics, which are the ‘lungs’ of the atmospheric system,” Monks said. “Using this data, we are going to be able to assess how efficient the tropics are at modulating carbon as well as how that is changing with time as climate change effects the tropical biosystem.”

By comparing the satellite data to aircraft data and to remote-sensing sites on the surface, Monks learned the method he and his colleagues are using is approaching a precision of around 1%, giving them confidence in what they see from space.

By better understanding all of the parameters involved in the carbon cycle, scientists can better predict climate change as well as better monitor international treaties aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, such as the Kyoto Protocol which addresses the reduction of six greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide.

Measuring photosynthetic activity
Across land and sea, our world's plant life uses the process called photosynthesis to convert incoming sunlight into chemical energy. Plants accumulate carbon dioxide during photosynthesis and store it in their tissues, making them carbon sinks.

Dr Nadine Gobron of the European Commission's Joint Research Centre (EC-JRC) in Ispra, Italy, is combining daily multispectral observations from Envisat's Medium Resolution Imaging Spectrometer (MERIS) instrument with a sophisticated processing algorithm to reveal global photosynthesis activity on land (example of its application for Europe, see map, click to enlarge).

The fraction of incoming solar radiation useful for photosynthesis that is actually absorbed by vegetation – a value known as the Fraction of Absorbed Photosynthetically Active Radiation (FAPAR) – is recognised as an essential climate variable by international organisations including the Global Climate Observing System (GCOS). FAPAR is regularly used in diagnostic and predictive models to compute the primary productivity of the vegetation canopies.

The operational FAPAR MERIS product is derived with the JRC-FAPAR algorithm, which has been designed to exploit the daily MERIS spectral measurements in the blue, red and near-infrared bands with no prior knowledge on the land cover.

This methodology involves a physically-based approach which can be adopted for generating this biophysical product from various optical medium resolution sensors. The algorithm used allows scientists to derive the equivalent biophysical product from other optical satellite sensors, even retired ones, to ensure the availability of a long-time series of global FAPAR, which is essential to assess environmental trends, guide policy making and support sustainable development activities.

“Demonstration products at the global scale are now available and are ready to be used in state-of-the-art carbon data assimilation systems (CCDAS) for better understanding the role of the biosphere in the global carbon cycle,” Gobron said.

Phytoplankton, microscopic marine plants that drift on or near the surface of the sea, absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide through photosynthesis just as their terrestrial ‘cousins’ do. While individually microscopic, phytoplankton chlorophyll collectively tints the surrounding ocean waters, providing a means of detecting these tiny organisms from space with dedicated ocean colour sensors, such as MERIS.

Image 1: Comparison between oxygen (top) and carbon dioxide figures derived from SCIAMACHY. Credits: Buchwitz, IUP/IFE, Univ. Bremen

Image 2: FAPAR (Fraction of Absorbed Photosynthetically Active Radiation) derived from MERIS over Europe in May 2005. FAPAR - the fraction of incoming solar radiation useful for photosynthesis that is actually absorbed by vegetation - is recognised as an essential climate variable by international organisations and is regularly used in diagnostic and predictive models to compute the primary productivity of the vegetation canopies. Credits: N. Gobron

More information:
ESA: Envisat Symposium 2007 kicks off in Switzerland - April 23, 2007.
ESA: Envisat homepage.


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Turning brownfields green with biofuels - project in the UK

Biofuels are not destined for human consumption. For this reason, they can be grown on land not suitable for food crops. Earlier we referred to the potential of energy plantations to function as bioremediation agents on former industrial sites (previous post on phytoremediation of coal-bed methane water, and on turning brownfields into 'green fields' using, for example, miscanthus, as is being studied in France). When grown on mining sites, biofuel crops can do several things at the same time: they clean up water resources, contain the spread of fine and dangerous particles which affect people living in the vicinity and halt progressive erosion (earlier post and a concept under development in South Africa).

The UK's Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) is joining this line of research by launching a project aimed at growing willow on former landfill sites to help test the viability of using contaminated brownfield land for biofuel production. The industrialised world has thousands of hectares of such polluted, degraded and abandoned sites - the scars of a bygone industrial era.

The WRAP pilot project will convert former landfill sites at Lumley North and Coxhoe East. The poor quality soils of these sites will first be restored by an application of 1,000 tonnes of certified (BSI PAS 100:2005) green compost per hectare after which they will be planted with short rotation coppice (SRC) willow.

The fast growing willow will then be harvested and used in biofuel production – a sustainable fuel resource that will provide energy for the local area. Assessment of the establishment and yield from the willow grown in compost will be compared to the same crop under conventional agricultural conditions grown in the same area, to determine whether low-value sites, such as former landfills, can generate cost effective biofuels using organic materials:
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The Lumley North and Coxhoe East sites, which extend to 60 hectares, form part of Premier Waste Management Ltd’s portfolio of operational and closed landfill sites and are managed by Land Remediation Services Ltd. The trailblazer programme is designed to help developers, designers and contractors realise the financial and environmental benefits of specifying high quality compost in brownfield projects.

Dr Eric Evans, of Land Remediation Services, said: “We specified green waste compost for the project as it is the best form of organic matter to restore the poor quality soils with respect to improving water retention and nutrient levels. This makes it suitable for planting short rotation coppice willow for biofuel production.”

The compost was sourced from Premier Waste Management’s Joint Stocks Recycling Centre in Coxhoe and is made from recycled municipal garden waste. The project started in November 2006 and is due to complete in March 2008. The coppice willow produced will be contracted to Renewable Energy from Agriculture (REFA) for local energy production. When mature, the crops will yield in the region of 20 tonnes per ha per year on a three year cutting cycle.

Pilot projects at other sites conducted in conjunction with WRAP, which look at the benefits of using PAS 100 compost in-situ as a soil improver, have shown significant improvement in both cost efficiencies and the quality of the resulting topsoil. In some cases, costs have been reduced by over 50 per cent*.

Richard Swannell, Director of the Organics Programme at WRAP, said: “Previous trials have shown that using locally sourced quality PAS 100 compost as a soil improver, not only saves transportation and landfill costs, but also produces good quality, fertile soil making it suitable for a wide range of uses. These two trailblazer sites are the first to use quality compost in restoring the land for biofuel production.”

The BSI PAS 100:2005 certification means that the compost, which is produced from source segregated garden waste such as grass cuttings, prunings and leaves, has been manufactured to a consistent high quality level and is also safe, reliable and sustainable.

WRAP is a non-profit working in partnerships to encourage and enable businesses and consumers to be more efficient in their use of materials and recycle more things more often. This helps to minimise landfill, reduce carbon emissions and improve the environment. The organisation is backed by substantial Government funding from Defra and the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Working in seven key areas (Construction, Retail, Manufacturing, Organics, Business Growth, Behavioural Change, and Local Authority Support), WRAP’s work focuses on market development and support to drive forward recycling and materials resource efficiency within these sectors, as well as wider communications and awareness activities including the multi-media national Recycle Now campaign for England.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Nano Chemical Systems introduces biodegradable 2-cycle marine oil

Nano Chemical Systems Holdings Inc., announced today it has developed a "nano-enhanced", rapidely biodegradable 2-cycle oil for use on marine applications. The product will enter the multi-billion dollar performance chemical category under the name of 'NanoilMarine'. The biolubricant is the breakthrough step towards achieving the stringent goals set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in its 'Final Rule' [*.pdf] which regulates outboard motor and Personal Water Craft (PWC) emissions and calls for a 75% reduction in hydrocarbon emissions nationally by 2025.

Unlike today's fossil and synthetic oils, NanoilMarine is non-toxic and biodegradable. Nanochem will produce the lubricant by utilizing the same nano-technology patent applications and inventions that it utilizes in its Nanoil product, which directly address biofuel production for a nano-enhanced line of 'green' biolubricants (earlier post). The patented technology is based on nano-sized molybdenum metal ball bearings that are introduced into bio-based oils, giving them superior properties as lubricants.

Initial results indicate that NanoilMarine can perform as well as today's fossil and synthetic oils in marine applications. Further, the biolubricant can be made from a waste-product obtained from biodiesel production that is based on saturated plant oils (such as palm and coconut oil, whose fatty acids have a low number of double bonds, which is why they harden at high temperatures). Biodiesel made from such oil types involves physically removing a fraction (up to 15%) of the fuel, needed to lower its melting point. This reduces the overall energy balance of the fuel and negatively affects its economics. By utilizing this fraction as a feedstock for NanoilMarine, the biolubricant can play a crucial role in strengthening commercial viability of biodiesel production:
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Nanoil 2-cycle marine oil is a critical introduction in reducing hydrocarbon emissions and alleviating concerns that outboard and Personal Water Craft emissions pose a substantive threat to water quality. Since this oil is mixed with gasoline, the potential exists for boating enthusiasts to accidentally spill this oil directly into the water supply, says Lou Petrucci, COO and VP Sales of Nanochem. With 100% biodegradable oil, accidental spillage will not have an environmental impact.

Nano Chemical Systems holds a portfolio of in-house nano-research, development and a manufacturing plant. Earlier, it introduced Nanoil, a bio-based lubricant with nano-sized molybdenum particles, which is made from the residues from palm oil based biodiesel production.

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EU launches new public consultation on biofuels

On 10 January 2007 the European Commission made proposals for a new Energy Policy for Europe (earlier post). These included a renewable energy roadmap proposing:
  • a binding 20% target for the overall share of renewable energy in 2020 – the effort to be shared in an appropriate way between Member States;
  • a binding 10% target for the share of biofuels in petrol and diesel in each Member State in 2020, to be accompanied by the introduction of a sustainability scheme for biofuels
The Commission is now drafting proposals to incorporate these targets in legislation. In doing so, the Commission will take into account the views of stakeholders as expressed in last year's consultation exercises on heating and cooling and biofuels and the recent consultation exercise on administrative obstacles to the increased use of renewable energy in electricity generation.

The present consultation document complements those exercises. The Commission would like to know the views of public authorities, businesses, non-governmental organisations and other interested parties on the following questions:
  1. How should a biofuel sustainability system be designed?
  2. How should overall effects on land use be monitored?
  3. How should the use of second-generation biofuels be encouraged?
  4. What further action is needed to make it possible to achieve a 10% biofuel share?
The consultation paper [*.pdf] explains the questions in more detail. Anyone with a stake, insight or interest in the subject can participate. Responses can be sent in until Monday, 4 June 2007 and can be in any Community language. More information can be found here [entry ends here].
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Wealthy West failing on promises to help Africa

Countries from the wealthy West have made several promises to help Africa reach the UN's Millennium Development Goals which are aimed at halving extreme poverty by 2015. One of the promises is that by 2010, the world's richest countries would make 0.7% of their GNI available as official development aid. At the Gleneagles Summit in 2005, G8 countries repeated their committment and promised to double aid to Africa and wipe out more than €29 billion of debt. Enthusiasm ensued, pop concerts were organised, feel good marketing efforts were launched...

Years later, and despite lots of big, noble words and discourses, it is clear that these countries are not living up to their promises (graph, click to enlarge). The finding is important in the context of Africa's bioenergy potential, because lack of broad development assistance will make it more difficult to tap it in a sustainable way. If the West can not keep its most basic promises on development aid, there is not much hope that it will succeed in financing such 'luxury' concepts as 'avoided deforestation' or in helping making agriculture on the continent more sustainable and efficient.

Meeting in Berlin with former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the UK's PM Tony Blair (who launched the Africa initiative at Gleneagles), German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who chairs both the G8 as well as the Presidency of the EU, said that the world's industrialized countries do not need to set new goals to help the developing world but keep the promises they have already made.

Launching the Africa Progress panel, which is set up to monitor industrialized nations progress on reaching development targets, Merkel said: "We cannot stagnate now, we have made clear there will be continuity. We are going to take things up where Gleneagles ended." Merkel stressed the Gleneagles committment should be fulfilled before new promises are made at the German G8 summit in June, where she has promised to make Africa a major topic:
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Merkel: The goals have been set
"We do not need to hold any additional conferences now to define goals," she said. "Now we need to make a certain amount of progress." Merkel highlighted the use of micro-credits in Africa, adding that not only the amount of money reaching the continent was important but also the instruments used to distribute it.

Blair said debt relief to Africa had totalled around 38 billion dollars (28 billion euros) in recent years and there had been "significant, though not enough, increases in the aid money that has been given."

He said the consequences of failing to help Africa could be dire. "The more I look at what is happening in Africa, in some of the worst trouble spots, in Sudan and Somalia and so on, the more I am convinced that if we do not take a responsible and long-term view of Africa and its need to develop and make progress then we will end up ultimately with our own self-interest back in countries like Germany and the UK being damaged as a result of the poverty, the conflict, the mass migration and the spread of terrorism," he told journalists.

Blair said it had been shown that "where the help is given it does make a difference. "There are health service systems and education systems being transformed and changed as a result of the help and commitment that has been given by the international community," he added.

Blair said Europe would suffer from "poverty, conflict, mass migration and the spread of terrorism" if it did not act to help solve Africa's problems. "There has been an immense amount of progress, but we know there's a tremendous amount that has yet to be done," Blair said. "There are far too many Africans who die when their death is preventable with the right help."

Supporting political stability
Annan said international efforts to aid Africa needed to continue and pointed out that many of the continent's nations broke free of their past military rulers. The former UN head is now leading the African Progress Panel, which is set up to monitor industrialized nations progress on reaching development targets. "Unless we step up our efforts ... we will not make the (Gleneagles) target," he said.

The former UN Secretary General said African leaders were increasingly aware that "they have to solve these political conflicts to be able to focus on the economic and social issues." He pointed to conflicts resolved in Angola, Sierre Leone, Liberia, Burundi, and Eritrea and Ethiopia as proof that Africa could get its own house in order.

Annan said he believed war in Europe was now unthinkable because of the success of the EU as a socio-political formation and because of the Union's wealth. He said he hoped that in a generation the same would be true in Africa.


The G8 summit headed by Germany's Chancellor takes place on June 6-8 in Heiligendamm and will be attended by the leaders of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States.

Graph: Wealthy countries have pleged 0.7% of GNI for development assistance. Net official development assistance as a percentage of GNI, 2004. Biopact, 2007.

More information:
Deutsche Welle: Merkel Pledges to Keep Africa on International Agenda - April 24, 2007.

ReliefWeb: Blair warns West will suffer if it fails Africa - April 24, 2007.

OECD Development Assistance statistics.



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Scientists identify key steps in process by which enzyme breaks down cellulose

Cellulosic biomass - one of the most abundant materials on the planet - can be converted into liquid fuels via thermochemical and biochemical processes. Thermochemical transformation consists of such processes as gasification and pyrolysis, whereas the biochemical route relies on enzymes that break down cellulose into sugars. If these conversion techniques become efficient, a wide range of biofuel feedstocks can be used, such as grasses and wood.

However, utilising enzymes remains slow and expensive because of a central bottleneck: the sluggish rate at which the cellulose enzyme complex breaks down tightly bound cellulose into sugars, which are then fermented into ethanol.

A team of UC San Diego scientists has now conducted molecular simulations at the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC). By using “virtual molecules,” they have discovered key steps in the intricate dance in which the enzyme acts as a molecular machine - attaching to bundles of cellulose, pulling up a single strand of sugar, and putting it onto a molecular conveyor belt where it is chopped into smaller sugar pieces.

The researchers reported their results in the April 12 online edition of the Protein Engineering, Design and Selection journal, which also featured visualizations of the results on the cover.
“By learning how the cellulase enzyme complex breaks down cellulose we can develop protein engineering strategies to speed up this key reaction. This is important in making ethanol from plant biomass a realistic ‘carbon neutral’ alternative to the fossil petroleum used today for transportation fuels.” - Mike Cleary, SDSC coordinator
The simulations have given the researchers a better understanding of the interactions between the enzyme complex and cellulose at the molecular level - the computer model showed how the binding portion of this enzyme changes shape, which hadn’t been anticipated by the scientific community. "These results are important because they can provide crucial guidance as scientists formulate selective experiments to modify the enzyme complex for improved efficiency", says Mark Nimlos, lead author and Senior Scientist at NREL.

What the scientists found in their simulations – a “virtual microscope” that let them zoom in on previously invisible details - is that initially the binding part of the enzyme moves freely and randomly across the cellulose surface, searching for a broken cellulose chain. When it encounters an available chain, the cellulose itself seems to prompt a change in the shape of the enzyme complex so that it can straddle the broken end of the cellulose chain (picture, click to enlarge). This gives the enzyme a crucial foothold to begin the process of digesting or “unzipping” the cellulose into sugar molecules:
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To the scientists, the simulation is like a stop-motion film of a baseball pitcher throwing a curveball. In real-life the process occurs far too quickly to evaluate visually, but by using the supercomputer simulations to break the throw down into a step-by-step process, the scientists can see the precise details of the role of velocity, trajectory, movement, and arm angle. To undertake the large-scale simulations, the researchers used the CHARMM (Chemistry at HARvard Molecular Mechanics) suite of modeling software.

According to the researchers, an accurate understanding of the key molecular events required the simulations to run for some six million time steps over 12 nanoseconds (a nanosecond is one billionth of a second) in order to capture enough of the motion and shape changes of the enzyme as it interacted with the cellulose surface.

This is an extremely long time in molecular terms, and the computation-hungry simulations ran for some 80,000 processor-hours running on SDSC’s DataStar supercomputer.

Also participating in the study were Michael Crowley, William Adney, and Michael Himmel of the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL); James Matthews and John Brady of Cornell University; Linghao Zhong of Penn State University; as well as Ross Walker, and Giridhar Chukkapalli of SDSC.

The research was partially funded by the Department of Energy’s Biomass Program and the National Science Foundation.

Movie: Molecular machines converting cellulose to bio fuel. Couresty: UC San Diego.

More information:
Mark R. Nimlos, et al. “Molecular modeling suggests induced fit of Family I carbohydrate-binding modules with a broken-chain cellulose surface” [*abstract], Protein Engineering Design and Selection, PEDS Advance Access published online on April 12, 2007, doi:10.1093/protein/gzm010

University of California San Diego: Meeting the Ethanol Challenge: Scientists Use Supercomputer to Target Cellulose Bottleneck - April 24, 207.



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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Government of West Bengal to kickstart biofuels industry for rural development

Biofuels are clearly 'value-free': both neoliberal free trade afficionados and anti-globalist organisations are investing heavily in the sector, as are moderate left-wing governments like those of Brazil and Chile as well as radical neo-communist and marxist states like Cuba and China or Burma and Venezuela. Joining the latter group is the 'Communist Party of India (Marxist)' ('CPI-M', not to be confused with the Communist Party of India) which controls the government of West Bengal state as well as that of the states of Kerala and Tripura. The CPI-M, which has been running the government of West-Bengal for over three decades, now announced it is set to encourage 'agriculture-based industry' by utilising the state's wastelands for the cultivation of biofuel feedstocks.

West-Bengal, India's third largest economy with a GDP of US$ 21 billion, has around 80 million inhabitants, the vast majority of whom depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. Together, rural Bengalis are responsible for 60% of the state's agricultural output, which ranks third in India and which provides 27% of the state's GDP. Of all states on the sub-continent, West-Bengal has the largest area of potential arable land. Its climate varies from tropical savannah in the southern portions to humid subtropical in the north. The Indian Ocean Monsoon brings rain to the whole state from June to September. A wide range of biofuel feedstocks can be grown in the region, from sugar cane (already a major industry) in the humid zones, to jatropha in the drier regions.

Despite communist control, the state is India's fastest growing economy, mainly because of successful policies aimed at attracting foreign investors, because of an excellent infrastructure and because of strategic investments in key sectors like IT and biotech. But a considerable number of people in West Bengal still live in dire poverty, mainly in the rural areas of the six northern districts of Cooch Behar, Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri, Malda, North Dinajpur and South Dinajpur and the three western districts of Purulia, Bankura, Birbhum.

The CPI-M now has its eyes on the biofuels sector, with a large scale jatropha programme as its first focus, aimed at offering employment opportunities to these rural poor, and to help them diversify their farming acitivities.

"The state government will shortly come up with a clear policy earmarking all the wastelands in West Bengal. Three departments - that of the panchayats [collectivities of villages], that of agriculture, and that of land reforms - are together working on this policy," West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya said today while laying the foundation stone of a biodiesel plant at Haldia in East Midnapore, 150 km from Calcutta, the state capital.

First biofuel plant under construction
Anticipating the implementation of the programme, Emami Biotech, a subsidiary of the Emami Group, one of India's major consumer products conglomerates, is already setting up the biodiesel project at Haldia, the first in eastern India, by investing 1.5 billion rupiah (€27/US$36.8 million). The plant has an initial capacity of 100,000 tons per annum and is expected to come on-stream by the end of 2007. The project's technical implementation is carried out in collaboration with an Italian-Belgian joint venture company.

"This biodiesel plant will be the first such agriculture-based industrial unit in West Bengal where farmers will be directly benefited," said Laksman Seth, chairman of the Haldia Development Authority. Other biofuel projects are under study.

Rural development
In order to supply the biofuel production plants adequately, jatropha cultivation over an area of 100,000 acres is essential, Chief Minister Bhattacharya said, adding that the program will create employment opportunities for 200,000 people at the rate of two persons per acre of cultivation. The CPI-M heavy weight added that after identifying the areas where feedstocks can be grown, the communist state government will directly involve the local farmers for cultivation of jatropha on the wastelands:
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Pointing out the importance of alternative energy resources in the government's energy security strategy, the chief minister highlighted the fact that the state government has already started a pilot project for cultivating jatropha in Bankura district. He said there is huge potential to cultivate the feedstock in Purulia, West Midnapore (Jhargram sub-division) and Bankura districts.

Energy security
"It's high time we switch over from conventional resources to alternative energy resources procuring biodiesel or biogas. If we can encourage farmers to cultivate jatropha it would help a lot to generate biofuel in West Bengal," he said.

To strengthen the state's economic prosperity, the government will go in for jatropha cultivation in a big way and will motivate the farmers through the district administration, zilla parishads (local government body at the district level responsible for the administration of rural areas) and panchayats. The process is expected to start in the next few months.

Currently, India produces only 22 percent of its total diesel requirement and 78 percent is imported draining off huge amounts of foreign currency reserves every year, the chairman of the Haldia Development Authority said. Locally grown biofuels can boost both the state and the country's energy security.


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Japan opens 55 bioethanol gas stations

According to the Daily Yomiuri, a mixture of bioethanol and gasoline will be made available on a trial basis by the end of this week at 55 gas stations in selected locations across Japan. The alternative fuel will go on sale nationwide by 2010.

The fuel, to be marketed as "biogasoline," is a mixture of gasoline and 3% ethyl tertiary butyl ether (ETBE). The 10 petroleum wholesalers in Japan have jointly imported ETBE and will market biogasoline under their umbrella. The bulk of the imports come from Brazil (earlier post), since Japan has very few resources to grow its own energy crops (earlier post). For this reason, the country is actively investing in kickstaring a biofuels industry in the developing world, where a vast potential exists (see here and here).

According to the Petroleum Association of Japan (PAJ), the umbrella group coordinating the effort, the price and performance, in terms of octane rating, will be the same as regular gasoline. Since there is technically no problem in using the fuel in conventional vehicles, consumers are not expected to experience anything out of the ordinary when using the mixture.

The plans are to increase the number of biogasoline outlets to 100 by 2008, and 1,000 by 2009. In the year 2010, biogasoline is projected to constitute 20 percent of all gas sold in Japan, while there are plans to produce ETBE domestically from fiscal 2009, according to the PAJ:
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The Environment Ministry is also scheduled to launch a series of demonstration tests in August on a new type of biofuel produced by directly mixing gasoline and bioethanol. The Osaka prefectural government will conduct the tests on commission.

The introduction of biogasoline is aimed at helping to alleviate global warming.

Under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, carbon dioxide generated from the combustion of bioethanol is not subject to CO2 reduction obligations for cutting greenhouse gases, since it is produced from crops that absorb CO2 from the atmosphere. Therefore, the larger the consumption of bioethanol in Japan, the more effective projects will be for achieving the CO2 reduction target. The use of bioethanol also lowers the dependence on petroleum and the effects of its erratic price fluctuations.

Meanwhile, the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry is embarking on projects to encourage the use of domestically produced bioethanol to help farmers. As one analyst put it, this might be the year that marks "Japan's full-fledged utilization of bioethanol."

Two blending methods
The petroleum industry and the Environment Ministry are at odds over how bioethanol should be mixed with gasoline. The petroleum industry favors ETBE and the ministry prefers the direct ethanol-gasoline mixture.

This disagreement could hamper the spread of the new fuel. PAJ President Fumiaki Watari said, "The ETBE formula can be done through existing petroleum-refining facilities." "Since the operation for mixing ethanol with gasoline under this formula is done by petroleum refiners, attempts to dodge the gasoline tax can be effectively prevented," he added.

The direct mixture formula, by contrast, requires additional capital spending and cooperation from many companies to produce biogasoline, increasing worries of gasoline tax evasion, Watari said.

But the ministry argues the ETBE formula makes it technically difficult to raise the concentration of bioethanol in biogasoline. The government has set the amount of bioethanol in the mix at a maximum of 3 percent, but is considering raising that to 10 percent.

Environment Minister Masatoshi Wakabayashi said: "Many Japanese-made cars are used in such countries as Brazil, the United States and Canada, where the direct mixing formula is employed. This means there's no major technical problems in adopting the direct mixing method."

A senior official of the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry argued that the petroleum industry's real intention is to maintain the "centrally controlled distribution system of petroleum products with the refiners at the top of the hierarchy."

"The Environment Ministry should also be brought to task for having failed to exchange views with the industry," the official added.

Need to rethink biofuel strategy
The program the government worked out in April 2005 for fulfilling Kyoto Protocol CO2 reduction goals calls for increasing the use of biofuel to the equivalent of 500,000 kiloliters of crude oil by fiscal 2010.

There are no feasible plans for achieving this other than through the petroleum industry's commitment to increase biofuel production to 210,000 kiloliters.

"The petroleum industry's project can never be considered sufficient to realize the government-set goal," said Yoshio Tamura, administrative vice minister of the Environment Ministry.

Under the circumstances, indications are that Japan, with its bleak prospects for expanding bioethanol production, likely will have to rethink its current biofuel strategy.



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Virgin Atlantic to fly 747 on biofuels in 2008 - looks to Africa

A few years ago, we once did a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation and concluded that a relatively small patch of land in Africa could supply all biofuels needed to power all air traffic in the world's busiest skies, those of the US. Some laughed at the idea, but meanwhile, the use of biofuels for aviation is becoming a reality. Much quicker than anticipated. What's more, the man pushing the revolution is looking to Africa for sustainably produced supplies.


Rudimentary map used during heated 'Peak Oil' debate in 2004.
The first commercial aircraft, a Virgin Atlantic 747 jumbo jet, powered by a 60% biofuel-kerosene blend will fly next year in what could be a historic step towards airlines reducing their oil consumption and carbon dioxide emissions.

The project was announced by Sir Richard Branson, and includes Boeing and General Electric, the engine-maker, as partners. They hope to have the “green” jumbo airborne in 2008. The airline and its partners are testing up to eight biofuels to determine which is most effective at altitude. Ethanol, which is becoming an increasingly popular alternative to petrol in cars, has been rejected because it does not burn well in thin-oxygen environments. Biobutanol and synthetic biofuels offer better performance.

There are several initiatives underway aimed at studying biofuels for aviation. So far we have seen breakthroughs in Brazil, where a biofuel company is cooperating with Boeing and NASA (earlier post) as well as in Argentina, where the airforce has been testing biofuels mixed with jet-fuel ('bio-kerosene') (earlier post), whereas the U.S. Air Force has been experimenting with synthetic fuels, which can be made from biomass (earlier post). The University of North Dakota recently received a US$5 million grant to develop military bio-jet fuels (earlier post).

More recently private company Diversified Energy developed biofuels that withstand very cold temperatures and could be used in aviation (earlier post), whereas North Carolina State University found an innovative technology for the production of biofuels for jet aircraft (earlier post), whereas a study for the US Military, written by Sasol, concluded that synthetic biofuels (Fischer-Tropsch) can power the entire military - including its airforce - in case of severe oil supply disruptions (earlier post).

Converting an aircraft to run on biofuel was thought to be a much longer-term project and the announcement from Virgin today will surprise those in the industry who have scorned the idea.

Aviation is one of the fastest growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions and is likely to be brought into the European Union's carbon emissions trading scheme from 2012 (earlier post). Virgin hopes that biofuel-powered aircraft could be operating commercially within five years, which could help to cut significantly the airline industry’s carbon dioxide emissions.

The industry is investing in lighter aircraft and new engines to improve fuel efficiency, but biofuels could eliminate oil dependence entirely. Sir Richard Branson launched Virgin Fuels last year, a division dedicated to commercialising aviation biofuels, pledging the profits from his airline and trains for the next ten years would be invested in the venture:
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A source close to the biofuel project said: “Everyone was saying that flying a plane with alternative energy sources was a decade away, but it is going much faster than that. The demonstration by a 747 next year will be a milestone in the airline industry’s attempts to reduce its CO2 emissions and cut its fuel bills.”

The trial will experiment with a mix of 60 per cent bio-fuel and 40 per cent kerosene, potentially enabling Virgin Atlantic to halve its carbon emissions. Sir Richard said Virgin Fuels, the group's new green energy division, was looking at the possibility of developing butanol as an aviation fuel in preference to ethanol which freezes at the altitude flown by jet aircraft.

Bio-fuels can be produced from a wide variety of crops including sugar beet and wheat. But Sir Richard said it was possible the crops could be grown in Africa, thereby helping to alleviate poverty on the continent at the same time as safeguarding the environment.


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FAO Committee on Commodity Problems: effect of biofuels on food prices temporary

Most of us do not realise it, but for decades there has been a downward trend in real food prices. It would be no exaggeration to say that the foodstuffs we consume on a daily basis are actually 'dirt cheap'. Because of an amazing agricultural revolution, the world's farmers currently produce so much food that they can feed 9 billion people. And, despite rapid economic growth in China and India, this trend towards even lower prices is set continue, according to the Committee on Commodity Problems (CCP). The CCP, an intergovernmental Committee of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) also says the effect of biofuels on food prices is temporary and the result of a sudden rush towards abundant feedstocks, not affecting the fundamentals of the food commodity markets in the long run.


Commodity prices will continue to trend downward, despite biofuels
Food insecurity amidst an abundance of food
Still, despite the abundance of food, and despite the fact that there is enough carrying capacity to produce both food and fuel from crops in a sustainable manner and for rapidly growing populations, 800 million people face chronic or temporary food insecurity. The reasons for this complex situation are not the lack of food or the lack of the potential to produce more of it to keep up with demand. The main reasons are an unequal distribution of food, caused by infrastructural barriers, social inequality, lack of income amongst the poor, and trade distortions.

Coming just days after the FAO's historic meeting on biofuels where top scientists concluded that green fuels can boost development in the South (earlier post), the CCP opened its 66th Session (April 23-25) in Rome to review recent agricultural commodity market developments and policy issues. The effects of biofuels - produced as a reaction against high oil prices which are the real cause of temporary increases in commodity prices - and the role of rapidly growing economies are the main subjects up for analysis.

New factors affecting commodity prices

Many agricultural commodity prices have increased recently, but while this is mainly the result of market fundamentals FAO warns that a number of new factors affecting commodity prices have become increasingly apparent. Among these are the impact of the rapid economic growth of China and India and the effect of crude oil prices on those agricultural products that can be used to produce biofuels. According to the FAO, despite the recent increases in commodity prices the long-term trend is still downward and short-term fluctuations are still significant.

Trade talks could have positive effect
The Committee will also review recent trade policy developments, particularly the resumption of the Doha Development Round of the World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiations:
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FAO highlighted the need in the Doha Round “to put in place effective instruments to allay the fears of some developing countries that they might suffer as a result of further global trade liberalization.”

FAO’s Deputy Director-General David Harcharik said in opening remarks: “Trade policy reform aimed at providing a fair, market-oriented, global trading system and at reducing trade-distorting subsidies and trade barriers can make a positive contribution to trade and development and the reduction of poverty and hunger. The UN Millennium Declaration committed to an open, equitable, rule-based, predictable and non-discriminatory trading system, and multilateral trade negotiations provide the most promising route to achieve this.”

Trade policy reform is no panacea for poor countries

However, FAO warned in a recent report that trade policy reform is not a panacea, and the gains from freer trade will not be evenly distributed either between developing countries or within individual countries.

The Committee will examine the latest position in the WTO Doha trade negotiations and study a range of topical issues – notably special products, special safeguards and aid for trade.

When final documents are available, we will report back on the findings of the CCP.

More information:

FAO: FAO Committee on Commodities to review impact of oil prices and biofuels - Appropriate trade policy reform can lead to poverty reduction - April 23, 2007.

FAO Economic and Social Development Department, Trade and Markets division.

FAO Committee on Commodity Problems, 66th Session, April 23-25.

GreenPrices - Green Energy in Europe: FAO: influence biofuels on food prices temporary - April 23, 2007.


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FAO and UN experts agree: biofuels can boost development in poor South

Interesting news for the Biopact: the world's top international agriculture experts who met for three days at the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) headquarters in Rome to consider the environmental and food security impact of the rapidly-expanding bioenergy industry (earlier post) have confirmed once again that governments could use bioenergy as a positive force for rural development. Despite a fierce and at times uninformed campaign by some environmentalist groups, the top scientists say that, if managed well, bioenergy could promote something akin to an agricultural “renaissance” in some developing countries where biofuels can be produced profitably. This conclusion reaffirms the idea, formulated by the FAO before the global rush to biofuels occured, that bioenergy can be key in the fight against hunger.

Brazilian Professor Luiz Augusto Horta Nogueira says: "Now, it's time to plant energy" [*.mp3].

“It was the first time that experts in bioenergy, food security and the environment came together to discuss the important linkages between those sectors,” said Alexander Müller, Head of FAO’s Natural Resources Management and Environment Department, commenting on last week’s crucial meeting.

"While there is legitimate concern among some groups that bioenergy could compromise food security and cause environmental damage, it can also be an important tool for improving the well-being of rural people if governments take into account environmental and food security concerns,” he said.

Key role for governments
“In food security terms, bioenergy only makes sense if we know where the food-insecure populations are located and what they need to improve their livelihoods. Environmentally, we must make sure that both large- and small-scale producers of bioenergy fully take into account both the negative and positive impacts,” Müller said. “There is a key role for governments to play in setting standards of performance. International organizations such as FAO can also have a major role in providing a neutral forum and policy support,” he noted. “We need an international commitment to make sure that food security is not impaired and that natural resources are used sustainably,” he added.

Last week’s three-day meeting, which was attended by experts from around the world plus specialists from FAO and other organizations, agreed that FAO’s International Bioenergy Platform should promptly draw up a series of guidelines for Governments and potential investors.

Landscape mosaics
Some experts considered biofuel production could benefit the environment and increase food security if smallholders farmed biocrops and biomass as a source of energy for themselves and their local communities or contributed to commercial production for national or international markets:
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Some biocrops or other feedstock are best produced in landscape “mosaics” where they are grown alongside food crops and other vegetation, those experts said. Biofuel areas within these mosaics could provide other valuable benefits such as windbreaks, restoration of degraded areas, habitats for native biodiversity and a range of ecosystem services, they added.

Agricultural Renaissance
Joseph Schmidhuber, Senior Economist with FAO’s Agricultural Development and Economics Division, told the meeting that, if managed well, bioenergy could promote something akin to an agricultural “renaissance” in some developing countries where biofuels can be produced profitably.

Impact of the new bioenergy market on food security could be negative or positive, depending, at the country level, on whether the economy involved was a net exporter or importer of food and energy, Schmidhuber said. The same held true at household level, indicating that the rural landless and the urban poor were most-at risk. Special measures will be needed to protect both countries and groups, he added.

New data
The experts agreed to accelerate development of tools for analyzing the food security and environmental impacts of bioenergy production as well as to strengthen data and information needed by countries to assess their bioenergy potential and identify hot spots. Bioenergy crops that compete with land and water for food production should not be grown in areas facing food security challenges, they emphasized.

“The objective is bioenergy that is environmentally sustainable and socially equitable,” they added. “It is a challenge that can and must be faced.” Existing famine early-warning systems that include household food security assessments and hunger surveys are now well-established and can assist in understanding the risks to vulnerable populations.

“Bioenergy holds out enormous opportunities for farmers, especially in the developing world,” said Gustavo Best, FAO’s Senior Energy Coordinator, “but there are dangers too."

More information:
FAO: Bioenergy could drive rural development - Experts weigh bio-power impact - April 23, 2007.

The UN's International Bioenergy Platform (IBEP)

The FAO's Natural Resources Management and Environment Department.

FAO: FAO sees major shift to bioenergy - April 25, 2006

FAO: Bioenergy, key to the fight against hunger - April 14, 2005.

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Researchers propose Green Biofuels Index

The debate over whether biofuels like corn based ethanol are better for the environment than fossil fuels has left many consumers confused and unsure where to fill their gas tanks.

Much of this confusion could be eliminated with a biofuels rating system that would reflect the positive or negative environmental impacts of a particular fuel, according to a group of University of California, Berkeley, researchers. Such a ratings system would take into account all environmental aspects of biofuels processing and production, from the way biofuel crops are tilled and fertilized to the kinds of energy - coal, natural gas or biomass, for example - used to process them.

Such a system would not only help consumers make decisions about where to fuel up but, perhaps more importantly, stimulate competition among fuel producers to market the greenest fuels possible, driving the less-green biofuels out of the marketplace in favor of ones that really serve the planet.

Such a labeling system would reveal, for example, that a fuel such as ethanol varies widely in its environmental merit depending on its production history, according to co-author Michael O'Hare, UC Berkeley professor of public policy. Some ethanol in current use is not much better, or is even worse, for the environment than gasoline, while other ethanol is beneficial.

Farrell, O'Hare and colleagues in UC Berkeley's Energy and Resources Group and in the Goldman School of Public Policy disseminated a research report on the issue today in hopes of stimulating discussion around the nation on how best to formulate such a labeling system. Called "Creating Markets for Green Biofuels: Measuring and Improving Environmental Performance" [*.pdf] the study was partially supported by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Science Foundation's Climate Decision Making Center at Carnegie Mellon University.

Their report presents several case studies of specific biofuel production pathways using a lifecycle analysis of the inputs to feedstock production and processing, but excluding market-mediated effects.

To create the 'Green Fuel Index' and to implement it, the researchers recommend four steps: 1. Measure the global warming intensity of biofuels ('greenhouse gas emissions balance'). 2. Measure the overall environmental performance of biomass feedstock production. 3. Develop and implement a combined Green Biofuels Index. 4. Research better practices, assessment tools, and assurance methods.

An example of outcomes of measuring the environmental performance of some biofuels can be found in the table (click to enlarge):
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"We think it's feasible to design a workable and effective ratings system for green biofuels today with the types of information that many farmers and many biofuel production facilities already collect," said study co-author Alex Farrell, assistant professor of energy and resources and director of the campus's Transportation Sustainability Research Center. "The American biofuels industry can produce much greener biofuels than they do today, and I think they can do so at reasonable prices and at a profit."

"Biofuels link markets in fuel, food and land in quite complicated ways, and there are no rules about how to judge the environmental and global warming impacts of producing and processing these fuels," said Farrell, who was appointed this week to an international roundtable to draft global standards for sustainable biofuels production and processing. "As these technologies get better and cheaper, there will be competition for use of land, whether for food or wilderness. This is inherently a problem of biofuels. A discussion of biofuel labeling could help the domestic debate about how to develop biofuels."

The report lays out a range of possible options for a Green Biofuels Index, from voluntary labeling akin to the "organic" food label, to mandatory labeling like today's nutrition information, to more stringent government regulations like those required by renewable portfolio standards, which mandate that a state generate a percentage of its electricity from renewable sources. While Farrell thinks a star system, like the Michelin stars, would be more flexible than a gold-silver-bronze medal system, he stressed that any system could take into account the issues consumers seem most concerned about.

"I think people understand that energy is a product that has lots of environmental implications, and if they had the choice to know what was good or bad, I bet they would like to know that," said Farrell. "It's quite likely that, even if it were required as part of regulation, fuel makers and distributors could develop their own brand and their own marketing strategies around how green their fuel is, using the type of information this will provide."

Today, consumers in the United States have only a few biofuel choices: E85 ethanol, 95 percent of which comes from corn; biodiesel, which comes primarily from soybeans but also from canola and sunflower oils and waste cooking oil or grease; and what's called renewable diesel, which is made from biomass injected into the petroleum diesel process. But Farrell predicts that other fuels will soon reach the market, including biobutanol and synthetic diesel, which is made entirely from biomass.

New research, such as that planned by the Energy Biosciences Institute soon to be established at UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory with $500 million in funding from BP, could produce much greener biofuels, Farrell noted.

If biofuels with the same chemical identity can be distinguished by a rating system such as the authors propose, "markets for green biofuels would stimulate a new wave of innovation, creating high-value and truly green biofuels, and enhancing energy security by diversifying our energy sources," they wrote.

The UC Berkeley group urges environmental, agricultural and regulatory agencies to join forces with local, state and national governments to develop this Green Biofuels Index, and that funding agencies should research ways to measure the environmental performance of biofuels, such as their impacts on global warming or farmland.

Co-authors on the paper also include graduate students Brian T. Turner and Richard J. Plevin of UC Berkeley's Energy and Resources Group. Turner also is with the Goldman School of Public Policy. Plevin was supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

Biopact reaction
We will soon analyse the report more in-depth, but our first reaction is that this is indeed one of the possible ways forward to create a 'sustainable' biofuels industry. Bioethanol produced in Brazil, for example, would clearly fall in the greenest category and receive most stars (earlier post).

However, there are some fundamental problems associated with such an index.

First of all, as it is proposed by the UC Berkeley researchers, the index only looks at environmental sustainability criteria. Even though this is an important measure, it says nothing about the historic opportunity for countries in the South to use biofuel production as a development tool to create prosperity. Given ever-increasing oil prices - and taking 'Peak Oil' seriously - developing countries can produce biofuels for their domestic market to offset some of the negative effects of high oil prices (now and certainly in the future). Biofuels are a buffer against high energy prices, regardless of whether they are produced sustainably or not. The strongly negative effects of energy insecurity and high prices on the economies of developing countries - which all have a 'high energy intensity' - is well known. Biofuels can mitigate some of these effects and allow for smooth development even if oil supply crises emerge.

However, since domestic fuel consumption in many of these countries is still extremely low compared to that of the industrialised countries, they can also look at exports, after having satisfied their own needs.

Over 50 countries in the South have the capacity to produce enough food for their growing populations, while at the same time growing such a large amount of energy crops that they can replace all oil imports and have enough to spare to supply world markets. This capacity promises a large new export opportunity, that would result in revenues that can be invested in crucial development sectors (poverty alleviation, infrastructure, rural development, education, health care, etc...).

Now if markets in the North decide to apply stringent environmental sustainability criteria that effectively were to act as a non-tariff barrier to this export opportunity, then markets in the North would be responsible for a missed opportunity for development in the South.

This scenario would then call for a compensation mechanism. Many developing countries, like Malaysia and Indonesia, have already gone so far as to say that too strictly defined environmental criteria are a kind of 'green imperialism'. They have publicly made statements like "the West has destroyed 98% of its environment which allowed it to develop and industrialise, and now it wants to stop us from doing so, without compensating us for it." This point must be taken seriously.

Major development organisations (amongst them the UN) agree to the pragmatic and realistic principle which says that developing countries have the fundamental right to develop in a sovereign way. The 'sustainable development' paradigm is a noble starting point, but if it is to be implemented in the South as well, it requires considerable amounts of financial support from the North. There are no signs that the industrialised countries are really committed to offer this support (e.g. only a handful of them are on track to reach the goal of dedicating 0.7% of their GDP to international development aid. They made this committment years ago. They have until 2010. Analysts are confident that the vast majority will not reach this promised target.)

In case the North does introduce a stringent environmental sustainability index for biofuels, many different scenarios can be imagined as regards to the actions and positions in the South. If deemed too strict, biofuel producers may simply switch away from the markets they currently prefer (the EU/US/Japan) and supply countries that do not adhere to the same criteria (e.g. it will be extremely difficult to convince a country like China to introduce such an index.) A global effort is clearly needed, in order to ensure that biofuels everywhere are produced sustainably, and that they do not negate the opportunity for the South to tap into a new opportunity for trade, energy security and post-Peak Oil preparedness.

Secondly, the index as it is currently proposed by the researchers does not take into account more practical 'social' sustainability factors. Biofuels can be produced in a way that enhances social inequality, pushes small farmers out of the market, perpetuates a system of seasonal labor and causes conflicts over land-ownership. But they can also be anchored into a context of true social responsibility and be a weapon in the fight against poverty. Brazil's Social Fuel Seal is one example of how social sustainability can be measured and assured. The index should take this aspect of biofuel production into account as well.

Thirdly, such an index would have difficulties tracking the sustainability of imported biofuel feedstocks, unless it is implemented globally. This will require a concerted effort and is not likely to succeed, for the reasons outlined above. The South will only commit to such criteria if it is seriously compensated for the missed opportunity of developing in an 'unsustainable' manner. Developing countries will ask for a kind of compensation that takes into account the manner in which the wealthy, industrialised North has developed through time, namely by destroying its own environment totally (e.g. deforestation in Europe and North America, which since the 18th century and the Industrial Revolution until today, fueled their development) and by relying on cheap and abundant oil resources that are now being depleted. It would not be too difficult to calculate this 'historic' bonus the West took for itself, and to transfer it to the South. Without such a concrete transfer, expressed in monetary terms, developing countries will rightfully claim that the Green Fuels Index is a tool of 'green imperialism' and refuse to adhere to it.

More information:
Brian T. Turner, Richard J. Plevin, Michael O’Hare, "Creating Markets for Green Biofuels: Measuring and improving environmental performance" [*.pdf] UC Berkeley, Transportation Sustainability Research Center, Research Report UCB-ITS-TSRC-RR-2007-1, April 2007.

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Monday, April 23, 2007

COHA recommends modifications to US tariffs on ethanol imports

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) is one of the leading non-partisan think tanks in the Western Hemisphere aiming to raise public awareness of hemispheric issues and to encourage the formulation of rational political and economic US policies towards Latin America.

The COHA's long-standing and deep understanding of the geopolitical and socio-economic forces at work in the hemisphere allow it to make recommendations that policy makers take into account.

Last week, the organisation published its "Decision Memorandum to Members of the Congressional Brazil Caucus, Advocating Modifications to the US Tariffs on Ethanol Imports". In the document, COHA research associate Thomaz Alvares de Azevedo e Almeida analyses the political feasibility, effectiveness and economic impact of two options currently faced by lawmakers in the US: either to extend the tariff schedule for ethanol imports, or to modify it and refrain from extending it beyond 2009.

On this crucial issue, which will in part determine the pace at which biofuel production in Latin America expands, COHA recommends the second option:
In order for the administration and the Congress both to espouse policies that decrease this country’s oil-dependency in the most expeditious manner, and to immediately address public concerns over global warming, dramatic changes must be made to the U.S.’s current energy security strategy. Therefore, it is COHA’s recommendation that the leadership of the Congressional Brazil Caucus pursue, during 2008, Option 2: Not extending the Harmonized Tariff Schedule applied to ethanol imports past January 1st 2009.

In summary, lifting both the $0.54 cent import tariff and the 2.5% ad valorem tax on ethanol would effectively increase the availability of ethanol in the U.S. This greater supply may make a case for ending the ethanol’s share in the U.S. fuel market—currently below 4%—while not risking the displacement of the domestic ethanol industry. Furthermore, it would promote the use of a “green” energy source that could initially complement, but ultimately replace oil. It is COHA’s conclusion that legislation akin to the “Ethanol Import Fairness Act” (H.R. 5261) could lay the foundation on which an effective “green” energy security strategy could be built.
COHA's memorandum offers an interesting overview of the political and economic pros and cons of the different options. With permission, we reprint it in full:
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Problem Definition
In May 2006, the Climate Change Science Program—the U.S. government coordinating agency on global-warming, which has brought together America’s leading experts in the field—has recently acknowledged that there is “clear evidence of human influences on the climate system” (New York Times: May 24, 2006). Yet, even at this late date, the U.S. does not have an effective “green” energy security strategy. Washington thus needs a policy for detailing countermeasures regarding current fuel usage in powering domestically produced passenger cars and light trucks, that is, pickup trucks, minivans, and sport utility vehicles (CBO: 2002, VII-VIII).

Background
The U.S. is the world’s largest producer of carbon dioxide (CO2) resulting from the consumption and flaring of fossil fuels; alone it accounts for 25% of the world’s CO2 emissions (EIA: International Energy Annual 2004). One way for the U.S. to decrease its unwelcomed contribution to global warming is to encourage the use of biofuels like ethanol, which are known to produce significantly less CO2 emissions in grams per gallon than gasoline (Argonne: Transportation Technology R&D Center, 2004). Replacing fossil fuels with ethanol has become a realistic possibility with the rising price of crude oil, which is projected to fluctuate between $55-60 a barrel for the next five years (NYMEX Market Data to 2012 ). Moreover, President Bush already has acknowledged that “extending hope and opportunity depends on a stable supply of energy that keeps America’s economy running and America’s environment clean”. He has proposed to “reduce gasoline usage in the United States by 20 percent in the next 10 years” (State of the Union Speech, 2007).

The U.S. has been searching for alternative sources of fuel for the past quarter-century, and by 1980, its incipient ethanol industry had managed to produce 175 million gallons. Today, the U.S. has grown to be the world’s largest ethanol producer, with 4.86 billion gallons in 2006 (RFA Press Release, March 5, 2007). This boom in domestic production of ethanol is, however, of recent vintage. In October 2004, President Bush signed into law H.R. 4520, which amended the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 by replacing the federal ethanol excise tax credit with a Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit (VEETC) that established a tax refund of $0.51 on each gallon of ethanol blended with gas until 2010 (GPO: American Jobs Creation Act of 2004, sec 6426). Two years later, in October 2006, the President signed into law H.R. 6 that set forth a phase-in for the replacement of gas by renewable fuels, mainly ethanol, from 2006 to 2012 (Energy Policy Act of 2005, sec 1501). As a result of these legislative measures, ethanol plants are breaking their production records with each passing year: In 2006, U.S. ethanol plants produced up to 24% more than they did in 2005, which in itself was 15% greater than in 2004. From 2000 to the present, the U.S. ethanol production has increase more than 188% (Federal Trade Commission: 2006). Yet ethanol—both domestically produced and imported —still only comprises 3.4% of all fuel consumption in the U.S. (Green Car Congress: August 30, 2006).

In December 2006, after having called on Congress to lift the import tariff on ethanol in May, President Bush signed into law H.R. 6111 that extended the $0.54 per gallon import tariff plus a 2.5% ad valorem tax mandated by the Harmonized Tariff Schedule on ethanol from 2007 to 2009 (White House: May 3, 2006 and GPO: Tax Relief and Health Care Act of 2006, sec 208). The issue now at hand is whether the 110th Congress should, in the course of 2008, extend these market protections beyond January 1st 2009. This memorandum evaluates two options with regard to promoting ethanol as a complement fuel, and as a possible replacement, to gasoline: (1) Extend once again the Harmonized Tariff Schedule with respect to ethanol imports or; (2) Do not extend the Harmonized Tariff Schedule with respect to ethanol imports, lifting both the $0.54 per gallon import tariff and the 2.5% ad valorem tax.

Alternatives

Option 1: Extend the Harmonized Tariff Schedule for Ethanol Imports
The first option is to stay the course, that is, to rely on current national subsidies of $0.51 per gallon until 2010 and on the import tariffs of $0.54 per gallon plus 2.5% ad valorem tax, possibly until 2011, as proposed by Representative Leonard L. Bosswell (D-IA) in his H.R. 5431.

Political Feasibility: The Renewable Fuels Association (RFA) is the main lobby for this option, and it has achieved moderate support from Republicans and strong support from Democrats in Congress, with the Congressional Biofuels Caucus endorsing its position. That means that 19 Democratic representatives, including the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), and 8 Democratic senators, as well as 18 Republican representatives and 1 Republican senator, favor this option. Another three Democratic senators, along with presidential candidate Barack Obama (D-IL), are publicly against lifting the import tariffs (Senate Records: May 10, 2006). Yet by maintaining a barrier to ethanol coming from abroad, this option does little to address both the President’s and the public’s desire to rapidly decrease oil-dependency. Thus, its political feasibility is rated as an “A-.”

Effectiveness
: Shell International considers that “ethanol is the best alternative to partially replace oil derivates in the next decades” (Speeches & Webcasts: February 8, 2005). Yet, ethanol can be produced from different sources, carrying different properties. Corn is the main source used in the U.S., while sugarcane is used in tropical regions like Brazil. The key difference between them is that, given the same amount of input, sugarcane-based ethanol returns four times more energy than its corn-based counterpart, while its flaring produces less CO2 (World Watch Institute and Argonne). Since extending the tariff discourages the ingress of less polluting sugarcane ethanol in the U.S., while it only moderately increases the use of ethanol over gas; the effectiveness of this option is rated as a “B-.”

Economic Impact: In 2006, the U.S. ethanol industry spent $4.1 billion in corn and approximately $3.6 billion on goods and services in order to produce 4.86 billion gallons of ethanol. In addition, $410 million more was spent on transportation from the plant to the terminal where the ethanol was blended (LECG: 2007, 1-2). Clearly, then, the U.S. ethanol industry provides a significant contribution to the American economy. Nonetheless, the heavy expenditure on corn made by the ethanol industry also has registered negative impacts. The U.S.’s National Chicken Council reported that the ethanol’s demand for corn—around 14% of the country’s domestic production—raised the commodity’s price in such a way that the wholesale price of chicken increased by 6% per pound in January. Similarly, the National Cattlemen’s Association reported that the cattle industry expects to be less profitable in 2007 for the same reason (Department of Energy-EERE: March 07, 2007). Thus, the economic factors at play here produce a “B+” rating.

Pros:
• Protect the U.S. ethanol industry, encouraging it to increase its current $7.1 billion expenditure on raw materials, transportation, goods and jobs

Cons:
• Addresses neither energy security concerns nor contends with the negative impact of global warming in the most efficient way
• Sustains pressure on the price of beef and poultry due to its corn utilization


Option 2: Not Extend the Harmonized Tariff Schedule Concerning Ethanol Imports
This option represents an incremental change in course, relying on current national subsidies of $0.51 per gallon until, at least, 2010, but not to extend the import tariffs of $0.54 per gallon plus 2.5% ad valorem tax past January 1st 2009, as proposed by former Representative Jeb Bradley (R-NH) in his H.R. 5261.

Political Feasibility: The public is the main interest-group being appealed by this option. Lifting import tariffs on ethanol would increase the amount of ethanol fuel available in the U.S. market, rendering the competition between ethanol and gasoline more fierce. As a result, the price of fuel at the pump would be lower and oil-dependency would decrease, both outcomes that are expected to please the public. Nevertheless, Republican support for this option is only lukewarm, and it has attracted almost no Democratic backing. Thus, its political feasibility is rated as a “B-.”

Effectiveness: Lifting the import tariff on ethanol would make its imports from abroad cheaper, which arguably will increase the volume of ethanol imports. These imports are likely to come from Brazil, since it has enjoyed, in the last few years, a small surplus on its sugarcane ethanol production (data from UNICA). The effect of having U.S. production of ethanol complemented by ethanol from abroad is that the total ethanol supply which would be present in the U.S. market could be expected to increase. As a result of this larger stock, both the price of gas would go down and the trend of blending ethanol with gas would be encouraged. Furthermore, since sugarcane ethanol is cheaper to produce once the industry is in place ($0.83 per gallon vs. $1.14, data from ICONE), competition with countries that produce ethanol would encourage the U.S. ethanol industry to produce ethanol based on sugarcane rather than on corn—a viable option for at least sugarcane producing Hawaii, Louisiana and Florida. Thus, this option strongly favors increasing the use of ethanol over pure gas, as well as of less-polluting sugarcane ethanol over corn-based ethanol, and so its effectiveness is rated as an “A.”

Economic Impact: Increases in the ethanol supply would eventually lead to a decrease in the fuel price at the pump. It would also, on competitive grounds, decrease the price of corn, in turn lessening the pressure on the price of chicken and beef. On the other hand, due to the attractive cost of Brazilian ethanol, the increase in the import of ethanol would transfer a growing share of the revenues from the U.S. ethanol industries to Brazilian companies, potentially reducing their existing expenditure on goods and services. Thus, its economic impact is rated as a “B.”

Pros:
• Encourages the production of a form of fuel that emits less CO2
• Reduces the pressure on the pump price of fuel for the general consumer

Cons:
• Transfers a portion of the domestic ethanol production to other countries, which could lead to both reduced market share and domestic profits, if overall demand does not increase accordingly


Council on Hemispheric Affairs: Thomaz Alvares de Azevedo e Almeida, "Decision Memorandum to Members of the Congressional Brazil Caucus, Advocating Modifications to the U.S. Tariffs on Ethanol Imports", Tuesday, April 17th, 2007.

Reprinted with permission of the COHA.



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EU plans unilateral shipping emissions cap

The European Commission announced this week it will draft legislation, by the end of the year, aimed at tackling the shipping industry's rapidly growing contribution to climate change, by including the sector in Europe's carbon dioxide emissions trading scheme (ETS). The confirmation came after Jos Delbeke, the Commission official responsible for the ETS, told the Financial Times last week that the EU would propose its own action by the end of this year if there was no international agreement.

Global distribution of international shipping traffic (year 2000 data)
Carbon dioxide emissions from shipping are thought to be double those of aviation and could rise by as much as 75% in the next 15 to 20 years if world trade continues to grow and no action is taken. Heavy marine fuels also contribute seriously to sulphur oxide (SOx) and nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions.

Earlier, we referred to the Canadian BioShip project which successfully proved that marine biofuels are both commercially and technically viable (even for shipping in the Arctic) and that they can help reducing both greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution substantially.

The threat of unilateral EU action on CO2 emissions from ships comes as a warning to the International Maritime Organisation (IMO). Without tangible progresses on measures to reduce CO2 emissions from ships at the IMO's Marine Environmental Protection Committee (MEPC) in July, the EU will act alone.

The IMO has so far focused its work on CO2 emissions from ships on methods of calculatimg emissions, and despite European pressure, expectations on what can be achieved on a global scale are low. The main focus of the IMO's regulations on ship emissions at the moment is to tighten up current MARPOL Annex VI limits on SOx, NOx and other gases that are harmful to human health and the environment.

But the UK minister with responsibility for shipping recently gave the impression that SOx and NOx emissions from ships took a back seat compared to the UK's commitment to reducing greenhouse gases.

"Reducing CO2 is our overriding goal and shipping has not done anything in this area," Dr Stephen Ladyman told a shipping emissions roundtable event last month. He said the UK was "determined to pursue the CO2 issue and to do this through the IMO," and predicted real process at the July MEPC meeting. Meanwhile, green transport campaigners welcomed the EU initiative but said more action was needed.

"Emissions trading alone will not be enough to seriously reduce the environmental impact of the sector," said João Vieira of the European Federation for Transport and Environment (T&E):
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"The EU's estimates for aviation, also set to be included in the system, suggest that emissions reductions through trading will be offset by less than one year's growth of the industry. With shipping the situation will be similar," he continued.

He said the T&E would urge the EU to consider further measures such as differentiated port charges, en-route charges and fuel taxes.

A shipping official reiterated the sector's key argument about it being the most energy-efficient mode of transport, pointing out that while shipping may contribute to as much as 5% of global CO2 emissions, this should be seen against the fact that ships carry 90% of world trade.

"In reality, shipping produces less greenhouse gases per tonne-mile than any other form of transport," European Community Shipowners' Association (ECSA) Secretary General Alfons Guinier was quoted saying.

Researches have warned that if left unabated, CO2 from shipping could rise by 75% in the next 15 to 20 years due to growth in global trade.

Map source: Øyvind Endresen, "Emission from international sea transportation and environmental impact", JOURNAL OF GEOPHYSICAL RESEARCH, VOL. 108, NO. D17, 4560, doi:10.1029/2002JD002898, 2003.

More information:

EU Commission, DG Environment): Pollutant Emissions from Ships.

European Federation for Transport and Environment: Emissions trading for shipping 'not enough' to tackle climate change - April 17, 2007.

Financial Times: Clash looms as EU plans shipping emission caps - March 22, 2007.

EurActiv: EU plans shipping emissions cap - April 18, 2007.

Forum dedicated to studying marine transportation and the environment: Sustainable Shipping.



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Former EU Commissioner Fischler not optimistic about European biofuels

Former EU Agriculture Commissioner Franz Fischler is less than optimistic about opportunities for the biofuel industry in Europe. Global competition from the South will prove to be too strong. The tropics and subtropics have much more available non-forest land, a good climate and highly productive crops such as sugarcane, palm oil, cassava and sorghum for liquid biofuels and eucalyptus, acacia and grass species for the production of solid biofuels. Green fuels made from those crops are competitive with oil and coal, whereas European biofuels need large amounts of subsidies to survive. Moreover, the EU does not have enough land, Fischler adds.

Speaking at the Agricultural Engineers’ Association annual conference this week, Fischler said that, assuming the EU were to blend 10% biofuels into transport fuels by 2020, the latest OECD figures indicate this would require around 50% of Europe’s farmland being given over to fuel crops.

“There are some question marks over this,” he said. “We should not be over-optimistic that fuel production is the solution to everything in Europe. We should be more realistic.” In economic terms, production of cereals and oilseed rape in Europe was not competititive with crops from the tropics.

Not only that, but major developments in the biofuels industry in Europe faced the risk that huge amounts of taxpayers’ support would be needed to offset this overseas challenge and this might not be available:
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Currently, EU farmers receive lavish subsidies to grow crops like rapeseed and sugarbeet, both of which can be used for the production of biodiesel and ethanol. Trade barriers are imposed on biofuel imports from many countries from the South. Moreover, farmers receive an €45 premium subsidy per hectare for the production of dedicated energy crops. All these incentives that must keep European producers artificially competitive, cannot be maintained in the future. Moreover, ever-stronger coalitions between developing countries will not easily give up their positions in Doha trade negotiations, that have stalled because of US and EU agricultural subsidies.

Fischler added that a 10% replacement strategy would only become possible through the introduction of second generation technology in biofuel production combined with increasing imports. He also warned that the moves towards talks on ‘financial discipline’ within the EU budget, following the upcoming ‘health check’ on the CAP (the EU's common agricultural policy, the largest subsidy scheme in the world), would trigger off a fierce debate on national shares and allocations, particularly with the new member states jockeying for position.

The reasons for Fischler's pessimism are some of the reasons that define our optimism: the creation of a bioenergy pact between producers in the South and consumers in the North offers a win win situation that will result in supplies of biofuels that are competitive with costly fossil fuels, and that effectively reduce greenhouse gases.


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Göteborg Energi to build world's largest plant to produce synthetic natural gas from biomass

Power company Göteborg Energi AB plans to build the world's biggest plant for producing 'synthetic natural gas' (SNG) from solid biomass, to be located in Rya, Sweden. Plans call for the gasification plant to burn forestry residues to produce a hydrogen-rich syngas that will be further transformed via a methanation step into a gas the properties of which are similar to natural gas. This SNG or 'green gas' can then be used either directly for the production of power and heat, fed into the natural gas grid or in natural gas vehicles.

The project is called GoBiGas [*.pdf] and was filed as a venture for EU support and partnerships under the 7th Framework Programme (the EU's science and technology funding mechanism).

According to the project file:
GoBiGas will transform 140 MW of low grade biomass such as forestry residues into syngas, with an efficiency of 60-70%. The gas will primarily be distributed to end consumers via the natural gas grid, and used for a variety of applications including vehicles, industrial purposes and electricity production. It may also be used in the adjacent CHP plant directly for high efficiency combined heat and power production.

The high methane yield makes the process a good example of extraordinary economization of natural resources. In addition, most of the waste heat from the gasification process will be used for district heating. Thus, the total efficiency of the plant will be approximately 90 %. The choice of technology will determine the exact specifications of the plant. There are different technical solutions available, although none have been tested for this particular application on this large scale.
The investment for this project is estimated to be around €163/US$ 221 million. The capacity of the plant will be around 10.95 million cubic meters (386.7 million cubic feet) of SNG per year.

SNG production process
The production of SNG differs from biogas production which transforms wet biomass via anaerobic digestion, a biochemical conversion technique. SNG or 'green gas' made from relatively dry feedstocks such as forestry residues relies on advanced gasification and methanation technologies [*.pdf] such as supercritical water gasification, steam-blown indirect gasification, pressurised oxygenblown gasification or hydrogasification. The GoBiGas project also looks at the option to co-produce Fischer-Tropsch biofuels alongside SNG (image, click to enlarge).

All these technologies involve upstream gasification followed, after gas cleanup, by a downstream methanation step:
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Other scientists have identified upstream-pressurised oxygen-blown gasification and indirect atmospheric steam-blown gasification with downstream methanation routes to be the most promising options for stand-alone SNG production from relatively dry biomass feedstocks such as forestry residues. In combination with downstream methanation, SNG production efficiencies up to 70% (LHV) can be achieved. Successful integrated lab-scale demonstrations of SNG production have confirmed the potential of gas cleanup concepts to deliver a product gas that can satisfy, among others, the specifications for downstream methanation.

For 100 MWth stand-alone systems and biomass costs of 2.3 €/GJwood, SNG production costs are estimated to range from 7.8 to 8.5 €/GJ of SNG and the CO2 emission reduction costs range from 83 to 95 €/tonne. 'Green gas' production via biomass gasification with downstream methanation will become an economic feasible process if producers receives the same tax incentives currently given to producers of green electricity.

Ann Törnblom, communication chief of Göteborg Energi told Swedish reporters that so far 30 million krones have been acquired for the project. This allows for the finalisation of crucial research and development steps that still have to be undertaken for the design of a pilot.

The final plant will be the world's largest SNG facility, with an estimated capacity of 30,000 cubic meters per day. According to project manager Ginger Gunnarsson, design of the main plant will take at least another year and will cost 1.5 billion krones in total. According to plan the industrial-scale plant will be ready by 2012.


More information:
NyTeknik: Göteborg planerar bygga världens största gasfabrik - April 23, 2007.

United Press International: Gothenburg to open huge biofuel plant - April 22, 2007.

Göteborg Energi: GoBiGas – Gothenburg Biomass Gasification Plant [*.pdf] - project dossier filed to the EU's 7th Framework Program - March 2007.

M. Mozaffarian, R.W.R. Zwart, H. Boerrigter, E.P. Deurwaarder, “Green Gas” as SNG (Synthetic Natural Gas), A Renewable Fuel with Conventional Quality [*.pdf] - Energy research Centre of the Netherlands, University of Twente, Department of Chemical Technology, Contribution to the “Science in Thermal and Chemical Biomass Conversion” Conference 30 August – 2 September 2004, Victoria, Vancouver Island, BC, Canada.


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Rapeseed biodiesel has a weak greenhouse gas balance - study

The energy balance and the greenhouse gas (GHG) balance of biofuels are two important criteria to judge whether these fuels are energetically interesting and whether they can be a weapon in the fight against climate change. We already know that fuels made from crops grown in the South have both a very strong energy balance as well as a GHG balance that proves they substantially reduce emissions of most climate destructive gases. For biofuels made from crops like rapeseed or corn, the situation looks more problematic.

A new study now claims that the use of biodiesel made from rapeseed - the main feedstock for biodiesel in the EU - could potentially result in greater emissions of greenhouse gases than from conventional petroleum derived diesel. This is the conclusion of an analysis reported today in Chemistry & Industry, the magazine of the Society of the Chemical Industry. However, the study's scope is limited and incomplete, which is why it will be criticized by the biodiesel industry (see below).

Analysts at SRI Consulting - group catering to the petrochemical industry - compared the emissions of greenhouse gases by the two fuels across their overall life cycles from production to combustion in cars.

Eurekalert indicates that the results from the study show that biodiesel derived from rapeseed grown on dedicated farmland emits nearly the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions (defined as CO2 equivalents) per km driven as does conventional diesel:
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However, if the land used to grow rapeseed was instead used to grow trees, petroleum diesel would emit only a third of the CO2 equivalent emissions as biodiesel.

Petroleum diesel emits 85% of its greenhouse gases at the final stage, when burnt in the engine. By contrast, two-thirds of the emissions produced by rapeseed derived biodiesel (RME) occur during farming of the crop, when cropland emits nitrous oxide (N2O), otherwise known as laughing gas, that is 200-300x as potent a greenhouse gas as CO2.

The petrochemical constulting group that made the report thinks the results of this analysis should have big implications for policymakers. The 2003 EU Biofuels Directive aims to increase the levels of biofuels to 5.75% of all transport fuels by 2010, up from roughly 2% currently. This will be further increased to a 10% share in 2010, the Commission announced in January this year.

Transportation currently accounts for more than a fifth of all greenhouse gas emissions emitted in the EU. Rapeseed-derived biodiesel is the major renewables-derived biofuel used across Europe and, as well as helping to improve energy security, is expected to play an important role in helping to meet the EU’s Kyoto commitment to reduce levels of greenhouse gas emissions by 8% by 2012 relative to 1990 levels, and by 20% by 2020.

Incomplete study
Even though we would agree that biodiesel made from crops grown in temperate climates does not make sense because of the weak energy balance and greenhouse gas balance of these fuels, and because they perpetuate subsidy schemes and trade barriers that are detrimental to farmers in the South, we think this study has some major weaknesses. Some key elements are not included in the analysis, which is why the European biodiesel industry will dispute its findings.

First of all, there is a problem with the authority of SRI Consulting. The group caters to the petrochemical industry, the sector that is trying to work against the large-scale introduction of biofuels. Independent analysts from academic institutions, whose interests are not linked to a particular industry, have shown stronger greenhouse gas balances for rapeseed based biodiesel.

Secondly, and going straight to the substance of the matter, the 'boundaries' of the study are too narrow. It doesn't take into account the greenhouse gas emissions that are avoided because of the use of biodiesel byproducts as animal feed or as a fuel feedstock. The major byproduct of biodiesel is glycerol (glycerin), a chemical compound that can be used for the production of biofuels such as biogas or synthetic biofuels (more particularly biokerosene). For each ton of biodiesel produced, 100kg of glycerin becomes available. The use of biofuels made from this byproduct displaces fossil fuels, and hence improves the greenhouse gas balance of rapeseed biodiesel.

Alternatively, scientists have found that glycerol can be used as a feed component for poultry and pigs. Adding glycerol to the diet displaces other feed components whose greenhouse gas balance must be calculated, and substracted from that of rapeseed biodiesel. Fractions of up to 30% glycerol can be introduced into the diet of several industrially produced animals.

Thirdly, the study assumes that growing trees as carbon sinks on the land used for rapeseed would be a sensible strategy to take CO2 out of the atmosphere. This is incorrect. Quite substantial research shows that trees grown in mid- to high-latitude regions are actually net CO2 contributers (earlier post). These findings were recently confirmed by other scientists (here and here). There is no consensus yet as to how large the contributions of different types of forests grown in mid-latitudes are.

These weaknesses in the study will allow those with vested interests in biodiesel production from rapeseed to counter the findings once again. In general, it would be best for both parties - the petrochemical industry and the biodiesel industry - to delegate this type of sensitive studies to more objective researchers, from academia.

Tropical biofuels perform better
The energy balance of rapeseed biodiesel may be more positive than its greenhouse gas balance. Even tough on this aspect, the fuel has major obstacles to overcome: scientists from France published data showing that the application of nitrogen fertilizers makes up the largest contribution to the energy inputs needed to grow the fuel (earlier post).

For corn based ethanol, researchers have found an equally weak greenhouse gas balance (previous post). Using this fuel would not contribute much to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, whereas it's energy balance is close to 1. Fuels made from crops grown in the South, such as cassava (the energy balance of which was recently calculated) or sugarcane both have far better energy and greenhouse gas balances.

However, the rationale behind growing biofuels in the Global South fundamentally differs from that of the EU: in the developing world, the primary drivers are energy security and the substitution of costly fossil fuels. Crop based fuels are primarily a tool for development that allows poor countries with energy intensive economies to reduce their dependence on imported fossil fuels.

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Sunday, April 22, 2007

UN report looks at biofuel potential in Guyana - total energy independence possible

The UN's Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) in collaboration with Italy's agency for development aid (Cooperazione Italiana) has made a basic case study of the bioenergy and biofuels potential in Guyana. The results [*.pdf] are not surprising: the small South American nation can produce biofuels competitively, on a large scale, totally end its (very heavy) dependence on imported oil, and create a considerable number of jobs by investing in sustainable biofuel production. Guyana can replace all its fossil fuels in all industrial sectors, and have capacity to spare, by utilising biomass residues alone (no new land required).

Liquid biofuels: sustainable and competitive
Guyana's 750,000 inhabitants depend on imported fuel to meet the needs of the transport sector. In 2005 alone, fuel import bills accounted for not less than 29% or US$220 million of the value of total imports of the country (graph, click to enlarge). Gasoline imports alone were equivalent to 8.6% of Guyana's GDP. In short, the country's economy is highly dependent on imported oil products and fossil fuel prices.

According to the report's most conservative scenario, Guyana's thriving agricultural industry can produce 30.8 million liters of ethanol per year from secondary molasses. This would be nearly 3 times the anticipated demand of 11.5 million liters, if a mixture of 10% ethanol were to be used in the country's vehicles. If other starchy and sugar raw materials (like sugarcane juice or primary molasses) are considered, the availeble potential would increase proportionally.

The cost per liter of ethanol would be quite competitive with imported energy. In 2005, the export price of secondary molasses was US$ 83 per ton. From each ton of molasses some 260 liters of ethanol can be obtained. This implies an estimated opportunity cost of US$0.392/liter. Ethanol from molasses has been price competitive with gasoline in the past few years, even without consideration of positive externalities associated with it (jobs, security, energy independence, price stability).

The report's author, Luiz Augusta Horta, found that one prototypical ethanol plant with a capacity of 65,000 liters/day, can replace 10% of Guyana's gasoline demand, would require an investment of around US$6.5 million, and would result in annual savings of US$ 5.4 million on the energy import bill:
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Added advantages are the fact that a local biofuels industry would diversify existing agricultural sectors, opening new opportunities for farmers, introduce a new technology and research sector, with new employment opportunities for both low skilled and highly professional workers, and reduce the risks currently faced by the country's sugarcane industry (which is heavily dependent on the EU's sugar regime - Guyana enjoys preferential treatment but will be affected by the Union's sugar reform).

Horta says moreover, the use of ethanol as a source of energy would have significant environmental advantages, and cut carbon dioxide emissions considerably. "All together, these conditions make a decidedly sufficient and robust case to promote the use of ethanol for energy security in Guyana."


Solid biofuels for cogeneration

The report further analyses the potential for the use of solid biomass in cogeneration plants. Both field and processing residues from rice are available in abundance. Rice cultivation in Guyana, which occupies approximately 130,000 hectares of land, produced an estimated crop of 501,500 tons in 2004. In the same year, exports stood at 357,900 tons, accounting for over 70% of total production and inflows of approximately US$54.5 million.

Rice processing plants produce an average of 0.22 kilograms of cellulosic biomass waste per kilogram of husked rice. A total of around 110,300 tons of such residues (mainly husks) would be availabe each year. Assuming the energy content of these wastes is 13.8MJ/kg, the reserves may be estimated at 36,400 tons of oil equivalent, or 11% of Guyana's diesel use in power plants.

As regards the bioenergy potential of Guyana's sawmills, whose total timber production in 2005 was approximately 1,347,000 cubic meters, the average density being around 600kg/cubic meter and waste production (sawdust, wood shavings, etc) was estimated, conservatively at 200kg/cubic meter. Estimating the heating value of this resource to be around 13.8MJ/kg, the result was an impressive figure of 1.55 million tons of oil equivalent, almost 3 times as much as the Guyana's diesel demand used in the production of electricity.

These lignocellulosic wastes will be used for electricity production in cogeneration plants. One of the main groups active in Guyana's forestry sector is already tapping the opportunity by setting up a 3MW plant using available waste from its mills.

UN recommends urgent implementation of ethanol strategy
The report on the biofuel potential in Guyana was welcomed by the country's decision makers and by representatives of the agricultural sector. Prime Minister Sam Hinds told reporters that ECLAC has recommended that Guyana invest in a prototypical ethanol plant (65,000 liters/day) in the short term and that the country should consider mandating a 10% ethanol blend at once. Such a prototypical plant ethanol plant "is certainly an interesting opportunity, with a payback period of less than 18 months, an encouraging indicator for energy investment."


Meanwhile, Hinds said that some four foreign companies are interested in investing in the industry including BioCapital from Brazil and the US firm Global Energy Ventures. The increasing number of vehicles in the country is an indication of its growing motorisation and the increasing demand for fuel with obvious implications for the economy in terms of a larger fuel bill.

Asked whether the recommendations were being considered, Hinds said the government was looking at all the proposals related to ethanol production at this stage and though policy decisions have been taken decisions on the implementation are being considered.

Hinds said the current thinking is that planting of crops for biofuels should be on lands currently available for sugar cane or soya bean or abandoned cattle-grazing grounds; natural forests should not be felled to accommodate cultivation of crops for biofuels; and arable lands should not be made available for biofuels to the detriment of food security.

In Guyana, he said, consideration is being given for cane cultivation in the intermediate savannahs, which would be environmentally friendly and economically feasible.

With surplus sugar and the fact that it has been cultivated in the country for centuries with one of the highest production/demand ratio and with the use of bagasse, the report said that the industrial processes could be self-sufficient and even generate a surplus.

At present, some 50,000 hectares of lands are under sugarcane cultivation, providing some 3.5 million tonnes, processed in 9 mills (map, click to enlarge). Based on this, the report said, "It must be understood that the production of ethanol fuel should not be restricted to an initial, tentative approach, since the potential already exists in the country."

The sugarcane industry of Guyana is one of the most important economic activities of the country and a main source of foreign exchange exporting 60% of its sugar to Europe. It is, however, subject to significant market risks, associated with changes in the Sugar Protocol and the reduction of preferential prices on the European market, which it enjoyed in the past. To deal with the price reduction, the Guyana Sugar Corporation proposes to expand sugar production by 50%, increase the production of refined sugar, introduce the production of ethanol fuel and increase electricity generation from bagasse.

Apart from the economic benefits, those who welcomed the report noted that ethanol production in the sugarcane industry would cater for job creation, mechanisation and electric power cogeneration.

The promotion of ethanol as a source of fuel in Guyana requires the collaboration of all institutions and stakeholders arriving at an operational mechanism for the introduction of ethanol within the energy sector. This requires clear timelines and commitments. It should also include a component for building public awareness as well as involvement of the local science and technology community.

In terms of greenhouse gases it has been determined that for conventional technologies, every litre of anhydrous ethanol in the gasoline blend results in an average reduction in emissions of 0.42 kg of CO2 (Carbon Dioxide) equivalent.

More information:

UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean: Louiz Augusta Horta: Biofuels Potential in Guyana [*.pdf or abstract] - February 2007.
Stabroek News: Molasses to ethanol could yield huge energy savings - April 22, 2007



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