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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, June 09, 2007

Scientists patent synthetic life - promise for 'endless' biofuels

Scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute have applied for a U.S. patent on the techniques and biological building blocks needed to create the world's first synthetic life-form, a minimal bacterial genome. According to the patent application, this is "a minimal set of protein-coding genes which provides the information required for replication of a free-living organism in a rich bacterial culture medium."

Dr Craig Venter himself is not named in the patent, but he is the brain behind the synthetic form of life. The man who led the private sector effort to sequence the human genome, has been working in the field of synthetic biology for years to create a man-made organism. The J. Craig Venter Institute's U.S. patent application now claims exclusive ownership of a set of essential genes and a synthetic "free-living organism that can grow and replicate" made using those genes.

Interestingly, defending the patent application, Dr Venter immediately pointed out these artificial life forms could be designed to make 'endless' biofuels and absorb carbon dioxide to mitigate climate change. The effort could result in "designer microbes" that produce biofuels by converting biomass in a highly efficient way into ethanol, biogas and biohydrogen. They could also be engineered to remove carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

'Microbesoft'
The publication of the patent application has angered some environmentalists. The Canada-based ETC group, which monitors developments in biotechnology, called on patent offices to reject applications on synthetic life forms. Its press release sounds alarmist, using terms like "Microbesoft," evoking Dolly the cloned sheep and naming the organism Synthia.

Jim Thomas, of ETC Group: "These monopoly claims signal the start of a high-stakes commercial race to synthesise and privatise synthetic life forms."
"For the first time, God has competition. Venter and his colleagues have breached a societal boundary, and the public hasn't even had a chance to debate the far-reaching social, ethical and environmental implications of synthetic life." - Pat Mooney of the ETC Group.
The J. Craig Venter Institute's has filed an international application at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) which names more than 100 countries where the institute may seek monopoly patents.

Second life, Synthetic life
Dr Venter's team intends to construct an organism with a "minimal genome" that can then be inserted into the shell of a bacterium. By removing genes, one by one, from a bacterium called Mycoplasma genitalium they identified the minimum number of genes required for this particular organism to replicate, or reproduce, in its controlled environment.

They have been able to remove 101 of its 482 genes without killing the bacterium, meaning that 381 were required for replication. But generating a man-made living organism from the bottom up requires much more than just its minimal genome. For example, in order to get the genes to do something, there have to be chemicals to translate the genes into messenger RNA and proteins:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Scientists around the world have been wrestling with the task of generating a so-called free-living synthetic organism for years.

In order to push the effort forward, Dr Craig Venter founded Synthetic Genomics, Inc., a company developing the new scientific processes to enable industry to design and test desired genetic modifications. The synthetically produced organisms with reduced or reoriented metabolic needs under development will enable new, powerful, and more direct methods of bio-engineered industrial production - so Venter thinks.

But designing an entirely new synthetic organism aimed at performing specific tasks is something else. When asked whether the world's first synthetic bug was thriving in a test tube, Dr Venter said: "We are getting close."

Earlier this year, scientists from Virginia Tech, Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), and the University of Georgia announced they had successfully used techniques from synthetic biology to create a combination of 13 enzymes never found together in nature and that can completely convert polysaccharides (C6H10O5) and water into biohydrogen when and where that form of energy is needed (earlier post).

Image: M. genitalium, one of the bacteria used in Venter's "minimal genome" project.


More information:

United States Patent Application: 20070122826, Glass; John I. et al., "Minimal bacterial genome", May 31, 2007.

For an interesting view on 'minimal genomes', see the Genome News Network: Another Minimal Genome: Microbe Needs Just 271 Genes - April 18, 2003.

Wired: Scientists Apply for First Patent on Synthetic Life Form, June 7, 2007.

BBC: Patent sought on 'synthetic life' - June 8, 2007.

ETC Group: Patenting Pandora's Bug - Goodbye, Dolly...Hello, Synthia! J. Craig Venter Institute Seeks Monopoly Patents on the World's First-Ever Human-Made Life Form - June 7, 2007.

The Age: Designer bug holds key to endless fuel - June 10, 2007.

Biopact: Boost to biohydrogen: high yield production from starch by synthetic enzymes - May 23, 2007


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Researchers: 'Food miles' too simplistic - 'green' needs 'red'

Earlier we reported about small farmers in the South who are getting confused about what they see as trendy but problematic concepts such as 'food miles', 'environmental footprints', and certified fair trade products. Consumers in the North need to take on a broader perspective on the world's food system. Buying local food may be beneficial from a local perspective, but new research indicates this may actually be bad for the planet's environment as a whole.

Organic not best for environment
Criticism on some of these ideas is increasingly coming from scientists in the wealthy countries themselves. First of all, organic fruit and vegetables may be healthier for the dinner table, but not necessarily for the environment, a new University of Alberta study shows.

The study, conducted by a team of student researchers in the Department of Rural Economy at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, showed that the greenhouse gas emitted when the produce is transported from great distances mitigates the environmental benefits of growing the food organically. “"f you’re buying ‘green’, you should consider the distance the food travels. If it’s travelling further, then some of the benefits of organic crops are cancelled out by extra environmental costs," said researcher Vicki Burtt.

Burtt and her fellow researchers compared the cost of ‘food miles’ between organic and conventionally grown produce, and found that there was little difference in the cost to the environment. This was already established by other scientists (earlier post).

Food miles simplistic
But the concept of 'food miles' itself is highly simplistic and should not be used alone to point consumers to green products. Food miles are defined as the distance that food travels from the field to the grocery store.

Consumers need more in-depth information about the environmental impact of food to make eco-friendly choices, according to researchers Dr Fairchild (University of Wales Institute in Cardiff) and colleague Andrea Collins at Cardiff University, who have carried out a detailed analysis of the ecological costs associated with food production. In their study published in the Journal of Environmental Policy and Planning, they argue that the focus on "food miles" is missing the bigger picture and may be counter-productive.

Some food stores in Europe have announced that they will label products that have been transported by air. But according to the researchers, only around 2% of the environmental impact of food comes from transporting it from farm to shop. The vast majority of its ecological footprint comes from food processing, storage, packaging and growing conditions. Food grown locally could have a considerably bigger footprint than food flown halfway around the world, according to the scientists. Consumers who make their choices on air miles alone may be doing more environmental harm, they think.

Putting the red in the green
"I'm a bit worried about the food miles [debate] because it is educating the consumer in the wrong way. It is such an insignificant point," says Ruth Fairchild at the University of Wales Institute in Cardiff.

A better system, she argues, would be one that considers all environmental impacts from farm to dinner plate. One option is ecological footprint analysis, which takes into account the amount of land needed to provide the resources to produce food, both directly on the farm and indirectly from the energy that goes into growing, harvesting, processing, packaging and transporting it. A food's impact is measured in "global hectares", the notional land area needed to produce it. But she thinks that consumers are not yet ready for ecological footprint labelling and the science behind it is not yet watertight.

But even the concept of ecological footprints is incomplete. The global food-system is an integrated system that links farmers from the South to those in the North. On a 'flat', globalised planet, trade distances are no longer important (transport literally constitutes only around 2% of the environmental footprint of food). What matters - for the environment too - is social equity:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

In case European and American consumers were to analyse the environmental impact of the food they buy, they should include the potential social effects of their refusal to buy food grown in the South. Consumer action based on first-order environmental criteria (such as the ecological footprint), may result in negative second-order social effects for the millions of small farmers in developing countries who export to wealthy markets.

These negative social impacts are in themselves an environmental issue, because the risk of farmers falling back into poverty because of 'green' consumer behavior in the West would have disastrous effects on the ecosystems of the South. There, poverty is by far the single biggest factor driving such problems as deforestation, biodiversity loss, soil depletion and pressures on wildlife. Export earnings - from food flown to Europe and the US - allow farmers in the South to invest in more environmentally friendly agriculture.

In short, the consumer in the wealthy West needs a far more complex, integrated and global perspective on the food system which must include social sustainability factors. It is imperative to ensure that small farmers in the South can maintain a reasonable level of prosperity, so that they are not forced to fall back to environmentally destructive farming practises such as low yield slash and burn agriculture.

Green needs to be accompanied by some 'red'. But the question is whether consumerist cultures are ready to deal with complexity.

More information:
Collins, A. and Fairchild, R. (forthcoming): "Sustainable food consumption at a sub-national level: an ecological footprint, nutritional and economic analysis", Journal of Environmental Policy and Planning, see Dr Andrea Collins' webpage at the Center for Business Relationships, Accountability, Sustainability and Society.

Eurekalert: Organic Food Miles take toll on environment - June 6, 2007.

The Guardian: The eco-diet ... and it's not just about food miles - June 4, 2007.

Biopact: Message to Euro-Americans: eat local food, buy global biofuels - February 22, 2007


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Thailand to mandate 2% palm oil biodiesel next year

Thailand will enforce the mandatory use of 2% palm oil based biodiesel for all diesel vehicles fuelling at 10,000 service stations nationwide next April 1, the minister of energy told reporters today. "Initially we will make B2 mandatory for the whole country by April 1, 2008," said Energy Minister Piyasvasti Amranand.

'Twenty in Five'
As part of Thailand's ambitious efforts to reduce oil imports and assist in cutting carbon emissions and global warming, the kingdom plans to replace not less than 20 per cent of its vehicle fuel consumption with renewable energy sources such as ethanol and palm oil within the next five years.
"Our target is to cut our consumption of gasoline and diesel by 20 per cent within five years, substituting them with ethanol and palm oil. That is better than the US target of 20 per cent replacement by renewable energies in ten years." - Energy Minister Piyasvasti Amranand
After making B2 mandatory in April next year, Thailand will thereafter push petrol pumps and vehicle owners to accept B5, or a 5 per cent palm oil biodiesel - 95 per cent diesel mix, soon thereafter.

Piyasvasti, who was on a tour of palm oil plantations and factories in Krabi, which accounts for 40 per cent of the country's palm oil supply, revealed that all major automobile dealers in Thailand had agreed last week to provide warranties on new cars despite the fact that all vehicles will be forced to use B2 biodiesel by April, 2008:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

A similar government effort to force petrol stations and auto users to switch to gasohol (an ethanol - gasoline blend) in January, this year, failed because the automotive industry refused to provide warranties on their autos if they were using gasohol in their tanks, said Piyasvasti. This has led to overproduction of the biofuel (earlier post)

But the situation is improving for gasohol too. The minister said that the fuel, a mix of 95 per cent petrol and 5 per cent ethanol, was becoming more popular among consumers since the government had reduced its price by 10 per cent at petrol stations last March.

Sufficient supplies
More than 60 per cent of Thailand's vehicles use diesel, because of the popularity of the one-ton pickup truck. By April 1, 2008, palm oil will account for 1 million liters of the 50 million liters of diesel now consumed by motorists.

The energy ministry is convinced that palm oil producers will be able to provide sufficient supplies to meet demand by the April deadline.

"Currently we have sufficient raw materials to produce 0.8 million liters of palm oil, but by the end of the year it will be up to 1.2 million," said Panich Pongpirodom, director-general of the department of alternative energy development and efficiency.

Thailand's palm oil industry has less of a bad reputation amongst conservationists than some other countries, because it is an established industry that is no longer linked to deforestation. Yield increases in the country are being obtained mainly by replanting old plantations with new, high yield trees. Thailand may thus become self-sufficient in sustainably produced palm oil to achieve its first biodiesel targets, but this will undoubtedly increase pressures on palm oil prices which are driven by global dynamics (because the product is a commodity). This in turn may lead to expansion of the sector in other countries, where environmental rules are less strict.


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Switch to ethanol can alleviate sugar crisis in India

The sugar sector in India, the world's second-biggest producer of the sweetener, is battling falling prices as output is likely to reach a record 28 million tonnes in the year to September 2007. India's annual need is pegged at 19 to 20 million tonnes.

To help alleviate this overproduction crisis, the Indian government plans to allow production of ethanol from sugarcane juice, which would help mills cut losses by reducing sugar inventories. The move would also make the production of biofuel more affordable, trade officials say. Some expect production costs for ethanol made from Indian sugarcane to be as low as 20 rupees (€0.36/US$0.49) per liter .

Farm Minister Sharad Pawar said the government plans to allow sugar mills to process ethanol from sugarcane juice. So far, the government was wary of allowing ethanol to be made directly from cane juice but had permitted the manufacture of the fuel from molasses, a thick syrup byproduct from sugar production.

"It is a positive move in the interest of sugar industry," said Prakash Naiknavare, managing director, Maharashtra Federation of Co-operative Sugar Factories. "The dire need is to reduce sugar output at least in the next crushing season. Diverting cane for ethanol production certainly achieves this goal", he added

With this flexibility, sugar mills can follow the method adopted in Brazil where sugar factories switch to ethanol or sugar depending on the price of commodities, traders said.

Pawar said on Thursday government was thinking of raising the level of ethanol in petrol to 10 percent from the current 5 percent. In order to achieve this ambitious goal, India will need 1.12 billion litres of ethanol annually to blend 10 percent of the alternative fuel with petrol:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

In this respect, the sugar sector believes it would be economical to produce ethanol from cane juice rather than molasses, said Deepak Desai, chief consultant with EthanolIndia.

"From 100 tonnes of cane we get 10 tonnes sugar and 4 tonnes of molasses. From the molasses we can produce 1,080 litres ethanol. But, if we crush 100 tonnes sugarcane directly, we can get 7,500 litres of ethanol."

Besides, mills spend 500-700 rupees (€9.18 - 12.86 / US$12.28 - 17.19) to produce one tonne of sugar, while the cost to produce one litre of ethanol was just 20 rupees, he said.

India is likely to produce 322.93 million tonnes of sugarcane in 2006/07, up 15 percent from last year. Cane output is expected to rise further in 2007/08, industry officials say.

"There are no guaranteed buyers for sugar. The stocks may be remaining unsold for next two to three years," said Madan Bhosale, chairman of an co-operative sugar mill. "But for ethanol there are guaranteed buyers."

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Friday, June 08, 2007

Scientists study impacts of industrial logging in Central Africa

Though the dense humid forests of Central Africa have been regarded as among the most pristine on Earth, the expansion of industrial logging and the accompanying proliferation of road density are threatening the future of this important ecosystem. Moreover, once a rainforest zone is 'opened up' by loggers, agribusinesses and small farmers often move in to give it the final blow.

Woods Hole Research Center scientists are now reporting how they used satellite imagery taken from 1976 to 2003 to study the development of industrial logging and road density in Central Africa so that scientists, conservation agencies and other organizations can better understand the trends and implications of such expansion. The work is profiled in the current issue of Science.

According to Nadine Laporte, an associate scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center and lead author of the work, "It has never been timelier to monitor forest degradation in Central Africa because there is still an opportunity to make a significant difference in reducing the amount of deforestation. The Democratic Republic of Congo contains most of the remaining forest and is the last frontier for logging expansion in Africa."

The Central-African forests are the second largest expanse of rainforest on the planet, after the Amazon. Countries that host this vast ecosystem must be encouraged to preserve it in the name of biodiversity, but also to limit greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation. Mechanisms to help conservation efforts by compensating forest-rich nations ('compensated reduction') are being developed. Certainly in the context of biofuels such mechanisms must be implemented urgently. There is enough potential land in Central-Africa to produce biofuel feedstocks without cutting down trees (earlier post), but if the countries involved are not compensated for keeping their forests intact, the risk exists that vast swathes of rainforest are turned into lucrative biofuel plantations. Monitoring the impact of logging operations and screening deforestation rates is of prime importance for such mechanisms to succeed. The Woods Hole Research Center is actively contributing to the development of 'avoided deforestation' schemes.

The researchers mapped nearly 52,000 km of logging roads within the forested region, which includes Cameroon, Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Republic of Congo, and Democratic Republic of Congo (map, click to enlarge). Prior to this work, there were few reliable data sets available to monitor both legal and illegal logging:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

This study provides the first synoptic view of industrial logging in Central Africa, enabling conservation agencies, government agencies, scientists, industry officials, and others to better gauge how the expansion of logging is impacting the forest and its inhabitants, and how better planning might mitigate damage.

Jared Stabach, a research assistant at the Center and second author, comments, "Roads provide access, and this research provides clear evidence that the rainforests of Central Africa are not as remote as they once were - a bad thing for many of the species that call it home."

Monitoring the expansion of logging in last dense humid forest of Central Africa is not only important for biodiversity conservation but also for climatic change. Industrial logging in Central Africa is the most extensive land use with more than 30 percent of the forest under logging concession and the clearing of these forests could significantly increase carbon emissions.

Co-author Scott Goetz, a senior scientist at the Center, notes that the combination of increasing population, economic development and climatic change means that "Africa is poised for irreversible change, so it is important to help African countries with tools to monitor what is happening to their forests."

Dr. Laporte adds, "This work helps to provide key data to local scientists, allowing them the tools needed to work with policy makers to help manage their forests, and in the process reduce biodiversity loss and carbon emissions from deforestation."

Dr. Laporte is a biologist whose research centers on the applications of satellite imagery to tropical forest ecosystems, including vegetation mapping, land-use change, and deforestation causes and consequences. She has been involved in numerous environmental projects in Africa over the past 20 years, working with in-country scientists, foresters, and international conservation organizations to develop integrated forest monitoring systems and promote forest conservation. She received her doctorate in tropical biogeography from l'Université Paul Sabatier in Toulouse, France.

Mr. Stabach works in the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Remote Sensing Laboratory on the Center's Africa program, monitoring changes and threats to the rainforests and threatened species throughout the Central Africa region. His master's research focused on the use of remote sensing technologies to identify Matschie's tree kangaroo habitat in Papua New Guinea. He received his B.S. from Providence College and his M.S. from the University of Rhode Island.

Dr. Goetz works on the application of satellite imagery to analyses of environmental change, including monitoring and modeling links between land use change, forest productivity, biodiversity, climate, and human health. Before joining the Center, he was on the faculty at the University of Maryland for seven years, where he maintains an adjunct associate professor appointment, and was a research scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Maryland.

Image: Logging concessions and road distribution in Central Africa: Cameroon (1), Central African Republic (2), Equatorial Guinea (3), Gabon (4), Republic of Congo (5), Democratic Republic of Congo (6). Courtesy: Woods Hole Research Center.

More information:
Nadine T. Laporte, Jared A. Stabach, Robert Grosch, Tiffany S. Lin, Scott J. Goetz, "Expansion of Industrial Logging in Central Africa" - Science, 8 June 2007: Vol. 316. no. 5830, p. 1451, DOI: 10.1126/science.1141057

Woods Hole Research Center: Woods Hole Research Center Partnering with The Goldman Sachs Center for Environmental Markets to Develop Project on the Valuation of Avoided Deforestation - Sept. 22, 2006.

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Researchers produce ethanol from syngas in carbon nanotubes

Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) are increasingly recognized as promising materials for catalysis, either as catalysts themselves, as catalyst additives or as catalyst supports. Researchers in China now have used CNTs loaded with rhodium (Rh) nanoparticles as reactors to convert a gas mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen into ethanol. The gas, commonly known as syngas, can be obtained from the gasification of biomass. When liquefied, 'synthetic biofuels' are the result. The most common technique used to convert syngas into liquids (GTL) is the Fischer-Tropsch process. But now CNTs may offer another pathway.

The Chinese breakthrough appears to be the first example where the activity and selectivity of a metal-catalyzed gas-phase reaction benefits significantly from proceeding inside a nanosized CNT reaction vessel. Dr. Xinhe Bao, professor at the State Key Laboratory of Catalysis at the Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics, Chinese Academy of Sciences, and head of the institute's Nano and Interfacial Catalysis Group, and Dr. Xiulian Pan, published their findings [abstrac] in Nature Materials.

CNTs distinguish themselves from other carbon materials, such as activated carbon and carbon nanofibers, in that they have well graphitized graphene with semiconducting or metallic characteristics and a tubular morphology with well defined dimensions. Earlier theoretical studies have shown that the electron density is shifted from the inside to the outside of CNT channels, and that inside gas molecules exhibit a binding energy different from those outside of the nanotubes:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

"We were curious about what would happen if we combined these graphene tubes with metal nanoparticles, which have interesting redox and catalytic properties by themselves" Dr. Xinhe Bao told NanoWerk. "We previously found that the redox properties of iron and iron oxide particles are tunable via encapsulation within CNTs."

Bao found that, for instance, iron oxide particles within 4-8 nm wide nanotubes are auto-reduced at 600 degrees Celsius while the particles located on the outer surface of the nanotubes need 800 degrees Celsius. Furthermore, the auto-reduction temperature of inside particles decreases with the nanotube diameter. On the other hand, the oxidation of metallic iron nanoparticles is retarded inside nanotubes compared to those particles located on the outer surface of nanotubes. Both experiments indicate the modification of the redox properties of these particles inside CNTs and the stabilization of metallic Fe inside nanotubes.

The researchers suspected that the modification of the redox properties of metal particles inside CNTs is a general characteristic and that this could be exploited in catalysis.

Therefore, they introduced a promoted RhMn catalyst for syngas conversion into carbon nanotube channels. Syngas is a 1:2 mixture of CO and H2. This reaction is known to be very sensitive to the redox states of Rh and Mn. Oxygenates containing two carbon atoms such as ethanol, acetyldehyde and acetic acid were produced, and surprisingly, the yield over the CNT-encapsulated catalyst was extraordinarily high, clearly exceeding that of the very good silica-supported catalyst. Furthermore, catalysts with metal particles confined inside CNTs were also significantly more active than those with the metal particles dispersed on the outer surface of the nanotubes, even though the latter are more easily accessible.

The results of the Chinese scientists suggest a host-guest interaction between the confined metal particles and CNTs, which is different from that on the outside of the nanotubes. Other effects may also play a role, like the stringent size restriction of metal particles inside CNTs and the high affinity of hydrogen to the inner surfaces of opened CNTs as exemplified in their extraordinary hydrogen adsorption capacity. Pan says that she believes that other conversions could benefit in a similar way from taking place inside CNTs, in particular if they involve hydrogen. "We also anticipate that the study of the host-guest interaction within CNTs will attract greater attention as a result."

Bao points out that experimental study of the redox properties and the electronic host-guest interaction in these systems is still a challenge and might require refined characterization techniques. "Other effects may also play a role in these catalysts" he says, "like the stronger size restriction of metal particles inside CNTs and the high affinity of hydrogen to the inner surfaces of opened CNTs. The understanding and distinction between these contributions needs to be advanced by further experimental and theoretical studies. Besides, we are currently looking at new experimental characterization techniques which provide deeper insight into the nature of these confined systems."

Pan notes that, apart from the still considerable challenge of cost efficient, large-scale production of CNTs with precise diameter and chirality control, a further challenge pertaining to catalysis is the homogeneous dispersion of metal nanoparticles within the CNT channels, since this can strongly influences the activity of these catalysts.

Apart from applications in catalysis, such CNT encapsulates might also be interesting for composite materials which require a modulation of the electronic state, such as magnetic sensor or storage materials.

Image: Carbon nanotubes for ethanol production. Schematic diagram showing ethanol production from syngas inside Rh-loaded carbon nanotubes.The black spheres denote carbon atoms, which form the graphene layers of the carbon nanotubes. The streams in light orange and green entering the nanotubes indicate the gas mixture of CO and H2, respectively. The three stacks of small spheres in rose, blue, green and red inside the tubes represent catalyst particles that may comprise more than one component. The streams in light cyan tailing behind the catalyst particles along the axis of the nanotubes represent ethanol. Courtesy: NanoWerk / Nature Publishing Group.

More information:

Xiulian Pan, Zhongli Fan, Wei Chen, Yunjie Ding, Hongyuan Luo & Xinhe Bao, "Enhanced ethanol production inside carbon-nanotube reactors containing catalytic particles", Nature Materials, published online: 21 May 2007, doi:10.1038/nmat1916.

Wei Chen, Xiulian Pan, and Xinhe Bao, "Tuning of Redox Properties of Iron and Iron Oxides via Encapsulation within Carbon Nanotubes", J. Am. Chem. Soc.; 2007; 129(23) pp 7421 - 7426; (Article) DOI: 10.1021/ja0713072

NanoWerk: Ethanol production inside carbon nanotubes - June 8, 2007.

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Punjab invests heavily in biomass to feed growing energy needs

Per capita energy consumption in the state of Punjab, India's bread basket and symbol of the Green Revolution (earlier post), is the highest on the sub-continent at 972kwh/year (nearly thrice the national average). Power shortages running as high as 20% with peak hour shortages at 26% are becoming a major concern.

To counter this, the state has set a target to add another 1,000MW of power through renewable energy resources by 2012, notably biomass. To achieve the goal, the sector has attracted investments worth 9 billion rupiah (€165/US$220 million) by private enterprises. Added to this is a loan by the Japan Bank of International Cooperation worth 8 billion rupiah (€148/US$196 million) which the state government will use for adding an extra 200MW of bioenergy. Punjab has a current installed capacity of 6,200MW.

M. P. S. Bajwa, chairman of the Punjab Energy Development Agency (PEDA), says the state has a huge potential for the production of renewable energy from biomass and agro-residues through co-generation. Even though Punjab forms less than 1.5% of India's territory, it provides the country with two thirds of all grain crops. The state's crops yield vast amounts of field-based and process-based biomass residues (agricultural production data can be found here, in combination with residue-to-product ratios for different crops, here). In order to tap this vast potential, farmer-to-farmer bioenergy cooperatives have been created, and the Punjabi state government now wants to introduce a biomass based energy project in each tehsil (county).

Biomass most competitive
According to PEDA, the biomass initiative ideally requires an investment of 30 to 50 million rupiah (€551,000 - 918,000 / US$ 736,000 - 1.22 million) per installed MW, should be multifuel and can be set up on 10-20 acres of land. Compared to this a hydroelectric project on average costs around 80 to 100 million rupiah (€1.47 - 1.83 / US$ 1.96 - 2.45 million) per MW, whereas a solar energy plant costs around 10 times as much as biomass cogeneration:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The Punjab State Electricity Board has been requested to sign Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) for renewable energy power projects with private developers within a month of submission of documents. The time for tariff approval would also be reduced. "The state government wants to harness the co-generation and biomass potential of 542 mw by 2012. Government is also providing financial incentives for promoting power projects in the state NRSE policy 2006," Bajwa added.

Diversification of energy supplies is key to Pujab's energy security. For this reason, PEDA has so far commissioned 8 mini hydel projects with a combined capacity of 10 MW, whereas another 55 hydel sites have already been allotted to the private developers for setting up hydro projects on Built Operated Owned (BOO) basis. Around 14 projects with a capacity of 13.65MW have been completed and commissioned through private sector participation worth around 1 billion rupiah (€18/24.6 million).

When it comes to biomass power, five projects with a total capacity of 30MW have so far been completed and commissioned through private sector, whereas 114MW of co-generation projects are under execution in the state. In addition, biomass projects on a BOO basis and with a combined capacity of 112MW have also been allocated to private developers. This puts the total amount of investments in the sector at 9 billion rupiah (€165/US$220 million).

More information:

Biopact: Farmer-to-farmer biomass power in Punjab - December 20, 2006

Biopact: Punjab's bioenergy potential from agricultural waste estimated at 1000MW; major investments being made - December 11, 2006

Biopact: Crop residues: how much biomass energy is out there? - July 14, 2006

The Financial Express: Punjab's renewable energy to get Rs 900 cr - June 6, 2007

Punjab Government: Punjab Agriculture Sector Statistics.

FAO, Auke Koopmans and Jaap Koppejan: "Agricultural and forest residues - generation, utilization and availability" [*.pdf], Paper presented at the Regional Consultation on Modern Applications of Biomass Energy, 6-10 January 1997, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, FAO, 1998, - see Annex II.


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Energy Trust of Oregon to invest US$5 million into biomass cogeneration

The Energy Trust of Oregon, a nonprofit organization dedicated to changing how Oregonians use energy by promoting energy efficiency and clean renewable energy, announced [*.pdf] it will invest up to US$5 million in a biomass cogeneration project that will generate enough electricity to serve over 12,000 homes with continuous renewable electricity.

The 15.8-megawatt project will be owned by the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and their financial partner. The project, which will cost US$46 million to build, will also provide steam for Warm Springs Forest Products Industries, the Tribes’ wood products enterprise. By using clean wood fuel from forest fuels reduction and forest restoration projects in Central Oregon, saw mill residuals and other clean materials, the project will result in healthier forests.
“This is one of the largest incentives yet paid by Energy Trust. Biomass is an extremely attractive renewable resource, locally and nationally. It’s a constant resource that provides energy with multiple environmental and economic benefits.” - Adam Serchuk, biomass program director for Energy Trust.
According to Serchuk, the project is one of the first Oregon projects to rely primarily on forest material gathered as part of forest stewardship activities. It will be a good test to see how clean energy generation and wildfire prevention can work together to benefit the state, he added.

Advantages of biomass
As a renewable fuel, biomass has some distinct properties. Unlike solar or wind resources, biomass can deliver power to the power grid 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In addition, biomass and its related forest restoration activities support a healthy hydropower system by slowing snowmelt runoff and reducing sediments in runoff flows. Using forest fuels for biomass also means that they aren’t being burned off in an open fire or allowed to decompose in the forest, which improves air quality and reduces the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere.

The Warm Springs Reservation covers 650,000 acres, about half of which is forest. Catastrophic wild fires over the past several years have caused significant damage to these forestlands. An estimated 2,000 acres of tribal lands and 8,000 acres of adjoining federal and private lands will be used for biomass recovery each year. Woody biomass material from other forest fuels reduction projects will also be used at the site:
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The developer and owner of the project is Warm Springs Biomass LLC, an organization formed with businesses owned by the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, plus a third-party investor. The project is expected to operating by December 31, 2008, under a 20-year agreement with Energy Trust. Aequitas Capital Management, Inc., financial advisor for the project, has assisted with all principal project agreements, including taking a critical role in the power sales agreement, construction agreement, and Energy Trust negotiations. Aequitas also had a lead role in arranging for funding to construct and operate the facility. The project is applying for an Oregon Business Energy Tax Credit equal to 35 percent of eligible project costs.

"The biomass power generation project is a sustainable business creating the benefits of employment, forest restoration and renewable energy. Business managers for the Confederated Tribes will continue to develop opportunities that contribute to the future prosperity of the Tribes and the environment,” said Jim Manion, Warm Springs Power and Water Enterprises.

The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs expects the biomass project to create 60 to 70 living wage jobs and generate self-sustaining revenues that can be used to fund tribal government services. In addition, the facility provides a market-based solution to restore tribal forestlands and reduce wildfire risks.

“The Warm Springs project moving forward is the second biomass project announced this year,” said David Van’t Hof, sustainability advisor to Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski. “It shows the great opportunity for economic growth and job creation presented by the governor’s aggressive renewable energy policies.”

“This project establishes a benchmark model for the development of new biomass facilities in Oregon and for tribal-owned renewable energy projects in general,” said Tom Sidley, senior managing director, Aequitas Capital. “We were honored to apply our energy practice experience to assist a very motivated and competent development team from the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.”

Image: biomass wood chips, courtesy of the Energy Trust of Oregon.

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G8 reaches compromise on climate change


The leading industrialised nations (G8) aim to at least halve global CO2 emissions by 2050. The Heads of State and Government agreed at Heiligendamm to achieve this goal together as part of a UN process. The big emerging economies are also to be incorporated in the process: "We commit to achieving these goals and invite the major emerging economies [in particular China and India] to join us in this endeavour," states the Summit Declaration [*.pdf] of 7 June 2007. The agreement is not legally binding.

Environmental NGOs and civil society organisations have dismissed the compromise as 'weak', whereas others were surprised to see a deal at all.

For her part, German Chancellor and G8 President Angela Merkel was convinced and visibly pleased that this was "the most important decision for the coming two years." Many participants had moved their positions quite considerably. The agreement that binding goals on reducing emissions were necessary was "an important signal", said Merkel.

The resolutions adopted by the EU, Japan and Canada form the basis of the agreement reached on climate protection at Heiligendamm. The approach suggested by the United States was added to this, namely of incorporating the biggest greenhouse gas emitters outside the United States, especially China and India.

The environment ministers of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change can now negotiate details of how these goals regarding global reductions are to be achieved. A post-Kyoto Protocol regulation is to be agreed during the Global Climate Change Conference to be held there. The Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012. Up until now it was not clear what this was to be based on. Now the successor agreement is to be adopted by 2009 and to contribute to the agreed UN process:
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In parallel to the UN process, groups of countries have the possibility of reaching additional agreements on how the common goal is to be achieved. In future the G8 also want to use new financial tools to support climate protection projects in the developing countries, for example the proceeds from the auctioning off of emissions rights. This afternoon the Chancellor said she was pleased about the "coherent time-table".

Joint, but different responsibility
The G8 states it is clear that all countries bear joint responsibility for reducing greenhouse gases, but in different ways. The Chancellor highlighted the leading role the Group of 8 had to play. "The industrialised countries must take the first step", she emphasised.

Even though the agreement is not legally binding, Merkel was sure that "no-one can escape this declaration".

The Chancellor felt that it was a great success that all eight of the G8 countries now acknowledged the results of the UN's most recent climate report.

The so-called IPCC Report found that global warming is largely the result of human activity. Only by limiting CO2 emissions will it be possible to stop global warming. In order to avoid wide-ranging consequences, the international experts believe that it is absolutely essential that global warming be limited to 1.5 to 2.5°C.

The Group of 8 industrialised nations recognise the statements and goals in the IPPC Report. "Now we need to work together to get as many countries as possible across the world to undertake to do something," the German Chancellor said.

G8 and the emerging economies: Dialogue institutionalised
In the afternoon the G8 leaders had already agreed to offer the so-called emerging economies a new form of regular dialogue. The so-called outreach countries - Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa - will be taking part in the G8 discussions on Friday.

This new co-operation ("Heiligendamm Process") is to send a clear signal for allowing mutual freedom of investment under comparable conditions. Just like the G8 process, this process is also to set the course for giving globalisation a social face.

The planned topics for the Heiligendamm Process are also to be "innovation" and "technology co-operations". The G8 countries are to share their know-how with the emerging economies especially when it comes to energy efficiency. At the same time, agreement is to be reached on more effective international property rights: protection against replicated machines, copied brand products and counterfeit medications.

The topics to be addressed in this dialogue show how closely the issues discussed at this summit are linked to the interests of people across the world: climate protection and energy efficiency on the one hand, and the technology required for that and effective property rights for that technology on the other. Globalisation is here to stay. Now it needs to be actively shaped at the political level. "The G8 is a valuable body in which to do that," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said two weeks ago in a policy statement. The first conference day proved her right.

Scepticism
Environmental NGOs immediately criticised the G8 summit-deal as being "weak" and "lacking substance and political will". Friends of the Earth deplores that the US and Russia did not make a non-binding pledge to cut the CO2 emission by at least half by 2050. "Collectively, the G8 nations, which represent just 13% of the world's population, are responsible for around 43% of the world's greenhouse-gas emissions," the NGO points out.

The World Future Council said that it would have liked to see "an immediate binding resolution" and accused the G8 countries of "simply passing the buck on to the next Conference on Climate Change in Bali later this year".

More information:
G8 Summit, Heilgendamm: Breakthrough on climate protection - June 7, 2007.

G8 Summit, Heiligendamm: Summit Declaration: Growth and responsibility in the world economy - [*.pdf], June 7, 2007.

Friends of the Earth International: Weak G-8 Climate ‘Deal’ Lacks Substance - June 7, 2007.

World Future Council: G8 Need to Act Immediately on Climate Change - Declaration on Climate Change too Weak: World Leaders Merely Pass the Buck to the Next Climate Conference - June 7, 2007.

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The bioeconomy at work: study shows potatoes make good bioplastics

A report by the University of Maine's Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center says the state's potato industry could benefit by becoming a producer of bioplastics, which are made from renewable and carbon-neutral plant starch rather than crude oil and petroleum products.

The research report titled Potatoes to Plastic [*.pdf] examined the resource and economic viability of Maine potatoes as a source for polylactic acid (PLA) to support InterfaceFABRIC’s manufacturing requirements for use in their bio-based fabrics for commercial interiors. As part of this study, the following data was reviewed:
  • the amount of acres currently harvested for potato production and the average number of acres in use;
  • the average harvest yield of potatoes;
  • the average price paid to growers per hundredweight (cwt) of potatoes;
  • the raw materials costs associated with collecting, transporting and pre-processing waste potatoes for production of starch in preparation for PLA production;
  • the availability of potato starch to meet the needs of InterfaceFABRIC;
  • the comparison of current cultivars of potato vs. one bred to use less fertilizer and fungicide (the Defender, a non-Genetically Modified Organism), both with approximately the same starch content.
The analysis of these data supports the conclusion that it is economically feasible for Maine potato growers to plant and harvest potatoes specifically for the purpose of providing a source of starch to manufacture PLA. It has also been determined that there would be little to no start-up costs to the potato growers themselves to provide potatoes for PLA using the potato cultivars (varieties) that are currently grown, in particular the Russet Burbank and/or Shepody potatoes (table, click to enlarge).

The planting, harvesting and pre-processing of these potatoes would be no different than what the growers are currently doing.

The analysis also shows that the cost of processing potatoes for PLA would be similar to that for a small capacity PLA facility that processes corn and the price which potato growers would receive for PLA potatoes would most likely be comparable to the average price paid to all growers for their potatoes. It also appears that the price of PLA from potatoes would be similar to that for PLA derived from corn.

Waste potatoes
The analysis further confirms that the amount of PLA needed by InterfaceFABRIC (13 million pounds per year) could, in principle, be supplied solely by waste potatoes, made up of those left in fields after harvesting, those not marketed or below grade, and potato waste from processing:
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However, the resources or economies to collect those wastes and waste potatoes and provide them to a PLA facility are not available at this time.

In conclusion, the research supports the concept of producing bio-based plastic feedstock from Maine potatoes. The potential to produce PLA from potato starch will not be limited by the ability of potato growers to provide a viable crop.

Furthermore, the cost to growers will not be prohibitive for such a project and the return will be similar to that for food stock potatoes.

Finally, no current table-ready or processing potatoes need to be taken out of the supply chain. An increase in the amount of acres planted and harvested can be implemented to provide the starch, and the potato varieties currently grown, in particular the Russet Burbank and/or Shepody potatoes, can be used as the source of starch for PLA manufacturing.

The next step is to conduct the research to determine the location and technical specifications for a PLA facility in Maine and examine the potential contribution of waste potatoes and processed starch to support a PLA facility and to examine the potential for new more cost effective and environmentally sustainable potato varieties which can be grown specifically for the PLA market.

European and Japanese manufacturers have already produced PLA-based bioplastics from potatoes.

The research was funded in part through Maine Technology Institute with contributions in kind by the Alliance for a Clean & Healthy Maine; Green Harvest Technologies; InterfaceFABRIC; Maine Potato Board; University of Maine; and University of Massachusetts, Lowell.

More information:
Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center: Potatoes to Plastic, [*.pdf / Executive summary here, *.pdf], June 2007.

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IEA Chief: biofuels not a threat to OPEC

Reacting to OPEC's recent statement on biofuels, Claude Mandil, the head of the International Energy Agency (IEA), told the Financial Times that, even in the worst-case scenario for the oil cartel, there would be a "dramatic" need for an increase in production by the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. "OPEC has nothing to fear. Even in the most optimistic scenarios, the contribution from biofuels would be very small," Mr Mandil said.

The oil producers’ group has become increasingly concerned about efforts in the US and the European Union to cut oil imports. Recently, Abdalla el-Badri, secretary-general of the oil cartel warned that booming biofuels activities may threaten investments in oil production and cause petroleum prices to "go through the roof". Analysts have suspected some tactical move behind the statement. OPEC ministers were however genuinely appalled by the State of the Union address by President George W. Bush in January, in which he said he wanted to "dramatically reduce our dependence on foreign oil."

Mr Mandil now says that even in the worst case for OPEC, in which consuming countries implemented policies to curb oil consumption, the IEA forecast that global oil demand in 2015 would rise by close to 10 million barrels a day, to 94.8 million bpd.

Demand for OPEC oil would be 38.8 million bpd in 2015, up from about 31 million bpd today, while biofuels would provide just 3 million bpd. If the oil-consuming countries did not put in place those further policies to encourage biofuel production and fuel efficiency, OPEC oil demand would be 42 million bpd.

OPEC's historic mistake
In the late 1970s western powers urged OPEC to increase urgently its production capacity as oil prices soared. But the same countries invested in energy alternatives, including nuclear power and natural gas, and energy-saving measures. The result, according to Frédéric Lasserre, of Société Générale in Paris, was that "OPEC invested huge amounts of resources in new oil production capacity, just to realise that when it came on line, in the mid 1980s, the demand had evaporated." OPEC is worried now about repeating this historic mistake:
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The cartel is committed to increase its oil production through more investment. But it has warned: "As the world needs a security of supply, we need a security of demand."

OPEC argues that it is misleading to think the world can wean itself off its need for oil. Abdalla el-Badri, Opec secretary-general, said: "We have no objection to changes in the energy mix but there is not a magic solution for oil."

OPEC’s initial investment of about US$120 billion (€89 billion, £60 billion) to 2012 is already on the way, but a second wave of about US$500 billion will depend on new demand trends. With consuming countries devoting more resources to nuclear power, biofuels, clean coal and energy efficiency, some observers say OPEC is right to be concerned.

"Climate warming will play a key role in the future discussion of western countries’ energy mix and, in there, oil is not well placed," said Mr Lasserre.

The potential of the current generation of biofuels is severely constrained by the competition with the food industry for feed stocks such as corn and wheat. "As the biofuel industry is set up today, there are pretty clear limits to it," said Andrew Shepherd-Barron, an alternative energy expert at KBC Peel Hunt.

"In about five years you have the possibility that we could make biofuels in a completely different way, from cellulosic ethanol or algae. But those technologies are unproven."

Even if there is a breakthrough to those 'second-generation' biofuels, Wood Mackenzie, the consultancy, estimates they might displace only up to 4 per cent of world oil demand in the next decade. But even a marginal change could have a powerful impact on the oil price.

On the other hand biofuels become competitive only when oil prices are very high. This also implies OPEC members are making unprecedented profits that become available for much needed investments.

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Food import bills reach a record high, biofuels partly to blame

Global food import bills are increasing, partly due to soaring demand for biofuels, according to FAO’s latest Food Outlook report. Global expenditures on imported foodstuffs look set to surpass US$400 billion in 2007, almost 5 percent above the record of the previous year.

The data once again immediately bring up the issue of global trade regimes and agricultural subsidies. Countries with a very large food production potential - like the DRCongo, Mozambique or Angola - are net food importers.

To the dismay of development economists and civil society organisations alike, farm subsidies in the EU and the US prevent investments in domestic food production in these countries. Their dependence on imported food means they are vulnerable to global price fluctuations that are beginning to be influenced by (subsidised) biofuels. For net exporters, the price increases are a blessing.

Over the long term, the FAO said earlier, biofuels can fundamentally boost food production and help alleviate poverty (earlier post).

The FAO's latest Food Outlook notes that rising prices of imported coarse grains and vegetable oils – the commodity groups that feature most heavily in biofuel production – account for the bulk of the increase. Import bills for these commodities are forecast to rise by as much as 13 percent from 2006, the report said.

Contrary to other reports, the report states that more expensive feed ingredients will lead to higher prices for meat and dairy products, raising expenditures on imports of those commodities. In several cases, such as for meat and rice, larger world purchases are likely to drive import bills up.

In the case of sugar, generally high and volatile prices could lead to smaller import volumes, which is likely to result in a drop in the cost of global sugar imports, the report said.

Record-high international freight rates have also affected the import value of all commodities, putting additional pressure on countries’ abilities to cover their food import bills:
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Poor pay more
Developing countries as a whole are anticipated to face a 9 percent increase in overall food import expenditures in 2007. The more economically vulnerable countries are forecast to be most affected, with total expenditures by low-income food-deficit (LIFDC) and least developed countries (LDCs) expected to rise by 10 percent from last year.

“The food import basket for the least developed countries in 2007 is expected to cost roughly 90 percent more than it did in 2000,” said FAO economist Adam Prakash. “This is in stark contrast to the 22 percent growth in developed country import bills over the same period.”

Production up, but so is demand
World cereal production in 2007 is forecast to reach 2125 million tonnes, up 6 percent from the reduced level in 2006 and higher than FAO’s previous forecast in May.

"The prospect of a strong recovery in global cereal production in 2007 is a positive development, but total supplies will still be barely adequate to meet the expected rise in demand, not only from the traditional food and feed sectors but in particular from the fast-growing biofuels industry," said Abdolreza Abbassian, one of the authors of the report. "This means prices for most cereals are likely to remain high in the coming year."

FAO’s tentative forecast for rice production this year stands at around 633 million tonnes, matching last year’s record level, but with production still running short of consumption. Global rice reserves are forecast to shrink and higher price levels are anticipated.

Global cassava production in 2007 could surpass last year’s record level, due largely to measures to increase utilization of the crop in the larger producing countries, especially for industrial usage, including ethanol production.

Oilseeds

Oilseeds and meal prices have continued to rise, largely due to surging feed grain prices. Unusually high maize prices are dragging up soybean prices as the two commodities are competing in both the feed and energy markets. First forecasts for the 2007/08 marketing season suggest that the steady growth in global oilseed production could come to a halt, however, as maize cultivation is likely to expand at the expense of soybeans.

Meat and dairy
Increased consumer confidence, following a reduced incidence of animal disease outbreaks in the past year, should result in a recovery in meat demand in developing countries in 2007, the report said. Global meat exports are anticipated to increase by 3.8 percent as trade bans are gradually lifted and markets return to more normal patterns.

Poultry prices have recovered after declining by 18 percent in early 2006, mainly because of outbreaks of avian influenza. By March 2007, export prices in the United States and Brazil, which together supply 70 percent of global trade, increased by 20 percent and 14 percent, respectively, from their 2006 annual averages.

FAO’s meat price index has significantly recovered from a low in 2006 and, in March 2007, stood 7.6 percent higher than in March 2006. Moreover, rising feed prices are putting further upward pressure on meat prices, according to the report.

Prices of dairy products are currently at historically high levels. The FAO price index of traded dairy products has risen by 46 percent since November 2006. International prices for milk powders have increased most, as stocks in the European Union have disappeared.

The outlook for 2007 is for stronger growth in global milk supply, which may increase by 2.7 percent, sustained largely by expansion in those countries more responsive to international prices. Drought in Australia, suspension of milk powder exports by India, and Argentina’s export taxes are restraining export supply in the short term. However, EU dairy policy reform is changing the structure of international markets as its export market share declines, creating opportunities for emerging exporters, the report said.

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Thursday, June 07, 2007

Case-study reveals template for successful biofuel production

A consortium of eleven companies involved in the biodiesel industry in the North-East of England have developed a template for successful future biofuels production. The Value Chain Analysis (VCA) project, which was undertaken as part of the Cereals Industry Forum (CIF), could prove very valuable in driving future developments in this relatively new sector.

The study titled Meeting the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation - A Biofuels Case Study from Seed to Forecourt [*.pdf], identified areas as critical to the chain, including standardising farming practice, breeding specific varieties for biofuels, ensuring continuity of supply, and providing carbon reporting throughout the chain. The study looked at three biofuels for transport: biodiesel, bioethanol and biogas.

Value Chain Analysis
brings together a team representing all aspects of a supply chain in order to ‘map’ the chain. By ‘walking through’ the chain together, the team is able to identify processes that add value and those that don’t (map, click to enlarge). It is also able to identify problems and areas, and, therefore, to suggest ways in which the chain might be improved. This activity is organised by the Cereals Industry Forum, and was facilitated by Cardiff Business School.

Because of the complexity of the supply chain in this case it was split into two groups – upstream and downstream. The detailed mapping of the upstream chain showed that the total lead-time from basic seed to crusher is about 920 days, out of which 365 days is in multiplication of basic seed, 365 growing on the farm and 180 days on average in central silo. The total mileage from fertiliser manufacturing plant through the distributive chain to the farm and then as crop to the crusher is about 250 miles.

For the downstream chain it showed that the total lead-time from the crusher to the vehicle tank is more than 60 days (excluding time in the tank-farm due to data not available). The total transport in the downstream is about 60 miles (excluding miles traveled in pipelines).

The critical factors for success identified by the team were:
  • The need to standardise and transfer best farming practices more widely: it was shown that improved choice of varieties, reduced fertiliser loss, and reduced harvest loss could make a significant difference to improving the quality of output and the profitability for growers.
  • Breeding specific varieties for biofuels: currently, there are no oilseed varieties specifically for biofuels production. High yield and oil content are key to the success of the whole sector and have a big impact on profitability of biofuels crop production as well as the whole supply chain.
  • Continuity of supply into the crusher with crop storage adjacent to the crusher: key to sustainability of this chain is the continuity of supply of high quality locally-grown crops into the crusher. The crusher connects the upstream and downstream chains and efficiency of the upstream supply is crucial in terms of competitiveness of the whole industry.
  • Carbon reporting from seed to tank: the carbon footprint and the environmental impact of the end-to-end supply chain (seed to tank) must be constantly monitored to ensure that the promised carbon reduction is met.
The upstream group involved fertiliser producer Terra; seed breeder Monsanto; agri-chemicals supplier Agrovista; buying group Farmway; grower John Hutchinson, grain trader GrainCo; and crusher, North East Biofuels. The downstream group included Simon Storage, which provides tank farms for the rape oil and the biodiesel; the Biofuels Corporation, which processed the rape oil to produce biodiesel; PetroPlus, which blends the biodiesel; and JET, which sells the biodiesel:
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John Reynolds, Chairman of North East Biofuels said: “The VCA project was a very valuable exercise and I firmly believe it is a great help as a pointer and a base against which our supply chain members can measure improvements in the coming years. These improvements will be very necessary in a competitive world, where the consumer will demand cost competitiveness at the pump and a product which helps to combat Global Warming.”

Iain Grime, Business Development Manager from PetroPlus said: “The VCA is a valuable project which helps supply chain stakeholders to build better and longer-term relationships. The VCA project looked at opportunities for improving operations and also the logistics in the supply chain. This sector is very mature and the logistical opportunities are limited. However, one of the key findings was the need for transparent and rigorous carbon reporting along the life-cycle of biofuels. This includes all aspects of delivery from grain to fully blended biofuels to the retail outlet.”

More information:

Biofuel Review: Template for successful biofuels production developed - June 7, 2007.

Home Grown Cereals Authority / North East Biofuels: Reducing carbon in a biofuel supply chain A biodiesel case study - 2007, s.d. (June 2007).

Cereals Industry Forum: Meeting the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation: A Biofuels Case Study from Seed to Forecourt - April 2007.

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U.S. Energy and Agriculture Depts. provide $8.3 million for energy crops research

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns and U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman today announced that the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Energy have jointly selected 11 projects for awards totaling US$8.3 million for biobased fuels research that will accelerate the development of alternative fuel resources. The research aims to take the U.S. beyond its reliance on corn as a biofuel feedstock.

The awards continue a commitment begun in 2006 to conduct fundamental research in biomass genomics that will provide the scientific foundation to facilitate and accelerate the use of woody plant tissue for bioenergy and biofuels (earlier post). The program was announced at last year's Advancing Renewable Energy: An American Rural Renaissance, a conference jointly hosted by the two agencies in St. Louis, MO. The awards are part of a greater research portfolio that will help meet President Bush's goal to reduce gasoline consumption by 20 percent in ten years (amongst this is a DOE fund of US$200 million for biorefineries).

The awards will be made through the Office of Biological and Environmental Research (OBER) in DOE's Office of Science (SC), and USDA's Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service (CSREES) National Research Initiative (NRI). In this second year of the program, new research projects on cordgrass, rice, switchgrass, sorghum, poplar, and perennial grasses join the portfolio of research on poplar, alfalfa, sorghum, and wheat.

Starting in 2007, DOE will provide US$5.5 million in funding for seven projects, while USDA will award more than US$1.5 million to fund three projects; one project will receive US$1.3 million in joint funding from both agencies. Initial funding will support research projects for up to three years.

Awards have been selected for bioenergy projects of the following universities and research centers:
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  • University of Minnesota, $715,000
  • South Dakota State University, $420,000
  • Mississippi State University, $1,300,000
  • University of Georgia, $400,000
  • Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, $1,200,000
  • University of Florida, $750,000
  • University of Delaware, $600,000
  • USDA-ARS Western Regional Research Center (Albany, CA), $600,000
  • USDA-ARS Western Regional Research Center (Albany, CA), $600,000
  • USDA-ARS (Cornell University), $700,000
  • Oak Ridge National Laboratory, $1,040,000
"To help meet President Bush's goal to reduce gasoline consumption by 20 percent in ten years, research and alternative fuel production needs to expand beyond corn ethanol," Johanns said. "These grants diversify the portfolio of research by looking into new ways to develop cordgrass, rice and switchgrass in renewable energy sources."

"These research projects build upon DOE's strategic investments in genomics and biotechnology and strengthen our commitment to developing a robust bioenergy future vital to America's energy and economic security," Bodman said.

More information on the awared projects can be found here.

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Declaration of Panama: OAS to boost biofuels for development in Americas

Biofuels and renewable energy were top of the agenda at the 37th General Assembly of the Organisation of American States (OAS), where leaders of the Americas stressed the need to implement plans on alternatives to oil. Amongst the representatives was U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who represented the United States and its pact with Brazil aimed at promoting ethanol production in the Western Hemisphere (earlier post).

The General Assembly convened in Panama City and approved the Declaration of Panama on Energy for Sustainable Development [*Spanish/*.doc], which contains the following points, indicating the fundamental importance of secure and cost-effective energy supplies for sustainable social and economic development and the crucial role of biofuels in this respect:
  • The recognition of the fundamental importance to the member states of the availability of energy resources for the promotion of their economic and social development in an environmentally sustainable manner.
  • The recognition of the need to obtain and use all forms of energy that are in harmony with life and nature, preserving air, water, and land which provide indispensable food and habitat for all living beings, and to foster access for the more vulnerable populations, consistent with social and environmental sensitivity.
  • The resolve to underscore that democratic governance, strong democratic institutions, the rule of law, and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms are essential elements in advancing the energy and sustainable development goals of member states and the region, combating social exclusion, and advancing the public good.
  • The recognition of the importance of transparency in energy related government and private sector activities, as well as underscoring the importance of the Inter-American Convention against Corruption to the states of the Hemisphere and its follow-up mechanism (MESICIC).
  • The recognition also that the region must endeavor to reduce its vulnerability to fluctuations in the price and supply of energy and seek to increase its energy independence through measures such as, the diversification of the energy matrix, favoring the increase of the sustainable use of renewable and cleaner energy or other modalities, as appropriate, in accordance with each country’s legislation, improving energy efficiency in general in all sectors of the economy, and to increase their coverage of energy services for social development purposes.
  • The need to recognize the potential of biofuels for diversifying the energy matrix of the Hemisphere. Accordingly, they will join efforts to share experiences gained in the region, with a view to achieving maximum efficiency in the sustainable use of those sources to promote social, technological, agricultural, and productive development.
"The words in the document should be translated into action," said Grenada's ambassador to the OAS, Denis Antoine, ahead of closed door talks to finalize the assembly's energy plan.

Four poor nations, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti and St. Kitts, would be the first beneficiaries of the recently signed U.S.-Brazil alternative-energy agreement, which aims to increase ethanol production in the region.

"This declaration realizes that biofuels will be critical to diversifying the use of our energy in our hemisphere," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

"We seek to promote the democratization of energy in the Americas, increasing the number of energy suppliers, expanding the market and reducing supply disruption," she added.

Rounding out the three-day talks in the Panamanian capital, leaders yesterday put the finishing touches on an OAS resolution that focuses heavily on the environmental and need to reduce the hemisphere's dependence on fossil fuels.

Some observers, however, expressed concern about investing time, money and resources into a country like Haiti, where political upheaval is not uncommon, violence requires the assistance of international peacekeepers to control, and corruption is endemic.

"It's the chicken and the egg problem," noted Peter Hakim, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue. "If you never do anything in [Haiti] to address the problem of stability, then you won?t have stability ... and you?ll never get it without taking a risk."

Alternative-energy programs alone won't help the poor rise out of poverty, said Uruguayan Foreign Minister Reinaldo Gargano.

"Energy is important for production and improving quality of life, but eliminating poverty depends on other factors as well, like the better distribution of wealth," he said.

Other nations have been downright critical of the alternative-energy initiatives put forward by the OAS and spearheaded by the United States and Brazil, the world's largest producers of ethanol.

Leaders from Venezuela and Cuba - which does not have an official representative at the meetings because the communist island is not a member of the OAS - have criticized the further expansion of ethanol production in Latin America and the Caribbean, claiming it would deplete food supplies in the region, where a scarcity of sustenance is not uncommon. Analysts however note that Chavez's resistance is mainly driven by his fears that the large-scale introduction of ethanol in the Hemisphere may erode the power he derives from his position as an oil exporter. Moreover, Cuba and Venezuela are building a considerable number of biofuel plants themselves.

The Declaration of Panama contained further notes of interest on sustainable (bio)energy, such as:
  • The emphasis on the long-term sustainability of energy supply in the member states depends on the efficient management and development and sustainable use of natural resources for conversion into innovative and environmentally sound energy applications.
  • The recognition of the importance of ensuring compatibility among the production of all energy sources, agricultural production, preservation of the environment, and the promotion and defense of decent social and labor conditions, ensuring the role of the Americas as an efficient energy producer.
  • The resolve to develop and invest in national, subregional, and regional energy infrastructures to facilitate the availability of and access to energy, as well as to protect them and to move toward subregional and regional energy integration. To these ends, we emphasize the advisability, in accordance with national law of public-private partnerships and/or agreements, giving priority to those favoring our sustainable development.
  • The support for the efforts toward the sustainable development of the member states, through use of energy strategies and services recommended in this Declaration that can promote the generation of productive activities and the introduction of new environmentally sound technologies in matters that concern energy.
  • The recognition of the need to strengthen economic and technical cooperation at the regional and international levels in the energy sector.
  • The resolve to joining forces in the implementation of energy policies in the Hemisphere to develop projects and initiatives based on solidarity, transparency, cooperation, and complementarity, to promote more prosperous, just, equitable and inclusive societies.
  • The support for energy integration efforts, including existing experiences, and continued progress in the integration of energy systems and networks, and in the study of the possibility of harmonizing regulations among member states, in order to promote sustainable development and the more efficient and rational use of energy resources and increased marketing of energy products and services among such states.
  • The determination to increase access by citizens of the member states to efficient energy services; and to emphasize that the use of energy for household purposes and for small scale productive activities contributes to improving living conditions and fighting poverty.
  • The recognition of the need for member states to draw upon their experiences and those of multilateral organizations, inter alia, to promote synergy among specific programs on the use of energy for sustainable development and to study possible innovative funding and cooperation mechanisms.
  • The recognition of the importance of multilateral lending and cooperation agencies for promoting new and innovative financing mechanisms and advisory services aimed at fostering renewable energy and access to new cleaner technologies as well as the more efficient use of existing programs and the use of special funds created with voluntary contributions from donor.
  • The recognition also of the efforts of those countries that, based on the implementation of new financing modalities, promote sustainable development, the use of renewable energy, cleaner energy, and environmental protection, in particular, for those areas that are rich in biodiversity.
  • The recognition also of the contribution of private-sector participation, in accordance with national laws and policies, in the development of traditional and new energy sources and in the installation of national and international distribution systems and networks.
  • The recognition of the urgent need to take measures, mostly in the transportation and industry sectors, for the use of more efficient and cleaner technologies, the better use of existing technologies, and the use of less polluting fuels, bearing in mind also the need to promote the participation of micro-, and medium-sized enterprises, including cooperatives and other production units to contribute to this effort.
  • The recognition of the importance of promoting the development of cleaner and more efficient technologies conducive to the greater use of renewable and less polluting energy in public and private transportation, as well as to promote an expanded use of public transportation with said technology, both to increase the efficient use of energy and to reduce its environmental impact.
  • The commitment to encourage the input of financial resources, including those of the private sector, with the aim of promoting the dissemination and transfer of environmentally sustainable technologies, and capacity-building.
  • The encouragement of an efficient energy resource management that reflects what is required for achieving sustainable development in all the member states, taking into consideration national circumstances.
  • The request to the General Secretariat, in coordination with other institutions and experts, to: continue to promote instructional and training programs for relevant actors in the public and private energy sectors and taking into account the possibilities offered by the Scholarships and Training Program of the OAS and other possible funding sources; maintain, update, and distribute a registry of specialists of the member states who, at the request of the countries of the region, can offer cooperation on energy matters; and support regional dialogue for the creation and strengthening of markets and the promotion of energy efficiency and conservation for sustainable development.
  • The request to the Permanent Council and the Inter-American Council for Integral Development (CIDI) to convene an inter-American meeting of national authorities and experts, with the participation of other relevant institutions before the General Assembly in 2008, for the discussion of experiences, best practices, and other information relating to the subject of this Declaration that will contribute to the sustainable development of all countries in the Hemisphere, and to create a Joint Working Group of the Permanent Council and CIDI to define the meeting’s agenda.
  • The request to the General Secretariat of the OAS, to promote the support and synergy of States, international organizations, civil society, the private sector, and the academic community, to promote the contents of this Declaration of Panama, and to report on a regular basis to the Permanent Council and to the Inter-American Council for Integral Development.
  • The appreciation to the people and Government of the Republic of Panama for their warm hospitability during the thirty-seventh regular session of the OAS General Assembly.
Latin America has an enormous potential for the sustainable production of bioenergy and biofuels, as was recently shown in a comprehensive study written for the Inter-American Development Bank. The document titled - A Blueprint for Green Energy in the Americas - was discussed earlier and we included a handy video-presentation for those who lack time to read the document (earlier post). The Inter-American Development Bank will be one of the main instruments implementing the biofuel revolution. It has recently launched a US$3 billion investment plan for biofuels.

Other scientists, amongst them those working for the IEA's Bioenergy Task 40, earlier established that in a most optimal scenario, the Western Hemisphere can deliver around 450 Exajoules of sustainably produced bioenergy for exports by 2050. That amount is larger than the world's total current energy consumption from all sources (oil, gas, coal, nuclear). The projection takes sustainability into account, explicitly. That is: after the food, fuel, fiber and fodder needs of rapidly growing local populations and livestock are met, some 450 EJ of energy can be produced (previous post).

More information:
OAS: The OAS approves by acclamation the Declaration of Panama on Energy for Sustainable Development - June 5, 2007.

OAS General Assembly: Declaracion de Panama sobre energia para el desarrollo sostenible [*.doc], Thirty-Seventh Regular Session, June 3 - 5, Panama City, Panama

Washington Times: OAS urges biofuels as alternatives to oil - June 6, 2007.

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Virgin launches first biodiesel train in Europe

Virgin Trains' Sir Richard Branson launched Europe’s first biodiesel blend train in scheduled passenger service – the 11:27 from London Euston to Llandudno, North Wales. The train is the first regularly scheduled train in Europe to use a practicable blended fuel which can significantly reduce CO2 emissions. The Virgin Trains trial is seen as a major step in a national biodiesel programme, conducted by Virgin Trains, the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) and the Rail Safety & Standards Board (RSSB), to pioneer a sustainable fuel breakthrough for the rail industry.

As part of a national trial, Virgin Trains will run one of its Voyagers on a 20 percent biodiesel blend.
"This is a pioneering step we’re taking. If the trial is a success – and we believe it will be – and we can convert our Voyager fleet to run on B20 biodiesel we could cut our CO2 emissions by up to 14 percent. This means 34,500 tonnes less CO2 being emitted into the atmosphere each year, and is equivalent to taking 23,000 cars off the road. Government wants to see a reduction in transport’s carbon dioxide emissions, and Virgin and the rail industry are at the forefront. We’re starting with 20 percent biodiesel and hope to increase this amount to 100 percent in the future which would potentially see 100,000 cars off the road." - Sir Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin Trains
Virgin CrossCountry Managing Director Chris Gibb said: “Sir Richard set out a vision that Virgin should be at the forefront of developing sustainable energy. I am really proud that it is the people at Virgin Trains who are the first to have risen to the challenge.”

As part of the investment in biodiesel special fuelling points have been installed at Bombardier Transportation’s depots in Barton-under-Needwood, Staffordshire and Crofton, West Yorkshire and modifications have been made to the Cummins’ engines. During the trial the biodiesel train will run across much of Britain, from Birmingham to Scotland, in South Wales, North East England, the North West, Lake District, West Country, the South West and South Coast.

If the trial is a success the current higher duty on biodiesel would mean changes to duty levels would be required for a viable conversion of the fleet to biodiesel operation. The Treasury has made an important concession for this trial, but beyond this the duty rate would be 54.68p per litre – considerably more than the 7.69p per litre duty paid by the rail industry for diesel - and would require legislation to change:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

In addition to the environmental benefits of the Voyager trial, Virgin’s Pendolino electric trains return 17 percent of the power they use to the national grid every time they brake, making the Pendolino fleet one of the most efficient in the world. Over the course of a year this is enough to power 11,825 homes. These trains emit 76 percent less CO2 than cars or domestic flights.

The trial also forms part of Virgin Group’s vision to use clean-fuel technology to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Virgin Atlantic has ordered 15 Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft, which are 27 percent more fuel efficient than its current fleet, and will begin testing biofuel in 2008 (earlier post). Overall the Virgin Group has already contributed US$200 million of its pledged US$3 billion to developing sustainable energy. Virgin Fuels has already constructed three ethanol plants which are cheaper and greener than standard corn–to–ethanol plants, as they substantially reduce the need for fossil fuels in ethanol production.

Over ten years Virgin Trains has developed the West Coast and CrossCountry franchises into high quality networks, offering a green alternative to air and car travel. Passenger numbers are now at 43 million a year and punctuality is currently running at well over 85 percent on both routes. But it doesn’t stop there. In December 2008 there will be faster journeys on London services, with almost one third more trains running. Virgin Trains also hopes to be able to run trains at 135mph and add two more coaches to Pendolino trains, encouraging millions more people out of their cars and off domestic flights.

One hundred percent of any profits made by Virgin Group through its train and plane companies for the next 10 years will be invested into developing clean fuels.

Earlier in Europe, the French national railways SNCF tested a very high blend (B80) of biodiesel in several of its trains. Abroad too, interest in the biofuel as a replacement for diesel is growing: Brazil's mining group CVRD, the world's largest iron producer, announced it is going to use biodiesel in its trains (earlier post), whereas in India, the country with the largest rail network, the national railways have started testing jatropha-based biodiesel and is establishing vast plantations for the crop (earlier post). Finally, in Sweden, a world premiere was delivered when a regularly scheduled train was made to run on biogas (see here).


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Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Dirty snow may warm Arctic as much as greenhouse gases - cleaner fuels needed

The global warming debate has focused on carbon dioxide emissions, but scientists at UC Irvine have determined that a lesser-known mechanism – dirty snow – can explain one-third or more of the Arctic warming primarily attributed to greenhouse gases.

Snow becomes dirty when soot from fossil fuel burning and forest fires enters the atmosphere and falls to the ground. Soot-infused snow is darker than natural snow. Dark surfaces absorb sunlight and cause warming, while bright surfaces reflect heat back into space and cause cooling, a process known as the albedo effect. Burning cleaner fuels would be a ready solution to brighten snow and thus lower temperatures, the scientists say.

Because of their emission profiles, biofuels may contribute to solving part of the problem:
  • Both first-generation biodiesel and ultra-clean synthetic biofuels show dramatic reductions in particulate matter and soot emissions compared to fossil fuels.
  • Likewise, the co-combustion of biomass with coal in power plants shifts particle size distribution from fine particles to coarse particles, which can be captured by dust collection systems, thus preventing soot and particulate matter emissions.
  • Moreover, around 2 billion people in the developing world rely on primitive biomass for energy (basically burning wood or dung on open fires). Introducing modern, clean biofuels amongst this vast mass of people would reduce soot and particulate matter emissions drastically.
  • Finally, burning of field residues in agriculture releases vast amounts of soot and fine particles. If these resources were used for power generation and to offset fossil fuels, once again the build up dirty snow could be reduced (see an example from Egypt).
On the other hand, if biofuel production were to imply the burning of forests or field based residues in the open air, they may actually worsen the situation.

The study, appearing this week in the Journal of Geophysical Research, shows dirty snow has had a significant impact on climate warming since the Industrial Revolution. In the past 200 years, the Earth has warmed about 0.8 degree Celsius. Charlie Zender, associate professor of Earth system science at UCI, graduate student Mark Flanner, and their colleagues calculated that dirty snow caused the Earth’s temperature to rise 0.1 to 0.15 degree, or up to 19 percent of the total warming.

In the past two centuries, the Arctic has warmed about 1.6 degrees. Dirty snow caused 0.5 to 1.5 degrees of warming, or up to 94 percent of the observed change, the scientists determined (map, click to enlarge).

The amount of warming by dirty snow varied from year to year, with higher temperatures in years with many forest fires. Greenhouse gases, which trap outgoing energy, are primarily responsible for the remaining temperature increase and are considered the Earth’s most important overall climate changing mechanism. Other human influences on Arctic climate change are particles in the atmosphere, including soot; clouds; and land use:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Humans create the majority of airborne soot through industry and fuel combustion, while forest and open-field fires account for the rest. Because of human activity, greenhouse gas levels have increased by one-third in the last two centuries.

"A one-third change in concentration is huge, yet the Earth has only warmed about 0.8 degrees because the effect is distributed globally," Zender said. "A small amount of snow impurities in the Arctic have caused a significant temperature response there."

Previous studies have analyzed dirty snow’s effect on climate, but this is the first to take into account realistic emissions from forest fires in the Northern Hemisphere and how warming affects the thickness of the snow pack.

In some polar areas, impurities in the snow have caused enough melting to expose underlying sea ice or soil that is significantly darker than the snow. The darker surfaces absorb sunlight more rapidly than snow, causing additional warming. This cycle causes temperatures in the polar regions to rise as much as 3 degrees Celsius during some seasons, the scientists say.

"Once the snow is gone, the soot that caused the snow to melt continues to have an effect because the ground surface is darker and retains more heat," Zender said.

Dirty snow is prevalent in East Asia, Northern Europe and Northeastern United States.

Zender believes policymakers could use these research results to develop regulations to mitigate global warming. Limiting industrial soot emissions and switching to cleaner-burning fuels would leave snow brighter, he says. New snow falls each year, and if it contained fewer impurities, the ground would brighten and temperatures would cool. Carbon dioxide lives in the atmosphere for a century, so cutting back on emissions can prevent further warming but does not produce immediate cooling.

UCI scientist James Randerson and Philip Rasch, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., also worked on the study. The National Science Foundation and NASA funded this research.

Image: Map showing the annual mean temperature change due to dirty snow in degrees Celsius.

More information:
Mark G. Flanner, Charles S. Zender, James T. Randerson, Philip J. Rasch, "Present-day climate forcing and response from black carbon in snow", Journal of Geophysical Research, Vol. 112, D11202, doi:10.1029/2006JD008003, 2007

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Pesticides block nature's pathway to produce nitrogen for crops

Many farmers applying pesticides to boost crop yields may instead be contributing to growth problems, scientists report in a new study. According to years of research both in the test tube and, now, with real plants, the team found that artificial chemicals in pesticides – through application or exposure to crops through runoff – disrupt natural nitrogen-fixing communications between crops and soil bacteria. The disruption results in lower yields or significantly delayed growth.

The research is important in light of the long-term sustainability of world agriculture, which will not only feed rapidly growing populations but also produce fuels that have to replace declining oil resources. If food and fuel production can rely less on pesticides, this is obviously a major environmental benefit.

In their open access paper appearing online this week ahead of the regular publication by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the five-member team reports that agrichemicals bind to and block connections to specific receptors (NodD) inside rhizobia bacteria living in root nodules in the soil. Rotation legume crops such as alfalfa and soybeans require such interaction to naturally replace nitrogen levels that, in turn, benefit primary market crops like corn grown after legume rotations.
"Agrichemicals are blocking the host plant's phytochemical recruitment signal. In essence, the agrichemicals are cutting the lines of communication between the host plant and symbiotic bacteria. This is the mechanism by which these chemicals reduce symbiosis and nitrogen fixation." - Jennifer E. Fox, lead author, postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Oregon.
Legume plants secrete chemical signals that recruit the friendly bacteria, which work with the plants to convert atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia that, then, is used as fertilizer by the plants:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Fox began the project as a doctoral student with John A. McLachlan, director of the Center for Bioenvironmental Research at Tulane University. She is working at the University of Oregon as a National Institutes of Health and National Research Service Award postdoctoral fellow under Joe Thornton, a professor of biology who focuses on phylogenomics and nuclear receptor genes.

Fox and colleagues began detailing their findings in the journal Nature (2001) and Environmental Health Perspectives (2004), testing more than 50 chemicals, including pentachlorophenol (PCP), in in-vitro assays. The paper in PNAS reports their in-vivo findings using real plants and bacteria.

None of the chemicals used in the research, including PCP, proved to be toxic to either the plants or bacteria, Fox says, "but PCP was unique in that it inhibited both seed germination and nitrogen fixation." More than 20 commonly used agricultural chemicals shared the same mechanism of action as PCP, but with varying amounts of signal disruption.

Fox, McLachlan and colleagues, in their PNAS paper, pointed to two published studies from 2000 that had found significant declines in both crop yield per unit of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer added and also a significant decline in overall symbiotic nitrogen fixation (image, click to enlarge).

The most common explanation for the observations is an overuse of agrichemicals applied to legume crops. That practice sets up "a vicious cycle," Fox said, because it reduces a legume crop's natural need for nitrogen fixation but leaves a shortage of natural nitrogen in the soil for the next year's crop to utilize. Thus, she said, there is the need for yet more fertilizer.

Other reasons, Fox said, have been poor soil quality due to overuse, which strips nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous from the soil, and to tillage, which interrupts root structures and disturbs the nitrogen-fixing bacteria when soil is turned.

"Our research provides another explanation for declining crop yields," Fox said. "We showed that by applying pesticides that interfere with symbiotic signaling, the overall amount of symbiotic nitrogen fixation is reduced. If this natural fertilizer source is not replaced by increased application of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, then crop yields are reduced and/or more growing time is needed for these crops to reach the yields obtained by untreated crops. We feel that this is a previously unforeseen factor contributing to declining crop yields."

The researchers say that field-wide experiments now are needed, in addition to tests to determine the exact elements of pesticides that inhibit natural plant-bacteria interaction.

Image: Treatment groups pictured are (from left to right) alfalfa inoculated with S. melioti (bacteria) and treated with pentachlorophenol (pesticide), alfalfa that were not inoculated with S. melioti but were treated with pentachlorophenol, alfalfa inoculated with S. melioti and not treated with any chemicals,and alfalfa that were not inoculated with S. melioti and not treated with any chemicals. Pentachlorophenol treatment significantly reduced plant yield, both when plants were inoculated with S. melioti or left uninoculated.

More information:
Jennifer E. Fox, Jay Gulledge, Erika Engelhaupt, Matthew E. Burow, and John A. McLachlan, "Pesticides reduce symbiotic efficiency of nitrogen-fixing rhizobia and host plants", Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, June 4, 2007, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0611710104

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India's Praj Industries launches biofuel operations in Brazil

Praj Industries Ltd, one of India's leading engineering, technology and equipment providers for alcohol and fuel ethanol plants, announces it is setting up a full-fledged marketing office in Brazil next month to tap the growing global demand for fuel ethanol that is expected to cross 90 billion litres by 2010 from the current 59 billion litres. The company hopes to expand in Brazil via acquisitions. Serial biofuel entrepreneur Vinod Khosla - who is investing in Brazilian biofuels himself - is one of the backers of Praj Industries.

A joint-venture with European company Aker Kvaerner, in which Praj has a majority stake, also becomes operational next month in Brazil, with the 10 per cent blending mandate of the European Union acting as a main driver of growth, Mr Pramod Chaudhari, Chairman, Praj Industries, said (earlier post).

Among the company's other initiatives outlined at the shareholders' annual general meeting were its focus on biotechnology, efforts to improve the existing biofuel production technology and development of "sustainability metrics", a framework that will take into account "earth and people" while chalking out its own evolution and earnings:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

On the business road map for the next five years, Mr Chaudhari said, "We are working on a blue print that will be guided by our vision to be a powerhouse in industrial biotechnology and continue to work towards environmental protection."

Earlier this fiscal, Praj introduced biodiesel technology besides its existing ethanol operations and plants as a new line of business and expects to consolidate it. Mr Chaudhari said that with per capita beer consumption expected to double over the next five years, the brewery business was poised for a major upswing as well.

Praj Industries recently obtained a major contract to design and build a bioethanol complex for Biowanze SA, in Belgium. Biowanze is pouring some €200 million into the complex, one of Europe's largest, which will bring economic opportunities to 10,000 farmers. Praj's first order, which only covers the designing phase of the complex, is worth around €2 million (ealier post).

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Japanese citizens 'keen' on using ethanol to tackle climate change - poll

Japan's Yomiuri Shimbun recently carried out a survey on global warming, biofuels and the environment.

Among other findings, the poll shows that:
  • 71% of respondents cited global warming as their chief worry regarding changes to the environment
  • 72% percent of respondents said they were concerned about the deterioration of the environment due to such phenomena as heat waves, floods and cold snaps, which have become more pronounced in recent years
  • 67% of respondents said they "want" or were "quite keen" to use bioethanol as automobile fuel
The survey covered 3,000 eligible voters in interviews at 250 locations nationwide on May 19 and 20. Of them, 1,803 people, or 60.1 percent, responded.

A similar survey from 1989 showed the ratio of respondents who cited global warming as a chief worry was only 34 percent. But the figure has continued to rise in subsequent surveys, reaching 62 percent in the previous survey, taken in 2004:
:: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The latest survey shows that an increasing number of people are worried about global warming and its link to increases in carbon dioxide emissions from the consumption of oil and coal, with changes in the climate being felt in Japan in extreme summer heat and an unusually warm winter.

Respondents were allowed to give multiple answers. Besides global warming, the depletion of ozone layer by chlorofluorocarbons was cited by 47 percent of respondents. This was followed by environmental contamination by dioxins and other chemical at 43 percent, and the contamination of rivers, lakes and oceans by household wastewater, industrial waste and tankers at 41 percent.

Asked if Japan should step up diplomatic pressure on China and the United States, which are the world's largest carbon dioxide emitting nations, 92 percent of respondents said yes.

The ratio of those who cited global warming as what they are particularly concerned about was high among those in their 30s and 40s, with their ratios at 77 percent and 78 percent, respectively.

On the environmental impact of global warming, 52 percent of respondents cited worries about the deterioration in living environments by decreases in agricultural products due to more frequent regional heavy rain and droughts. Fifty-one percent said they were concerned about rising sea levels, while 41 percent were worried that the fisheries industry would be adversely affected with changes in the marine ecosystem. This was followed by 39 percent who cited concerns about changes in farming areas due to desertification.

Compared with the previous poll from October 2004, the ratio of those who cited desertification rose by nine percentage points, while those who cited rising sea levels and changes in the marine ecosystem also rose significantly, by eight percentage points each.


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PZERO launches biogas fuel cell initiative in EU

Earlier we reported on the growing interest in biogas powered solid oxide (SOFC) and molten carbonate (MCFC) fuel cells, which offer energy systems with unparalleled efficiency and ultra-low carbon emissions (here, here and here). PZERO Limited, a UK-based green service company now launches a biogas initiative that will assist companies to create low-carbon electricity at the point of use, both reducing their emissions footprint and delivering energy security, by relying on such fuel cells.

PZERO offers a free biogas cogeneration suitability evaluation to EU companies to demonstrate how waste biogas can cost effectively be converted to low-carbon electricity and heat using fuel cell CHP (combined heat and power) technology.

Biogas is a methane rich gas created from decomposing organic mater. It naturally occurs where organic waste breaks down; in sewage farms, waste disposal sites (landfill tips), in breweries and from animal waste, and is hence regarded as 100% renewable. All too often, this greenhouse gas that is 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2), escapes unchecked into the atmosphere or is flared off for safety.

The PZERO evaluation methodology is based upon recent work PZERO conducted on behalf of water utility companies that specified fuel cell solutions compatible with sewage anaerobic digesters, which output biogas. PZERO believes the compelling results should be made widely available, particularly to local authorities, waste management companies, water utilities, farm cooperatives and breweries:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

"Where there's muck there's low carbon fuel," said Richard Bennett, CEO. "Biogas is a 100% renewable fuel that can be processed by a fuel cell to create low-carbon heat and electricity - reducing emissions footprints and delivering energy security."

PZERO expects to identify biogas opportunities that are suitable for onsite cogeneration. PZERO will further offer to purchase, install and operate the biogas fuel cell plant, and enter into local agreements to supply low-carbon heat and electricity at competitive rates.

Approximately 30% of greenhouse emissions come from the farming sector and a further 30% from electricity production. It is widely argued that distributed cogeneration solutions will genuinely reduce greenhouse gas emissions and deliver localised energy security. UK Government energy white papers have repeatedly called for an increase in cogeneration plants to help combat global warming and provide security of electricity supply.

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Soros invests US$900 million in Brazilian biofuels, calls on US, EU to end tariffs

Investment tycoon George Soros said Tuesday at the first Ethanol Summit in São Paulo, that he is investing US$900 (€666) million in the production of ethanol in Brazil, and demanded that the US and EU open their markets for biofuels produced in the South American country.

Putting an end to barriers in developed nations would help eliminate a 'paradox' that leaves an excess supply of ethanol in Brazil and a "hunger for biofuels across the world," he said at the Summit, organised by UNICA (and earlier post). The seminar at which the billionaire participated was aimed at studying the global market for alternative fuels. The United States produces ethanol from corn, while Brazil makes its variant from sugar cane which is many times more efficient.

Regardless of the potential market risks, Soros said ethanol is "competitive with gasoline" as it's much more environment-friendly, and that he plans to continue investing in its production. Brazil "has the capacity to increase its ethanol production ten-fold", but there are problems to overcome, Soros said. The Brazilian market for ethanol is almost saturated, so exports are essential for industry growth. But trade barriers from other countries dampen exports, the investor said.

The Hungarian-born investor is putting around US$900 million in a 150,000 hectare (370,500 acres) ethanol production project in Mato Grosso do Sul, which will be one of the largest mill complexes in Brazil. Soros' Adeco Agropecuaria Brasil will build three ethanol refineries in a first stage.

Soros accused Washington of protecting US corn producers with its tariffs on ethanol, regardless of efficiency in terms of energy. He noted that the energy balance of corn ethanol very weak, whereas that of sugar cane is eight to ten times better. Consequently, the greenhouse gas balance of the Brazilian variant is much stronger too (earlier post):
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The United States and the European Union levy high tariffs on Brazil's ethanol, which makes it expensive. The question is "how to open up the market in the USA, Europe and Japan," and how "to create an environment with stable prices," Soros said. He believes that politicians in the US and Europe will eventually reduce or eliminate the tariffs that make Brazilian ethanol exports expensive as the world turns increasingly to biofuels over fossil fuels. He said he hopes the issue of tariffs is solved, "to make investment in ethanol really viable."

The United States, Brazil's largest foreign buyer of its ethanol, imposes a 54 cent per gallon tariff on direct Brazilian ethanol imports, roughly equivalent to the production costs of the Brazilian biofuel. The European Union levies a tariff of around 19 eurocents

When U.S. President George W. Bush visited Brazil in March, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva appealed to him to reduce the tariff. Bush replied that it was a matter for Congress to decide.

Nonetheless, well over half of the 1.8 billion liters of ethanol shipped to the U.S. market from Brazil entered directly in 2006 because of the fuel's relatively low price in Brazil.

"Civilization's dependence on petroleum gives rise to problems. We are discovering less oil than we are using and there is a real tightness in the market, which requires finding alternatives," Soros said.

Former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who headed the panel on global warming in which Soros spoke, said Brazil has begun to revise its position on global warming.

"We are all today responsible. In the past, Brazil's position was that the developed world was to blame for warming -- why should we pay?" said Cardoso. "And it was a common attitude of the past to see pollution as a sign of development."

"We are in the process of reconstituting the basis of civilization, which until now has worked under the premise that existing energy sources were permanent," he said.

More information:
BBJ Hungary: George Soros to invest $900 million in Brazilian ethanol - extended - June 6, 2007.

Reuters: Soros says he is a speculator in Brazilian ethanol - June 5, 2007.

Bloomberg: Ethanol Tariffs Create Brazil Oversupply, Soros Says (Update2) - June 5, 2007.


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OPEC feels threatened by biofuels

A few years ago, energy experts and OPEC members alike would have laughed away the prospect for biofuels to replace oil. Today, they are becoming increasingly worried about their position as investments in the renewable and clean fuels continue on an unprecedented, global scale. In two different interviews ahead of the G8 summit, OPEC secretary-general Abdalla El-Badri contradicts himself: in the first, he says biofuels threaten oil investments and may cause petroleum prices to go "through the roof", whereas in the other, he says the cartel does not feel threatened by climate change measures aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions, of which biofuels are an important part.

Biofuels becoming a 'threat'
Ahead of the G8 Summit in Heiligendamm, Germany, where industrialised nations gather to discuss environmental issues including biofuels which are central to the attempts of many G8 countries to cut their carbon emissions, the chief of the OPEC oil cartel warns that these global investments could push oil prices "through the roof". OPEC secretary-general Abdalla El-Badri said moves to use biofuels would make his members consider cutting investment in new oil production.

Both he EU and the US, as well as several rapidly growing developing countries have set ambitious targets for the bio-based fuels. The US will cut petrol use by 20% in 10 years, partly through increased use of renewable green fuels, whereas the EU has set a target of 10% biofuels by 2020.

OPEC members control about 40% of the world's oil production. Mr El-Badri said that while OPEC members had so far maintained their investment plans, he added: "If we are unable to see a security of demand... we may revisit investment in the long term."

Opec has previously expressed scepticism about alternative energy but Mr El-Badri’s comments mark the first clear threat that the cartel might act to safeguard its interests in the face of a shift towards biofuels:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

"They are really concerned" says Julian Lee of the Centre for Global Energy Studies in London. "Opec will continue investing, but with biofuels on the horizon, they may not invest enough."

"It is a difficult situation for Opec. On one hand they are asked to produce more, on the other one, Washington and Brussels are telling the cartel 'we are betting on biofuels and we don’t want to rely on you [Opec]'."

Climate change no worry
However, in another interview, the same secretary-general says climate change measures will not hurt big oil exporting countries, which instead will cash in on rising energy demand. al-Badri spoke ahead of the G8 summit, where climate change too is high on the agenda.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has pressed the G8 nations to back a halving of greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century and has succeeded in securing a first-ever U.S. commitment to discuss a global, emissions-cutting goal.

The prospect of such policies left OPEC unworried about the impact on demand for its oil.

"We're not feeling threatened at all. We don't see it as a threat to consumption," Badri said on Tuesday at the Reuters Global Energy Summit.

"The demand for oil will rise steadily," he added. "There's no magic alternative to oil. Fossil fuels will be the dominant energy for the forseeable future, for more than decades."

Burning fossil fuels like coal and oil to produce energy is the biggest source of man-made carbon dioxide, which is the main cause of global warming, scientists say.

"The situation is very serious," Badri said, regarding the global warming threat. "The environment is a concern, we're living on the same planet."

'Clean oil'
He advocated burying carbon dioxide emissions from burning oil and gas, using a so far unproven technology that is being tested on so-called "clean coal" power plants.

The onus was on developed countries, which had historically contributed most to global warming, to develop the technology, he added.

"Our member countries didn't contribute to this. Why not have improved technology? We should look at clean oil, if we're looking at clean coal." The world's energy needs will rise 50 percent between now and 2030, and the world will invest US$8 trillion in oil and gas production to keep up, he estimated. The demand for oil would rise annually by 1.3 million to 1.5 million barrels per day, to 118 million barrels per day by 2030, he added.


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Tuesday, June 05, 2007

British project: bioenergy to boost food, income and energy security amongst poor in arid India

Engineers from Aston University in Birmingham are part of a British consortium to investigate enhanced biomass production and energy conversion for use in water-scarce areas of India. The project will demonstrate the strong synergies between food and biofuel production.

The £859,193 (€1.3/US$1.7 million) project is funded by the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and could improve the living conditions of many Indian people as well as having long-term benefits to academic research.

Dr Philip Davies and Dr Jason Hill from Aston will begin work on the project in June and it will last for 36 months. They will join colleagues from the universities of Warwick, Leeds, Bristol and Coventry with assistance from WRc (previously called the Water Research Centre) and in close collaboration with the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi.

The project demonstrates many of the points made by the Biopact, namely that biofuel production can boost the food and income security of the world's poor, reduce internal migration and poverty, and restore and protect the environment.

The specific objectives of the project are:

  1. To implement plantations for energy and other useful produce in village communities where the groundwater is brackish, with the assistance of combined solar stills and rainwater harvesters.
  2. To investigate the feasibility and optimum method of combining secondary or tertiary sewage treatment with energy crop plantations (ie. 'fertigation').
  3. To develop tri-generation systems in which small-scale biomass-powered electricity generators are integrated with ice-making machines and low-temperature thermal applications such as crop drying and water purification.
  4. To produce quantitative models of the energy systems, thus enabling prediction of their probable performance according to location and scale. This will include the use of soft-systems modelling i.e. taking into account the inherent uncertainties generated by the interaction of people, agriculture and climate.
  5. To determine the factors affecting the success of such technological interventions, from a socio-economic viewpoint.
Bioenergy boost to food security
The overall aim of the consortium is to provide improved means of cultivating biomass resources in water-scarce areas of Northern India and of locally converting them into useful energy services such as cooling for food preservation and ice production, electricity and applications using low-temperature heat such as food processing. There will be a high emphasis on the teaching of practical skills to local people.
"The provision of modern energy services is an essential part of alleviating poverty in India and the developing world. Traditionally, biomass from trees and shrubs has been and remains the principal source of energy for many people and it is likely to be a major energy resource of the future. However, the distributed and low-grade nature of the biomass fuel makes it essential to introduce more effective means of production and use." - Dr Philip Davies, Principal Investigator, Aston University.
Biomass production requires water and land which are also needed for other purposes. The project's approach therefore is to introduce technologies having multiple benefits. The engineers will set up a plantation in the village of Manpura (which is an isolated community in Rajasthan) to grow crops which can yield not only energy but also food, fodder, soap and botanical pesticides:
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In Faridabad (which is a small town in Haryana state) they will grow energy crops and at the same time treat sewage. A small scale tri-generation system, fuelled by biomass, will be developed to provide electricity, ice for food preservation, heat for drying crops and/or pure water for drinking.

Strengthening local livelihoods
The lack of basic services requiring energy and water contributes to the pressures on rural people in India to abandon their way of life and join the drift towards the country’s growing cities.

"Often they end up living in slum conditions on the edge of escalating property markets, leaving behind them a kind of rural wasteland", continued Dr Davies. "We would like to counter this trend by setting up models of livelihood and local enterprise based on sustainable land use coupled with technology for the local provision of energy and related services."

A key element of the work will be the identification of socio-economic success factors in the project through interviews, focus groups and observations in India, facilitated by the partners at IIT-Delhi.

‘This socio-economic study will measure the project’s success in the areas where it has been implemented. We will also carry out modelling, taking into account both the physical systems (for example engines or refrigerators) and the human participants. This modelling will enable us to investigate a variety of future scenarios in which the technologies could be introduced."

Professor Julia King, Vice-Chancellor of Aston University, said: "Aston’s involvement in this project is another excellent example of how our researchers’ engineering knowledge base is being translated into practical solutions for improving people’s lives. I am delighted that the University is involved and look forward to receiving news of the project’s progress."

ICRISAT's pro-poor biofuels

The British project resembles that of the pro-poor biofuels initiative by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), which is also linking up poor and marginal farmers of the drylands of the developing countries with the global biofuel revolution while strengthening their food and income security.

The Andhra-Pradesh based scientific institute, which is a partner of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) that helped achieve the 'Green Revolution', is working with governments and industry leaders to develop partnerships that can result in economic benefits for the poor and marginal farmers of the semi-arid tropics, even while retaining the strong economic competitiveness for the industry. The idea is to develop partnerships that link ICRISAT's innovative research directly with farmers and markets.

Under the pro-poor biofuels initiative, ethanol will be made from a high-yield sweet sorghum variety developed by the ICRISAT and that smallholders in drylands can cultivate with ease. The crop yields food, fodder and fuel. Likewise, cooperatives run by women make biodiesel from crops such as jatropha and pongamia and use the fuel to power diesel generators for rural electrification, tractors and farming equipment, with positive effects on farm productivity.

More information:
Aston University: Aston’s expertise helps develop energy solutions for India - June 5, 2007.


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Simulation shows geoengineering is very risky

In the IPCC's latest report on ways to mitigate climate change, a compromise was reached that said: "Geo-engineering options, such as ocean fertilization to remove CO2 directly from the atmosphere, or blocking sunlight by bringing material into the upper atmosphere, remain largely speculative and unproven, and with the risk of unknown side-effects. Reliable cost estimates for these options have not been published".

A new computer modeling study now confirms these risks: radical steps to engineer Earth's climate by blocking sunlight could drastically cool the planet, but could just as easily worsen the situation if these projects fail or are suddenly halted. The researchers produced the study in the context of "dangerous climate change" that would require urgent and planet-wide interventions.

The experiments, described in an open access article in the June 4 early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, look at what might happen if we attempt to slow climate change by geoengineering a solar filter instead of reducing carbon dioxide emissions. The researchers used a computer model to simulate a decrease in solar radiation across the entire planet, but assumed that that the current trend of increasing global carbon dioxide emissions would continue for the rest of this century.
"Given current political and economic trends, it is easy to become pessimistic about the prospect that needed cuts in carbon dioxide emissions will come soon enough or be deep enough to avoid irreversibly damaging our climate. If we want to consider more dramatic options, such as deliberately altering the Earth's climate, it's important to understand how these strategies might play out." - co-author, Ken Caldeira, Department of Global Ecology, Carnegie Institution
Although the term 'geoengineering' describes any measure intended to modify the Earth at the planetary scale, the current study focuses on changes that reduce the amount of solar radiation that reaches the planet's surface. Several methods to accomplish this have been suggested, from filling the upper atmosphere with light-reflecting sulfate particles to installing mirrors in orbit around the planet (earlier post).

According to other researchers, if abrupt climate change were to occur, a lower risk geoengineering option exists that does not rely on blocking sunlight. Reducing carbon dioxide emissions on a planetary scale may be successful by investing in biomass and sequestration of carbon in soils or special geological formations. This type of low-risk geoengineering can be implemented via carbon-negative bioenergy systems (earlier post, and here, here and on capturing carbon via real trees versus synthetic trees, here).

So what did the simulation model for sun-blocking geoengineering options reveal? It showed that even after greenhouse gases warm the planet, geoengineering schemes could indeed cool off the Earth within a few decades to temperatures not seen since the dawn of the industrial revolution. This is good news, according to Caldeira and lead author Damon Matthews of Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, because it suggests there is no need to rush into building a geoengineering system before it is absolutely necessary.

However, the study also offers some bad news. If any hypothetical geoengineering program were to fail or be cancelled for any reason, a catastrophic, decade-long spike in global temperatures could result, along with rates of warming 20 times greater than we are experiencing today:
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"If we become addicted to a planetary sunshade, we could experience a painful withdrawal if our fix was suddenly cut off," Caldeira explained. "This needs to be taken into consideration if we ever think seriously about implementing a geoengineering strategy."

Caldeira and Matthews believe that lower temperatures in a geoengineered world would result in more efficient storage of carbon in plants and soils. However, if the geoengineering system failed and temperatures suddenly increased, much of that stored carbon would be released back into the atmosphere. This, in turn, could lead to accelerated greenhouse warming.

Reduced solar radiation not only affects temperatures in the simulations, but also global rainfall patterns. In a model run with no simulated geoengineering, warmer temperatures resulted in more rainfall over the oceans, while increased carbon dioxide levels caused a decrease in evaporation from plants' leaves, and consequently a decrease in rainfall over tropical forests. In contrast, the geoengineering scenario - which had lower temperatures but the same high levels of carbon dioxide - resulted only in a decrease in tropical forest rainfall.

"Many people argue that we need to prevent climate change. Others argue that we need to keep emitting greenhouse gases," Caldeira said. "Geoengineering schemes have been proposed as a cheap fix that could let us have our cake and eat it, too. But geoengineering schemes are not well understood. Our study shows that planet-sized geoengineering means planet-sized risks."

Caldeira feels it is important to develop a scientific understanding of proposed geoengineering schemes: "I hope I never need a parachute, but if my plane is going down in flames, I sure hope I have a parachute handy," Caldeira said. "I hope we'll never need geoengineering schemes, but if a climate catastrophe occurs, I sure hope we will have thought through our options carefully."

More information:
H. Damon Matthews and Ken Caldeira, "Transient climate-carbon simulations of planetary geoengineering", Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 10.1073/pnas.0700419104, Published online before print June 4, 2007

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Researcher uses new screening method to find better biofuel crops

Skyrocketing gasoline prices and growing concern over global warming has spawned massive growth of the biofuel industry, particularly ethanol production. While corn has been the major raw material for producing ethanol in the U.S., producers are looking for other more cost effective and sustainable crops. Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory are looking at a novel way to help them determine what type of plant material offers the best solution.

Analytical chemist Emily Smith plans to use Raman imaging to study plant cell structure to determine which crops offer the right combination of cell wall composition and degradation to maximize the materials’ conversion to ethanol. If successful, a simplified version of the test could even be used in the field to determine if plants were at the prime stage for harvest.
“Just like vintners monitor and test the sugar content of their grapes in the field, biofuel producers could potentially use this technology to determine if their crop was at optimal development for conversion to ethanol.” - Emily Smith, Ames Laboratory researcher and Iowa State University assistant professor of chemistry
The Raman technique
The technique Smith uses employs an optical microscope, and specimens are illuminated with a laser beam. As the laser light hits the sample, some of the light is scattered. By analyzing the scattered light with a spectrometer (spectroscope), Smith can easily and quickly determine the chemical makeup of the plant material. A fiber optic bundle placed between the microscope and the spectrometer allows a direct measure of the chemical makeup at any location on the sample being viewed on the microscope. The imaging process is called the Raman technique (more info here).

The method has several advantages over other analytical techniques, Smith explains. First, analysis requires very little material so one can take small samples from a growing plant over time without damaging the plant. This also makes the technique high-throughput. Because only very small pieces of plant material are needed and little time is required to prepare samples, multiple samples can be analyzed quickly.

Ligno-cellulose content
Smith specifically plans to screen the lignin, hemicellulose and cellulose content of biofuel plant stocks, such as switchgrass, Miscanthus (a subtropical perennial grass that can grow 13 feet high), corn as well as poplar and willow trees. Lignin interferes with enzymatic conversion of polysaccharides to ethanol, so the researcher will use the imaging to help select plant stocks that have low lignin content:
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“We hope to find out if lignin content changes over time, with different growing conditions, or with different stock material,” Smith said, “so we can determine if there is an optimal time to harvest a particular crop.” Plant material for the project will be provided by collaborator Ken Moore, Iowa State University agronomy professor and expert in biomass crop systems.

While the scope of this project will be used to study biofuel crops, Smith said the technology could also be used to study other plant materials, such as those used for pharmaceuticals. Smith has been using the Raman imaging technology to study animal and insect proteins and said it wasn’t a “big leap” to study plant material.

“There is obviously a lot of interest in biofuels right now,” she said. “Given the number of good researchers on campus working in this area, it was an easy decision to get involved in this project.”

Smith’s work is being jointly funded through a two-year grant from ISU’s Plant Science Institute and by the DOE’s Office of Basic Energy Sciences. George Kraus, Ames Laboratory’s Director of Bio-related Initiatives, called the collaboration a great first step. “This is a wonderful opportunity to bring the technological expertise of Ames Lab researchers to bear in solving a problem that’s a roadblock to moving biofuels to the next level,” Kraus said. “We hope to be a partner in similar projects in the future so that other researchers can take advantage of the capabilities that exist within Ames Laboratory.”

Image: Laser raman spectroscopy enables scientists to study at the molecular level the chemical and physical composition of plant cells. The technology uses laser techniques and rapid data acquisition and analysis.

More information:
Ames Laboratory: New Screening method to help find better biofuel crops. Ames Laboratory researcher using Raman imaging to probe plant cell structure - June 5, 2007.


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Scania tests show bio-based synthetic diesel sharply cuts Emissions

Scania, one of the world's leading manufacturers of trucks and buses for heavy transport applications, and of industrial and marine engines, announces it is joining forces with Neste Oil in Finland to try out a new low-emission biobased diesel fuel. Produced in Neste's NExBTL (Next Generation Biomass-to-Liquids) plant in southern Finland, the new fuel is tailored to diesel combustion. First findings show efficiency remains high, while NOx emissions are down almost 20% and particulates close to 30% compared to standard diesel. In addition, the fuel reduces fossil CO2 emissions by up to 80%. The news is important for Biopact, because Neste Oil's next-generation biodiesel may be produced from tropical vegetable oils in the near future.

Six Scania city buses form part of the trial. Four of them will run on 100% NExBTL and two on normal diesel. The project also involves tests with various mixes on some 100 vehicles operated by Posten Logistik, the logistics division of Swedish Post, and 2 or 3 ships in the Stockholm archipelago operated by Waxholmsbolaget.
"Scania's laboratory tests corroborate that bio-based synthetic diesel has great potential. Simply switching to such fuel from standard diesel can significantly improve emissions. The possibility of mixing it freely with standard diesel makes the fuel interesting for old vehicles and engines as well." - Hasse Johansson, Group Vice President R&D at Scania
Scania has carried out laboratory tests to examine the environmental effects of other diesel fuels. The tests prove that the composition of a fuel has a direct bearing on its environmental performance and that there is scope to optimise engines for different fuels. Comparisons are made with reference used for certification according to the Euro 4 exhaust emission standard:
  • Swedish low-emission diesel introduced on the market in the early 1990s, in itself cuts NOx by 8% and particulates by 24%.
  • Synthetic diesel fuel gives considerably lower emissions of nitrogen oxides (down 18%) and particulates (down 28%). Synthetic diesel can be produced from natural gas (GTL, gas-to-liquid) or biomass (BTL, biomass-to-liquid).
  • With fossil carbon dioxide cut by up to 80%, biomass-to-liquid fuels have the best environmental properties of all synthetic diesel fuels.
The new fuel from Neste, NExBTL, produced at the recently inaugurated facility, will now be subjected to environmental and operational trials, starting in autumn 2007 and lasting until the end of 2010. The tests involve monitoring of exhaust emissions and engine condition with different mixes of the fuel into standard diesel in distribution vehicles and shuttle vessels in the Stockholm region, as well as city buses in Helsinki:
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Bioethanol
Another attractive renewable heavy vehicle fuel on the market today is bioethanol. Emissions of fossil CO2 are reduced by up to 90%, it is readily available, production is booming, the technology is firmly established and it gives very low emissions. Scania’s third generation ethanol engines achieve the same efficiency as a conventional diesel engine, while meeting emission levels according to Euro 5, which will be introduced in 2009, as well as the tougher EEV standard, which has been adopted for city traffic in some large European urban areas.

Bioethanol has been used as fuel for adapted diesel engine in Scania city buses sine the late 1980s with excellent environmental results, according to Stockholm Public Transport (SL). Fossil carbon dioxide emissions are reduced by up to 90% for ethanol produced from sugar cane in Brazil.

“There is no reason to wait ‘a few more years’ for better alternatives. With the renewable fuels and the technologies available today we are off to a head start, making a significant contribution in reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Once new solutions, e.g. hybrid technology and potential new fuels, have proven their worth, they can also contribute by further speeding up the process,” concludes Mr Johansson.

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Bioenergy best opportunity to help poor since Green Revolution - FAO, Brazil VP

The massive misinformed campaign against biofuels is reaching questionable levels, an expert from the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says. The complexity of the global food and energy markets does not allow for the simplistic assessments that are currently being expressed by uninformed people. To understand the basics of bioenergy, a holistic vision is needed, and such a view shows an entirely different picture than that sketched by some environmentalists and single-minded media. The serious critics must therefor begin to ask themselves whether their misinformed allies who do not rely on science or research, aren't damaging their case. By exaggerating some of their valid criticisms, they may be making themselves irrelevant as stakeholders in the debate.

The food versus fuel debate is in fact very old, and has been studied by many scientists and development economists. As the biofuels industry grows, they do not fundamentally change their position: biofuels offer a unique chance for poverty alleviation on a global scale, and to help mitigate climate change. But this is only so provided some criteria are met: the biofuels must be produced in a sustainable way and social equity must be introduced in all stages of the production process. This can be done, but it requires good policies and fundamental global trade reform.

The science is clear: the planet today produces enough food to feed 9 billion people. Lack of access to food and food insecurity amongst the poor is a purely political, social, economic and infrastructural problem, not at all an environmental one. Moreover, scientific projections show that - after the food, feed and fiber requirements for the growing world population is met - the planet has a further carrying capacity to produce around 1400 exajoules of modern, sustainably produced bioenergy by 2050. Given these facts and projections, two bioenergy experts once again stress that the green fuels can help the poor and mitigate dangerous climate change.

Biofuels best opportunity to boost food security
Gustavo Best, chief energy policy analyst at the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) - the most authoritative organisation studying global food production and policy - says that rather than being a threat to the poor, bioenergy could boost food production as well as wealth.

Speaking to Reuters, Best said: "It's probably the best opportunity there has been since the 'Green Revolution' to bring really a new wind of development in rural areas". The 'Green Revolution' refers to the huge increase in food production in the developing world, aided in part by new plant technologies that came into vogue in the 1960s.

"If well managed, bioenergy production can bring new areas of development ... new investment, new jobs and new infrastructure that can also benefit the food industry," Best said:
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Likewise, Brazilian vice president Jose Alencar says the growing global output of biofuels can help, rather than hurt, the 1 billion people who live in poverty around the world. However, for this biofuels revolution to succeed in bringing more food to the poor, rich countries must agree to open up their agricultural markets to less developed countries.

The problem of world poverty is "the lack of income that keeps a billion men and women from eating adequately - not sugar-cane plantations". Alencar added that Brazil was already set to offer its advanced sugar and ethanol technology to regions including sub-Saharan Africa, in order to help generate jobs and incomes locally via biofuels cultivation. Mozambique, for example, is already launching a biofuel program with Brazilian help, he adds.

Carbon neutral
Biofuels have come into vogue this decade largely because of increasing evidence that carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal are causing global warming. Because plants like sugar cane, palm fruit, maize and rapeseed all absorb CO2 as they grow, their impact on the climate is considered far lower than that of traditional fuels. Experts say if crude oil is trading at above US$40 a barrel, biofuel can be a viable alternative. The last time crude was below US$40 was January 2005.

Demand for biofuels could mean big opportunities for many tropical areas, including large parts of Africa, to grow crops like sugar cane and sorghum to make ethanol, Best said.

Alencar repeated energy crops like sugarcane grown in brazil do "not threaten the environment," as he quoted an essay by President Lula, "neither does sugar cane harm rainforests, for it grows poorly in Amazonian soils."

"One figure one has to remember is that biofuels will never substitute 100 percent for gasoline or diesel," Best said. "It's not the magical solution to substitute oil, no way."

Misinformation
Best said there was no evidence yet that biofuel production had reduced food availability in poor countries, but admitted it was a potential risk. "We have to be careful that that doesn't happen, (farmers) growing diesel for the rich and stopping producing food for their own families," he said, but insisted the risks had been overplayed in the media.

"There's a lot of misinformation on this topic still. It's happening so fast, one has to be very careful. Sometimes the assessment of bio-energy is seen from one perspective only - only the environment, only the prices. One has to really see it in a holistic manner before one can say it is right or wrong."

New Green Revolution requires market access
Besides being a weapon in the fight against climate change, Brazil's biodiesel program is geared to helping small regional farmers in the country's poor north and northeast region, and therefore could help in the redistribution of social weath, said Alencar. Biofuels can be both environmentally and economically sustainable as long as local programs allow for more social inclusion, he added.

"By making access to energy more democratic, biofuels offer hope to poor countries seeking to ally economic growth with social inclusion and environmental protection," he said, quoting Lula.

However, "this revolution will only occur if rich countries agree to open up their agricultural markets to enterprising farmers in developing countries."

More information:

AltertNet (Reuters): Biofuel can help poor as well as climate - FAO - June 5, 2007.

CattleNetwork: Biofuels Can Help, Not Hurt, World's Poor - Brazil VP - June 5, 2007.


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The bioeconomy at work: DuPont launches new biopolymer

DuPont announced it has developed a next biopolymer family made from 100% renewable, biomass resources. Cerenol as the biopolymer is called, is made with maize instead of petroleum. According to DuPont, Cerenol enhances the performance of a diverse portfolio of end-use products that range from running shoes and ski boots to cosmetics, automotive components and spandex fiber applications.

DuPont Cerenol is a family of renewably sourced, high-performance polyols (polyetherdiols). Cerenol can replace petroleum-based ingredients or finished products without compromising functionality. It offers value-added properties and can increase process efficiencies for a broad range of products in diverse markets including personal care, functional fluids and high-performance elastomers. Unlike petroleum-based or other plant-based alternatives, DuPont Cerenol is easily tailored to meet specific needs and performs better in many end uses while providing environmental benefits.

DuPont Cerenol is named from Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture. The liquid polyol is made using Bio-PDO, an bio-based alternative to petroleum-based 1,3-propanediol (PDO) from the DuPont Tate & Lyle Bio Products joint venture in Loudon, Tennessee. Cerenol is the result of polymerizing Bio-PDO with itself. Compared to existing alternatives such as polytetramethylene ether glycol (PTMEG), DuPont Cerenol has a significantly lower environmental footprint [*.pdf] as determined by an ISO 14000-compliant Life Cycle Analysis, because from cradle to gate it has a 40 percent savings in non-renewable energy and 42 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Cerenol is being produced at DuPont operations in the United States and Canada:
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Applications
Cerenol has a diverse portfolio of uses and benefits. For example, in personal care applications such as lotions, certain Cerenol grades provide a soft after-feel and reduce the need for certain additives. In some functional fluids such as heat transfer fluids, Cerenol offers a biodegradable fluid with excellent thermal conductivity. Cerenol is an ideal soft segment for several thermoplastic elastomers and thus enhances the performance of these elastomers. As an example, in spandex fibers it can replace the petrochemical soft segment of the polymer to provide better stretch recovery and an increase in the spinning speed of the fiber.

Cerenol will be the building block for two other renewably sourced products from DuPont. First, for new automotive primers and clearcoats from DuPont Performance Coatings that will be available in the first quarter of 2008, Cerenol provides increased chip resistance and flexibility. Second, grades of DuPont Hytrel thermoplastic elastomers made with Cerenol will be available in late 2007 and will offer performance comparable to conventional grades.

More information:
Cerenol at DuPont's Renewably Sourced Materials website.

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Monday, June 04, 2007

Bio-Extraction and BioNex Energy team up to improve efficiency of vegetable oil extraction

Bio-Extraction Inc. (BioExx) announces it has signed a joint development agreement with BioNex Energy Corp (BEC). Under the terms of the agreement, BioExx and BEC will work together on a development study to test and prove the commercial efficacy of the BioExx vegetable oil extraction technology for use in tandem with a planned BEC biodiesel production facility to be located in western Canada. BEC is a developmental stage company which intends to use cold crushing technology in its plant as a first-stage process for removal of oil from canola (rapeseed) and other high oil-content crops, and BioExx would provide the second-stage process.

Improving the efficiency of oil extraction is an important step in boosting the life-cycle efficiency and energy balance of vegetable oil based biofuels. The first stage of oil removal will utilize the BEC process which removes approximately 80% of the oil from the biomass while maintaining a consistently low temperature. In the second and final stage of oil removal, the patented BioExx process will be employed to remove up to 100% of the remaining oil while at the same time substantially maintaining the protein value originally contained in the biomass. On a combined basis, this process could improve yields of oil volume versus existing oil-removal technologies while at the same time dramatically increasing the residual value of the biomass. In some cases, BioExx may also be able to isolate the proteins for use as protein additives in animal or fish feed and eventually for human consumption.

Testing of the process is expected to occur during the next 4 to 6 months between the BEC test facility in Alberta and at the BioExx Intermediate Sized Plant facility in Charlottetown, PEI. The intention of the test program is to prove that the two-stage oil removal process is successful in:
  • removing a much higher percentage of the available oil
  • removing the oil using low temperature extraction such that the incumbent proteins and other nutritive content of the biomass is retained
Typically, oil is separated from biomass or crops using an extraction method that involves heat, pressure and organic solvents. Two traditional oil extraction methods exist:
Hexane and other organic solvents: the most widely used technology involves the use of a highly flammable, organic solvent called hexane (a mineral oil hydrocarbon component of gasoline) as the medium for extraction. The residual hexane is recovered (usually not completely) from the extracted/spent biomasses by heating the biomasses to high temperature and or using steam. This degrades the quality and value of the compounds and products that remain in the solvent extracted biomasses. Because of environmental and safety issues, it is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain operating permits for new traditional solvent facilities and or to continue operating such extraction facilities in both North America and Europe.

Supercritical fluid extraction: the other major extraction technology used for certain extractions is Supercritical Fluid Extraction (SFE). While environmentally friendly, SFE operates at extremely high pressures, making it expensive in terms of operating and capital cost. In most cases it is not nearly as effective or efficient as BioExx in extracting oils from plant matter or industrial materials. In addition the SFE requires higher operating temperatures which may degrade and reduce the value and yield of the other products that may be extracted from the spent biomasses.
These processes tends to enjoy yields of 95% or more of the oil contained in the oilseeds and are quite efficient at very large scale. Once the oil is removed, the remaining material, ("spent biomass", "oil cake") is heated to high temperatures to recover the organic solvent. This high temperature process significantly degrades the proteins and reduces the nutritive value of the meal. The meal is then sold at moderate prices for use as animal feed. Unfortunately, when crop prices rise at a faster rate than the underlying fuel price, profit margins from these conventional facilities can be significantly eroded. The BioExx technology (comparison, table 1, click to enlarge) represents an improvement over conventional technology because it has the capability to remove up to 100% of the oil but at a significantly reduced operating temperature while retaining all of the nutritive content of the spent biomass:
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The spent biomass resulting from this process can have substantially higher value because they can be sold as higher quality animal feeds or other higher value protein applications and products. The BioExx technology may therefore have the potential to fundamentally improve the economics of bio-diesel manufacturing operations, while at the same time mitigating the increasingly prominent "food versus fuel" conflict over global crop usage.

"We are very pleased to be working with BEC as an early-stage entry partner for our bio-diesel sector applications. In a relatively young industry, they have a strong team of veterans, and we look forward to their guidance and experience for the testing of the BioExx technology for use in Bio-Diesel applications," said BioExx CEO, Chris Carl. "We are optimistic that this development project will provide all of the data needed to prove, at a small commercial scale, that our patented technology is commercially superior to any other known oil extraction process, and that in turn, BioExx has the potential to meaningfully alter the economics of the production of biodiesel on a global basis."

BEC is a privately owned developer and operator of integrated oil seed crushing and biodiesel production facilities. The first project in Alberta will have an annual production capacity of 20 million litres of biodiesel, 30,000 tonnes of canola meal and 2,000 tonnes of glycerine. BEC believes the appropriate market entry strategy is to build a modular plant that can expand quickly to meet market demands and then to develop a number of distributed plants across Alberta that work closely with local grower groups. The biodiesel produced will then be shipped to terminal facilities for blending into petrodiesel. BEC was formed by ex-employees of the Advanced Biodiesel Group NA Ltd, is based in Calgary and has a senior management team experienced in biodiesel production, project development, commodity trading and business management.

"Our team has great depth of experience and we understand the commercial challenges that must be met to build a sustainable biodiesel business. Technology selection is a critical part of this challenge and, having searched the globe for the best technology available for efficient and effective oil extraction for biodiesel manufacturing, we have found nothing that compares to the what appears possible with the BioExx technology," said John Simpson, President of BEC.

"The prospect of extracting the maximum available oil and retaining all of the original nutritive value, in an environmentally responsible manner, is absolutely unique. To be successful in the production of bio-diesel, a product subject to increasing worldwide demand, we must find technologies that can substantially lower the overall production costs compared to current methods. At BEC, our goal is to develop projects that use best available technologies and to combine this with superior resource management to allow for lowest cost, highest value production of bio-diesel and related products. As our tests prove conclusive, we look forward to working with BioExx in an increasing array of exciting development projects", he added.

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Progress on small thermoacoustic devices that convert heat to power

University of Utah physicists are developing small devices that turn heat into sound and then into electricity. The technology holds promise for changing waste heat into electricity, harnessing solar energy without solar cells and generating power and cooling in a decentralised, off-grid way. The technologies will also be interesting in the context of bioenergy powered devices such as the three-in-one 'heating-cooling-electricity' generator under development for poor populations that rely on biomass. That small device is based on the same principle of thermoacoustic energy (earlier post). The tiny machines are like generators without moving parts. All they need to work is a heat source. This opens the prospect of micro-generators powered by biofuels, which could offer part of a solution to the problem of access to electricity in the rural regions of the developing world.

"We are converting waste heat to electricity in an efficient, simple way by using sound," says Orest Symko, a University of Utah physics professor who leads the effort. "It is a new source of renewable energy from waste heat." Five of Symko's doctoral students recently devised methods to improve the efficiency of acoustic heat-engine devices to turn heat into electricity. They will present their findings on Friday, June 8 during the annual meeting of the Acoustical Society of America.

Symko plans to test the devices within a year to produce electricity from waste heat at a military radar facility and at the university's hot-water-generating plant. The research is funded by the U.S. Army, which is interested in "taking care of waste heat from radar, and also producing a portable source of electrical energy which you can use in the battlefield to run electronics" he says.

Symko expects the devices could be used within two years as an alternative to photovoltaic cells for converting sunlight into electricity. The heat engines also could be used to cool laptop and other computers that generate more heat as their electronics grow more complex. And Symko foresees using the devices to generate electricity from heat that now is released from nuclear power plant cooling towers.

Thermoacoustic basics

Symko's work on converting heat into electricity via sound stems from his ongoing research to develop tiny thermoacoustic refrigerators for cooling electronics. In 2005, he began a five-year heat-sound-electricity conversion research project named Thermal Acoustic Piezo Energy Conversion (TAPEC). Symko works with collaborators at Washington State University and the University of Mississippi.

The project has received US$2 million in funding during the past two years, and Symko hopes it will grow as small heat-sound-electricity devices shrink further so they can be incorporated in micromachines (known as microelectromechanical systems, or MEMS) for use in cooling computers and other electronic devices such as amplifiers.

Using sound to convert heat into electricity has two key steps. Symko and colleagues developed various new heat engines (technically called "thermoacoustic prime movers") to accomplish the first step: convert heat into sound:
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Then they convert the sound into electricity using existing technology: socalled "piezoelectric" devices that are squeezed in response to pressure, including sound waves, and change that pressure into electrical current. "Piezo" means pressure or squeezing.

Most of the heat-to-electricity acoustic devices built in Symko's laboratory are housed in cylinder-shaped "resonators" that fit in the palm of your hand. Each cylinder, or resonator, contains a "stack" of material with a large surface area - such as metal or plastic plates, or fibers made of glass, cotton or steel wool - placed between a cold heat exchanger and a hot heat exchanger.

When heat is applied - with matches, a blowtorch or a heating element - the heat builds to a threshold. Then the hot, moving air produces sound at a single frequency, similar to air blown into a flute. "You have heat, which is so disorderly and chaotic, and all of a sudden you have sound coming out at one frequency," Symko says. Then the sound waves squeeze the piezoelectric device, producing an electrical voltage. Symko says it's similar to what happens if you hit a nerve in your elbow, producing a painful electrical nerve impulse. Longer resonator cylinders produce lower tones, while shorter tubes produce higher-pitched tones.

No moving parts
Devices that convert heat to sound and then to electricity lack moving parts, so such devices will require little maintenance and last a long time. They do not need to be built as precisely as, say, pistons in an engine, which loses efficiency as the pistons wear.

Symko says the devices won't create noise pollution. First, as smaller devices are developed, they will convert heat to ultrasonic frequencies people cannot hear. Second, sound volume goes down as it is converted to electricity. Finally, "it's easy to contain the noise by putting a sound absorber around the device," he says.

Studies Improve Efficiency of Acoustic Conversion of Heat to Electricity
Here are summaries of the studies by Symko's doctoral students:
  • Student Bonnie McLaughlin showed it was possible to double the efficiency of converting heat into sound by optimizing the geometry and insulation of the acoustic resonator and by injecting heat directly into the hot heat exchanger. She built cylindrical devices 1.5 inches long and a half-inch wide, and worked to improve how much heat was converted to sound rather than escaping. As little as a 90-degree Fahrenheit temperature difference between hot and cold heat exchangers produced sound. Some devices produced sound at 135 decibels - as loud as a jackhammer.
  • Student Nick Webb showed that by pressurizing the air in a similar-sized resonator, it was able to produce more sound, and thus more electricity. He also showed that by increasing air pressure, a smaller temperature difference between heat exchangers is needed for heat to begin converting into sound. That makes it practical to use the acoustic devices to cool laptop computers and other electronics that emit relatively small amounts of waste heat.
  • Numerous heat-to-sound-to-electricity devices will be needed to harness solar power or to cool large, industrial sources of waste heat. Student Brenna Gillman learned how to get the devices - mounted together to form an array - to work together. For an array to efficiently convert heat to sound and electricity, its individual devices must be "coupled" to produce the same frequency of sound and vibrate in sync. Gillman used various metals to build supports to hold five of the devices at once. She found the devices could be synchronized if a support was made of a less dense metal such as aluminum and, more important, if the ratio of the support's weight to the array's total weight fell within a specific range. The devices could be synchronized even better if they were "coupled" when their sound waves interacted in an air cavity in the support.
  • Student Ivan Rodriguez used a different approach in building an acoustic device to convert heat to electricity. Instead of a cylinder, he built a resonator from a quarter-inch-diameter hollow steel tube bent to form a ring about 1.3 inches across. In cylinder-shaped resonators, sound waves bounce against the ends of the cylinder. But when heat is applied to Rodriguez's ring-shaped resonator, sound waves keep circling through the device with nothing to reflect them. Symko says the ring-shaped device is twice as efficient as cylindrical devices in converting heat into sound and electricity. That is because the pressure and speed of air in the ring-shaped device are always in sync, unlike in cylinder-shaped devices.
  • Student Myra Flitcroft designed a cylinder-shaped heat engine one-third the size of the other devices. It is less than half as wide as a penny, producing a much higher pitch than the other resonators. When heated, the device generated sound at 120 decibels - the level produced by a siren or a rock concert. "It's an extremely small thermoacoustic device - one of the smallest built - and it opens the way for producing them in an array," Symko says.
Image: University of Utah physicist Orest Symko holds a match (which is a type of bioenergy) to a small heat engine that produces a high-pitched tone by converting heat into sound. Symko's research team is combining such heat engines with existing technology that turns sound into electricity. Credit: University of Utah.

More information:
Eurekalert: A sound way to turn heat into electricity - June 3, 2007.

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Researchers: history of anthropogenic climate change has consequences for global equity

Two months ago, nations were negotiating in Bangkok over the wordings of the IPCC's report on how to mitigate climate change. Discussions did not go smoothly as rapidly developing nations, in particular China, India and Brazil, brought up the topic of global equity and the historic responsibilities of the highly industrialised countries. The developing nations, who used to be outside of the Kyoto Protocol's obligations, did so because they feared that a post-Kyoto agreement that is currently in the making might eventually threaten their economies, which are very energy intensive and largely rely on fossil fuels.

China just recently unveiled its own take on climate change mitigation, squarely putting economic growth first, and once again stressing that the highly developed economies - the EU, the US and to a lesser extent Japan and Russia - carry so large a burden of past greenhouse gas emissions, that they must be held responsible for the future effects of this past pollution. They have the obligation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions first.

To put the argument in other words: the Americans and the Europeans have had the privilege of being allowed to use massive amounts of climate destructive fossil fuels for more than 200 years, have deforested all their lands and gained so much prosperity in the process, that they are now so powerful and prosperous that they can 'green' their own economies with relative ease, while lecturing developing countries on which kind of industrialisation path (not) to follow. The developing countries ask for a more equitable approach.

This topic of historic responsibilities has always haunted negotiations on ways to mitigate climate change. A group of researchers from CSIRO's Global Carbon Project, the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Commissariat à l’Energie Atomique of France's Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l’Environnement, Germany's Kiel Institute for the World Economy and the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology now offer an interesting overview of the facts behind this debate. Their discussion is published as an open access article in the May 22 early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Cumulative emissions
The researchers look at the global and regional drivers of accelerating CO2 emissions, with an eye on the past. To do so, they analyse trends of the carbon intensity of the economies of a series of regions and countries. What immediately strikes is the fact that (click graph 1 to enlarge):
the developing and least developed economies (China, India, D2, and D3), representing 80% of the world’s population, accounted for 73% of global emissions growth in 2004. However, they accounted for only 41% of global emissions in that year, and only 23% of global cumulative emissions since the start of the industrial revolution.
The researchers note that such "a long-term (multidecadal) perspective on emissions is essential because of the long atmospheric residence time of CO2". It is precisely this argument that countries like China, India and Brazil are increasingly using as the basis of their vision on how the international community should divide responsibilities for mitigating climate change:
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The researchers draw on the so-called 'Kaya-identity' of economies (which consists of a set of factors such as population growth, GDP growth, the carbon intensity of energy, the carbon intensity of GDP) to find a grim picture on global and regional emissions growth trends. Emissions from fossil-fuel burning and industrial processes have been accelerating at a global scale, with their growth rate increasing from 1.1% per year for 1990–1999 to 3% per year for 2000–2004. They find that the emissions growth rate since 2000 was greater than for the most fossil-fuel intensive of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) emissions scenarios developed in the late 1990s.

To understand what this means, a quick overview of these IPCC emissions scenarios.
The Emission Scenarios of the IPCC Special Report on Emission Scenarios (SRES)

A1. The A1 storyline and scenario family describes a future world of very rapid economic growth, global population that peaks in mid-century and declines thereafter, and the rapid introduction of new and more efficient technologies. Major underlying themes are convergence among regions, capacity building and increased cultural and social interactions, with a substantial reduction in regional differences in per capita income. The A1 scenario family develops into three groups that describe alternative directions of technological change in the energy system. The three A1 groups are distinguished by their technological emphasis: fossil intensive (A1FI), non-fossil energy sources (A1T), or a balance across all sources (A1B) (where balanced is defined as not relying too heavily on one particular energy source, on the assumption that similar improvement rates apply to all energy supply and end use technologies).

A2. The A2 storyline and scenario family describes a very heterogeneous world. The underlying theme is self reliance and preservation of local identities. Fertility patterns across regions converge very slowly, which results in continuously increasing population. Economic development is primarily regionally oriented and per capita economic growth and technological change more fragmented and slower than other storylines.

B1. The B1 storyline and scenario family describes a convergent world with the same global population, that peaks in mid-century and declines thereafter, as in the A1 storyline, but with rapid change in economic structures toward a service and information economy, with reductions in material intensity and the introduction of clean and resource efficient technologies. The emphasis is on global solutions to economic, social and environmental sustainability, including improved equity, but without additional climate initiatives.

B2. The B2 storyline and scenario family describes a world in which the emphasis is on local solutions to economic, social and environmental sustainability. It is a world with continuously increasing global population, at a rate lower than A2, intermediate levels of economic development, and less rapid and more diverse technological change than in the B1 and A1 storylines. While the scenario is also oriented towards environmental protection and social equity, it focuses on local and regional levels.

As can be seen in graph 2 (click to enlarge), actual emissions in recent years have followed the worst-case scenario (A1FI), with rapid economic growth, an emphasis on fossil fuels and no major switch to low-carbon technologies:
Continuous decreases in both e [energy intensity of the world economy] and f [carbon-intensity of energy] are postulated in all IPCC emissions scenarios to 2100, so that the predicted rate of global emissions growth is less than the economic growth rate. Without these postulated decreases, predicted emissions over the coming century would be up to several times greater than those from current emissions scenarios. In the unfolding reality since 2000, the global average f has actually increased, and there has not been a compensating faster decrease in e. Consequently, there has been a cessation of the earlier declining trend in h [the carbon intensity of world GDP]. This has meant that even the more fossil-fuel-intensive IPCC scenarios underestimated actual emissions growth during this period.
No economy is decarbonising its energy supply
Global emissions growth since 2000 was driven by a cessation or reversal of earlier declining trends in the energy intensity of gross domestic product (GDP) (energy/GDP) and the carbon intensity of energy (emissions/energy), coupled with continuing increases in population and per-capita GDP. Nearly constant or slightly increasing trends in the carbon intensity of energy have been recently observed in both developed and developing regions. No region is really decarbonizing its energy supply.

More information:
Michael R. Raupach, Gregg Marland, Philippe Ciais, Corinne Le Quéré, Josep G. Canadell, Gernot Klepper, and Christopher B. Field, "Global and regional drivers of accelerating CO2 emissions", Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, Published online before print May 22, 2007, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0700609104

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Lula: wealthy West must invest in African biofuels

Rich countries must be ready to pay to help developing countries preserve their environment, Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has said. This should include investment for African nations to develop biodiesel and ethanol, President Lula told the BBC's HARDtalk programme.

Brazil is a pioneer in producing ethanol vehicle fuel from sugar cane. President Lula has been invited to attend a G8 meeting in Germany this week that will focus on global warming where he would bring this vision of a global 'biopact' to the table.

Under Lula's leadership, Brazil itself has given the example on biofuel cooperation, by establishing links with countries like Senegal, Mozambique (and here), Nigeria, and Angola, amongst others. The world's largest biofuel producer also created an Africa-cell for EMBRAPA, the leading tropical agriculture research organisation, in Accra, Ghana, from where it will help African nations kickstart biofuel development.

The African continent has a vast unexplored biofuels potential, that could, in an optimistic scenario, produce around 400Exajoules of bioenergy by 2050, in an explicitly sustainable manner. This roughly represents the total amount of energy the world currently consumes from all sources (oil, gas, coal, nuclear).

In this context, Lula said Brazil did not want to be the only country to grow sugar cane or biodiesel crops:
"[Rich countries should] start to help African countries to start to produce biodiesel and ethanol so that we can create jobs in Africa and wealth"
Earlier, Brazil set the stage with trilateral "South-North-South" forms of cooperation, whereby a rich country from the West puts up funds, Brazil offers the biofuels technologies and agronomic expertise, whereas the African host contributes land, labor, a suitable climate, and a local/global market that stands to benefit (such agreements have already been created with Portugal, Italy, Sweden and the UK):
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Lula insists that countries from the South have the right to develop, but he prefers clean development paths, provided the wealthy nations share the burden for the large costs this brings. So-called 'compensated reduction' of deforestation is part of this agenda:
"Rich countries have to pay for the poor countries to avoid deforestation so they can adopt clean models for development that don't cause pollution or greenhouse gas emissions. That's what I'm going to discuss at the G8 meeting."
The president denied that Brazilian plans to devote more land to ethanol production rather than food would put more pressure on the Amazon rainforest and cause further deforestation:
"Brazil has 440 million hectares of land for agriculture. Sugar cane cultivation uses only 1% of that. Soya bean uses only 4% and cattle raising 29%. So the issue is not land, and it's not even about the rainforest because the Amazon is not a good area for sugar cane production".
Brazil succeeded in reducing deforestation rates by up to 50% in recent years while expanding biofuel production (earlier post).

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Brazil, India to sign biofuel pact

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva began talks with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh today, aiming to strengthen business ties and boost diplomatic links between the two emerging market giants. Lula arrived in India on Sunday, 3 June, on a three-day visit, his second in a little over three years, with a strong business agenda and a delegation of some 100 businessmen, on his way to the G8 summit in Germany this week, where he will discuss biofuels, climate change and trade (earlier post).

India and Brazil have forged strong strategic and trade ties in recent years and have emerged with a common position on key issues such as global trade talks and expansion of the UN Security Council. The two rising giants form the core of the G20, the group of developing nations with a special interest in agriculture, which offers a counter-weight to the G8 on trade and the Doha Round. Writing in The Hindu ahead of his arrival in India, Lula stated the following:
Both of our countries share a converging, innovative and hopeful perception of the world. Faced with an unequal world order incapable of responding to problems of development and collective security, India and Brazil avow their confidence in multilateralism and, through democratic dialogue, have been undertaking increasing international responsibilities.

This is what we have been pursing within the G-20. Despite the scepticism and opposition of a few countries, India and Brazil have shown steadfastness and determination in order to achieve a balanced equitable results in the Doha Round negotiations.
Announcing the strategic alliance on biofuels, Lula continued:
This is also the case of biofuels. We are endeavouring to forge a genuine energy revolution. India and Brazil joined efforts with South Africa, China, United States and the European Union to launch an International Forum on Biofuels. The democratization of access to new energy sources comes along with the need to create a new world market for these fuels. This aims at offering an alternative to the price increases and inexorable scarcity of traditional fossil fuel sources.
The green fuel revolution Lula wants to kickstart is especially important for developing countries:
The biofuels option is of fundamental importance for the developing countries. That is why India and Brazil are joining efforts and sharing knowledge in order to turn biofuels into an energy commodity at worldwide level. Apart from helping to reduce the effects of climate change, biofuels offer the prospect of new jobs and income, improvement in living conditions and sustainable development in rural areas. In Brazil, the sugar-ethanol industry generates a million direct jobs, many of which are in cooperatives and family enterprises, and six million indirect jobs. Moreover, we save billions of dollars in imports of petroleum and its by-products.
Last year, during the first "India Brazil South-Africa" (IBSA) Summit, both countries signed a bioenergy agreement, allowing India to invest in Brazilian energy plantations and to acquire land:
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Besides trade discussions and biofuels, Lula and Singh will also talk about are civilian nuclear cooperation and climate change.

Trade between India and Brazil has surged and touched US$2.4 billion in 2006. They have also increased investments in each other’s fast-growing economies. Indian firms have focused on investments and joint ventures in Brazil’s pharmaceutical, IT and energy sectors while Brazilian companies have targeted India’s infrastructure, food processing and energy sectors.

The two countries aim to quadruple trade to $10 billion by 2010 and their business leaders began a day-long parallel conference on Monday to explore new opportunities.
Separately, Brazilian energy giant Petrobras offered 25-30 percent stake to India’s state-run Oil and Natural Gas Corp. in three exploration blocks, a Petrobras official said.

In return, ONGC offered a 15-40 percent stake in its three deep-water blocks on India’s east coast, Petrobras manager Demarco Epifanio said, adding that a preliminary agreement on the deals would be signed shortly.

Ahead of the visit, Brazilian officials had complained about New Delhi’s hesitation to further open its markets to farm imports and pointed at a fall in Brazilian exports to India by 15 percent to $937 million last year. Lula leaves New Delhi for Germany on Tuesday.

More information:
AlertNet: India, Brazil seek to build strategic relationship - June 4, 2007.

The Hindu: Consolidation of the India-Brazil strategic partnership, by Luis Inacio Lula da Silva - June 3, 2007.

LiveMint: Trade ties, bio-fuels focus of Singh, Lula talks - June 4, 2007.

BrazzilMag: In India, Lula and 100 Businessmen Sell Brazil as Land of Opportunity - June 4, 2007.


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Sunday, June 03, 2007

German biodiesel industry faces collapse over taxes, US subsidies, competition from the South

Three developments are getting mixed into a potentially explosive cocktail that could ruin Germany's biodiesel industry, the world's largest. The businesses that pioneered the large-scale introduction of biodiesel are threatened by taxes, American export-subsidies, and more competitive fuels made from crops grown in the tropics and the subtropics.

First of all, a new set of taxes on biodiesel has made the biofuel less attractive to large fleets. Biodiesel used to be tax-free, but this period ended on August 1, 2006. According to a report [*.pdf/German] by the Bundesamt für Güterverkehr (Federal Agency of Freight Transport), most large transport firms have since then begun to switch back to regular diesel. Sales of biodiesel have decreased 25 percent so far. When later this year the tax on biodiesel is once again upped from 9 to 15 eurocents per liter "the market for locally produced biodiesel will collapse entirely", the report says. The Bundesverband Biogene und Regenerative Kraft- und Treibstoffe (National Union for Biofuels and Renewable Energy) has asked the German Federal Government to intervene.

Secondly, heavily subsidized biodiesel producers from the U.S. have found their way into the European Union. According to the Verbands der Deutschen Biokraftstoffindustrie (Union of the German Biofuel Industry), American producers have exported 200,000 tonnes of biodiesel to the EU since the start of this year. A new export-subsidy scheme facilitates these flows.

Agra-Europe, the EU press service for agricultural matters, shows that the U.S. producers enjoy tax-credits worth 26 eurocents per liter if they mix biodiesel into regular diesel. The scheme is exploited to the maximum in that only a minimal amount petro-diesel is added to biodiesel, so that the subsidy can be obtained. This biodiesel-diesel mix is then exported to Europe. The rule applies to the very small local American biodiesel market, but was in fact created to boost exports to the EU. Because of the fact that the American rule is valid for the domestic market too, the European Commission cannot make a case against these veiled export-subsidies with the World Trade Organisation (WTO):
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The raw materials for the American biodiesel are obtained primarily from South East Asia (palm oil) and Latin America (soybean oil). The European Biodiesel industry associations have filed complaints with the EU Commission and are demanding a complete overview of the entire supply chain and trade flows. In the same context, both the Swedish and Dutch governments have called for a study by the OECD on biodiesel subsidies to show the effects of U.S. export-subsidies. The study should become the basis for litigation (earlier post).

Finally, competition from the developing countries threatens to destabilise the biodiesel market in Europe, which is largely based on the production of the biofuel from locally grown crops such as rapeseed and sunflower. These low-yielding oil crops can in no way compete with much more suitable plants grown in the South, such as jatropha, palm, soybean or pongamia oil. This year, a series of biodiesel plants in Indonesia, Malaysia and Brazil will come online that will produce the biofuel at a fraction of the cost of that produced in Europe. Even with trade barriers on imported biodiesel, the fuels from the South will drive locally produced biodiesel out of the market.

More information:
Bundesverband Biogene und Regenerative Kraft- und Treibstoffe: Zweiter Appell an die Bundeskanzlerin vom 24.05.2007 [*.pdf], the protest letter sent to Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Die Neue Epoche: Immer weniger Lkw fahren mit Bio-Diesel - June 2, 2007.

Weltexpress: Biodiesel-Steuern schrecken Transportunternehmen ab - June 2, 2007.

Biopact: Sweden and Netherlands ask OECD to study unfair biofuel subsidies - May 20, 2007

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Carbon credits for Chennai Metrowater's biogas project

Quicknote CDM
Chennai Metrowater, the main water supply and treatment organisation in this south Indian city of 7 million inhabitants, is set to receive 40 million rupiah (€734,000 / US$987,000) annually from the UN's Clean Development Mechanism for its environment-friendly biogas project.

The financial incentive supports the development of renewable bioenergy from the waste-water treatment facilities that help reduce carbon dioxide emissions and offsets the use of fossil fuels. The water agency would be presented carbon credits for generating electricity from biogas to operate its sewage treatment plants in the city. The certification of carbon credits is expected in about six months.

The credits can be used by the water agency to attract foreign investment and technology to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases that cause global warming, as envisaged by the Kyoto Protocol. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change based in Bonn, Germany, created the concept of issuing certificates of carbon credits to developing countries that reduce their emissions, credits that can then be bought by organisations in highly industrialised countries to meet their emission reduction obligations.

Metrowater saves about US$1 million a year by generating sufficient electricity from biogas from sewage sludge in four of its plants at Koyambedu, Nesapakkam, Kodungaiyur and Perungudi. The biogas project was initiated in 2005 [entry ends here].
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